28 December, 2004

Rock and Root

I spent the past week in California (the Valley), visiting my sister (which is best not commented on since she reads this thing). It's an interesting state, that one. It sprawls geographically, especially for someone coming from the cramped northeast. The sky is three times as big, though somewhat spoiled by the permanent haze that coats the area. And a lot of that extra space is occupied by nature. I've often lamented the fact that urban dwellers can go their whole lives without experiencing physical splendor. It was refreshing to be in a place where it is fairly unavoidable.

I visited a few redwood forests. Muir Woods just outside of San Francisco, and Big Basin Redwood Park two hours or so south. The latter has a cross-section of a redwood trunk on display, with its concentric rings annotated according to historical events of the corresponding year. Birth of the tree was in the sixth century, the same year that Justinian became ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Another tree (still living) was two thousand years old.

The sheer physical size of these trees is amazing. They're hundreds of feet tall; the manner in which you have to crane your neck back to peer up at the tops is reminiscent of being in some New York urban canyon staring up at a glass skyscraper. Some of them are sixty feet around, bigger than my living room. They have such an imposing gravity, a presence of weight and age, that the sight of one's hollowed-out corpse is almost relieving.

It's hard not to think of these trees in spiritual terms. I was skipping along a trail in Muir Woods when I happened to glance to my left and found myself staring down into a Druid temple. A circle of redwoods carved out a cathedral-like space in the hollow between the two legs of a mountain. Or, rather, the other way around: the towering walls defined by those massive redwood trunks, the deafening peacefulness of the pine-carpeted forest, the unearthly quality of the late afternoon sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves - these were clearly the images the Gothic cathedral was meant to evoke, with its stained glass windows and flying buttresses. But this cathedral breathes.

A little later we came across the remains of a tree, formerly the oldest and grandest in those woods. Its massive bole stood higher than a human head now that it was laid horizontal. Its length, measured out on the ground, was even more impressive, like the body of the serpent Anant that encircles the universe. "This is the corpse of a dead god," I remarked to my brother.

The only appropriate metaphor I could summon was the elves. These were immortal beings, after all. They would live forever if disease or fire did not kill them. Many of them bore those scars, charred black bark or hollowed interior, where fire had struck but not finished them. Others grew in weird witching circles, where the original trunk had been hollowed out and killed, but new shoots of the same plant had grown up into a multiplicity of trunks surrounding the corpse of the first.

There's a different kind of god I encountered a few days later, when I visited some old friends in Fremont and went climbing on Mission Peak, the mountain which stands behind that town. California mountains are somewhat odd; they are all denuded, naked except for a coarse, sunburnt grass, so that all their slopes and folds are visible, like the priapic, bulging muscles of a gigantic wrestler. In summer it's worse: the sun turns them golden brown, so that it is impossible to look at them without thinking of Atlas's hunched shoulders holding the weight of the sky.

When you climb a mountain, it's difficult not to think of it as a presence, as if the considerable physical space it occupies also reflects its mass in another, spiritual space. And this sense does not vanish when you reach the pinnacle. There is no sense of conquest, no sense that you have defeated the mountain. On the contrary, the enormity of the bulk beneath you reminds you of your insignificance to that presence. It bears your weight without notice, in the dimension of space and in the dimension of time. This thing has been here, stoic, unmoving, for thousands, for millions of years.

Does that presence actually exist? Or do I manufacture it in my mind? Or does it matter at all? The fact that I feel that presence, that it connects me to that land, to that tree, to the ocean - does it matter where it comes from?

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