When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end. — William Shakespeare
A mile and three quarters from the Pacific Ocean, one and a half from the reedy backwaters of the San Elijo Lagoon, and a mile from the nearest neighbor, the house I grew up in sat perched on a small rise in a narrow valley beneath two columns of ragged and chaparral-covered hills. Carved by time, worn by wind and rain, lacerated by the earth’s tremblings, the hills were a raw and aching frame to the soft meadow that draped the valley floor, a reminder that Earth is in eternal transition, rising up and being torn down in both gentle and violent ways, providing neither sure footing or constancy, though we have the illusion of both.
On the far side of the valley, a stream bed wound its way along the base of the hills like a skirt’s lace hem, tricked out with a border of sumac and elderberry that danced in the wind and sparkled in the sun. In the spring the stream ran with the rains before drying into a sandy, fern-banked path where I adventured lazily all summer, poking sticks in holes, kneeling to inspect animal footprints, crouching into caves the water had carved into its banks, always in solitary pursuit of something to stir my natural curiosity: the mangled carcass of a coyote’s last meal; the rusting husk of an old Model T Ford with an enormous pack rat nest spilling from the passenger window; a vibrant patch of poppies rising like spring from the streambank; the queer waxy coating that distinguishes ripe elderberries; or a lone and weary long-lost shoe poking through the streambed, telling me that in my aloneness there I was still bound to the world.
My grandfather had been the first to come here from the East, scouting what were then the wide-open spaces of California with an eye to moving the family to a new frontier. When he saw these hills and valley, he wrote home that it was “a magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.” His eloquence was not wasted. From the top of the hill opposite our house, the place we called “the mesa,” a tapestry of sinuous peaks and valleys fanned out to the luminous Cuyamaca Mountains on the far horizon, a distance of around 40 miles. Dappled by the shadows of billowy white clouds, and reflecting blazes of light from their sandstone bluffs and granite outcroppings, the hills undulate like waves in a vast gray-green sea. A magnificent panorama, indeed. In the opposite direction, back across the valley, our house, only a quarter mile from the mesa, appeared insignificant on the land, temporary at best, an ephemeral presence that might be gone the next time you looked, like a speck of dust that settles briefly on a velvet coat before the wind whisks it away.
When my grandfather first found the house it wasn’t much to look at, a neglected board and batten box of five small rooms since some previous owner had cut down the second story, presumably, according to legend, because it was haunted by the ghost of an old sea captain who slipped a noose around his neck and swung as the last breath was choked out of him. Later my father would amend the house with an adobe offshoot tacked on one end, a massive living room with terra cotta floors and a large brick fireplace where we did most of our living.
A dirt lane wound from the house down through the valley until petering out a mile later at San Elijo Road, our connecting link to town. This was where the valley opened to broad fields where old man Wiegand grazed his cattle, and beyond that, to the marsh’s meandering streams and green pools where I sometimes fished for the puny bluegill that swam there. Looking north back up the valley from San Elijo, dusty fields of pale green lima beans stretched up to the base of the wild hills to the west. These valleys used to be cloaked in wide drifts of lima beans planted by German immigrants who came in the 1880s to scratch a meager living from the dry earth. Now this was one of the only remaining planted fields as those original farmers aged past utility and their children grew and broke off from farm life like ripe seed pods on the wind. One by one the fields were given back to their feral ways, the lima beans displaced by fast-growing intruders like tumbleweed, wild mustard, sweet fennel, and thistle. One day houses would replace those fields and a five-lane highway would overlay our lane, but in those early days it alone led to our secluded ranch house, ending at the rail fence my father built to define the point where that brazen sage- and buckwheat-filled landscape was allowed to advance no further. It was always a struggle to keep the wildness at bay; to hold back those primitive urgings of nature from our front door: the dust and stickers and ravings.
