Along the southern end of San Francisco Bay and bordering Palo Alto, lies the Baylands, an immense area of over 2000 acres of marshland and more than 15 miles of trails. Just five minutes from our homes, Diana and I often walk there.
Late one afternoon, we set out from our usual starting point, the Charleston Slough. Not really a pond, but pond-like, the area is open to the tides. It’s a busy place. Birds of all kinds use its many small islands for resting and nesting. We took the trail that follows a kind of levee through the marshes.
Walking at a good clip, our hands moving to the cadence of our stories, our laughs and grimaces tempering their progress, we mapped out one adventure after another. Some were highly improbable. “We buy an abandoned trulli in Puglia, restore it, rent it half the year, and live in it the other half.” Others were more plausible–bounded by time, scope, and finances. “We follow the Shannon River as it winds its way along the border of the county of Roscommon in the west of Ireland. Along the way, we spend the night in the town of Athlone where my grandfather was born.” Regardless of feasibility, we couldn’t wait to read the history of each place, to study the food, and meet the people. We craved the challenges of distance, language and culture.
Our attention was so absorbed in the faraway world that we only peripherally saw the ducks, snowy egrets, gulls, and white pelicans as they darted in and out of blue pools. We hardly noticed the sparrows flitting back and forth in the tall salt grass along the path. We were only vaguely aware of the sun casting its golden light against the red coat the pickle-weed had thrown across the marsh.
The suddenness of dusk descending startled us. It was time to head back, but something made us stop. We stood still on the gravel path, closed our eyes and listened.
Our hearing came alive. Closing down one sense amplified another. The birds, some tenors, others sopranos, their voices rising and falling, pierced the air with exclamations or softened it with cooing as they shared their final messages of the day. Their collective wings cut the air like a knife. Swoosh. Running steps, punctuated by deliberate, even breaths, closed in and then faded as a runner headed home. The salt grasses rustled as the evening breeze passed through. Then there was a moment of silence.
We opened our eyes and the world was all textures and muted colors: Blue grays, red browns, green yellows. Dark smudges marked the mudflats where the receding tide had left them to mingle with spiky gray grasses and waxy maroon weeds. The lights along the shore reflected in the pools the tide had left behind like luminescent fish. The earthy, briny smell of mud, salt, and vegetable matter filled our nostrils. We air was damp against our skin.
How foreign and beautiful this place on our doorstep is. I stood for a moment longer and thought, I could stand to be bound to home, but I couldn’t bear to be sense-less.
Original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum