Robert duncan.

Blogs, books, articles, audio, video, photos
& digital debris.

Center of the Universe (50)

Center of the Universe (50)


“On First Hearing the Cuckoo in Spring”

I don’t really know what a cuckoo sounds like, but today I heard him loud and clear. It could be because we had a lot of late-season rain, weeks and weeks of monsoonish downpours, so a cerulean dome festooned with pompoms arrives as an overdue reprieve. Or it could be because, on this peerless April AM, as part of the penitential routine that used to be my daily walk, but has transformed, as ability creeps up on ambition, into my daily hike, I’m drenched in it. The staggering sights, but also—if, like Frederick Delius, you listen — the boundless sounds.

The first thing I noticed when we started living back in our Fairfax house after mostly living in a rented studio in San Francisco for five years, was the absence of sound. There were no jackhammers banging or cars honking or pile-drivers smashing or big-rigs slamming delivery ramps to the pavement or warning sounds beeping, beeping, beeping as the scissor-lift driver backs up the whole motherfucking block at five in the motherfucking morning. Or helicopters — whether orange-and-white Coast Guard whirlys guarding downtown’s concrete coasts or eye-in-the-sky newschoppers eyeing anti-Trump demos, anti-gun demos, anti-abortion demos and 5k charity runs that hoot and holler along the Embarcadero at indecently regular intervals. Here there were no drunken post-midnight girl-shrieks, no soul-deep mid-afternoon schizo-screams, never the thud of a body from the 22nd floor on an otherwise placid Sunday evening and no firecrackers that sure sound like firecrackers — as everyone always thinks when there are gunshots. (Although a long time ago when there were gunshots on Woodward in Detroit and Mission in San Francisco, I thought right away it sounded like gunshots.)

None of that in Fairfax. Only stillness. And today as I stride off from the homemade redwood houses on crumbly, zig-zag streets — away from even the gentle quinoa-crunch of our little hippieville — into the unamplified landscape beyond, it somehow becomes stiller. A rich, nourishing broth of zilch. It’s why I don’t listen to music at home anymore. I get too much out of listening to the silence.

And I’ve been listening to it intently since July when I started these walking tours — hikes — traversing the wilds of Fairfax and San Anselmo as they feather into the water district and park lands, rolling in a 20-mile undeveloped swath, up, down and over Mt. Tamalpais — the “Sleeping Lady” of Miwok lore — 20 miles to the Pacific. I’ll admit this raucous silence sometimes makes me wish I knew birdsong. Maybe if I’d ever heard a real cuckoo — instead of stumbling upon a cuckoo-related “tone-poem” I’d never heard by an early-20th-century composer I’d never heard of — I wouldn’t have to steal titles or make up words. But I suppose that makes it easier to tune into all the wheetling, raowing, teetittering, blee-blooping, yeeeking, yack-acking and fridditoriousness that goes on around here. Not having the taxonomy keeps me open to discovery. Unnamed tunes that ramp through a dozen shifts in volume and tempo, before abruptly, but neatly, curling under. And one that’s an honest-to-god pop hit (by the Birds?): seven dulcet tones, up and around the scale, in key, all the way to pitch-perfect resolution. Not forgetting the songs without throats: the jew’s-harp thrum of hummingbird wings that feint at my head — to threaten or check if earwax might be pollen — and the clave-knocking of the woodpecker. Two birdsongs I do recognize. And one more that I thought I recognized, which turned out to be the frantic ch-chitchering of a nut-peeling squirrel.


But birds (and their impostors) are only the beginning of what’s in this sonic stone soup — if you listen. There are other flying things, like flies — which at snacktime intimately demonstrate Professor Doppler’s effect by divebombing my humanely-raised jerky stick — and more delicate winged creatures that seem to be a less bloodthirsty, NorCal strain of mosquito and swarm in droning clouds that sound like knobby tires on asphalt. Which sometimes they turn out to be (“On your left…” the Tour-de-France-costumed cyclist calls out). And there are flying things flown by humans. Because the moment you think it’s just you and Mother Gaia comes the omnipotent, miles-high rumble of a C-5 out of Travis. Or the comic sputtering — especially on a perfect weekend — of a vintage biplane. I shade my eyes. The awkward dodo finishes a last wobbly barrel roll and is gone.

