ContentsPutah and Cache: Davis

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Exotic and Native

Jim Barilla

"Discover the schools, discover the quality of life, discover Davis!" Behind the signs we see the fields, speckled red with the remnants of tomatoes, fluffed with missed cotton, but mostly naked and geometric and vast. A whirlwind chews at the bare soil. From old Atlantic mountains to this exit at Covell Boulevard, we've arrived.

When we walked inside the place where we would live Nicola broke down and cried. I can't call it suspense, pulling into the parking lot of a place we have never been before, never seen, but know we will call home. Or perhaps we will withhold that word, call it the apartment, the unit, this place. Dread, that's what I recall, ascending the concrete slabs of the stairs to the concrete landing and turning the key, not so much for what we would find but for what we would remember. I expected the beige shag wall to wall, the cream drapes, the particle board cabinets disguised with sheets of walnut grained plastic, and our belongings, the mementos of life in Vermont, a cardboard mountain in the center of the room.

I dreaded the nostalgia. I fancied myself impervious to material desires, and yet I found myself recalling the farmhouse we lived in, how the floorboards were white pine, two feet wide, how the bathtub had claws, how I believed someone had tested an engagement ring by scratching their signature into a beveled windowpane. For months after we arrived in California, I woke up each morning in Vermont and looked out the window to see if it was snowing, following the path of the snowflakes down into consciousness and finding instead the branch of an almond stroking our window in the rain.

The Harvest

At eight in the morning they begin, like a chorus of chainsaws, blowing leaves, these small and sun darkened immigrants, engulfed in a haze of their own making. Strapped to a roaring between the shoulder blades, making prim piles by the curb, they remind me of honeybees trapped in a jar, with wings that despite all their buzzing can't take to the air. They work in vain. By night the fecundity of the place gathers, threatens to obliterate the concrete with spent blooms and redundant leaves, thorns and twigs, with pollen and pods, nuts and plums, figs, olives, persimmons and peaches, all fermenting and staining and smelling of soil in the making.

Now the wind blows and shakes the walnuts off the trees, and families appear with rakes along Russell Boulevard, fill milk pails and burlap bags with green and blackening fruit as the traffic streams past. As I drive by I find myself horrified and fascinated. Those nuts are ours, I think, they can't have those. Aren't they embarrassed? They must be poor; I think. They must not be able to afford to buy nuts in the supermarket. They must be immigrants, I think; Americans wouldn't be seen getting food for free from the side of the road.

By June I'm a forager myself.

I've never seen oranges piled up with the grass clippings by the curb, or seen peaches spattered over the sidewalk like marmalade, seen the husks of pomegranates dangling like old shoes from the bough. I walk by and want to reach out and tug a persimmon from its branch, but I'm embarrassed. I don't want people to think I'm stealing. I keep waiting for the owners to come and harvest, but nobody comes. I watch the figs and persimmons ripen, tumble and rot. Pomegranates split and spill; my bike tires slide over Asian pear pulp. How can they waste these, I wonder—we pay extravagant prices for these, just for one. A smell like cheap booze lingers after the yellow jackets have disappeared.

I begin to believe that, like the walnuts, the fruit that grows along the sidewalks must belong to nobody, or to anyone willing to pick it, the way you might pick wild blueberries along a trail in Vermont. But I'm wrong. The cherries begin to ripen in Village Homes. There are groves of cherry trees, just down the path from the clusters of persimmons and figs I watched go to waste in the fall. Cherries, Bing and Oxheart and Rainier; right there on the tree; I am delirious in their presence, in the chafing of their stems. I engulf them so swiftly a pit slides down my throat, making me gulp like a scrub jay. For the first time I am happy to be right here, under these trees, as if I have been blessed by this place. I make an evening ritual of walking over to the orchard and filling a pocket with cherries, spouting the pits as I walk home.

Soon after a yellow sign appears under the trees. "VHA members only welcome to pick," the sign says. It's as if the sign has my name on it, as if it says you don't own these, these are ours, ours to waste if we choose. It's written in English, but also in several other languages, with alphabets I don't recognize. Farsi? Arabic? Hmong?

