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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

Afloat Beneath the Open Western Air: One View from the East

I'm off from the familiar clime, not beneath the slopes of Bull Hill at all.  For a month now I've been on a houseboat in Sausalito, gazing up at a bigger, more raw summit, Marin County's Mount Tamalpais, a peak now ringed with million dollar homes, but once the sacred destination of bevies of beat poets, Snyder, Whalen, Ginsburg and others, off on their famous circumambulations of the peak, a ritual now often re-enacted by Dave Robertson of the UC-Davis "Humans and Nature" program and legions of his friends and students.

On sabbatical this year, I decided to spend some time on this other coast, to see how life really differs out here in the spectacular West.  First thing that is different is the atmosphere, the air.  The sky is so bright, the blue so true, its scent pungent with eucalyptus and sage, like an evaporated cup of herb tea.  There is much more wildlife everywhere, many kinds of ducks and waterfowl, paddling by the window of this houseboat at eye level.  Coots, widgeons, grebes, ruddy ducks, sanderlings, scoters, and amazing pelicans.  Rafts of harbor seals gather beneath the piers of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.  Red-shouldered hawks and falcons dive down for rabbits above the open, grassy hills.

Golden Gate Bridge and San Franscisco - Photo by S. Buntin.

No wonder environmentalism is the mainstream culture out here, with so much nature looming large just minutes from this bustling, bright stucco city.  Nature has not been gently tamed here, but human settlement pushes roughly against the wild.  Coyotes and mountain lions slink into backyards at night.  A weasel might enter your cat door.  Nature is pulsing close by and can't be ignored.

Back home in the East our taming of it has gone so much more gently, so slowly over different languages and forms of life.  But here in the West the car has pushed humanity out into the hills, with most of the development happening while everyone had their own one, and could thus live anywhere up on an open hill, far from work, far from places to shop and convene.  There are few human traces that predate suburbia-all the newness gives human presence here a kind of shallowness and fragility.  There are no gentle old stone walls, layers of human habitation, first growth, second growth, third growth.  Here the wilderness is both so close and so far: houses clumped together push right to its border as a solid edge.

This is the West that has served as the guiding myth for the expansion of America.  In open spaces everything seems possible, far from the pressures of history or one's neighbors.  The sun is much brighter, and quickly burns the skin.  The slopes are moist and trickling with life.  Walking in a rainstorm I was lucky enough to run into a Pacific giant salamander, largest newt in the new world, a secretive beast nine inches long that is rarely seen.  It's easy to find a picture of one on the Web but they'll only come out in the World in a warm thunderous rain. The earth all moves and drips, but the salamander will stand motionless on the trail, all diagrammed with secret maps and big round eyes.  He won't move even if you try to touch him, staring up with an intelligence so inscrutable to scientific methods.  The solitary wet slimy creature seemed eternally mute but I read that if I had tried to pick it up, it would have screamed, a mysterious newtish bark!

A screaming salamander, lost in the rain.  That is truly news, on the path with no name in the mountain that is losing itself in clouds.  This wild undulating landscape at first seems so impervious to the efforts of humankind to mar it.  But then again, the hills are so open, it is hard to find a place, even deep in the woods, where you can't hear the distant din of automobiles.  The air is so clear that any amount of pollution is easy to see, hanging over the bay.  On many days wood fires are banned, as they add to the big brown cloud held in by atmospheric inversions.

These hills are home to hundreds, even thousands of environmentalists, many constantly decrying how there are far too many people living out here around this San Francisco Bay to ever be sustainable.  Some people decamp to quieter beautiful places, enclaves still not discovered, off the beaten path.

But most places do get discovered in time.  We will find them, as we find everywhere beautiful and hospitable and carve it out to make it ours.  How far away will we need to go?  How much wild and open air exists to house each human seeker's dream of fine and open air?  How lonely do we need to be in the great wide open?

The West has always promised a plethora of open spaces but here on its Coast people crowd around the beauty.  I think of the wonderful Norwegian word friluftsliv, open air life, which some translate as "outdoor recreation" while for others it depicts a whole philosophy, a way of living always oriented to the open air. 

This is the place for that, a relentlessly temperate climate of hills, rocky beaches, and forests, where it never snows and never gets up to a scalding heat.  The weather is nearly always nice, whether a piercing blue sky or a solid, looming, thoughtful fog.  Of course there are heavy rains and mudslides, and the quiet threat of a quaking Earth, always about to happen and impossible to predict, but the niceness of it all is still the strongest picture.

Hills alongside Northern California's Suisun Marsh - Photo by S. BuntinMany Easterners just can't hack it.  Where are the dynamic hues of autumn, the long gray weeks before winter, the white transformed land under snow, and the thick tumescence of summer haze.  I love all those things, and what they do to my soul as the year marches on, but here the moist fecundity of the land seems always alluring and strong.  I think I'm ready to trade change for constancy. 

"You wouldn't last," say most of my friends who live here.  "This is the land of tolerance, but it can't quite tolerate your love of ambiguity, your taste for the cynical edge."

"Doesn't the blue air here tolerate debate?" I wonder.

"Here everyone is supposed to agree.  No one brushes up against anyone else's territory.  There's enough space for us all to do our own thing."

"Sure, but I could get used to that."

"No you couldn't, you thrive on controversy and you want your words and works to unsettle people.  Here we are just quietly hunkering down."

That's what I hear, but it's not what I see, booming out into the open sky.  People might say they are calm but the way we've cut up the landscape here is raw, brutal, hillsides of houses brushing right up against the forest.  No wonder brush fires are even more feared than earthquakes, as in droughts they can raze whole neighborhoods in just a few hours.  This is the country of rough human action, of motionless traffic on many lane freeways and vast clearcuts into virgin forests.

In the East we're long past that violent period.  Our landscape seems soft, worn-in, inviting like an ancient fraying sweater.  If it all seems so calm and gently recovering after a long-ago violent history, why are we the people who are supposed to bring edginess and unease?

Maybe human thought is less dependent on the land and the air than we imagine.  Maybe none of us has enough time to take stock of where we actually are.

There goes another coot by the window.  The sun glints off his black feathery face.  The air is warm.  It's definitely time for another look around.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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