Tennessee Valley

Marin beachBecause we lived inside the gates we knew the combination to the locks. The fog could make the metal cattle guards across the road slippery, but the big gates would always swing easily on their federal hinges. Lock it again behind you. From here in only you and the rangers get to drive. Everyone else has to walk to the ocean. Who knows what the Miwok Indians may have variously named the place. Its first English name was Elk Valley after what could be killed there in the 1850s as market hunters vied to feed the hordes of non-self-sustainable strangers flooding San Francisco ten miles south. Of course it had been all climax coastal redwood forest then, grizzly bears and cougars. All gone inside a decade after the gold-rush locusts arrived.

The low ranch house that we lived in had once been Dean Witter’s place before the National Park Service took over this land as part of the national seashore and he moved, renting it out until ten years down the line when its grandfather-clause extension would expire and it would be demolished. Except for a ranger’s frame house further in it was the only private residence still inside the park. Mr. Witter had cut himself some sort of deal when he sold out.

Sausalito was the nearest town, just a few miles drive before the gate, but the ocean end of that now treeless, chaparral-cloaked valley could have been a hundred miles away from anywhere with streetlights. It wasn’t wilderness, just mesmerizing emptiness, a landscape that had suffered the denudement of clear cutting and then thoughtless overgrazing, before the land, exhausted, had retreated into economic and ecosystemic meaninglessness, stripped down to its ancient bare-rock, steep-ridged skeleton, blanketed with fog. A landscape like the shaved head of an Auschwitz survivor, stopped only by the sheer schist cliffs and the battering combers of the North Pacific.

Did I mention the fog? Fog-bound was the default state of the ocean end of the valley. Sausalito might be awash with sunlight, but inside the gate grayness ruled. It was the fog that had given the valley and its ocean cove its modern name. In 1853 the S.S. Tennessee, hauling eager Forty-niners up from Panama, in dense fog mistook the cliff-edged cove for the Golden Gate farther south and plowed itself straight up onto the beach so well that everyone aboard walked safely ashore and the ship was stripped bare of goods before the sea buried it into the berm. The disaster renamed the place Tennessee Valley. I was happy there.

Marin fog and Golden GateNow there’s a statement for you, a judgment lacking all objective indices, a panel of ghost judges holding up score cards—8.6, 8.8, 8.5, 9.0—and one memory contestant moment gets to smile and step—oh so temporarily—onto the highest little box: a happy time. Compared to what? Measured by what? Can it be replicated? What does the fog have to do with it? I think it was Clive James who identified happiness as “a by-product of absorption,” and the root of happiness is perchance. I just happened to be happily absorbed into that landscape, that place, those misty headlands that I had by chance been brought to. There never has been a plan, and in those years the very idea of a plan, of an external compass, of a predetermined destination seemed a sort of heresy. No. There were maps of a sort, of the shifting sort you see in ganglia black against the pink of your eyelids when you close your eyes in sunlight, maps that resembled a cluster of neurons in the neocortex, make that the future cortex. But those maps had nothing to do with geography. They were charts without names, portolas so secret not even their owner knew their meaning. Tennessee Valley just arrived.

I never actually lived there in that low moldy ranch house that the sun seldom shined on. I mean I never paid rent or met the landlord. I had an address elsewhere, but at the time it seemed like I only visited my place in Berkeley and the valley was my home. C lived there with her young daughter. They shared the big house with two other single mothers, each of whom had a daughter of about the same age, and, of course, the mothers’ lovers, as transient as I. This was the heart of my non-attachment years, still practicing my vows. It suited C as well, who had her own secret internal maps.

That household consumed an amazing amount of toilet paper. One night, stoned, the other two guys and I got together and pooled our tp purchases and figured out how few months it would take for the tp used there to stretch to L.A. That conversation began with a discussion of whose turn it was to pay for a septic tank pump out. I was happy there, a house that belonged to the women folk in which us men were allowed solely as a convenience. But it wasn’t the house. It was the valley it sat in, the hills that loomed over it, the birds that lived and visited there.

In my beat-up, old, taped-together, many-times soaked and many-times-dried, but still solidly in tact Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds there is still a yellow folded paper list of my bird species count from one Easter Sunday there—42 species in all, including sea and shore birds, and I had given up early to sit and watch the comings and goings of golden eagles from a condo-sized nest on a cliff above the ocean. It was a place of raptors—kestrel, red-tailed, rough-legged, goshawk, harrier, horned owls, burrowing owls, saw-whet, eagles, and vultures. They ruled the up-drafts and the sky.

Marin cliff and sea

In Tennessee Valley and nearby Richardson’s Bay I found, by unplanned and unanticipated happenstance, total absorption in birds, especially those who seemed to acknowledge no boundaries to their flight. On mushrooms once I visited the throngs of migratory sea birds resting in the low-tide mud flats of Richardson’s Bay and quizzed them about what it felt like to do what they existed to do. As long as I stayed motionless they tolerated me, but none could answer such a stupid question from a creature who existed in only three earthbound dimensions. I never asked them if they were happy or not. They were all invincibly alert and alive. Birds have ever since retained the gift of making me happy. They are me idealized, me with wings—flight, height, distance, movement, the freedom to fly above the fog.

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