Monday, September 22, 1997

Huckleberries

MY cousin Sineád and I went huckleberrying on the Autumn Equinox at our secret spot on Inverness Ridge near Tomales Bay, where we used to go berrying with our grandmother. Hard to believe so much time has passed since I hiked the highlands of the other Inverness, Scotland. I once thought that 20 years was a widening gulf—impossible to retrace extant memories of childhood. Here, at Tomales, it really is like Loch Ness; in the pine forest we’ve strange white deer from China instead of the red deer. Instead of Nessie sightings, the San Andreas Fault stretches its monstrous length northward and great white sharks relentlessly patrol the mouth of the bay. My grandmother said Nessie was a coelacanth—Gaelic ceili, for “singing” fish. As a child she remembered the fishermen catching the rare singing fish in the North Sea. From the isthmus, we could see Point Reyes in the distance, a mountainous corona against the shimmering sea, separating Drake’s Bay from the raging Pacific—a misnamed ocean!

The weather at the Point is capricious. Once my aunts and uncles went out to the headlands to gather abalone. Caught in a whiteout of tule fog, they nearly drove off the cliffs. Only the urgent whispering surf on the rocks saved them. Offshore fog rising like a vast wall against a sky where tiny fishing boats disappear into its maws, makes me think of a Chinese silk scroll, or a painting I once saw in the Tate Gallery by Turner. The wind-ravaged bishop pines, draped in the pale traces of Spanish mosses we once used as green tresses, took a severe beating from last year’s storms. So many uprooted trees met an abrupt end—we used them as aerial pathways up the steep hillsides. This part, primordial as the beginnings of time, unscathed by the devastating Inverness Ridge inferno that blackened the hills for miles. But the resilient land is again clothed in the succulent grasses the deer favor at sunset.

Neruda wrote Death is an admiral on a ship. . . Many shipwrecks along this treacherous coast. We found hand-forged square nails, slow crawling moonsnails, and pottery shards in the lagoons and on the beaches of Limantour Spit. The natives of Point Reyes and Bodega Bay thought the sailing ships arose like white birds from the belly of the sea, and the white-skinned explorers—ghosts. They tried to sing away the apparitions of the otherworld. They had no words for this, other than the arrival of death.

Because this peninsula is now public land, Point Reyes National Seashore, we’re not supposed to gather anything: huckleberries, or moss-covered antlers. Short, thick branch: a fallow deer’s. Non-native, like us. We lugged our 2-year-old nephew, Seán, through the undergrowth. He plucked each berry like a little king appraising jewels in sunlight, then greedily fisted them into his mouth until he was tattooed with violet juice. Returning the memory of those who came before us, we re-enacted an age-old ritual, gathering berries before the fall—no matter that our skin is white, not red.

My aunt will make pies and ice cream, our teeth will be indigo-stained for days (like my fingers). How Pictish! The berries, so labor-intensive (cleaning takes longer than picking), we make jokes, compare them to caviar, as we drop them from silver spoons, polishing them, black pearls on purpling terrycloth towels. But it gives us an excuse to be together, like in the old days. We’ll eat pie and have tea from the Blue Willow teapot with a cracked spout. Later, we’ll go to a party at the Straus farm across Tomales Bay on the barren, grassy Marshall hillsides and make gallons of huckleberry ice cream with their cream fresh from the dairy. Jungle-lush Inverness Ridge is part of what’s left of the granitic Pacific Plate, while Marshall with its thin red soil of Franciscan strata, is part of the North American Plate. Two continents divided by a thin bay, different as night and day.


© 1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

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