Coming up the lane, as you rounded the last field and reached our land, you caught the first glimpse of our house in the distance, crouching as it did beneath the looming 60-foot tall trunks of a eucalyptus tree behind the house. On windy nights we listened from our beds to the groaning of those trunks as their fibers stretched and popped within the wood, all of us silently wondering when a trunk or enormous branch would snap and crash down on the roof, crushing the house and us beneath as easily as I crush a dry leaf in my hand. This wind-borne disquiet was in contrast to more peaceful nights when we listened to what my mother called “my owl” hooting softly in the branches or the hushed rustle of leaves stirred by a gentle breeze. Lying in bed, waiting for sleep, the eucalyptus steered our spirits toward either anxiety or comfort in those last few minutes of the day, so directing the nature of our dreams.
In front of the house was a rotund pepper tree, its thickset trunk rising extravagantly from the loamy earth into a veil of willowy leaves cascading so near the ground that it formed a curtain against the imposing sunlit fields beyond. At its back, furthest from the house, a curving line of virgin-white Natal lilies erupted in spring to meet the bowing branches and complete two walls of a cool and cozy room that I imagined for myself. Above, there was a wooden platform nailed securely in the crook of two branches where my older brothers played, imagining themselves inside a ship, a fort, a castle, a rocketship, a pirate’s den, or a teepee, all in their turn. My little sister, too, used to climb high into the tree, even though barely more than a toddler. The dogs, her constant companions, would follow her right up the trunk and into the branches. At the base of the tree an old, beat-up, one-legged swing set that my father hauled back from the dump one day was attached to the trunk, and I spent many hours in aimless and daydreamy contentment beneath the dome of leaves, swaying back and forth in the leather seat he fashioned for me. Nearest the house, the pepper tree’s branches arched over the roof, and on windy days the sweeping of the leaves across the tarpaper deck fashioned a tender tune that filled the living room below with its gentle rhythms. Occasionally my father climbed onto the roof to cut back branches that got too near the chimney; I still remember the pungent scent of the cuttings as he tossed them down for me to gather up. In summer pink pepper berries ripened and fell in bunches that carpeted the ground in a dappled sheath that crackled underfoot with every step. Sometimes I picked a cluster of peppercorns from the tree and peeled back the hulls to taste their sweet-peppery seed, or I gathered a handful for my mother to use in her cooking, though she seldom did.
A dozen yards beyond the pepper tree and as different from it as silk to canvas was a dense thicket of prickly pear, Opuntia littoralis, a cactus species native to Southern California’s coastal sage scrub. True to its name, the prickly pear was covered in sprays of sharp spines bursting from thick paddle-shaped pads. The prickly pear patch was home to any number of wrens, quail, rabbits, squirrels, garter snakes, and lizards who were safe within that fortress from the coyotes that preyed on them. In summer the cactus produced dozens of bright crimson fruits covered in sharp, barely visible hairs. You could remove them by dipping the fruit in boiling water or searing it over an open flame. The fruit’s flesh is ruby red, its taste similar to an extra-sweet melon. Mexican families used to knock on our door and ask if they could harvest the fruit and pads of the cactus, called nopales, which they ate fried.
To the south of the prickly pear was a small flattened hill where our barn stood, an enormous structure of unpainted, deteriorating wood where my grandfather lived in a small apartment he built into one side.
The other, larger part of the barn sheltered his lone cow and various unused farm tools, as well as hordes of field mice and brown bats. The central part of the barn, with gabled roof, hay loft, and a large wagon door, supported smaller “wings” on either side, their sloped roofs falling away from the main barn. It was no doubt once the pride of the ranch, but was old and falling down, as was the tall silo, by the time our family arrived. As a child, I used to walk up the hill to visit my grandfather there, and I remember how he taught and drilled me in Spanish, perhaps anticipating that one day our neighbors to the south would retake California. When he wasn’t teaching me, he played with me, taking my arms and swinging me back and forth beneath his legs, calling out, “high ho the derry-o!”
