Sunday, June 20, 2010


After San Francisco, I went over the Marin Headlands, across Tamalpais, and down to Bolinas and Point Reyes before turning inland again. There is no nicer flower pasture than the headlands when in bloom. The setting sun makes the grass look all of strands of gold and mallow and mariposa lilies stick their heads up like buttons thru the thread. Swallows flew and turned in the air. I've recently learned that these birds get most of their water requirements from condensation on the grass. I can well understand why they might seem to fly for nothing but joy. Had I the swallow's wings these are fields over which I would gladly fly to drink the dew in flight.

So much of this is lately come here. Before the Spanish, the golden hills kept their green all the summer through. The perennial native grasses could not hold up against the annuals brought by the Europeans. When the land was overgrazed, the annuals came back the faster. Then the oaks were cut, and new trees brought in from Australia to fuel the need for railroad ties in the growing state. Foreign succulents from South Africa were imported for their use in stabilizing sand dunes. Exotics from the world over became the flowers of Victorian gardens of the bay, soon to rediscover the wilds themselves. And then there were any number of seeds that just happened to come, stuck to a boot, or burred to the hair of a cow, or dropped from a crate.

So it is that there forests of Australian blue gum eucalyptus growing across the hills. They rattle their sickle shaped leaves in the wind and give off a clean scent, but cover the soil with a thick layer of leaves that nothing but poison oak will grow through. The wood itself does not catch fire easily, but the bark and leaves do, meaning the forests burn with a fury that sterilizes hillsides, leaving behind a black that the eucalyptus is first to come back to.

At their fringe, pampas grass from Argentina grows in tangles too thick for the native rodents to hide in. Himalayan Blackberry, larger and more ferocious than its native cousin, wraps the eastern sides of the hills. At the ocean, south african ice plant smothers the dunes, choking native plants, a precaution thought necessary by the highway department to keep sand off the roads. While higher up, an ivy of the same country competes with ones from England and Japan to climb the ladders of the Douglass Firs till even those mighty trees have the light blocked, or break under the weight of the vines, or rot beneath the tangle. Then there are the usual European weeds, - cleavers, oatstraw, timothy, milk thistle - and that newcomer lately of the Black Sea, giant hogweed. To survive here, in this roiling jungle of weedy exotics, one must be savage oneself, as the poison oak, stinging nettle, and poison hemlock, or else innocuous enough to escape notice, as a woodland orchis. Only rarely will one be able to stop at an unexpected clump of kniphofia - red hot poker plant - a lily relative from South Africa, and appreciate how it has settled here, in one tidy clump amidst the native brush, and unlike so many other newcomers, behaved itself.

The people, the land. Everything seems to be from someplace else in this strange state. We are players to a land in flux. This is a world that is moving towards hybridity. The pot is being stirred, whether it desires or not, the dregs mix with the broth. I will not say it is a bad thing, but it is certainly not an easy thing, either to do or accept. And whatever the outcome, the emerging world is one to which the inhabitants of these hills will have to learn again to be native to.

Like ourselves, the plants clamor for the sunshine and sea air of California. Unlike ourselves, they present no lawsuit to stake their claim - or refute another's - and so might be more easily restrained. A shovel would do nice work. But since they are so abundant, and persistent, and so obvious as to be overlooked - so weedy - they are likely to remain quiet conquerors of a once perfect paradise. Which is something like ourselves after all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fog on the Bay

I have seen New York, and Paris, and Rome, and to my mind not a one of them can compare to San Francisco. Each of those others offered big culture, big history, or just big, and that's probably why I like the last so much. San Francisco is not a very large city, geography put some good limits to it - a thumb of land with a mountain to the south. Three sides moat, one side wall. There's not much place else to go, except across the bay. Had the land been more level it probably would have gotten much grander ideas, but then it would be Boston, or Philadelphia. Instead, being set on the hills leading up to Montara Mountain, the city sits as though the architects had sketched out the plan for a flatter town, then crumpled up the drawings, smoothed them out, and then crushed them up again. So now there is a city where crossing a street feels like mid-grade mountaineering.

Often I felt I was walking thru a garden where people lived. Each dip and rise of the land seemed to hold some strange spot of green that had perhaps at first been inaccessible, then overlooked, and finally preserved in palm and cypress. Twenty percent of the area of San Francisco is taken up by Golden Gate Park alone. That one patch is greater in size than Central Park, though addresses along it are not considered as desirable. But I prefer it. Manhattan likes to stay manicured, but Golden Gate is nature barely held. There are plenty of trees that have been left unpruned, creeping vines have slunk in, dark corners everywhere to explore, or avoid as you like. If Baron Von Hausman had gentrified Paris by consulting Maurice Sendak, this might have been the result. Wild things could live here, and do.

Mostly, I like the fog. Maybe it's because every region must take pride in something. No other city I know is so proximal to nature, it's finger on the pulse of day. A grey mist rises from the Pacific and drifts landward in a magic curtain, clothing the tops of broken trees, sinking the desperate and quiet corners both in a hush, softening smell. Things become calm not so much because of the dampening of sound, but because there is suddenly less imperative to make noise. Conversations become hushed, drivers less angry, perhaps not because they have suddenly become content or soothed, but only realized that whatever they had been worked up about was not really anything much. Not every day does this happen, but many. And it seems to me one of those daily acts of magic - like sunrise, like wind - that happens everywhere, is seen by everyone, and which consequently, nobody pays much attention to. Then something happens to shift the pull of air, and the whole cloud sluices out thru the Golden Gate and back out to sea, and there the city is once more, where from above there had been none. As secret as Avalon.

