To discover one’s own absence is to discover one’s immortality…

The valley has a mystery in it, just as its hold on me is indescribable, and yet I try to use words like a flashlight of a search party fumbling through the dark. “Words give us the world by taking it away,” says Hegel.

Next week marks one year since 76 year-old, Marlies Jansen, walked into the valley one foggy, summer evening, and was never seen again. Along with 100 volunteers, the police sent horse-mounted officers, K-9 dogs, infrared-equipped aircraft, bloodhounds, and park police into the 1,100 acre area but they never found a trace of her.

She lived near the park and walked it everyday for years. She knew the park as well as anyone, undoubtedly more intimate with the birds than I am. She was last seen walking towards the park by a neighbor. But then the words about where she possibly could be, who she had become, trailed off into silence.

George Steiner describes how great artists can lay bare something central about its subject but also an undisclosed “inviolate inwardness.” In doing so, the artist conveys knowledge, but not knowingness. On the other hand, in controlling an artwork to evince such knowingness, the artist destroys in his creation the “mystery of independent vitality.”

Masakazu similarly proscribes the guardianship of the unknown by way of the Japanese aesthetic term of Yugen: “We are not entranced by that which we can totally understand.”

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(Kontakthof, by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheatre)

Towards the end of her life, Pina Bausch choreographed a modern dance for her Tanztheatre company which featured 3 ages of dancers. The exact same piece was performed first by teenagers, then by middle-aged dancers, and finally by dancers over 65 years old. The choreography — all the intricate gesticulations and steps — were exactly the same, but somehow the dances remain completely different. And the ways in which they are different say something about who we are as humans, who I was and who I will become.

Time does separate us, in ways that appear irreconcilable. Compassion, it seems, can cover many distances, but it struggles against the rugged distance of time. Until an artist like Pina Bausch can transform those distances into intimate proximities of dancer and you and me. We all dance the same steps. Agnes Martin said it is of the most complete human ignorance to think we are unique, a radical statement in the realm of artists trying to express themselves uniquely.

Agnes Martin Painting

(Painting by Agnes Martin)

A few months ago, while I was on my jog, I had to pull off the trail to allow a sheriff’s car up through the park. The car was way too wide for the trail, but he managed through the valley up to where it dead-ended and turned around. At the end of the valley, two women were sitting on a bench so when I reached them, I made a crack about the Sheriff letting them go this time. But after this pleasantry, we all agreed it was a disturbing, violating presence in this halcyon park. Especially since in no way, could his “patrol” have ever brought up anything but dust about our missing woman.

In my thinking of Marlies, and what I don’t know about Marlies, I am dislocated for just a moment — I can walk her steps in an intimate choreography along the valley floor — and come upon my own absence. And what I don’t know seems interminable, because this valley has rough terrain, dense underbrush, and inaccessible places. But for now, because I am far from at home in the unknown, I merely practice disappearing into the recesses between words.

San Pedro Valley trail, by Summer Lee

There in close covert by some Brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
Hide me from Day’s garish eie,
While the Bee with Honied thie,
That at her flowry work doth sing,
And the Waters murmuring
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feather’d Sleep;
And let some strange mysterious dream,
Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,
Of lively portrature display’d,
Softly on my eye-lids laid.

— Milton, “Penseroso”

“C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

It is bittersweet that after 9 days I am able to jog again, so I return to no other than my friend, the valley.

“C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.”

The fox tells the Little Prince that the things and people we lose the most time with are the most important, that spending this time makes them important. In French, the phrase could also mean wasted time, which is closer to the truth, and farther from the modern need to make everything productive. While wasting time on something or somebody we lose a sense of time, and in turn are endowed with a sense of timelessness. And when you have lost something for another thing or person, wasted it even, that is a gift. And love.

Yes, obviously this valley is important to me, but I have also lost much time observing the quail families who live here. The spring brings the sight of tumbling, chirping puffballs, up to a dozen in one brood, trailing their foraging quail parent. All while the other parent stands guard, waiting to give a call for all to retreat to the dark underbrush. But today, months into the dry summer, an adult pair pecked along the trail alone. I waited several minutes in silence and it remained just the pair. The absence of their progeny echoed a note of loss in my own heart, and conjured fearful images of the fate of those fluffy, vulnerable changelings.

I didn’t mention any of that when I came upon a pair of birdwatchers, immediately identifiable by their nerdy hats and portable binoculars, just as a sparrow is known by stripes and beak-type. I always feel a kindred connection to other art makers, but the connection reaches a soul level when I meet birders.

I immediately share my news of spotting a Lazuli Bunting in the valley a few weeks ago, and the one birder in her floppy, cotton blue hat looked unsurprised, adding that surely it was a migrant, as if that made the sighting less spectacular. But I understood her lack of zeal for me, because at some point the ecstasy of birding becomes not of new sightings, but of the subtle nuances the common birds exhibit. I ask her of her day’s sightings, and she becomes slightly more animated about the family of hairy woodpeckers up the ridge, and that here (before I undoubtedly crashed in and scared them) was a Wilson’s Warbler and her fledglings. I added that I can hear Thrush babies along the creek calling for their parents, and then finally she comes alive: yes, the multitude of Thrushes here are amazing.

We wished each other well and I continued along. Then it seemed the fog moved in to envelope the crests of the hills and mountains overlooking the valley, closing away the expansiveness of the sky. But it created the negative space that Chinese brush painters worship — the space untouched by brush, the nothing that is something. In the Mustard Seed Garden Manual, Jao Tzu-jan admonishes painters to always paint a scene with places made inaccessible by nature. Because, as it was here in the valley, the dense white nothingness obscures what can be seen but incandesces what is most beautiful in the mind.

