Only The Earth and Sky
A story of the past, the future, the Pipe, and a Prayer.
c 1999 Robert S. Worthington
Old John gazed out upon the early morning quiet, as he stood in the rough-hewn doorway of his cabin. Steam rose in a lazy spiral from the battered old coffee mug, held like an offering between his equally battered old hands. With intense razor eyes, he watched his silent prayer rise with the vapor and disperse into the sky, whispered, “All my Relations,” and continued his silent vigil, waiting for the Beast.
His cabin was perched on the north side of a gulch that, just below him, took a turn to the south, down to the valley where the crystal waters of his little spring-fed stream joined with Humbug Creek. This particular twist in the terrain afforded John a panorama of nearly all the valley and its surrounding mountains.
To the east, the crest of the ridge was backlit with the same red ember glow that was just now touching the tops of the highest peaks on the other side of the valley. The air was still; dawn’s colors fading from indigo to lavender to pale blue, with iridescent coral streaks of clouds hanging above Gunsight Peak, as the last traces of night fled across the unseen western horizon.
The Ponderosa and sugar pines along the canyon rim stood watch with him; dark sentinels against the pale dawn sky. A waning quarter moon hung suspended between the twin ancient incense cedars that rose from the canyon floor to tower above all else within his view. Somehow, these majestic old giants had survived fire, chain saw, and pestilence; wise elders standing in dignity among their relations.
Douglas fir mingled with the pines in the shade of the gulch, and closer to the creek, big-leaf maple and alder shared the moister ground with the cedars. The higher, south facing slopes were predominantly chaparral, mixed with live oak and a few big pines. The dense growth of manzanita and wild lilac, so resistant to two-leggeds, was safe haven for the other creatures that inhabited these hills.
In all that he could see, no trace of humanity was visible, and it was easy to imagine he was alone in this place. In reality, there were about thirty full-time residents in the valley, with a few more who came in the summer. The population had remained fairly consistent for over a hundred years, ever since the gold played out. During boom times, there had been over two thousand souls working that valley, and they had called it Humbug City, but without the lure of the yellow-metal-that-makes-white-man-crazy, this place was just too inaccessible for most people. Until now.
Few sounds broke the silence. John could make out the cautious footsteps of mama doe and her fawn heading down to the creek for a morning drink. A covey of quail followed suit, chuckling amongst themselves as they picked their way between moss-covered rocks to reach the same watering hole countless generations of their family had visited daily. The old man had watched them for nearly fifty years, and it was now, as it always had been.
After today, it would be no more. His heart broke again at the thought, and a lone drop of moisture navigated the chiseled pathways of his weathered cheek. As he listened to the early birds earnestly discussing their plans for the day, he wondered out loud, “Do they know?” They sounded as cheerful as ever, oblivious to all that stood outside their control.
“Maybe that’s the key, be bird-like and just fly away from it all.”
Squirrels chattered as they sprinted across slender branches, pausing to scold a placidly unconcerned old porcupine as it ambled down to join the gang at the creek. It had always been so.
These sounds belonged. They were the voices in the Song of Life, as were the rush of the night winds that would wash down the mountainside like surf on the shore, and the drone of a bumblebee on a sunny spring morning. Or the sky-rending lightning and thunder that would shake the very earth, and sometimes scorch it. He knew that voice well; he had felt its power and survived, and it had named him.
Coyote the trickster’s laugh in the night, the seldom heard but unmistakable rasp of Cougar’s growl, and Eagle’s lilting tremolo lyric to the Great Spirit; all were parts in an infinite and perfect harmony.
It had always been so. Soon it would not. Soon other sounds would intrude. Sounds that would shatter the air, drown out all others, and change their world forever.
Agitated by this unwanted awareness of what was to be, he stirred restlessly, a familiar bitterness rising within. He spat, trying to rid himself of the taste of anger, and uttered one word; “Bastards!”
All too well, John knew that sound. It was the voice of the Beast. He had fought the Beast, this and many times before. After seventy years, he still remembered why....
The unknown dark depths beckon, forbidden mystery reaches out, calling to me from the forest. I give in to the lure of the slender path that leads to that wonderful, silent place of my imagination. On three-year-old legs, I take my first tentative but willful steps down that path. Then, having broken through the invisible boundary my parents forbade me to cross, I run, alternately laughing in joy of discovery and holding my breath in anticipation of what lies beyond the next turn. I stop abruptly, as too soon the trail ends in a tiny clearing. A rope swing, suspended from an overhanging limb, marks its center, the bare, dusty soil beneath worn into a shallow depression by countless pairs of children’s feet.
I stand still, entranced by the shimmer of dust stirred by my own feet, as it dances in the sunlight that filters through the trees above. Something about the dust….for a moment I am touched by the ghost of a future memory.
I do not sit or even touch the swing. Instead, I look around for a continuation of the path, finding none.
