Thursday, October 20, 2011


On my lunch-break today, I took a stroll through Regent’s Park in London and had a cup of soup.  It was an ideal day for strolling, the kind of day which will grow scarcer as the days grow shorter.  Blue skies, sunshine and the first inklings of the wintry light which makes cold, clear days exceptionally beautiful in British winters meant that the park was full of heavily-dressed people and dogs.

I suppose it was the sunshine—though it could have been the dogs—which made me reflect on what a nice, slow summer it had been in California.  Not all summers are like that.  Some involve dashing here and there, getting on flights, having to be places, and the whole production drawing to a close to the lurking suspicion that very little was actually accomplished.  People always say, ‘Oh, that sounds like an exciting agenda’, but I have to admit to being the type who’d rather have a pleasant routine in a comfortable place, and last summer I was able to spend time in three of my favourite places.

First, the East Bay, which has really grown on me in the past few years, Berkeley in particular.  Understand, I’d grown up in a place that saw itself as the antithesis of everything the Bay Area stands for in the popular imagination—socially, politically, culturally, physically—and so I’d heard my share of horror stories.  Some parents wouldn’t even let their children go on school trips south of Sacramento, lest their offspring be corrupted by the cultural decadence lurking around every corner.  My parents obviously didn’t buy any of this, but as refugees from the Bay Area, they didn’t have much good to say about the traffic, the crowds, the weather or the smog.  Of course I’d spent plenty of time in the Bay Area visiting family as a kid, but I still didn’t reckon it was a place I could see myself existing for long.

Maybe it was the pleasantness of my routine, or perhaps it was the knowledge that I’d be going away for a while, but I grew increasingly attached to the East Bay during the summer.  Attached to walking out onto Second Street in Hayward in the morning to catch the bus, just in time to see the fog receding down the hill, the sun rushing down in its wake.  Attached to feeling the thrill that now comes every time I come into Berkeley—whether in a car down the narrow Tunnel Road or in a howling BART train to the west of campus—and see the Campanile, the Stadium, the I-House, the Claremont silhouetted against the Berkeley hills that lead up over Grizzly Peak to Tilden Park and Wildcat Canyon.  Attached to walking out of the library some days to see spectacular sunsets behind the Golden Gate, on others to be enveloped in the fog that crept up under the bridge to settle on campus, giving the Campanile and Doe Library a spectral, otherworldly mien.  And attached to getting back in time to take the dog out for a brisk walk in the fading light, and to see, from the Hayward hills, the whole East Bay turn gold.

It can’t feel too bad a place when you’re in the East Bay hills above Berkeley and El Cerrito, not a building in sight, surrounded by blowing grass, wispy trees and circling birds of prey that periodically vanish without a trace into the sun before swooping back down to earth.

Or walking from one end of Oakland to the other, passing neighbourhoods in which people are speaking dozens of languages, having come from many countries in the world, many parts of our state and many corners of the city and innumerable traditions and backgrounds to live lives in common.

Or watching the campus come to life from the balcony at FSM in the morning, keeping one eye on the aggressive squirrels at all times, of course.  Because although it’s subdued, Berkeley still breathes deeply during the summer, the libraries are still widely used, summer students walk around between classes, Memorial Glade is always full.  But it’s all so much calmer.

Or when you’re walking the dog in the sultry sunset in Hayward and see, riding up Campus Drive, seven vaqueros, erect in their saddles, wide-brimmed hats casting impressive shadows, looking neither to the left nor to the right, making their stately way with their elegant steeds along the busy by-way, AC Transit buses, cars and trucks all unquestioningly giving them their due space.


Next, of course, I was at home.  Those of you who know me have heard me whine about the politics, the weather, the lack of public transportation and the malaise that often seems to affect much of northern California.  But it’s a beautiful place, and I’m never more relaxed than when, having taken the Amtrak train to Sacramento, the Amtrak bus to Redding, I’m finally in my parents’ car rolling over the Sacramento River, out of downtown, out through the ranches and small towns, up into the foothills and forests, disappearing into the trees and letting the warm summer air come through the window; air which gets dustier down the dirt road and which picks up the wholesome smells of the meadow and creek as we pass them by.

My favourite part of the summer days at home comes when I rouse the dog from her slumber on the tile floor of the kitchen or the wood floor of the porch.  She staggers up, blinking, wondering where the hare she’d been chasing in her sleep had got to.  She gives me the look that says, ‘Do I have to get up?’, but once she sees me putting on my shoes, her tail starts wagging, and the giddiness of this appendage inspires the rest of her, until she’s bouncing around as best her years allow. 

