Reclaiming Wildness ~ Elkhorn Slough

We collect train parts as they fall off in Kirby Park at the tip of the Elkhorn Slough, by that old wood trestle or sometimes further South in the reserve. When you know you belong someplace it can feel important to push against the boundaries of what is strictly legal from time to time. Of course the spikes were the first treasures, spat up by shifting loamy soil that has been overworked for so many years. Should we have returned them, probably not … but maybe the ladder parts. The spikes still surprise me with their weight, proof of their extraordinary value when hefted by children. My wife and I get our pockets filled by tiny hands too many times to count, bones from the days hike – be they manmade or the remnants of the Sloughs citizens. Surely those spikes must be made of gold or some other precious metal, the remains of an ancient pirate battle.

Places have their own way of teaching wildness. If you live in North America you’re likely used to hearing from those that teach with a grandeur so overwhelming it can sweep away the lives of the unprepared, like the endless chalk-white salt desert I grew up with or the greatly undervalued Uinta mountains – the high altitude Eden where I fished as a child. Other places, tiny by comparison, reach us through softer means, seeping in deep with a kind of quiet fragrance. Once there you recognize a new pang now lives in you, an important vector has become a part of your soul.

“Rhump ump umph clack clack clack rhump ump umph clack clack clack …”

The Gilroy-Salinas stretch of the Southern Pacific rattles out the song of another freight train as it skirts the marsh down the road from our small homestead, heading out to cross the Elkhorn Slough. I should probably call that stretch of fragile tracks barely stitched to the mud a gash through the lovely crumpled elder-face of the marsh that has romanced me so thoroughly, but I can’t betray the melody of trains that way. That sound reminds me I’m home, and mortal, all at once. Its like dogs barking in a Nebraska winter’s night, telling you how tiny your life is. Songs like those make you feel at home wherever you hear them, the natural anthems of a nation of immigrants.

You can’t love this place without making room for the ways we’ve scared it. Our injuries conjure forth its vitality, dispelling any doubt in its regenerative power. It is not only vulnerable, it is vulnerability, that is the nature of vital places. They remind us that though we can dissect and measure life, it is essentially a tangible miracle so outlandish you’d have to be insane to believe in it. I think most scientists would have to dismiss the idea of life as magical thinking if its existence weren’t already a done deal. No doubt environmentalists of the future will find it hard to believe that a slough like this and trains ever co-existed.

The wild vocabulary here does not include giant-ish brush strokes in sandstone as Moab’s sunset rages across shock-blue skies, or a stand of lightening charred stubby pines massed like hobbled wraiths on an orange-scorched mesa. Instead the words that resonate here include sinking glop, turgid and ebbing, eroding, slogging, lapping, rotting, and the gurgling funk of oak decomposing in mud. Sloughs are mighty cauldrons where everyone comes to feast, die, and be reborn. There is a blessed stench that comes with that.

This slough is home to both fresh and salt water, stream and bay, new life and spindly seniors laying their last eggs. Its most faithful visitor, the ocean fog, regularly enforces all of this like a relentless, trying toddler, slipping through the water reeds, hanging acres of silk scarves to hide guarded nests and the gore-encrusted feathers of a Red-Tail Hawk’s recent kill. Its beauty is sometimes discovered when you pry deadfall apart with a shovel as you try to figure out why the Turkey Vultures keep coming back to this one spot. It is vast only in its regenerative power, but in that way, it is truly vast. It embodies the transformative power of wildness to lay us low, take us through obliterating darkness only to remake us entirely.

The insane come here to marvel at the beauty and stench of the mud all of this produces, and I find myself happily among them. Reaching into the silt clay for a handful of rot you pull back a true prayer, an unassailable affirmation of life. Trains will never conquer this. Moss Landing Power Plant at the gaping mouth of the Slough, deformed so many years ago by the Army Core of Engineers, cannot diminish the gob-smacking wizardry of this muck. This sticky ooze is the stuff that kick-starts entire ecosystems. Worlds are born from here.

Note* That deer leg and hip bone you found on the path back from Hummingbird Island has been reported in three different locations over the past few weeks. Good carrion gets around.

Birders come here too, from everywhere. They are typically more reasonable and precise than muck lovers like me. Their giant scopes stick out over the wind chattering cattails as they grow their counts with names like Merlin, American Kestrel, Elegant Tern, Tundra Swan, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Spotted Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sparrow …

Reasonable people say this is all being washed away. Those Army engineers made the mouth of the Slough wider when they moved it north, dramatically increasing the size of the harbor at Moss Landing, and greatly diminishing the strength of the Sloughs arms to hold onto its fertile estuarian might. The tides that push through the Monterey Bay, powered by arctic and tropical force alike, ride through this timeless womb like stampeding horses, back and forth twice a day.

The smart money is on the Slough dissolving into the Monterey Bay as global temperatures rise, tidal hooves gouge deeper and deeper, salting the fresh water already sapped and tainted by miles of farms that stand between the Slough and the tributaries that used feed it abundantly. I’m not especially smart with money, so I believe this muck will have its revenge on us all. That and crabs, they’ll be chewing on our remains and laughing.

“Stupid fucking trains” they’ll cackle to the muck.

The Sloughs tiny crabs live to eat and joust, battling each other for a bigger porch to scramble up. You can hear the clicking of their air bubbles popping through the mud, or perhaps its the sharpening of their claws on ancient steels.

“ticka ticka ticka ticka ticka ticka ticka”

The casualties have been stacking up for eons. They’ll only pause when submerged, disturbed by onlookers, or while being eaten. You’ll likely find a few missing an appendage or two soldiering on, a testament to their primordial grit. They battle like true gladiators, cunning, ferocious, relentless. These killers carry many names: Mottled Pea Crab, Sheep Crab, Mud-Flat Crab, but my favorite by far is the Hairy Cancer Crab. I don’t know why someone named this fine specimen of crustacean something that people would recoil from, but there it is. There are days I feel like a Hairy Cancer Crab scrabbling around with one arm.

“Fuck you world, leave me with my muck!”

“Rhump ump umph clack clack clack rhump ump umph clack clack clack …”

A teacher of mine once told me “wildness is our salvation”, and I believe he is right. I think wildness is that place where our soul is woven into the greater soul of nature, with its unplanned symphonies unfurling in the pinching of tiny claws, the epic dances of flocks, the frothing king tides and the many deaths that make all of this possible. Being here calls me to a kind of prayerfulness, but not one that makes me call out to God so much as one that attempts claim citizenship with the mud. My prayers speak the language of decomposition.

Maybe thats why I feel required to take something from this place, because its bound me to it in some way. It seems only fair that I should be able to take a few things when I leave so much of my heart here. We’re raising our children a short crows flight from its shores, bringing them up with the tides and the sulfur smells and the wonderment of estuarian life. What will nest in their souls besides Papa’s thievery? What prayers to wildness are planted in them already, by Crows, or Otters, the tides, or Egrets as they stalk their prey like patient ballerinas. How will the rythms of this place require them to remake their lives?

This small place is the mightiest of cauldrons.