Sunday, September 2, 2018

Letters to California: Holy Fire

My daughter, this land you were named for is ablaze. The maps on the weather report are red. The satellite images of the smoke show it blanketing the continent.

Here at the coast we are somewhat sheltered. The heat inland draws the onshore breeze from the vast Pacific, her fog muffling us in the damp. It burns away by midday, and on the horizon I can see the sickly haze.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Peaks of La Sen

She stood looking down into the expanse of the valley, hazed a sick gray by the sacrificial fires. The mountains on either side blank and flat, jagged lines against a yellow sky. The pyramids led off until they disappeared into the smoke, a staggered line, white clouds billowing from their peaks and trailing west. Stones in a silty pond. She made the sign safety, three times. I am safe, I am safe, I am safe. Then she adjusted the mullein leaf mask around her nose, and started down.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Write as if you were dying... This is, after all, the case... What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

-Annie Dillard

I ride through the coastal morning. The sea mist is in, the palms and hotels inchoate. This coast encrusted with asphalt and buildings like blocks of mineral.

I ride the river path where the mugwort grows, where herons row the air. People lined up on their cardboard beds under the bridges, colored by shadow and dust. Three men pass a forty, frothy as urine. The growl of traffic. Cigarette smoke and sea salt.

Cali is eleven months old. A few days ago she took eight steps on her own. Of the light on the walls in the morning, of the nylon straps of her high chair, of the many blooms of the rose bush, of the ringing wind chimes, she repeats the phrase again and again, so pretty, so pretty.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Wild Mountain, Wild Spring

Our blood-soul carries animal memory in our spinal column; the dark hoof and the feathered wing hover in our wild aura.

- Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower

High up on the hill, there is a spring. I climb to it with the dogs. It gurgles out of the ground just downhill from a large fallen cedar, its trunk decaying into soil. The water comes out clean and clear, and runs over black silt, dark algae, tumbles of basalt stone. Down through the steep mountain meadows, where in this season the grass is flaxen and laid to the ground and grown over with the night’s crystals of hoarfrost. The pitcher plants have all turned brown in decay. Where the water runs wide and thin on the rocks it freezes in warbled patterns like medieval glass. It is nearing the solstice; the white sun is in the south.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


These are the final entries I put down during our honeymoon. I feel I have to mention there were weeks of dense experience surrounding these small notes, at which they only hint, but time and energy engaged in those experiences precluded capturing them in words. When I did put pen to paper I found it difficult to contemplate, there was so much to describe. Those sensations will come out in writing, someday, somehow. Perhaps here, perhaps in a letter to you.

April 18th, 2017

This morning we departed Scotland, after three weeks in its various landscapes, ancient and modern compressed together. Who knows when we’ll be back. We were lifted into the sky by an unseen hand. This kind of travel doesn’t promote ritual, acknowledgment of leave-taking.

We board a plane and in less than an hour we arrive in Dublin. The more surreal for how mundane it has become, launching into the sky, knifing through the clouds, as commonplace as boarding a bus. To become an expert traveler is to become jaded, at least in part. To be astonished at rocketing into the sky, over and over, a matter of course, a matter of arithmetic if we are to reach our destination in this little window of time we have – to be astonished at this every time would mean exhaustion. We both feel it, the fatigue of being uprooted, un-grounded, shot through time and space almost too quickly to grasp, to be plucked up and deposited in some distant place. Displacement.

I feel the ties in memory pulled taught. I feel myself worrying, anxious whether I can keep the details in memory, whether this whirlwind trip has been a kind of whimsy without real substance or lasting impact.

If I feel into it further I know this can’t be true. In the Azores, in Devon, in Sheffield, in Aberdeen, the Orkneys, Tain and Glasgow, I felt so intensely that it must be in me, it cannot have left. Only anxiety brought on by this disconcerting mode of travel, and also by feeling so much at such a duration. Like a rich meal; I feel full to the brim.

April 28th

Once again this surreal space of travel, launching from the ground into inconceivable heights. This time, heading home.

