In the years I lived with my stepfather I didn't understand his life at all. He and my mother married when I was twelve, and by the time I was seventeen I had gone away to college. I had little contact with him after that until, oddly, just before he died, when I was twenty-six. Now, years later, my heart grows silent, thinking of what I gave up by maintaining my differences with him. He was a farmer and an orchardist, and in these skills a man of the first rank. By the time we met, my head was full of a desire to travel, to find work like my friends in a place far from the farming country where I was raised. My father and mother had divorced violently; this second marriage, I now realize, was not just calm but serene. Rich. Another part of my shame is that I forfeited this knowledge too.
Conceivably, it was something I could have spoken to him about in my early twenties, during my first marriage. It is filbert orchards that have brought him back to me. I am a printer. I live in a valley in western Oregon, along a river where there are filbert orchards. Just on the other side of the mountains, not so far away, are apple and pear orchards of great renown. I have taken from these trees, from their arrangement over the ground and from my curiosity about them in the different seasons, a peace I cannot readily understand. It has, I know, to do with him, with the way his hands went fearlessly to the bark of the trees as he pruned late in the fall. Even I, who held him vaguely in contempt, could not miss the kindness, the sensuousness of these gestures. Our home was in Granada Hills in California, a little more than forty acres of trees and gardens which my stepfather tended with the help of a man from Ensenada I regarded as more sophisticated at the time. Alejandro Castillo was in his twenties, always with a new girlfriend clinging passionately to him, and able to make anything grow voluptuously in the garden, working with an aplomb that bordered on disdain. The orchards--perhaps this is too strong an image, but it is nevertheless exactly how I felt--represented in my mind primitive creatures in servitude. The orchards were like penal colonies to me. I saw nothing but the rigid order of the plat, the harvesting, the pruning, the mechanics of it ultimately. I missed my stepfather's affection, understood it only as pride or gratification, missed entirely his humility. Where I live now I have been observing orchards along the river, and over these months, or perhaps years, of watching, it has occurred to me that my stepfather responded most deeply not to the orchard's neat and systematic regimentation, to the tasks of maintenance associated with that, but to a chaos beneath. What I saw as productive order he saw as a vivid surface of exquisite tension. The trees were like sparrows frozen in flight, their single identities overshadowed by the insistent precision of the whole. Internal heresy--errant limbs, minor inconsistencies in spacing or height--was masked by stillness. I have, within my boyhood memories, many images of these orchards, and of neighboring groves and orchards on other farms at the foot of the Santa Susanas. But I had a point of view that was common, uninspired. I could imagine the trees as prisoners, but I could not imagine them as transcendent, living in a time and on a plane inaccessible to me. When I left the farm I missed the trees no more than my chores.
The insipid dimension of my thoughts became apparent years later, on two successive days after two very mundane observations. The first day, a still winter afternoon--I remember I had just finished setting type for an installment of Olson's Maximus Poems
, an arduous task, and was driving to town--I looked beneath the hanging shower of light green catkins, just a glance under the roof-crown of a thousand filbert trees, to see one branch fallen from a jet-black trunk onto fresh snow. It was just a moment, as the road swooped away and I with it. The second day I drove more slowly past the same spot and saw a large flock of black crows walking over the snow, all spread out, their graceless strides. I thought not of death, the usual flat images in that cold silence, but of Alejandro Castillo. One night I saw him twenty rows deep in the almond orchard, my eye drawn in by moonlight brilliant on his white shorts. He stood gazing at the stars. A woman lay on her side at his feet, turned away, perhaps asleep. The trees in that moment seem not to exist, to be a field of indifferent posts. As the crows strode diagonally through the orchard rows I thought of the single broken branch hanging down, and of Alejandro's ineffable solitude, and I saw the trees like all life--incandescent, pervasive. In that moment I felt like an animal suddenly given its head.
My stepfather seemed to me, when I was young, too polite a man to admire. There was nothing forceful about him at a time when I admired obsession. He was lithe, his movement very physical but gentle, distinct, and hard to forget. The Chinese say, of the contrast in such strength and fluidity, "movement like silk that hits like iron"; his was a spring-steel movement that arrived like a rose and braced like iron. He was a pilot in the Pacific in World War II. Afterward he stayed on with Claire Chennault, setting up the Flying Tigers in western China. He was inclined toward Chinese culture, respectful of it, but this did not show in our home beyond a dozen or so books, a few paintings in his office, and two guardian dogs at the entrance to the farm. In later years, when I went to China and when I began printing the work of Lao-tzu and Li Po, I began to understand, in a painful way, that I had never really known him. And, of course, my sorrow was, too, that he had never insisted that I should. My brothers, who died in the same accident with him, were younger, more disposed toward his ways, not as ambitious as I. He shared with them what I had been too proud to ask for.
What drew me to reflect on the orchards where I now live was the stupendous play of light in them, which I began to notice after a while. In winter the trunks and limbs are often wet with rain and their color blends with the dark earth; but blue or pewter skies overhead remain visible through wild, ramulose branches. Sometimes, after a snow, the light in the orchards at dusk is amethyst. In spring a gauze of buds and catkins, a toile of pale greens, closes off the sky. By summer the dark ground is laid with shadow, haunted by odd shafts of light. With fall an elision of browns, the branches now hobbled with nuts, gives way to yellowing leaves. And light again fills the understory. The colors are not the colors of flowers but of stones. The filtered light underneath the limbs, spilling onto a surface of earth as immaculate as a swept floor, beneath the greens, the winter tracery of blacks, under a long expanse of gray or milk or Tyrian sky, gave me, finally, an inkling of what I had seen but never marked at home.
I do not know where this unhurried reconciliation will lead. I recognize the error I made in trying to separate myself from my stepfather, but I am not in anguish over what I did. I do not live with remorse. I feel the error only with a little tenderness now, in these months when I find myself staring at these orchards I imagine are identical to the orchards that held my stepfather--and this is the word. They held the work of his hands, his desire and aspiration, just above the surface of the earth, in the light embayed in their branches. It was an elevation of his effort, which followed on his courtesies toward them. An image as yet unresolved for me--it uncoils slowly, as if no longer afraid--is how easily as boys we ran away from adults who chased us into orchards. They were too tall to follow us through that understory. If we stole rides bareback on a neighbor's horses and then tried to run away across plowed fields, our short legs would founder in the furrows, and we were caught. Beneath the first branching, in that grotto of light, was our sanctuary.
When my stepfather died he had been preparing to spray the filbert orchard. He would not, I think, have treated the trees in this manner on his own; but a type of nut-boring larvae had become epidemic in southern California that year, and my brother argued convincingly for the treatment. Together they made a gross mistake in mixing the chemicals. They wore no protective masks or clothing. In a single day they poisoned themselves fatally. My younger brother and a half brother died in convulsions in the hospital. My stepfather returned home and died three days later, contorted in his bed like a root mass. My mother sued the manufacturer of the chemical and the supplier, but legal maneuvers prolonged the case and in the end my mother settled, degraded by the legal process and unwilling to sacrifice more years of her life to it. The money she received was sufficient to support her for the remainder of her life and to keep the farm intact and working. We buried my brothers in a cemetery alongside my mother's parents, who had come to California in 1923. My stepfather had not expressed his wishes about burial, and I left my mother to do as she wished, which was to work it through carefully in her mind until she felt she understood him in that moment. She buried him, wrapped in bright blue linen, a row into the filbert orchard, at a spot where he habitually entered the plot of trees. By his grave she put a stone upended with these lines of Jeffers: It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spirit / Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness. I have asked permission of the owners of several orchards along the river to allow me to walk down the rows of these plots, which I do but rarely and harmlessly. I recall, as if recovering clothing from a backwater after a flood, how my stepfather walked in our orchards, how he pruned, raked, and mulched, how his hands ran the contours of his face as he harvested, the steadiness of his passion. I have these memories now. I know when I set type, space line to follow line, that he sleeps in my hands.
Excerpted from Light Action in the Caribbean by Barry Lopez. Copyright © 2001 by Barry Lopez. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.