Landscape of the Drunken Fabulist
From "Sea of Teeth"
It is a city of green. Built of sunlight and water. It keeps the mountains from washing away with the motions of the moon. It is the darkness beneath long-tested souls. It cannot be changed.
Coastal Oregon. It is early and the fog is trailing through the great trees. Above them the Swainson’s Thrushes flute unseen. House Wrens seem to be in each shadow and broken bier, tuning up that high speed burble of theirs. From everywhere you walk, here on this side of the mountains, you can hear the sea. Occasionally a gull cries out or an oystercatcher echoes some ecstatic message: of love or food, territory or joy—you know, the basics. On a steep roadway the sky cracks open for me. And I watch one and then two adult Bald Eagles fly directly overhead. Their wings strain. They both carry the gray down carcasses of young Pelagic Cormorants that have been snatched from some cliff. The down feathers bounce in rhythm with the working eagle wings. These chicks go into the mouths of hungry downy eaglets, I assume, who are waiting out there somewhere. That would be: sun-plankton-fishlet-biggerfishlet-fish-cormorant-egg-chick-chick-eagle. Thus the sun is striking out eagles around me like the best and last links of the chain they are. Nothing eats eagles; nothing eats us (anymore). I would hate to draw the line of what I am structured from, to write my makings down since the birthing sun. It is a long ugly road of ingestion and transubstantiation back to my own ultraviolet rays, almost a lost connection. Eagles seem more purely worked from photons. It is what I think. Afterwards, still on the road with the eagles gone, it is just the sound of the sea and me again.
The trees are otherworldly. These Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs that go beyond my sight—I have no sense of what it would take for me to want to cut one down. Let alone the instruments one would need. Or the sound and the skybreak that would be unleashed in their falling. (Why is this what I think when I see them?) How would I personally justify such an act? My heart would surely fail at this battering task, even in its mere imagining. Such woodland giants seem to have souls. Or at least they have a history of being, of surviving a half million days that I can’t match. I have used wood in this world; I have purchased wood products (though what is made from the heartwood of hemlock?). And I did not fabricate any of the products myself. Or lug the fallen lumber stacks from some lush mountainside to a truck and process them with a saw. Someone did all that for me. It is a confusing misplaced gratitude I have, if it is gratitude. Surely there were sawyers that gave a damn? Whose hands shook badly after those tremendous falls, standing next to those great skywelts (blasted ferns, birdwings banging quickly away)? Men who were still stunned after every crash, some sensitive child inside that leapt up in the midst of all the lumberjack genes but could not bring himself to speak up.
Hemlocks have those delicate green leaf tips that bend down toward me. Standing inside their circle the whole tree seems to reach down to scoop me up. The fingers gleam a bright green as though they are being candled from the other side. This candling being the way I find these giants in the dark forest. I look for them. Their cone is a nothing cone for a two hundred foot tree—it does not help in the localization. I’ve seen Bur Oak acorns back home nearly as large as these lumpen cones. I reach up and touch the branches on the smaller trees when I can. Hemlocks make me think of Socrates—the long dead philosopher. Each time I’ve been among them this has happened. A tangential zing: the sip the great philosopher takes: I see it, as he gives himself over to the tea that killed him. “Guilty your honor. Death by tea,” scribbled on the jury slip.
The tree’s official name is Tsuga heterophylla. We could at least have named just one of the world’s hemlocks for the murdered man—Tsuga socratii (the Socratic Hemlock) or something—since he died for the righteousness of the law of the land and all, to make a point. A hero of the mind, so to speak. (I’ll show YOU the life of the mind.) I assumed then that some specific part of the hemlock must have been used to brew his poisonous tea. The stripped bark? The tiny nutlets? (I actually learned later it is an unrelated tea made from a plant in the carrot family that was used. Death, it seems, by carrot.) But I wanted then to test a bark strip inside my tooth and gum. See if it caused numbness, brought on a dreamstate of bitter mortality, the buzz of the forester’s ghost. I imagined hemlocks as great towers of poisonous sap from root to crown, several tons of toxin distilled by the sun. How many men could one tree kill if trees could choose to assassinate? I wanted to go somewhere and find out more about this secret. Though I had no use for poisons on that particular morning, on some days I think I do.
There are forces that can break the world in two. Invisible. And cliffs painted white by the myriad birds. It is best not to stare. It is best not to say their names.
