Wednesday, March 3, 1999
It's an A-frame perched at the edge of a cliff with the Pacific Ocean crashing into the rocks directly below. The air has that bracing odor: salt, ozone, kelp. Seagulls and pelicans cling to the deck rail. A Monterey cypress - one of those trees that look permanently windblown even when the air is calm - leans over the roof.
Wonderful location, but the cottage - built with conventional materials - is under brutal attack from the elements. Every exposed piece of metal turns to powder. The porch light has disintegrated. Steel is the worst, which includes plumbing pipes, electric conduit, even nails. Stainless steel and copper hold up better, but eventually they fail, too. You need to outfit and maintain the house as if it were a boat.
My delightful job is to keep this cottage in decent repair. From time to time I get to spend a day scrambling above the ocean fixing plumbing and wiring, caulking cracks, coating wood with marine varnish, clearing a vent of seagull guano.
Today it is sunny, breezy. There's a swell - surfers bob in the distance like little black waterbugs. I'm trying to repair a salt-encrusted window and replace a baseboard heater that has succumbed in spite of being indoors - the outdoor electric conduit crumbled away, allowing ocean air to enter and destroy - like a horror movie, almost. Then I lean a ladder against the A-frame and work on fat cedar shingles coated with moss.
I envy the owner of this cottage. A great place to visit. But I wouldn't choose to live here. Neither does he. It's vacant most of the time, washed by the constant drama of wind and waves, lashing rain and gloomy fog, wearing away like the old weathervane clinging to the roof.
I go home to the redwood forest of La Honda, ten miles from the ocean and half-way up a mountain. In the evening while soaking in a hot bath I open my journal and write these words:
I want to live where it matters what phase the moon is in, where it matters that you know and can depend on your neighbors, where it matters that the creeks are running clear and the trees are healthy. And I live there.Later, I repeated these same words to my city-dwelling brother, and he got mad at me. He called me smug. But then he bragged about the great bookstores of Berkeley, the eclectic restaurants, the incredible intellectual energy of the place.
We choose our landscapes. Random events shape our lives, as wind shapes a Monterey cypress, as I was shaped to yearn for hill and forest . And yet I still believe: we choose our landscapes. Or at least we try.