Where I live, abandoned buildings lean precariously towards roads carved by oxen the first time they sloughed this forest to the ground. The only road to my home is held in place by roots of dead trees, with a drop so sharp that you are looking at the middle of redwoods while you drive. Neighborless houses have become markers of our town, which is not a town at all. They call it unincorporated.
We have a firehouse and a post office in a trailer painted red and white to look like a flag. There is one tow company that flaunts a twelve-foot-tall wooden sasquatch who is seasonally dressed in costume; on Halloween, a bloodied slasher with knife in hand; on Thanksgiving, a bloodless pilgrim. On the main road, a rock is painted with a sign “To Town” that points towards the creek bottom.
Feral cats and dogs wander, a few people, too. New folks have moved here from the City and put up library boxes which you can buy on Amazon. During the winter, the books collect mold, the glass windows collect moisture. It’s a temperate rainforest. Vines thick enough to hold your weight drape from boughs, and if you don’t start your car every week, a blooming jade mold will erupt across your seats and steering wheel within a matter of days. Thirty miles away, when you are having your car detailed in the spring, the guys tell you it’s $600 for bloodwork. In a way, mold is the blood of the forest.
If you are a teenager, there is nowhere to walk but around. Boredom is relentless, but sometimes it gives way to creation. My daughter and her friend decide to make a film capturing their childhood. They want something that feels both nostalgic and possibly untrue, from the past. As if they are no longer children, which makes me wonder about their place in the world. Too eagerly, I pull out the fantastical monsters of Maurice Sendak. They talk about traveling-influencers. They consider washed out sepia, grainy film, pass their phones across the table, sharing colors, shots, idols. In the end, they ask me to drive them on a tour of the abandoned houses, to see if they can find, in the hollow spaces of empty living rooms, something that is both gritty and not theirs. It is dark, so we plan for the next day.
I have the dream again. I sneak into my childhood home to witness snow geese flying lengths of vaulted ceilings. Swifts descend from mud nests into arches. On the dining room table, between candles and boughs of purple berries, bodies of quail drape over plates on linen, gold threads woven between wings. Each bird, alive or dead, is so lovely I am captivated until sensations of rapture give way to feet so heavy, I am unable to move. A family enters the dream laughing. I hide under the table, so deeply ashamed of my trespasses, I almost wake up. They sit down around me; I fold into a smaller version of my child self. The honking of geese and laughing of humans becomes indistinguishable. Velvet ribbons fall from my pigtails, then the hair itself begins to fall out, until I am bald and found by the family, who chase me from their home. Outside, I stand in a world that is birdless and made of road. Trees made of newspaper tip over when I touch them. I walk this road until I find a nest filled with yolk. I bring it to my lips. It fills my mouth and fills my mouth and fills my mouth until I wake up.
My child and her friend approach the first abandoned house. The windows have been open all winter. The walls are soaked with wood moss where a tanoak has split the roof. They have asked me to film them. There is a small path through wild ginger and shattered glass. My daughter has her hand on the front door, they both pause. While breathing in, she opens the door only to slam it shut. The leaves shudder. Through the camera I see her turn around with her hand to her heart, shaking her head no. In the car, I ask them what they saw. Just a staircase, they insist, even as I imagine a foyer. Even as I imagine faces behind glass cracked with lichen, a kitchen peeling off its paper, the tile sink muddied with raccoon tracks. Not even a hallway? As a response, they only look out the window, waiting to be deposited at the next house while I watch over them.
They are still children; I am sure of it. They don’t know the names of streets we drive daily, or why windows are broken out of homes. My daughter does not know that I have created a home in the image of my childhood that I was exiled from. Birds haunt ceilings, impressionists’ paintings of hunters and the hunted hang next to watery blue fields mounted in gold gilded frames, stars hung from the ceiling. It is the magic of the outside world brought in, a spell I have cast. My memories have become an offering, my whole home the altar. I often say, nothing dies here. Snake skins and antlers, a ship captains’ desk to remind me of my grandfather. But not all of it. Not all memories are permitted and not all lives are brought in to memorialize. Just like my dream reminds me that I was not raised in a world limited to libraries and bell jars, our forest now is not only deer friends and witches. There are also townspeople, townspeople without a town.
Seasons are named after disasters: flood season, fire season, the season tourists arrive, the season tourists leave. A group of housed people form to run houseless people out of our not-really-a-town. They speak emotionally. They say they have been abandoned by the government. They say they are the government. Not here, not in my neighborhood. We live on unceded Coast Miwok land. They run squatters from places of shelter, be it RV campers, under bridges, tents or houses repossessed by the banks, forcing them to take to the woods to live. The squatters eat by fire. The squatters gather by fire. As I do. My fence is a thin line, one that deer clear in stride. A fire would, too.
A man’s dog dies. He sets the forest on fire, the point of ignition directly behind my home. It is the same place I had crouched with my daughter when she was four, showing her the underside of ferns. Fern spores catch subtle forest currents and blow up to reproduce in the breeze. Fire burns up hills too, reproducing, and consuming as it goes. For weeks, we find embers glowing so red within the trunks of blackened trees you can only stand watching, mesmerized.
When my neighbors and I go to extinguish the glowing embers, we find two men asleep within the blackened burn zone. It takes effort to usher them to safer ground. The woods are deep, as woods are, and these men are hiding from the people with pitchforks. The abandoned homes remain unused.