Oceanside, the tidepools reign and rein in my daughter’s eyes. They are why she comes. Why she came again. And tidepools are a wonder to the Ozarkian eye. The eastern retinas attuned to lower greenery and gentler slopes, to flat cold water that mostly ignores the turning of the earth. There is nothing in a southern mountainscape to compare to such rich and concentrated life. Who thought of Purple Sea Urchins? Golden slugs, Gumboot Chitons, Ochre Starfish, Black Turban Snails? Get out of here, I say, the show-off God must loom nearby, so proud. I hear the word “tidepools” in John Houston’s voice from the movie Chinatown. “Tidepooools,” he says and it is drawn and rich with ooze.
My daughter places her feet carefully. We all do. Mussels and snails make ugly crunches underfoot; barnacles and limpets too. It is a crowded parking deck on this volcanic stone that stacks up into cliffs, into elevated soils plumed with Monkeyflower and horsetail. Waterfalls lace down, making miniature erosion models in the sands: rivers bend and straighten, islands form and fall. I stagger and stand in the wind, a Gulliver watching Guillemots rise to their nests. The wall of stone to the south is painted in broad swaths by the stain of Pelagic Cormorants being born into the world. It is the flag that brings the eagles down I suppose.
Harbor Seals have very forward facing eyes. Eyes that must make up at least thirty percent of those circular faces—so dark and so round. With eyelashes to challenge the entire world of supermodels and other upstarts in the eyelash competition. They gaze directly at us without ambiguity. There is no question who they are seeing. And seals have no visible shoulders but they still seem to look back suddenly over where shoulders should be when we walk into their world. “Who are you and why are you here?” They ask. It is a look of caution, of worry. They say: “these long-legged beasts should really stick to the shore—so ungainly.” We humans are the walk-in guests who were not invited to the party; the seashore is a suddenly quiet room. (Who me?) And then if you stand still long enough the seals look away, they go back to sleep. Move and they stare again.
The seal mothers and pups ogle us together and are nearly inseparable. They squirm and swim together; they swirl and touch faces and whiskers in the surf. Where mother goes junior goes. If she changes her mind about the view once she has scrambled atop the rocks, then so must junior. Sometimes this climbing involves tremendous jostling and squirming onto a flat perch that was easy for mom to reach but not so easy for the little follower. Mother knows best—the only rule the young ones live by. She is the know-all being. The motions involved are endlessly entertaining. My wife perches on a huge boulder and immerses herself in social sealery: Jacques Sealseau. The mother-knows-best rule is dear to her. It needs bolstering in her own shoreline family group. It needs stronger enforcement. She keeps her binoculars on the seals. The other lovely fact: every event in the life of seals begins and ends with more sleep. We may be peopling their dreams now.
My daughter and I bounce down the trail from the heights of Cape Perpetua. There is a lookout there which takes away the breath. (“I think I see Japan.”) The ocean and the black volcanic stacks of Perpetua rise overhead: forests slipping down to tidepools and breaking waves, spouting horns of white saltwater, seaducks on the rollercoaster of incoming sea. The trail zigs down a mountainside. Soon we stand above a prairie that sinks away at seventy degrees. Some bright red western paintbrush plants grow in clumps. We descend further into great trees. Trees that make one feel truly descended: trunks going up into dark complexities of bark and branch, wind-sheltered hollows that could swallow the perches of dragons. Though we do not feel loomed upon, firs dwarf us as we wend inside the shade of giants. Ravens call beyond the green roof, sounding like birds from another life. Hanging on the trail here and there are ripe salmonberries. They are a clear orange when ripe, looking like giant unfinished blackberries. I am the harvester designate. And I stretch to the fruits and hand them over to my daughter. She applies them to her tongue with such joy I would rather see her eat them than taste them myself. And she gladly downs them again and again. In one bush a chipmunk is stripping his own fruit, eight feet off the ground—a dizzying height for a chipmunk. Chewing another berry, my daughter understands this squirrelet’s wild abandon.
The bellow of the world is a sorrow. You would do well, every now and then, to clap your hands over your head. And hum.
