I live in Santa Cruz, California, on the very edge of the continent and one of the most beautiful places on planet earth. Most mornings I take a walk along West Cliff Drive, where I am joined by joggers, strollers, dogs, bicyclists and tourists. The ocean is below us; the path winds along the cliffs above.
I do this walk largely for the exercise it provides, so I push my pace with music or I listen to the news on the radio and when I get home, I turn on the computer and read more of the news and when I brush my teeth, rather than be alone with my own thoughts for the two minutes that takes, I read a book. It’s possible that I have a bit of an addiction to the internet or at least to the constant possibility of distraction it provides.
Because none of this (except the book) is entirely pleasant. In fact, it leaves me jangled, as if I have a head full of noise. And I try, from time to time, to withdraw, to take what my friend Ruth Ozeki calls the backward step. And, specifically, to at least do my morning walk, as god intended, without earbuds.
So this is a diary of a few days in which I managed to be quiet in the head. I know that sounds unexciting, but believe me, it was hard won.
It is not really quiet. The first things I notice are the sounds I miss on other days – waves, birds, sea lions, bits of conversation I hear as people pass. More waves. I start off at Lighthouse Field State Park where the first person I see is the woman who drives up periodically to feed the large population of feral cats there. Today she has sprung for the canned food so they are all over her and an embarrassment to the very word feral. They love her, but like an Austen character, only for her estate.
We are deep into drought here in California and the park has a parched look. I remember how at this time of year I used to hear frogs, but I can’t remember how long ago that was. I think it’s been a long time. My first year here, there was a storm that uprooted trees and sent the waves crashing all the way up the cliffs and onto the path. My late dog and I went out in that storm for the sheer drama of it. Now I do this walk with the ghost of my beloved dog beside me, and the storms, too, seem a thing of the past.
The sun is just coming up when I reach the sea. I like the color of the water at all times of day, but the early morning is especially beautiful – a color I have no name for, but is overlaid with silver, glints of light in a surface of sharply defined waves.
The benches along West Cliff are memorials, inscribed like tombs and sometimes quite sad to contemplate, but I have a favorite that carries no such sadness. It commemorates Kyushiro Mine, 1897–1993 and has the words “After a Long Journey, Peace” inscribed under his name. If no one has grabbed it for the selfish purpose of rest and contemplation, it is the perfect height for me to do some stretching on.
All trees are equally lovable and one shouldn’t have favorites, but I do. Spreading over the Kyushiro bench is a large Monterey Pine, very climbable, and so filled with invisible blackbirds that it seems the tree itself is singing above me. I have a branch I hang from to rid myself of the kinks in my back and I would resemble the beautiful cover of my own book if its dangling figure were a sexagenarian in an idiotic hat.
My favorite bit of overheard dialogue today – “I am a great fan of germs.”
Me, too! Some of them, anyway. The best of them.
Today all my sea creatures are coming in pairs, straight off the ark if the sea creatures had needed an ark, which clearly they didn’t. World domination was right within their grasp until Noah snatched it away.
They need one now.
It’s hard to look out to sea and get that old reliable sense of peace. A few days ago I saw an article online that pinpointed the death of the ocean to 2048. That date is very possibly within my children’s lifetimes, and certainly within my grandchildren’s. I think about my grandson who has already loved sharks for his whole ten years and is a fountain of arcane shark lore. He will not like a world without sharks.
Meanwhile, all unaware of the impending apocalypse, two sea lions bob just offshore, watching the dogs chase balls and waves on the dog beach. Two porpoises are arching through the water, although maybe they are dolphins – I cannot tell. It matters, because here in Santa Cruz we have the occasional porpicide – porpoise murder perpetrated by bottlenose dolphins – because Mother Nature really does not care if you love her or not. Maybe if you had behaved better. But now, she just sees you as something to be eaten.
Yet I myself am feeling all charitable toward the particular humans I meet today, who, whatever their complicities, are picking someone else’s trash up as they walk along, or adding their own art to the already beautiful vista. I am particularly grateful to:
The skateboarder who has made a Goldsworthy-like sculpture garden of intricately stacked stones and stops daily to repair or revise it
The unknown and unseen hands that cut empty beer cans into pelicans, wings spread, and perch them on the ledge above the trashcans
The man who stands on the edge of the cliff, looking out to sea and playing marvelous loopy riffs on his trumpet
The woman who took my arm as I passed to make sure I didn’t miss the two sea otters floating on their backs in the surf.
Favorite thing overheard today – a man singing ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ quietly to himself as he walked.
My last day at home before I catch a plane and start to book-tour again. The plane is early enough that the only way I can manage my usual walk is to start in the dark. I have the streetlights until I hit the park and then only the light of a very round moon and my familiarity with the paths to see me through to the ocean. My grandsons and I play Hobbit in this park. I know every goblin-filled inch of it.
Now it is quiet. The sea lions cavorted late into the night – I can hear them from my bedroom – and are presumably filled with silent regret this morning. The birds are not yet up. The cliffside walk is deserted except for one man trying to get a picture of the moon and its reflection in the black water on his cellphone.
Because Santa Cruz is on a bay that, in disorienting fashion, faces south, the sun is rising behind me as I walk west. The transformation from night to day is a fast one. The tide is high and the waves are crashing whitely on the rocks below me. Other people start to arrive. A young boy is out jogging with his mother and she is telling him some story that begins “when I was your age…” and then they are past before I can hear the rest, but what remains with me was the interest with which her son seemed to be listening. When I was his age, I don’t think I ever listened past the words “when I was your age” to anything.
When I was your age, children, there was no music in the elevators, airports, restaurants. Nobody thought the ocean could be killed. For most of the games we played, another actual person had to show up, I mean physically, right there in the room, and play with you. It was all pretty weird.
Today’s bird sightings include one gray heron, one snowy egret, two brown pelicans that apparently weren’t invited on the winter migration, a line of scoters washing about in the surf, a rock of cormorants, a fence of red-winged blackbirds, a scurry of sandpipers.
I don’t have time today to stop at Kyushiro’s bench, dangle from my tree, watch the sun rising. The waves are coming in sets and the surfers are doing the same. The moon is still up when I leave and the sun, too. I have noisier places to go, noisier things to do.
Favorite thing overheard today – “I probably would have liked it better if I’d known it was funny.” Words to live by. A very sound philosophy of life.
Karen Joy Fowler is the author of six novels and three short story collections. The Jane Austen Book Club spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a New York Times Notable Book. Her latest, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel about family with a singular twist and a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Awards, is published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail in hardback and eBook.
“No contemporary writer creates characters more appealing, or examines them with greater acuity and forgiveness.”