My love affair with California’s Sierra Nevada Range began with a sophomore high school reading of The Sierra Nevada: Range of Light, a book published by Vanguard, edited by Roderick Peattie, and featuring an introduction by Donald Culross Peattie. The book wasn’t an assigned class reading; I just picked it up on my own for reasons I don’t recall. Unlike many who skip over the introductions to books, I read them, reasoning that they must have been written to some purpose. What I found in Donald Culross Peattie’s introduction was the expression of his own love and intimate knowledge of the Sierra Nevada Range. His words won me over. Even before I got into the body of the book, my young mind was awash with images of things I’d never seen first hand – from the sheer granite face of Half Dome rising above Yosemite Valley to the transparent depths of Lake Tahoe and to the peaks strung along the high country glowing in the evening light. I also learned that the topography of the Sierra Nevada Range could be understood as a predictable and repeatable pattern of twenty-four major watersheds such as those of the Kern, San Joaquin, and Merced rivers that collectively comprised the one vast watershed of the entire range.
I was sixteen at the time of this reading and had my driver’s license and a 1930 Model A Ford I’d acquired from my brother who’d owned it before. So in the summer of my sixteenth year, my high school buddy John Perkins and I drove into Yosemite Valley and I saw first hand what I’d only previously imagined. It was one of those times in my life when the most elevated expectations weren’t disappointed by ultimate reality. There as I’d pictured them were the immense granite shoulders of the valley – El Capitan, Half Dome, and, in the distance, Clouds Rest. And there were the falls I’d read about -Nevada Falls, Vernal falls, Yosemite and Bridal Veil falls. And these waters from the high country plunged from the rim above the valley to swell the Merced River on its rush down to Hetch Hetchy. I was seeing first hand the structure of a living watershed.
In subsequent years of backpacking into the high Sierra, I seldom stuck to the trails, and found that by following the logic of any watershed I could go off trail without becoming lost. A watershed makes sense; its branching tributaries are born of necessity and can only be as they are. Any running stream offers the hiker two options: move upstream toward its source or downstream toward its destination. Downstream will lead you to an increasingly larger body of water until eventually you arrive at a lake or ocean. Upstream will lead you to a multiplicity of converging sources in the form of dozens, even hundreds, of feeder streams that flow downward to form the seaward movement of the entire watershed.
What attracted me more than anything else was tracing these feeder streams to their origins. On the upper San Joaquin watershed, I once came upon a tiny falls dropping from an overhang above the main river. Tracing this trickle of water, I scrambled through brush and over rocky slopes until I came out upon a tiny meadow not much larger than a quarter acre and enclosed on three sides by vertical rock faces. Everything there was miniaturized and intimate in the way that a familiar and inviting room might be. And there I found the source of the tiny rivulet I’d been following. It was seep of clear sweet water emerging from a fissure in a vertical rock face where moss and leafy fern seemed to thrive on air and water alone. Here the greater world of the mountain was compressed into this little microcosm of delicacy and compactness.
On another occasion hiking the upper Kern River watershed I followed a stream uphill through a series of lakes, circling each lake from outlet to inlet and further on. This went on for two days until I came upon a high glacially carved cirque where melting snows had formed a lake on the very crest of the Sierra’s eastern ridge. Not a single tree grew at this elevation, and there in late July, spring was just touching with faint green the narrow band of grasses at lake edge. I camped alone there for the night and when the sun dropped away and the night air chilled, the stars came out. The lake was suddenly a universe of its own, aglow with the light of an inverted sky. I’d come upon a star lake, and found its source in the ultimate feeder stream of the night heavens.
In all this early tracking of Sierra feeder streams to their sources, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that both upstream and downstream were journeys to the source and that there was no fixed beginning where a river like that of the Merced, San Joaquin, or Kern could be said to either begin or end. These rivers were but movements on a circuit of exchange between sea and mountain and back again. I was learning in my mountain explorations that the source was wherever I happened to be. It seems important now to acknowledge this because it figures so significantly on where I myself stand in the circuit of my own life. I too am but a momentary river of mind and matter midway between points of origin where beginning and end, going and coming, are one indivisible movement.