This afternoon we left rainy England, her deep green woods and pasture suddenly falling away beneath us. We landed in Iceland where it snowed all afternoon, our flight delayed. In a spot of clear weather we took off on the last leg of the journey. Above white clouds flowing under us. We slept and woke to see Greenland in sunset light, glaciers like elephant skin, the perfect planes of frozen lakes, the jagged saw teeth of the mountains, everything white, opalescent. Now open water in a fjord, in contrast black as oil, a fissure opening into the dark heart of the earth.

We sleep as best we can, shades down against the sun we are chasing. On the trip out the sunset was sudden, a curtain of black we flew into; now the day has been elongated to accommodate these detached hours.

At last the sun out paces us. I wake in the half-light of the cabin, raise the shade.

Below are the cities of North America shuttling past in a dark land, street lights splashed like paint on a dark floor, growths of iridescent fungus.

We are nearly home, the hours passing dreamlike. The flowing of this chapter into another.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


The woodland and the 'Happy Crapper'
April 14th, 2017

On the train again. Riding by green pasture, dark woodlands as yet bare of leaves. Snow on the black lobes of the mountains. Low gray clouds sweeping brooms of rain. Spring heralded by the eruption of yellow: daffodils, cover crop over a flat field, thick flowers of gorse in the hedgerows. Sheep and their lambs stumble slide and run from the carriages clattering passage. A hundred geese take flight from a bare field, white-banded tails.

We have spent the week at a small croft, working in the rain and cold, sunshine, mixed thick clouds. The small humid poly-tunnel full of plant starts, and salad greens, beets, cilantro. Outside, the cool spring, wintered-over kale, garden beds prepared and waiting in the ground. I built a gate for a net-covered berry patch, and a raised bed out of junk lumber which we filled with manure.

A lot of our time we spent shoveling shit in the rain. A large pile of manure (well composted) was delivered by a farmer neighbor. We loaded it into wheelbarrows and dispensed it to various vegetable beds and compost piles around the woodland plot. Mostly light spring rain, sometimes a little heavier; we wore our raincoats, and worked up a heat in our muscles.

We shoveled shit in the rain and ate wild plants off the woodland floor. Ground elder and wild garlic leaves, miner’s lettuce. These things in the urban mind are the height of poverty. From that perspective, they sound awful on their face. But in our days there was only contentment – gratification of accomplishing work, that goes to food from this place; contact with the place, the mind of the weather, the sight of the far water, the lambs asleep in pasture, the bursting yellow flowers, the smells of the fecund ground and the woodland under rain, feel of the soil in the hand. Our hobbit-like breaks for tea and snacks beside the wood stove, in a kitchen redolent with baking bread, getting warm. Time for good conversation with our hosts who make their life here, inside an old stone house, that has held how many years of words. In this kind of life, for us, there are hardly any costs, almost pure benefit. Living this way, even for a week, provides the evidence, our feeling of being at home, and the excitement we feel contemplating a similar relationship to our own place, wherever we may find it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Cathedral

April 5th, 2017

Again the dislocation of travel, inside a bubble with dark windows that only reflect our faces. Low ceilings, short carpet, seats built to hold people in transit. Boat, bus or plane. Strange motions caused by the outside world, the origins we can’t discern.

We disembark from the ferry late in the night, the bustle of the other passengers around us, changing mode of transport. Line of taxis by the terminal. The endless walking down walkways, tubes, stairs, standing in lines, is almost over. Board a bus into town and the group in back bursts into a round of song, not something old, might as well be off the radio.

The town is lit, but empty. We clamber off the bus near our hotel, but it is still a walk through narrow streets. The buildings low and dark, mortared stone.

We turn the corner and here is the cathedral, blood-red sandstone walls and spires in floodlight, the plane of the roof dark shadow. We stand stunned. Ash coughs and has to vomit in the gutter. It is early morning, just past midnight. We are the only people. The air is still, everything is perfectly silent except for Ash’s retching, the crumple of our clothes, our rubber soles on the cobbles.

