Monday, August 8, 2011

The Roots of Character(s)

I love to write strong characters. So I was thinking about the strong characters in my own background, one day, and remembered an incident that I’d somehow forgotten.

Shortly after my father’s death, I was traveling from the Sierra foothills to Santa Barbara, to speak at a conference. I turned off Highway 99 in Fresno, and headed diagonally south-westward, toward the coast. Highway 42 runs through bleak and barren land, which is the northernmost stretch of the Carrizo Plains, a rainshadow desert lying eastward of California’s coast range.

As I winged along through the stark, treeless hills, I began to receive a very urgent inner message: “Go to the ranch.” It could not have been stronger if my father were sitting right next to me in the car.

Now, the ranch this whisper referred to is La Panza --formerly a 56,000 acre piece of former Spanish land grant, lying deep in the Carrizo Plains. My father was born there, as was his father, and his father before him founded the ranch in 1863, after making a crossing by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.

When the whisper urged me to turn off in Shandon and head out toward the ranch, I was balky and reluctant. The ranch is way-the-hell-and-gone off the beaten track, out in the middle of nowhere. I was on a schedule. I wanted to be in Santa Barbara before dark. I didn’t have time. It was too far.

When the Shandon turn-off came up, I turned off.

I hadn’t been to the ranch in over 40 years, yet I was drawn to it like an iron filing to a magnet. I never consulted a map. I let the power of the old homeplace reel me in. Out in the sagebrush, surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, their roots sunk deep into the aquifer that feeds the spring my great-grandfather first developed, was the adobe ranch house, just as I remembered it. Up the road a mile, was the original stone dairy, with the spring still supplying water to the stock ponds.

I pulled into the dusty yard of a modern house, which had materialized in my 40-year absence, and was immediately greeted by about a dozen cow dogs, sopping wet, and muddy from a hot afternoon’s romp in the stock ponds. In the distance, I could see several more, taking the afternoon sun, up to their shoulders in water in the elevated watering troughs. The dogs swarmed me, putting muddy paws up on my legs, by way of greeting. One jumped into the car, over the seat back into the back seat, and settled in, awaiting a ride. They sniffed me, and circled me, as if I were an alien who had suddenly landed in their isolated world.

Next came my cousin Judy’s husband Tom, silently materializing out of the near distance like a phantasm. A long, laconic cowboy, his presence was astonishingly vivid. Living with only occasional human visitors, surrounded by horses, cattle, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, snakes, rabbits, and lizards, he was an interesting merger of the civilized and the purely wild. He seemed as astonished by my epiphany, in a shiny red rental car and all gotten-up in fancy conference clothes, as I was by his silent and sudden appearance, moving quickly and gracefully in battered cowboy boots and faded jeans.

We’d never met. After it was established who we each were, I told him about my father’s recent demise and my sudden and irresistible urge to return to the homeplace. I thought my great grandparents might be buried somewhere on the ranch, I told him, and I wanted to find their graves.

To my surprise, he knew exactly where they were and offered to take me there. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was ensconced in an open-topped dune buggy, packed in with several muddy cowdogs, with more trailing behind in hot pursuit, as Tom and I bumped over a rutted dirt road, out into the sagebrush.

About a quarter mile from the house and dairy, at the edge of an arroyo, and part way up a shallow hill, was a family graveyard I’d known nothing about. Several marble tombstones leaned, lopsided and parched, in the sandy soil. Low twists of stunted sage had invaded the place. There was no fence to contain the area. The monuments clustered in the blistering heat and desert drought like a defensively-arranged herd of cattle, at bay against invading wilderness.

Two flat marble plaques were incised with the names of the departed from two family streams, the Stills and the McLeans. There were the names of my great-grandparents, great-uncles and -aunts, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. A great mob of the dead, some buried in that forsaken place and some merely memorialized there. There were Abram and Thomas and Aruna; Una, Da Birma and Mentley; Annabella, Ione, and Othor. All the strange names of my Scottish ancestors, who lived and died with ties to this strange place, so desolate, so unyielding.

