Saturday, April 26, 1997

Dancing on the Brink

WHAT struck me most about coming home to the north coast of California after a long, wet summer in Europe, was the sharp, aromatic odor of bay laurel, sweet poison oak and sun-burnt hay, flavored with the acrid, thirsty dust—the mellifluous odor of Indian summer making me nostalgic for the past, for memory hidden in the crenulated folds of hills. Buñuel said: You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Pieces of memory resurrect in the mirrored San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais, the fire-ravaged Oakland hills. They resurrect against a cerulean sky, steep, tawny hillsides cloaked in sizzling non-native oat grasses like sleeping lions, and thick green-black oaks roiling in their crotches—so sexual—it surprises me anew each time I return. It steals one’s breath away, reducing all semblance of speech to that of monosyllabic moaning of prespeech. They say our earliest memories are the strongest. I was conceived on Mt. Tamalpais, my mother watching Point Reyes disappear over my father’s right shoulder at sunset. The lost pieces of memory, a mended patchwork quilt over the bed of time.

A South African writer I know coined the word outgasm. I want to tell Breyten an outgasm of light dances on the bay; I’ve taken in some of his memory into my own. The parched savanna juxtaposed against the funereal odor of escapee calla lilies. “Arum lilies here?” exclaimed a Capetown realtor from the group we led on a hike past an abandoned ranch to view the mouth of the Golden Gate from Indian Cove. I mouth the unfamiliar word, arum; the sarcophagi of Egypt or the pelican daughters of Lear comes to mind. Alcatraz. Angel Island. We resurrect place names of the Coast Miwok, mouthing a dead language: Tamalpais—the land of the Tomales, O’onopais—the land of buckeyes, and Yulupa—the place of the shining Golden Gate. Explorer John C. Frémont’s epithet, Chrysopylae, a historical footnote. Sadly, all that survives of the Ohlone tribal stories of this landscape is: Dancing on the brink of the world. We gently retrace our steps along the seething faultline, the Farallones and the Point Reyes Peninsula draw our eyes to the curvature of the sea’s final horizon.

© 1997, revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

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