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Each spring and fall, sandhill cranes migrate over our home on the west slope of the Sierra. Like so many of my friends and neighbors, I run outside to hear their calls and witness their grace. So, imagine my delight on vacation here in Abbey Country, when my friends Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood, who run the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, asked me if I’d like to take a drive and see sandhills in their “loafing place”–Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona. I met up with them on a cold, clear day in Bisbee. Snow had dusted the town the night before.
Reluctantly we left Whitewater Draw a bit after noon, stopping on the way to glimpse some doves camouflaged in the brush, then to attempt to photograph elusive Merlins and hawks. “We’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Sheri said to Tom, “for a hawk stalk.” For twenty five years they have been visiting here, first when they were stewards of the Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve, and now as administrators of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory–SABO. For more information about their work, or to make a contribution to SABO, visit them at http://www.sabo.org.
“It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on” Joni Mitchell
It’s mid December again, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. At this time of year I look back on my relationship with perhaps the most central, unifying aspect of American culture.
This poem first appeared in the 1987 Suisun Valley Review under the title “Innocence and the Bulbs”.
My peach zippered-down formal crackled
As you reached in, finding my back,
Fumbling with my Norform AA bra strap.
My back was all you dared to touch
That October Homecoming night.
I lay with my head on your knee
Your broad hand stroking my curling-iron curls
I needed a mother more than a lover as I
Took my first step toward that other world.
You drove me home in silence, and
It was a week before our eyes could meet.
Months later, in the front seat of your mother’s
Lincoln Continental, we tried again, and failed.
Our humiliation drowned our love
We changed hallway routes to Zoology
Found different petting partners.
Years later, on a San Francisco Muni bus,
We laughed at coincidence and fate.
Our eyes still clung with that
Gravity of first lust.
Hours later, undressing on my Murphy bed,
You promised to be a different man.
Thirty two years ago today, I lost someone special to me. Here is the story of his burial, just six years ago this month.
RIP Rodney Wendell Emerson Roberts. I no longer dwell on you, but you cross my mind most days. You probably always will.
On Saturday, August 19, 2006, I traveled back into my past. The time machine was a small sailboat that left Santa Cruz harbor at 11 a.m. The cargo: six passengers, a guitar, a few pieces of paper, and the ashes of my first love. He was raised in Nevada County and died there, too, just after his 18th birthday. His name was Wendell Roberts. He was a brilliant, hippy teenager who washed dishes at Friar Tuck’s when it was a tiny place. Thanks to an early beard, he snuck into Duffy’s Success for an occasional draft beer. He scored 1460 on his SAT and turned down a full ride to MIT to go to UC Riverside, major in English, and stay closer to me. He was editor of the high school paper and on the wrestling team.
Wendell died on Dog Bar Road at 1:35 a.m. on August 26, 1980. He was returning home from the state fair. That wasn’t the way to his house, though, it was the way to mine, although I’d already left for college in the Bay Area. (I have always wondered why he was a passenger in a truck driving down that road. Officials named no cause for the accident, but family legend has it that his best friend, Danny, fell asleep at the wheel.)
He was supposed to leave Nevada County a few weeks later, also bound for the Bay Area to begin his second year of college. Wendell and I were experiencing great turbulence in our relationship at that time. His family elected not to have a funeral for him. Through the years, I’ve kept in touch with them.
In early August of 2006, I received a call from Langdon, one of his two younger brothers. He and his brother Mallory had realized they regretted their family’s decision not to hold a ceremony, and while their father (who lives in England) was in the states, they wanted to bury Wendell’s ashes at sea. “We need you there,” Langdon said. “You knew a side of him we didn’t.”
Wendell and his brothers had not been close, to put it mildly. Recently, when I reviewed old letters I’d written him, I noticed occasional pleas I made asking him to be sweeter to his brothers. Despite the emotional distance that marked their childhood, it was important, nearly three decades later, for Langdon and Mallory to give their brother a proper and soulful burial. More than once, I tried to talk myself out of joining them at the harbor. Why bring up so much old stuff? But in the end, I was there.
I got to the harbor about 11 a.m., the last to arrive in our group. I had not seen Wendell’s father in over 20 years, although I had spent some time with him after Wendell’s death. He greeted me with a warm bear hug. Langdon I see fairly often, since he lives in the Bay Area, but I had not seen Mallory since he was a young teen, since before Wendell died. His deep brown eyes were haunting–exactly like his brother’s. He held my hands in his and looked deeply into me.