It is a landscape to make you doubt your own home. Do I live where the vistas can stun me just as often as I turn and see? Where shocking seabreaks of light make me stare before my coffee is even hot? Right and left, shelter me Lord from all the magnificences. In a lapse, at a crosswalk of pedestrian traffic, my daughter and I are waiting on a bench when a small boy goes by and looks straight in my eye to voice a pitiful murmur of garbled baby Spanish, “upp a temp a nampa boo boo.” It is a whine and a warning, a hopelessness and a plea. He rubs his head in emphasis. He seems deadly serious, trailing in the hand of his mother. He bends his head back to keep my gaze as long as he can. And my daughter and I watch him go fully past and then burst out laughing as one. Not from cruelty. But because we know he has not been wounded by the day or anything truly dark (he’s nicely dressed, he’s clean, he is out of tune with the bleak). More likely it was a multi-colored sucker that he could not have, a chocolate in a window that is not now in his mouth. We have all tried it. But oh the energy this little one used. We applaud his performance. Our own sorrows pale for a moment in imagining his. I wonder what his name is and who he will be.
At one point in the week I have a seaside panic and run east with the dawn, leaving my wife and daughter alone in the lee of the ocean. It is too much. I cross the coastal mountains into plains of flowers, into agriculture and trees that can take my encircling arms and let the fingers touch on the other side. Safer there, my breathing can slow. A few swallowtails fly, dragonflies flit over grass and oxeye. There is no sound of surf endlessly pounding. A snake stops to stare me down. He is strangely patterned but Lord he is at least a snake. A Bittern pumps. A Marsh Wren calls in a marsh of unsalted water. A Western Grebe has followed me here. I watch it juggle the limp body of a Fire-bellied Newt in its beak. Not eating it, just flashing the colors to anyone who wants to see. It is either trying the vibrant colors on next to its sleek lines of black and white like someone might test a colorful hat, or it is saying “look, I caught this; behold, I can eat it or not.” The woods have woodpeckers that can actually be seen—they hammer at normal altitudes. There is leaf litter and acorns below us. Mostly these things are steadying, though the voodoo fairy of giant ferns has touched her wand here, as if to remind me that something is still not quite the same. Reassured, by noon I’m looking west again, fearing for the eyes of my child still glaring into excess and mystery on the other side of the mountains. They did not look worried when I left, but still I arrow back to them and the sea.
Small things falter, making no noise in the world. Hoping they do. Small things falter, thinking they are large things. Not hoping, because they do not know.
When you check in on the coast, they give you all the usual information and a table of the upcoming tides. High and low, it gives the waves some deeper purpose. (Maybe.) We stand on the rock prominences and see the trackings of the last high water line. We see where the waves will come again at some precise moment in the night. If we stay and stare, if we are hypnotized there where we stand, we will drown. The tides rule the seal’s lives—dictating where they may sleep and eat. It once ruled the coastal inhabitant’s lives. I’m sure it still carries the seamen to and fro with its clockings and washes so measured and charted. It is something beyond just the usual day and the night to mark their days. It swallows us up temporarily while we are there—this other clock. When I awaken and stand outside on the balcony each day to face down the sea, it is sometimes a rumpled stonescape with sleeping seals and sometimes just raging water returning and returning.
Out on the tidepools you are actually in the tide tables. They are more than a number on a scrap of paper. We scurry around looking for new things in our limited time. The water is coming back. One looks over their shoulder toward the sea. Just in case the tides have surprised us and returned early in a big wash—this a drylander’s mistrust of the lunar movements. We are nothing but salt stolen from the sea long ago. We are prehistoric pockets of escaped salinity wrapped in insecurities. The sea wants us back with a battering vengeance. The ocean wants us; the moon beckons with its warping gravity. I remind my daughter it is the moon after all that is stirring up this trouble. It is reshaping us in its circular goings. We and the world are stretched and molded by the lunar clock. We have our own internal tides wherein the blood is pulled higher in our soft heads. “I feel it. I feel it,” I say in the wind. And my daughter pops up puzzled, distracted. “What’d you say Dad?”
The rock stacks are all metal tones, brasses and coppers, black and burnt like we are standing at the previous launch point for starbound rockets. A huge redwood log is pressed against one rock shelf, partially sawed, partially smoothed, one ton of pure driftwood, resting now with the sea drawn back. At the next tide we see it has been moved fifty yards south. It is making its way somewhere in a random unhurriedness. A tree corpse going south, a little ignored crime scene on the move.
