Thursday, August 11, 2011

The mountains know everything

As you read this, I am in Sacramento, the capital city of California and the most prominent metropolis of the Central Valley, and a place where I've lived since the mid-1980s.

But there is so much more to the Valley than Sacramento, including our poets and artists. Above Central Valley towers the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I've been taking a few days for hiking and enjoying the clean clear mountain air.

Yesterday came the announcement that a native son of the Central Valley, Phillip Levine, has been named the nation's Poet Laureate. He is a professor at Fresno State University, and his honors include a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. Here is a poem he wrote about the Central Valley that I share with you:

Our Valley
By Phillip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
Painting, Flatland River, 1997, Wayne Thiebaud

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