When the Land That Made You Goes Up in Smoke

Reading David Malouf’s “An Imaginary Life” amid disaster in the state where I was born and where my father died

In An Imaginary Life, his novel about Ovid’s exile from Rome in the 1st century, Australian author David Malouf examines how separation from a beloved landscape can offer fertile ground for the imagination. Malouf’s Ovid describes with rapture how the discovery of a single poppy in an otherwise barren field causes memories to come cascading:

Poppy, scarlet poppy, flower of my far off childhood and the cornfields round our farm at Sulmo, I have brought you into being again, I have raised you out of my earliest memories, out of my blood, to set you blowing in the wind…Suddenly my head is full of flowers of all kinds … I am Flora. I am Persephone …

Ovid’s Rome burned less than a century after he was banished. Listening to the voices of people fleeing fire in the California I love and left, the voices of my friends on the telephone, I imagine Ovid in our current era of tech and disaster, watching his home burn from afar. While the first snow falls outside my window, I scroll through pictures of a California obscured by smoke and search my memory for a landscape I can recognize. I wonder if the blaze, had he seen it, would have also consumed the garden in his mind.

The spring I began attending the Buddhist meditation in Columbia, Missouri, where I now live, was the year the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and then sank into the Gulf of Mexico. The images caught on the “spill-cam” were the stuff of nightmares: the oil bloomed underwater like a poisonous mushroom. It gushed while you brushed your teeth, while you went to work, while you slept, even now, while you meditated, waiting for the bell.

An American public with no prior knowledge of wells and the specific nature of their hazards soon became familiar with the various attempts to stop the leak. The Top Kill and Junk Shot failed spectacularly on live television, which didn’t seem all that surprising given that the second rested on a strategy of pumping trash and golf balls into the blowout preventer of the rig. No matter what the engineers did, the oil kept coming. Soon, the slick was as large as South Carolina.

In the discussion after the meditation a woman who had grown up in the area of the spill confessed that she found it hard to think of anything else. She wasn’t sleeping. The landscape she loved was dying and she couldn’t concentrate on work or family. Listening to her voice we could all sense loss rising inside her like the giant plumes of undersea oil. Part of the practice of Buddhism is to keep the awareness of change in the forefront of your mind, to live as though you understand you are dying. I recognized the panicky feeling I got when I watched coverage of the spill as related to my own fear of death. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe seemed to be a good metaphor for what led me to Buddhism in the first place: the question of impermanence and the inevitability of loss. The disaster was different for her, however. She came from the Gulf area. This wasn’t about death or loss in an abstract sense. It was personal.

In An Imaginary Life Malouf imagines the poet speaking to us two thousand years into the future. He acknowledges that there is much he cannot know about our lives. Do we still read Latin, he wonders? He imagines us among furnishings he would not recognize, our gardens blooming with flowers he does not know. But given all those unknowns he nonetheless trusts that we still look to the landscape to find ourselves, as he has done. He writes:

If the gods are there, it is because you have discovered them there, drawn them up out of your soul’s need for them and dreamed them into the landscape to make it shine.

In the absence of calamity, it is easy to overlook the fact that the land around us is changing, as we are. Usually it happens too slowly for us to notice. I suspect that because the landscape seems permanent, our relationship with it seems to offer us a kind of permanence, too. We see the abrupt disasters that we have wrought rather than the gradual erosion of mountains, though both are occurring. In that same way, we forget that our bodies are changing when we are in good health; it sometimes takes a catastrophic event to make us notice how much of what we took for granted is already gone. There is a big difference, however. In spite of the pluming oil, the spreading flames, and all the other injuries we are inflicting on the landscapes we love, it is we who are dying.In the absence of calamity, it is easy to overlook the fact that the land around us is changing, as we are. Usually it happens too slowly for us to notice.

When asked how his own fiction might have been different had he never left his hometown of Brisbane, Malouf said, “I don’t think I ever left. I don’t believe you ever, as a writer, leave the first place you know.”

His is an answer that resonates with me both as a writer and as someone who has strayed far from home. Though I’ve been in Missouri for half of my life now, I was raised in Marin County, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. San Francisco is my Brisbane. My fiction has unfolded over and over again in a western, coastal landscape.

One of the first things I published was a short story called Men and Fish, about a woman who wrote a fishing column for a Bay Area newspaper. She had fled the Midwest where she had experienced a great loss, to remake herself in California. She was wary, suspicious and slow to forgive. By the time I wrote that story, my father, born in Missouri, had been fishing for salmon off the coast of northern California for over thirty years. Among the many things I borrowed from him for that story were the names of the lures and flies (Cable Baiter, Royal Wulff, Pale Morning Dun), the skepticism between anglers (the first line of the story is: Men lie about fish) and the fact that the biggest salmon were called pigs because of their pink flesh.

In the absence of calamity, it is easy to overlook the fact that the land around us is changing, as we are.

It takes about three hours to get from where my father kept his 22-foot Bay Liner to the waters around Duxbury Buoy, off the southern tip of Pt. Reyes. He always left just at dawn. My husband, Robert, tells the story of bobbing on the ocean one morning, the light of the rising sun hitting the red cliffs before Stinson beach, while my father bent to work on the aging engine. Holding his coffee thermos with both hands, asking my father again if he could help and being rebuffed, my husband turned to see the glistening back of a grey whale pushing through the water a few feet from the boat. The back of the whale grew in a rapidly expanding oval, like an enormous baby crowning, as silent as an ocean swell that rises without breaking. It could have easily dumped them both into the water, my husband reported, without even meaning to do them harm.

