As Jeb and I spend our last days in California, I’m scanning the surrounding hills for our next adventure.
When I was about his age, these foothills watched me in summer heat, slip into swimming holes where toes mingled with algae and pollywogs. In the winter, my siblings and I would pull on our ‘moon boots’, the shoes made for snow but excellent for slick grass and granite boulder hopping. We’d comb the hillsides, climbing up – sometimes on all fours – and then run back down, digging our thick-soled shoes into the decline.
Long before us, Native people lived among these rocks and crannies. They were intimate with the Oaks that gifted the acorns that fed them. Not far from the creek bed, there still remains the grinding holes where generations of women sat working to feed their families. A tradition practiced for so long it shaped stone.
As a children we could sense something special here. There were no stories or explanations. But we could feel it in the rocks. Memories retained in granite. The limbs of an old Oak tree echoing of something ancient and mysterious.
I like to take Jeb here and let him feel it too. In a time and place where natural spaces are rapidly being lost to construction and pavement, I know this place, these moments, are rare.
This year my father gifted me last year’s Christmas poem, not long after we brought his grandsons down off the hill. It seems we have our own small tradition. The grinding holes are no longer used, but if nothing else, the landscape is still here to experience. These rocks abide to share. The foothills whisper.
Now with my son, I lean in close and listen.
too, denying their graves, haunt
the places they were known in and knew,
field and barn, riverbank and woods.
– Wendell Berry (“2008, X.”)
Even now the headstones claim
little flats beneath nameless draws
either side of the house, rough
granite boulders set at the head
of deep holes filled for horse and dog –
where the deer lay down to shade
when I was a boy, and women healed
the spirit, burning sage, chanting
until they fell asleep. Hollow ground
to horses’ hooves where my children
played pretend, those great imaginings
that beg to fly – now walk their sons,
listening – feet wet in grass.
To come home for Christmas can be
a gift – so many voices welcoming.