She is all right, it’s the baby’s way of making itself known, that and the heels that bump out of her belly, or kick her in the guts.

Our babe, you are on the Orkney Islands now. In some way we know that we come from here, and I think you will too, perhaps twice over, because you will have been here. I start to say, ‘You won’t know it consciously...’ but what do we know that way? Not much … What brought your mother and I here was a feeling. What made you was a feeling, of connection, a meeting and merging. As we merge with the places we have been, leave something of ourselves, take them with us.

There is a baby across the room as I write, and I am thinking of you, how you’ll be in the future. On this journey we’ve coalesced into a family – both your mother and I have felt that. The particularity of us three, mother, father, our first child.

We find our way to the hotel, the manager is kind and makes Ash a snack. We shower, sleep fitfully, wake with the island daylight, gray and promising. While Ash rests, I go downstairs to eat breakfast. Meat of all kinds and eggs and bread. Coffee. A stereo plays show tunes into a dining room out of the year 1800.

We pack and go out, and the first place we go is the cathedral. Drawn as if by gravity. The rust-red stone in the cloudy light, medieval ironwork scrolled across the doors.

Inside it is pillars and arches and high vaults, grave markers from hundreds of years ago, the stained glass casting its brilliant beams. A space that aches for song. Every echo calls for it.

We move through it in the mode of worship, not so much of the changeable Christian doctrines, but of the thing itself, persisting for eight hundred years, these beautiful echos, the shining images in glass. It is a space that holds history like a cistern. Every touch speaks of someone who has touched here, this stone. Every shuffle of the foot just like a thousand forebears. We are stunned to whispers in reverence of that potent silence, the stones reflecting back our quiet words of awe.

* * *

After the cathedral we have cream tea in a small tea room, full of tables of older ladies. Grandma Bobby hangs in the air around us, in the warm milk and laughter and smell of baking. Outside crows nest throughout a bare tree.

Next we go to the museum. It is here we catch our first glimpse of them in the flesh. In glass boxes are the things they made. Fine bone needles and awls, beads, paint pots. Stone ax heads and maces in perfect symmetry, smoothed to an impossible polish, made for human hands.

We like to think of them as so different from ourselves, as to be non-human. We are our only human referents, everything different moving further from this central point into obscurity, a fog of the unknown.

But here are their pottery vessels, decorated with nodes and grooves. The utility of decoration, of beauty. If you have the time why not? and further perhaps you should make the time. By this we know they are human undeniably.

These people kept animals, made cheese and beer, wore a costume that can’t be too distinct from ours. They wore jewelry and ornament. They lived in small, snug homes. They raised grain, ground it with stone.

I step into the next room and of a sudden, here is one of them, one of us. A skull, thigh bones, knuckles in a line. My hair stands on end.

More than their houses and tools persist. Here are their very bones, that felt and lived and moved through this landscape, just as I am moving now. In spite of this repurposed old building, its sterile white wall and boxes of glass, I feel I am suddenly in a holy place, a kind of tomb, where I have unwittingly come to commune with an ancestor.

* * *

On the bus ride out of town, a large green tractor drags a machine across a field, casting fertilizer in a mechanical spray. Beyond it, on the line of the hill against the sky, is a circle of standing stones. Silhouetted, they are hard, dark, ragged, eternal.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


March 29

We came by train. The seaside speeding past. Gulls hovering in the onshore wind as though suspended on strings.

A tiny ruined church, no roof, tree growing inside its walls. Leaning grave markers. The low wall about the burial ground right at the edge of the cliff.

Everywhere it is the same, Azores, Devon, Aberdeen. This wild coast, titanic ocean beyond comprehension, gnawing at the ragged cliffs, the great fingers of rock clawing upwards. The gulls haunting the air. The stone ruins full of new grown trees. Stone walls, hedgerows, pasture, on every slope that will bear it. Great industrial constructions, masses of pipes, blank walls. For who knows what purpose. Windmills that hardly deserve the name, five hundred feet tall, turning with an even beat. Expressway or rail line, drawn across the land like a mark on a map, and on either side the wide fields plowed to broken clay, bare to the sky, battleground waste.

