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I returned to live in the small city of Davis rural Yolo County after living away from here in the massive urban sprawl of Los Angeles for three years. Partly this decision was because of the loneliness of the pandemic, partly it was because of other things. Once here, I was looking forward to walking in the Arboretum again.
The Arboretum is the crowning jewel of the University of California, Davis. You can enter it at many points, but I usually start near the corner of A Street and First Street, where I find a place to park and then start walking. At that end of the Arboretum, a redwood grove stands tall, majestic and beautiful.
I had the chance to walk in the Arboretum when winter was starting to turn toward spring, late in the afternoon on Thursday, February 25th. I arrived about five o’clock, parked, and walked through the redwoods to the East Asian Collection, which is planted on a hillock on the north side of Putah Creek and overlooks a small lake. I found a bench, near the top of the hill, to sit and watch and wait for my friend, Timoteo.
When I step into the Redwood Grove of the Arboretum, I enter a different world, where cool, green shadows enwrap me. Even when other people are walking there, a deep silence often permeates the place. The redwood trees stand mute and strong, like giant protectors, on either side of the path that I take deeper into Nature’s mystery.
The university maintains the Arboretum as a public garden, one with walkways on either side of Putah Creek, which runs through the center of it. As you exit the redwood grove, the Arboretum opens up to new vistas full of light. All kinds of teaching takes place here, as the flora and fauna have been carefully selected to represent the diverse habitats of the state of California and its people, who come from all over the world.
Walking through the Arboretum, you will see special areas dedicated to certain kinds of flowers, plants, and trees that naturally relate to one another in the East Asian Collection, which overlooks charming Lake Spafford, and the Native American Contemplative Garden, which honors the native Patwin people that previously inhabited the land. You can see the Southwest USA / Mexican Collection, the South American Collection, and the Mediterranean Collection as well if you keep walking, either entirely around the long creek, or by crossing over occasional bridges to see both sides of the Arboretum as you go along.
One of these bridges has a low fence on either side, no higher than my hip (and I am a person of ordinary height). The fence is made of tiny chain links, framed with wooden posts. If you walk over this bridge, you will see many small padlocks, of the kind which are opened and closed with a key or a numeric code, hooked and hung on the chain link of the fence. Most of these padlocks have the initials of two people painted on them because they are symbols: when two lovers at the university, or in the town, commit themselves to a romantic relationship to one another, they bring a lock and lock it here, to the fence, when they cross over the bridge – symbolically crossing over to a new life with one another.
The Arboretum is not only for teaching: it is also a pleasure garden. Walking here, some people make some of the most important memories of their lives. I am reminded of my friend Sara, who was in a long-distance relationship for some years, and her sweetheart brought her to the Arboretum on one of his visits and asked her to marry him. She said yes! The man was thoughtful enough to have hired a secret photographer, who captured their emotions in lovely pictures, which showed both of them in the redwood grove, laughing and crying and very, very happy. Today, they are still married and have a little, blond-haired son named Quinn.
In February, when I sat on a bench waiting for my friend Timoteo to arrive, I noticed that other people were there, including university students and families with children. They were walking and talking and playing together. Several birds were waddling in and out among them, notably the ever-present Mallard ducks. Sitting and watching this peaceful scene, I remembered a visit to this very same spot in the Arboretum that I had made five years before, but in the fall, with Aylin, a Turkish friend and a teacher, like me at the time, in the University Writing Program.
On that day, a gorgeous ginko tree by the lake had turned perfectly stunning, dressed in yellow leaves. The leaves had fallen to the ground like a long veil all around the tree’s roots and the surrounding lawn. Some university art students had been there ahead of us, and gathered up the leaves, and set them in patterns and shapes: a sun with a red center of zelkova leaves and seven golden rays of ginko leaves on exposed dirt between a patch of green grass and another patch of brown mulch… a rainbow with five long bands of intermixed leaves laid out over several feet of thick, green grass… a heart the size of a dinner plate made of yellow ginko leaves piled two inches high on a low stone wall. One student had even shaped the yellow ginko leaves and several braided sticks into an imitation bird’s nest. These were all gifts of the gorgeous ginko tree, which stood perfectly still and beautifully reflected in the dark water of the lake like bride in a mirror.