We grabbed our sweaters, the guitar, assorted papers, and Wendell’s ashes and headed for the sailboat. Moments later we were out at sea.
For an hour, we shared our memories of Wendell. His father told of their formative father-and-son cross-country trip when Wendell was just four years old. I read “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, a poem by John Donne that Wendell had once demanded we read after we had a fight. Mallory played Led Zeppelin on his guitar and read aloud the vows Wendell had written for our wedding, a less than legal, very private affair some 30+ years ago in Pioneer Park. And one by one, we went to the bow with the urn of ashes and said our private good-byes.
As I sat there, six inches above the Pacific with his ashes in my hand, I thought mostly of our broken dreams. They were broken finally by death, but time and time before by youth and immaturity and all we were up against. I let some of the ashes fall back in the box, holding on to just a bit. I already knew what I needed to do, but I hesitated, because it seemed sketchy, even obscene. Even so, just for one moment–I had to experience some form of his DNA again. I rubbed his ashes deep into my cheeks. I ground them in, hard, absorbing their coarseness and their familiarity. I took another small handful and watched them sift down toward the ocean floor. I felt something leave me, then, jump out of a dormant part of me and join him in the water. Shaking, I took my seat and handed the urn with the last of his ashes to his father.
On our way back to the harbor, we blasted Bruce Springsteen (Wendell’s favorite) and huddled together. Our hands, intertwined, gathered a puddle of our tears. Our shoulders shook. Just then, twenty-six years might felt just like one minute.
It is about 8 a.m. on July 2 and I am wearing a long underwear shirt and winter slippers as I sit here. I’ll go out for my walk in awhile and will pick up my pace through the shade to get out of the chill and the consistent swarm of gnats that seem to congregate there. After that I’ll wander out to the vegetable garden and start weeding. If you wonder what I’m up to this summer, just think weeding.
When I got back from Abbey Country mid May, I could see instantly the price I paid to see my mother and all my friends down there (most specifically The Huachucas–very close friends of mine.) It had been unusually warm here on the Sierra’s West Slope, and instead of the closed, grey winter garden patch I left, I found the half acre swathed in viney weeds and dandelion. “One year’s seed, ten years weeds” the saying goes, and I immediately realized my mistake in prematurely abandoning my garden last fall to turn my attention to work and school and motherhood. Now I have a ten year sentence, and I’m beginning to serve it. At least the conditions are nice. The amaranth has joined the weedy vine now, and the word I am officially farming this summer is pernicious. It keeps bubbling up through my consciousness and coming out my throat like a mantra when I weed: pernicious! pernicious! pernicious! But I am slowly winning. Four five gallon buckets of weeds, twice a day. That’s all my garden asks.
For the entire month of June, I don’t believe it broke 80 degrees here. It is still not warm enough at night for me to germinate basil without heating the trays. The peppers and tomatoes are politely absorbing nutrients and water, but they need the heat’s enthusiasm to kick into gear. The strawberries finally became mystified and began putting out shooters anyway. A Western tanager daddy has been sneaking into one patch, disappearing, and coming out a moment later with a whole strawberry in his mouth, bound for the nest. We made a mental note to always leave some strawberries unnetted. We really like Western tanagers.
Of course this reveals that we are not farmers by nature. Not by a long shot. We are adventurers, travelers, whimsical folks that are still surprised, when we look in the mirror, that we aren’t twenty three or so. It was the nature of the world–not our nature –that drove us into the land rather than over it. Disciples of Edward Abbey, we can only imagine his disdain at our decision. But then again, alcohol not vegetables, made up his favorite food group.
The cooler weather, while retarding our garden, has given us a window to do heavy work. This property has been gradually reclaimed by several owners, and is now, for the first time in about a hundred years, officially clean. A couple years ago I was talking to a farmer friend of mine, and she said that some years the garden is not her focus, but the land is. Her words puzzled me at the time, but now I understand. A family farm is a complete, breathing being, and every inch of it must be evaluated, nourished, optimally preserved. This season, so far, has allowed me time to reflect on that, and the land shows it.
