In the early seventies I was struggling to escape the prison I had constructed for myself. I was a single mother with my daughter Kelly, 18, still at home and my son, Roy, then 21, living in Santa Cruz with his best friend Debbie. I worked as a secretary shuffling papers in a thirty-story building in downtown Oakland for a huge corporation, commuting from my home in semi-rural Walnut Creek, putting in too many hours for too little pay to quite cover our expenses.
I was so drained from the maddening commute, the uncertainties of my job and the job market in general, the stress, the anxiety, the struggle to pay the rent, that when I got the chance to be laid off I took it and never went back. Couldn’t drive that commute one more day.
Kelly and I talked it over and agreed that we wanted to just get out of the Bay Area altogether. I knew of a place up on the North Coast that had some funky cabins to rent, and I wanted to go up there for a little while and just vegetate until a new direction made itself known to me.
The next weekend we set off with our sleeping bags, cots and cooler, camp stove and lantern and went looking. The cabins were all taken but the owner suggested we could camp at Usal free -- it was owned by Georgia-Pacific but they allowed people to stay there if they got a pass from the company’s offices in Fort Bragg.
We found Usal. Our entry that first day is indelibly imprinted in full color in my memory. We had just driven on to the cattle guard at the entrance when I saw a fawn in the bushes by the side of the road, staring at us without a move. I stopped immediately and looked directly into her unalarmed, alert brown eyes. Just for a few brief seconds. She was only five feet away from us. She seemed to feel no fear, only curiosity. Nobody moved for a long time ... She had examined our hearts and given her permission for us to enter. Eventually she turned and slowly wove herself back into the forest ... Finally, we remembered to breathe.
Usal has given me many such moments, but that first time removed most of my fears about our future. It was a holy place, anyone could tell that. I knew we’d be all right there. Even though there had once been a town there long ago, complete with a hotel, saloons, a mill, quite a few homes, there was little or no sign of that previous life by the time we got to Usal in 1973. Lovely reminders of previous residents were the jonquils planted around now nonexistent homes whose shapes were still outlined by the bright gold of blossoms each spring.
We saw no one in that entire valley on our first visit -- there were no human footprints in the sand, although there was evidence of an old campfire here and there. There was a lovely creek running through which fed into a larger, fast-moving stream; the water was ice cold and delicious. We’d be all right.
We spent the weekend in paradise and headed back home to pack up. We held garage sales for three or four weekends and sold or gave away everything we couldn’t fit in the car. We sold Kelly’s car and kept mine because it was bigger and could hold more. We bought some foam pads to sleep on, a tent. We fit everything we owned into that car. What money we had left we split three ways: Kelly, Roy, and me. That was their inheritance and it wasn’t much, but it was clear money and we didn’t owe anything to anyone in the whole world. We were starting fresh; Roy was already following his own path; Kelly and I were looking for ours.
Back in the seventies, traveling Usal Road in a loaded-down car was a death- defying journey. Brunhilda was rather low to the ground, for one thing. There was a detour section I can still hardly bear to remember. We had to slalom safely past clearly impassable potholes. There was one spot where the road dipped down rather steeply then rose up immediately. It was covered with a thick layer of sand and powdered clay soil which lined the dip and covered both the down -- and up -- sides. You had to have a lot of momentum to make it up the other side of the dip, but if you went too fast you could break your muffler, among other things. Each trip over that narrow twisting road was traumatic for the car as well as the passengers. The risk of getting stuck was real -- who knew when another car would come by?
But I made it every time. I loved the isolation that terrible road achieved for us. Very few people braved it. It was used on holidays a couple of times a year by people living in the area; a few fishermen would attempt the road every now and then when the surf fish were running.
My four years living in my tent at Usal gave me many riches that I could never adequately measure. It is the gift of my friendship with Grandmother Redwood that I wish to tell you about now.
Of all the treasures I received from Usal, Grandmother Redwood is my most loved. She taught me, and continues to teach me, that which I am most hungry to learn. Here follows a record I began to keep of all our talks together. I always bring paper and pen with me when I visit, in case she will speak. I don’t want to forget any of it.
The first time I remember really seeing you, Grandmother, it was summer in Usal, three or four years ago. I was living alone in my tent under the alders by the creek that runs through the daisy meadow and I saw you above the road that had been cut through beside you. Because the earth had eroded over the years, your roots had been exposed on that side. I could tell you had been cut down long ago because your saplings were almost a foot across. There was a lovely wild elderberry growing out of your side and you were covered with ferns.
Something about you drew me. The blackberries made it hard to reach you. Although I felt foolish as I stealthily looked around to be sure there was no one in sight, I still was compelled to lean against you with my arms stretched out around you. I wanted to sink into you. I pressed one ear tight against your side and covered my other ear and listened. I made myself very still ....
After a lingering silence I seemed to hear a long slow sigh floating up from deep within you. It was infinitely weary, infinitely patient, infinitely ancient, that sigh. It was dark in there, dark with time and waiting and calm endurance.
Then I was filled with a gentle current of kindness that flowed down from you to cover me. I rested gratefully in your kindness. No words, but I knew we would speak together one day.
Grandmother said to me, Listen, little one, for now I begin to understand after many weary years of questioning. Why was I cut down so young, before I had a chance to grow to my full span of years? I have waited a long time to know this. The lightning that burned me never felt like an attack; it was what lightning did. But the terrible sound of saws, then later chain saws, is hard to forget. I find myself flinching still.
Then at last it came to me; it came to me just now as you stood before me and said softly,’ Oh, Grandmother’. It came to me. I could feel your reverence, your love, your sorrow, your sympathy.
I want to tell you. This place is a temple. All of it. Can you hear the birds singing high, high up in the sunlight? And are your eyes dazzled by the daisies warm in the meadow? And the wind high in my tall children’s branches, singing of salt and sea and gulls sliding downwind? I see the dappled alders across the way, graceful, swaying, showering polka dots of light and shadow among the daisies. Of course this is a temple. It is so easy to recognize here.
But, my dear, the whole earth is the temple, not just some special places. The whole earth is the temple. Remember this; tell the others: You must stop and think. You must love and honor your temple. You must remember where and what you are: you are living in and are yourself a part of the temple. You are the priest and priestess, you are the attendant, you are a pillar of the temple. Would you cut off one of your own arms or legs for profit? Some of you have done this to the earth, your home.
But lately I feel there is change coming. Even though the madness of the world seems to be rising, so too do I receive more visitors who come like you to open their hearts to me. These are the courageous who will save the temple, and their numbers will grow. So I am content. I know your heart, little one; you will continue to watch and listen and do what needs to be done.?
"Conversations with Grandmother Redwood"
by Bonnie Sanger