The access road to the 101 was a muddy rushing river and our phone line was dangling limply over a branch. It wasn’t hard to read symbolic meaning in this, but the immediate implication was that we were stranded, suddenly simply here. We lived in a wet green world where creeks were roaring and mud was sliding from the hills and no one was going anyplace soon. Everywhere there was the din of water: running, dripping, roaring through the canyon. Newborn rivulets trickled through the grass, waterfalls surprised old sandstone contours, and once you accepted what was beyond your control, reality itself seemed fluid and unbound.
But first we gathered by the flooded crossing in our Wellies and rain gear, assessing the situation, speculating as to time frame, sharing news and stories, and tending to one another in a way we often don’t. Do you have enough fuel for your generator? Can we pull aside the tree that came down last night? Who has a car parked on the other side of the trestle? Who needs eggs? We were all exasperated about the well-known inadequacy of the crossing at the Gaviota Creek, but mixed in with our frustration, I have to admit, there was a hint of a holiday feeling, at least at the beginning. How much can you protest when fate hands you a bonus Saturday that just goes on and on? All of our important meetings would somehow happen without us.
“It’s another world,” said my husband, as we walked through the fog in a lull between storms.
In truth it was the only world.
At night we lay awake listening to the fury outdoors, and in the morning we marveled at the rain gauge and surveyed the aftermath. Wild pigs had gotten into the orchard to feast on oranges and macadamia nuts. The swollen creek was etching new tributaries. About a half-mile up the canyon a section of the road near our neighbor’s house was near collapse, and we mucked around in the mud attempting a makeshift repair here and there. Shutters were banging and windows were leaking and we grew chilly and tired and wet. But there was a kind of enchantment, too: the air smelled fresh with sage and eucalyptus, the toyon berries were varnished, and transparent beads of water adorned every leaf and blade of grass.
Yet images via satellite Internet reached us even here, and superseding all was the backdrop of watery devastation wrought by the Asian tsunami, fathomless and horrific. It put our small inconveniences into perspective and seeped into our souls, somehow washing away notions of being separate and safe in the world. Maybe this was the beginning of wisdom and an impetus for compassion, but there was also something free falling and scary about the randomness and vulnerability it implied.
“What if we miscalculated?” a boy in my class asked me once. “What if we lived our whole lives believing one thing and it turned out we were wrong?”
We had been talking about religions of the ancient world, but in a broader sense, about the search for meaning in our own lives and the answers by which we choose to live. I attempted of course to be wise and reassuring, which is difficult when you’re clueless and confused.
“Just try to be a good person,” I offered lamely. “It doesn’t matter what you call it.”
And I thought about that as I watched the sea drawn back into its lowest tide, stained in the strange light of a hidden sunset. In fact, I thought about it constantly in the days that followed, having suddenly so much time for contemplation. The element of water was the indisputable theme and architect of my psyche, washing, eroding, reshaping, and unearthing. The ranch had become a kind of island, and yet I was more aware than ever of my connection to others, of my community here and my membership in one greater.
One afternoon a physician neighbor, newly returned after having offered his services in Sri Lanka for a week or two, left his car on the other side of the creek, then walked across the railroad bridge and back onto the ranch. Sri Lanka. It seemed very far away and suddenly very near, connected by a trestle.
“Hold onto other hands in the water,” wrote Annie Dillard in a piece she read on NPR.
And the heartaches of the world pressed heavily upon us.
More rain was predicted. We did what we could, then sighed. We were down to the essence: simplified, renewed, washed clean perhaps, but damp and tattered and all in need of mending.
“Put more water in the soup,” wrote a friend in an e-mail, “there’s a better day a’comin’.”
Beneath the dome of wet sky, Indian paintbrush and small spears of orange poppies were sprouting on the hillsides, and I remembered cycles and hope and all the old promises of spring.