It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.
It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.
This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.
The wife and children and I live in a small two-bedroom condo. It’s all that we can afford here in the San Francisco Bay Area where things are pricey. We bought at the wrong time, in late 2005, just before the Great Recession. Not that the recession did much to bring down the cost of housing. If you’re very lucky, a half million dollars today will get you an ugly fixer-upper in a distant, soul-killing suburb. Or you can make do, like we do, in a rinky-dink condominium in a downtown neighborhood of the inner suburbs where the library and local bookshop are only two blocks away. I don’t know how anyone affords a detached single-family home here.
I’ve just read Two Years Before the Mast in which Richard Henry Dana – a Boston Brahmin turned common sailor – recounts his time spent aboard a merchant vessel working the coast of the then-Mexican province of Alta California in 1834-35. It’s amazing to me that the state could have been so sparsely populated so recently. Monterey, the capitol at the time, seems to have had no more than a few hundred residents. Anchoring in San Francisco Bay (which he calls Francis Drake’s Bay – actually a little farther north), Dana admires the perfection of the climate and the wooded hills framing the water. “If California ever becomes a prosperous country,” he prophesies, “this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”
Elsewhere Dana observes that “the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the common-place, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” This is true, I suppose, of most everything that man gets his mitts on, but it feels specially true of my corner of California. It is beautiful in spring when the hills are green and the sun shines most days and the birds are everywhere. Hiking with the kids a week ago we identified over twenty species, from kestrels and turkeys to mockingbirds and wrens. A few miles away, however, by the bay shore, my office is built atop a toxic dump created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who cheerily poured their waste chemicals into old orchard plots forty years ago.
All things are apparently convertible to dollars. This is proof, perhaps, that something went horribly wrong. Or maybe it was ever thus. Profit is only another name for virtue here in the best of all possible worlds. I may resent the universe for seeming to require of me the things it seems to require. I may sincerely hope to vomit if I hear another colleague use the terms “KPI” (key performance indicator) or “B-HAG” (big hairy audacious goal). I may drive the freeways worshiping the wild hills and despising the tract homes and the filthy strip malls. I may repeat to myself again and again that only man is vile. But I try to remember that I’m a man too.
There is an invisible boundary midway between Shoreline Park and the open tidal flats of San Francisco Bay beyond which the world belongs entirely to winged things: gulls and terns, innumerable songbirds, snoozing ducks and colonies of croaking pelicans, herons and egrets that stilt-walk through the grass and curl their necks into figure eights when they fly, and the large solitary raven that plucks mollusks from the oozing mud and breaks them on the rocks. There are insects too: ladybugs and drab buzzing beetles, honeybees and bumblebees, and the broad black and yellow and small white butterflies that flit like fairies through the mustard flowers and the cowbane on either side of the path.
I spent my lunch hour today hiking down the levies that escort Stevens Creek and Whisman Slough into the Bay. It’s a gravel trail on top that drops on the right into cattails and tidal ponds and on the left into lush sloping lawns that verge the creek, thick with marsh grass and hardy low shrubs, where ground squirrels scamper and jackrabbits hop incautiously from flower to flower. At low tide the place has a rich sour odor of sweating mud and rotting vegetable matter. A mile and a half out the fresh water from Stevens Creek ceases to flow eastward as it had all the way from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the saltwater from the Bay begins to push back up the half-empty channel.
Set here and there in the ponds are false islands, hunters’ blinds of sun-bleached wooden planking gapped like teeth when the gums have receded to allow for the barrels of shotguns in season. There are metal towers for power lines, too, which seem oddly out of place, and the hum of electricity running through the cables is audible at a distance. The path dead-ends at the open tidal flats, a vast killing field of saline mud where gulls in their thousands hunt the puddles for stranded fish, and clams and mussels poke up from the silt like paving tiles. A bubbly, sucking sound of water leeching from the exposed earth in every direction makes a chorus to beg back the tide, which is on its way anyhow. Meanwhile the circling raven eyes me curiously.