The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The supply seems to be inexhaustible. From the figures in my possession I have reasons to believe that over 2,250,000 tons of coal have been shipped to the market from the Diablo mines; and considerably more than half of that immense amount was shipped from the Black Diamond mines at Nortonville. Where is the mine in the State that can show a better record in regard to the past, or as bright a prospect for the future?
Letter from Nortonville, Contra Costa Gazette, June 28, 1880
On a boggy day in 1806 a detachment of Spanish soldiers apprehended a band of Bay Miwok Indians in a marsh at the foot of a solitary California mountain. Commanded to redeliver the natives to the stern grace of the mission they'd fled, the Spaniards detained them in a nearby thicket as night fell. A dun darkness came on, browning out the stars. The night grew quiet but for the din of crickets. Then at some deep and slippery hour the Miwoks vanished, turned to vapor and floated away in the mist, dematerialized as demons were known to do. The next morning the soldiers woke in a dawn steam thick enough to blank the big mountain from sight. They found themselves bereft of their errant mission-folk and turned round on their heels till their heads swam. Bedeviled as they were, they forswore the place Monte del Diablo, Thicket of the Devil, and for years the name lingered like a fog over that marsh. When at length the English-speaking settlers arrived, the Spanish Monte was taken for Mountain and was believed to refer to the twin-shouldered mass looming nearby. So the mountain became Mount Diablo, made to bear an unholy namesake.
It is a Tuesday in the early spring of 1950 as I write this. I am no longer young, to say the least, and these recollections have come whistling through my ancient brain like wind-wraiths. Even these early years, though I thought I'd get them down without much trouble, perturb me in some faint manner. Might it be that even back then we should have caught the malignant whiff in that valley air? But if so, how? Ah, I mustn't get started on thatthat's idle thinking. There's no rearranging things now. Though the slightest recollection stirs up a terrific haunting, I know one can't expect much of memory, whose utility is limited. In my old hands I turn the pages of a book where a Greek poet has written: "The sun comes up and the sun goes down in my skull. Out of one of my temples the sun rises, and into the other the sun sets." And I think it must be a good thing that I've read this only toward the end of my life, for how lost it might have made me in my years of learning.
My earliest Nortonville memory is father's smell as he entered the house at night, an odor like wet burlap and dead animal. I remember the grind of his washing barrel as it scudded across our floor: wood against wood; his naked perch on the barrel's rim, black above his neckline, white beneath, scooping water from between his knees; the plashing as mother washed his back.
I remember the growl of the breaker. I woke each morning to its wheel-and-shaft clamor, like a terrible grinding of teeth. I remember the gray smell as mother shoveled the coal in our stove. And I remember the culm banks, steaming in the June sun, slothing from here to there. They rose on the edge of town like charred monuments: black lopsided pyramids. Mother loved the shimmer-sound those banks made when they moved. She said it reminded her of the beaches in Wales, the seawater ebbing back from the rocky shore. She closed her eyes sometimes and listened to it, muted as it was beyond the squawk of chickens.
From The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham, pages 1-14. All rights reserved, no part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Unbridled Books.
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