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Commissioned by the Mendocino Land Trust for their 25th anniversary in 2001, the year they purchased the Navarro Point property on the headlands of the Navarro River; read for the board at their annual retreat May 4, 2001 at Stanford Inn By The Sea

Toe in the Water

2001

I grew up knowing the land could be understood as human
form, having played tetherball in the afternoon shadow cast by
Mount Tamalpais, the sleeping woman. Her tree-lined breasts,
her grassy curvature, familiar and sad.

You must be prepared to live sometime, and leave one or two cards
showing, that’s what Van Morrison sings on my radio as I’m swaying my
car up the winding curves of Highway One out of the Navarro River
basin, up and up, over the crest of the hill and there it is, the Pacific
laid out on a platter. The two lane road at that point touches the sky
with a slip of ocean in between, one can’t see the land swells just over
the lip of the asphalt, and it feels like you’re driving in the sky,
driving the edge of the water, and the curves
have that same swell and voluptuousness of a woman’s body.

I have been told we came from water, from out
of the ocean, and that we are always nostalgic for the sea,
and used to living by its side. I went there looking for answers,
questions, thoughts, and I fell in. I fell past the waves, past
the urchin divers, the drowned, shipwrecks, the garbage
and detritus of this culture, until there it was—Time’s living room,
where Time sat in his easy chair. It was comfortable.
It was a rockin’ place, a continuous salon of sorts,
though the local media reports it as a debauch,
attended by our most sacred customers. Wisdom
on the couch in her flannel bathrobe, deep in conversation
with Integrity, sort of like the bar scene in Star Wars,
on chamomile. I stayed a while. I’m not sure, actually, that I ever
came back. What you see before you may very well be a hologram
of a woman, or perhaps what you’re listening to is one of those
songs that come unhooked from the radio and go sailing out
over the water. All I know is that time was simultaneous,
and I could dip my hand into it at any point, and the land,
the creatures on it, and the crust of human habitation
were everywhere accessible.

I heard the best gossip there. They discussed everything—my
mother’s underwear, what Marlene Dietrich ate for breakfast before
she died, the outcome of the hole in the ozone layer. I even
learned why cats, who are such fastidious creatures, like to lay
under parked automobiles, in spite of disreputable engineering.
The Spirit who moved on the water set up a microphone.
Pele, Hawai’ian goddess of the volcano, got up in her dress of fish
and plumeria blossoms and sang Karaoke for us, and I no longer
had questions to answer or thoughts. I followed
Time’s holiday.

I felt the anvil of dark, the gentle hand of the sun, and the knife of wind. Knife, anvil,
gentling hand. I can see the root of the rock, and the land itself dawning, rising
to noon. I feel its toe in the water, and its gracious hosting of trees. I lie down
to feel the length of it, to nuzzle its grasses as I would a lover’s body. My toes
in the ocean at the mouth of the river, my torso laid out along Navarro
Ridge, my head in Philo. I feel the breath of the earth and its majesty, and I feel
a grief there like no other grief, a compound of mineral and animal, history, and the light.

This land was given by the light and the water, and the earth is its supreme
illusion. The way the clouds present halos to the contour of the hill, you know the hill that
used to have the For Sale sign on it that said, “three magnificent parcels,” the one that
paragliders call First Hill, above which the raptors glide on roller coasters of invisible air
streams. Below, kite flyers and fisher folk carry their rumpled Kraft paper sacks of
provisions out across the bluff, the midden alive with flying shells, the smallest flowers
pulling you down to inspect their perfection only to have smaller flowers revealed
underneath their leaves. The marsh that keeps people out, gently, with its damp and tall
grass likely for snakes. A fleck of dirt on my shoe unfolds its wings and flies away. The
people native to this land sit on the bluff cracking shells for the tasty meat, tease each other,
laughing, their favorite place to watch the sunset.

