Ancient Trail in San Joaquin River Gorge

(Inundation Zone of Proposed Dam)

THE VOW

Both of us naked beside a cliff
where a flock of ravens perched,
we eased into the snowmelt, only
our heads above water, shocked

into motion, and glided
to the other shore. We had hiked
two miles along the river through
poison oak and blackberry brambles,

over slick rocks, unaware
that trails webbed down from
the road high above us. We
swam back and stepped shyly,

goosebumps surfacing on pale skin,
into a crisp
spring breeze. A couple
appeared, bearing a smoky joe

and a six pack of beer,
unaware of us and heading
straight for the beach where
we had left our clothes. Feeling

suddenly very naked,
I dashed up the hill, the sharp,
dry oak leaves crunching under
my bare feet. You grabbed

our clothes when
the couple struggled up river
against the small rapids, then waited
impatiently an hour until I picked

my way back down the hill.
Even seeing you in the distance,
I was still unsure about stepping
out of the shade.

Native American Site at Confluence of Sycamore Creek and Kings River

__________

Now we know all the secret paths
along the river. Today the ravens are gone,
so are the butterflies which jewelled
the sand. Graffiti defaces the rock,

and trash, too much for us to clean up,
covers the little beach where we
once were alone.
I stare in my own private terror

at a dead fox, its eyes and viscera
eaten away. Only its
paws and teeth remain
of its former self, of any self.

It's too cold to swim now as the sun
goes down. We lie quietly
by the river. Our bodies could be
the visible boundary of our soul,

channels of the great soul
all around us. We have forgiven
each other so much that forgiveness
hardly matters anymore, the bats

softly flitting around us, skimming
the water, as the skyline
begins to glow, the pure,
intense moon rising behind

a bare oak, its terrible craters
so clear in the cold, still air.

__________

The ancient trail died in foxtails,
emerging on the other side
of the hill, heading down
to a stretch of Sycamore Creek

where we had never been before,
the trail snaking to a pounding stone covered
with pestles. Terrifying the cattle,
I ran straight to other pounding stones,

once again along that creek
certain that I had lived
before gathering acorns
and grinding them in the mortars.

You said you believed, as I
stooped to pick up an acorn,
one great, peaceful breath settling
on the woodlands, my self lost

long ago and again too soon,
the cattle rooting out
the acorns, our home
nowhere and everywhere.

Ancient Trail in Inundation Zone of Pine Flat Dam in Drought Year

__________

In the foothills, by a vernal pool, I once picked up a toad
that had escaped from my childhood and squeezed it
gently so that it wouldn't squirm or pee in my hand.
The toads disappeared from town long ago. Once,

when I was a flagger, I couldn't outrun the viscous
rain dropped from a cropduster. I showered,
drank a glass of milk, but still didn't feel okay, nearly
passing out. Another man ate with the poison

still on his fingertips; he stopped breathing
for two minutes before they revived him, the boss
not wanting to pay for an ambulance. After that, I noticed
the only grasslands along an avenue that stretches

across the entire valley. A lone owl perched
on a metal fence post, and eight kingbirds flitted
from barbed wire to the grass after bugs
and flitted back, the fence helping them adapt

to cultivated land, the other birds that once used the flyway
long gone. Years later, I stood at the entrance to a canyon
among flowers whose names I didn't know until middle age,
the self unselfing, the eternal experiencing itself

for a moment, the delicate purple eyes of fiesta flowers
open on vines hanging all over poison oak, a swallowtail
exploring the filaments of the thistle, unafraid
while I watched a foot away, the first oriole of spring

suddenly winging over my head across the river to sway
on a bare buckeye branch and then return toward me,
veering away suddenly to eye me from a nearby oak
as I swayed on the cliff. On the canyon floor,

the call of the phainopepla, a heavy drop
plopping into still water, mingled
with the long musical call
of the grosbeak. I lay by the river,

gazing upward as the clouds
flowed over, and I could believe
that I have lived in wetness with the toad,
that my vines, heavy with flowers, have blanketed

bushes and limbs, that I have clung to one leaf
for ages waiting for some animal to pass,
that I have winged, a brilliant flame, from tree
to tree, eternal and forever changing, only now

aware of a possible end without grace, and I vowed
never to rob life with its splendor
from mountain or valley
or from any human being on this earth.

Go to the next road.
Open a cracked window.
Take a sublime path.