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Beulahland

Sarah H. Motley

On the long curve just west of Winters, out on Route 128, there's a fence, without a gate. The barbed wire can be spread apart just enough to allow careful climbing-through, and for many years of my childhood, and a few instances beyond, this was the opening to a world of wonder, beauty and freedom. "Let's go to the foothills today, please, can we, please??" was a typical Saturday morning request, and my dad often more than gladly obliged. Way back then, there was no thought of 'trespassing,' the cattle didn't seem to mind, and we never encountered another human being. Later, there was the slight excitement and fear of being caught; now, I won't jump that fence with my own family.

It was the hills and everything about them that drew us: grassy space for open running, frisbee-throwing, dog-fetching; there was also enough topological variation for there to be enclosures, hiding places, roll-down-the-hill or climb-to-the-top races. The oaks looked on, stately, ancient, benign-not telling our secrets and not caring who won. We stepped around, and the dog rolled in, cow-patties, much to our disgust and delight. We went to the foothills whether it was sunny or gray, but mostly in spring and fall, when they were more apt to be green (and winters were for skiing, summers for farming)—it didn't matter; the foothills were our adventureland, our magic kingdom.

My earliest vivid memory actually took place on a foothill hike one rare Saturday when we jumped another fence, I think in the Capay Valley, or somewhere close to it. The landscape was more hilly; it was a wet and drippy day, and we walked along a small stream, crowded about by trees and bushes, slipping on mossy rocks. It was so quiet. A spider web near the water was heavily decorated with dew, holding the weight. I can remember somehow wanting to pray, or something—I'm not sure, but something a five-or-six-year-old girl feels when the hush around her, the happiness of the people she's with, and quiet relief from the unseen weight of a family with too few such moments breathe through her—all's well—at least for now. Prayer is still possible for me almost only when I walk, and wait, and watch.

I left home for college, into the city, tried to hike in Tilden Park, but the landscape wasn't right. Came home for weekends, but no longer lived here. A year after my father's death, I went to the hills to read the burial office from the book of common prayer; I wept, and prayed, but as much because neither my mother nor Mother Earth could comfort me. So I soon left the west, for a one-year fellowship to Harvard Divinity School—and didn't come back for twenty-seven years. My world was urban then, and I gave myself to the struggles of homelessness, racism and being an ordained woman in the first years of that cataclysmic reform in the Episcopal Church. In those years I looked and looked for a place to ramble, with no luck whatsoever in Massachusetts, and a semblance in central New Jersey. I did visit Davis, though rarely. Staying in geographical and emotional exile, I was sure I would never return. When my mother died, we took her ashes to the Pacific as she wished, back into the salty womb from which we all emerged—but my brother later discovered that a few of them were left in the carrying pouch, and, one quiet afternoon, took them up Cold Creek Canyon to leave in, or near, the place where our family had had moments of abandon and joy.

In my adult life, after nearly thirty years living on the east coast, through a slow series of circumstances, I finally moved back. I tiptoed back, to be more accurate—I had developed and discovered relationships and communities in my eastern habitat that sustained and challenged me, if never quite giving me a sense of place. It turned out, however, as these things can, that my agriculturalist husband, rooted though he was in New Jersey, had found his adult life overseas in a wild variety of settings; and when introduced to California he declared, 'I've always felt at home in foreign countries'—so after a few years of bi-coastal living, we finally succumbed to the westward continental drift, and came back.

We don't have a place in the hills or the farmland—yet. But where we live, there are community gardens, and this spring my husband, who is part plant, finally got his little plot. We went out to turn over the first shovel of dirt, and he asked me to bless it. Oh. A psalm came to mind, but also, a scene from One Hundred Years of Solitude where a half-crazy young woman eats dirt. Even when I read that back in college, I knew what she was doing—she was receiving communion—'this is my body...''taste and see that the lord is good...''ashes to ashes, dust to dust...' So we each took a piece of the soil and put it on our tongues, and it was good, very very good—as are the strawberries, greens, scallions, radishes, flowers and all manner of other beings that are jumping up out of the ground. Thank you hills, rain, creeks, grasses, time, sun, tectonic plates; snakes, birds, bobcats, spiders, cows, sheep, clouds, sky, stars and moon and—welcome, returning salmon! Or, to put it simply, thank you God.

A few months later, we are driving back from the arts festival at Guenoc, on the most beautiful, soft, velvety spring afternoon I can ever remember in these hills. After the brief stop at the festival, we're quiet in the car, singing now and then, eating mints, 'Old Goldy' (our family name for the sun) setting in glory behind hills and clouds. Then—pop! My daughter's first tooth pops right out—blood, tears, laughter, change places in the car so Mommy can sit next to her—she has waited and worked on this one, and is absolutely (completely uncharacteristically) silent for the entire rest of the spectacular trip home. Something new has happened—a milestone in all our lives—a rite of passage. She knows it. I rejoice that it happened here in these hills, with all of us together. I want to plant her little tooth in the soil up there, but the tooth fairy's ransom will not be denied.

The prophet Isaiah (chapter 60 v.4) tells the Hebrew people how the land and the right way of living are inextricably intertwined:

The nations then will see your integrity,

and all the kings your glory,

and you will be called by a new name,

one which the mouth of Yahweh will confer.

You are to be a crown of splendor in the hand of Yahweh,

and princely diadem in the hand of your God;

no longer are you to be named 'Forsaken',

nor your land 'Abandoned',

but you shall be called 'My Delight'

and your land 'The Wedded'*

for Yahweh takes delight in you

and your land will have its wedding.

For now, I know I brought back to this valley and these hills an older, wiser and wearier woman, but to my surprise and delight have found the young girl I once was waiting for me too. My prayerwalks are out along the 'olive drive' to the university airport, past 'bee biology way' and the enology facility, with crows and breezes, past rusting ancient farm equipment, inhaling aromas from the cow barns, aromas that every summer evening of my youth mixed with cut alfalfa to perfume the delta breezes that cooled us. I've read the Times Book Review enough to be suspicious of easy 'sentimentalism' or of mistaking nostalgia for wisdom—and so I find myself attempting to limit, if not entirely refrain from, telling about 'the way it used to be.' But people in this area have to tell those stories now, as the developers seemingly won't be satisfied until the central valley from Vacaville to Roseville is another Los Angeles basin-telling of what it means to have this landscape shape and sustain a heart, soul and mind. The biologists call it imprinting; the bible calls it blessing; it does not matter which discipline's language is used—I am 'married to this land.'

* literally, 'beulah'

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