In Japan, the ginko tree is a symbol of longevity and endurance. Four ginko trees survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and they are still growing strong today. The ginko tree I saw five years ago in the Arboretum was still there this February, in the spring, its naked branches beginning to put out green leaves.
I was not quite lost in my reverie. After a little while, I looked up, and I saw Timoteo, who had come over from his lab to meet me and go for a walk. He was wearing his usual jeans with a white tee-shirt and flip-flops. I was wearing jeans, too, and a zip-up hoodie and tennis shoes. I stood up, putting away my cell phone, and we both smiled. The workday was over, and we were free to see what was growing in the Arboretum.
It was the first time we walked in those gardens together – though not the first time we had gone on a long walk. The first walk was in January through the snow, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, beside Donner Lake, which is where my mother later told me that she spent her honeymoon with my father. In February in the Arboretum, I was still trying to get used to walking with Tim because he does not talk very much. He is a quiet, thoughtful man, who at first seems to be very serious (but is actually quite funny and makes me laugh). He is a little taller than I am, and he is slender and strong: when we were in the mountains, he pulled a sturdy, ten-year-old child straight up a steep hill on a sled – at a run no less! The child was delighted with the ride.
Tim has short, salt-and-pepper colored hair, and dark, expressive eyes, and his face is chiseled, handsome and unlined, which is lucky, as he is at least fifty years old. His face is different from mine: mine is as round and white as the full moon! My eyes are blue-gray with yellow flecks in them, as if tiny ginko leaves were swirling in two bright pools of sunlit water, and crow’s feet appear in the corners whenever I smile, which is often. My hair is curly brown with a spray of gray in it now that I am forty-five years old. So Tim and I look different from one another, but we have a lot in common.
Tim is originally from Paraguay, but he grew up in Los Angeles with his younger brother and both of his parents, who are scientists, like Tim, and have been married for over half a century. Like his, part of my family is Hispanic: mine has connections to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, and, if we travel back in time a few generations, Spain. Unlike his, my family is enormous, blended together after my parents divorced when I was eleven and remarried other partners when I was thirteen. So I have several sisters (five) and more brothers (nine), not counting all the neighbor children and various cousins who came to live with us over the years for diverse reasons while we were growing up (and not counting those siblings of mine who are no longer living on earth, though I believe they are alive in heaven… I never forget their names). My family also includes my nieces and nephews (oodles of them!), and my godchildren (eight of these), and dozens and dozens of babies who have a special place in my heart because I attended their mothers in childbirth. For, when I am not working as a teacher at the university, I am a midwife.
Tim has now lived in Davis for more than twenty years. We actually lived in Davis for some of the same years, since we both went to graduate school here and later worked for UC Davis. But he stayed while I went back and forth, living in places nearby like the city of Vallejo, and working in places far away, like Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles, as well as Uganda in East Africa and the Philippines in Southeast Asia.
Tim and I know many of the same people, from our shared church community as well as the university: Davis is a small town. But somehow, we had never met before I moved back (yet again) in November of 2020, at least as far as we have been able to determine. This was the subject of some of our conversation as we began our walk on the northside of the creek, heading deeper into the cultivated beauty of the Arboretum.
For instance, we know that we were in the same church in Sacramento three years ago in December 2018, when our pastor married his wife, Carmenza, after they found love again later in life. I was sitting on the right-hand side of the church, near the back of the sanctuary, and Tim was sitting on the left-hand side, near the front. Pioneer Congregational United Church of Christ is a big church, with architecture contemporary to its founding in 1849, and there were a lot of people in it on that day! So maybe it is no surprise that we didn’t meet there. I keep wondering if I saw Timoteo then, but I have no memory of his face from that day.
