Gayle Brandeis on the power of place and the language of landscape

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In light of the Caldor Fire threatening Lake Tahoe, I thought this was a good time to re-post Gayle Brandeis’s love letter to this stunningly beautiful area and its profound effect on those lucky enough to visit or live there.

How long does it take for a place to seep into your bones? How long until you can find the right language for it, the most precise words to capture the terrain? How long until you can read about that place and know you’re reading home?

I’ve lived in the Lake Tahoe area with my husband and youngest son for a little over a year and a half, and the landscape still feels bigger than language to me. I’ve only written two pieces about Tahoe since our move, an essay and a short story that both burned their way out of me, and now I find myself resistant to writing anything more about the region—I am feeling unready, unqualified, ill-equipped to capture the sheer majesty of this place.

Strangely, I’ve found myself resistant to reading much about the area as well. I was hungry to do so when we first arrived—I stocked up on local history books, eagerly bought Tahoe Blue, a gorgeous anthology of writings about the lake, but even as I recognized the beauty and power of the work, my mind wasn’t ready to take it in; I put each book down after reading only a few pages.

I usually learn about the world most fully through words—words are my default, my beacon, the trail of breadcrumbs that leads me home, but words, maybe for the first time, felt paltry in relation to a place of such magnificent scale: a body of water 22 miles long and over 1,600 feet deep, mountains that reach almost 9,000 feet high, boulders deposited all over the place by glaciers, and tree upon tree upon glorious, towering tree.

Before we moved here, we lived in Riverside, an irrigated desert between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. I love Riverside and was deeply connected to the community, literary and otherwise, but found myself filled with a deep and irrational longing for pines instead of palms, streams instead of traffic jams, clean, crisp air instead of smog. Maybe it had something to do with all the funky photo-murals that came with our house—giant images of aspens and deer and waterfalls covering the walls of the living room and all three bedrooms. The house itself was like a small mountain lodge plunked down in the midst of ranch homes and Spanish casitas. I don’t know if a subconscious desire for the mountains had led to our purchase of that house, or if the house itself had led to my desire for the mountains, but wherever it came from, the desire was all-consuming. I wanted the mountains bad.

Every day I found myself scouring real estate sites for cabins up in the San Bernardino Mountains, about an hour away. We couldn’t afford a second home and it didn’t make sense for us to move, but every day I drooled over A-Frames and Scandinavian fireplaces in Crestline and Big Bear and Arrowhead, driven by some internal engine I didn’t quite understand. This longing only intensified after my husband and I embarked upon a trial separation; at that point, I think, I wanted the peace that mountains can bring, wanted space where I could breathe and think and heal. I started to read more books set in the mountains, taking my mind there, if not my body—Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder, various writings by John Muir.

Then, out of the blue, just as my husband and I started to reconcile, I got an email from June Saraceno, chair of the English Department at Sierra Nevada College, a tiny campus on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. She had already invited me to give a reading and workshop there, which I was very much looking forward to; now she asked if I wanted to spend a year at the college as Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. I couldn’t believe this stroke of luck. June was my fairy godmother, waving her magic wand, transporting me to the mountains I had been so desperately craving. It was the perfect place to land, the perfect place to give my marriage a fresh start.

When we traveled to the area for my reading, we were gobsmacked by the beauty of the place. We stood slack-jawed on Burnt Cedar Beach, looking out at the many shades of blue, the mountains ringing the water. “We’re going to live here,” we kept whispering to each other, eyebrows raised.

All these months later, we still can’t believe we live here. We fell so deeply in love with the place, we decided to stay after my one year position ended. I’ve gotten used to certain aspects of the area—I no longer blink at the slot machines in the grocery store or the bear-safe garbage cans everywhere, but I hope I’ll never get used to the beauty that surrounds us, hope I’ll never take it or the rich community of writers and readers I’ve found here for granted.

Every once in a while, a metaphor will pop into my head that attempts to capture some detail of the place—last winter, during the drought, every time I looked at a bare, dry ski run, it reminded me of a parched throat—but, overall, language about this landscape continues to elude me, even as the place inspires other writing to pour forth.

I hope one day I will be able to read and write about Tahoe more easily, but I am also grateful the region takes me to that place beyond words, that place of held breath, of awe. My body is still dazzled by the scale of the place, but it is also clearly taking it in; I find that when I drive up the mountain after I’ve been away, something deep inside my chest unclenches once I reach the tree line. I can breathe more freely; peace spreads through my veins.

My mind may still need a while to adjust to the grandeur of this place, to find ways to translate it into words, but my body knows I’m home.

Originally posted on April 27, 2016.

***

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins) — which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement — Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and a novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a statewide read in Wisconsin. In 2017 she published a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press) and a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press.) Her novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony) was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2020. Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada University, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015.

One comment

  1. Testimony to power of place in the hands of a wonderful writer brought to our attention by one of my favorite literary citizens! All good!

    Like

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