By Nicola Waldron
It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.
— Diane Ackerman
We pull on our trusty, sand-encrusted boots, stuff Clif bars in our fanny packs, and head out to Point Reyes, one of my favorite places on this far western edge of the continent that I’ve come, hesitatingly, to call home. It’s been a long journey, first across the wide ocean from England, where I was born and lived till I was thirty—stuck, impatient—then New England (exiled, married, slightly shaken), and finally out west to California and into the tectonic state of infertility my husband, Jim, and I discovered not a moment too soon—a costly revelation that has catapulted us into a rutted moonscape, dark and featureless save for its trip-you-up craters, the land trembling and falling away, wholly unpredictable under your once so certain, youthful feet.
It’s Easter weekend, glorious, fresh. The April sun filters through layers of coastal fog that shift to reveal, then veil again, the rounded guardian peaks in whose shadows we live. Ahead of me stretches spring break: a holy week I will observe in my own newfangled way, not in any church, but here in our little cabin in the Marin woods beside a raging spring-fed creek, hand pressed over sanctified belly.
Yesterday, Good Friday—so marked on the calendar at the Catholic school where I teach poetry to eager girls—I lay on a surgical bed dressed in a hospital smock and a coronet of rosebuds, praying in my own non-specific, post-millennial way while a Jewish doctor peered with great solemnity up my vagina. He suctioned fifteen drug-induced eggs from my ovaries through the equivalent of an overlong drinking straw, then handed them to a cheery embryologist who dropped them, ever so gently, into a hospitable pool of growth medium, along with a phial of my husband’s hopeful, abashed sperm—all this on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge, across whose dizzying span I’ve passed, face pressed hard, wonderingly, up inside the windscreen.
Now, in the company of my bewildered spouse, I head north and west, away from the lab, to a gentle, grassy field called Divide Meadow out at the Point Reyes National Seashore. The Point sits on the rift between two peculiarly discrete biospheres, the serendipitous result of an intriguing natural history. It’s a nomadic landmass that has drifted over three hundred miles from her mountain home to arrive, beautiful visitor, at her current lush residence in the north. The guidebooks call this temperate headland “displaced” or “suspect” terrain; it seems there’s no escaping the notion that foreign implants are untrustworthy and unwelcome, no matter how they might enrich the landscape. (As the wife of a restoration ecologist, I have done my own share, brow furrowed, of ripping out stubborn ‘invasives’ like the pretty, feathered tamarind.) Point Reyes, which lies right on the San Andreas Fault, is a place of historic tremor, potentially great danger, and, paradoxically, of utter calm. The short path that leads from the Bear Valley Visitor Center—a spectacularly repurposed cow barn—is called the Earthquake Trail, a reminder to those who venture here that there is little to be gained from avoiding perilous truths: we are but motes floating in nature’s brilliance. Jim and I glance that way before striding resolutely in the direction of the broad, reliable track we almost always choose.
I am anxious to cover distance and get my blood pumping. This will be my last opportunity to exercise for at least a week, since after the implantation in my uterus of any successfully growing embryos on Sunday (also Passover as it happens—I fret about the doctor’s obligations), I’ve been instructed to lie down and “think positive thoughts.” I’ve already set up my pillows, books, tapes, and teacups; an altar complete with “magic” eggs of fogged glass that glow a soft gold when I lift them to the light. If pregnancy results, I speculate, this hike may be the last one I’ll get to enjoy for some time. I’ve begun my final round of shots—progesterone, the sustainer, the hormonal elixir that will cozy-up my uterus and put me in a state of expectancy. I have been expectant for so long now.
I feel oddly empty, my ovaries an echoing, abandoned sanctuary. I’ve been nurturing those growing eggs like a brooding hen, and now they’ve been vacuumed out of me. Across the bridge in the city of St. Francis, the kindly fosterer, cells are dividing and amassing in their heady soup; not migrating down the coral strait intended by nature, but cultivated instead by a scientist, the embryologist I barely met in my giggly pre-operative swoon. The only thing to do—the right thing, it seems—is to go out in nature and take a very long walk, to make on behalf of our little, distant morula the kind of arduous and lovely journey it—he? she?–has been denied.
