The Invocation

Let’s sing to us all—and to the restoration of all things

The old Chinese man came to me in a dream.

“Tell the story,” he said.

“How can I tell your story when I don’t even know who you are?” I replied.

“You know who I am, but that doesn’t matter. You have to tell the Story.

“I still don’t know what story you’re talking about. I don’t know what you mean.”

“The Story is time, the Story is existence,” the old man said. “Go all the way home and you’ll find it. Be a writer, be a storyteller.”

My alarm rang. I turned it off and rolled back into a fitful sleep. The old man appeared again.

“Be patient and stay with the Story despite its many threads. It weaves an immense fabric. Just remember this, if you imagine redemption for us, we’ll imagine redemption for you. ”

The dream ended and I struggled in half-sleep. I heard his voice again, “Redemption,” followed by the laughter of crows and the loud growl of a bear.

The growl awakened me fully.

He’d said to go home. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but it was complicated. I live in Santa Barbara, a paradise, but I was being asked to go back home. Home is one of the poorest, least educated areas of the state, a place that people flee to get to places like where I now live.

Here has its problems though. People celebrate a glorious past of Mission Santa Barbara and Padre Serra and vaqueros and great ranchos, but the reality is a lot darker. Sometimes I call this place “the land of the lotus eaters.”

I was asked to go home. Poverty, addiction, gang wars, and environmental disaster. But, I also knew that rising above the darkness of the San Joaquin Valley, and above its disaster, was the Sierra Nevada.

I wrestled with the old man’s words for months and was haunted by them. Why had the old man appeared to me? Over those months I thought I’d occasionally see the old man in a crowd or lurking behind a tree, but I’d never been able to catch up to him. The old man was probably a figment of a mind that needed to touch something deeper than what everyday life afforded me.

I decided to take the old man’s advice and head toward home.

I drove north on Highway 101, then headed east from Paso Robles on Highway 46, the hills on either side of the road dotted with orange fiddleneck and yellow invasive mustard. At James Dean corner – where Dean experienced the interpenetration of things when his Porsche flew over the tip of the Diablo Range at Polonio Pass and sped down the grade into a left-turning Ford – the world suddenly changed. The highway split and I headed eastward on Highway 41, the pale mustard suddenly overwhelmed by the luminous intensity of goldfields, the tiny sunflower the Spanish called, “si me quieres, no me quieres.” Love me, love me not, the eternal quest for assurance in the temporal vagaries of romance and fate and notions of God.

On the upper reaches of the vernal hills the fire of orange California poppies swept to the ridges with an intensity that threatened to incinerate my mind. The valleys and lower hills were cloaked with the sheen of gold capped by the fire on the peaks. “Hallucinogenic, it’s hallucinogenic,” I thought, but at the moment this was the world as it was without mushrooms or datura opening the door to another reality. A red-winged blackbird dropped to a fencepost. In that moment some larger mind suddenly trilled through the bird’s form, and as it did, I could see a Van Gogh-like figure standing along the road painting a picture of the fiery hills, his brushes dripping with oranges and golds. The painter opened his mouth and as he did the bird trilled the man’s plea, a plea for someone or some thing to tell the Story and set him free, to set all things free. I looked away. When I looked back, the painter was gone. I found myself wishing I could paint like that, to capture and glory in the colors, but I only have words and don’t really know if they’re up to the task.

Further down the road I could see strange animals peer up from where they grazed among the wildflowers. Not cattle, not sheep or goats, but with a sudden shock I recognized pronghorn. I’d never seen them running free before, though they used to run in great herds through these hills and across the San Joaquin Valley below the Sierra foothills where I’d grown up. Suddenly I could hear a voice in my head, a voice that seemed a response to the bird’s plea.

This is it. This is what the old man saw when he entered the world. This is how he entered the world.

The pronghorns might have roamed up from the Carrizo Plain at the base of the Temblor Mountains where they’d been reintroduced after being eradicated, a small gesture toward the restoration of things. They roam across the Carrizo Plain along with tule elk in a pastiche of what the San Joaquin Valley used to look like. Temblor, Spanish for earthquake – the San Andreas Fault runs right through the plain.

