A Field of Mustard, a Climbable Tree

We walked up and into the bright, cold, late winter morning, rolling hills of green in every direction. My calves, tight and rusty, objected as I huffed and puffed up the narrow trail, quick daughter at my side. She stopped to move a rolly polly off the trail and into the tall grasses, the tiny creature now safe from less observant hikers. 

Our mission: find cows. At the top of the first steep incline with another just ahead, multiple paths offered themselves. We stood catching our breath, already sweaty in the bright sun. She was sure, having been here the week before, that if we went left, down into the small copse below, we would emerge on the other side in a field of mustard where the cows would be. Off we went, following a cattle, not people, trail (they know all the best places).

We arced down and to the left, then back to the right. We ducked under a low tree branch: how did the cows traverse this part, we wondered to each other. Then through a tiny meadow, not much more than a shallow bowl of grass. Twenty feet ahead, a small climb would take us up towards the mustard meadow, and between us and it, plenty of mud. We mucked on through, unprepared, wearing our everyday shoes. At the top of the small climb, Tallulah cleaned the sides of her shoes in the tall wet grass at the side of the trail, and we kept going. A blaze of yellow burst into view; we gained the mustard field!

I grew up in the Valley of the Moon, where yellow mustard heralds the spring and vacant lots and vineyards alike are brightly carpeted every February. I have driven miles and miles on roads flanked by this invasive weed, a conqueror that slipped in hundreds of years ago and dazzles us to this day. But in all those years, I had never before walked through a field of mustard, until the day my quick daughter and I went looking for cows. Stalks of mustard are more spare than I would have guessed–less chock full of yellow petals than they look from a car window. They danced at our knees and blew in the breeze, and I could see each individual stem, like walking through a party and making eye contact with each person instead of just looking from afar and seeing a dense and teeming crowd. 

No cows, though. Just patties announcing they'd been there recently.

On the other side of the mustard, we stopped briefly at an immense concrete water trough, felt sorry for the cows who drink that muddy swill, and kept going up and to the right, still searching.

We turned a corner just as a fluffy brown beast ambled up and over a crest, large watery eyes unimpressed to see humans in her way. She stopped and considered us, her massive sides heaving with resignation. We considered her, all smiles and delight on our part. We had gotten what we came for. 

We stood there a long time, letting her lope past us at her own pace. When she finally moved on, so did we. We followed her path, up and over the hill, and came upon a small opening with a young calf in the middle of it, munching wildflowers and meandering aimlessly. We must have surprised her: she raised her head, trying to see past the hill we had just come over. From where we stood, we could see the calf and we could see the mama, but they couldn't see each other. The calf let out a bleat; the mama answered with a deep moo. Privy to a bovine conversation, now we got more than we came for. We scootched on out of there so the baby would have a clear path to maternal safety.

In front of us, seemingly endless hills rolled on, dotted by stands of trees and hints of creeks, and way off in the distance, on top of the tallest rise, a bench. Occupied, unfortunately, but perhaps empty by the time we got there? It would be lovely to look out over the hills from that perch. We headed towards it.

The narrow cow path that carried us forward joined with a wider one meant for people. Pretty soon, we entered a grove of trees, welcoming the cool shade. My quick daughter is 14, but trees still talk to her. She cannot resist a good climb, and there, halfway through the grove, was a tree that seemed to have purposely grown limbs like a ladder just for her. She answered the call. In a flash, she was high above me, standing on a branch, leaning against another, tossing her sweater down to me, and telling me about the incredible view.

I've gotten used to waiting for her at the bottoms of trees. I found a fallen log to sit on, and grabbed the moment to catch my breath, inhale the winter afternoon, and try, again, to plant perennial gratitude down in the deepest part of me. I am forever making this attempt, it seems. A constant battle–my anxious mind and restless heart, not to mention my ever-scrolling to-do list, conspire to make the ground where I would plant a non-committal host. 

Catch the breath. Slow down. Look up into the tree to see your daughter there. Imitate her ability to stay in one place and take in the view, never the first to say it's time to go. Of all the many things I do each day, the hardest is to quiet my mind and simply be present. My quick, climbing daughter is a good anecdote, if I let her be.

My fallen log sat 15 feet from the path. Between it and me, the tree that held my daughter stood, the tallest tree in the grove, offering along with its brethren a shady respite to the urban dwellers who hiked up into the rolling hills each day. I watched them pass the tree, in ones and twos and threes. One couple spied the girl high up in the tree and laughed with delight. "Well hello up there!" they called before continuing on. Others didn't see her, and I thought how wonderful it would be to be up there with her, listening to conversations rising from the path, the speakers oblivious. This man, thinking about leaving his job; that woman, who just keeps calling and calling but he won't answer and it's just not even possible that he's not with his phone that much! 

Along came a woman and her granddaughter. They entered the grove, coming upon the first climbable tree, a small sturdy one that might get a kid a couple feet off the ground. A starter tree, if you will. The girl, seven or eight, ran right up to it, excited to climb. "I don't think that's a tree you can climb," the older woman said. "Oh, I think it is!" said the girl. 

"Nooooo, I don't think so." 

"But why not?" 

"Oh, I just don't think it looks safe." 

"I could do it!" said the girl. 

"I don't think that's a climbing tree," repeated the grandmother. 

The little girl stood for a moment or two, contemplating the very climbable tree in front of her before giving in to her grandmother's opinion. They continued. Then the girl saw the ladder tree: "Oh wow!" she said. "Look at that one!" And her eyes traveled up and up and up until they landed on my daughter, way up in the branches. "HEY! LOOK AT HER!"  

The grandmother looked up too. "Oh my!" she exclaimed. "How did you get all the way up there?"  

"Just climbed," Tallulah called down cheerfully. 

"How are you going to get down??"  

"Not sure yet: same way I got up, I guess!"

I smiled at them, smiled at the little girl in particular, a meager attempt to encourage her obvious love of trees. She stared up in awe; the grandmother kept walking, already finished with the whole climbing foolishness. 

"I don't see myself ever doing something like that!" the girl said definitively, mostly to herself, before turning to rejoin her grandmother. Their backs to me, her self-assessment hanging in the air, I heard the grandmother reply: "Me neither, sweetheart!"

Yes, you can, I thought as loudly as I could. Yes, you can climb this tree, and you can imagine yourself doing anything at all, and God, do I hope you have other voices in your life besides your loving and limiting grandmother. She wants to keep you safe: you want to climb. Find a way to climb, kiddo. Walk with people who see the places you want to climb and say: go for it.

My own climber eventually came down. We made it to the now-empty bench. We sat, looking out over endless hills, eating oranges and plotting our next move. We stayed out there in Wildcat Canyon for another hour or so, she sitting in the middle of one particularly beckoning hill drawing in a sketchbook, me continuing on to add more steps to my middle-aged day, searching for more fertile ground for my fledgling gratitude seeds. I made a big loop, eventually winding back to her hilltop perch. As I hiked, I could see her from far away, a tiny shape hunched over her sketchbook, the sun glinting off something shiny next to her. I took a photo from far away–pointless, because my iPhone couldn't capture what my eyes could see. 

By the time we came down out of the hills, the sun was setting into the gritty neighborhood beyond Wildcat. The chill in the air signaled an end to this suspended time. Soon I would be in my cluttered kitchen, trying to make dinner, trying to herd feral distractions and demands. 

Savoring every crunchy step, we walked back down to our car and back into the dense and teeming world.


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