ContentsPutah and Cache: Lake Berryessa

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Making Home

Amy J. Boyer

I'm sitting on the edge of Lake Berryessa wearing a dead woman's hat. Her daughter, Theo, said, "I remember you looking for a good hiking hat," and after her mother died Theo flew Becky's hat all the way from Connecticut to California. The hat bespeaks Becky's practicality, being the floppy, circle-brimmed kind you can stuff in your pocket, with a chin strap for windy mountains.

I'd rather have Becky here, looking across the water to the serrated ridge that divides the lake from the Sacramento Valley, maybe scanning for osprey, maybe mulling over the fact that this lake is only a few years older than her first-born. I thought of wearing this hat as a way of bringing Becky along. The sweatband is still dark from her hiking; the hat smells pleasantly enough of her hair, not mine. But I'm reminded that the Wintun who lived here thought the lonely dead might be dangerous to the living, that it's proper to help them go. And the hat is somehow too heavy on my head. I hear pounding on a nearby oak; I say to Becky-in-the-hat, "Look, an acorn woodpecker," because Becky liked birds; and in my head I hear, "What do I have to do with acorn woodpeckers? I'm no longer living, and I never lived here."

So I could just hang the hat on the wall, in memoriam, but one of my memories of Becky is of my panting behind her as she charged up a steep, icy slope on rented skis. For static memory, I have photos. Her hat is for remembering her in motion. But it's true she has other business now, whatever business the dead have. And it was in Connecticut that she raised her children and taught her neighbor's children and tended her garden, while California has slowly become my home. So I take off her hat, and I baptize it in the waters of Lake Berryessa. I hang it on the exposed root of a tree stump that rises out of the water, and watch over it while Becky is released into the air.

I hadn't planned this ritual here, but it's fitting. We call it a lake; it is in fact a reservoir, one of the places where loss makes a home. Under the water, just to the northeast of me, are the drowned foundations of the razed houses of Monticello. The dam is the great tombstone that bears that town's name. No one died in that relocation; they were only scattered from their homes.The children who had to leave are grown women, mourning the afternoon ride from school on horseback, the races past the almond orchards. Letha Samuels is one; she said, "We bought that land, built on it, paid for it-and they could take it away!" Thirty years later, she is still shocked.

Her home was plain land, flat and hot, a narrow valley between high hills. But it was all bottom land, and all summer long the creek flowed full enough to irrigate the fields and orchards. Letha Samuels' daughter says "we never found land up to what we had in the Valley." It's so easy to lose land. Back in the gold rush, on the other side of the Sacramento Valley, the nozzles of the hydraulic miners washed out a little gold and a lot of tailings, enough to bury the orchards of Marysville ten feet deep in gravel; the fruit that land could have produced is worth more than the gold washed out of the tailings. Now water is gold, and the Berryessa Valley is buried under hundreds of feet of water that goes to other farms. Is their produce worth the lost town, worth these lost orchards? Which farmer answers, the one whose farm is watered, the one whose farm is drowned? Before the water came up, Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones photographed Monticello. Pirkle Jones caught two men black against a blazing house. Men burned down the houses, chopped down the trees and burned those, left nothing standing in the valley. Was it a cremation, so ghosts would not rise through the water and sink the boats buzzing across the lake today?

The town of Monticello was built on other losses, other ghosts. Jeff Knight's eyes hold the same grief as Letha Samuels' as he says, "What is an Indian? I don't know," though he's an enrolled member of the Middletown Rancheria, home to Pomo, Lake Miwok, and Wintun families. St. Louis is where Jeff grew up, in the projects, straight-up-and-down buildings made of the same stuff as the dam. His father had relocated there: "better to be assimilated than exterminated." The Patwin branch of the Wintun used to move up and down the Berryessa Valley, when it had a completely different name that I do not know. There were no white almond blossoms ranged in rows; there was the fractal order of oak groves, hung with the olive-green tassels of their flowering. There were no horses; there were antelope and grizzlies. For the Patwin and the people of Monticello, there must have been blackberries along Putah Creek, but there are no blackberries along the lake shore. The Patwin must have thought they would tend the oak groves and fish the salmon forever: it was fruitful land, they were good people, it should have fed them forever. The people of Monticello thought they would farm there forever: it was some of the best farmland anywhere, with good water, it should have been farmed forever. Theo and I thought her mother would live forever: she was plain and frank and kind, she should have lived forever.