“Is this all? The woods go on, why doesn’t the path?” With a child’s innocence, I know there must be more, but I find no way deeper into the densely growing woods that deny further passage to this young explorer.
“Johnny, where are you?” I hear my mother call, worry apparent in her voice, and I turn and run back down the trail, glancing back at what I’d found.
About a month later, the big machines had come, and in one day, turned that little patch of woods into bare, tortured earth. For what purpose, Johnny never knew. His family moved shortly thereafter, before any construction began. After all these years, Old John still remembered crying in grief and rage as the ‘dozers did their dirty work; the sound of their destruction so loud he could not hear his own screams.
Thus, he had come to know the Beast. Now, he faced it again; this snarling, ravenous monster that would consume the very earth itself, lay waste to all in its path, and leave as its excrement, a swath of concrete twelve lanes wide, straight through the heart of one of the last remaining wilderness areas on the West coast. Right through the center of this valley, up this canyon, obliterating his home and this place he held so dear. Straight through the center of his heart.
Consciously trying to break free of this dark mood, he walked out into the middle of his yard as the sun topped the ridge, casting diamonds among the dew-laden needles of the pines. As he had done at sunrise every morning for all these years, the one known to some as Lightning-Strikes offered a prayer to each of the Four Directions, and to Mother Earth and Father Sky. He gave thanks to the Great Spirit for all he’d been allowed to experience, for the gift of all he had known and loved. And knowing this was the last time he would ever greet the sunrise from this spot, John L. Hamilton gave thanks for having had the privilege of being here for so many years.
Still, his heart knew the bitter as well as the sweet, and he could not let go of a certain ambivalence.
“All my Relations,” he whispered.
After a moment, he retreated into the cabin to pour another mug of coffee. He took his cup back outside, and sat on the edge of his porch. The sun was not yet a hand’s breadth above the ridge, and already its warmth was penetrating the morning chill. It felt good right now, but this warm this soon meant the day would be a scorcher.
“Yeah, it could get pretty hot around here today,” he reflected, grimly. John shook his head, still trying to see some way, any way, to change the course of this day.
Truth was, he didn’t know what he was going to do when they came. He could go peacefully, or put up a fight. There weren’t any other options left that he could see, and the net result of either would be the same.
All the legal avenues had long since been exhausted. When the proposal had first been unveiled, the valley residents formed a grass-roots organization to oppose it, gaining notice and aid from various environmental groups. In the beginning, they felt strong and hopeful, with the power of public opinion and the righteousness of their Cause to feed their optimism, but all the injunctions and law suits and appeals to the EPA had amounted to no more than a three-ring circus. He and his neighbors weren’t the lion tamers, after all, but dancers to the other end of the whip.
As the skirmishes were fought and lost, outside financial support gradually faded away. Even the Sierra Club, their largest and most ardent supporter, gave it up as a lost cause. “We feel our funds can be utilized with greater effect elsewhere,” their earnest young representative had reluctantly explained. She was truly sorry, and you couldn’t blame them. No sense throwing good money after bad.
The Humbug Coalition, as the valley residents half-jokingly called themselves, exhausted their personal financial resources in one last desperate appeal to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The appeal was denied.
There had been petitions, demonstrations, and protest marches. Both Earth First! and Greenpeace helped, and some of their members had been arrested, along with John and his neighbors and a few other brave souls, when they had chained themselves together to block the path of the bulldozers. In the end, progress and the bottom line had prevailed, and the gluttonous Beast had been unleashed in the valley.
The last holdout, he stubbornly refused to sell his land to the state, and that had halted construction at his southern property line for several months. Finally, the court condemned his property and gave him until today to vacate. That sanctimonious asshole of a judge had reprimanded him; “John Lightning-Strikes Hamilton, it is the opinion of this court that your personal wishes do not outweigh the benefits this project would have for the vast majority of the public.”
(“All my Relations…”)
“We therefore find that the merits of the Cross-State Freeway Project do indeed justify the condemnation of your property. You are given thirty days henceforth to vacate said property. Failure to do so will subject you to arrest. Do I make myself clear to you, Mr. Hamilton?”
“About as clear as bullshit can be, your Honor.”