As Tim and I walked down the path, we passed under a bridge that helps to connect Mrak Hall to the Mondavi Center, a bridge that is big enough for cars to pass over. As we went under it, I noticed that the cement wall on our right was spray-painted with images of birds: blue with black shadows. As we emerged from the little wind tunnel to the other side, I suddenly remembered seeing a Snowy Egret standing still in the creek once right there, at that bend in the path – like an angel come down to earth.
I mentioned this to Timoteo. This prompted him to ask me if I had ever gone birdwatching with a mutual friend of ours, and I said I hadn’t. I knew the man he mentioned, but not that he was a birdwatcher. Again, I felt a little inward burst of astonishment over how many people, places, and experiences Tim and I had in common between us, yet somehow, we had never met before November.
We soon came to the Desert Garden, with its cacti and succulents, fan palms and mesquites. Tim pointed out a particular cactus, and asked me if I had ever eaten its fruit, but I admitted that I hadn’t. He knew its name, which I thought was impressive, as my knowledge of plant names is considerably less than that of bird species. I asked him how he learned the name, but he shrugged, as if he couldn’t remember. He took one of the small purple flowers from a desert lavender plant growing beside the cactus, and rubbed it in between his fingers, so that is released its fragrance in the palm of his hand.
We kept walking, and shortly after the Desert Garden, we came to the California Rock Garden. This took us off of the main path, but it was well worth it. Despite my many visits to the Arboretum over the years, this garden was a relatively new addition, and I had never seen it before. The rocks in it are quite large, geological specimens, which are all helpfully labeled so that newcomers and returning visitors alike can learn their names. Some of them are strikingly beautiful, in their natural state or rough cuts, predominantly one color or two, but sometimes shot through with a vein of mineral in another color.
This is the case with Serpentinite, a rock with a mottled blue-green pattern, like a snake’s skin. The rock gets its green color from the mineral serpentine that runs through it. The Serpentinite rock is rare in the world, but widespread in California. In the days of the Gold Rush, miners often found gold near rocky outcrops of serpentinite, which was lucky. That afternoon, I found myself greatly admiring the massive, magnificent examples of Serpentinite in the California Rock Garden, and thinking of one of my younger sisters, Alicia, who loves rocks and stones of all kinds, but especially amethyst, which she collects.
When we left that garden, we found our way back to the main path, and then we crossed one of the little footbridges to the south side of the creek. We had started late in the afternoon, and the sun was dropping westward, so it was getting much cooler. I remember a bird singing, high in a tree on the south side of the creek, but I did not recognize its call. I was very curious about it, and I wanted to identify it, and I wished I had binoculars so I could.
We walked past an open lawn by Putah Creek Lodge, where I remembered playing Ultimate Frisbee with fellow graduate students more than twenty years before, and past a small, stone amphitheater, nestled in an embankment and overlooking the creek where it widens considerably to a vast pond bigger than Spafford Lake. As a graduate student instructor, I had taken one of my classes to that amphitheater for a lesson outside so my students could enjoy the literature assigned for that day in a different way – and remember the experience. The experience is what I remembered, being again in the same place, but whatever poem or play preoccupied us that day, I could not recall.
Tim and I made it all the way around the far end of the Arboretum, circling that vast pool at the west end, so that we came around to the north side again. As we did so, we passed by fenced fields on our left, where I’ve seen horses in the past. I conjured up the memory of the horses for Tim as we talked, since there were none to see there at that time. But even without horses, that part of the Arboretum was nevertheless a pretty place because the sun was setting, and its light surrounded us in a new way.
As we headed back along the path, under the shadows of the very tall trees that grow there, the sun set completely, and the shadows lengthened around us. It was twilight. The color of the sky darkened from day’s blue to evening’s lavender, and the moon came out above the trees and above us. The lake beside us was a mirror, reflecting the sky. This is when I wished the tiniest wish in my heart that Timoteo would take my hand and kiss me. It was a powerful little wish, but I didn’t do anything about it, like ask for it to be granted.
But that was because I was afraid. It is possible to make a silent wish, but at the same time, to feel afraid that it might come to pass. During my long walk with Tim, there had been for me what felt like some awkward pauses. I kept thinking – I couldn’t help this thought – that a relationship with him couldn’t work out because our conversation and communication was not flowing naturally, easily, the way it had between me and a man who used to love me. Always the shadows of the past want to stretch into the present and snatch our momentary happiness, it seems.