We pass the trailhead with a kind of bionic vigor. Hand-in-hand, step matching step, we strike out beneath the grand shade of Douglas firs and Bishop pines that line the path. Always quiet in spite of its popularity, this first part of the trail boasts few dramatic surprises: just two graceful, restorative miles that focus the senses on what grows and moves on either side of the wide, straight path. The eye begins at the luminous intensity of infant ferns and oxalis at ground level, then travels up past sweetly hued snapdragons to the steep banks of towering conifers that shelter the passer-by from all but the most ferocious of suns. When a deer or the occasional bobcat bounds from the brush, the watcher’s lucky heart leaps with the unrestrained thrill of sharing the world with these creatures. Here is a place where life goes about its business of reproduction and survival, paying little heed to the humans that tramp by with their spotting scopes. Here is nature, pure and wild and good, inhabited by a stunning diversity of creatures and the humans most likely to love them—the naturalist, the creative mind, the soul in search of universal communion. The hopeful. The earth kept safe from maverick building contractors.
We are accompanied almost all the way by a pristine, spirited creek that continues its infinite journey even while we are elsewhere mired in very human, temporal questions—should we, and what if, and why not—that come with the attempt at IVF. The creek acts as a sage, a cleansing force, and as we meander beside it, stopping every now and then to name a bird or tree or flower, I become further convinced that there is no way that this strangely artificial and futuristic gambit in which Jim and I have been engaged might not pay off. Signs of fertility flourish all around us—waters gush over damp earth, the sun gleams down in celestial shafts, colors pop up wherever you look, and everywhere, that particular vibrant springtime greenness that cracks open winter.
The trail ends six miles on at the edge of the continent with a grand view of the Pacific. We’ve seen the ocean crash and recede through the fabulous arching rock formations; the pelicans swoop and rise, buffeted aloft on thermal currents. Today, however, we stop well before those cliffs. We have had enough of the perilous edge.
We come to rest exactly halfway along the trail to the precipice, three hundred feet above sea level. At the crest of a thigh-burning hill, we turn a corner and there it is spread out before us, practically insisting we sit among its tall grasses and majestic trees: Divide Meadow. Some hardy crew has even provided a set of great fallen logs, carved to function as couches. We walk, as we always do, to the seat farthest from the path, which offers a feeling of open communion with its neighbors while retaining a sense of innate privacy. This is a place where we can talk about the greatest of challenges or conflicts, and the spirit of the place imperceptibly helps us to resolution. It is always hard to get up and continue the long hike to the sea, or to return to the trailhead after sitting here; I feel I should remain, wait for the moon to come up, and sleep there under her cool light. It is that rare place in which nature feels utterly benign, and even the night animals seem harmless. Once, we glimpsed a group of white fallow deer, a family of misplaced exotics that appeared mystically as if out of some Narnian dream. Alas, the National Parks Service destroyed these gracious animals in a program of “exotics eradication.” For the “exotic,” or immigrant like me—Darwinian misfit, too—the irony, and the sense of threat, is not lost.
Jim and I lean against one another, sharing sips of water, looking out at this gentle landscape. We are already taking care of my body, not overdoing it, though there is no real physical reason for this caution. Time passes and we lose ourselves in the ether, as raptors and seabirds ride the breeze, and people—who seem, for once, as innocuous as the terrain—come and go. We don’t speak; the words seem to have been sucked from us. When I hold out my hands, Jim pulls me up and we amble to the car in a state balanced somewhere between acceptance and quiet resolve.
Back at the cabin, we fall together on the bed, tired in the best way, and, though—or perhaps because—that night is wrapped in sanctity, we make love without expectation or consideration of consequence. We have been to the divide. There, we sat looking out over the shimmering landscape towards the inscrutable vanishing point of our future, expecting nothing but that we might rest awhile and breathe. We took refuge at the median between threshold and destination. The mythic deer did not appear, but we knew they were out there feasting somewhere on new spring growth. Their absence reminded us that it is the mystery of things that matters. If we are meant to receive a child, we will bring that baby to the meadow and sit on that same bench under the big trees, in the protective shade. And if we are to remain two, we will go there still. We’ll hike, then, all the way to the sea.
Nicola Waldron, a native of England, is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Bennington College Writing Seminars. The recipient of the United Kingdom’s Bridport Poetry Prize and, most recently, Jasper magazine’s Broad River Prize for prose (2014), her work has recently been featured in Agni, Sonora Review, The Common, Mom Egg Review and others. Her poetry chapbook, Girl at the Watershed, was published in 2013 by Stepping Stones Press. She teaches creative writing at the University of South Carolina.