When I arrived at the gorge that cuts through the canyon just outside town, the sky was shatteringly clear, the slopes spectacularly green, and the grasses peppered with poppies and lupines. One couldn’t help but feel obliterated by the beauty.
Walking in, I saw four college guys rock-hopping a short distance away. Some minutes later, they passed by on the trail above me, the lead fellow still bounding over the volcanic rocks with energy and athleticism.
Later, a young couple outfitted for a picnic walked by, blanket-roll strapped to the bottom of the guy’s backpack, the young woman carrying a canvas bag. I saw no one else in the hour and a half sitting overlooking the gorge, though I had a miles-long view up the canyon.
At one point a dozen scavenger hawks appeared to my right, gliding over the gorge. One or two soared within a few meters, and I could make out every feature of their bodies and their red, featherless heads, especially the strange, scanning eyes. I had to watch my reactions closely, since the word ‘vulture’ carries such connotations. Like so many words, and language in general, they prevent us from having direct perception, when they’re allowed to dominate the mind/brain habitually and subconsciously.
The scavengers circled and stayed for some minutes. It was quite a sight, conveying a feeling of grace and mystery beyond words and description. Then they broke off, some soaring high over the cliff-face that rises precipitously for 200 meters from an oak-strewn expanse on the other side of the gorge. Others let themselves be carried on the currents toward the far, unseen hills.
A high overcast moved in, changing the character of the land, and my mood, palpably affecting the sitting. Why is one’s mood and outlook affected by the weather? In any case, a subtle sense of desolation came over me despite the grandeur before and below my eyes.
I’d felt this bleakness in personal terms before going to Upper Park, and the beauty I encountered on the short walk into the gorge had temporarily eradicated it. But now I realized it wasn’t just personal, but rather a reaction to an underlying fact. But what is the fact that produces the feeling of bleakness and desolation, even despair in so many now? And can it be dissolved?
Mourning is a peculiar state, easily denied or deflected into some other emotion or condition. Having suffered the death of a family member a few months ago, it could be simply that.
But talking with a friend overseas this morning, I recalled how I went into a deep funk after the first Gulf War, in the early ‘90’s. Though I knew the war was a fait accompli as soon as Saddam invaded Kuwait, and had written and even given speeches about it, I was surprised by a persistent mood that beset me after our ‘glorious’ victory over Iraq.
Living in Silicon Valley at the time, I would get out of town into the hills overlooking South San Francisco Bay to see and feel something other than the high-tech frenzy that permeated the place. For a few weeks, I kept asking myself, ‘what is this feeling?’ I’d known depression, as well as despair, and it wasn’t either.
One day as I was hiking the extensive trails beyond the hyper-developed Santa Clara Valley, I got my answer. It may have come from my own head, but seemed to come from someplace beyond ‘me,’ and is the only time in my life I’ve ‘heard voices.’ With a resonant exasperation, it said, “You’re in mourning,” leaving me with the unmistakable feeling of ‘you fool.’
“That’s it!” But what am I mourning? “You’re mourning the death of your nation’s soul.”
So now I’m asking, is the desolation of this culture, which seems to have spread like a virus to many other lands, or originated as well within them, the desolation I’ve been feeling, heightened by personal mourning?
Climbing a rise on a walk after the sitting above the gorge, I came upon the young couple, joyfully sitting on the slope having their picnic. Surprising them a bit, we exchanged friendly greetings as I passed.
“You’ve come a long way,” the young man said. Holding his gaze for second, I replied, you could say that in more ways than one. I wanted to add, but didn’t, so can you.