We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine, a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a whiff of salt, call it our life.
My grandmother’s farm in Iowa is perched
on the last hill before the prairie Glaciers toothed their way that far
and then stopped.
The west is a lake of land;
east, the chopped foam of a rough ocean.
On this mountain, cradling the Blue Ridge,
the division is different–east is patchwork
and plow, west the last flame of wilderness.
People have toothed their way to the core. Chewed
root networks into pulp and dust.
Climbing here, I paused against a dead red oak,
slid my teeth up the black birch branch sprouted
from its heart, and snipped bud off bone
to breathe wintergreen as I climbed.
Further up, I met seven ancient hemlocks purple-skinned ancestors, spires on the stream.
I carry their death on my boots and skin
wooly innocent dust, faceless adelgid,
to suck their needles dry.
And at the creek, my feet falter in deep moss,
take a gash from the rocks, and nearly pit
my skull in a pitched battle with a boulder.
I catch myself, catch my shin. In a day I will wear
a purple bruise. In a day I will forget where it
Taste, dust, bruise: all we carry with us of the
memory of our deaths. The diseases that will kill us.
So I reach this crest, like riding a wave
out to sea. The valley breathes its yet-wildness
upward, a misted haunting,
where the Great-Forest ghost lurks,
taunting me with visions of a plumed wave
of trees, stretching tidal-vast over eager human teeth.
Terrapin mountain swings like an arrow to the sky.
Humped across its ridgeline, a race is run
in repeating time–trickster terrapins
outwit that which feeds on speed and arrogance; I watch leaves glisten birth
from buds and consider the lilies–Taoism
of the Old Testament–leaves like hands touching
with unbearable lightness, Rilke’s figures on the
Attic gravestones: “we can go this far, this is ours…
the gods can press down harder… but that is the
gods’ affair” I try to walk that no sentient being
may suffer for my view–
Myth piled like a stack of turtles, cradling
the earth, all the way down.
On these borders, I long to peel my skin of color, of
country, of species. On Terrapin, I am wondering
is it possible to be human and not hate
to be human and not destroy?
A hemlock falls into the arms of rhododendron
showers its needles into the grove
and feeds sassafras to spice the air.
It pulls up a black web of roots, hung
with coiled moss. And leaves a footprint
filled with water, a breathing swamp–
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