“Jim.”

Hearing awe and more than a bit of panic in my husband’s voice, my father straightened his back and turned to look.

“He wasn’t scared at all,” said Robert later. “He was just extraordinarily calm.”

My father was rarely that calm on land. Though life on the coast had changed him in important ways, he had never really been able to leave the Midwestern fields of soy and corn, or who that landscape had made him, behind. He remained wary, suspicious and slow to forgive. For years the salmon had been declining in the Pacific and my father noted the change each time he chugged through the gate toward the open sea. In 2002, in what has come to be called the Klamath Die Off, tens of thousands of Chinook rotted on their way to spawning grounds. My father attributed the diversion of river water for agriculture and the resulting decimation of that particularly large salmon run to greed and stupidity. He was rarely surprised by the human capacity for either.

Crossing the Golden Gate at the beginning or end of any visit, I look west toward the Farallon Islands and strain to see the fishing boats, wondering if any friends of my father’s stand on their decks. I glance down at Kirby Cove beach and remember camping there as a small girl, the icy water hitting my legs as I waded. Wherever I go in the county where I was raised I see personal landmarks, each one stamped with a plaque of memory: the hillside where hiking with my brother I was almost hit by a car, the bench where I sat radioactive with my first broken heart, the 7-Eleven where my friends and I lurked in the parking lot, searching for someone to buy us beer. It doesn’t really matter that the 7-Eleven was long ago converted to a gourmet deli and that most of my friends, like me, have moved away.

Wherever I go in the county where I was raised I see personal landmarks, each one stamped with a plaque of memory.

It’s hard not to imagine that some memory of me doesn’t also remain in the place itself, to match the ones I take with me when I leave. It’s easy to imagine that these memories are shared between us, between me and the land, in the way they might be with a friend or a parent or a lover. In this post-industrial age we have a unique sense of the damage we have done to the earth and may yet inflict upon it. This awareness colors our feelings for the land, I suspect, in the way that you can grieve for your lover even when they are sitting right next to you, because you know you will inevitably lose them. And you will, yourself, be lost.

When my husband and I reversed my father’s migration, moving from the West coast to Missouri to work and raise our children, he visited only reluctantly. He always seemed a bit stunned to find himself back in the place he had been so determined to leave behind. He had fled Kansas City on a motorcycle after the war, confident that he could remake himself on the coast. In Kansas City he had come from the poor half of a large family. He had spent time in the care of a charitable organization when his single mother couldn’t manage him. Sent to Boonville, Missouri for military school, he had been a Jew among gentiles who never invited him into their homes. Required to go to church on Sunday, he had rotated among all the churches in town so that he wouldn’t have to join one.

My father believed he could find a new version of himself in a new place, in a radically different landscape. In that he might have agreed with Malouf’s Ovid, who cautions against viewing the land we inhabit as something entirely outside of us. It is something we create, he argues, and we create it together.

The spirits have to be recognized to become real. They are not outside us, nor even entirely within, but flow back and forth between us and the objects we have made, the landscape we have shaped and moved in.

Though Kansas City indeed remained a part of him, my father did not fail in this project. The Californian he was to become would be wealthy where he had once been a poor cousin, he would be a world traveler and no longer the person who reached adulthood before going to the bathroom in a gentile’s home. He may have been born a landlocked Midwesterner, but the Californian my father would become was at home on the water.

During his last visit to Missouri, when he fell and broke four ribs, it made sense to me that he and my mother would stay with us where they had help. However, my father did not intend to die in the state where he was born. Though confused and in pain, he did not find it at all comforting that the accents of the nurses and nurse’s aides in the hospital resonated in his memory. The rain turned to ice against the windows. When I asked my mother where she thought they should be when the music stopped she said, “California.”

Less than a year after his fall, we spread my father’s ashes in the water off Stinson beach and Kirby Cove, within range of Duxbury Buoy. Where the whale breached and where he had seemed calm and at home. This was the message I wrote to my friends on the day of his death: When I heard my father died this morning I pictured a hot air balloon. A burst of flame, a gust of wind and there he goes, over Mt. Tamalpais, through the Golden Gate, out over open sea.

The wind that carried my father’s spirit away, if it existed at all, would not have ruffled the waves below or moved even a grain of sand on the beach at Kirby Cove. My father is now part of the landscape in a new way, and even so, it is indifferent to him, as it is to my memories of him.

My father is now part of the landscape in a new way, and even so, it is indifferent to him, as it is to my memories of him.

The love that we carry for Brisbane or San Francisco or the Gulf may feel like a relationship, but if it is one, it is unrequited. This here is the truth: when I am gone and my children are gone and their children, if they have any, are gone, the land will not remember us. Even if we are the last, if we have in fact done that to ourselves, neither the ocean nor the mountain will care.

The California my father returned to at the end of his life was both a physical place — the yellow hills, the redwoods, the bay — and the place he needed to find. It was a California made for a man who carried Missouri inside him. The California I think of my home is the place where his spirit resides. I look out my window and see snow, though it looks to my eyes like ash. It doesn’t look back or notice me at all. It just falls.

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