(Writing and images inspired by Etel Adnan's Journey to Mount Tamalpais)
The trees that dominate the horizon line of the hills remember me, and I remember them as being the close companions of earliest memory. Giant firs’ trunks stretch with an ambitious elegance from the earth: they have welcomed my every return home throughout the years. Until recently I had been away from Oregon. Like true friends who go for long periods of time without speaking, only to resume conversation as though there was no interruption, I find my exchange with the land to be easy and comfortable.
Weather moves and changes, it too a dear friend that comes and goes, resuming conversation as though never absent. Rain is one of the most faithful friends here, constant and soft, nourishing its beloved land. Plants and animals live and die in the forest, the rain recalling their birth, life, and death. Beginning as the wet nurse to the all the living things in the forest, the rain is also a caretaker upon their death, and ultimately washes the decaying remains into the muddy soil, or to the rivers so that it may become a part of something new.
Often the hillsides adorned with trees have layers of fog painted across favored patches of topography. The darkness of the sky makes the trees appear almost like silhouettes of sharp spears against the expansive grey sky above their heads. The trees are emerald, but in the distance, they appear almost black. Fog interrupts the shadowy figures of the trees, adding whiteness, and obscuring them. The cloak of fog that hangs in spaces among the trees is like a ghost. A ghost of the rain’s making.
I too have made a ghost, a fog that sometimes hugs my thoughts. Among the comings and goings of my days is the desire to know my father. I was born in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the year that my father was laid to rest in it. My homeland is the same land he used to dig in, finding the clay that would sustain his practice and livelihood. My father’s studio was at his home, a small farmhouse where I spent my first months of life.
Let’s not think of rain as being like teardrops. These spheres of water are like the strings plucked on a guitar, that hold a melody together. Landing down slowly with spaces in between each drop, these music notes string together a slow song, and sing with a tender voice of the many roads it has traveled. The song isn’t always sad.
Drops of water transform from clouds and fog and back again, making itself into the ghost that embraces the forest. Barely visible in its movements, it places jeweled drops on branches, sparkling in the soft light. Rain nourishes the lovely delicate ferns who situate themselves within the crevasses of trees like lace fans in the hands of elegant ladies. The mushrooms like bows and buttons, the details and trimming of the chartreuse and green ball gown, lovingly stitched together by the rain. Drops of water loosen the soil to something soft and fertile. The muddy ground feeds its beautiful children: the trees, ferns, rivers, and mosses.
Not just a caretaker, the rain collaborates with the rivers, raising the water levels of the streams, which become the strong hands that push at the sides of the earth. Two hands making the paths of the shore move and shift-- like the hands of a potter centering clay on a potter’s wheel.
My dad’s pottery-- made out of my homeland-- was once just slippery river clay, dug up from places near his home. Along the edges I can see the indentations where his hand centered the piece while the clay was still moist. Placing my hands along the fired creases of pottery as a child, I knew that I was tracing my hands where his hands had been. The object being a bridge between us, as though for a moment our two hands touch. After it’s been fired, pottery still holds the memory of what it once was, a slippery piece of land that yielded in someone else’s hands. The rain-soaked ground feeds its children in the forest; my father fashioned rain-soaked ground into plates; I spent my childhood eating off of the misfit pieces of pottery that he did not sell.
Clear drops of water touch down, refracting the light, and though rain drops are transparent they are visible in what they transform. In the summer the rain stops and exhales a sigh of relief during its momentary pause. The sun shines with its seductive brilliance and the land changes. Grasses turn golden amber. Plants with shallow roots dry out. The rivers are determined in their course, like an old man who is an inch shorter than he once was who tries to stand tall. Yet the trees are steadfast in keeping the hills green. All the warmth and deliciousness of the sun can only be good for so long.
My father’s kiln was built in the 1970’s out of scavenged bricks from old beehive burners that belonged to lumber mills no longer in use. My mom said he was so excited when he found these bricks. She could hear him howling out the window in delight as he drove down the dirt road to their home with his truck loaded down with the bricks. It must have been summer because she described the dirt being kicked up behind the wheels of the truck into a big cloud. I can’t remember if she said the bricks were free or of little charge. I do remember being told that my parents were six months behind on rent when my father died. At the time I was four months old and it was summertime. The rain’s melody was absent during our first months of grief. Sometimes a wise friend knows to say nothing, to wait until the right time to speak.
My studio is at home, in my garage, in a suburban neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and minivans. There I shape plastic paints on flat surfaces. Water loosens the paint allowing it to slip from my brush. I don’t want to shape clay in my hands right now, I want to use water to make other things. The rain pattering on my roof says that my father didn’t want to do what his father did either. From my studio window I can see trees that are the same as the ones near my father’s home.
In the forest rain taps my face by way of falling off of the tree branches that it has landed on first. Large trees have fallen down and begun to decay, out of them spring young new trees, reminding me of the marks in a painting that must be painted over to yield to something strong and even more beautiful. There is a comfort in a friend who knows my family, was present at my birth, and will be there through my old age. A friend who cares for the woods that I love and the muddy ground from which we come and go.