He ate his dinners with us, and on Sunday nights he joined us to watch College Bowl, a TV show where teams of the brightest students a college could muster competed with each other to answer questions like “What was the name of the Secretary of State responsible for the 1899 ‘Open Door’ policy toward China?” Or “Take the number of tales in The Arabian Nights, add the number of gables in Hawthorne’s famous house, divide by the number of characters in The Fourposter, and give me the answer,” or “What Shakespeare line follows ‘The quality of mercy is not strained?” My scholarly grandfather sat intently in a straight-backed chair directly in front of the television, shouting out the answers as fast as he could, which was often faster than the competitors. The rest of us sat mutely on the couch and watched him as much as we watched the show, the questions and answers being far over the heads of any of us.
Just outside the rail fence that surrounded our house was a wide and fertile meadow that reflected the subtle seasons of Southern California. Frost-covered in the early mornings of winter days, the meadow turned to brilliant green with dots of blue lupine and golden poppy as watery and delirious as a Monet garden all through spring, then dried to textured waves the color of wheat and honey, like a Van Gogh countryside, in summer and fall. I liked nothing better on warm spring days than to lie in the cool grass, gazing first at the dream-like sky above me, as brilliantly blue as a peacock’s chest, then turning to peer at eye-level into the miniature world beneath and within the grass, where ladybugs, bees, beetles, ants, stinkbugs, flies, and caterpillars marched and hopped with business-like intent after emerging from their cold-blooded winter lethargy to be warmed by the sun, and so feel the urges of hunger, sex, web-weaving, nest-building, cocoon-shedding, or egg-hatching. I watched as ants crawled to the end of a stork’s bill seed pod and then would balance on their four hind legs and wave their two front legs wildly, twisting this way and that, searching for the way forward, which wasn’t there, and so turn resolutely and hurry off back from where they came to find another forward route. Beneath them, shiny black stinkbugs, the low-riders of the meadow, would wander randomly over pebbles and debris in search of food, heads down and tails up, their antennae gyrating to no discernable rhythm. When disturbed, the stink bug throws his tail as high as he can and shoots an unpleasant scent as a warning to all on-comers; my father, though, always said he liked the smell; it reminded him of kicking up the decomposing leaves of a forest floor. Once summer arrived, there would be no more idle lazing in the meadow. Not because of the sun’s heat, which was considerable, but because all the lush grasses and flowers turned dry, the stork’s bill coiling into spirals to more efficiently burrow into the soil, an animal’s fur, or my clothes; the grasses developing horned burs to do the same. After a walk through the summer meadow it could take half an hour to coax all the hitchhiking seed pods from my clothes, and still not get them all.
Behind the house, a small field slanted up to the hills on the west side of the valley. This was where the town of Cardiff came to an abrupt halt, just over the ridge, which was traversed by Crest Drive. Those houses had paved streets. They had mail delivery. They had quick access to a grocery store, doctors, a fire station, neighbors who visited, and children all up and down the streets who could play at each other’s houses or in the quiet streets themselves. Our house, only a quarter mile distant, was part of a separate world, one that was more glorious, if more challenging.
Fire was a constant threat down in our valley, where the chaparral came practically to our front door and was as combustible as gunpowder. In California, fire has its own season, fall, when the brush is at its driest, parched by summer drought and autumn’s fierce, dry Santa Ana winds, and when any errant spark, no matter how insignificant, can set the world aflame. Fires were often left to burn through chaparral and grasslands where backcountry houses were few and far between, turning highly flammable terpene-laden manzanita and greasewood, sage and scrub oak into enormous torches. As the flames swept through, they left dark swathes of scorched earth and the charred and ghostly skeletons of trees and brush. The land is resilient, though; by late winter green shoots were breaking through the ashen crust, and by spring the once-barren and black slopes were blanketed in vivid green grass and an explosion of wildflowers, the charred remains of shrubs like chamise and manzanita resprouting buds from deep within their subterranean stumps. We were lucky. In the 60 and more years our family lived in that remote house, fire never came closer than a mile or so. Still, the knowledge that it could sweep through the valley at any time and evaporate the safe womb of my childhood impressed in me an undercurrent of unnamed dread. I was not an anxious child, but I was watchful.
