MONK honing his vow of poverty might have eked a living from that ground, but I hadn't come to farm and when I saw it I knew the ranch would do. The land was flat, thin-faced; and though this was California, the ground was as rocky as Vermont. There was barely soil enough to grow a slim alfalfa crop. Still, 45 acres yielded what they could. Pine and fir and maple took another 45, and Etna Creek, wide and swift as a river, cut through the northwest corner of the ranch.
A clapboard cabin mated to a weathered barn rested on the grassy acre that divided wood from pasture. Giant ponderosas lent shelter to the house, while near the barn apples, pears, and an ancient maple grew.
Cones littered the ground around the house, and the valley, ringed by high, rugged mountains, glowed in golden hues as I moved in. The pasture had been cut and the barn boasted a fragrant harvest. A neighbor's cattle gleaned the field's remains. The vegetable garden had little left to offer, but for a while I enjoyed its slender bounty.
The house was built of knotty pine and old barn wood. There was one bedroom, an L-shaped room that divided into living room and kitchen, a bath, and the loft. Each morning I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to a desk above.
I had come to see if I could write and to seek a balance in myself I knew was missing. I'd left a career, a house, and city life for this.
It made no sense to friends and not much more to me, but in those uncertain days the house gave comfort in its spare walls, its wide, well-placed windows, and in the heavy, hearty cast-iron stove I would feed all winter.
I kept a journal through those days. Each entry opened much the same: sun, crisp air, 26 degrees F. at 7:30 a.m., or, overcast, 29 degrees F. at 7 a.m. Those beginnings grounded me. Here at last I was still enough to let nature shade the difference in my days.
Soon oranges and reds turned on toward browns. The valley bustled with the fevered industry of autumn as my neighbors brought in hay and pressed apples into cider. While ranchers drove their cattle from the mountains down to winter pasture, I too, labored at my tasks. Each day I wrote, each day a little stronger came my craft.
When I could stand the loft no longer I learned to separate cream from still-warm milk and churn it into butter, or I split oak and stacked it by my door. Before I knew it, I had split a cord, and then another.
One bright morning I took my work and went to sit among the trees. The valley was quiet as I started to write. For a while nothing intruded, but I must have lost my train of thought, for I became aware of some unholy racket. I looked around and saw nothing. What could it be?
There is a sighing sound pines make when a breeze ripples through their branches, but the pines kept still. And truly, it wasn't the sound of sighing but of whispered laughter that I heard. I sat still, alert; a doe bringing every sense to bear. Then I saw it: Leaves were falling everywhere. There was no wind, yet the pears, the apples, and the maple were all busy. Those leaves leaped to earth willing their last act to be a joyful one. I marveled at the sight, but it unnerved me. I went inside and left the leaves to celebrate that day alone.
Leaves, like people, are not all the same. Crisp air turned damp, and each succeeding rain beat down another weary round. These did not jump to earth. They went unwilling, clinging to the last to what they knew.
At last a storm blew in. By afternoon only shriveled bits of fruit hung on the gnarled skeletons beside the barn. Almost at dusk the sun burst through a bleary sky. I pulled on boots against the soggy ground, called my dog, Rob, and went walking in the woods.
My mind was on my writing; I was intent on it and unaware of where I was. Then Rob flushed a rabbit and gave chase. I ran after him and it until the rabbit found its cover.
I can't say what it was about that moment, but in that rift between reverie and grounded present, I glimpsed the changes time had wrought. Startled, I saw that in that season I had ceased to question craft and talent. I no longer asked if I could write or why - I simply did it.
I had also come to live each day in concert with the rhythm of that valley, the spare house, the woods, and in the doing I had reaped a solid harvest from that rocky, hard-pressed land: I had come upon my warmest, silent core. I had found myself. No wonder I heard the rollicking of leaves. I dared not move: Could I, could I keep hold of this?
Life carried me away from that valley and the ranch. Some days it's hard to find my center, but when the world gets frantic, I remember gleaned fields and laughing leaves, and I find my way.