A little fun the other day: Lukas and I went to Sebastopol to pick up some herbs from Rosemary’s Garden and on the way, decided to go by Florence Street a few blocks from downtown. Florence street is the site of a lot of sculpture by artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent, who live on the street. They have a lot of their work in their front yard and most of their neighbors have pieces too. It is quite the art walk! Lukas loved it, especially the tractor and the skeleton driving the motorcycle…
I met Kristine in college twenty years ago in painting class. Of course, after a few years we lost touch. Imagine my surprise when I met her again two years ago and we both had a kid the same age. We started hanging out once in a while and discovered that it is as if no time has past (I love it when that happens!) We also discovered that the best place to meet was the Old Adobe State Park, since it is halfway between our houses. This is an oddly overlooked state park, not just because it is so beautiful but because it is the site of General Vallejo’s adobe home, the first building in the area built by non-Native Americans. It is also odd because everyone knows about it, yet no one goes there.
This place is quiet. It is eerily authentic with its rustic, spare decor and its cowhides slung across fence rails. You imagine yourself living a really uncomfortable western life there. Adobe Creek, the town’s original water supply, runs innocently past. Maybe it is this overt reminder that life was so hard out here during the adobe’s time that keeps people away. We don’t want to think about life without our comforts and stores, central heat and soft beds. I know I don’t, not really. It wasn’t so long ago out here that life shifted from hunter-gatherer tribes living their own comfortable life off the land to colonization and the strange stoic roots of our modern culture.
And Kristine and I continue to meet here, when we think of it, once in a while. And our kids play in the leaves, and run past the cacti, and on the balconies with ghosts and we talk about our lives, past, present and future, as if we are anywhere.
Before sunset on the Vernal Equinox we climb the wooded hillside across from Heidelberg castle, ascending the trail to an old stone amphitheatre. Emerging behind the round stage, we cross the grassy stone-rimmed platform and head up the hillside center aisle to the upper rows of the theatre. Then up the next trail towards old monastery ruins topping the hill where a former roman temple once stood. The sun is almost setting in the west, directly to the left of the ruins. Two corner towers remain and we can see the old layout of the monastery, the foundations and some walls are intact and different rooms are apparent. The ancient temple that the cloister was built over has been indicated on the ground and it is right in the center of the monastery floor plan. It is small, much smaller than the monastery, and was dedicated to whom, I wonder, standing in the temple outline near the top. I wonder also what significance the temple placement might have held, especially on an equinox. “What is this?” I say out loud, looking up at the white flakes that begin to fall from above. My sister laughs at me. I seriously wonder what they are at first, these white pieces of fluff are so large and soft and the sky is so clear, it couldn’t be snow. Before long, the enormous, lightweight flakes of snow have covered the ground completely and it is becoming very cold and the air is dark blue. A full soft blanket of bluish white covers the hilltop as we gaze out over the valleys from the top of the centuries-old tower. It seems benign, yet cold and powerful, this large flaked snow, and we can see each crystal snowflake clearly—perfect sparkling six pointed snowflakes, just like the drawings one sees of snowflakes.
This spot is the site of a roman temple with a monastery built on top of it. Both are long gone. I don’t know the particulars of what happened to the temple, or the monastery, but many have considered this a spiritual place, for whatever reasons. Possibly because it was a good lookout, or maybe something else. I shiver a bit, not just from the cold.
As we descend the hillside back to the amphitheatre, it continues to snow thick and white on the ground. The amphitheatre looks completely different from when we arrived. The snow has come from first the north, then the south, then east and finally from the west as we go down the hill. When we move through the theatre, the snow begins to subside, and tapers off completely, leaving a quiet, sparkling luminescent nighttime behind and we look down into the low valley where the little village of Heidelberg lies, emerging into view from behind clouds of fog, the enormous ancient castle glowing gold in the night across the river.
The entire idea of “power spots” is an emerging mystery these days. Long gone are the days when cultures purposefully used them in reverence, although many are unwittingly used today anyway. In most cases, it seems to be Catholic churches and monasteries built on old temple sites. The Catholic Church has been diligent in absorbing ancient traditions into itself wherever it goes, whether Europe or Central or South America. The Protestants don’t seem to do this and therefore, in North America, it has not happened much, but knowledge of the places can sometimes be found through old stories, others by chance or direct intent. Our very own Sonoma Mountain is an area were Native Americans went for stories. Mount Tamalpais, on the other hand, is sometimes said to be a mountain that white people had a hard time finding a guide for because no first nations person wanted to climb it. In any case, places give stories. Some places more than others.