Standing there in the heat and dust, I thought of my father as a little boy. How he learned to drink coffee from an early age, because the water had to be boiled against cholera, and coffee made the warm water more palatable. About his claim, made to me repeatedly during my childhood, as he tried to get me to drink coffee, “It’s good for you! It’ll put hair on your chest!” Mercifully this prediction has failed to come to pass and has brought me, instead, the echoes of my great-grandmother’s voice, who helped to rear him.

Or how one day, standing in the arroyo with his little brother, Tom, he looked up to see a flash flood bearing down on them, a solid wall of water 5 feet high. How he picked his brother up, and ran with him to safety. Eighty years later, the trauma of that event still creased his voice, and the wide-eyed, tow-headed boy manifested in the room, like a ghost.

In those few minutes in that stark place, I understood more about his character than I had in all the intervening 55 years of our acquaintance. There is no eradicating the mark such a place leaves on one’s character. One can only survive such an upbringing through stoicism, hard work, an armoring of the more sensitive and delicate emotions and needs, and a noble and clearly defined adherence to a strict Code of the West, which inculcated certain virtues: helping one’s neighbor; working hard; being thrifty; making do or doing without; honesty in the face of all temptations to the contrary. A character, in other words, completely at odds with the moral slovenliness of the modern world. A character founded in the innocent belief that all men are basically good, that a man’s word is his bond, and that meeting another man in this mode would automatically elicit the same ethical, friendly, and trusting response in him.

A character and innocence and a friendliness destined to be disappointed and abused.

Standing on that hot and parched hillside amidst the monuments of my ancestors, I saw the scroll of family fate unwinding, rolling down through the centuries, until it bumped abruptly against my own feet and came to rest. Something of the sad and proud burden of lives carved from a relentless landscape, lived semi-parched and isolated, creating from their own imaginations and industry and skill the necessary things, was my burden, too. Their fate was as entangled in my present one as the roots of sage are entangled in their bones. No choice but to follow the urgings of the dead, to uncover the story, to shape the myth, and give meaning to all our lives.

There is no way to understand how it all comes to pass. The lives of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents taper off into the mists, with just bits and pieces exposing themselves in the shifting vapors of time.

For instance, my paternal grandmother, Annabella Ross, told me when I was a child that her ever-so-many-great grandmother was first cousin and first lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. I’ve wondered so often about this distant grandmother and her association with that unhappy queen, who was hounded and harried by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and finally, beheaded by her.

One thing history tells us--Mary’s four ladies-in-waiting remained loyal to her to the end--no small matter in a political atmosphere of intrigue and murder, in which people could be imprisoned and killed for their allegiences. I’m proud of that distant grandmother and her loyalty to her friend, cousin and queen. I hope that her genes are still part of my pool and that her character is instilled in mine.

All my life, from the time I was a tiny girl, I’ve dreamed of going to Scotland. I read every book in the library about the country and learned its folk tales and legends and history. I finally arrived in the Highlands of Scotland, a few years ago--that land my long-dead grandmother must have traversed so often on horseback, at night, in desperate, mad dashes ahead of pursuers, as Queen Mary moved from castle to castle, evading capture, in one of the greatest chess matches of history. When I first set foot on Highland heath, I felt, for the first time in my life, fully grounded, at home, at peace.

There’s no way to know how this comes to be. It is one of life’s mysteries how the ancestors speak through our blood, walk in our bones, know through our brains, feel through our hearts, informing us still, as if the centuries had not rolled past. As if we sat, face-to-face, before a peat fire, chatting. As if all this knowledge and wisdom and all the desperate fears were imparted yesterday, over tea -- or stranger still, as if we were our ancestors, returned from a long voyage to the New World, back on home turf again, our vision of the world expanded, but glad for the comfort of familiar hearth and home, the familiar bleeting of the new lambs in the emerald fields, and the knelling of the church bells, down the glen.

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