I've had the good fortune to always be able to travel either with friends or towards them. On my last day in the city, I called up a friend who had been living in Oakland for better than the past two years, and who, to my shame, I never visited. So, naturally I invited her to join my walk. She agreed, for a part of it. We met at the southern entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. We spent the first quarter figuring out how we had lived so near each other yet always managed to miss meeting up, the middle half talking about the present goings on in our lives, and the last bit talking about where we were going. North is my easiest answer, but by no means most accurate. As for herself, she imagines she'll just be going back across the bay to Oakland. And I'll be looking forward to seeing her on my return. The 1.7 miles of the bridge was neither time, nor length enough to satisfy a friendship put on hold for more than 2 years. We stopped halfway across so I could look out at the bay, and the incredible fortune that allowed so many things to come together, land, sea, earth, sky, sunset, my friend, the bridge, and I. I don't find city views particularly scenic and don't see how a high rise apartment is really a deal since all windows still present grey and concrete, but this is a much better arrangement. Looking east over such a stretch of land, I can imagine why some folks might consider coming here to end their lives, but I wonder how, in looking at so nice a bay, they could not but change their mind. The fog was coming in and the sun going down, so my friend went the last bit with me, and walked me out of the city.

I went north, as has been the habit, up into the Headlands of Marin. From there if the fog is behaved, the whole bay becomes a pool of cloud, and it would seem that a rowboat would be craft enough to go across the surface, provided it were first inspected for leaks. On the slopes of Tamalpais I looked back at San Francisco, but it was gone now, sunk down in vapor, waiting to come out again some other time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interview - San Francisco

If you scroll one third of the way thru this, you can hear an interview with me, held at Pirate Cat Radio on June 4th in San Francisco.

For some of it, I'm reading my first blog entry, but she did ask some good questions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


My belongings were set – boxed for storage or stowed in my pack – my house cleaned to a state unrivalled since I had first entered, and my last paycheck deposited. But I did not leave immediately. It did not matter that I had reckoned everything as it should be, I did not feel it time to go. Rather, I had that latent feeling that must be held by all migratory creatures, when they reason not by calendar though by intuition. A few stray from the flock, pressing out the boundaries in short, tethered flights, till all at once some desire seizes all by the wings and it’s goodbye for other climes, other trees, other seasons. I would leave when the time was right and not press its arrival.

On a hillside, we spent a final night, I and my friends, camped out together. A few left that day, another at dawn. Late in the morning, the remainder of us, eight, went to breakfast and spoke words that would have no bearing on whatever followed. All talk was of inconsequential subjects that when had with strangers make up small talk and when shared with friends make conversation, the words pressed with significance when passed between. It was a good meal with good friends. Time was getting closer. The hour was there when I could feel my heart, like a flock of swallows, rise and swell within me, then spread out everywhere. This was the ending that I had wanted. I shouldered my pack and walked away.

Why the stubbornness? Why the solitude? Better asking why the clarity that comes from such doings? Why the movement of the swallows? Why does the agave plant spend a quarter century in thrift so as in a single season it might have a sparse blossom? Why the hard-pated determination of salmon to breed and die? Why consider this an ending that it is not? All my reasons previous, and all those to come, could be reduced to a single urge: a bare desire for commune. Like the Baptist. Like Whitman. Like Francis. I would walk to see, and let what I saw enter into me, to become me. To live my life by circle that would ripple outwards pressing back the walls of my world till they became my world, and to be outside was to be inside.

When I first came to California, and now in leaving where I had been, I had felt a shame. Was I not limiting my allegiance by giving up on a place? I had been around some years, though had spent many more growing up in New York, where my family still was. There they had lived – from Brooklyn and Long Island – for centuries it seemed. The Wood family name, it was rumored, went back to Dutch times, being among the first English to see the worth of this continent. Certainly by the proud portraits my parents displayed, there was a history at least to the early years of popular photography. A portion of the family, in the days before and during the Civil War, moved to Pennsylvania, but we remained by name and blood in the Northeast. Though I am not one to judge a person’s character by a name inherited, when families were first given names it was for suitable reasons. The ironworkers were named Smith. The wagon makers cartwrights. For my own family, the Woods were an unremarkable, sedentary forest people. And though my mother’s side claims some Italians, their family name of Silvestri – forest – is ironically suitable. As the names suggest, rooted.

But then, mine is a family richer in rumor than story. I had little proof of any family history before 1850. Even so, that was only the family name. That first Wood may have arrived early on, but still had given up on calling another place home. He had cut his roots to some old world turf and learned to love another land. Nor is this a tree of Wood alone. Grafted to the branch were Danes, Germans, French before it came to me. More than that, my Scottish-Italian mother had a family that was completely of the 20th century. Does this make me a third generation American? Or a fifth? Or an eighth? Or a twelfth? Or not at all? My past is populated with the restless vagabonds of Europe. And before, they too claimed lineages that had come, unrolled, to them by steps from some eastern relations. Out of Africa, out of Eden, they came walking. It is easy to see a tribe of footloose folks drop their packs and their children then set out again, till their heirs became footsore and dropped their own children on some new earth. By such was the world peopled, and whether it is from the earthly paradise, or Ethiopia, we come descended, the story is no less great, or less beautiful. This then, would be a retracing of family history, giving me the chance to relearn – or to make it up – as I go.

So, my roots were cut. For my own part, in the past 8 years I had moved 6 times, received a college degree, learned a foreign language, picked up 9 musical instruments, seen more of the planet than any relative I had ever met, made family where I could not find it. Had I stayed in the town where I had been a boy, I would work at the grocer’s, or a farm, or a truckstop, and my hours of freedom would be tedious recovery from work. I would trade my daylight hours for the right to a place to sleep. So much for roots.