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The Autumn of a Valley

John Rico

I SAT in my old station wagon on Buck Town Road that blustery, north-windy day and cracked walnuts in my teeth. The wind swept across the orchards, scattering yellow leaves like confetti. It cleaned out the smoke and the dust and made the walnut trees stand fluorescent gold against the autumn sky. The new crop of walnuts had come cascading down, scattering all over the roadside, and I pulled the car over to pick a few.

I cracked and munched and remembered other autumns in Pleasants Valley, and for some reason I wondered how many more would be like this. There was a time when I could sit in my car on North Orchard and eat roadside nuts and think these thoughts, but each year I have to go out a little further a little further before the golden walnut trees and the orchards of apricots and prunes hide the line of houses and churches to the south. I wondered how many more years Fall would slip silently into the valley, turning summer’s green to autumn’s gold in this recurring show of change and rebirth: the end of another year.

I don’t really know why I was there that blustery, north-windy day. It must have been all the talk about those things like city boundaries and annexations and subdivisions, and because someone said a farmer was bulldozing out his orchard, and I immediately felt a loss.

The orchards that have been heavily irrigated have turned from dust and dirt to a carpet of green beneath the lightly shedding trees of yellow. Around irrigation spigots, too, the green grass grows unusually long and stands out even more than springtime against the chameleon fig trees.

You could sit there in the old car and hear the wind whistling through the windows and watch a buzzard try to make some headway into the wind, as if that’s all he had to do. If only that’s all I had to do. Then I thought if I had so much to do then I shouldn’t be here, but I was. It was like sitting with a friend with a terminal disease, a last look before the end that was sure to come; to lament, maybe, that all of this someday will no longer exist — if not in the next year, then certainly in the next decade.

And I got a little angry at all this damn stuff called Progress — I could get mad at “they” for doing it but more angry at “us” for letting it happen. When you’re sitting out in Pleasants Valley, munching fresh walnuts all alone on an Autumn afternoon, nothing about people and living standards and front yard setbacks seem to make any sense. Nothing in the way of planning — which is just a system we have devised to appease what we have done to nature — can ever make up for the loss.

A wave of selfishness swept over me and I felt as though I alone could feel the severity of the loss of the orchard lands to anything less. I have run through plowed ground, worked every summer in the sticky, mosquitoed heat of an apricot cutting shed; later, when I was old enough to drive and old enough to know what parking in the country meant, I pulled into the orchards under a full moon. Although I had lived on a ranch for only a small part of my growing years, the orchards and the fruit and the trees and the spectacle of spring and the peace of autumn were second nature to me. The thought of losing even a part of it was like losing that old friend; the thought of losing it to something called Progress was like watching that friend sink into quicksand and being helpless to do anything about it.

A dust cloud swirled up and over the level treetops and I listened hard through the wind to hear a tractor, its cletracs squeaking; laying them down, picking them up. I looked through the bottom of a side window and beneath the trees to catch a glimpse of the yellow machine, its driver somewhere in the trees. A school bus went by in the rearview mirror on Vaca Valley Road and a dog came out of a gravel driveway to chase it like it must chase every other thing with wheels. I cracked another walnut in my teeth.

The people who have come here from other places in search of the solitude and the peace and the beauty of this Pleasants Valley have made themselves heard. They do not want more houses, they do not want a re-enactment of what they came here to escape.

What do they know. What does anybody know. They know the valley only as it is — still beautifully golden on an autumn afternoon; I know it as it once was and I have seen it back off more and more each year. The trees are going like the heaps of fruit trees that have been bulldozed at the big bend in the road on Vaca Valley, heaped up like bodies. Everyone grieves for the loss of the natural state of this place and I grieve over the loss of something that I grew up with.

I grieve even more because there is little that can be done about it. We can forestall and object and apply so-called public pressure where it is supposed to count, but eventually it will come anyway. There’s a certain, final inevitability to it all, something that was surely destined to happen back in 1850 when the little township to the south was deeded. Someday all of this land would be a peopled thing, its crops would consist of plaster and lathe and fire hydrants and instant gardens planted on the installment plan. Someone must have known that these regimented rows of trees with their furrows of irrigation would not last. We must hay’ known it, too, but it only now is being realized. You can no stop this Progress thing and you can not stop the people from following behind, like foot-soldiers behind the tanks, an maybe that is the most frustrating part of all.

I can not possibly feel the loss of this valley any more than you, you say, and I may not even have a right to. That is moot point. What I feel is between this place and me, and how deep that feeling is, is something that I don’t have explain.

It is not the end of the world, but the end of something that everyone must feel. In my rearview mirror I could the rows of houses that only a few years ago were not the It was like watching something alive, spreading and growing. Even above the north wind that sent walnuts cascading down on Buck Town Road, I could hear it coming.