That night I sit at home, brooding, and survey the limits of our dominion, our cement balcony with its green steel rail. Here I have planted a lemon tree, which sports one lemon. I've planted strawberries in a wooden box, a gardenia, an azalea, in pots. Here I can do what I like, grow and harvest what I please. Our neighbor's television squawks and chuckles to itself behind a curtain. Someone's dog barks downstairs. I get up and go out the door and get on my bike. I know where I'm riding but I don't know that I'm going to do more than just look until I get there and set down my bike. In the dark the trees have neither leaves nor branches; they have rough hands and big knees and they mutter in their sleep when a breeze passes. I fondle along the length of a sagging arm and down past the elbow my hand grazes clusters of fruit and I strip them down, a handful. I crush one in my mouth, a thief now like those defiant and nocturnal others, the raccoons, the skunks, and like those defiant thieves by day, the jays, the crows. In the darkness under the trees I can't read that sign.

Learning the Landscape

We have come to Cold Canyon, yearning for the uncultivated, and now it's getting dark and there are rustlings in the brush above us. "I think it was a joke, don't worry," I say to Nicola. At the trailhead, among the notes marveling at the beauty of the place and complaining about the encroachment of poison oak were two messages: "8/24/98—Saw a mountain lion above the path near the old foundation," and then, in a jittery scrawl, "9/1/98—Nearly got fucked by a lion. About 15 feet away on trail. This is no joke! Bring a gun!" As if to legitimize this anonymous warning, a bullet-pocked sign nearby cautions us that lions have been sighted in the vicinity.

"I'm not worrying," Nicola says, and then "What was that?" as a stick snaps above us. We both pause and look up into the bushes which are, strangely, in bloom. We can't see anything but the creamy puffs of their flowers. Moths and bees and flies spiral around us; a strong perfume of sage and honey hangs in the air. "It's very unusual for a mountain lion to attack humans," I say, thinking all the while that they've been known to pounce on small women. I keep this to myself. "Just stay close. We'll be fine." We travel along the base of the canyon, ascending into damp groves of trees and then emerging into stretches of brush and tawny grass. "I'm more worried about snakes," she says. I keep turning backward as if I have something to say, but really I'm straining to catch the scuff of a paw on our path. "Don't worry about snakes," I say. "They're not going to be on the trail. What we really need to worry about is the poison oak. You're brushing against it again. Right there, with the red leaves." "This?" "I think so." "This too?" "Yes, I think so. Well, actually, that looks like it has an acorn. That might be a real oak."

We haven't gone very far when we decide to turn back. Up ahead is a ledge, jutting out over the trail, with plenty of nooks for a predator to hide while it waits for prey to wander underneath. We stop and scan the ridgelines for movement, pass the water bottle between us for a swig. I screw the lid tight and zip up my pack. "It's getting dark," I say. Outside the canyon it's still just late afternoon, but down here the sun has already departed for the day. "If a lion attacks, what do you do?" she asks me. "Play dead?" "No. No. That's the worst thing you can do. You want to put your arms up above your head and yell so the lion doesn't think you're a deer." I flap my arms and grimace like a Neanderthal. "Make yourself look bigger." She looks down at her arms, appraises the distance between shoulder and feet. "Great," she says.

As we head back I'm reminded of the way deer cross open ground, when they haven't scented anything yet, but are watching, above and behind, and listening. They tiptoe and pause, tiptoe and pause, until they are safe. I stop short, listening to some creature scamper up the ridge above us. "What is it?" Nicola asks. "I don't know. A squirrel, I think." It sounds bigger than a squirrel. "This is spooking me. Let's get out of here," she says. "Okay, but don't run. Just walk slow." "Why?" "Because running triggers the attack instinct. It makes you look like a deer to them. That's why they go after joggers." I set the pace—a stiff-legged trot. We fast walk and stop, fast walk and stop, back down the dry creek bed and through the crisp and yellowed remains of the weeds with their spine-tipped stalks spearing our legs as we brush past and finally there is the trailhead register where we can catch our breath. Like the rest of the trail, the coyotes have marked this spot with their pale and fibrous scat. We look at the messages again. The shaky script looks feigned now, the exclamation points too emphatic. "Definitely a joke," I say. The register sits inside a metal box. I close the lid.

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