I have become obsessed with pavement. Walking through my neighborhood Berkeley, California’s Ocean View, I explore parking lots and courtyards, concrete and asphalt. As I walk, I take down notes on Victorian houses and stucco bungalows, boutiques and cafés, warehouses and factories. In this early morning stillness, I observe the numb clump of my boots striking the pavement.
Today I experiment, first a few paces on the street, then on the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. I sense a difference, even here where the ground is packed. Ground forgives. Asphalt is implacable. As foot meets soil, I enjoy the movement of relationship.
I stop at the site of a new bank, right now being built following the spate of new boutiques. A sudden memory. On this corner just two years ago, I recall a plot of soil, the ruckus of ravens and finches pecking through the bird netting, rows of arugula, lolla rosa and buttercrunch. This was the last remaining farm in Ocean View, and now it is paved over.
Next stop is a large storm drain clogged with plastic six-pack holders and cigarette butts. I peer through Styrofoam bubbles at the shimmer below. I imagine leaking sewers, pesticides, motor oil, household cleaners, runoff from the factories. If my guess is correct, this is the mouth of Strawberry Creek which once meandered down from the Berkeley Hills. Since the early part of the century, it has been separated from the San Francisco Bay by two miles of concrete culvert.
I am drawn in this exploration by a calling I don’t completely understand. At the same time, I find that I am held back by a reluctance of almost equal magnitude. There is much I don’t like looking at, both on the street and in the images that emerge as I write. Yet, I persist. Dinner is sometimes left unmade, the house a chaos of maps, bird books and archaeological studies. All too often, I ignore my husband Patrick and my ten-year-old Caitlin when they ask for attention, and I release my frustrations in flashes of bad temper. My back hunched at the computer, I stay up late into the night, then in the morning tear up my musings, and reset my shoulders for a new foray into the streets.
. . .
One morning I steel myself to venture down below the railroad tracks to the industrial zone. Potholed and soiled by truck traffic and factory garbage, Second Street is littered with broken glass, a cast-off mattress, dog excrement. How neglected this street is, I think to myself. It occurs to me that the word “neglected” has a resonant ring. It names something I want to understand.
I am looking for Berkeley Asphalt and Ready Mix. (In the United States, each year we use 27 million tons of asphalt; pavement now covers 60,000 square miles, ten percent of arable land.) With pavement on the brain, how can I ignore this plant located within ten blocks of my house?
The asphalt plant is unmistakable, with its giant vats and rusty chutes stretching from vat to vat. These huge burners heat tons of aggregate and asphalt each day. Through a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, I study the scene. A plume of smoke rises from the smoke stack, and diesel trucks clatter in and out. Exhaust and combustion emissions thicken the air.
A memory comes back to me. At a neighborhood meeting several years ago, a community activist came to alert us about plans to expand the working hours of this plant to twenty-four hours a day. He explained that each year several thousand pounds of toxic emissions are already carried by prevailing winds directly into our residential community. At the time of that meeting, I was preoccupied with my own healing from breast cancer. Alarmed by the threat of carcinogenic emissions whose names even sounded scary— formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, acetaldehyde, toluene, naphthalene—I decided to join in the protest. With a start now, I recognize that I did not pursue it. Why not? With a rasp of anger, I ask myself, how could I push this out of my mind?
I come up against something gritty, something I’ve continued to sidestep. Back when I was first diagnosed five years ago, frequent doctor visits provided ongoing reminders that I might die young, even soon. Every day I set my intention on learning to see and live with impermanence. But now, as surgery and radiation seem far behind me, I secretly put myself in a different category from other people with cancer. In fact, this year, as I go through blood tests, mammograms and biopsies, I lock my back in refusal. I will not allow for the possibility that the cancer might recur. I’ve taken a stand against impermanence. Here’s my image: a fixed me who is not only free from cancer, but who, truth be told, can never die.
So this plant and its emissions are unwelcome reminders of mortality—of exactly what I haven’t wanted to study, in the neighborhood, and in myself. Thinking about it now, I become shaky and scared. Suddenly, I feel a wry appreciation. I’ve ended up with a thought about paving. Buddhism has it down. It sounds pat, and at the same time, it’s true. Everything is changing, but we resist knowing it. We pave it over.
. . .
A few days later, when I am at my desk preparing to work, I have a yen to strip off my clothes and study my neglected body in the mirror. Four years ago, I learned how to do a careful exam, to consider my breasts from different views, then to meticulously palpate, using three different pressures. Even though I have promised myself to do this detailed exam each month, since that training I have never done it. Not once.