In the towns, roofs of tile or slate, walls of mortared stone. Old ways, new additions, little distinction between eras, the unbroken revolutions of living.

Spindly cranes swing over the city, the rumbling diggers make deep scars in the bedrock.

* * *

In Aberdeen the gulls swing through the gray sea mist, over the roof peaks, or stand calling from the chimney pots. Rows and rows of flat-faced houses of the same granite, as though carved from a single great stone that used to lie here.

The trees are bare except for crows, the grass green over their roots. In Devon the daffodils were blooming, but here it doesn’t yet feel like spring.

Last night we walked through the city – the old part with cobbled streets, the tall gothic edifices seeming to lean over us, edge out the sky. The train station and the new buildings around with their improbable glass façades. Motorways full of traffic, walls beside the train tracks topped with barbed wire or a twisting construction of metal whose spikes looked like either forks or hands. An old stone retaining wall full of moss, dark alcoves at its base. Rows of shops, the quotidian type, trophies, car stereos. A bridge over the river Dee, built in 1830, now given over to pedestrians. The same granite blocks in the piers as everywhere in this city, the whole of it joined by this, the crystalline flesh of the earth.

Before we crossed the bridge, we heard a mockingbird running through its raucous songs, battling traffic noise, the melodies new and foreign to us.

* * *

March 30

On the ferry. Outside, the gray city, blocks of cement, granite spires breaking toward the sky, clouds close and folded.

Under us the rumble of the engines begins. The bar is full, almost nowhere to sit.

Leaving is a slow slide away from the dock. Inside, hardly a suggestion of movement except the vibration of the glasses on the table.

Aberdeen is behind us. A brief moment on our journey.

The dark sea. The port is white oil tanks streaked in rust and mildew, the ponderous movements of ships like ours. The blank lines of the granite houses marching the hill. Waves wash up on the stone beach. On the headland is the smooth green of a golf course. At its edge a number of little garden plots, fenced with all manner of materials, pallets, blue plastic.

We are on the sea. The breakers roll toward shore, ponderous, low and steady. The green rocky coast falls away. After all these islands, the planes and trains, it feels right to be on the sea.

In A Dark Wood

March 23

How do we look at the trans-human perspective, when most of us are in a more human world than ever before … What happens if we start from the perspective of speaking with the world?
– Paul Kingsnorth

The dead are below me. I smell them. Acid. Mineral. Crystal flake. Sliding through the fungal gut.

Green is the scent of my skin. The clouds pass over, thoughts in the mind of the world, drop rain, water hammer.

I am being eaten alive. I am being eaten away.

My heart is still safe. My heart is grey black. My hard heart is the smell of a grey cloud made still.

Dark in this wood, cool. The cold roots eating the dead beneath me. Far below, somewhere, is home. Heat. Here, now, only the wan sun.

The clouds pass over and over, their size, expanse. They remind me of something. A feeling.

These trees like fruiting fungus furious for the light, these are small. Small, small, small as the hairs of lichen.

In my gut is the heat of the earth. It smells white. Over me lay the snows, the pads of glaciers rasp my skin. The waters are tearing me down. I am the size of clouds, I am above. I am hard. I am being eaten but only slowly. I am forever.

That was a dream. I am not that. The trees are great, I small. Lying here. The dead and the muck beneath me. The heat far away. Lichen blooms over me, inscribes a heartbeat on my pelt. There is the green of death in my fissures, working toward my heart.

The rain comes, clawing at me. I destroy each drop with hardness, turn it to a rivulet.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Spring

March 19th

Just a few days ago we were floating in a hot spring, rusty, opaque, iron-rich, tasting of blood, flowing from deep in the earth. I felt buoyant, safe. I carried Ash, the baby in the womb between us. We, its parents, curled around it, felt we were in turn held in a kind of womb, the warm water sanguine and close, an echo of when we were yet to be born. In this place where my ancestors were born and were parents and died.