The highway wound upward through the blazing fields and over the Diablo Range at Cottonwood Pass where the colors became more sedate and demure, as if to say the human system can only comprehend so much. Despite the cessation, my mind still reverberated for hours into the evening. On the backside of the pass, cottonwood trees were pushing bright new leaves.

The road descended from the pass and on across the Kettleman Plain, then over the small climb at the southern end of Reef Ridge only to descend to the plain once again. It was greener than I’d ever seen it, beckoning in ten-thousand verdant shades, the greens a liberation, but I knew that soon it would be brown and dry with tumbleweeds piled against the cattle fences, everything baked in the blast furnace of summer. Things come and go. This had once been a trading route for the Yokuts as they traveled to the coast for shells – abalone, periwinkle, clam.

In the corner of my vision another man, a dark-skinned man, suddenly appeared on horseback riding at great speed. He was riding from the coast, riding in fear for his life as he tried to stay ahead of the soldiers and priests that followed on his trail. He stared in my direction as if he recognized me.

I ascended the last ridge to the top of the Kettleman Hills, and from there the vast San Joaquin Valley opened up. Below me was the Tulare Basin, once a vast sump for all the rivers of the southern Sierra Nevada. The first white man to look over this expanse saw a valley hundreds of miles long and fifty to sixty miles wide. He described it as a labyrinth of lagoons and tulares – the reeds, cattails, and tules – the air full of smoke plumes from the myriad campfires of the countless native rancherias.

Long before the valley was filled with rivers and lakes and long before the Sierra thrust to the sky to the east, the basin was the Temblor Sea. The ocean pushed through an opening in the coastal range and formed a warm shallow sea where whales and other cetaceans came to give birth. Sea life flourished. Cutting through it all, cacharodon megladon swam unchallenged, the sixty foot precursor of the great white shark with triangular, seven-inch razor-sharp teeth. Nothing was safe. In my mind’s eye I saw the lord of the deep darkness, the engine of death, circling and rising from the depths. Its teeth are still found beneath the ground.

I stared across the primeval Great Valley. Before my eyes the Sierra began its gradual uplift above the sea. Rivers formed and descended from the mountains to fill the sea with silt. Eventually there was a valley with a lake along its axis lined with tules, oak, cottonwood, bay laurel, wild grape, and willow. Fish and amphibians thrived, millions upon millions of birds nested and bred throughout the tangle of vegetation, the lake a living organism that expanded throughout the reaches of the Story and my mind.

Where the Kaweah River emerged from the granite keep of the Sierra the water divided and divided again and formed a vast delta that flowed into the lake. A valley oak forest – over two hundred square miles – covered the delta land, the oaks interspersed with sycamore along the banks of the streams.

It’s all gone now. The lake and its birds and its vegetation are gone, the valley oak forest also gone save a few hundred acres here and there that stick out like single towers above a desert, the only remains of some great ancient civilization.

I drove out across the dry, dusty lakebed, now crisscrossed by straight-line canals in place of the old chaotic growth, and along the banks I spied three different kinds of egrets and an occasional great blue heron. In the peak El Nino years of great rain, when the dams in the mountains can’t handle the flow, the lake always tries to return. Hundreds of thousands of flocking waterbirds appear from nowhere to settle on the water as if they’d been waiting in another dimension of time and space for their chance to return.

It is time to return.

So much is gone.

As I drove I found myself holding out a vision of the return, the restoration, something beyond the poverty, the dusty streets, and the drugs and gang warfare of what this great valley had become, a return of trees and lakes and dignity.

This is why he entered the world. He’s been waiting.

I saw the ancient life buried beneath the ground and the snow on the peaks. A wind blowing down from the Sierra carried the sound of chanting and singing. It was a mourning song for all that had died and a prayer to the heavens for all that is and can be, a hymn to the mind of us all.

The Story stirred around me across the valley floor, shook off its dust, and then rose toward the sky like a great raven. It flew toward the distant eastern peaks.

Be patient and stay with the many threads. The fabric will weave itself, and space and time will emerge. Let’s sing to us all.

excerpted from the novel The Crying Dance by John Spivey—more to follow

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