A memory comes to me of the Theravada nun, Ayya Khema. Some years ago, when I went to a retreat center to interview her, I thought I overheard her request a large mirror for her room. This was very puzzling to me, as Ayya Khema appeared to be the last person I could imagine looking at herself in a mirror. Knowing that she had breast cancer, I had wondered, could she possibly be using this mirror for her own meditations on impermanence.
So I stand at the mirror and I force myself to study my nakedness. Remembering my young body, sweet and firm as a plum, I don’t like seeing the looseness of age. But I persist in looking. Seeing through the translucency of the skin to the blue veins, I begin to appreciate these breasts. They are indeed alive, one tender globe fuller than the other, both nipples rosy.
Lying down on the bath mat, I take a breath. Just do it! I tell myself. With the pads of my fingers, I circle at each step, shallow, deeper, deep, discovering the texture of terrain beneath the skin. Every tiny glide is scary, scouting the unknown. At each grain and pebble, I sense my fingers retract. This can’t be a lump. As my fingers climb along the outer flesh, I find the cavity, where, for safety, the surgeon removed the tissue. A sudden ridge comes as a shock. I have felt it many times, but each time I am surprised. I tell myself, I’ve got to learn the balance of mind to follow this changing landscape, with its rocks and ridges, its sand and gravel, its hollows and its scar.
. . .
My walks now through Ocean View often lead me back to the storm drain. What is beneath the pavement here? What is hidden deep in time? One morning, I am determined to imagine this area as it must have been before it was developed. I conjure up Strawberry Creek as it rushed through the millennia, over rocks, under fallen branches, carrying soil from the hills to create the alluvial plain of the flatlands where I now live. Broad tidal marshes, pickleweed and cord grass swamps are dense with sandpipers, bitterns and cranes. Through the riffles, steelhead and salmon swim upstream to find clean gravels in the point bars where they can spawn. Linnets and canaries, marsh wrens and yellow-rumped warblers flit through the creekside manzanita and wild plum, while antelope and mountain lions enjoy the shade. In the winter months, the creek overflows its bank, a nearby pond has become a lake. The whole terrain is lush.
Heading home, I hike towards the parking lot of the once booming Spenger’s Fish Restaurant, famed for its Captain’s Platter of fish fry and tartar sauce and the partying at its several bars. Now, with Spenger’s out of business, the parking lot is slated for new development.
Beneath the lot, here on what were once the banks of Strawberry Creek, I have read that there may be remains of an Ohlone Indian shell mound dating back to before 2000 b.c. An archaeological dig in the 1950s excavated this mound, unearthing many artifacts and ninety-five skeletons. I picture the Ohlones, or Costanoans to some historians, heaping their fish bones and refuse from mollusks and clams, and interring their dead directly in the debris. Thumbing through the pages of the report from the excavation, I skim charts of primitive tools found just down the block. Pecked stone chisels, mussel shell scrapers, bird bone awls. In their 1,500-year tenancy here along the banks of the creek, the Ohlones made few changes in their simple tools or in their lifestyle. Likewise, they did minimal damage. As far as I understand, the Ohlones lived in kind relationship with their fellow creatures and the land.
I stand here reflecting on what I am beginning to see through the pavement: the hidden creek, the buried Ohlones, the polluting of the air in the industrial zone, the impermanence of my own body. All change. I try to sort out the change that happens no matter what from the change that comes from human choice or carelessness, the carelessness of not doing a breast exam, of expanding the hours of an asphalt plant, or of paving over the life of streams. Lingering here by Spenger’s, I stare into the vacant expanse of asphalt.
. . .
Later this day, I ask a landscaper friend if he ever uses a jackhammer. He invites me to join him at his work site. Standing in the center of a garden courtyard, beneath a Chinese maple tree, a man grips the triggers of the jackhammer and bears down into the concrete. His arms and torso vibrate, but his legs remain stable. I notice his feet, vulnerable in cloth sneakers.
From the fat yellow body of the machine extends a pointed bit that hammers in and out with a piston action. I watch the man locate the beginning fracture and then make holes along that crack. While he works the jackhammer, another man breaks out pieces of concrete with a crowbar and a pick, levering up the slabs so that the sheer weight—the force of gravity—helps with the cracking. As they pry up the broken concrete, the massive roots of the maple, extending in all directions, are revealed.
. . .