The children enter a home with a roof caved in. Vines hang from tree to ceiling. The building looks like a sunken ship, as if it has floated to the bottom of the forest and collapsed, a whale body without ribs. They wrap themselves in vines, and for a moment, they come in and out of view. Child, home, vine. I see flashes of their faces but older and in the future, in a home without stars and strong floors, but then I hear their child laughter and remember where we are.
I feign adulthood. My past rattles against my inner ear. This often results in manic episodes of tending house, of building up a notion of home that I hope leads to a perception of my worthiness. This is not my higher self talking, but it is a real self, a questioning self, one that I carry wherever I go. I dust, and I dust, and I dust.
At 12, I was moved to a coastal town away from my parents. During the day, roads were where you saw people. The two fingers steering wheel wave, a tip of the chin. You could be recognized as belonging on a road.
Walking the backroads at night led to meeting up with friends. In the same way that the bay gave way to estuaries and estuaries gave way to marsh to rivers to creeks, and it all gave way to mud, the town was flanked by a rural highway on each side which gave way to paved roads which gave way to dirt roads to trails to paths, and at the end, the places where we could be found, sitting beneath a tree, or laying down, all of us in a circle, having just taken mushrooms and reciting Ram Dass as we looked at the stars. You have gone & you have gotten the liberation & then you are right here chopping wood & carrying water. When the stars and mushrooms faded, we would wander back, further and further towards town and what untrue.
When the dark quiets my ability to see, my other senses awaken. Within a fog bank, I can hear deer breathing, right out of sight. I find glorious patches of warmth to pause with my friend, holding hands, eyes closed, feeling currents. Ditches give over to mushrooms and coyotes show me that fences can be crossed with ease. Owls use telephone poles as hunting outlooks. Once, a badger followed me along a bend towards the ocean, her thick paws quiet as my sneakers.
I listen to an artist being interviewed on the radio about a forthcoming book of nature maps. When asked about their choice to omit roads, they answer that roads are not interesting to them. I stop listening and let my hand rest on the stick shift. I downshift into a turn and accelerate out of it. I disdain car culture and I still think of pullouts as a good place to have sex. I like looking at a field with my face pressed against glass. Call me king of the backseat while I tell you that disturbance is rebirth. Roads birth unique ecosystems that are not regulated to the road itself. Horsetail, native beehives, poppies, Queen Anne’s lace, hemlock, anise, mugwort, willow, thimble and salmonberry, amanitas, salamanders, frogs, and ferns all love a good ditch. Roads are a heavily regulated thing constantly falling apart just to create a new life. I glance at myself in the rearview mirror while continuing to drive.
There was a room within a garage at the end of a road. The room had a small crawl space along the ceiling that was fitted with blankets and a futon. Within the room, was a car, which one shimmied past to get to the ladder which led to the crawl space. The car entered the room through two swinging doors being pulled open. The room was flanked by a gas station and the mechanic’s shop, and above that an apartment building. One shared bathroom, only occasionally working, was available for the entire building plus the mechanics. The people who came for drugs sat in or on the car talking and I laid in the crawl space directly above them. At night, I would soak my hands in the sink to help release my seized-up fingers, my calluses bleeding from writing, my nose bleeding too, a dead rat in the shared shower. The rats that infested the building were wharf rats; huge creatures that walked on hind legs and fought dogs. When one ran across my pillow, I jerked back so hard against the ceiling, I passed out. A young man got out of the car below and dragged me across the dirty bed, ankles first, until he could sling me over his shoulder to descend the ladder. He lay me on the hood and watched over me till I woke up.
This man now writes me from his nightshift as a fireman to tell me that he loved me from the moment he laid me on the hood. So taken with this moment he perused becoming a paramedic and then a firefighter. He is married and has children and when he’s at work he thinks of me as a passed-out drug addict on the hood of a 68 Pontiac. Of the two of us, I might be the sicker. I let his texting go on just to imagine myself, in detail, being rescued. Which of course, I was not. We didn’t get in the car, so we didn’t drive away. I took myself back to shower and sleep with rats, even though below me was a car that was on a road, right there, in the middle of my home.
As I drive my daughter and her friend around, I take notice of how far they will go to enter spaces potentially both thrilling and dangerous. A place of human imprints, but more recently, a place of non-human existence cradled by walls, ceilings, and floors. Door handles rattled, windows peered into. As she films, I point to the non-native ivy taking over water towers and the foundations cracked from the pressure of root systems. While mycelium does the slow work of creeping, my daughter is mostly retreating at a quick clip from what lays over the threshold. I encourage her to go further. I park next to places that the County marked as impassable, the same places we have knocked down fences or carved out new trails. We look out over canyons. Smoke from fireplaces drifts into fog which holds our world within its wet, dreamlike hands.
Later, after her friend has gone home and we are in our cabin, my daughter sits down to edit her film. In this work, she faces choices around inclusion and omission and where the lines blur. This is what she loves best about the art of making films; cutting things up and recreating sequences, played to new soundtracks. I see this as survival. Not only because she can create new realities, which her heart will need, but because she will be more attuned to people presenting something to her that has been manipulated, revised, reframed.
When she shares her film with me, I find that it’s not a film about abandoned houses at all. It’s a film about our winter drenched roads. Shots span over the dashboard to tress and my hands on the steering wheel, tattooed and old with folding wrinkles. I am driving her back to a hearth decorated with birds. The song she chose for the film sings This is where the poets go to die. It wasn’t at all untrue. It was crumbling and nostalgic and the world she was born to.Photo by Calle on Unsplash