‘Land Logic’

When I turned 18, one of the birthday presents I got was a book-length poem called “The Donner Party.” I sold the book during a no-income period in my mid-20s, but as soon as I had some cash I went back to the used-book store that had taken it off my hands. It was still on the shelves, along with another book I’d sold, a picture biography of Yeats. I bought them back, though I was unable to find a third book I’d parted with–“Twenty Years A-Growing,” by Maurice O’Sullivan, which my Uncle Dick had given me. I found a copy of that eventually, but not mine. I still look for it.

Back to “The Donner Party,” which is right here beside me. It’s a retelling of a story of which everyone knows the shorthand version: pioneers, wagons, mountains, snow, death, cannibals. The book’s by a California poet named George Keithley, who taught (maybe still teaches) up at Chico State. The poetry is mostly blank-verse. It feels plain and authentic and sounds like it was transcribed by firelight.

Here’s one passage that has always stayed with me from a chapter called “Land Logic.” It takes place after the party’s disastrous crossing of Utah, with all of Nevada to cross before the ascent of the Sierra Nevada and hoped-for arrival in California’s Sacramento Valley

We wanted only to rest, at this juncture.
Seeing the snows, no one wished to look back
on our bad luck or talk of it anymore.

Reflection only led us to deplore
the sudden end of summer and lament
the time we wasted in this trap. Whole days

spent unloading. Stupid disputes. Delays
caused by the cattle roaming or Hastings’ wrong
advice … We were warned that to survive

we must lay up grass and water for a dry drive
of two days. Which means at worst we might
travel a day and a night—where we instead

wandered a week in the desert and left dead
a third of our herd of cattle. Add a third
of the wagons abandoned, still it doesn’t explain

all the destruction done. We could never regain
the time taken, or our goods or livestock left
on the salt. But this was not the only cost.

There is a land logic which we lost …
A sense of the likelihood of new terrain
to sustain us. The same logic that lives

in our blood, telling us that bottomland gives
promise for planting. Or for example
the simple certainty that we would find

spring water among rocks when the sun reclined
on green slopes gleaming like good pasture.
But we hurried out only to discover

a prickly patch of greasewood growing over
the dry soil, white with alkali…
Nothing in nature was what it might seem!

The promise of finding forage by a stream
proved false as well—both banks were bare
although the current there cut swift and deep.

We lost the last advantage which could keep
our company from harm. It was this sense
of the land that had departed in a dream
while we went on like souls that are still asleep.

Road Kill and Us


My brother John’s comment about the previous post–about the picture of the dead fawn–reminded me of a book by Barry Lopez. It’s titled not “Requiem,” as I remembered it, but “Apologia.” Here’s the opening:

A few miles east of home in the Cascades I slow down and pull over for two raccoons, sprawled still as stones in the road. I carry them to the side and lay them in sun-shot, windblown grass in the barrow pit. In eastern Oregon, along U.S. 20, black-tailed jackrabbits lie like welts of sod–three, four, then a fifth. By the bridge over Jordan Creek, just shy of the Idaho border in the drainage of the Owyhee River, a crumpled adolescent porcupine leers up almost maniacally over its blood-flecked teeth. I carry each one away from the tarmac into a cover of grass or brush out of decency, I think. And worry. Who are these animals, their lights gone out? What journeys have fallen apart here?

Berkeley Wildlife: Street Deer


I’ve mentioned several times in the last couple of years–here and here, for instance–that it has become pretty commonplace to encounter deer here in the Berkeley flatlands (and in the hills, some deer are getting ornery.) Still, today’s experience broke new ground. First, during a noontime walk, The Dog startled a good-sized young adult deer–I’m guessing it was a male–that had been browsing the plants along a driveway adjacent to a vacant lot or overgrown backyard on Monterey Street. The deer bolted into the trees and watched us. Then a woman pulled into the driveway. She said she wasn’t surprised we had happened upon the deer. “There’s a family of three living in there,” she said. “The poor things are just running out of room.” She also mentioned that a dead deer was lying on the street nearby. Hit by a car? I asked. “No–it must have been sick. It doesn’t look like it was injured.” She added that someone had called Berkeley Animal Control.

Her description didn’t prepare me for the fawn that lay along the sidewalk two doors down. A beautiful animal. Surprisingly, The Dog wasn’t interested. I took a few pictures, and we continued on our walk. When we get home, I called animal control myself. When someone came on the line, I told them I wanted to report a dead deer on a street in North Berkeley. “Would that be the one on … Monterey?” the attendant asked. “Yeah, that’s the one.” “We already know about that,” she said. “Any ETA for when you might be out there?” “No. We have one officer in the field, and emergency calls come first. So ….”

I wonder how long it will take word to spread in the carrion-eating community of the choice meal awaiting out there.

Never Fear


On Eighth Street, between Bryant and Brannon. This is the base of the massive supports that carry U.S. 101 at its junction with the beginning/end of Interstate 80. I like the serial messages.

Digital Existence, Bane of


I’m still using an iBook G4 laptop I bought six years ago. I’ll knock on wood and note also that it’s not as impressive as it seems. I had a hard drive die when the computer was in its third year, and I’m running on a refurbished one that Apple installed “free”–I had bought the long-term service plan. Although I got a functional computer out of the deal, I hadn’t backed up the big library of pictures on the original drive. That included a bunch of nice shots from a trip down to Southern Illinois my dad and I took in 2004.

Being a bottom-of-the-line machine from ancient times, the iBook doesn’t have a huge hard drive. It’s got about 25 gigabytes of total storage. I now back things up on a 200-gigabyte drive I bought after the Mac died. But here’s the thing about the pictures I download: I always want to sort through them and post some online and maybe someday do something ambitious such as actually make photo albums for relatives or friends. So I tend to keep them on the laptop than dump them on to the external drive (from which I have to transfer them to edit them). Of course, those projects, big and small, tend to get put off. So my laptop drive still gets eaten up, and I have accumulated a big pile of pictures I think about but do nothing with. Such as the ones here.

They’re nearly a year old. I took them during a drive Kate, my dad, and my brother John made to Lake Pymatuning, on the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line during our visit to Lake Erie last August. More specifically, these are pictures of carp that congregate at a spillway between the eastern and western sections of the lake. Why do they congregate there. Because the nice people who stop to see the sights throw them food; a nearby concession stand sells loaves of bread for tourists to throw, slice by slice, into the roiling mass of eager fish. I have about 20 pictures of the scene I took and another couple of dozen from my brother. I would say we documented the scene well. The question remains, do the carp go on to a less hellish-looking existence after the people leave for the day

Maybe now, having posted this, I can store the pictures on some other drive and move on to the next scene from last summer’s travels. After that, I might get to the pile of images still left to sort through from our 2008 trip to Japan. It could happen.