For humanity to exist there has been our unbroken chain of life, the blending of sex, sperm and egg, the child growing in the living mother. In our culture we think of each person as separate and distinct, but there is this unbreakable link between us and the life we grew from, what created us, and the future, the life we create. Jeffers’ ever-returning waves of grass, equaling the life of a mountain. One conscious note in the sweep of the perdurable. What John Berger calls the dead, not absent but surrounding everything we do, our most basic context.

So on that small wild island, outcrop of volcanic rock thrusting out of the Atlantic, I felt both foreign and native. The land I have grown from, that made me, by food, air, scent and sight, is the California coast, and in my blood, my genes, this wave of life through time that is my ancestry, is this volcanic soil, this ocean wind, these island forests thick with bird song. The blood of beef cattle, the thick pasture grass.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

As We Pass

March 13th

Even here there is the frenetic scurry of rush hour, everyone moving somewhere else all at once. We are in the only metropolis of these islands, if it can even be called that, a small city of only sixty thousand at its greater borders. Anywhere else, a quaint little community. Here the center of all commerce, tourism, government. The greatest concentration of people, and beyond that, of people with greater wealth and power. So this ambivalent business, a city of two minds, both urban and rural, hundreds of miles distant from the mainland on a rugged island, and also the central point of human exchange.

The entire island seems to feel this ambivalence, one foot in the place of the peasant, one in the urban. Internet and smart phones pervade, much food and clothing and other necessities are imported, to say nothing of all the vehicles, appliances, vestiges of the industrial. Meanwhile, farmers ride their horse carts, people work their little potato plots beside the hand-built lava stone walls, that have probably stood for generations.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Nine Views of São Miguel

March 12th, 2017

We are in Ponta Delgada, in a guesthouse. A warm, cloudless day. We have the windows open on our second-story room. An old woman is yelling into her phone below. Yapping dogs, songbirds, traffic. Buzz of scooters in the narrow alleys.

The guesthouse is old creaky stairs and floors, bright windows, a little courtyard with laundry on the line. When we go out we sit in small cafes, eat local beef and fried potatoes, drink strong coffee.

Today we walked the city, narrow sidewalks in mosaics of black lava and white lime, moss in the shade of the walls. Everywhere these tall white walls, or sometimes a bright yellow or blue. Cobbled streets rubbed dome smooth. It is a Sunday, and we saw the pilgrims on their walk to church, heard them singing. They bear staffs and cloaks for their circumnavigation of the island during Lent.

This place is a modern European outpost, has been since its inception, a place on the way to everywhere. All these tall church towers, the old square buildings with their green gates and tile roofs and arched windows, their waving flags, these are remnants of what was once modern, now interlaced with the contemporary.

Looking out over the Avenide Infante Dom Henrique, named for Henry the Navigator, which runs beside the sea, there you see the marina with aluminum spars waving and beyond them the great cement sea wall lined with titanic freighters and cranes. This is also the place of the blank-faced modern hotel, its thousand rooms, and the cruise liners that dock here. A place peddling itself to foreigners like us.

There are these many views of these islands. A rugged eruption of volcanic stone resisting the endless battering from the relentless Atlantic, wild as the Big Sur coast, maybe wilder in its mid-ocean isolation.

A lush, semi-tropical woodland, songbird paradise, warm and humid, thick with lilies and wild ginger.

A place long inhabited by people and their endemic culture, their adaptive peasant ways, still riding horse carts through their little towns, which are hand-built of stone, or herding their cattle on the headland.

Or a place inhabited by people for a mere five hundred years (hardly anything), those people having partitioned in that time nearly every available acre for their buildings or pasture or mono-crops. Forests confined to the steepest ravines, songbirds to the hedgerows of cane between the fields.

Or a contemporary citified place, where the quaint charm of the peasantry and the more startling natural features are peddled as tourist attractions. Great honeycomb edifices lining the shore to house the itinerant banknotes.

