Was It Wild?

Boy Scout path, La Loma Park, Berkeley.

Late Guy Fawkes afternoon, the last bit of daylight before we turned the clock back an hour from “savings” to standard, I hiked up into the hills. It’s one of the best things about living here in Berkeley, the fact you can stroll out your front door and walk for miles and miles in any direction; and if you choose to head east and up, you’ll soon be far above the grid of city streets.

It was a misty, drizzly afternoon, with clouds hanging low. Less than half an hour from home, I reached the point where those clouds manifested themselves as fog and the mist and drizzle turned to on and off rain. I stopped at La Loma Park, an old quarry whose main features are a nice playground and baseball field, a working restroom, and, in clear weather, a view over the town below.

I stayed and listened. The dusk deepened and the fog seemed to dampen the noise that normally would wash up the hills from the freeway and street traffic and trains below. A single bird — a great horned owl if an app is to be believed — began calling.

After 15 or 20 minutes, I continued up the hill as it got dark, taking a series of stairways that bring you all the way up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Then it was downhill through the rain and fog in the dark.

All this reminded me of a nighttime walk many years ago, when my friend Gerry and I landed on the doorstep of a distant Irish cousin, Michael Joe O’Malley, for a nearly monthlong stay. This was on an island off the coast of County Mayo where at the time very few dwellings had electricity. There were no paved roads. Streetlights? No. One evening we hiked in the rain over to another cousin’s home. It might have been 10 o’clock when we departed on our return walk. The more civilized route would have been along a shore road to the dock and post office, the center of a little collection of houses. Instead, we walked up the road (a muddy track, really) over a steep ridge that led more directly to Michael Joe’s. I see from the journal I kept that the weather was clearing on the way back, and the moon was up. But on some stretches of the road, the darkness felt close and absolute, so dark, in fact, that I walked straight into a gate across the road without seeing it. It was kind of thrilling to be out alone in such a remote place by ourselves.

When we got back to Michael Joe’s, he was up listening to the BBC, as always.

“Did you walk up?” he asked. “Yeah. Up around the back,” I said.

“Around the dock?” “No, up around the back way.”

“Over the mountain?” “Yes.”

“Was it wild?”

And there was something in the way Michael Joe asked that last question that has stuck in my brain all these years without ever looking at the journal entry from that night. “Was it wild?” The way I heard it, anyway, he was asking whether we recognized what an adventure we’d just had and what we thought of it. My answer, in the moment, was, “It was beautiful.”

I have no way of really remembering what we saw as we walked “over the mountain” that night. My journal talks about moonlight on the sea, clouds scudding past, the sight of the shoreline on the mainland and nearby islands, the sound of the wind.

The Berkeley hills are not the west of Ireland, of course. Too much light. Too many cars with too-bright headlights. Houses crowded one upon the other ablaze with light. Yet that gloom in the city park and in the winding streets was wild in its own way.

Guest Observation: Jem Casey

In honor of the day. From Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds,” whence this comes, and where it might be better appreciated in context.

Workman’s Friend (or, A Pint of Plain)

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –

When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

In times of trouble and lousy strife,
You still have got a darlint plan,
You still can turn to a brighter life –

“… There’s one thing in that pome, permanence, if you know what I mean. That pome, I mean to say, is a pome that’ll be heard wherever the Irish race is wont to gather, it’ll live as long as there’s a hard root of an Irishman left by the Almighty on this planet, mark my words.”

Nellie Bly and Me

Here’s the book I was contributing to in late 2007 and through May 2008: “Irish American Chronicle.” (Me, I would have called it “The Irish American Chronicle”; but I’m hung up on articles, I guess.)


Anyway, UPS deposited a heavy box on the porch on Friday. Part of my payment, in addition to a writing credit and that old standby, cash, was nine copies of the book. It’s a coffee table number, and definitely in the popular/pictorial history vein.

I could go into my many quibbles with this kind of book, starting with the suspicions stirred upon encountering a foreword by the noted scholar Maureen O’Hara. But I won’t. It was a nice surprise to get the book, which I’d long ago stopped thinking about. For the most part, it’s well written and edited. I got a chance to research and write about a lot of fascinating subjects: Nellie Bly, for instance, who was both a pioneering (Irish-American) journalist and inventor of the 55-gallon oil drum (check out this article — a PDF file — from the American Oil & Gas Historical Society).

Besides, the book’s got lots of nice pictures. Now I have an entry in the Library of Congress database. And eight books to give away.