Memory is a night landscape. Shadows of hills against shadow of sky. I walk into myself when I travel back through my memory, and I find a dark world, streaked with intermittent lamplight. Yet some deep place within me, some smooth-worn reservoir, contains all the unbroken images of my pastpeople and moments long gone. Somewhere in the body we carry even the humblest moment we've lived. So maybe I can behold the intuitions that were already flitting through that valley eighty years ago, but I can't blame any of us for failing to notice them. I was a little boy, not the wizened and brittle-boned thing I am now, sitting here enjoying the privilege of remembrance and poised to damn myself for all I couldn't have known. The price of memory is a certain profound impotence. One can do nothing but observe, collect, revise this impression and then that one, and enjoy the pure futility of illumination.
Slinking into focus now is the Diablo of my youth. You could see it from the ridge just above Nortonville. As a boy I went up there to find a great canyon gashed between the peaks, as though some blast had cored the mountain. The twin summits gazed across the hollowness at each other, awaiting a massive earth-lunge that might one day unite them again.
In those days I was a mess of legend, and that Diablo was like my Sinai. I dreamt of William Israel, gangly farmer who hunched at a wound of earth on a day in '59, a stained hat pushed back on his head, his fingers poking at the black ground. Israel's pastures six miles south, where coal first showed itself, seemed to me as distant and wondrous as the Egyptian desert. I thought Mr. Israel the heroic figure from the Book of Exodus which mother read to me: "And there Israel camped before the mount." I dreamt of Francis Somers and Cruikshank unearthing the great Black Diamond Vein. I saw the black deposit worked with sack and shovel, the paltry yield packed out load by load on the backs of mules. These early men labored away at something momentous, like the minions who hauled those great stones to the pyramids. And Noah Norton was the new pharaoh in these daydreams of mine. Not long after his arrival he had linked the meager operation to shareholders in Martinez fifteen miles west. In '61 he raised his hands and decreed that railroad tracks be laid to the docks on the slough, a move that roused the works to a monumental standing, so that by the time I was born our company steamers had sewn the waters countless times to Stockton, San Francisco, and Sacramento.
In my boyhood the Welsh folk were entranced by all sorts of quasi-historic and fairy tale beliefs. And so in addition to Bible stories and the ancient yarns of the old country, mother and father taught me all about the Welsh Prince Madoc and his heroic escapades. Most impressive was his discovery of America in the twelfth century. I learned of our fierce brethren, the Welsh-speaking Padouca Indians, natives of our region whom we'd surely encounter one day. I learned of the adventurer John Evans, the Welsh Methodist minister who prefigured Lewis and Clark in his exploration of the northern Missouri while searching for the ancestors of Madoc.
Though fictitious, all these legends were harmlessespecially harmless when compared with that larger fiction by which I was nursed for my first twenty years: that our town was an empire in its own and would thrive till time ran off its spool.
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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