I walk around the old house to the back yard and head down the ancient stone stairway that somebody built nearly a century ago. Thirty feet down, it ends in a short path my wife cut through wild mint, leading me to the summer-shallow river flowing calmly past my feet, still defying years of drought. The mint grows in profusion along the river bank, perfuming the air with its cool, sweet scent.
The banks of the long but narrow river are choked with redwood and bay trees, blackberries, wild sweet peas, ivy, miner’s lettuce, various grasses, the dreaded stinging nettle, and other plants I can’t identify, mixing with the pungent mint. The temporary summer greenery reaches over the edge of the river, trying to stretch past the life-choked land to find anchor in the sandy river bottom. Tree branches, broken from their trunks perhaps miles upstream in last winter’s chaos, now lay still along the banks. Some sprout new roots where their broken ends dip into the cool water. A few of them will reach the sand beneath the river and dig themselves in, a new tree being born. One infant bay tree stands upright, proud, alone in the middle of the river, a seedling planted into a crevice in a rock. It won’t survive the coming winter’s deep, rushing deluge.
Just a dozen feet in front of me lies an old oak tree uprooted in its prime four years ago and carried downstream by a river swelled to a rushing maelstrom fifteen feet deep by winter rains, finally abandoned near the bank opposite where I sit. Most of the year this 40-foot behemoth barely dampens its belly in a few inches of water, bleached nearly bone-white by the sun, looking like a giant, fossilized dinosaur, its skin cracked into scales by the hot sunlight pouring onto it through the long open-air window between the living trees on either side of the river. Someday, when the drought ends, it may again be lifted like an old boat and carried along its winding path toward the ocean several miles downstream.
The river is now calm and quiet. The water tumbling over barely submerged stones plays a soft, staccato music that drowns out all other sound simply by insisting on my attention. Sprinkles of sunlight dance in the turbulence as water collides with rock, splashes over it in tiny sharp waves and settles again into a calm sheet of glassy movement. Nearly invisible eddies of swirling water pass by, followed faithfully by the surprisingly sharp oval shadows they cast onto the rocks at the bottom of the shallow river.
A blue dragonfly sails above the water, lands on a rock that reaches above the surface to the sunny air, then silently takes flight again on its journey upstream. A small fish touches the ceiling of its world in search of a speck of food flown to the river by the gentle breezes of mine, a brief connection of two worlds. Then it swims away, unaware of my presence. I breathe deeply. For half an hour I am calm.
Then I stand, pick up my sneakers and once again hear the cars rumbling down the highway on the other side of the house. I walk back up the stone steps, return to the driveway between my house and the road, and watch the cars rush nervously by. I think about the fact that the southern edge of Silicon Valley is on the other side of the small mountain range on which I now live, just 30 miles from my door. I remember that it used to be the place I most enjoyed visiting.