Authors: Daniel Duane
Soon, we learned that we had a healthy girl on the way. Liz, far and away the more resilient of us, began to let go of our loss and love the new life in her womb. That was the beauty of getting pregnant again: the physical imperative toward hope. She told me it wasn't a choice, it didn't require willpower; it just was, and it helped assuage the agony of a life lost. I hadn't been through what Liz had been throughâit can't have been as bad, being the manâbut I struggled to feel buoyed in the same way. Even out surfing, under the autumn sky austere and beautifulânone of my surf buddies around, big clouds and rain over Twin Peaks and sunset light breaking through low and goldenâI felt preoccupied with death, with my limited time on earth. These thoughts did become worrisome, for a while: I woke up one morning feeling so bleak and sick of myself that a picture of a semiautomatic pistol entered my mind, presenting itself as a solution. Not that I wanted to die. I knew even then there was a big difference between suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions. But my mind had crossed that line from thinking I should off my shitty self to settling on a method, and it startled me out of my stupor, turned my heart toward a determination to survive all this, pull myself together.
Driving in Berkeley, not long after, with Hannah in the rear and Liz pregnant beside her, I glimpsed a bus-stop bench and saw myself, less than ten years old, sitting on that very bench. I recalled an elderly woman commenting on my pretty hair. Nothing odd about the memoryâjust an instant when a kind woman said what lovely hair I had, and how it was a shame it wasn't on a girl. She'd been right, I recalled. That hair was long gone, dulled into my adult beige, but I'd had golden-red strawberry blond hair as a child, soft as silk. I did not recall feeling bothered by that woman's comment, nor creeped out. I recalled thinking she was nice. And now I was driving with my daughter who was happy
and lovely, and with my wife who was now pregnant, and with the memory of that boy-who-never-was, and I'm thirty-seven years old and wanting this next pregnancy, a girl, to work out, but afraid to let myself hope. And I'm not so young, and I won't be around for all of Hannah's life because parents never are, and that's awful, and we're driving to see my mother and father, and my sister pregnant from a new-but-terrific boyfriend, and yet it's also all suffused with beauty and good fortune. So I'm seeing myself six years old, maybe eight, maybe ten, sitting on that bench with an old woman now dead for sure. Perhaps I had a skateboard, that day, and the little-boy me can't see that Subaru from the future drive past with himself at age thirty-seven looking out and starting to cry at the time gone by, the impossible speed of life. I tell Liz all this, and she's kind but isn't prone to such fanciful thinking. Then, because life is like this, I'm on my father's present-day floor for real, helping Hannah play with toys my mom has brought her, and hearing about Dad's climbing adventures. I can't believe my luck at simply getting to have a wife and daughter and sister and parents, all alive, grandparents buying toys for Hannah and being kind to her. So I tell my father that I feel like I'm on a bullet train in my own life. I'm in the dining car, maybe, and it's warm and cozy and friends are talking and they're serving foie and Sauternes but it's also moving too fast. If I glance out one window I see the face of that fetus's death, my own death (my father's death, too, though I don't tell him that), and all the photographs of children dead in their parents' arms in this South Asian tsunami that has just happened. Cancer diagnosis next week, car wreck the month after, colossal earthquake and we lose everything. Or, glance out the other window, on life's imaginary bullet train, and I'm walking on Bernal Hill at dusk with Hannah and our ridiculous dog, Sylvie, and with my visibly pregnant sweetheart,
Liz. It's winter, maybe, so the western sky glows luminescent orange behind Twin Peaks, and deep blue overhead. The city lights come up bright and sharp, the hills all outlined in black, and it's all unbearably beautiful, even if I can only be here for ten minutes before rushing home to cook dinner and give our great kid a bath and read her
and, as ever, fall asleep on her floor, holding her tiny hand in my own. But still, there I am on Bernal Hill, holding Hannah up in my arms, pointing to a distant copse of eucalyptus trees silhouetted black on the hot orange sky. I point out these trees to Hannah because I want her to see the beauty of the world. She always does, and she says, in her soft, lovely little voice, “Can I go there someday?” The question feels like a beautiful knife in my heart. “Someday?”
Will I be around?