Then silence?

“Microdosing — I think we
should do it together!”

Not if you listen: my footsteps hurry along the dirt path with a slap and squeak, crossfading into the sounds of a rejuvenated San Anselmo Creek babbling over rocks, sand and dead winter leaves. I thump across the Boy Scout-built wooden span bound for daylight at the ridge — where the sounds of huffing and puffing become deafening — and eventually rustle through the brush to the fire road, where I’m surprised to find myself at Five Corners: an intersection I know well from a more reckless decade when I got healthy in the woods on an eight-speed Rockhopper. Amid grunts, sighs and creaking Tin-Man hinges, I plop down on a railroad tie that, in winter, helps channel mudslides and glug down the tapwater I’ve carried from home — the Fairfax tapwater that originated just one uphill mile from here, behind the dam, beneath the paddling ducks, at Lake Lagunitas.

On Saturdays — on the most glorious Saturday in the history of Saturdays — at a major offroad crossroads, there are many sounds. Including, when nobody thinks you’re listening, these:

He: “I was thinking about doing that…”

She: “Microdosing — I think we should do it together!”

Emboldened by rest and rehydration, I resolve to take the steep, rocky, no-bikes-allowed hillside path opposite, the one less traveled, the scarier one. And halfway up I’m startled to hear a mountain lion (which lately stalk our local wilderness — and even more my irredeemably city-mouse consciousness) that’s learned to mimic the snort of a horse. Because, at this angle, it can’t possibly be a horse. Whereupon a pair of pinto beauties crest the hill, wary riders pausing to make sure fatso doesn’t do anything spooky.

I veer back into the underbrush. And soon all sound stops. Really stops. No bird singing, fly buzzing, or highly evolved mountain lion snorting like Mr. Ed. I check the time. Noon. 12:04, to be precise. Ah, midday heat. Nap-time in the forest. But a few beats later, like the world’s biggest double-bass stepping up for a cadenza, an Air Force heavy jostles the troposphere from its edge.

I don’t always know where I’m going in the forest — I used to know, when I was raging around all the time on my bike. But I actually consider the regained lostness a big part of this punishment’s reward. And push to embrace it, pursuing every blind, unknown, seemingly difficult and certainly predator-infested trail. But after nearly a year I can say with some confidence that almost all of them lead back to Deer Park.

As I steer homeward, trudging down dusty Deer Park Road toward the semi-paved civilization of Meernaa Avenue, Ivy Lane, Creek Road, past our old house on Dominga, through the shortcut to Park and left to our new house — of 20 years — on Wreden, the rest of the orchestra gradually re-enters. Birds are joined by hammer, dog, ringing phone, garden hose dribbling onto daisies and carnations, a storytelling podcast, a young drummer’s stumbling paradiddles, a convoy of Harleys out on Drake, the orgasmic screech of a table saw finding plant-flesh, a howling woodchipper cleaning up from the wind storm, a cursing homeowner trying for the first time in months to start the gas mower — over and over and over — and the satisfying thunk of a car trunk stuffed with winter clothes for Goodwill. I pass Peri playground — hallowed ground of sand and rubber where, in prior millennia, my kids used to play — as toast as a hiker can be after four hours of nature-based restoration. Maybe even delirious, because I think I hear this:


I continue stiffly forward — one more uphill… three more blocks — paying no attention to the hallucinations. Nonetheless, she persists.


Sister Soy is in the park overseeing Trent, her beloved fireball of a grandson. As he races past in a peddle car and leaps out to climb the slide one more time, she calls out again and — maybe just the tiniest bit numb at the end of a day in five-year-old-world, craving grownup contact — waves. I limp across the street and, not a little numb myself, lean wearily on the fence.

“You coming in tonight?” she says with a big, crinkly Soy-smile. Adding, by way of slightly bashful retraction: “Gary’s been asking.”

Center of the Universe (51)

Center of the Universe (51)

Center of the Universe (49)

Center of the Universe (49)