It was a time of uncovering. The earth was giving up its secrets. In northeastern China, scientists were examining an unearthed skull believed to represent a separate human group, long extinct, that lived in East Asia at least 146,000 years ago. More heartbreaking, horrifying, and recent, 751 unmarked graves of Indigenous people, mostly children, had been found at what was once a residential school in Saskatchewan, Canada. Meanwhile, in Florida, rescue workers were digging for victims beneath the rubble of a crumbled building whose sudden collapse might itself be indicative of rising water tables wrought by climate change, warnings ignored, and wisdom disregarded.
Here in Gaviota, the earth was dry, and the green grass of spring had given way to brittle stalks the color of straw. I pressed my finger deep into the soil of the toyon seedlings I was tending in pots, and I knew it was time to soak their thirsty roots. At the shore, we came upon a large chunk of coal, most certainly from the cargo of the four-masted ship called the Gosford that was on its way to San Francisco from Liverpool in November of 1893 when it caught fire and attempted to anchor at Cojo; the coal that tumbled into the sea still turns up on local beaches to this day.
On a different walk, there appeared a strand of fossilized whale vertebrae embedded for millennia in rock. Friends discovered an old copper penny wedged tightly and deliberately into a crack in a backcountry boulder, yet another example of story fragments materializing. And while carrying buckets of water to the oak saplings, I looked down and beheld the newly shed skin of a rattlesnake on the trail, silvery and translucent, just beyond my step, and realized that even surfaces were speaking. The casting away of that which is no longer useful implies renewal, but we must be willing to understand.
We look and look again, more deeply. As Stanley Kunitz’s nimbus-clouded voice directed, we must live in the layers, not on the litter, as we write our book of transformations. It’s a multi-mantled world, and we have seldom glimpsed the bedrock; instead, we teeter at the top, plodding along plane to plane, deficient in dimensions, short on imagination, insufficiently schooled.
Even on a personal level, there have been findings. I came upon two letters at the bottom of a shoebox, one by my father, written when he was a young boy, nearly a century ago. He was writing to his own father, who was on the road, retrieving mail at a general delivery address in Kansas City. “Dearest Father,” it began. “Did you forget your son all of a sudden?” The other letter was written by my mother to my father in 1946, in her very best penmanship, from a home for unwed mothers: “Believe me, my darling, I can’t wait to see you again.” I felt the heat of the yearning in these letters, the heartache of what was unspoken, the weight of things I knew were yet to come. Too many tears in this deepness.
“Every story begins inside a story that’s already begun by others,” wrote poet Richard Blanco. “Long before we take our first breath, there’s a plot underway, with characters and a setting we did not choose, but which were chosen for us.” To the extent possible, I like knowing some of the tangibles of these stories we are born into. That’s part of living in the layers. But I also believe it is our duty then to try to write with love and decency what follows. I don’t want all the struggles to have been in vain. I’m not sure how to proceed with this grandiose aspiration, but it’s stitched into my being. I could not otherwise survive.
And now we begin to emerge — tentatively, and at the risk of backsliding — from a global pandemic, and oh, what truths have been unearthed! In our standing still, we were forced to go deeper, to see what has been happening all along. It wasn’t even secret, but circumstances have illuminated and exacerbated and drawn lines that cannot be ignored.
Questions emerge: Will we finally heed the exhortations of the past? Can tragedy somehow lead, in its meandering way, to learning? Will learning lead to betterment? The earth is speaking and painful truths revealed, but I am hopeful and resolved. I don’t know any other way to be.