There and back again: a geobiography

We recently led a seminar on Madroño Ranch as part of the annual Summer Literary Festival at Gemini Ink, a writing center in San Antonio. The theme of this year’s festival was “What Would Nature Do?” and in our seminar we read and discussed works by Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Michael Pollan, Ellen Davis, Lewis Hyde, and Mary Oliver. We also asked the participants to write a brief “geobiography” (as “A Native Hill” is described in the collection The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry), a statement of how they consider themselves rooted in a particular place. Here’s a slightly modified version of what I wrote:

I am a native of the Bay Area, a place that everyone thinks is among the most beautiful in the world. I was born in San Francisco and grew up in Marin County, just to the north of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge; I lived amid the winding hillside lanes and towering redwood and eucalyptus trees of Mill Valley, beneath Mount Tamalpais, until I was eighteen, when I went off to college in Massachusetts. There I met the woman I would marry, a native Texan, as I recounted in an earlier post; she had a job lined up in San Antonio after graduation, I followed her there, and I never lived in California again.

Why did I so thoughtlessly, even eagerly, put California behind me when I left home? In part, I realize in retrospect, I was hoping to escape some not particularly unusual or interesting adolescent angst and family tensions, and to redefine myself as a brighter, happier person in a new setting, among strangers. (I say nothing of the futility of such an effort; I was young and foolish.) Massachusetts, and then Texas, seemed like blessed opportunities, and I clutched at them desperately.

Only… almost despite myself, I continued to count as my closest friends two men I had known almost since birth. Brad and I met in kindergarten; Hans came a few years later. The three of us went all the way through elementary and high school together, and all three of us headed east to college, Brad to Harvard and Hans to Yale. (Both, I hear, pretty good schools.)

After college, I ended up in Texas, while Brad and Hans returned to California, to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. Last year we all turned fifty, and Brad decided we should celebrate the milestone together. So, after much back-and-forthing (all three of us are married with children, with all the scheduling complications that implies), we arranged to meet in San Francisco in March and spend a day in Marin hiking along the California Coastal Trail, six miles from Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach and back again. It was a beautiful day, we had a wonderful time, and we agreed to make this little reunion an annual event. This year, again, we gathered in March and spent the day hiking in Marin, this time at Pierce Point Ranch on the northern end of Point Reyes National Seashore. Next year we may meet in L.A., in deference to Brad; the year after that, perhaps we’ll meet in Texas.

One of the wonderful gifts this time with Brad and Hans has given me is the opportunity to reconsider my relationship to California. My father was something of an outdoorsman, and when I was a child we went camping and hiking in Marin County, in the Sierras, and even up the coast to Oregon and Washington. For various reasons, I never really enjoyed these trips as much as I should have—or so I thought. But hiking to Muir Beach and at Point Reyes with Brad and Hans forced me to confront an unexpected and long-suppressed truth: I loved this land, and felt comfortable in it in a way I still don’t in Texas, even though Texas is now home. I gloried in half-remembered vistas, in the way the glittering ocean and the crepuscular redwood forests and the rolling dairy farms butted up against each other; in the cypress and eucalyptus and madrone and laurel and manzanita, and in the blooming flowers whose names I’d never learned; in the cool, salty air; in the fog banks drifting in over the Pacific.

I felt as if a long-shut door in my head had been wrenched open again, and I could look out, for the first time in years, onto the bright green hills of a place I’d forgotten, or almost forgotten—a place I knew at once, with an almost literally breathtaking shock of recognition. I now realize that, having grown up amid such gentle but dramatic beauty (the suggestive, if erroneous, local legend has it that Tamalpais means “Sleeping Lady”), I came to believe that the world is an essentially beneficent place, and that the land is an unfailing source of pleasure and comfort. (I might have reached a different set of conclusions had I grown up in, say, Orla, Texas, or Barrow, Alaska.)

Mostly, however, I realize how much I took for granted, and how unbelievably lucky I was (and am). Over the years I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy in attempting to deny or at least rewrite my past, but now I feel as though I’ve been given a second chance to connect, to learn this land—not as the place I live, perhaps, but as the place I’m from, the place that formed me.

What we’re reading
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Martin: Dan O’Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch

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2 Responses to There and back again: a geobiography

  1. Tinky says:

    This is just lovely, Martin. I love the combination of human and geographical friendship here and hope you never stop having these reunions. As you note, touching base with our friends and our childhood vistas is touching base with ourselves.

  2. Joybells says:

    Oh this is truly lovely, Martin. Plus, a perfect pairing of essay and song, and you know what a snob I am about that sort of thing.

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