Wednesday, March 15, 2006


THE OTHERS THINK it’s wildflowers we’re looking for, and maybe that’s what they’re after, though I notice Mac’s just as much interested in birds. But what I’m really travelling for is landscape.

I think landscape is the most essential thing for me — the way I place myself in my world, the way I make whatever sense I can (and that only intuitively, certainly not analytically) of the big and deep issues of Life and Place and Meaning.

This must go back a long way, to my childhood. We moved to the country when I was ten, but even before that we lived in an open landscape for a year or so. In the summer of 1944, when I was not yet nine, we drove slowly down California’s Central Valley, through the Mojave Desert, across Arizona and New Mexico, and settled for a month or two on the dusty plain in Guymon, Oklahoma, before driving on further to northeastern Oklahoma where I turned ten, then eleven years old.

Once out of doors there was no near barrier there; the landscape stretched away as far as one could see. When we moved back to California we were again in the country, and if here the horizons were much closer — since we lived essentially in a valley all our own — the landscape was still the spatial context of my life, far more than would have been the case in a city or town, cluttered with the streets and buildings, telephone poles and front yards, automobiles and passersby so routine a part of an urban existence.

I have my favorite landscapes, dozens of them. We began this trip, last Sunday, visiting one of them, pictured above — not that it would be possible to “picture” it on even a much huger canvas than your computer monitor provides. It’s the view out east from in front of the Mission San Juan Bautista, sweeping from the willow outside its cemetery, on the left, eighty degrees or so to the south. You’re looking across the San Andreas Fault, on which a rich black layer of bottom-land has been deposited over the centuries by the San Benito River.

The missionaries who arrived here after a hard day’s walk from the south, accompanied by pack mules and horses, must have recognized this landscape for its promise — the rich soil, the protecting hills to the west, the water, the immense numbers of birds, the game.

We drove down from San Juan Bautista, on highway 25, to Coalinga, stopping off en route to ramble for hours among the Pinnacles, as described in the previous blog; and the next day — Monday — we continued south, first climbing the graded gravel Parkfield Grade Road into magnificent unspoiled mountain landscape, then dropping into the — well, parklike Parkfield valley, where the search continues for the meaning of seismicity; then pressing on to the third goal of this trip, the vast silence of the Carrizo Plain.

Even on a grey day Soda Lake is impressive; even when there’s considerable water, as there was this time, its evanescence is apparent — landscape in its majesty, its sheer size and space, always implies permanence; but its subtly changing light and color expresses mutability, susceptibility; and vernal pools like Soda Lake can’t help but bring to mind the provisionality of our existence.

MORTALITY. Next day, though, we drove on down to Ojai, where Jim Churchill’s tangerines reminded us of the renewability of it all, and life was once again full of zest. And today the fine historical museum in San Buenaventura, and the fine Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; and tomorrow once more on the road, through the matchless Santa Ynez Valley.

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