The next day, my imagination is moist with wild mint and cattails, with the surge of Strawberry Creek beneath the wooden bridges and raised sidewalks of the early Ocean View settlement. As I again contemplate Spenger’s parking lot, I picture it during that era. The land is manicured as a “pleasure park,” with the creek winding past a dance pavilion; it is ploughed and turned into a vegetable farm by a retired opera singer; it is divided into parcels, which include the fishing shack of Johann Spenger, who sets his fishing boat into the Bay just below and sells his catch of the day from a store beneath his home.
Over the next forty years, the whole landscape is dried out, filled with garbage and paved over. I can appreciate our choices, for efficiency and speed in travel, for comfort and safety. But, at an increasing pace, we are driven by these yearnings coupled with fears—of mud and water and disease. The shell mounds are leveled, the railroad laid out and widened, the road along the bay turned into a major freeway, the pond on the other side of the avenue stuffed with trash by construction companies, the marshlands and beach turned to landfill and Strawberry Creek culverted. My shoulders tighten as I imagine each change.
Separated from the salmon and halibut, from the clam-rich dunes, from the salt water and sea winds, Spenger’s original fishing shack loses contact with its source and evolves into a bar and restaurant—which depend on this parking lot. Now, developers plan once again to dig up this land, to build and repave. They ignore the sacred Ohlone burial mound which may well extend below. Here it is again: a paving over of the relationship to life around us, inside us. I experience the sadness of loss. But somehow, as I consider these centuries of change and know this sadness, I sense a shiver, a tiny crack, hair thin, inside me.
. . .
On an outing the next day, I walk the familiar streets. It occurs to me that getting under pavement, getting beneath the pretense of permanence, can be scary, but it can also open up possibility. Beneath pavement is water-process, earth-process, life-process, mind-process.
Once again I allow my imagination to shatter the asphalt. I reflect on all the elements of life as it once cycled here. Just as creek water nourishes vegetation, the roots of creekside willow and cottonwood stabilize the banks against erosion. Sparked by energy from the sun, fed by water and minerals from the earth, streamside plants are food for water striders and caddis flies, which are food for the stickleback and squawfish. These in turn feed streamside predators, from egrets, herons and bitterns to coyotes and wildcats. To discover the stream life beneath the pavement is to see that everything is continuously feeding and recreating everything else.
Passing the parking lot on my way home, I think of the skeletons exhumed from the burial mound. A memory returns to me from when I was eighteen years old. On an archaeological dig in New Mexico, I unearthed three ancient Pueblo Indian skeletons. With a toothbrush, I delicately cleaned off each bone, the vertebrae of the spine, the ribcage. Under my jacket now, I run my fingers over my ribs and then my collarbone. With the same gentleness with which I brushed off those bones thirty-five years ago, I feel through to the skeletons of the people buried here. The fundamental elements of our landscape—water, air, earth, fire—expressed themselves in them as they do in me. I sense the continuity, life feeding into life, feeding into life.
. . .
This evening, as I sit down at my desk, I form an intention to ally myself with the life under the pavement, with restoring the creeks to daylight, with protecting the Ohlones in the shell mound. But as I begin to write, my back seizes up, rigid. It takes me hours to see it: I am tightening my back against its own ache. The simple gesture of noticing shudders through my straining spine, and I feel how it hurts. How neglected this back has been.
With a pang, I remember my husband Patrick’s congested back, where of late, I have so rarely run a gentle hand. I remember Caitlin’s call, “Mommy, come now. I need you.” My chest floods. Through my aching back, I feel the hurting of my family. I have not been admitting to myself how driven I am, how inflexible I can sometimes be in my single-minded pursuit as a writer. It occurs to me that even in my thinking, I am too often fixed: “Ohlones good, modern life bad.” “Soil good, pavement bad.” That’s not quite it. I reach for an understanding that plumbs beneath these dualities and supports life.
Late into the night, I sit here knowing my own rigidity, knowing how much it hurts. It occurs to me that I have never really appreciated the teaching, much touted in Buddhism, on the value of experiencing the hurt. I have cramped shoulders, but usually I don’t feel how sore they are. I am harsh with myself, with my family, but often I don’t feel the extent of the scrape. For years, I have walked the streets of this neighborhood without feeling through to the rawness underneath. When something is neglected long enough, it doesn’t even seem to hurt. That’s paved over. I need these hurts. They connect me with the harsh, sweet, fierce, tender stream of things. They confront me with carelessness, and teach me to take care.
Thanks to Patrick McMann for walking and talking, to Judith Stronach and Andrew Cooper for final editorial touches, to Joanna Macy for her teaching, and to Stephanie Manning for her love of Ocean View, her research and imagination. This article is adapted from sections of a book-in-progress to be published by Shambhala Publications.