sprucing up the spruces

September 26, 2014

I have finally come to rest for a bit back home — long enough to resume my usual cliff-top walk in Santa Cruz. To my surprise and sorrow, the Monterey pine I have long used as a ballet barre for stretching out my legs and a monkey-bar for hanging out my back, and an easy climb into a better view has been pruned of all its lower branches. It has a new sleek silhouette and is now unclimbable. Not only that, but the removed branches appear to have been put through the chipper, which has raised the ground around Kyushiro Mine’s bench in ways that also Do Not Work For Me.
I am consoling myself that probably the pruning was essential to the health of the tree — not something I know for a fact, but it could be true. In the meantime, I am reposting here a report that first appeared on the bookanisata site last March, an account of how my walk used to go before these shocking events.

Reposted:
I live in Santa Cruz, California, on the very edge of the continent and one of the most beautiful places on planet Earth. Most mornings I take a walk along West Cliff Drive, where I am joined by joggers, strollers, dogs, bicyclists, and tourists. The ocean is below us; the path winds along the cliffs above.
I do this walk largely for the exercise it provides, so I push my pace with music or I listen to the news on the radio and when I get home, I turn on the computer and read more of the news and when I brush my teeth, rather than be alone with my own thoughts for the two minutes that takes, I read a book. It’s possible that I have a bit of an addiction to the internet or at least to the constant possibility of distraction it provides.
Because none of this (except the book) is entirely pleasant. In fact, it leaves me jangled, as if I have a head full of noise. And I try, from time to time, to withdraw, to take what my friend Ruth Ozeki calls, the backward step. And, specifically, to at least do my morning walk, as god intended, without earbuds.
So this is a diary of a few days in which I managed to be quiet in the head. I know that sounds unexciting, but believe me, it was hard won.

Day 1
It is not really quiet. The first things I notice are the sounds I miss on other days – waves, birds, sea lions, bits of conversation I hear as people pass. More waves. I start off at Lighthouse Field State Park where the first person I see is the woman who drives up periodically to feed the large population of feral cats there. Today she has sprung for the canned food so they are all over her and an embarrassment to the very word feral. They love her, but like an Austen character, only for her estate.
We are deep into drought here in California and the park has a parched look. I remember how, at this time of year, I used to hear frogs, but I can’t remember how long ago that was. I think it’s been a long time. My first year here, there was a storm that uprooted trees and sent the waves crashing all the way up the cliffs and onto the path. My late dog and I went out in that storm for the sheer drama of it. Now I do this walk with the ghost of my beloved dog beside me, and the storms, too, seem a thing of the past.
The sun is just coming up when I reach the sea. I like the color of the water at all times of day, but the early morning is especially beautiful – a color I have no name for, but is overlaid with silver, glints of light in a surface of sharply defined waves.
The benches along West Cliff are memorials, inscribed like tombs and sometimes quite sad to contemplate, but I have a favorite that carries no such sadness. It commemorates Kyushiro Mine, 1897-1993 and has the words “After a Long Journey, Peace” inscribed under his name. If no one has grabbed it for the selfish purpose of rest and contemplation, it is the perfect height for me to do some stretching on.
All trees are equally lovable and one shouldn’t have favorites, but I do. Spreading over the Kyushiro bench is a large Monterey Pine, very climbable, and so filled with invisible blackbirds that it seems the tree itself is singing above me. I have a branch I hang from to rid myself of the kinks in my back and I would resemble the beautiful cover of my own book if its dangling figure were a sexagenarian in an idiotic hat.

My favorite bit of overheard dialogue today – “I am a great fan of germs.”
Me, too! Some of them, anyway. The best of them.

Day 2:
Today all my sea creatures are coming in pairs, straight off the Ark if the sea creatures had needed an Ark, which clearly they didn’t. World domination was right within their grasp until Noah snatched it away.
They need one now.
It’s hard to look out to sea and get that old reliable sense of peace. A few days ago, I saw in an article online that pinpointed the death of the ocean to 2048. That date is very possibly within my children’s lifetimes, and certainly within my grandchildren’s. I think about my grandson who has already loved sharks for his whole ten years and is a fountain of arcane shark lore. He will not like a world without sharks.
Meanwhile, all unaware of the impending apocalypse, two sea lions bob just offshore, watching the dogs chase balls and waves on the dog beach. Two porpoises are arching through the water although maybe they are dolphins – I cannot tell. It matters, because here in Santa Cruz we have the occasional porpicide – porpoise murder perpetrated by bottlenose dolphins – because Mother Nature really does not care if you love her or not. Maybe if you had behaved better. But now, she just sees you as something to be eaten.
Yet I myself am feeling all charitable toward the particular humans I meet today, who, whatever their complicities, are picking someone else’s trash up as they walk along, or adding their own art to the already beautiful vista. I am particularly grateful to:
The skateboarder who has made a Goldsworthy-like sculpture garden of intricately stacked stones and stops daily to repair or revise it.
The unknown and unseen hands that cut empty beer cans into pelicans, wings spread, and perch them on the ledge above the trashcans
The man who stands on the edge of the cliff, looking out to sea and playing marvelous loopy riffs on his trumpet
The woman who took my arm as I passed to make sure I didn’t miss the two sea otters floating on their backs in the surf.

Favorite thing overheard today – a man singing Dock of a Bay quietly to himself as he walked.

Day 3:
My last day at home before I catch a plane and start to book-tour again. The plane is early enough that the only way I can manage my usual walk is to start in the dark. I have the streetlights until I hit the park and then only the light of a very round moon and my familiarity with the paths to see me through to the ocean. My grandsons and I play Hobbit in this park. I know every goblin-filled inch of it.
Now it is quiet. The sea lions cavorted late into the night – I can hear them from my bedroom – and are presumably filled with silent regret this morning. The birds are not yet up. The cliffside walk is deserted except for one man trying to get a picture of the moon and its reflection in the black water on his cellphone.
Because Santa Cruz is on a bay that, in disorienting fashion, faces south, the sun is rising behind me as I walk west. The transformation from night to day is a fast one. The tide is high and the waves are crashing whitely on the rocks below me. Other people start to arrive. A young boy is out jogging with his mother and she is telling him some story that begins “when I was your age,” and then they are past before I can hear the rest, but what remains with me was the interest with which her son seemed to be listening. When I was his age, I don’t think I ever listened past the words “when I was your age” to anything.
When I was your age, children, there was no music in the elevators, airports, restaurants. Nobody thought the ocean could be killed. For most of the games we played, another actual person had to show up, I mean physically, right there in the room, and play with you. It was all pretty weird.
Today’s bird sightings include one gray heron, one snowy egret, two brown pelicans that apparently weren’t invited on the winter migration, a line of scoters washing about in the surf, a rock of cormorants, a fence of red-winged blackbirds, a scurry of sandpipers.
I don’t have time today to stop at Kyushiro’s bench, dangle from my tree, watch the sun rising. The waves are coming in sets and the surfers are doing the same. The moon is still up when I leave and the sun, too. I have noisier places to go, noisier things to do.

Favorite thing overheard today – “I probably would have liked it better if I’d known it was funny.” Words to live by. A very sound philosophy of life.

13 thoughts on “sprucing up the spruces

  1. Karen, you have just become one of my very top authors. Today I finished your latest book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and I am completely beside myself with joy over finding you. Thank you.

        • KJ. I just saw your initials so I am pretty sure Admin is Karen. Wow. You are the most amazing writer. I have one other favorite that is above you because of my loyalty and I have read ever single thing he has ever published. But that is beside the point here. I have been traumatized by your telling of Completely Beside…it has affected me to the point of total distraction. I so hope you win the big award. I will definitely be watching and waiting. Karen you are amazing. Thank you again.

  2. Yes, of course, I’m admin. At least sometimes. Sometimes the answer to “who was that masked man?” is me. Sometimes it’s my web guy.
    Thank you so much for these wonderful comments! Who is this inconvenient writer currently occupying the position of favorite?

  3. It’s that “web guy” thing I am always leery of. My favorite author in the whole world right now is Peter Abrahams. I hope you have heard of him. If not you should. I know good writing when I read it…heh! I actually got to meet him in Denver just last month. It was so much fun. I know you tour, but do you ever get as far East as Colorado?

    • I don’t know Peter Abrahams, but I will rectify that. Always eager to read new writers. And I actually just returned from Colorado — Steamboat Springs to be exact. And earlier in the year I was in Denver. And Vail. And before that in Aspen. All over Colorado! But nothing scheduled there now. Put a sad, frowny face here… kj

      • You were all over Colorado!! I will definitely have to pay attention to your schedule for next year. Planning to read all of your books and they will of course need to be autographed.

        There are two Peter Abrahams. So be sure to read the American writer who also writes under the nom de plume of Spencer Quinn.

  4. Hi, I have just finished reading your wonderful novel ‘We are all completely beside ourselves’. As a 41 year old female psychologist, i found myself wondering if you had written the book specifically for me. I could relate to so many of the cultural touchstones, was studying psychology at university in the mid 90s and have always been both fascinated and horrified by the experiments of those 1970s era psychologists. What your book allowed me to do was to consider these experiments from a fresh angle. I remember watching the documentary ‘Project Nim’ a few years ago. My reaction was to be fascinated by how crazy the psychologists and researchers seemed, revealing much more about themselves than their research subject – but I never really considered the children in the story, nor was I remotely able to imagine things from Nim’s point of view. I loved the way your novel prompted me to think about memory, the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others about ourselves. I devoured the novel the first time around, now I want to read it again to savor your language, and to ponder some of the moral questions you raise. Thank you for writing this for me. It was just for me, right? Warm regards, Nicki

  5. I have recently finished your book beside ourselves and I wanted to say thank you to you Karen. For a girl in the middle of a psychology degree who is debating continuing, your book came at such a perfect time for me to read, as books so often do. All the praise surrounding this book is very much deserved, I loved every second of it. Many thanks for your wonderful words.

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