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Creek Running North

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August 08, 2003

The Heart Place

Quite a long time ago Becky and I were driving through the hills just south of here, each of us lost in thought. She turned to me suddenly, brow slightly furrowed. "These hills are pretty central to our relationship."

It was an uncharacteristic statement from my usually matter-of-fact spouse. It was less true then than it would become.

There's a sharp ridge six or so miles due south of our house. Home to a reservoir, a copse of Monterey pines, and not much else of prominence, it was scraped up out of the earth by the insistent Hayward Fault. Sit up there, and you can see the traffic scrolling slowly past on San Pablo Dam Road, the ships heading for Sacramento and Stockton, the clouds pouring in over the Marin Headlands to bathe Sausalito in dank. It's a good place for contemplation, accessible by regional park trails with a little effort.

I see this ridge almost every day.

Our marriage is on solid ground these days. It hasn't always been that way. For several years during the 1990s, Becky was distracted by school and the arduous process of becoming a teacher, and had little time for a homelife.

And for a time, I was distracted too, in an embarrassing manner predictable in the life of a self-centered, middle-aged man.

And on days when that distraction made me unavailable to her, Becky and Zeke would sometimes climb that small ridge, sit in the six-inch duff of pine needles overlooking San Pablo Dam Road, and stay there for hours. Sometimes they'd sit quietly. Sometimes Becky would nap, or read a book as Zeke dozed.

Sometimes she would weep, in anger and longing.

The crisis, when it came, was acute, howlingly painful, and blessedly brief, a major temblor on a fault that had been accumulating stress for a long time. Within four months, our marriage counselor ventured the opinion that we need not come back unless we wanted to. Friends and family breathed a sigh of relief. Once everyone I knew had had a chance to tell me I'd been unfathomably stupid and incredibly lucky, normal life resumed - although when our voices climb when arguing over politics or Scrabble, Zeke still rises from his dog bed to place himself between us.

It was not much later that I noticed just how prominent that ridge is. It's really a minor appendage to the long Berkeley Hills, not worthy of much notice. Grizzly and Vollmer and Wildcat peaks overshadow it. Across the Bay, Mount Tam seems nearly an order of magnitude higher. It's no more than a foothill to the Diablo Range, a sweet little promontory, a topographic nubbin.

It's odd, therefore, that for months afterward I couldn't find a single place in the northern Bay Area where the ridge wasn't visible. Whether I was in outermost San Francisco by the ocean, Sonoma, Petaluma, the traffic jam on southbound 101 up the Waldo Grade... that copse of trees would beckon.

A common political concept among indigenous people is that true tenancy to a piece of land is reached when each tree, each rock, each bend in the creek has its own story attached to it. Culture heroes might have created the place either heroically or inadvertently; a grandfather might have died there in a battle... or perhaps the stories are more subtle, cultural markers that translate clumsily to outsider's ears as "just-so" stories.

I think I might know how that feels, a little. Riding BART in West Oakland or eating lunch on the patio at UCSF, catching a glimpse of that ridge from the corner of my eye, I would think just how precious a thing I had almost tossed aside.

And on one particularly bad day, when Becky was rafting the Grand Canyon and the news reports were filled with stories of killer flash floods from one end of the canyon to the other, and the loneliness and nagging fear got to be just too much, Zeke and I went up to the ridge, to sit beneath the pines. I hadn't been since... well, before. When we descended, I felt as though I had talked to someone and worked things out.

I think the other half of that tenancy comes when the land is more than just a repository of lore, when it becomes a living, breathing soul, that hears stories as well as telling them. I think the other half of marriage comes when a promise of fidelity is made to more than just the person you wed: when you swear a silent oath to a long, low ridge and a grove of pines to never again betray someone you love.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 8, 2003 04:26 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs