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Creek Running North

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July 02, 2004


I used to try to walk atop the snow when I was young. It got harder as I got older. Still, if a warm day and cold night had melted and refrozen the top eighth-inch of rime, I could occasionally will myself to cross a drifted field, coming into contact with the surface only just enough to keep moving, and look back to see white unsullied by footprints.

The tide was out this morning. I walked a good quarter mile from the shore, past clamshells and tires and rocks washed down the creek from the hills, to a bar where sanderlings had just been flitting back and forth. When I turned, there were no impressions to mark where I had walked across the muck.

Out on the open water, three white pelicans swam east in no particular hurry. A dozen crows sought garbage in the flats. They made noises as I passed. A Forster's tern flew up the creek in search of steelhead or stickleback, and down again, and up.

In 1960, I came screaming, bloodied, and angry from out of the womb of one Rita Xavier, a bright naïve newlywed about to reach the twentieth anniversary of her own whelping, from out of Madelin Turo Xavier. Flossie Olds begat Madelin, and Rosalind Nichols Olds begat Flossie, and Anne Jane Hauser Nichols begat Rosalind, and a long, increasingly forgotten string of women before them each brought daughters into the world.

Follow the trunk of this tree of women back toward its root, and the women change shape as you go. A thousand generations back, and my grandmothers look pretty much the same. But retreat another hundred thousand whelpings, or two hundred thousand, and they start to look very different. Still, despite their rough appearance, this is a distinguished family: an unbroken string of daughters and mothers reaching back to Eomaia, whose name means "Mother of the Dawn", and on beyond her, for an unimaginable length of forgotten time, back to the very first female.

This morning, my family stood on a lawn in New York State and lowered my grandmother's ashes into a grave next to my grandfather's. I didn't go. Instead, 2700 miles from the cemetery, I went down to San Pablo Bay. I walked out on the mud and back again, sat on a bench and watched the tide roll out even farther.

And felt another door close, the penultimate link between me, Anne Jane Hauser Nichols, Lucy, and Eomaia severed. Alone, and longing for some family to be silent there with.

A barn swallow swept past, faltered, looked me in the eye and sang. The Forster's tern came back down the creek again, detoured, came by to get a good look at me sitting on the bench.

Thirty years ago my uncle was plowing a field a handful of miles from my grandparents' house, and found an odd rock the size of a medicine ball. It was gray and roughly spherical, with ropy black inclusions. Five years ago paleontologists from Cornell found a few more, and the story made CNN. They were the fossils of glass sponges, which lived in the shallow Devonian sea whose sediments became the bedrock of Seneca County.

Trace my line of mothers back to the Devonian, and you meet the first terrestrial vertebrates, fish who neglected to stay in the water. When the fragile shale that is now my Grandmother's eternal home was formed, our ancestors then living were also the ancestors of frogs and snakes.

Watching the cargo ships down from Sacramento, I imagine a crucial clutch of eggs some millions of years after the Devonian, one of my ancestral grandmothers guarding it. I imagine two eggs side by side, hatching, two daughters emerging. One is the next in the lineage of my grandmothers. The other is the ancestress of all the reptiles, all the dinosaurs, all the birds. They look the same, for all that destiny laid upon them, and their offspring do too, for at least a few dozen generations.

It's fancy on my part. Who knows whether Great Grandma even guarded her nests? Or whether she laid more than one egg at a time? Not me. Still, she certainly existed, and gave birth to every member of three great domains of modern creatures.

And her family survives.

I sometimes wonder about my desire not to leave tracks. Told all my life to strive for making a mark on the world, there seems something rebellious about gliding imperceptibly atop a snow bank, along an estuary bar. But my grandmother is mourned by a hundred people today, and a century from now, she will further removed from her descendants than my Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Anne Jane is from me. A century after that, she'll might as well have been a contemporary of the Devonian rocks that cradle her ashes today, and I will be a forgotten pile of calcium in some desert canyon, a minor footnote in some unread scholar's roster of obscure editors who once worked with some niche writer who became moderately famous among her colleagues after her death.

At least I hope so. At least today. Carefully sculpting a set of footprints keeps you from looking at the horizon. The sanderlings are back, and they fly in formation back and forth along the encroaching water line, a hundred yards away. Moving in unison, they blaze white as they turn their bellies toward me, then turn on edge and disappear nearly from view. Not one of them stands out, these my cousins.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 2, 2004 01:06 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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What do you know, we have a common ancestor. Nice to meet you, brother.

And some 2700 miles away. I was with you on your walk, though I didn't get there until just a few minutes ago.

Posted by: Robert at July 2, 2004 06:08 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

It is always good and healthy to remember where we really came from, and to put things in perspective. Those sanderlings probably have it right... they live for the generatiions before and after, and probably why they never developed into creatures set on destroying their own world. Is it possible for us to live in harmoney with our own world?

Posted by: butuki at July 2, 2004 07:41 PM
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Posted by: Dave at July 5, 2004 09:14 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Absolutely stunning, Chris. I love your writing. Your Mom

Posted by: Rita at July 8, 2004 02:36 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

This was very powerful. I'll direct a more detailed and personal note of praise to your email address.

Posted by: Chris Rieder at July 10, 2004 07:34 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs