Perigee: Tulare Lake
Here, the rivers drew their rims together.
Edges flush: six-hundred miles of freshwater.
The Coast Range floated like a golden branch.
People found flowers and birds in their nets.
Now cities fill the rivers’ ancient orbit,
flashing back in winter, a cool and sudden lake.
Here, farmers climb on top of yellow fossils
and draw concentric circles in the dirt.
I photograph these discs, wide as my body,
touching end to end, each center the same.
I won’t think of it now: the valley submerged
in snow-flood. The waves must have seemed,
in 1872, like the Pacific rushing back to itself,
to the railroad worker who was standing over
his newest ties: hammer-marked, symmetric.
I can see him pause and raise the hammer again.
I can see him listening for the trickle first,
then the tide, swinging us both into history.
Tulare Lake in California was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River and the second largest freshwater lake in the United States. The lake dried up in the late 19th century after its tributary rivers were diverted for agricultural and municipal use.
Leaving Big Sur
Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream.
— Jack Kerouac
Two lights in the current off Point Sur have called my bluff.
They are chained to this shore, but I am moving off,
like a brush obeying the pressure of a painter’s hand,
or a balloon ribbon unwinding from a child’s thumb.
Inch by inch, this coast is slipping out of orbit
with the continent. These salt-glazed canyons
have surrendered battles to the wind, to us.
Here, the greatest losses come in waves.
I watch the blinking lamps and finally
come to this—the steady comfort
of that glow and cadence
has me hooked, like the string
of traffic lights easing my car
night after night
onto Bayside freeways,
still, or barely moving.
To think of going back—
to join that trail of red
gently pulsing into itself—
But to think of staying—
is even more.
This must have been
where Kerouac stood
remembering the country
far behind him, or forgetting it,
casting off the infinite roads that led him
from dead ends to living dreams.
This is how he must have felt, standing on the edge
of a sandstone cliff, with nowhere to go
but down. This must have been the place where
he could have died, if he wished, a dreamer among dreams.
The Wolf Returns to California
In the myths of our time, a boy cried your name and the townspeople listened.
You were eyeing their flocks. You were dressed in Grandmother’s apron.
You were priming your breath to level pigs’ houses.
When he cried your name again, they turned away, weary of liars—
there are no wolves left alive in this country.
Eighty native tongues once had words for you. Eighty years passed
and not a word was spoken; not a single howl pierced the night.
When you crossed back into California, you slipped into lights,
into shrubland hills and dry conifers, your lonely Hollywood.
In the Golden State, you are a trophy. You are Ishi, the prized remnant,
emerging wild one day from the forests of Tehama County.
In an old myth, Francis of Assisi baptized you. You were brother, follower.
You trotted behind him into Gubbio under the amused eyes of dogs.
There are new myths now. In the story we tell, you will find a mate.
You will bring back to California her howl and yip, one pup at a time.
We live or die by these tales. As in Aesop’s fable, where you cry for help
and only the Crane listens. She puts her long bill down your throat
and pulls out the swallowed bone that pained you.
But even she demands a reward: what gift can you give her?
What promise? The only promise you can make is to leave her untouched.
Tulare Lake map image, 1873, courtesy Board of Commissions on Irrigation, California.