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Living and Writing in the Natural World


The White Alder at my favorite swimming hole

As I was scrambling down the ten-foot bank to my current favorite swimming hole in Chico Creek, I noticed some writing on the trunk of the white alder which I use to steady myself as I step into the creek. Vandalism? Arriving at the tree, I saw what was written on the smooth, grey trunk: “Paradise.” And I understood completely.

Yesterday was merely in the 90’s (Fahrenheit), but all last week the temperature soared above 100. So the only reasonable thing in such conditions is to live in your swimming suit and head for the creek a time or two a day. Not everyone seems to understand this truism. I have known colleagues at the university who experience one Chico summer and promptly flee Chico’s summers for a position in Oregon or Washington. The heat just wilts them. “Life is too short to endure the summers here!” they wail to me on their way out.

But I love the summers precisely because they’re so hot. It gives me the perfect opportunity (excuse?) to live in my swimsuit. And heaven (“Paradise,” as the alder graffiti proclaimed) is stepping from that heat into a cool creek in the deep shade of alders and sycamores, immersing yourself in the water with a groan of pleasure, and with a deep breath plunging under, coolness surrounding you and defining your whole existence.

That word inscribed on the bark of the alder set me off as my head emerged from the water. I sat in the creek and bellowed a portion of J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Gottes Zeit Ist der Allerbeste Zeit,” (BWV 106) which I had written a paper on clear back in college days:

Heute, heute wirst du mit mir
Heute, heute wirst due mit mir
Im paradies,
Im paradies,
Mit mir im paradies sein.

These are the words of Jesus to the crucified criminals on either side of him on Golgatha’s crosses: Today you will be with me in paradise. (Of course, as in opera, the words are deliciously repeated and reprised in lovely variations.)

The section is sung by a bass, and the tune is captivating, its tone supremely vigorous and positive, despite the gruesome circumstances. And I like the way the verb (sein) is withheld until the very end of the sentence, as German is wont to do.

Sitting there in the creek in the shade of surrounding alders and sycamores singing Bach, I was in fact in paradise, so far as I was concerned. I was cool, my skin was tingling, and before the end of the singing a Black phoebe had darted across the creek in front of me (snagging insects in-flight) and a Flame skimmer dragonfly had patrolled the creek section where I sat, affirming it as his “territory.” Indeed, all was right with the universe.

Of course, I’m not the only one to feel this compelling “pull” of a cool creek on a hot day. Bicycling along Chico Creek in Bidwell Park, nearly all the picnic spots and swimming holes are full these days. A cross-section of America is found in these spots, often families of Chicanos or Hmongs or us Euro-americans, or groups of boys with their bicycles dropped to the ground on the bank. Unlike when I was a kid in Oklahoma, these boy-bands are often mixed race; yesterday I saw a group with skin color all the way from white to black and many hues in between, all whopping and hollering (as the saying goes, quite accurately) and having a lot of fun.

A week and a half ago, on July 4, the creekside spots were completely packed. It was one of our best Fourths ever. I bicycled early to our favorite picnicking spot from years past, when the kids were young, to stake a claim. Our friend Ellen had named it “Raspberry Hole,” (in spite of the fact that the abundant berries on the waterside bushes are blackberries!) and I managed to nab it early in the morning. By mid-morning Tammy and Lou had driven up and we had our full complement of lawn chairs sitting in the creek, us in the chairs, and coolers full of iced drinks. Soon daughter number 3 Ashlyn and a friend had joined us, and Ellen herself and her daughter Miranda showed up also. We skipped rocks upstream and chatted and periodically plunged ourselves into the creek. My hiking buddy Cal dropped by for a visit and we finalized plans for our father/son trip to the redwoods the next day. Food was consumed and tall tales recounted.

By late afternoon it was down to Tammy and me, then it was just me and the creek. A pickup truck full of dogs and kids drove up to the spot, now empty save for me and my bicycle. I waved the two Chicano mothers in the cab of the truck into the spot, took one last plunge and splashed cool water over my head one last time, and climbed out of the water just as the kids and dogs were entering, human and inhuman yelps and cries echoing amidst the flashing light in scattered drops of splashed water.

This was a different Fourth than when I was a kid: churning home-made ice cream on our porch at the family cabin on an Oklahoma lake; playing ping-pong on the same porch (by teen-age years I could beat my dad, but my brother could always whip me distressingly handily); fireworks over the lake at night. But that was then, this is now, and I’m happy with it.

Mainly I’m happy being in Chico Creek on the Fourth and every hot summer day. Even though “Paradise” is the name of a small town a dozen miles into the foothills from Chico, I choose to think that the “Paradise” written on the bark of the creekside alder was not a sign of boosterism from a resident of that town, but rather some kindred soul’s proclamation that a cool creek on a hot day is, in fact, as close to heaven as we’re ever gonna get. Enjoy. Heute, heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein.

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