The judge’s face turned crimson, his jowls quivered as he half-rose from the bench. “You will spend those thirty days in jail if you continue to show disrespect for this court, sir!” “My apologies, your Honor. No disrespect intended.” He could hardly keep a straight face, but somehow, he managed. “I was merely answering your question as honestly as I could, sir.” “Enough, or I’ll hold you in contempt!” The judge gave him a look that would have him burnt at the stake, then slowly sat down. “Just be out of there in thirty days. Reimbursement for said property to be determined by fair market value, minus court costs.” “Bang!” the gavel fell; say no more. John refused to accept the check the state issued in payment for his land. The court clerk was incredulous, “They’re going to take your land anyway, sir, whether you take this check, or not.” He found himself smiling at the young man’s concern. “It’s the principle of the thing, son.” The man’s expression told him the clerk thought he really was what he’d heard they called him; “The Fool on the Hill” With strains of the old Beatle’s tune in his head, and emotions that ran from sardonic humor to righteous wrath, he strode from the County Courthouse, broke and thirty days short of homelessness. Now, John contemplated the home he had built with his own hands, so many years ago. Three small rooms, it had originally been one. The rafters were once his tipi poles, and nearly all the rest had either come from his land or the town dump. A few rolls of roofing, some pipe, nails, and an old wood stove had completed the picture for about three hundred and fifty dollars. Originally, it had been a vacation home. When the economy plummeted, and personal freedom lost ground in the social turmoil of the first few years of the twenty-first century, he, his wife, and two sons had moved there, seeking refuge from the chaos. At that time, they had added two more rooms, a solar collector for electricity, and an on-demand water heater. He saw no need to change anything else. The hydraulic ram still pushed water up from the creek, and he still used the composting outhouse he’d built before the cabin. It had been a good home. The boys had been nearly of age when they came here to live, and though they loved the place, were ready to follow their own Paths. They returned often, and had been there, chained on either side of him, when they had confronted the Beast. They had all felt the presence of their mother’s spirit with them, there at the barricade. She was here with him, now. Ten years ago, John and his sons had scattered her ashes from atop old Craggy. He turned now, and as he did so often, felt her essence reflected from the mountain that rose steeply to the North, now bathed in the glow of the morning sun. With a catch in his voice, he uttered, “All my Relations.” After a long moment, his thoughts returned to his present dilemma. The rifle or the Peace Pipe were his only choices, the way he saw it. He hadn’t packed anything, nor made any preparations to leave. His garden stood in full summer’s growth, early vegetables nearly ready for harvest. All was as if he would go on living here indefinitely. Well, his future certainly was indefinite, that much he knew. Somehow, he still hoped for some sort of sudden inspiration, a revelation that would show him a new and previously overlooked alternative. He had fasted and prayed with the Pipe, and spent hours in the sweat lodge, asking the Grandfathers to help him find clarity, asking the Great Spirit to guide his footsteps on the Good Red Road. He had climbed to the top of old Craggy, and for three days and nights had sought a vision there. Some sign, something, anything. No vision, no sign. The Grandfathers only repeated, “Nothing lasts forever, only the Earth and Sky remain.” Somehow, this just seemed too fatalistic for him to accept as an answer. John refilled his mug, and once again resumed his sentinel’s post in the doorway. The sun was high enough so that now the eastern ridges and canyons were a mixture of light and shade. The warming air held the sweet scent of pine resin blended with the more astringent tang of the aptly named creosote bush. “Soon now,” he thought, “we’ll be smelling diesel.” At that moment, a flash of reflected sunlight from across the valley caught his eye. Alert in an instant, the hawk-like intensity of his gaze focused on the trail of dust that was rising from the caravan of eight or so vehicles making their way down the High Road toward their appointed destination. “State troopers,” he muttered out loud. For a moment, he wondered why they hadn’t just come in on the new freeway cut, instead of taking the old way over the mountain. Then, further down the valley, a similar dust cloud drifted where the Low Road crossed over Humbug Creek, and he understood. “They’re coming in from every way possible. Must be expecting a fight. Jeez, people, it’s just me, one lone guy.” As his surprise turned to disgust, then anger, although his expression did not alter, his eyes held the look of frozen fire. “We can go there, all right,” and for the first time that morning, he acknowledged the old .45-70 Sharps that leaned against the wall within reach of his left hand. Contemplating the gleaming, well-oiled antique, John wondered if he could actually shoot someone, even now, with nothing left to lose. He didn’t even hunt anymore. Hadn’t shot a critter in thirty years. A conscientious objector to the Viet Nam insanity all those many years ago, he still considered himself a pacifist. He still loved to shoot. Targets, punching paper, as aficionados of the sport called it. It was his meditation, his zen. Many people didn’t understand what they saw as a contradiction, that shooting for him was not an act of violence. The focus, the breathing, the Oneness of mind, body, gun, earth, air, and target helped him find that calm Center of his being. It really was no different than bowling or golf or baseball, or any contest where the accuracy of your shot depended on the synchronicity of your senses. John was damn good at it, too, having won first place in the National Silhouette Matches two of the three years he competed. Ironic that after a lifetime as a Peaceful Warrior, he now contemplated a violent conclusion. His anger and frustration were such that even though the idea brought pain to his heart, he thought that, yes, he probably could kill. “Is it not justifiable? The trees and the animals, our Mother Earth are being ruthlessly destroyed. Is it wrong to take up arms to defend the helpless ones that cannot fight for themselves?” “All my Relations…” He thought back to another time and place when he had faced similar odds. It had also been a Holy War, his first. And it had not been peaceful. Johnny had come home from summer vacation the night before