When two young girls asked what her paintings were about, Agnes Martin famously grabbed roses from a vase and held them behind her back and asked them if they were still beautiful. She then waved her hand over the empty vase and said, that is what I am painting. And right now, with her imperfect lines in dialogue with monochromatic paint, I can think of no better renderer of what lies in the fog over this valley.

 Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seascapes
(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Seascape: North Atlantic Ocean.” 1996)

Agnes Martin also writes that artists need to be alone, but that in that state of being alone, there lives a Dragon of self-judgment that “pounds our inner streets” and destroys everything in its wake. The best artists, she says, know the Dragon intimately and can weaken it, giving up the medieval sense of slaying it altogether. While most of us are asleep and the Dragon in control, the best artists can awaken into the silence of a sleeping dragon — where art flows.

For a moment today, among the birds and the birders, and in these grammars of my imperfection, I wasted a bit of time on myself — stealing away from the productive and noisy crowd. And as a result, these words here were what trickled down off that obscured ridgeline, through the Dragon’s maritime exhale, into the valley. It is a moment of being that occasionally emerges from the mostly disappointing and up-stream endeavor of art-making, of just being human.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seascape: North Atlantic Cape Breton, 1996

(Photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto, “Seascape: North Atlantic Cape Breton,” 1996)

“Our growing remoteness from the felt actuality of this solitary…rendezvous with the transcendent or the demonic, is directly proportional to the fish-bowl exhibitionism of modern ways. What ‘leaks’ out of inner life is far more than any mundane secret. It is a confidentiality of being, where the etymology of “confidential” encloses a triplicity: there is trust (confiding), there is hope (confidence), and there is faith (fide). Words do remind us unnervingly of our losses.” George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

“I am the handle of your hoe, the gate of your house, the wood of your cradle and the wood of your coffin.” — John Berger, (from a sign under a tree in Lisbon)

Barnett Newman, from Stations of the Cross series

In the first essay of the book, Here is Where We Meet, art critic John Berger wanders through Lisbon and finds his long dead mother — maybe a ghost but as real as any other person we might encounter today. And just as the people in our lives weave in and out of our narratives, she disappears and reappears — as do his memories of her, the way fiction and reality dissolve into each other. Leaving him a sense of destiny in his writing. And Lisboa, her favorite place, the literary backdrop of where he discovers her, is his word-built scenery for a written tribute to mother and child. Because words are also fictions, ghostly, yet as concrete as you and me. Words row us in the direction of the underworld, nothingness or Heaven (depending on your proclivity), and yet are too cumbersome and ill-suited when we turn back to gaze at our destination.

Even though I visit the ancient San Pedro Valley several times a week, not far from my coastal home, with its creek trickling through underbrush towards the ocean for thousands of years — today I felt as though I am grieving its loss. And like any good memorial, I envision this new project to chronicle what is present and absent when I am there in the valley.

Every day that I start upon the trail in this valley, my body is heavier than those spritely days of varsity conditioning runs, though my mind is galloping as wildly. A storm in a box. Me, me, me and I suffer, writes Agnes Martin. Somehow, thankfully, the valley overcomes me.

Today, as with the last few weeks, the calls of hermit thrushes are nearly deafening. It is almost impossible to describe the metallic notes of a thrush call, except that it sounds as if something technological and artificial emits the last refrain of its beseeching song. And these calls surround me there in the heart of the valley, near and far, even though I have never once laid eyes on a hermit thrush in this park.

A few weeks ago, on a rare evening jog, pushing my son in a stroller, I heard another call distinguishing itself from the usual birdsong of thrushes, robins, juncos, scrubjays, sparrows, chickadees and quail. When I followed the high-pitched trill with my eyes, I spotted on the crest of a shrub a metallic glint of Lazuli blue. A beacon there, against the evening sun, long gone for those behind the coastal mountain to the East, but here near the Pacific Ocean, it refracted an iridescence from the head of this little bird. A rare bird, only passing through this area as a migrant, one that I have searched for but have never seen before. And then it flitted away out of sight into an uncertainty.

Barnett Newman, First Station

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(Paintings by Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross series, 1958-1966)

Like my favorite Transcendalist writers espouse, from Thoreau to Mary Oliver, this place is just as much of a presence as what inhabits it — where we find “an original relation to the universe.” Even if it’s just a passing memory or a glimpse into another world altogether. And it is never the same, and someday will cease to exist altogether. Cosmologists believe the universe came from nothing and will collapse into that same nothing. As surely as my life and the lives of those I love do the same. Today the only other being on the valley floor trail was a man I’ve never seen before and will never again. As I jogged past him, he smiled to me with conviction and said, May your day be blessed.

Maybe you have your own valley, your own place where you find yourself in relationship to the universe. Maybe it is in Nature or maybe it is a moment of silence in your car stuck in traffic. I can recognize it if therein I find utter joy and breathless grief. And then a moment of freedom via insignificance, where for just an ecstatic moment I disappear altogether, and maybe glimpse where I came from and where I’m headed.

So maybe what I am grieving, and memorializing, is my own arc towards a more permanent disappearance, as surely this valley and its creek and trees and stones, will outlive me and likely my Kindred. Regardless, this valley, this park, is the canvas upon which I can create forms out of whatever occurs to me, whatever I am released to — whatever the place gives to me — and then is gone. In the end, here is where we meet.

San Pedro Valley trail, by Summer Lee

“I’m not sure how long we stood there facing each other — perhaps for the fifteen years since her death.” John Berger, “Lisboa.”