Here on the edge of timberline, boulders brace the sky. The slope slips ridge by ridge, rippling toward foothills far below. Forests flock the dark, layered and deepening into the thick of it, fringed with light. We are all emigrants in this wilderness that is not, settled centuries ago as migrations followed straights north and south rather than history told east to west. There are many directions, disorienting as orienting, and this compass leads as directly as the trail where footprints and shoveled brush lead to the next lake, the next campsite where we light a fire and grill fresh trout. Up the ridge, beneath tree line, the slope ripples down like waterfalls, as stone is water in slow time, geologic in its movements, glacial where the valley melts beneath foothills into blistering luster, a long husk of dusk, purpling the coastal hills. The sky explodes. All farms blur into gold—a rush of almond, rice, peaches, grapes, more—under prop-planes spraying farmhands and wells running dry, reduced to a shimmering abstraction, dusty at dusk, as the center of the state vanishes. From the high country, the valley disappears into dots of towns that glow as embers, as firelight flickers at the edge of the lake, eliciting tales of constellations that we try to remember or make up, our own versions of origins, as if we could forget how to dismember or remember to forget. Stars spray the night as painted notches on trees and cairns lead us forward, day by day learning lessons from backcountry first-aid, wandering in ever-widening circles from the last spot where a hiker goes missing. Here, we return to the edge alone less than together, dependent more or less than the bear relies on the fish, or the fox hunts the hare whose fur whitens at the wrong season, leaving it to hide in plain sight. Camouflage is an art, this attempt to return to some lithic truth, solid as the backbone of the Sierras, where we carry our lives on our backs like tortoises rumored to hold up the world. Each scute of stony carapace puzzles into a pattern that eludes since we don’t know what we’re standing on, missing the forest for the trees. Halfway between waking and sleep, we cocoon. The night quakes with quiet. Wind growls and lures to sleep after a draining day. Rain would be welcome, if only it would run down rivers to quench the valley. Where we come from, wells dig deeper, drier, sucking up aquifers to make the state sink. It will implode one day, once an inland sea and back again to sea. We see it filling, falling asleep on ridges, where ancient shells and spirals push up and fling afield as stone, as stars wait again for sea to lap the sky.
Gretchen E. Henderson is the author of two books of nonfiction, Ugliness: A Cultural History and On Marvellous Things Heard, and two novels, The House Enters the Street and Galerie de Difformité, as well as poetry and opera. She teaches at Georgetown University and is the 2015-2016 Hodson Trust-JCB Fellow at Brown University and Washington College.
Photo by Frank Dina
If I was a rock, I would love this essay. But I’m a human, and damn I just want a thought, reaction or an emotion from some place personal. Still, it’s lush with imagery and clever observation. A great essay, Gretchen!
David, I am also a human, one who loves this essay. For this non-rock reader, “Timberline” is deeply personal, if “personal” can refer to the revelation of perspective. In this case, our narrator speaks on behalf of a people, over time, inhabiting place. While so many contemporary (west-centric) essays rely on “I”–this one relies entirely on “we.” How refreshing and relevant! Here is a line I’ll hold close: “We are all emigrants in this wilderness that is not, settled centuries ago as migrations followed straights north and south rather than history told east to west.”
This essay truly touched my emotions, as another non-rock reader, “Timberline” is beautifully written, and took me to a vivid world through the perspective of another time and place. Well done Gretchen!
As a self identified rock I love this essay. I found it descriptive and passionate in writing and found it did truly capture the rock lifestyle. I found it easy to conjure images of previous rocky outcrops I did enjoy in the past, and found the conjured memories truly enjoyable.