I have come to see this branching and gathering pattern repeatedly duplicated in nature. A tree for example forks upward from its main trunk into a pattern of spreading branches and downward into a pattern of spreading roots. In both directions, whether reaching up toward the life giving sunlight or down toward the sustaining moisture and nutrients of the soil, the tree is reaching for the essential sources of its existence. It seems apparent to me that we humans branch in that way as well. Human life, whether singly or collectively, is analogous to a living watershed and receives itself from the countless feeder streams that constitute its source. Like any watershed we humans continually gather and disperse only to gather once more, circles without beginning or end. Unity forever manifests as division; synthesis and analysis are but the movement of one essential whole. The tiniest leaf on the furthermost upper branch is as much the body of the tree as is its central trunk. This is the natural structure and movement of our being.
This is obvious as regards the human body, but perhaps less so as regards activities of the mind. Still, it’s apparent to anyone who pauses to notice that mind, like body, is a river without fixed origin. Ideas flow into us from all sides. Our minds are awash with the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and culture, the influence of which we’re often unaware. Things we’ve read in books, seen in movies, heard on the radio, overheard in conversation shape the nature of our thought and color the assumptions were making often without our even knowing we hold such assumptions. It is by such accidental means that collective mind shapes itself in individual thought: the proximity of the whole natural world, the living earth and the culture of human community giving us our mind minute by minute.
So it can be said that what I call my mind is not actually my own in the sense of its existing independently of the myriad conditions of which it is formed. For one thing the very capacity to think at all is subject to limitations imposed by the nature of the language community into which one is born. If your native language is English, your thoughts will be shaped by the grammar and lexicon of English. To speak English is to think English, the bounds of which you can only escape by learning another language so well as to be able to think in that language without conscious translation. We create language to express our thoughts, but then this language of our creation feeds back on us so that the logical construction of a particular language conditions the nature of thought available to the speaker of that language. But while the shaping influences of thought and language are mutually constraining, the mind of which they are expressive is a vast watershed of as yet unmeasured proportion. To know that the stream of your mind is inseparable from that vast universal watershed is to free it from all its small constraints of language and culture and upbringing, knowing it to be the mind born of this very moment.
I’m aware that the metaphor of a watershed with its branching streams as analogous to the human circumstance is hardly original with me. It’s a cliché, but like any cliché, it persists because it’s metaphorically accurate and thus seemingly indispensable. Perhaps the metaphor comes to us naturally because our bodies are mostly water, or because we exist within and are sustained by a weather cycle that circulates water endlessly from sea to mountaintop and back again. Our dependency upon this great global watershed without which we would perish is so obvious that we can’t really ignore the fact. Annie Dillard began one of her paragraphs in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by declaring, “There are seven or eight categories of phenomena worth talking about, and one of them is the weather. Any time you care to get in your car and drive across the country and over the mountains, come into our valley, cross Tinker Creek, knock on the door and ask to come in and talk about the weather, you’d be welcome.” Of course you’d be welcome and for good reason. We humans are so inextricably bound up with the weather that to talk of the weather is to talk of oneself.
My particular spot in that greater watershed happens to be on the banks of Chico Creek which comes out of the mountains to the east and flows right through the town park and the university campus on its way to the Sacramento River and the sea beyond. Life itself seems to me like one long creek side watch. And one thing I’ve seen is that the creek sometimes runs counter to itself. While the force of the stream in its near entirety will be running seaward, little eddies of backwater sometimes form whose current runs against the flow. I once watched a leaf that had fallen into Chico Creek being carried downstream where it was caught in a backwater eddy that turned it back upstream. I watched the little leaf circle in the quiet water along the far bank from where I stood. But then it got snatched by the main current again and carried downstream. But once more it was drawn into the backwater and once more it flowed in opposition to the dominant flow. This went on for several more revolutions and I found myself wanting the little leaf to prevail somehow in its counter current rebellion. But in time, the leaf was taken on downstream until I lost sight in the long flow of seaward waters. It had its moment of individuality and self-assertion but, for all that, the very backwater eddy that it rode upon was generated by the force of the downward flow of the creek. We’re like that. We have our individual choices and movements to make, but choice and movement itself is a grace given of the greater whole.
At eighty-two, I’m a good way along on my travel downstream toward the ultimate sea. It will be like going home to where I began – to where all life began before the first of our ancestors ventured onto land. In person, it has been a watery journey for me from the little salt sea of my mother’s womb through the many diverse waterways of accumulating years. As in all watersheds, cause and consequence have been interchangeable, a river whose end is its beginning. For all its apparent linearity, a watershed of feeder streams and rivers rushing to the sea is in fact on a journey of its own return as the ancient waters close circuit. We have but to trust ourselves to the current.