Not long ago I drove to a place that I had known as a Forest Service timber surveyor 27 years earlier. I wanted to share with my wife and our friends the place of greatest beauty in all of my wanderings--my querencia, as many Spanish speakers call a most-loved place, the place to which one always returns, particularly for the healing of a battered spirit.
We drove for the better part of a day over the dusty logging roads deep in the Feather River country of Northern California, following a map and a pattern laid down in my being so many years ago. The countryside was familiar, but not familiar. The great white pines that were being logged 27 years ago were gone. The stumps of the giant sugar pines, as much as 13 feet in diameter 10 feet from the ground, lay smothered by dense thickets of alder. Few young trees could be seen--a testament to the PR fallacy of the timber industry about reforestation--and 27 years had barely erased the extensive scars of logging roads and skid trails, many of which were still eroding.
Arriving at the spot where one must leave the road, I hiked ahead alone, bearing a clear and bright memory-picture of my friend, Rodney Oja, the fearless Finn from Minnesota, swimming gleefully in the near-freezing water of the snow-fed South Branch of the Middle Fork of the Feather River, in the pool beneath the fern-studded, moss-covered gray boulders of the waterfall, deep in the virgin forest of white pine and Douglas fir.
I did not expect to find Rodney, but I was not prepared to not find my querencia. It was not there! I kept pressing on frantically up the gorge, out of breath and hoping that it would appear, surely around the next bend. It did not.
My companions called to me through the dogwoods and rhododendrons, but I did not want to go back. I felt that if my querencia had disappeared, maybe it was my time, too.
But I gave up. We made our way down the steep gorge to the logging road where there had recently been some grading done to “clear the channel.” Puzzled by the disappearance of la querencia, I looked for signs of our old camp, which had been only a few hundred yards below it.
The road wasn’t right. The old grade had been replaced with a much larger road-fill and the old road to the camp was gone, as were the gigantic trees that once towered above it. But I found enough traces in my memory to match the fragments of a shattered landscape that lay before me at the bottom of the mountainous road fill. Tracing back up the now-buried stream, I found it--dead.
My querencia lay buried right below where we had walked above the road, where the recent “channel improvements” had been made. The bulldozers of expediency had struck again, this time in a place so remote that no intrusion ever seemed likely. It may have been a matter of days before our arrival that the hidden glade died; it may have been years. No one will ever know.
Now, when I try to summon my querencia to mind, I see only mud and bulldozer tracks. Instead of solace, I find sorrow; instead of refreshment, only a dull sense of humankind selling its birthright, not to mention its querencias, for a mess of muck. (I wonder whether this land is our birthright.)
Can my querencia be restored? Not in my lifetime is it likely to be. Given enough time, and the abandonment of this land by a people bent on its destruction, the wind and water and the movement of the earth will erase the road, and the water ouzels may once again walk incongruously on the bottom of Rodney’s pool where there is now only mud and a battered Coors can. One thing’s for sure, it will never be the same again.
Nor will I.