On a regular San Francisco morning – gloomy, temperature in the low sixties, fog hugging the edges of the city – I drove to Galt, a town half an hour southeast of Sacramento, where I’d rented a cabin to devote two days to working on my new novel without distraction.
Instead of the 80 East to Sacramento, I took the back roads through those golden rolling hills of Northern California I love so much, until I got to someplace I possibly love even more: farmland, endless farmland. Corn. Grapevines. Almond trees. Rice paddies. Narrow metal bridges took me across rivers lined with summer homes and jetties. Houses were tucked back from the road behind giant palm trees and flowering hedges. Many were farms, and many looked pleasantly rundown. I imagined myself living in all of them.
The cabin I’d rented sat on a 90-acre ranch, which itself was part of a 1,900-acre nature preserve. It stood on poles above a babbling brook that was thick with yellow butterflies and tiny black birds. My first instinct as a city-dweller was to play music to break up the silence, but as I stood on the back deck overlooking the water, what I’d first taken for silence now revealed itself to be a riot of sound, crickets and birds mostly. Their song was not of an even pitch but crescendoed, only to suddenly drop to a whisper before rising again – a most wondrous symphony.
In the evening I became aware of a rustling at the windows. Moths, thousands of them, clamored to get in. The cabin had no curtains, which I didn’t notice until the sun went down and suddenly I was beset by terrible memories of every horror movie I’d ever seen. I was convinced that someone was out there in the darkness, watching me, but through the windows I could only see my pale reflection. I slept with the kitchen light on. The ranch owners lived a mile away, so the moths had only the moon and my kitchen light to flock to. With the moon being out of reach, they chose me. Time and again I startled awake, afraid that whoever had been watching me earlier was now trying to get in.
Shortly after sunrise I set out on a 12-mile run with the intention of getting willfully lost in my stupendous surroundings. Following the brook for a little while, shaded by trees, rabbits scattering at my feet, I decided to try each trail that looked even remotely accessible, through meadows, corn fields, and rice paddies. Ducks exploded from the water in loud protest. A heron took wing with a kind of careless grace that suggested it wasn’t startled by my presence but merely disgusted. I heard my awe at this place being addressed to me as a question: what was I doing here, why did I think I belonged?
In my second novel I wrote, “How strange to spend your life on earth without really understanding it.” Running past trees and bushes and tiny purple flowers, with a multitude of birds wheeling overhead and cows staring stupidly at my passing, I was overwhelmed by my not knowing all I was seeing – the names of the trees, bushes, and flowers. And what bird was that, trailing me with suspicion?
I long to know these things. My life feels incomplete without them.
At one point during my run, I spotted movement on the trail ahead. A coyote, perhaps twenty feet away, staring intently into the bushes, paying no attention to me at all. It must have heard me, but why would it be scared? A boxer in the ring is said to know his opponent better than his mother, and this coyote knew me too. It knew it had nothing to fear from me. I was the intruder here. It never looked at me, not once. But as I turned on my heels and ran the other way, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn’t coming after me.
I long for this humbling feeling, this profound awareness of my surroundings, in my daily life. People tend to worry themselves silly over things that seem to matter a great deal but often mean very little. Jobs. Gossip. Current events. Somewhere in the world England is leaving the EU, and David Bowie is dead, and airports are being blown up by terrorists. And here I am, staring at a hawk circling across the sky.