Sacred Tradition

The Hawaiian air mass continues to permeate these local skies. I wish that along with wet air it would also bring the luscious scent of gardenia and plumeria. I sit outdoors in sunlight for an hour or two in the late afternoon yesterday to read. A few heavy rain drops fall on skylights for several moments in the middle of the night. This day more steadfast gray settles in thicker. I see bright sporadic promises of spring all about me–shapely buds and frilly blossoms–popping out in tiny bright reds, yellows, and purples–as if they have spent the winter gowning up for mardi gras.

Even though most of this winter has been one of unusual drought and unprecedented warmth, the cycles we come to expect, the ones we greet with our sacred human rituals, are still discernible. Man has not yet completely wrecked all of the weather patterns. Give us time, however. We have a knack for destruction. This day I need to get out and survey the landscape, as it is all becoming quickly renewed by the seasonal warmth and the rain.

I walked for a mile on the beach in the later morning yesterday. I would have brought out my beach chair and sat longer if the sun had been just a little warmer, with less of the sporadic cumulus cloud cover. No wind has come up. The tide is low, the sand smooth, while piles of kelp lay in crazy big clumps around the stumps and limbs of fallen trees. The latest round of heavy surf has churned up a lot of debris from the bottom of the ocean. I enjoy poking around with a stick in the large piles of kelp. It’s like a giant comb has been run through King Neptune’s hair. I am always amazed and eager to look at what fresh mystery has washed up on the beach. One year in Big Sur I found the vertebrae of a gray whale woven into a tangle of kelp. I still have that odd piece of bone stashed away in one of my garden boxes, along with many other pieces of smoothed-out sea glass and shells.

This time of year in California is when nature is most intent on changing the face of the land. A lot of sand has pushed up on the roads that come closest to the ocean. The local municipalities bring out heavy equipment to push the sand around and establish a barrier against oncoming waters. Some of the creek mouths that dump into the ocean have been blocked all winter, but until recently had no water running in them because of the drought. Now these creeks must be opened at their mouths, the blocking sand pushed aside, to let the swollen veins run free. When a bulldozer blade opens a creek mouth, the backed-up, brown and muddy water quickly rushes out to sea, thousands of gallons in a matter of minutes, until the stream settles back down from its aggressive roar, into a more tranquil and passive trickle.

During the height of the wind blasts the other day, I heard a large tree limb groaning in agony just across the road from my house. It had snapped and now I could hear gravity slowly pulling it earthward. The forest is too dense to see very far into it, so I just stood at my back door and listened for most of a minute as it cracked and whined. It sounded like some sort of giant wounded animal crashing through the limbs of other trees, then thumped dead to the rain-slick earth. Fortunately, it did not strike the roofs of a couple of my neighbors’ homes.

I went up Aptos Creek yesterday in the early afternoon to see what the winter storms might have done to the state redwood forest reserve. The high wind and heavy rain of several days ago caused trees and power lines to fall, and mud to slide throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, but this section of forest is more inland and protected from the direct blasts that come in off the Pacific. It’s a gentle forest, without so much rough terrain, unless one wanders from the established trails. The great Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 that stopped the World Series baseball game in San Francisco was epicentered in this forest, and people still hike into the spot just to say that they have stood here. It’s a remote place, but you would never guess it was the epicenter of the quake if the sign didn’t tell you so. You might get a better indication if you could dig 11 miles deep.

The road along Aptos Creek into the Forest of Nisene Marks, above the sleepy village of Aptos, is badly rutted asphalt and graded dirt and gravel. I don’t think anybody cares to repair it, other than at a band-aid level of concern, which is okay with me. Better asphalt would mean heavier traffic into this sensitive ecosystem. I have to go slow and careful in my little Toyota so I don’t take the bumps and dips too hard. Joggers and mountain bikers follow along the side, jumping tree roots and leaping over pot holes with their knobby tires and air-cushioned soles. I would prefer to hike or pedal into this thick forest, but today I am only surveying for a future day of exploration, so I drive in three miles and park where the road is gated, where the traffic stops, and the inner quiet hike along the creek begins. These grounds are special because of the size of the trees and the immense quietude. The trees are second growth, mostly 100 to 200 years old–what remains or what has sprung back from when the area was first logged. I can see by looking at the old-growth stumps that some of the trees that were logged in here were a couple of thousand years old. I have never sat patiently to count two thousand tree rings in a stump, but I have counted a hundred or so and extrapolated from there.

Members of my family came here in 1843 when California was still under Mexican rule and set up the first sawmills on these creeks. My uncle sailed around Cape Horn and married my grandfather’s daughter of eight generations back, my aunt, when she was 13 years old. I always have misgivings about hiking around in these woods and thinking about my heritage. If it hadn’t been my family first, it would soon enough have been someone else to come and hack away at these giants, some of the largest and oldest living entities in the world. Thinking was just different then. Thoreau says these men cut down these big trees just because they could, the same way they killed the wild herds of buffalo. Yes, there was money to be made in shipping redwood lumber to San Francisco and the Hawaiian Islands. Redwood doesn’t rot and the termites won’t eat it. But the bigger and older trees could surely have been spared. It would take a few more years of wild plunder before the conservationists would bring their missionary work here to protect the giants that remained standing.

This day the forest is drippy wet and the undergrowth is all shiny and pretty. The incessant sparkling simply brings the greenery into radiant focus. I’ll come back another day with a pack lunch and walk deeper into this area, when the creek is not so muddy. I am sure we will have more rain in the month ahead. The high pressure that has blocked the weather patterns for so many months seems to have abated.

I drive back from under this heavy canopy of greenery, and go wander a couple of my favorite country roads between here and Watsonville. The hills are dotted with apple farms and the residents keep pretty gardens of lush vegetation. Camellias, in particular, have sprung up all around the homes.(If any institution ever wants to rename the month of February, I would suggest it be changed to that of Camellia). The deer families trot boldly around the periphery of the redwood groves and munch on tender grasses. One of the apple orchards I pass is trimmed out with the brilliant yellow wild mustard. Stories have it that the wild mustard was brought to California by the Franciscan padres when they set up their string of 21 missions in the 1700s. I don’t think the story is true, but anyone who has lived in California for very long has probably heard the tale that Junipero Serra and others spread the mustard seed between the missions as a means of marking the trail, the El Camino Real, the King’s Highway.

I have been indoors too much for a couple of weeks. It feels so good to be out. The gout and the bad weather kept me from my usual routines. I drove up to Lighthouse Point in the late afternoon yesterday to watch surfers riding some nice, mid-sized waves that have been coming into town for a couple of days. One of them, busy sliding into his wetsuit, tells me that yesterday was better. The big Catholic church out near the point is full of people. Oh yea, today is the first day of Lent, when the faithful go for 40 days without all the comforts. Getting out for a full day of viewing the ocean, the forests, the hills, is my comfort. Thank goodness there is no sacred tradition that says I must stop myself from enjoying that.

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