Updated: Dec 31, 2019
The land holds stories. I had come to say goodbye, to memorize the canyon view, to inhale the pungency of oak, eucalyptus and dried grasses. I knew it would be hard. What I didn’t know is this place had more to tell me.
Soon after I graduated from high school, my family bought a ranch-style house, situated on five acres of woodland and meadow overlooking a canyon and chaparral covered foothills. It was never about the modest house - my family just couldn’t resist the landscape. Although only three of my siblings lived there during their school years, over time it came to feel like our ancestral home. Eventually all five “kids” had lives elsewhere, but a combination of the natural beauty and my mother’s generous nature created a strong magnetic force, pulling us in for frequent family dinners and holiday celebrations. The grassy backyard hosted volleyball games, parties and weddings, as well as memorial services for my young niece, gone too soon, my father and finally my mother.
The death of my parents and subsequent financial realities brought this era to an abrupt end after almost forty years. The house was reluctantly sold. After a final walk through, I was there to lock the door one last time.
But that click of the latch was still a few hours away. I sat in the yard on a sunny bench, my eyes half-closed as my body softened into the boards behind me. A yellow butterfly landed on my flannel sleeve, wings fluttering in the slight breeze. Chickadees flew in and out of an adjacent bush, several landing on the stone ledge right next to me. They didn’t seem disturbed by my proximity. I roused myself, then noticed a brown lizard on a flat rock. I crouched for a closer look. The lizard stared back into my eyes, occasionally blinking. I extended my head closer and closer, keeping eye contact. Soon we were mere inches apart. Were these animals pulled toward my quiet presence or had I become part of the landscape? Perhaps there is no difference.
As I stood up, I realized I was being watched - by a doe and her fawn some twenty feet away. The young one paid little notice, but the doe looked right into my eyes, a more mammalian gaze than my lizard interaction. It was as if she had found a pathway that I didn’t know existed, right into my very being. I traveled this trail back into her brown eyes. Neither of us moved until finally the fawn raised his head from the wild grass and walked behind the house. Only then did the mother break our connection to follow her offspring to the forest edge. Just before they disappeared down the canyon, she looked back over her shoulder one last time.
I could feel my own mother’s presence in the span of the gaze. Sorrow and joy braided together. My mom loved this wild place. Everyday, through her large windows, she watched the deer, the rabbits, the gliding raptors.
The sun was slipping behind the hills across the canyon. Before closing up the house, I decided to stretch out on the patio under the huge oak whose massive limbs were as large as any single tree in the area. This sprawling, elegant oak was the focal point of the property, and perhaps why my family chose this place. The life of this California live oak had begun centuries before any houses on the road were built. It had witnessed successive generations of people, wild animals and plant life under its defining habitat.
I wondered – had the tree noticed my father’s passing, my mother’s death? Could it sense that it was so cherished, so symbolic of our family ties that its image had been chiseled into my mother’s tombstone? That her ashes were sprinkled around its trunk? Would the tree’s life be any different after our clan no longer gathered under its shade?
Lying under the oak, my eyes climbed branch to branch, pulled up to blue sky showing between stiff olive green leaves. I was startled out of my reverie by a hawk landing on the closest limb, maybe twelve feet above me. Turkey vultures and various hawks often circled here and occasionally perched atop a tree or telephone pole on the property, but only once before had I seen a raptor land this low, this close to me. That encounter was a few weeks before my mother succumbed to lung cancer. Knowing she would soon vanish from my life, I had tearfully walked down the driveway. I was stopped short by a hawk sitting in a small willow, right at eye level, looking into me. Through my grief, I perceived these words, "Could you consider there might be something more?"
Hawks aren’t known to favor the human gaze, yet now once again a hawk stared at me. And then a second hawk landed on the same oak branch a few feet from the first and turned its eyes on me. I stayed motionless, not wanting to scare them off, but eventually I walked under the branch for an even closer view. They didn’t flinch. Then whoosh - a smaller hawk, the same cream color with darker striations, joined them on the limb. Eventually the last two flew off, but the first hawk still held vigil until I had to close the house and leave.
As I locked the door, I felt elated, graced with presence - with these wild animals and also with those my family had mourned here, my niece, father, and mother. Perhaps we never truly leave the gazes we hold, the beings we love, the spaces we enter.
A few months after my leave-taking, I hiked the open space preserve that borders our family home. Eager for a glimpse, I made my way to the lookout point where I could see across the canyon to our old home. As I stepped into the opening, I became disoriented, unable to recognize the landscape. The magnificent oak tree had toppled over, huge limbs covering the patio and grassy yard, massive roots exposed to the sky. One branch had broken through the roof of the house, near the spot where my mother always sat in her green leather chair, looking out.
The timing was hard to fathom, as if my family and the old oak had been entangled in ways far beyond my ken. There was something strangely intimate in the way the tree spread over the house and yard, like a final embrace. I thought of the doe and the hawks holding my gaze that last day, reminded again to consider that there might be something more.
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