It is Death that Brings Us Spring at Tulelake
It’s late December at Tulelake, in Northern California near the Oregon border. I hunt quail with my father. All morning the snow falls in an attempt to establish permanence. This is the day I will find out that nothing in life is permanent . . . or sacred for that matter.
By early afternoon, the waning snow storm yields to a new sky, ice blue. Jagged edged clouds jet past overhead. The sun is a backlight, frozen in place. We are not far from home, yet far away from the world as we know it. Like the weather, the fragility of life surrounds us, in all of nature. Our own scattered white, then grey clouds are temporal, always in motion. By the end of the long of day, unused clouds are forecasted to carry another storm our way on their heavy dark shoulders.
Pops, can we grab some lunch? I need to thaw out my hands.
Laughing, he asks, Wasn’t that 4:00 A.M. breakfast enough to fill you up for a week?
It was, and it wasn’t, I say with a smile.
Ok, Gayle let’s pull over, park and have a sandwich or two. Warm up. Just think, if we had a nice campfire, we could roast up a few of the cottontail rabbits. He chuckles.
I grin, swivel my head and glimpse back at the bed of the truck now filled with half a foot of fresh snow. Five skinned cottontail stand on their heads, dressed and frozen in place in the snow.
Once we get them home, we won’t need to do a lot of work, I say.
After all, we field dress them after each kill and then plant them in nature’s freezer. I count about a half dozen mountain quail, also skinned, dressed and frozen.
Dad and I enjoy each other’s company, and of course, our hunting together, but in this part of Northern California, natures gifts become a substantial part of winter and spring’s food supply. I don’t remember a year when our freezer was not full of venison, as well as other wild game.
What the hell is that way out in the lake, I say? We both squint.
Dad says, Let me drive closer. Why are all those people standing out in the sleet and cold, looking so serious?
Pop, how the hell do I know? Dad chuckles.
They say don’t befriend your children, but dad treats me like an adult most the time even though I am only twelve. We are more like friends, but of course father and son. But I never lose track of who is in charge.
We park the truck near the shoreline at Tulelake for a quick bite to eat and to see what is happening. I ask dad to keep the pick-up running, and then place both hands on the heater vent, with the fan on high. Gradually my stiff fingers defrost in a ritual of heat and palm rubbing.
I can’t believe my eyes as I look closer at the figure in the lake. I can see why everyone is mesmerized. In perhaps the coldest day of the year, there’s a solitary doe, no more than two hundred yards from shore, in the shallow center of the lake. The lake is now covered in a thin layer of fresh ice. Dad and I pour out of the truck and join several other men and women standing at the lake’s edge. We have walked into a movie. It’s the scene where we are all waiting in fear and excitement, for an apocalypse to either end or get busy. Helpless, we all stare in reverence and silence. No one is talking. Directed at the few people we know, we nod, gesture hello. Like French Mimes, we use our eyes to steal a glance or two, look at our shoes, the ground, anything to avoid talking. The near silence,
except for the occasional whir of wind, confirms a communal sadness, helplessness. My guess is that I am witness to a new language of grieving, for someone, or something. I pick up this new language very quickly. It’s easy; no gestures, sounds or words are required. Feelings are not easily explained and, thus, our new silent vocabulary.
It’s very clear; a young doe has attempted to cross the windswept lake and has collapsed through the thin ice. She stands rigid, the frozen lake top belly high. Her view of us seems fixed. Shiny obsidian eyes gaze our way, steadfast it seems. The glazed surface forms tight around her legs, no movement. I imagine the blood tightening in her veins & arteries, expanding with ice slivers. We are all helpless, no one is comfortable. Everywhere we look, we see death as the only answer. Not a word is murmured. If Michelangelo were alive, he would be happy and yet sad, his white marble statue, a thing of adjunct dread and beauty.
I’m just a boy, and up until today, I don’t really believe in death.
One by one, we slowly exit the lakeside funeral salon. After this day, sadness and I will maintain an intimate relationship until the end.