My own days seem so finiteâknowable, countable. But now the waiter's returning with the main course, the roast chicken or pepper steak with a different wine pairing, and different friends are joining us, and if we don't glance out the window we won't see death. We won't see the guarantee of loss and suffering, and yet we won't see the aching beauty of the world, either. Maybe that's fine, I'm telling my father. Maybe it's okay to keep the dinner table so full of friends that only occasional over-the-shoulder glimpses-out-the-window even tempt you, and even then only in fleeting reflexes, so that about the time you've even noticed the death's-head in the clouds or the haunting warmth of the harvest moon, you've already snapped back to hear what somebody's telling you about Bordeaux futures, or the new butcher shop in Hayes Valley. Not that food or wine can make any genuine pain go away, or lift the burden of the past. But it turns out they can help a little, if you know the right tricks, and that counts for something.
Heaven on earth, eternal sensory pleasure taken from the creation itself, in one long Edenic orgy among the organic apple trees: read Alice's cookbooks closely enough, and with enough wide-eyed yearning, and the core Chez Panisse dream comes to look very much like this. It's as if the pain of history, the toxic impurity of the mechanized present, and even the tragedies awaiting every one of us, in the passage of time, might fade to pink in the soft worship of a tongue savoring a peach at the height of ripeness, a late-summer's tomato drizzled with good local olive oil, a line-caught California King salmon grilled in fig leaves on a redwood deck overlooking a sublime Pacific Ocean sunset among sophisticated wine-loving surfer friends equally skilled at oyster shucking, locating the G-spot, and selecting the right vintage of California cult Cabernet Sauvignon to go with herb-crusted Sonoma county rack of lamb and rosemary-garlic new potatoes. Nothing new about this, eitherâtruly timeless human aches for simpler worlds in which the forest might always teem with game, the hedgerow with berries, the creek with fish, the Happy Hunting Ground of certain Native American traditions.
I found myself drawn to these dreams in the period of my recovery from that loss, beginning with a magazine assignment
that got me on a plane to Anchorage, Alaska, and then out to Homer, and then onto a hired motorboat headed for a fishing lodge. Once we'd loaded my luggage, that boat ferried me through Homer's little marina, past storm-battered Bering Sea crab boats moored alongside beaten-up purse-seiners and long-liners with dented aluminum bait shacks. We entered the open waters of Kachemak Bay, cruising below giant ice-covered mountains and rivers draining through sweeping spruce forests, past rocks roaring with the squawks of ten thousand seabirds, alongside sea lions and otters and kelp beds. I disembarked at a private little dock and carried my bags into the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, where I'd booked a private cottage perched among evergreens on a sunny bluff over the bright blue estuary.
I'd come for the salmon fishing, but I'd never been much of a hook-and-bullet guy. So I got a morning clinic from a guide named Josiah, a burly New Englander with a Moby Dick tattoo on his forearm. Then Josiah revved up the outboard on a Boston Whaler and took me into the glassy-flat waters of China Poot Bay. Eagles sat in the big Sitka spruce. Bears wandered along vast, vacant cobblestone beaches. Pink salmon schooled below the boat, heading inland to spawn and die. Josiah did everything, baiting my hook and casting my lure and getting a big, gorgeous fish on the line. The silver salmon rocketed away from the boat, zipping out the reel. Josiah handed me the rod and said, “Okay, when he turns back toward us, be ready. Reel in fast.”
I held the rod's tip up, keeping the hook in the salmon's lip. Josiah grabbed the net and leaned his barrel chest against the gunwale, ready to scoop. The salmon shot off to one side, then to the other. Then it bolted straight away, knifing my taut line through that mirror surface.
“Damn, look at that,” Josiah said. A dozen sea lions had just
rolled off a sandbar. They swam toward us. “It's hard to compete with two million years of evolution,” Josiah said. “Don't lose this fish, because there won't be any left when those guys get here.”
I stumbled for balance as the fish made another run toward me and then hauled into a U-turn, showing us a broadside of its long body. Josiah sensed a yielding, so he had me pull the fish back toward us, wearing it down. Then Josiah stuck out his thick Moby Dick arm and scooped up fifteen pounds of shining, writhing salmon. He pierced the salmon's heart with a knife and blood gurgled out. We motored back toward the lodge so that Josiah could teach me how to gut it and then preserve it for the flight back to California. While Josiah concentrated on driving the boat, I thought about the seals and the bears and the eagles already eating their share of the fish all around. I said, “Hey, Josiah, what exactly are those crabs I'm seeing?”
Right. Just Dungeness. “And is that seaweed edible?”
