Mt. Shasta, California, in the Fall.
There is something deeply disorienting about returning after the passage of many years to a place once familiar but now hardly so at all. As you pass along the streets of rural and semi-rural communities which have long since become suburban, you find that you have lost your coordinates irrevocably: the slightly upsloping field with the great oak in whose dappled shade springtime lupines grew has been replaced by a health club; block on block of car-washes, outlet stores, tattoo parlors and fast-food restaurants suffocate the rolling acres of golden grasses where you’d once hoped to live in a secluded house and tend your orchard if you could ever manage it; a youth-guidance and juvenile incarceration facility with concertina-wire topped metal fences greet you at the corner where, as a young man, you used to stop along a dirt road to wipe your windshield or eat a sandwich on a rock. I am reminded of a section of a collection of essays entitled ‘Where I Was From’ by the American Joan Didion in which she describes her inability to recognize a rural community much beloved in her long-ago youth: ‘Discussion of how California has “changed,” then, tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960’s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.” I can really identify with this experience.
In the mid-1970’s my father’s business interests took our family to a medium-sized city in far northern California. And it was there, after being away at university for some years, and before going away again for graduate studies and other adventures, that I had my first real job. It was in an office, and my supervisor later became my friend, so that I would occasionally go back to see her long after I had moved away, both before and after she had retired. In the early 1960’s she and her husband had acquired some acreage on what was then the outskirts of town and built a house in the midst of a grove of digger pines and red-barked and acridly fragrant manzanitas with a view of Mt. Shasta. There they raised their four sons; there her youngest eventually hung himself from a beam in the carport; there she was left alone when her husband went off to live on a ranch they jointly owned when their marriage collapsed into ruins; there, in her retirement, and plagued with the tremors of a degenerative neurological disease, she lived in fear of ghosts of the past and a living ex-husband she was convinced wanted to do her in. I used to have coffee with her there in her high-ceilinged living room with its warm wooden floors and soaring chimney and worry about her. Even then the neighborhood was beginning to change, but it was still an isolated spot. And I was shocked to learn, just a few years ago, that she had died when her house was incinerated in a midnight fire caused by a thermostat set at nearly 90 degrees. And here’s the ironic fact: my friend was so frugal that I could never imagine her turning her heater on at all.
I don’t need to make the long drive of hundreds of miles to see how that area has changed. A close-up view with Google Earth shows me that the site of my friend’s house is now a couple of acres of bulldozed earth with a few scattered pines to help me find the spot: perhaps her sons have kept it as an investment. The single-lane country road which once led to the property has been replaced by an enormous grid of two and four-lane city streets with stoplights, cross-walks and freeway off-ramps. The rolling boulder-flecked acres which surrounded the house, reaching from the edges of the city toward the denser chaparral and then the forests farther east, have been replaced with enormous shopping malls, parking lots, interchanges, multi-level apartment complexes and subdivisions. It is not my purpose here to speculate on what happens to the dead, indeed the past itself, when once they have vanished from our sight. But I do wonder if, as we depart, we can have any inkling of how much our familiar surroundings are likely to change and dissolve into unrecognizability at some point, even quite soon, after we are gone. Surely we must cast one last loving glance around and try to hang on to what we know for just a few seconds more. I am reminded of some lines from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:
‘For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.’