Following is a story (like The Choice) that I wrote for a college English class. It won first place (1994) for essay and was published in the school booklet, Word of Mouth. Like that story, it gives you a taste for my style of writing.
The Sacred Secret
A Hiker’s Meditations on Life
There was a miracle today; I stood on holy ground, I beheld the sacred, for today I stumbled upon one of Nature’s most carefully guarded secrets. It was nothing so gaudy as any parting of waters or pillars of flame. It was something not meant for other eyes, especially human eyes. You see, we humans are an aggressive species: we stomp and shout and seem generally to enjoy making our presence known. As a result, some of life’s most intimate mysteries continue to remain hidden – unanalyzed and undissected.
Moreover, Nature chooses her sanctuaries carefully: a tree top in deepest Amazon, one corner of an unmapped trench on the sea floor, or a single tiny pond in a V shaped canyon so rugged no one would ever go there.
But I did – today. I’m a hiker you understand, a naturalist you might say. I like to find the most out-of-the-way places to explore, to see what Mother Earth is up to. To still my human voice and listen for her song. And she has a song just as surely as you are reading this now. Though you may climb the highest mountain, its wooded peak lost in the clouds, adrape in silent, snowy white; trek the long, hot expanse of the desert salt plains at the bottom of the world where once an ocean stood, or set sail upon the turquoise majesty of an endless sea, salt spray in your face and the cry of gulls in your ears, the song is the same – it has not changed forever. It’s time itself that is dear to her.
On this day, Ruddy My Heart (my devoted dog, a Shepard mix) and I, chose the arid semi-steepness of a mountain on the western edge of the La Panza Range near California’s central coast, roughly midway between the dry flatness of the Carrizo Plains and the sea. Its exact location I shall not disclose. The moderate climate and the fact that this is fire country ensure that its slopes, as many here, are covered in chaparral. Intense heat cracks open the tough pods that encase the seeds and aids in the generation of new growth in species that might otherwise languor. As a result, finding a path to the top can be nearly impossible. But if one searches, he or she can sometimes find an obscure trail made by deer, augmented by use and time, through the dense brush.
This morning was warm and sunny, a typical winter’s day in rural SLO county, and it was of Time that I dreamed as we labored up the side. And so, yielding fully, I allowed my mind to wander on a journey of its own, back, far back in time … four and a half billion years ….
How old this earth, how much she has seen. Then the earth was as a newborn in an already ancient universe. The sun and the moon, as if father and mother, holding her safe within an orbital embrace, providing light and warmth by day and keeping guard by night. And there was a cradlesong.
I pondered life’s misty origins – more than three billion years ago – marveled at its tenacity and determination to survive in a world that we would find lethal. Eventually there was algae, a living blue/green carpet, and slowly over the great waters it crept, so very slowly, but steadily, as it felt its careful, yet – jubilant way, exploring, probing, testing.
Later, much later, during a long season of heat, when great bodies of water began to evaporate, I imagined primeval fishes’ first crude attempts to reach another body of water across a short patch of parched ground when their own began to dry up … and failing.
Later still, in an age of giant dragonflies and horsetails the size of trees, I followed as the amphibians changed, gradually, into dinosaurs – those great and terrible monsters that ruled the world so ferociously for so long. Then, after what seemed an eternity, suddenly they were gone … and all was quiet once again. And it seemed that the stars watched gravely, hoping this was not the end, but nothing appeared to stir, save a hollow zephyr on the emerald planet. And the splendid colors of the world’s first explosion of flowers seemed to have no audience.
But then … there! something small and furry! darting under ferns and palms, dodging falling drops in the earliest rainstorm of a new era. This was something else, something – different! Strange that I hadn’t noticed them before. Then I realized that they, too, had been transforming while they hid there in the shadow of the great beasts, patiently, patiently awaiting. Yet now, as it disappeared from sight, I thought I saw a familiar, passioned look in its eyes, life’s old ardor, for it knew that now, finally, the world was theirs.
And O the Earth Bloomed!
And I saw the drifting of the continents
The advance and the retreat of glaciers
The rise and fall of mountains and forests
And the will of life to survive – no matter what
The mammals spread, grew and prospered. They so loved life that they filled every niche offered them. There were small ones and large ones of every variety. Some so large that they rivaled even the dinosaurs in size, and some just as fierce. When the grasses came, a few bold ones ventured out onto the open plain to graze, speed and sheer numbers their only defense. Others, though looking on in envy, remained in the shadowy safety of the forest.
And so it was for the mammals, for over sixty million years, living and dying, species coming and going, but always full of the vitality that life in a world that was wild and free had brought them.
And then, quietly rising, there appeared another animal, this one walking upright on two legs – and soon, everything changed ….
Arriving at the summit two hours after beginning, I turned, surprised at how far we’d come. From this vantage, we had an excellent panoramic view of oak-studded hills and grassy plains in every direction as far as the eye could see. There we lunched and rested. Even after the challenging climb, Ruddy was lively as ever and found the energy to tease me with a rock, but I demurred, choosing instead to observe our surroundings. Manzanita was here, as was chamise, and on the horizon Pinus thrived just as it has since the Paleocene, the beginning of the mammalian age. The absolute quiet was broken only by the distant cry of a red-tail hawk and an occasional light breeze brushing past my ears, bringing with it only the barest scent, the softest whisper of blooming ceanothus. Far to the south and to the east, cattle grazed and horses gamboled playfully in a land that seemed – unchanging.
