Thursday, August 30, 2007

Know Your Place

Berkeley, California, Sunday, August 19.

It was two hours before the warm sun finally rose above the Berkeley Hills. It is my habit when visiting our daughter in the Bay Area to rise about dawn (It helps to have lingering Eastern Time in the blood.), brew a strong pot of Peet’s coffee (A Berkeley original.) and stroll around the funky neighborhoods on the slopes above the University of California campus. On this morning, I was up around 6:00, walked for about an hour before stopping back at the apartment for more coffee and to pack a PBJ to take to a neighborhood park for breakfast. At the edge of La Loma Park, past the ball field, there are a few picnic tables and a small stone wall that affords a nice place to sit and gaze out over Berkeley to Oakland and the San Francisco Bay below. This view is often foggy in the morning, but on this day the air was clear.

As I sat quietly in solitude, I felt a little like I was perched on one of my favorite rocks on Moose Hill. At the edge of the flat park the slope drops away steeply to the west. Trees growing from the hillside – thus putting their tops closer to eye level – attracted a good variety of birds that came by as I sat, ate and daydreamed. I found it a little hard to believe that some of them weren’t coming by just to see me.

Many of the birds were familiar, but different. There were juncos, phoebes, chickadees, creepers and towhees. There were also some sparrows and tiny kinglet-like birds. Since I tried to pack light for this trip, I didn’t have my binoculars or field guide. So, while I felt sure some of the species I was seeing, like the robins, were the same as back East, I knew others, like the towhees and chickadees were different species even if their behavior seemed much like that of those back home. The hummingbirds of California are most striking. In Massachusetts, we have only the ruby-throated hummer and they are uncommon enough that I always pause to watch when I spot one buzzing from flower to flower. In California, hummingbirds are everywhere and they seem more robust and they seem to perch a lot more. I can’t begin to separate the species, but I know there are a few.

On this dry mid-August morning, the birds were mostly quiet. There may have been a soft call or chirp or even the occasional scold, but no songs. Summer was drawing to a close.

Even though it was a summer Sunday in a college town, I was surprised at how quiet it was. Berkeley is not a morning town. Here was a beautiful, dry, clear, cool Sunday morning but no one was up. In over two hours of walking around I saw one walker, one cyclist, two or three cars, and one of those was the paper guy. I didn’t even see anyone sitting on a deck reading the Sunday paper. Maybe they were all waiting for the sun to rise above those steep hills.

One thing I like to do when I travel is to lose myself in a good book, preferably one that is connected – even if only peripherally – to the place I’m visiting. Somehow I got it in my head that I wanted to read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums while I was recovering from my surgery. Maybe it was a California tourist guide book that recommended it as a quintessential California story. Or maybe it was a favorite blog with that name. Whatever the reason, I’d never read it and figured it was about time. I found myself wishing I’d read it 30 years ago and wondering if my life would have been different if I had. Probably not. Seeds need to be planted in fertile ground.

I often find myself amazed at how writers in the post-war years like Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey foresaw bad things happening in our society and wonder how they would feel today if they could see their worst nightmares realized ten times over. I love the idea that a book like Dharma Bums could launch a generation of “rucksack revolutionaries,” and hope that at least a few of them didn’t wind up driving SUVs to their McMansions in the suburbs.

The main character in Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder. It turns out that Ryder, like many of the characters in Kerouac’s books, is based on a real person: the poet, Asian scholar, essayist and environmental activist Gary Snyder. (I even found a typo (?) where Kerouac refers to Japhy as Gary.) Unlike Kerouac, Snyder survived the 50’s and 60’s and went on to enjoy a long and productive career. Thanks to our hometown library and some of the great used bookstores in Berkeley and Walnut Creek, I was able to get my hands on some of Snyder’s poetry and essays. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but plenty of Snyder’s poems speak to me, and it is through his essays that I learn more about his way of thinking. That is what I was pondering as I waited for the sunrise.

He teaches that people should learn to know and love the place where they live, and we should live in it without subduing it. We should learn its geology, weather, plants, animals, and history. We should think about how people can live in a place and make it their own without destroying it. We need to understand that humans are a part of nature and that humans inhabited and adapted to the places we live long before any of our non-North American ancestors arrived and that those people had ancient biological and mystical connections to our lands that go back for millennia. We should try to feel, appreciate and respect those connections in the ways we live today.

Most of Snyder’s writings that I had were from the 60’s and 70’s. Many of his contemporaries didn’t make it to the Twenty-first Century, but Snyder did, and I wondered how he feels about how things are going today.

A few days later, as we flew east, leaving our carbon footprints along the way, I looked forward to a walk on Moose Hill. I was hoping thoughts I had on a stone wall in California among redwoods and eucalyptus would help me learn more about my woods of oak and pine back home. For now, southern New England is my place, and I feel obligated to try to know it.

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At 12:27 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Glad to hear from you again. Sadly, I've read about Jack Kerouac but never read him.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

I was a big Kerouac fan in the 60s and 70s. One of my favorite books of poetry is Gary Snyder's Turtle Island. I have the original copy I bought when it was first released. I still refer to it quite often. I'm glad that you are reading the beats. They did have a prescient take on the world.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I wish that we could live more in harmony with nature too.-Perhaps I'll check out the authors you mentioned.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger nina said...

It seems you have a good start--you're tuned in to what so many miss.
I'm reminded of the thought, "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know", and apply it here, too. I think those who walk quickly through life, don't even know there's something they've missed--those who go slowly, see it, are drawn in closer to it, and are overwhelmed by how much they have missed.

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