A gull sits too close. And I watch him. I can see he is a second year Western Gull. I test him and he shuffles up the shore a bit with his extended wings but he does not fly. I track down along the edge of the water in a bent shuffle and then surprise him up toward the face of the cliff. He buckles over and then suddenly I have him in my hands. I check for fishing line, for tangles of plastic on his beak or his feet or his wings. I look for feather damage. The critical bird structures are seemingly intact. We all look at him. His eye is an astoundingly pure gray with small rays of fine black. The pupil is small. He does not snap at me. My daughter strokes his neck. We consider driving him somewhere, to a rehab vet or a bird specialist. But a half-mile walk, a ninety-mile drive, would this alone frighten him to death? Though I do not ask it aloud, the gray eye, the face of the bird says, “I can not do it. I am just one gull. Put me down.” Two years old and it is all too heavy for him. I set him on the sand and he half flies, half runs down the shore. He will choose his own place.
Follow the light. No, don’t follow the light. I know exactly what I am saying. I never speak anything but the truth.
At Yaquina Head the bird voices are constant. They are soothing or distracting, depending on your mood. Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? I do not ask; I give up guessing. The murres make a grinding, whirring noise that never stops. They land like they do not know how to land, atop each other. They bang and fall like bowling pins. Should you build your nests on sheer cliffs when you cannot really fly that well? When walking is a tippled, back-swayed wobble at best? The spit of Yaquina points far out into the sea with its lighthouse. The house has been standing for more years than I have, built without mortar and perfectly fitted with stone on stone. The man in the stairway says that in winter the waves crash so close and high that a white mass of foam piles up on the clifftops, deeper than the cars. “Magnificent,” he says—here is a man who likes his beauty raging. Inside the tower of light I stare at the small desk where the lighthouse keeper sat, keeping his vigil, stoking the beam that needed fuel and constant attention back then. Diamond shaped inserts dangled above him on the walkway, transmitting light from the dazzling prismatic monstrosity over his head. I touch my fingers to the curved white wall that he faced and faced and faced. Even the sounds of the birds don’t make it inside. I want to sit in his chair and daydream while the crowds go by.
My daughter shouts when she finds a Blood Star. Happens every time. It has become a favorite thing among the barnacles and urchins. They are indeed bright blood red. And they are thin armed like the stars atop Christmas trees. Not as chunky and warty as the Ochre Stars in their oranges and purples. Bloods seem to have just floated up and fallen where they may. The Ochres always seem attached, busy with the crack of an urchin or the scaling of a wall. They have things to do, creatures to eat. Blood Stars just go with the tide. Like ambassadors of the carefree.
By-the-wind-sailors mark the tidelines on the sand. It is a small blue jellyfish relative, bright blue in a circle with a stiff plastic sail sticking up—very odd. A kind lady in a gift shop told us what they were. And then we started seeing them everywhere. It seems that often “by-the-wind” just brings them to their death on the shore. They have no control—other than flapup; flapdown. (Better than some I suppose.) What advantage does a windflap give one over a flapless jellyfish? I am not sure. But it all makes me think of the throwaway line in the movie “The Princess Bride,” when the two schooners are tracking along the shore. And one is gaining on the other. Montoya looks back and says, “I wonder if he is using the same wind that we are?”
On our last morning we go down to the sea again. The tide is way, way out. Someone, apparently, has really pissed off the moon. We are there to say goodbye to those drifting Blood Stars. And we find ten of them. More than we have ever seen. In my daughter’s eyes, it seems a small miracle: they’ve floated up for her. Above the round black stones and the sand is the local pile of driftwash, cornered and stirred by the last high tide. There is a tangle of light and dark wood, a shoe, some plastic bottle caps, the severed and small right hand of a doll, and something white. I move closer and see the outspread V, a splay of overlapped dapple and gray. I bend to see more. And I find it is our gull, wet and sprawled, pinned inside the mix of anything-that-came. Its mouth is open (exhaustion, a final cry?); his eyes are closed. We look down at him. Southbound now at the chosen pace of the tidal march, despite all the jumble, he still looks like he is trying to fly. Among the detritus, he is going now at the whims of the moon. And here by this sea, really, who isn’t. It’s just a matter of time.
At such things I have no last word to speak.
Your home is not there or here. It is lost now. When you travel and return it is not the same. You become in-between. You cannot go home and you never will.
Liar, I say.
Damn liar. Go away and let us be.