It’s before dawn, and I pick my way half blindly through the trees. I had awakened before the sun and
made the short journey over to a section of Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa. This section of the park, along the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Trail is comprised of rolling green hills and oaks. I quickly scamper over to sit in the grass. In front of me lies a little canyon with hills rising up on either side, covered in trees and bisected with a trail.
Seeing –Sitting in my grassy perch, I feel the oak trees leering over me ominously as the cloud infused navy blue sky emerges from the black stillness. Robed in Spanish moss the oaks menacingly stand like creepy wooden ghouls feeding on fear and the frozen fingers of a solitary student. In three blinks of my tired eyes, the sky turns from navy to cotton candy blue. The grey, lifeless world is splashed with the first monochromatic rays of light. Three more blinks and the sky is a slightly blinding grayish white with pink and purple clouds crowning the hillsides. The Spanish moss sways slightly in the breeze as it hugs the now ancient, wise and woefully sad grandfather oaks. The first birds to catch my eye are Mr. and Mrs. Crow. Slowly they flap across the sky, calling out loving insults to each other. They are coarse and rude and loud and passionate. At my feet, the trail is set like cobble stones in perfect disarray. Suddenly at 7:12am, like the boom of a shotgun blast, the sky explodes into pink and orange. Fluffy clouds dance sporadically across the watercolor stage and the twisted skeletons of the grandfather oaks seem painted on its surface. As I look out across the little canyon, I marvel at the moss covered trees. They seem like they are evergreen despite being bare and leafless. At my feet, I note the grass, its green blades blanketing the hillside. Yet there are more! I count eight different grasses mixed within the fallen leaves, branches, stray rocks and staggered fence post. First, there are long seaweed-like grasses. Second, there are short, vibrantly green shoots, hell bent on reaching the sky. Third, there are tiny parsley-looking grasses, watching the runners and mountain bikers pass over the trail. Fourth, there are leafy, salad like low growth grasses. Fifth, there are miniature Jurassic era vine grasses left over from the age of miniature stegosaurus. Sixth, there are long dead looking twigs with small buds of growth. Seventh, there are red shoots with single leaves saluting the rising sun. And eighth, there are pointy plants which are hard to describe, but look like they would have a bitter taste. After sketching each grass into my notebook I look up at the sky. The clouds have advanced their positions, and have set sedge to the sky turning it a steady grey for the rest of the morning.
In the dark, the only sound that can be heard is the systematic call of an owl. The call sets the darkness on edge and propels the dawn to daybreak. As if to contradict the owls mournful cooing, turkeys in the close distance laugh out loud. I don’t know what turkeys have to chuckle at so early in the morning, yet their voices echo through the little canyon with pure delight. From scattered tree tops sparrows play phone tag, calling each other and decoding the messages with unknown accuracy. As I sit listening intently to the symphony taking place just out of eye shot, my stomach chimes in and begins its own morning sun salutation. The gargle of hunger however, is nowhere as interesting as the concert that is unfolding before me. Wings flutter unseen through the trees and the birds burst into a crescendo of glorious song as the dawn breaks into light. The owl is silent now, the turkeys giggle everyone in a while and even the sparrows start to settle into the morning routine. The light tinkle of a dog’s collar warns of a walker crunching swiftly down the trail. A plane lazily hums by. I can hear a woodpecker drumming in sets against his percussion log impregnated with nuts and seeds. By 7:45am the pop song of car horns and idling motors kicks the symphony out, taking control of the soundtrack of the day.
After sitting in one position soaking in the sights and sounds for the last hour, my foot has fallen asleep. I stiffly move my ankle around in an attempt to end the ever stinging needles waging war on my skin. Looking around myself I observe what is close at hand. The grass I sit upon is somewhat poky and crunchy. Some Spanish moss that has fallen to the ground is also crunchy and dry. Lifting my hand up to touch the oak tree to my right, I expect to feel more crunchiness. The bark itself feels stern, indifferent and unmoved by the warmth of my fingers. The moss clinging to the back however, greets my fingertips with a velvety softness which is shocking. I pick up a small branch, broken and also covered in moss. Again the moss is soft and velvety. I squeeze it in my hand, feeling the foam like quality of the lichen. Its soft and homey. So homey in fact, that as I turn the branch over there is a honey brown cocoon tucked away within its insulation. I gently poke the cocoon, to watch it spin around within its bed to get comfortable before I place it carefully back on the ground with great tenderness. I then pick up a small rock. It is rough, with bubbles throughout. I run my fingers across its surface to feel the dips and bumps of the igneous stone. Towards the top end of the rock, Mama Spider, and yet so feared. Your silken web is the tactile equivalent of a bomb siren, warning me of your beautifully fearful presence.
Does breathing deeply help you smell better? I take deep, oxygen rich, smell hunting breaths until my chest can no longer expand and then exhale quickly all at once. The first thing I smell is my coffee. Can I actually smell my coffee, no longer steaming by my side? Or does my brain just think I can smell it? The roasty punch of dark black coffee, whether a fragment of my olfactory imagination or a true sense, whiffs up to me. Almost instinctively, my nose goes off in search of other smells. I smell decay. The brown skeleton leaves shed by the grandfather oaks are sinking into the dirt, to become dirt. I smell moisture. The grasses and plants open their photosynthetic cells to receive the coming light. The little creek trickling down the canyon fills the air with water molecules which sing out of life and living. I smell truth. Pressing my nose against an oak, I can smell the years passed. The dusty dry droughts, the root soaking rains. The bark smells like summer sun shining and white frosty winter chill. The oak smells deep and complex like a well-aged cabernet sauvignon. I’m no sommelier, so the subtle hints escape my untrained nose and I focus my attention on the earthy truth of the oaks wisdom. I smell people. Up the canyon someone must be burning a wood fire. I try to hone all my brain power on the beautiful scent, which is one of my favorites. But, it comes and goes, teasing me as I imagine the flames licking the logs of an unknown hearth. I breathe in as deeply as I can. No more distinctively separate smells enter my nose and instead I smell the whole of the place. And it smells like peace, like sorrow, like restlessness, like love.