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Creek Running North

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November 15, 2004

J. (2)

[The titles of these posts have been changed for clarity. - CC ]

In 1984, before Elissa and I moved to DC, I spent much of what free time I had hauling myself up into the Oakland Hills. Elissa's little blue Civic carried me past new homes sprouting among looming pines and eucalyptus. Seven years later, all would burn.

I tied my heart tight each day on waking.

In Redwood Park at the hill crest, I saw J. waiting for me at the trailhead. When she wasn't there, I saw her on the first bench along the path, gazing at the far-off Sierra Nevada, or sitting astride a fallen redwood bole smiling at me through the ferns. Madness. On more than one hike I called her number from the parking lot payphone before setting out, hoping those three harsh disconnect tones would shake me from my stupidity. A man answered the last time I did so. I apologized and hung up, furious with absurd jealousy.

The French Trail is a single-track that runs nearly the length of the park, up and down steep narrow ravines in the deep redwood forest. I'd hike its length at a near run, fall, get up to run again.

I once had a friend, Frank Capatch, who owned land in the hills outside Buffalo. We hiked one day to the top of a high ridge. "Do you trust me?" he asked. I did. "Do you trust yourself?" I lied, said I did. "Do you trust the earth?" I had no idea, but nodded anyway.

"Then run," he said. I looked at the slope beneath me, strewn with fallen trees and glacial rock, vines and shrubs to catch unwary feet, horse-cripplers and ankle-breakers, all obscured by a foot of red and yellow leaves. There was no path. Do not try this at home or anywhere else: I filled my lungs and ran to the bottom unimpeded.

The forest floor in Redwood Park is far less encumbered. In spring, western trillium pushes through the duff to join the oxalis and western sword fern, and an occasional tree bole, too high to leap, forces a runner's detour. Just as I felt my wind ebbing for good I'd leave the trail, run up the steepest slope I could find, imagining myself toppling backwards into permanent freefall. Instead, I'd find myself with a face full of dirt.

Once, the trees on this ridge were the largest redwoods in the world. Mariners entering the Golden Gate twenty miles away stayed off the rocks by sighting on Oakland redwoods. Enter the Americans, and the era of profligacy. Squatters invaded the hills, cut stolen trees to build their shacks. San Francisco was hammered together from Oakland old-growth, as was all of Oakland, Berkeley, any Victorian home for a hundred miles. Soon the hills were naked and bleeding, soil running off to choke the streams.

Eventually the scabrous stumps sent new stems lengthening skyward. Tentatively at first, then with seeming confidence. Before long, the stump sprouts were forty, fifty, eighty feet tall. So we cut them down again, dragged the second generation down these slopes to crush the ferns and trillium, dynamited stumps, winched out even the roots for firewood. Gone were the California spotted owls, the murrelets, the who knows what else.

But dig as deep as you might, rip out the very heart of the forest. Scourge it with your axes and plows, level the sharp shock of dynamite to break its bones. You will die, and your petty world crumble... but the forest will return, a green imperative. They may wait a calculated century, but the trees will win, to swathe the ruined land in their leaves and bind it with their roots. Eventually the soil will brown, turn deep and soft, a blanket to muffle the most searing grief. Rage all you like. The sound will deaden to a faint murmur, a shade to tickle the hikers on the ridge beyond.

Read J. (3)

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 15, 2004 06:09 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

I am enjoying the autobiographical posts of late. More like these, please.

The last paragraph was glorious. Almost like Rilke.

Posted by: the_bone at November 15, 2004 07:10 PM
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The last paragraph was indeed glorious. A really nice piece of writing Chris; but then I've come to expect it.

Posted by: OGeorge at November 16, 2004 12:47 PM
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Again, Chris, you've outdone yourself. You'll have to start being careful: the beauty of your writing is beginning to overshadow the content. (I know . . . it's not as if the two are separable. Still, I keep being made almost breathless by the elegance of your sentences.)

Posted by: Siona at November 16, 2004 01:10 PM
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"They may wait a calculated century, but the trees will win, to swathe the ruined land in their leaves and bind it with their roots."
I wish I could believe that for here, in the East. The lumbermen all believe it. But the most likely scenario is savanna in less than a century.

Posted by: Dave at November 18, 2004 05:42 PM
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