But I am sitting here with a dead woman's hat over drowned farms that were built on cut-down oaks and the deaths of many Patwin. It is hard enough to grieve over Becky. It's said that women need to find other mothers than their own, women who can show them the things that their mother cannot pass on simply because she is only one person. Becky was one of my other mothers. Her big house, full of pictures from friends, held me more comfortably than my mother's at the time. Up in a room that had been her daughter's, she was writing a history of her town for its school children. She had just retired from teaching them. At ninety, she would have been telling stories to her grandchildren and those friends who checked on her in snow storms; they would have told each other stories: "she just loaded me down with tomatoes. . ." or "you know she was shoveling her walk when I got there!" She would have anchored her people to their past, and to the future in which they too would need to know how to be old. And she was showing me how to be a solitary person rooted in her community, something it will take me all my life to learn. She died at sixty-two of a lung cancer that was absolutely unsuspected till it appeared on an X-ray.

Here by the lake shore, anger raises me to my feet. I wade out to touch Becky's hat. It's drying fast, but it's still damp. I have never heard Theo rage in her mourning, but I have seen her stop in the middle of conversation, her face filling with grief: silence the speech of loss. My loss asks: Why? When things were so good, why did they change? Religions say, because it was God's will. Or because the nature of life is change. And religion does console me, but it does not answer the question completely. The x-ray was done because Becky had smoked for a while, in an era in which tobacco companies knew enough about nicotine addiction to manipulate the dosage of cigarettes for profit. The farms of Monticello drowned for the sake of profit down-stream. Some of the Pomo and Patwin and Miwok died because trappers seeking profit brought malaria as a by-product, and others died because pioneers seeking profit fought bloody battles with them for some of the most fertile land in the world.

Would I wish the tribes of this place returned to their land? Would I wish the orchards of Monticello still to bloom? Would I wish Becky still alive? Yes, all of those things, and I cannot have any of them. And would I wish that my ancestors had never colonized America, had never begun this chain of loss, that I had never come to live in this place that is home? No, though I wish there could have been some turning long ago, when my people met Jeff Knight's people and there was some chance of living together instead of conquering. And in my heart, I am not sure that an oak is better than an almond tree. Too many oaks have been cut, but one cannot have an almond orchard without changing the land on which it grows.

So here I am, a transplant from Northern Europe by way of Virginia, with a hat that was flown over from Connecticut, sitting above a lake that has no more right to be here than I do. And like me, the lake is impermanent. The Monticello dam was built over a fault, and those who believe in cataclysm fear the fault will move. For those who don't believe in cataclysm, there is the fact of erosion: the law of lakes is that they fill. I am sitting on bare siltstone, cracked and loosened by the workings of water and sun. Behind me is a shelf, crowned with oak trees; between the oaks and the siltstone were six feet of soil and rock, now washed by the lake's own waters into the lakebed. I scrabble up a square stone and discover clay under it; the stone is dissolving into its elements. I fling the stone into the water. It's satisfying, as if helping to fill the lake relieves the losses that made it. I scrabble up more stone, take a handful, fling them into the lake; they arc like falling stars before they splash.

And I remember ninth-grade science, how all the elements were made in the heat and pressure of stars, how hydrogen was crushed into helium, which was crushed into lithium, and so on up to uranium. Then the stars exploded, and somehow, miraculously, those elements coalesced into planets. Now they wonder if water came from comets, if the first amino acids came from meteorites. It's as though the arcing stones are remembering whence they came; and they remind me that everything I am was once a star. We all were stars. I think of us, fighting over land, drowning childhoods for water rights, making cigarettes for a living; it's as though, in the novas and supernovas that flung our atoms through the universe, we lost something we never have been able to regain, so we fight each other for land or money as though they could give it back.

It would be so easy to end here with some kind of benediction, to say that ah, if we remembered our true selves, we would have all of our Edens: the Berryessa valley with its old name, full of oaks and salmon and women chatting in Patwin; yet somehow with the almond orchards flowering in pockets, the children racing horses through them; and Becky and Theo standing here, Becky training her binoculars on the acorn woodpecker.

Instead I am flinging stones into this reservoir, and watching them splash alone.

Not wholly alone. I am surrounded by women remembering the drowned town, by men remembering the salmon and trying to remember their language. I never asked for this lake to be built. I never asked for these people's suffering. It must be as heavy as all the water in this lake, too heavy for anyone to carry. But I do carry it. My eyes hold the same grief as Letha's or Jeff's. If I but know their grief as my own, then loss roots me here among them as surely as blood or land.

That is all the benediction I have.

One more handful of stones I throw, and they fall, away from what is, into what was, and what might have been. I take Becky's hat from that shorn stump. The hat is dry, and I put it on my head. It really is lighter now. I will take her hat up hills and over streams, from valley to mountain. I will remember her in motion, and the racing horses of the Monticello children, and the slow migrations of the Patwin. And the lake will fill, slowly, inexorably, and unimaginable miles away a star will fling itself out across everything.

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