This is Matilija Creek just outside Ojai, California. It's where Alan Stephens spent many days over many years walking, fly-fishing and thinking and observing the life of this lovely place. He wrote poems based on experiences he had up here. On Wednesday March 8, the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara held a special session of the lit symp, a tribute to Al, who was such a great teacher to all of us. The next day, a couple of friends and I hiked up it. It was one of those days you get in California where the light gives this incredibly soft and mellow glow to everything. The ceonothus was blooming white and pale blue and giving off that clean, delicate scent that I like so much, and the creek had plenty of water in it, running clear. My two friends and I, all former students and now his friends, thought about him a lot while we were up there. He can't go up the Matilija any more, his health won't permit it. So we have to make do with the poems he already wrote about it.
This is one of them:
Alan Stephens--Draft from the Matilija
Down off the burnt-off slope
for a drink, the big snake
Stops me on my way
home at mid-day
To responsibilities (miles from here
in what is, for the U.S.,
A well-built little city)–how
quietly he lies,
In slow, slack curves, broken
by shadow, among three rocks,
Lowering his chin daintily to the Matilija.
Having paused to judge of me
by tonguing the air,
He resumes drinking now,
letting down and lifting
His U-shaped, thin, flat jaw.
On and on he drinks, taking
a very little at a time,
Slaking the whole length
of his thirst.
Earth’s a great harsh gaunt garden
here, made out of spiny chaparral,
The cliffs, bare crests, dry, stony slopes,
the fan that opens, desolate,
Scattered with boulders, below
this canyon; and, running through,
Narrow, bright and chill among its stones,
the Matilija. – Born
Somewhere in all this, on his own
from birth, in the fit
And hard gloss of his scales,
eye of translucent, dry horn,
Or some clear stone, for his seeing, strange
but, still seeing:
He lifts his head at last, done
with drinking, and without haste
Or hesitation winds out over the water–
not toward the far bank
But downstream, steering purposefully
between the rocks, the current
Very fast down there, he lifting his head higher,
moving rapidly now with an air
Of matter-of-fact eagerness into the loud water
smashing itself solid white
Among the boulders jammed together
below, where he vanishes.
What is it, to be? Slowly to find yourself
already alive to some place, alone with
Purposes already forming; what is snake
intelligence but intelligence
First and last, snake experience
but wholly experience?
No king of darkness, no god, something
as good, I think…. To live,
To live and at midday there, to be
a snake completely, very thirsty,
And drink your fill, at length, of
the clear Matilija.
This poem is from Water Among the Stones.