I felt unusually solemn, but not knowing why. Then, closing my eyes, I imagined that I could hear music, light and airy, faint but beautiful. Or was it my mood?
I looked at my watch, 1:30; we’d been there for an hour – seemed like only minutes. Four hours till sunset: time to head back. I always try to beat the fall of night, get nervous when I push it. An encounter with a bear one cold winter’s night, years ago, in the middle of nowhere, shook my confidence. I’m still working on it.
Yet, now, I let my eyes drift from my planned route, down, down to a crowded canyon deep between parallel towering ridges. From my height, I followed its length visually to its terminus in wooded remoteness a mile or two away. The sun being high, it was bathed in light, and, since the canyon ran in a roughly east-west direction, I knew I could count on the sun. And so, on an impulse, we launched headlong into the enticing abyss, that V shaped canyon so rugged no one would ever go there.
Over boulders we climbed and around fallen trees. We pushed through thick thorn brush that grabbed at my clothes as I went by. Twice I slipped, but caught myself, and though tearing my clothes, I was unhurt. Yet so beautiful was the chasm that I had not a moment’s regret. And neither, plainly, did Ruddy: ambling ahead, but always keeping me in sight, as is his custom, lest I should disappear down some subterranean fissure. It was he, however, who occasionally needed to be lifted, or cajoled, down a particularly steep drop.
The leaves of oaks and sycamores glowed a dazzling green in the bright resplendence of the day. Sunlight played upon numerous tiny shimmering pools of clear water, cradled in smooth carved sandstone, and fed by a little stream that wound its way along with us, sometimes submerged beneath the ground, then surfacing again for no particular reason. Little grassy glades invited us to rest, and tempting side canyons beckoned at us, but we continued upon the path that we had chosen.
Here and there stands of cattails, just waiting for an excuse, would release their seed in a cloud at the merest brush of a shoulder, and we would find them later, clinging to clothes and fur. Wild blackberry was everywhere to be seen, looking much like poison oak. But there was none of that here – there was no need.
Once, startled, a wood rat darted horizontally across the trunk of a tree that had lost its grip on an upper slope and now blocked our path; and I wondered as I gazed about, was I the only one who had ever been here, who would ever see the lustrous red berries on that vine, or hear the soft gurgle of water filling this pond?
I plunged my hands into these pools and found their waters cold, but refreshing. In them I saw only the occasional waterboatman or surface skimmer, living their tiny lives without the need for the permission or the approval of man – and that is how it should be. Humanity is only the species that currently dominates the planet. In time there will be others (providing, of course, that we don’t annihilate everything in our wake). There are fossils in these hills and valleys, the last vestiges of prehistoric life. I know because I’ve found them before: bivalves, urchins, and to the north and west, Purple Dwarf Olives. Farther east, are higher forms. I’ve even found a fossil leaf, and imagine it spinning, turning, in the warm breezes of happier days.
On we wandered, and down, each absorbed in his own thoughts.
And then I saw them, nearly passed them by.
There were seven of them in that one, tiny pool of water, no bigger than, perhaps, two feet by three feet, and a foot deep. I stopped flat in my tracks and stared, “What the…?” Bending down, I looked closely, then, ever so delicately, lifted one of the living strands (was it a plant? was it an animal?) nine or ten inches long, but no thicker than a few hairs width, from the water. Surprised, it twisted and curled. I watched, but it seemed unable to leave my hand. Then, slowly, quaveringly, it lifted its tiny head, just a dot in size, as if to see me, and thereupon dropped it, and, gently, touched my palm. I didn’t know what to expect – a bite? But there was nothing to be felt.
It began to writhe a little then, and suddenly, as if awakened, I realized that I had to return it to its home quickly. It was shocked and did not move for several minutes. Then, to my great relief, it began slowly to move, and thereafter, to swim again.
Though they were in the only pool for several yards in either direction, they seemed intent on exploring the parameters of their little home, lifting their tiny heads out of the water as if trying to see to the next pond, as if wanting to leave. “But if you leave this little pool you’ll die”, I told them. But they seemed not to hear.
And the song was strong in my ears.
And so, getting up, we stepped carefully around the little pond and wished them well on their long journey ahead. In no other pools after that did we see them again.
And I wondered, as we continued down that V shaped canyon so rugged no one would ever go there, just what Mother Earth was up to…
(Ruddy passed in 2000)
Great story. I loved this one sentence, because it expresses something true and deep for me as well: “I like to find the most out-of-the-way places to explore, to see what Mother Earth is up to.” I have lived in California for more than 40 years, and I feel I have only scratched the surface of its natural wonders. Your little canyon is a perfect example of the kinds of places I love to explore. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you very much, I appreciate it. Happy hikes in California, gedawei!