He stopped the boat so I could reel in a head of emerald greenery that was not only tender, toothsome, and delicately flavored but, because we were in a tidal interface of clean seawater and pure mountain stream water, perfectly seasoned.
“While we're at it, Josiah, I'm noticing an awful lot of urchin down there on the bottom, like that sea otter keeps eating. They aren't by any chance â¦”
Soon I'd sunk an arm dragging Josiah's net on the bottom, bringing up bristly orbs. Josiah cracked them with his Leatherman. We scooped out sweet, creamy orange
, discovering what the stuff in sushi restaurants is
to taste like. FernÃ¡ndezArmesto, in
Near a Thousand Tables
, celebrates the oyster as the closest anybody comes to a genuinely natural food, untainted by commercial breeding and typically eaten uncooked and alive,
linking us to the most ancient of paleo-human oyster eaters. Equally true of urchin, a way to slurp that pure taste of the sea.
Once ashore, Josiah had me slit the big salmon's belly and pull out its entrails. He pointed out egg sacs, bright pink: yep, like you can buy in a store, sold salted, salmon caviar. One of those big eagles sat nearby, in a spruce, waiting for my leftovers. This made me feel possessive, so I slipped the eggs into my mouthâsweet and saline, popping between my teeth. I tossed the guts onto the rocks. After a shower and a change of clothes in my cottage, I joined the other lodge guests for local oysters and blue mussels, flicking all the empty shells off the sun-bathed dock and back into the bay from whence they'd come. Word had it that a pair of eagle chicks could easily be seen in a big tree overhanging a nearby beach. So I stumbled into the woods after dinner, into the sweet golden glow of the long dusk. I found those chicks laughably huge, in a gargantuan nest. Then my attention wandered: the forest around me was a wild berry patch. In the space of an hour, I picked and ate bright, tart elderberries, salmon-colored salmon berries, high-bush cranberries and service berries and watermelon berries, and all that before I discovered a raspberry thicket. A few sheets to the wind from all the wine I'd drunk with mussels, I leaned hard against a log-pole railing the staff had built along the path.
Stretching again and again to grab yet another especially plump berry, I was reaching for what must have been my thirtieth when the whole railing broke. I fell flat on my back, unharmed. As I lay there, pulling branches down toward my mouth, plucking off the berries with my tongue, I knew that I had tasted a vision of heavenânot just because the raspberries were so good, but because the whole picture, including all the
and the salmon and the rest, corresponded so closely to the oldest human dreams of an abundant
afterlife, a perfect world made by the gods for human sustenance. I knew also that I had tasted a core aspect of the Chez Panisse dream, the very one Alice evokes in
when she describes the early days of the restaurant with “eccentric foragers” arriving at the back door with “baskets of chanterelles and morels, buckets of Pacific mussels, blackberries from the hills, and fish just hours out of the sea.”
The daily life of the modern Bay Area resident, commuting by freeway and shopping in supermarkets like everybody else, does not much feel this way; but that was a part of Alice's power, her gift. By saying it was so, she helped the rest of us believe. In believing, we felt better about our place in the world, or at least hopeful that we
feel better, if we hewed long enough to Alice's example. Upon my return from Alaska, therefore, I felt convinced that I had broken through some film toward the miraculous life available in the natural world of the West Coast. I became determined to replicate the experience at home, in those last months before Audrey's birth. So I started with the easy parts: Hannah in the kid-carrier backpack, Sylvie on a leash, up that steep Bernal Hill and into the deep blackberry brambles. Edge of the metropolis, as if the countryside began right there; cool maritime breeze blowing through hot sunshine on the golden California straw, color of the West, fog bank's misty blanket pulling itself across the distant skyscrapers. Few wildflowers remained, poppies curling up tight against the breeze, and Hannah loved that she could call out their names. Little kestrels hunting on the wing, red-tailed hawks harassed by an aggressive crowâlooping and soaring, parting and rejoining. Sylvie did her usual deal of running off uncontrolled all over the hill, terrorizing birds, while I placed my daughter in the dirt and found a crazy profusion of super-ripe berries all around me, as though nobody had ever been
here, despite trashy evidence that somebody homeless made this patch a nightly bed. I wore a cowboy hat against the sun, and a long-sleeved shirt, and I stood up against this big bush, pulling down huge, swollen, ripe berries and saying to Hannah, “Okay, I need the mouth!”