Tim and I were not talking now. We were very quiet. We passed by some other people around then, who were not quiet, but instead talking vigorously.
Because of the coronavirus, it is a rule in the Arboretum and throughout the campus and city of Davis that we are supposed to stay six feet apart from other people. Of course, Tim and I had not been keeping that rule with each other on our walk. We had even been so bold as to break the rule that said we had to wear masks. It is so nice to see a person’s whole face, and you don’t always realize it until you can only see half of it. But of course, out of respect for others, when we passed by this group, we gave them their six feet of space, and because the path is only so wide, this meant that Tim and I were walking very close together.
On the north side of the creek, we eventually came to the Native American Contemplative Garden, and we walked through it. Personally, I love that part of the Arboretum. It is peaceful. On the standing stones, under the trees, are written words in English and, in our shared alphabet, names and words in the language of the Patwin people. I love the entwining of two languages, written in stone, made as a memorial of honor.
My life is full of languages, especially English and Spanish, and so is Tim’s. His Spanish is far better than mine! He is actually a translator in our church; he translates our pastor’s sermons. His translation is broadcast online for Spanish speakers in our congregation and around the world. But when I was young, my abuelita, my stepmother’s grandmother, said to me that I could forget English, and speak Spanish, and so be Spanish. That is not quite how my life worked out, but it was an invitation that I longed to accept at the time.
Instead, I learned many other languages, and so did Tim. So sometimes we say a few things to each other in French, for example, just for fun. Tim is learning Arabic now, studying online with a friend in East Africa. He speaks it, and he’s translated some Islamic texts in writing and published them. I know no Arabic, except how to say “thank you very much” (shukran jezeelan), but I’ve studied another Semitic language: Hebrew. I’ve also studied Latin and Greek, Mandarin and Swedish, and a smidge of German as an undergraduate student. In Uganda, I had to learn some Acholi, and on the island of Mindinao in the Philippines, Visayan. I have an interest in older forms of the English language, too, like Early Modern English, Middle English, and Old English, and in how the language has been written over time in manuscripts and even in stone.
The stones in the Native American Contemplative Garden remind me of a poem in Old English, “The Dream of the Rood,” which was preserved not only in the tenth-century Vercelli Manuscript, but in runes carved on the Ruthwell Cross, which now stands in a church in Dumfrieshire, Scotland. In English, when we say it is “written in stone,” we mean it is fixed and firmly established. It means that, whatever it is, it cannot be changed.
It is not like something written in water.
When the English Romantic poet John Keats died at the age of twenty-five of consumption, and was buried in Rome, he asked for a phrase to be written on his tombstone, which was this: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” He thought his name would flow away, and be forgotten, and not endure.
Naturally, I would like certain things in my life to be written in stone. It would make me feel more safe and secure, which seems desirable. But writing in water is also beautiful and desirable, because it is not fixed. The words disappear even as they are being written with my forefinger in the bathtub or with a stick in the water of a lake. When I recognize something that I love or enjoy is temporary, and that it is going to slip away quickly, sometimes I value it more. Don’t you?
Of course, even writing in stone disappears in time. Iconoclasts got hold of the Ruthwell Cross during the English Reformation, for instance, and practically wrecked it. It has since been somewhat restored, which is admirable. The stone cross still speaks through its complex intertwining of words with images. A similar cross has been made in Whitby, on the northeast coast of England, overlooking the ocean: I have seen that one with my own eyes. Yet even if it stands for a thousand years, it won’t last forever.
And despite the fears of the young poet, many people do remember the name of John Keats, more than two hundred years after he died – alone and frustrated that he could never afford to marry the woman he loved.
So maybe things that are written in water have a secret life of their own – an invisible life, a spiritual life – that enters into eternity at the moment that they disappear in the flow of time.
I think my walk with Timoteo in the Arboretum was just like that. We left the garden as friends. We never kissed, or even held hands, but I remember it as a precious time.