Ain’t nothing you can do, sings Pele, doing her best Van Morrison, to own the land, to be
owned by the land. I own up. Poet Sharon Doubiago’s intuition that our divorce rate is
linked to our culture’s attitude towards the land. How do we incorporate this? We can’t
stay married, she says, wistfully, as she drives these curves of Highway One, the California-
Oregon-Washington new world coast. When you got a back ache, a little rubbing will see
you through. When you got a heartache, ain’t nothing you can do. My head in Boonville, my
head in Sacramento, the tremendous upheaval of the land in grief.

In this place beneath history, next to Soul, a place where Prosperity can arrive in a
convertible the color of dawn, I hear a story from the public record of the fourth
millennium, that long ago there was a group of people who sat down of a weekend and
questioned all of this, and brought it all to bear in its messy complexity. The record did not
indicate if they were a tribe, but it seems that they combined their labor in a common
effort, and they began to wonder if it wasn’t the very concept of a forty hour work week
that was part of the problem, the environmental devastation, the divorce rate, the cancer,
hunger. They decided to experiment with this a bit, to question even their assumptions,
even their legitimacy and their usefulness.

Perhaps, they suggested, usefulness itself is a hindrance, something that only got in their
way when they wanted to move to a bigger level, when they wanted to have an impact as big
as the land itself. They were laughed at, you can imagine, and ridiculed, and we are grateful
to them. They made common cause with acrobats, children, and the blind. Made friends not
only with the wealthy, and the ones who love to drive Highway One, but also with the
desperately poor, the ones who barely own a safety pin, for whom the concept of owning
land worth millions has no meaning. Artists were invited to spread thousands of
handkerchiefs over this land, then send those handkerchiefs to a Russian hospital for the
terminally ill. It didn’t make sense at first. Nothing new ever makes sense.

So, what happened? The first thing they came to was this grief.

Grief that in order to save this land, in order to save all things associated with the saving of
this land—soul, culture—they had to treat it as a commodity. This had to be acknowledged,
made peace with, before Grief could accomplish her magic.

Many plants that grow on the Navarro headlands are healing herbs, mallows, warts,
antidotes to things in this world that work against the preservation of land. Chamomile, sea
spray. Just as cat’s purr, a cat purring on one’s belly can cure or prevent cancer. Just as sky itself is a balm, when taken in proper dosage, just as the internal organs of the body need
sunshine, though we ourselves cannot see through our skin, the organs can see us. The land
can see us. They didn’t know this then, but they guessed. Now we know this work and
travel its infrastructure with ease. If we do not know why, we pause.

They built in this pause, insisting that the people they worked with consider taking polka
lessons, or go away for a time, work in another site, learn a new language, Braille, develop a
tour of the land especially for actors or court stenographers, commission paintings of the
land as dreamscape, covered with thousands of handkerchiefs, tied up in chains.

Land became a compact form of knowledge that they could read. They found the earth to
be frighteningly discreet, able to be humiliated, resilient to a certain extent, and wise.

The land is guiding them after all, it is owning them. Their poets suggested that the waves
themselves had fashioned us so that we could do this work; the salt breeze had labored over
us, our every detail, the color of our lips, the way our eyes melt, and our hands turn to tasks
as easily as ice to water under the sun. The elementals mutated us into a species that can
simultaneously destroy and create, preserve and honor and kill, and it is this very
complexity we must work with. The ones who worked together to be worthy of the land
kept a careful record of everything they discovered while living in this new way, each
subspecies and local variant.

The 99th grief, subvariant: Blues; Van Morrison singing in his qu avering voice when you got
a heartache, there ain’t nothing you can do. I always listened to that and felt the blue notes
undoing my chromosomes and unblocking my heart and never did I understand it until I
realized that just when he has confessed to feeling so defeated, that’s when he starts singing
his guts out.

The most effective method is the prone position, against the dirt, the sand, the grass, the
rocks. Lay down with the land the whole land, whole mind and sex and wonder, the peninsula that you are, huge.

 

Theresa Whitehill
from the book, A Grammar of Longing

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