Dad and I return to the idling truck, crank up the heater, and exchange sandwiches and fruit from the cooler. We feel awkward, eating, subsisting, while death slowly performs its dark hypnotic dance, just yards from us.
Dad, this is horrible. I think I know what you might say, but is there anything we can do?
Not a thing son. The ice is too thin to walk or crawl on, too thick for a boat. Besides, I am not so sure that by the time we reach her, she will be, well, alive.
That’s what I was thinking in the back of my head. And somehow I know why everyone looked so upset. It was about feeling helpless and isolated.
Dad says, “All of us, in our brief eye contact, shared the feeling of helplessness. Yes, sometimes words just get in the way. I remember the novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, written by the hippie Ken Kesey. The novel was also made into a movie. In one scene, a lumberjack gets pinned under a huge downed tree near the riverbank. It was a freak accident. The river, the Wakonda Auga, is actually a made up name, a product of a creative screen writer’s imagination. In any event, the river is affected by its tidal basin, being near the sea.
My ears are perked, just like the red fox we saw, running with one of our quail.
Dad continues, Luckily, son, when the accident occurs, the river's tide is out to sea. There is plenty of time for a rescue. The Paul Newman character breaks into action, trying everything and anything to free the immobilized woodsman. He uses a chainsaw, and other power tools and hand tools without success. With every attempt at rescue, the tide fattens the river. Both men work feverishly together to free his legs. At first, they joke about the situation, share personal stories. They both receive humanity son, even in the face of an impending doom and tragedy. Nothing works. Toward the end of the scene, conversation flows to nothing, nothing slowly toward acceptance.
We are going to read that novel in class next year dad. That Ken Kesey character is a little goofy, but I understand even with his drug use, he is very smart and creative.
You will like the novel son. Yah, Ken Kesey will be remembered for his unique writing. He’s not a great writer in my opinion, but he will leave his literary mark.
Anyway, I won’t spoil things for you, but in this one sequence, as the tide continues to swell the river, the two characters become more somber. Their conversations become more confessional. But neither of the men shows panic. All the attempts to rescue his friend have failed. They discuss the obvious. The woodsman refuses to have his legs sawn off. His legs are too much a part of who he is as a person. As the water rises, the lumberjack can barely hold his head above water. Finally, he accepts his fate, takes a deep breath and slips away. In other words son, unlike the doe, he had choices, not many,
but he gets to decide. Today, I feel somewhat the same way about the doe out there. The choice of life and death is so close yet so far away, just like the movie. So if all we have left is our humanity, then that is what we cling to.
Dad lowers his eyes, and then stuff’s the last of his chicken salad sandwich in his mouth..
And the few attempts to rescue her only placed the lives of the good Samaritans at risk. Dad, I understand that freezing to death is one of the most painless ways to die. I hope. But unlike deer, dad, I understand there are times when we must deal with death on our own terms. If we are lucky to have a choice, dying with dignity and humanity is important, I get that. Anyway, everything dies. Let’s finish eating. I stare at my hands, then shoes.
By early evening, we make our way home in near darkness. We are forced to drive near the lake one more time. What enjoyment my father and I shared this day is forgotten, at least in the moment. I glimpse at her one last time. She is now her own tombstone, granite white, staring my way. No, she is staring through me, and beyond toward all her eternity.
Many years later I think of her choices, or lack of them, and the similar fix my father could not save himself from. In a bittersweet way, I chose to hang onto my small legacy
of sadness, kept all these years. I view it as an anti-depression vaccine of sorts. This has reduced the depth of my own grieving at times. Unfortunately, the serum has not been totally effective. I have experienced more loses, but like most of us, I find peace and beauty in the little things, although temporal, they endure.
Later at night, as the wind sails in the sea of darkness, I find restful sleep. Somehow the beginning of a storm is calming. In the imagined chill of my dreams, there is death but
not sorrow. Storms still move across blue skies. Some welcome. I imagine fence posts full of white birds, laced antique trees, & summer shadows impatiently wait below the
frozen snow. I can feel spring. Soon it will bloom at Tulelake, and birds of prey will sweep furrows in the bluest of fields, time its doorstep.