An area’s unique attributes can be discovered and amplified through knowing the landscape. It used to be a matter of survival, now it has been reduced to exploitation of natural resources and forget about the source of the knowledge and the wisdom that comes with it. But this doesn’t last long. Seven generations, is the usual amount of time given in the old stories to think ahead to ensure there is no system failure. And it does seem to have taken about that length of time of consistent environmental exploitation in North America to incur serious environmental damage that poses a threat to the natural systems that sustain life.
I think we are beginning to see that the metaphorical stories of indigenous peoples are just that; they are truths spoken in beautiful metaphorical language, as opposed to our absolute language with all our verbs and states of being. The stories about the land are not just fanciful tales but practical maps for living that may sound fanciful to us because we do not usually speak in metaphor. They hold the keys to stewardship of the place.
We are seeing a collapse of the bee population meaning no pollination and therefore a sketchy food supply in a few years. We are seeing a situation where almost all water is polluted, where ancient trees are all being cut, where land is paved over where food used to grow and animal populations roamed. Our technology has grown faster than the wisdom that is supposed to go with it. And stories from our own landscapes that show us how to live in a way that sustains all of us are missing.
The stories in each landscape (yes, even ours) can help grow the wisdom part of the tree that has been suppressed for so long. Technology will not fix what technology has broken. Careful listening to the land is not magic. Although it can feel that way, like a sudden snow on a hilltop feels magical, understanding relationship, causes and effects is just pure common sense, and its subtleties and lessons will be necessary to bring our culture into balance.
amphitheatre looking down
monestary ruins with outline of temple (the little arch near the left is the top of the outline)
amphitheatre after the snow, looking up from the stage
view of Heidelberg with glowing castle and river
all images by Scott Hess
When REX hardware burned, everyone gathered. Teenagers wrote RIP REX on the sidewalk and cried. Signs went up with affectionate words, flowers, notes and artifacts were posted on the fence. The owners told everyone they would rebuild it the way it was and they actually are. “Hurry Jeff I need a new plunger” one person wrote on a piece of paper and posted on the fence. Long Live REX.
I live in the town I grew up in, which has its challenges, but also some interesting benefits. The longer I live here, the more layered it becomes, like an intricate personal sculpture. As I traverse the landscape of the town and its environs, memories are embedded from different times of my life, some lying dormant, others springing to life. Others fold over or cross new ones in strange ways. My stepson had the same French teacher I had, for example, and she is the same, only more so and wow I related to her from a new angle when he was in her class and not me but with the old angle intact underneath.
And while it’s also wonderful to go to Paris or Bobenheim-Roxheim, the beauty of what we call the “bio-regional” vacation is not to be underestimated. A bioregional vacation can really get you into the mode of place appreciation because you are stopped from the day-to-day routine, there are no obligations and it’s kind-of a challenge and very good practice to have no obligations close to home. (It’s also cheaper than far away, you contribute to your local economy and it’s nice to only have a 20-minute drive to get home again) People come here to the San Francisco North Bay to vacation all the time, so why not us?
It is hard to do a real vacation at home at first because your obligations will draw on you, so we usually go somewhere close to home but not in our town. Our last one was over the past weekend. We went to San Francisco. (San Francisco is 40 miles away) We stayed in a beautiful little apartment within walking distance of the deYoung museum, where our friend (who was vacationing herself somewhere else) lives. We fed her cats in return for vacationing there. She left us recommendations for restaurants and bike routes, bikes, guidebooks and elaborate hand-drawn maps of her neighborhood. We walked to the deYoung Museum, where we spent an entire day checking out New Guinea art, the painting galleries, went on the Valentine’s themed tour of particular love and scandal related artworks, took in Ruth Asawa’s mysterious hanging twisted wire sculptures and hung out in the tower with its 360 degree view of the city.
I don’t feel like a tourist when we go on these little trips, but more of a curious observer who isn’t obligated to be “going” the whole time. Since we are close by, we can take our time and not do some things because we know we can come back anytime and the mad rush to see everything just doesn’t exist. We stayed at “home” reading with the two cats and playing games, we walked around a beautiful little Korean neighborhood and saw stores selling tapioca drinks and fish, we browsed at Green Apple books and ate delicious pizza. It was raining and we walked in the rain. I made French toast in the mornings in a normal kitchen. It felt relaxing, we learned new things and had open eyes to the little neighborhood we were living in, we were inspired creatively and when I was sick the last day we just went home and I went to bed to recover without too much of a feeling of “ruining the vacation”. More layers of place grow and stretch out within the distance of a day’s walk from the place where I live—in the place where I live. The place where I live.