And then we’re off on the narrow track through the forest which runs parallel to the creek.  She’s in heaven, sniffing mountain lion scat, scrutinising the places where wild pigs rooted or turkeys scratched into the hard, dry soil, in which we can see big, wide bear tracks from the last time it rained, now crumbling away, but still distinctive. 

On our last walk the dog was panting and dragging, so I slowed to an amble.  Instead of continuing straight along the old logging road—recently widened in anticipation of Sierra Pacific’s foray after timber, the dust only kept down by the layer of golden pine-needles—which leads circuitously down to a ford on the creek, we cut straight down through the woods to a pool where the dog could get some water.  After lapping at the water, she moved further out into the creek and stood, chest-deep, sides heaving with exertion, tongue lolling out, looking for all the world like she was smiling, letting the water flow easily, gently around her.
I realised more fully what had been hovering in the back of my mind the last couple of times I’d been home, that she’s getting too old for this, and that this would be our last walk of this length, ever.  We make our way, slowly, to the ford, where she drinks some more, and then we cut back up to the fence-line along which some of the old families used to range their cattle, from the last days of the nineteenth century.  And then back home, slowly, because it’s up-hill.

In the winter it is breathtaking to come on a herd of elk thirty strong down in the ranch country on the way into town, their breath silvery in the morning air, the mist gathering around them as though they were creatures from another world, descended from the ridges to walk amongst mere humans.  In the summer there is something equally special about seeing them a bit farther from the road, just below the tree-line on the hills which have now turned brown, and have a reddish hue in the dying light of the day.  The heat means that there’s almost a mirage-effect to their movement.  Their dark brown and tan bodies shimmer as they move sedately through the grass with a leisurely, lolling gait, hardly glancing at us as we stop along the road to watch them.


It was a real treat to make it out to Lassen Volcanic National Park twice in one summer (once on a day-trip, once camping).  Just over an hour from Redding, this place might rank as my favourite anywhere in the world.
Mount Lassen itself is the major attraction—it’s hard not to see it from anywhere in the park—and the area around the Peak Trail and the Bumpass Hell Sulphur Works is always crowded, even during a summer like this one where snow lay thick around much of the park into the middle of August.  So thick that we missed the peak trail on Brokeoff Mountain and wound up on its northeastern flank, the way to the top impassable.  So we satisfied ourselves with the views across the ridges and valleys and smaller peaks, all of which used to form one massive volcano.

There’s a little bit of everything in Lassen.  Below the peaks, to the east, a seemingly unbroken forest stretches out towards Lake Almanor in the distance.  If you venture down in the right place, you’ll come onto King’s Creek Falls, the waters of which gather speed as they course across the otherworldly verdant meadows that make up swathes of the park, get really rumbling as they come down through boulder-strewn, snow-covered banks, and cascade over the edge to rush down into the forest.

Paradise Meadow is justifiably one of the more famous of the park’s open spaces.  The ascent to the meadow isn’t too steep, but takes walkers up a well-maintained trail along Hat Creek before opening up into the enormous expanse, some parts of the year strewn with abundant wildflowers, some of which are still in bloom on the slopes around the aptly-named meadow.

And then there are the lakes: Ridge Lake, Shadow Lake, Terrace Lake, Cliff Lake.  Their names tell you all you need to know about their locations.  But Lassen is not a grim, rugged park.  Although the snow makes reaching the lakes more difficult—the paths are obscured, it’s easy to slip on the meters-deep snow, and sometimes you’ll break through—they are all within reach, and worth every step.  Some of their waters serve as a mirror for the mountains.  Others look like you could run across them.  And some you can scarcely see as the evening sun reflects off the snow, sending blinding lights flickering across the surface.

It’s when I see places like these, the sulphur rising from the cracked earth; hikers making their way along snow-covered slopes against rock which appears to be straining up through the white covering with the rising of the moon; the rivulets giving way to streams which are transformed into roiling waterfalls; the mist rising from impossibly still waters in the gentle light of morning; and the mountains...that’s when I know how right John Muir had it when he reminded us that “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike”. 
Everybody’s places are going to be a little bit different, but so long as we each have our own, on which to draw as resources for body and mind, it feels like we’ll all be that much closer to an elusive kind of personal peace.

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