Seeing For Yourself

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A couple of months ago I drove to the source of the Sacramento River. I had read that this mighty river bubbles up inconspicuously in the middle of a small park in a town near Mt. Shasta. Was this really true? This river – responsible for the most productive farmland in the world, the swimming pools of Orange County, and the shape and life of the San Pablo, Suisun, and San Francisco Bays – popping up in a little park?

It is rare to see where things come from. Global capital has ensured that our lives are full of objects that might come from Mars. We are so alienated from the natural world, so habitually uninterested in what it does or how it thinks, that, ironically, it holds tremendous imaginative possibility as a frontier. Not in the hiking-boots-staring-at-trees sort of way but in something like the wonder one experiences at the deep unknowable, astronomy, psychedelia, or ghosts. Like that.

The road from San Francisco to Mount Shasta City (the hamlet at the bottom of the mountain) rolls up Interstate 5, the same route used for thousands of years by different types of Californios under various names. Heading north from Berkeley you leave the Bay Area by Highway 80, which runs between green mounded hills dotted with sturdy earthquake-proof middle-class houses and, on one pasture, a giant OCCUPY sign spelled out with white stones, as if the mountain itself were declaring sympathy.

The highway swings inland, past orchards of walnut and olive trees, and then as it nears the Sacramento the land flattens into a low base of flood-smoothed soil, and out of the ground like gnarled and hairy hands grow thousands of cottonwoods, spooky things, their blackened spines producing pale fairy-green leaves.

You drive north for three hours, past all these little towns that all have their set of burger places and Shell stations, and then the hills emerge to begin their incline up; the soil slowly turns red. The dirt is full of copper up there. The copper mines are the other 19th-century industry, the one that took over after the Gold Rush kicked like a keg at a party. The forest then starts – pine forest, very dark, no redwoods here, all seriousness, Bavarian looking. Most of the time the Interstate follows the river – the denser the trees, the closer runs the river.

In the city of Reading there’s a beautiful park at a bend in the river, called Turtle Bay. For centuries this place was like some sexy rowdy Venice Beach for turtles; then in 1945 we made it really boring for them by regulating the flood levels of the river, they went somewhere else, and we bolstered our reputation as the species that stops other species from getting it on.

There’s a big park at Turtle Bay, with a teepee and lots of ecological information about the doomed, succulent, political football that is the California salmon, an imaginative botanical garden with a gigantic wrought-iron spider, and then the real tourist draw: the Sundial Bridge, ludicrous, jarring, completely out of place, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, a disappointing signal that the Spanish conquest of native California apparently continues, five hundred years later.

Keep driving north and you are catapulted up into the mountains, quickly crossing into the 365 miles of man-made coastline created by the Shasta Dam, built to regulate Sacramento River flooding for agriculture. On a map it looks like a hand with the fingers splayed out, each finger representing a drowned valley. On top of Shasta Lake bob a fleet of toy boats, all moving around or Jet-Ski-ing or dumping Red Bull cans and charcoal into the lake. It looks surprisingly pristine, for all the traffic.

And then, as you wind through the pines, wondering if you’ve missed it, there it is: Mount Shasta, looming up ahead of you, pure unsalted mind-purifying ice-stone white, 10,000 feet of it, treeless and scary and bare, standing at a regal distance from all around it. Covered with four glaciers, revered by the Medoc and Shasta tribes as the seat of the gods; even John Muir thought you’d be a moron to try to climb it.

In the town below it, I found the city park where the river emerges. The Sacramento River does really start from a hole in the dirt, bubbling out in the middle of some stones, pooling to gather its strength, then jumping off and bolting quickly down the hill.

A spring is an amazing thing, if you have never seen one. The surface of the Earth doesn’t usually produce jets of anything, so it’s odd to see it when it does: water jumping out of nothing, where people line up with jars and tubs – Bay Area bohos, Chicanos in plaid shirts, Malaysian tourists. Taking pictures, talking about how this is miracle water, it heals the thyroid, it cures cancer. This spring is made of snow that fell on the top of Mount Shasta 50 years ago, and took half a century to filter down through the mountain. Indeed, it actually tastes like liquified, chilled stone.


“Nature writing”, in the American lit sense, is a particular genre, largely first-person or journalistic writing about landscapes – reflective, describing nature as a painting or a mirror for human emotion. Kind of like this essay.

But human beings have been talking about plants and animals and forests for thousands of years, and most of it has sounded very different. Most it was verbal, told in a group setting, and gave the natural world agency, intent, a sense of humor. A woodchuck is your  grandmother. A jaguar marries a human. The sun and the moon fight over their kids. Soldiers are turned into stones and trees.

The natural world was immanent, and took up considerable real estate in our imagination. The stories lyrically spin out some fairly sophisticated scientific concept, like lunar eclipses (in Benin’s “The Origin of Fish”) and the Navaho creation myth, in which human ancestors the “insect people” fly higher and higher from world to world in search of a good place to live (which not a bad way of explaining evolution).

Here’s an awesome bit about plate tectonics, from the Mohawk creation story:

The muskrat went below and after a long time, his dead body floated to the surface of the water. His little claws were closed tight. Upon opening them, a little earth was found.

The water creatures took this earth, and calling a great turtle, they patted the earth firmly on her broad back. Immediately the turtle started to grow larger. The earth also increased.

This earth became North America, a great island. Sometimes the earth cracks and shakes, and waves beat hard against the seashore. White people say, “Earthquake.” The Mohawk say, “Turtle is stretching.”

“To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development,” wrote E.O. Wilson. “To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”

Without any opportunity to do so, and with the other religious and cultural narratives still dunking everything in mental formaldehyde, the human thirst for this still continues. Just witness the vibrancy and magic at San Francisco dog parks. There’s a tribe of San Franciscans planting lupins to for the sake of an endangered local butterfly, the luminous butterflyGreen Hairstreak. SPUR catalogs ravens that live on the courthouse. And perhaps our most enchanting ecological legend remains – the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

The legends about Mt. Shasta continue to emerge, as the human world changes. For thousands of years it had already been the source of not just the river but most of the spiritual power of two large tribes, when in 1894 Frederick Spencer Oliver published A Dweller on Two PlanetsOliver wrote that survivors from a sunken continent called Lemuria lived in tunnels beneath the mountain and occasionally were seen walking the surface dressed in white robes. It was woven into several New Age cosmologies and it still taught today in the area.

The soul still wants an explanation. Or a story. Or a marker. Or a flag. We can sense, being there, at the foot of the mountain, or on the Presidio cliffs, or at the source of a river, that there is unimaginable wonder, that we have not been told, that has been hidden to us, lost to us. Do the East Bay hills really support Occupy Oakland? What do all these cats do when we are asleep? We can feel all this power and all this wisdom, and it is behind glass, it is out of our prison window, we must have blinked and missed it. There could be no better time for this world to begin to speak again, to let us hear them again. It is simply a frequency that we have chosen to tune out. There is no reason we could not tune back in.

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