I’m not really surprised, for it has happened many times before. I’ve long since learned to spot the telltale signs but it’s always a thrill to experience it again. To the untrained eye, at this time of the year, Pena Creek is a dried-up riverbed. It is a minor tributary of Dry Creek (whose valley is now world famous for its wines.) If the “lordly” Dry Creek was given that name for its annual propensity to shrink to a serpentine, meandering, desiccated gash, one might logically deduce that Pena Creek would be even drier.
But appearances are deceptive. In 13 years living here, I have never seen Dry Creek really dry. It always manages to co-opt enough water to put on a show as it passes beneath Lambert Bridge (which, itself, has given its name to a wine) and pay its daily tribute to the Russian River at a prearranged rendezvous in Healdsburg. Similarly, Pena Creek is never fully dry. Even at the end of the hottest years it still manages to string together a creative concatenation of pools, in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes the necklace that holds these pools together is a trickle on the surface, and sometimes it is an underground artery.
The pools shrink from May to October, some of them disappearing entirely, sacrificing, in the process, shoals of finger-sized steel-head trout to the fire god of the sun. I’ve come across them occasionally, flopping about helplessly in the barely-moist mud, and thought, “Do I let nature take its course? Is this about survival of the fittest? Natural selection? Ecological birth control?” Mostly, I figure that since I, also, am a manifestation of nature, I can choose to relocate them to a nearby pool. How long that one will last is anybody’s guess. So, is it only humans who rail against their fate? This is both our Achilles heel and the necessity which equips us to be the mother of invention.
It is a tricky maneuver, one that calls for exquisite fine-tuning as we navigate the razor’s edge between, on the one hand, abandoning all hope of influencing our journey and, on the other hand, refusing to accept what presents itself. Where is the safe passage between the inactivity of despair and the frenetic activity of the attempts to subvert cosmic patterns. Paradoxically, we cry out in anger against the Law of Impermanence, while, at the same time, changing everything in a vain attempt to keep everything the same.
So, I save a very few fish for a very short time. When the mission is complete, a mission in which our exit strategies are carefully factored in, they and I will “give up the ghost.” But for the moment we are on stage together, in this particular dimension, during this particular scene, in this particular act, of this particular drama of God. We may or may not have parts in the next scene, so let’s attempt to give Oscar-winning performances in this one.
Now, all of the foregoing might be regarded as a diversion or even a distraction from the opening sentence of this essay. Not so. For an Irishman, any conversation is an invitation to embroider the dialog with stories, musings, allegory and proverb. Like the calligraphy in the Book of Kells, an Irish speaker will stitch and weave, spin and spiral until he intersects, once again, with his own words; he will decorate the basic discourse with a myriad of interesting parentheses.
So, if you remember, I had already said that I’m not really surprised, for it has happened many times before. I’ve long since learned to spot the telltale signs but it’s always a thrill to experience it again. To the untrained eye, at this time of the year, Pena Creek is a dried-up riverbed.
Right now, there is a wall-to-wall carpet of leaves along the creek bed – mainly brown, with a sprinkling of red and orange and green. It’s a fun walk; the crunching of the crinkly leaves makes for an interactive flooring. And now for the surprise. I am slowly and meditatively stepping my way northwards when my right foot disappears through the carpet into the moist embrace of a nine-inch-deep pool. My left foot is already committed to following its partner’s lead and I do not attempt to restrain it. I’ve gone one better than Moses; he parted the sea and walked dry-shod, whereas I’ve parted the dry land and walked wet-shod.
A woodpecker marks the occasion by hammering furiously on the up-stretched arm of a Willow tree, which is swaying lazily in the breeze. What balance he has! What focus! It is the equivalent of a window washer perched in his cage outside the 95th story of a skyscraper calmly and attentively applying his sponge and his scraper, while the entire building rocks in a hurricane. The woodpecker didn’t miss a beat. I hope he is rewarded with a grub. For any grubs who may be reading this, I am not biased against you, nor do I unthinkingly support those who hunt you. I’m quite prepared to attend a meeting of Grub Survivors of Woodpecker Attacks and empathize with your list of grievances.
Up to now I have been a slowly-moving target for the culinary attention of the flies. I decide to speed up my walk and make them work harder for their lunch. Carpet creaking accompanies me.
Somewhere up there somebody is coordinating all of these noises. The Oscar for Sound Effects goes to him. In fact, he sweeps the awards: Best Movie, Best Director, Special Effects. Thanks for casting me.