We only have a tiny cabin here, so in the good weather we set up palapas and other seasonal structures, and practically live outside–our tiny space becoming palatial for a few months. Now we are out in the evening in layers of clothing we usually wear in April or November. While the rest of the country is sweltering, we are birdwatching from the palapa in polar fleece vests, staring at the brave melons and beans and cucumbers as they wait patiently for heat, listening to the chamber concert of bird calls from the ring of trees surrounding the garden and the hum of bees, like a baseline, resonating from the forage near the warm dirt.
The bees have returned, undaunted. They’ve made good work of the chives and are now absorbed in the even purpler blossoms of the cooking sage. The butterflies engage in high drama over the Sweet William flowers, and the Anna’s and Calliopes flutter around them and drink from the small circle of water from the sprinklers. The morning glories, like the beans, have yet to put out shooters and reach for the fence. Once they blossom the hummers will have more secure forage.
I experimented more with direct seeding this year, mostly due to my limitations keeping seed trays warm. I’m planting tiny plots and experimenting with crop rotation on a micro-scale. I’m having some luck with cabbage, brussel sprouts, greens, squash of course. My celery and dill remain dormant. The black-eyed Susans, daisies, and cosmos are trying to bloom. The coreopsis and echinacea have, thank goodness, and the bees and butterflies are grateful.
Last year my garden happened at the last second, really (See My Ad Hoc Garden). This year I had more time to plan and, as it turns out, much more time to plant, yet at the moment less to show for it. I am confident it will get hot, probably with a vengeance. My polar fleece vest will find its way to my bottom drawer, and I will finally kick the two wool blankets off my bed. My garden will explode in growth and catch up with my expectations. I will have to get up early to work in the garden while it’s cool, instead of waiting for it to warm up.
I grew up not more than an hour from here, and have lived near here most of my life. Summers weren’t like this in the late 20th century. The Wilderness Wino thinks this patch of earth we occupy is becoming a temperate rain forest. This summer, it sure seems like he’s right. Whatever is happening, it’s clear we need to accept it, adapt to it, and learn as with all things to be flexible and patient. Often I wonder why we decided to engage in exhausting activity outside our comfort zone–especially as we fully embrace middle age. The answer might be, in part, that I wanted to work in an environment where things didn’t happen so fast, where I could watch the cucumber start push its way to the sun in a lazy day’s span. Where, unlike radio, six minutes wasn’t a long period of time, and where relative silence can blanket the landscape for a stretch of hours. I’m so far not a big fan of the 21st century, and this quiet, cool patch of land is my oasis. I’ll take what comes, and I’ll work with it.
This radio essay is from 1995–six and a half years before my dad died. I saw him many more times after this, including a memorable visit a few weeks before his death, when he was still perfectly healthy. I am blessed to remember our time together with such potency.
A friend of mine says the other day that those Father’s Day cards make her sick–the ones about Dad always being there for you. And sure enough, the first one I look at says just that. I don’t buy that one, but not because it isn’t true. My dad is always there for me. Dads like mine are called “Daddy” by their grown daughters, and this frequently makes people roll their eyes.
When my dad told me he’d come to see me soon, he told me to make a list of all the little things I wanted. Instead of making a list of 200 or so little things, I made a list that says only: one cord of oak. This will disappoint my dad, who hopes silk and silver are on a long list written on pink linen paper. I did get my dad a Father’s Day card, the one that says: When I was fourteen you were stupid, Dad, but you’re smart now. I got about the last one of those, so you probably got one too. All dads, but especially dads called “Daddy”, love to be told that they are unequivocally right.
The card is perfect for my dad. I couldn’t say more than “pass the salt” to the man from puberty to adulthood. In those days it bound my feet to even make eye contact with him. When I was nineteen I wrote him a letter, asked him to visit me in San Francisco. He slept on my couch. We walked on the beach just as we did when I was four and we lived in Ventura, then a sleepy beach town. In those days we’d walk for miles sucking on jawbreakers and talking about–well–just about everything. Now he says, “I spent more time with you than with all my others combined.” Maybe that’s why I’m the only one of his kids who calls him “Daddy”.
Next month he’ll come to visit, grimace that I have no television, garbage disposal, dishwasher, or dryer. He’ll try so hard not to comment on my son’s long hair, or the hair on my legs and under my arms. He won’t be able to resist asking about men, why I don’t want to live with the man I love, why I like waking up alone. He’ll tell me that he just doesn’t understand me. He’ll ask me what I want besides a cord of oak. We’ll walk on a path in the pines just as we once walked on the beach. And of course I’ll call him Daddy, when no one is listening.