I love that living is such a dynamic process. We’re always changing and growing, to the extent that sometimes things about our former selves can be delightfully baffling. Take this, for example: I used to not care very much about nature. As a kid, I was way more into reading than being outside (perhaps this had something to do with my negative sports abilities?). As a teenager, I was into writing angsty diatribes in my journal, daydreaming in libraries, and wandering through museums. In college, oh my heavens, I loved the snow, and it’s probably the only thing that really dragged me away from my computer and my piles of books. I had some kind of nature guilt, I would say. Whenever I did spend time in beautiful places, I was upset that I wasn’t more inspired by them. I felt like I wasn’t enjoying them the way I should, that I couldn’t really enter into them. This strange detachment from the world around me went on until my early years in grad school. I remember going to Point Reyes with seminar reading in my backpack (the memory makes me cringe) and feeling unable to separate the sand blowing in my face and the biting bugs from the scenic views. I remember going to see the pygmy cypresses near Fort Bragg with my brother and wondering why these little trees, so incredibly rare, failed to move me.
As we were wandering through Eaton Canyon this weekend, I was wondering what on earth finally jolted me from that sense of detachment. It was California, I thought, at first. I know of few people who could remain unmoved by the ridiculous bounty of the Bay area’s plant life, its almost obscenely gorgeous natural geographic features. I remember being stunned on my walks to and from school as I saw flowers I had never seen before in my life. And that was part of it, to be sure. But it was also Nabokov who taught me to see. It was Nabokov who taught me the value of knowing the names of things, of holding them close to my heart, of appreciating that most things only grow in certain parts of the world, and so whatever part of the world you found yourself in, you were in for a spectacular treasure hunt. I sat in on a Nabokov course on in my second year, and suddenly I was thinking of foxgloves as shy girls with freckles, perpetually looking down at their feet. I was imagining the pine needles dashed by the rain into the vertical surface of concrete steps as nature’s five o’ clock shadow. I was exulting in the tiniest new sprouts of ivy leaves, shiny as fresh shellac, considering them the newborns of the world of crawling shrubbery. Suddenly, everything was so beautiful. Everything was so unique. Everything was so fleetingly perfect, so secretly majestic, so playfully hidden in plain sight. It was one of the most joyous times in my life. I still count it one of my treasures, one of the building blocks of who I am.
Nabokov and Northern California won me over, and when Eric and I started dating, we did lots of exploring the outdoors together. Neither of us is a serious hiker, but we loved to walk through redwood groves and visit tide pools and learn about all the cacti and rock formations in the desert. Eric is a naturally curious person, and it’s one of the things I love best about him. In the trips that we took together, nature explorations became less of a bonus and more of a main event for me. It was like a whole new world opening up before me.
We saw the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, we rode to the top of a snowy peak in Aspen, we strolled along every river and stream we came upon. Moving to Southern California, though, was a bit of a jarring experience at first. I missed the freesia and the jasmine and the redwoods and the almond trees. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the muted colors of the desert, the lower and squatter types of plants, the flat plains and the dry and craggy mountains. But now I love them. They hold a beauty all their own.
I’ve seen such incredibly improbable succulents here, and more tiny scurrying lizards than I can shake a stick at (not that I would…that wouldn’t be nice). I’ve come to love the sound of sandy gravel crunching under my feet, the sight of one huge agave standing sentinel over a hillside, the scent of wild sage and sweet grass so intoxicating I am convinced I must somehow bottle it up as a perfume. I love it.
So, these are a few of the thoughts that were flying through my head as Eric and I hiked around for a few hours at Eaton Canyon, which is not too far from where we live. It was a happy Saturday excursion. We both wore our hats, and the heat was tempered by a cool canyon breeze. We laughed and smiled and held hands and talked about big things and little things. We pointed out things to each other and said, “Wow.” We felt grateful to be together. We went several miles into the forest, following a lively stream, but we didn’t make it all the way to the waterfall. We’ll have to save it for another day when we get an earlier start, since it was still quite a ways beyond the place where we turned around. (I realize that the sign is misleading–it is not dangerous to go to the waterfall, just to try to climb up to the top of it. Don’t worry, Mom, we would never do that).
Here is my mountain man, having a granola bar break. He says now he understands why the early settlers of Pasadena headed to the canyons in the summer–it’s so much cooler!
All along the way, I was mesmerized by the footprints in the sand. They looked like hieroglyphics to me–so beautiful. I took so many photos of them, and I might make a little photo essay out of them.
This whole experience, and the fact that I’d jump at the chance to explore a natural preserve on a Saturday afternoon, reminds me of a few lines from an e. e. cummings poem that I love so dearly:
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
There’s almost nothing I treasure more in this world than my open eyes, my awakened ears. I remember what it was like when they were closed. And now I’ll never take for granted what a gift it is to see, to hear.