Or the helpful man with the stylish clothes and salt-and-pepper beard and easy English, who helps us find a pharmacy that’s open and then wishes that we’ll enjoy our time on these islands, his home.

Another view: I as part of the diaspora of this place, my great-grandparents having departed her as teenagers. Who might well have walked in these very streets, laid eyes on these old church towers. We, like pilgrims on our Lenten journey, returning to pay homage to them. And straining our imagination to think what life must have been like for them, what they must have felt looking on the church tower, or the breakers rolling in from the vastness of the sea that separated them from all other land, or the ship at the pier that would carry them away from all they’d known. Connected by blood, they are the silent dead that nevertheless draw us here, exert their pull on us, our empathy gifting us a ghost of their longing.

And this: We two, on our honeymoon, carrying with us a child, twenty weeks in the womb, already making itself known by its swimming movements.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On A Wild Island

March 5th, 2017

The first night we land in the deep dark, our thinking scraped away, the fortieth hour of travel. We leave the airport for a pell-mell taxi ride through cobbled streets, island breeze, falling into two hostel beds pushed together.

We wake to birds, traffic, passersby, light slanting in through broken clouds and the tall window. Smell of the sea, everything humid and damp to the touch.

At last we wrest ourselves from bed though we want to lie there inert forever. Step out onto the cobbled alley. Around us the white lime walls, lichen-eaten terracotta tile. Pigeons ducking and turning on the sway-back roof ridges. The older buildings have black lava rock for corners and pillars, porous and rough. This contrast everywhere, black stone, white lime.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Across the Earth

March 2nd, 2017

We sit in chairs among all the other travelers, this long, odd tube. Waiting to be propelled. The engines power up, the rumble of vast energy, as if from deep in the earth. Each one of these machines large as some ancient earthwork, monumental architecture made for motion, a tomb for the living to flee the sun.

The engines rev, we taxi to the runway, the incredible power beneath us. We are strapped to a rocket. We all sit denying this to some extent, not to be lost in hysteria. The engines roar, we are pressed back in our seats, the ground speeds by, the feeling of wheels leaving tarmac, the rough friction turns to powered glide. We are airborne.

Almost immediately the ground is distant, everything becoming miniature as if seen from a mountaintop. Then the mountains themselves grow small, the bay is a brown pond with its strings of model ships, its wire bridges. We are breaking away in some sense, from the gravity that has held us all our lives in that narrow space, the earth’s surface no more than a few feet away, at most.

We are out of that band, the thin film of life and dense air. Soon everything is flattened by distance. The steep hills become mere knolls, the neighborhoods where I used to live are encrustations, like barnacles on an inverted hull, or aphids hunkered on a kale leaf.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Raised In Captivity

We turn off the lights. Someone locks the door. We lie down. Everyone is weeping or stunned white with fear. Through the door we can hear screaming. The popping coming in bursts. We lie in a prison of darkness waiting for our lives to end.

America’s nightmare, America’s fever dream. America, at war with itself.


I feel duty bound to imagine it. Not to turn away. To see the faces in the paper, know they were real. This is it’s own end: to respect the suffering, the lost lives, the anguish of the bereaved. That respect is also the basis from which we can decide what is to be done.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Thoughts in a book: the snake

San Francisco garter snake, an endangered species

March 27, 2016
‘The inanimate becomes animate.’
– Alia Volz, Snakebit

Mutability and chaos. Change. Shedding of a skin, the slithering sinuous amidst the still and hiding plants. The danger of the unknown.

Snakes and reptiles contain the unknown, display it to us. They are mobile, alive. They share with us the ranging search of the eye, the gnawing need of the gut. They are very much like us.

At once they are utterly strange. The clawed feet of the lizard, his alien pupils and shambling gate. To say nothing of the slither of the snake, writhing, out of our mind’s reach. We may watch one part but not take in the whole. Their vestigial limbs long since withdrawn inside themselves. Their eyes, while we share similar features, hold a darkness like a cave that spreads, past what their small heads ought to contain, opening onto the cavernous interior of the earth.