The Santa Ana winds came each October and blew intermittently until February. Hot, dry, and strong enough to blow trees from their moorings, these so-called “devil winds” siphoned moisture from every living thing, reducing leaves to curled, scorched tinder for the inevitable fires, blowing dust from the dirt lane and tilled fields into a brown cloud that infiltrated your eyes, your teeth, your hair, and every minute crevasse or opening of the house, where it came to rest in thick layers on our tables, floors, inside cupboards and our beds.
The horse in his corral turned his back to the onslaught, skittish, his haunches quivering, his head hung low and mane and tail whipping into knotted tangles. At night we sat indoors and listened to a beastly cacophony of the wind bellowing and whistling, branches breaking from the eucalyptus and hammering onto the house, the dogs with their heads thrown back, howling into the spirited darkness. Still, for all their devilry, there were things I liked about the winds, as they brought warmth to the cool days of fall and winter. As a teen, I went to the beach on those days, where the off-shore blow snapped shape into the waves, the better for surfing, and blew a salty spray backwards from their peaks, where it caught the light and sparkled like iridescent wings in the sun.
The water which allowed us to live in this dry place issued from an old well in back of the house. A creaky, aluminum-bladed windmill spun in the wind at the top of a rickety wood tower, powering a pump that drew water up by way of a piston to a redwood tank on a high platform. With no electrical pump to encourage pressure, the water ran by force of gravity alone, and turning on a faucet inside produced a thin stream of water that would fill a sink if you waited long enough. A narrow wooden walkway circled the water tank about a dozen feet from the ground. When I was six or seven, I used to climb the shaky ladder and edge my way around the meager platform, pressed against the tank, feeling the coolness of the water within on my back and the warm sun on my face, shuffling my feet forward a few inches at a time, goading myself to a bravery I didn’t feel so high up. When a year or so older, I sometimes challenged myself to climb the dry and splintered windmill, but never summoned the courage to reach the platform at the very top. Occasionally my father had to be lowered on a rope into the well, or climb to the top of the windmill to fix some problem, sending me into fits of anxiety for his safety.
Just beyond the well were two apricot trees which produced the most extravagant fruit I have ever tasted, orangey-pink, tantalizingly sweet, and as juicy as a peach. The tree was already old when my family moved to the ranch, and by the time I reached five or six it had run its course and begun a slow descent to dust, its limbs bare and crumbling. Just south of the apricot, growing from a sandstone bank, the mulberry tree was equally mythical. Its deep purple fruit grew as long as my finger, and in summer I climbed into the tree with my grandmother’s old colander to pluck the juicy berries, their blood red juice staining my hands and arms like I had been fending off the attack of a wild puma. The leafy heights of that tree gave me a charming place to wile away a summer afternoon, away from the hot sun and cooled by the breezes that fanned through the broad leaves.
I would often pick enough for my mother to bake a pie, or to take to our neighbor, old Mrs. Lux, a mile down the lane. My mother and I walked there a couple of times a month to visit, mother carrying the baby on her hip. When I got a little older, I filled pint baskets with mulberries and my father would drive me down the lane to the paved road, where he would set up a little table for me under the shade of the Lux’s big walnut tree to sell mulberries to passing cars. In those days, I might see two cars an hour passing by on their way from Rancho Santa Fe or Olivenhain to Cardiff by the Sea.
Now our ranch is gone, and in its place is being built a blight of a dozen or so million-dollar homes. The pepper tree is gone. So is the big eucalyptus that stood behind the house, and the grove of eucalyptus my grandfather planted on the north side of our property. The barn is gone, and the windmill, and finally, the house. Our lane is paved, though it still carries our family name, Berryman Canyon Road. There is a tennis club where our south-side property line met the lima bean fields, and an art museum and historical center too. A five-lane road, El Camino Real, runs through the valley, stop lights punctuating its length as side streets emerge from new housing developments that were built on the mesa and beyond.
Sweet memories are all that remain of that enchanted place and time. Some days, when the tender wildflowers bloom or the winds bristle, or when the summer air is thin and dry, a warm nostalgia fills my chest with, not memories, but a precious essence that feels like home.