From Here On: Four Sunday Drives
Part II: White Wolf Grade
By Don Thompson - Buttonwillow, California, USA - 12 February 2016
Color has come and gone once more
on these gnarled, senescent almonds,
down to their farewell crop
this year (maybe)
and overdue for uprooting.
Then tentative saplings,
each with its own stake to cling to,
will take their place, their soil --
will assume their unnamed appellation.
Penitent, they've renounced
blossoms for Lent:
Some not quite pink, some white
with an indiscernible celadon glaze,
petals simulate diffuse snow
fallen last night on Bear Mountain --
melted by afternoon
and these faux flakes blown away.
Their buds too miniscule to see from the road,
the trees appear to be as bare
this month as in December, skeletal,
though not bleached by frost.
But we know without doubt
that spring has them in hand,
Bees splat against the windshield,
only a few but each loss felt:
a faint crack
like hearing the Eucharist fractioned
from a back pew.
Their migrants' hovels, looking abandoned
beside the grove, must teem
with life, with untamed honey lust,
though faded: white to grunge,
garish yellows, turquoise, neuralgic greens
all weather-beaten pastels, colorless
as frocks laundered a hundred times,
but good for another season --
and maybe one more…
Somewhere out there decades ago
Jane turned up on a Sunday morning,
nothing left of her
but red-haired bones with buck teeth
and both hands missing.
The road leans into the hill
we call White Wolf Grade:
an easy, unassuming acclivity
that tempts us to ignore the climb
from here on
and keep up to speed
as if still in the flatlands below,
lower and lower and farther off
as we ascend, elated,
because the ubiquitous haze
only locals know how to live with
has been washed away
(for now) --
the air absolved by
no more than a sprinkling,
an aspersion of rain.
Forty miles across the Valley floor
on the Elk Hills, we can see
smoke from the cogen plant
like the shroud
left behind by a ghost
who finally found the way out
of his bitterness:
one more malcontent
yearning for megalopolitan haunts.
But not this old man, oddly
gratified to be here --
hard scrabble San Joaquin fauna,
spawn of its austerity
and flourishing nowhere else:
Even the wind, worn thin
by its long haul down from the North,
can linger here,
unwind in succulent grass,
relax and recoup before moving on.
Like us it has survived, innocent
(or not) of all inclement weather
it's been blamed for.
And every secret overheard
rattling unlit windows
from town to town last night
has been forgotten;
it has arrived here without baggage
and with nothing human to tell us.
Parked beside the road halfway up
to look and listen, we hear
only the wind qua wind:
breath, numen, inarticulate spirit.
Non-grata wildflower stragglers
disperse across the hillside
on their own trail of tears,
stumbling along like the Kawaiisu
to where the rez used to be
a few miles from here.
We've learned to make do,
we've had to,
with these smatterings that endure
in the drought years.
Exactly: insist on praise
despite lupines in rags, stunned,
barely rising above the grass
half-breed daisies of some sort.
That fortune in poppies we inherited
has been squandered, leaving us
only a few ephemeral coins.
Golden rods have gone bankrupt,
Chinese Houses have died out,
and how long has it been
since pumas nibbled blue larkspur
like catnip, toxic or not;
since white wolves napped in the sun,
camouflaged by popcorn flowers?
We're left with residuum.
And yet, everything
nonbiblical we need to know
has been written here,
though more the scrawl of a dry pen
as if the fields were rough notes
for a finished manuscript
that's been lost.
No doubt the pages would disintegrate
if we touched them;
Some new roads are palimpsests,
the old implicit beneath them;
but this one's uphill
from the abandoned route:
low-tech but sensitive to contours,
to accept cattle tracks
that followed aboriginal paths.
Our road cuts straight through impediments.
And everyone knows what a fence means
(or used to). Even if
its posts are rotting in place,
slack barbed wire still insists
on its illusions:
But we slip through
without wasting a thought on it,
and hobble down to less than half
of a single lane, one step across,
encroached on by creosote
that takes root in asphalt
and fractures it.
Though freeze and thaw pry open fissures,
scoop out potholes
the wind refills with sand,
this old road,
an indelible trace of the past,
will easily outlast us,
though less steadfast than Roman cobbles
or the mortars close by...
Kawaiisu bad luck to count them,
just asking for a rattlesnake bite,
but half-blind to time, we touch
pestled hollows scattered across bedrock
to read them like Braille:
a legend of
ancient women gathered here to gab
and pound acorns into bitter flour
while their men hunted
jack rabbits with a sharp stick,
talking to the mountains.
This morning a splash of rainwater
darkens them all like wine,
but the lichen fused to granite
has already dried out,
coarse, bile yellow or black.
It must be as primordial
as the chalices themselves
that no one can lift
(transeat a me calix iste),
sunken into stone-forever-stone
and never bread --
not even for unbelievers
to break their teeth on.
Why do we imagine
these mortars have worn deeper
since we came here years ago?
Impossible -- unless
ghosts along with the weather
have been hard at work nonstop
on a new task:
grinding the time we've been given
into less than a handful
mounted in concrete
on the outcrop above us, persisting
on a local simulacrum of Golgotha,
no longer in use:
a white Easter sunrise service
From here, we can see as far
as we look -- at least
whenever the haze will let us.
An excellent site for megaliths,
for a euro stone age ego trip,
but the Kawaiisu, slurred as Diggers,
inclined toward humility
and the nuanced musings of basketwork.
Our lowland grandfathers raised this cross,
stark and artless
rather than ornate Celtic,
welded from oilfield steel: Executioners
would've had to rivet their victim to it.
Working stiffs in neckties, their wives
in millinery and white cotton gloves,
waited out in the chill for the sun
to come up over Bear Mountain;
mumbled unwieldy Victorian hymns
and worshiped, warming their hands
at pastoral canned heat,
and thought their own thoughts.
But they believed,
expecting their faith to be here for us
-- and it is --
but never guessed that vandals
would dis the cross,
shinny up with black Krylon
to wildstyle its patibulum
with their own tags: indecipherable logos
instead of REX IVDÆORUM.
Rust is as close as we come
to cleansing blood,
beer bottles the only oblation.
Nevertheless, there's holiness here,
holy ground. A hush
surrounds the gossip stones
and for a moment, every pestle
is laid aside
as quietness infuses us: