Weary, warm, worried. Josiah stared out the four wavy paned windows at the big, drifting flakes of snow dancing in the air swaying to and fro like the ballet dancers long tutu. Listz’s St. Francis Preaching to the Birds piano concerto tinkled off the musical scroll. It wasn’t so much the music that abated his loneliness, it was the visible key movements which allowed him to pretend the ghostly hands playing the music belonged to a physical presence, just outside of his vision.
Not far from his chair the fireplace cheerfully added its counterpoint rhythms of snap and pop. He was thankful to the warmth and snugness of his engineers cabin. It was a far cry from the freezing, muddy, and damp miners tent cabin he’d lived in his first winter in California. A winter so cold and wet he’d been forced to retreat from his canvas sided cabin at the Empire Mine and into a boarding house in Grass Valley. He was thankful this new job with the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company provided enough of a salary so he could buy his current accommodations.
As the snow settled to earth it slowly blanketed the granite boulder outcroppings and the giant Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir boughs encircling the cabin. He marveled at the difference between these trees and the pine trees of his home state. North Carolina pine trees were shorter and thinner, growing closely next to one another. These California trees – much like the inhabitants of the state itself, lived apart with space for individualism.
The snow here was different too. It swirled, danced, and dipped as it fell. Light as feathers, slowly piling up, until suddenly the accumulated weight gently bent the branch, which sloughed off the accumulation. None of the wet dripping clumps of snow which sat heavily on the tree, eventually causing a rifle report to crack out through the quiet as the pine top shattered from the unaccustomed burden.
Burden, blankets, weariness, loneliness, individuality. Each component of the landscape served as a reminder about his mental state. Which was cause and which was effect? Well, at least nothing in this view brings regret to mind, he thought. He’d fallen in love with the California mountains and streams during the two years he’d been out here. His weariness wasn’t physical, but soulful. He loved the challenges of engineering. Seeing a job done by man and dreaming of ways machines – with their gears and levers and scientific principles could lead to improvement. Improvement in the lives of the laborer, the industry, and business men. The challenges of extracting from Mother Earth her precious golden treasurer was what led him to California in the first place. Only after his arrival to the Sierra Nevada’s was he bewitched by the geology and geography surrounding him. He marveled at the granite canyons – fast and narrow, – water running cold and swift over the gravel bars and boulders as it made its way toward the San Francisco Bay. Really these streams and rivers were just like the man-made sluice boxes set up on them. Their splash boards and ripples mimicking the natural sand bars and boulders where Mother Nature hid her gold.
Water; water harnessed, directed, and controlled was his stock in trade. Sucking the water from the river, compressing and restricting it – then pointing it at a mountain side. The pent up anger of the wild river was unleashed through the monitor nozzle – revealing the hand of the creator. Layer upon stacked layer of His creation reduced to sediments tumbling down into the ravine when confronted with the might of water. All the hidden treasures of the earth washed away to be rocked and agitated until the heaviest and brightest of all minerals, gold, was left behind.
How could such beauty of design, such efficient use of energy – lead to such destruction? Wasn’t it his right to find what Mother Nature hid? Wasn’t it his destiny? Wasn’t the beauty of these mountain and the richness of the streams his reward? It wasn’t just the mineral bounty he sought, why no, he was also a fish stalker – wading up the narrow tributaries with his fly rod, flicking a fly here and there, casting for the Rainbow or Cutthroat Trout. They were so different than his Appalachian Bookies. Both the rainbows and cutthroat were deeper of body, than their eastern counterpart. The Rainbow was lighter colored, with the namesake rainbow racing down its side, while the ferocious Cutthroat with its teeth at the base of its tongue and red slashes on the throat.
Responsibility for this earth, that was the burden he carried. He believed he was a steward of the land, entrusted to look after Gods creation. The land communicated private messages from God to him. It sang songs of grandeur and whispered the secrets of creation to him. Yet, he was beginning to realize that as he mined the secrets, he destroyed the song. Just yesterday – he’d ridden down to the creek for a few hours of escapist fishing. Only, he didn’t make one single cast. The creek, downstream from the diggings was choked with silt – the previously pristine water now looked like runny cake batter water. The slippery algae on the rocks was no longer vivid green, but stained with the yellowish clay dust that coated the live oak leaves in deepest, driest, part of summer.
How could he reconcile these divisions in his life? His love of engineering and his love of the earth? His love of problem solving and worshiping the Great Engineer? Wasn’t life clear cut – like the sedimentary layers resting on the bedrock of the earth? As the snow continued to pile up outside, it erased the imprints of his life in this clearing. It covered the trail he rode everyday from the cabin to the diggings, it blanketed the trash-pile of cans and glass jars, removing the unsightly remains of his daily life. It erased the sins of living, “If only I could figure out how to blanket the river and wipe out the destruction this mining has done”, he thought to himself. Were there ways to extract the gold and yet save the water? It wasn’t just the fishing the mining impacted. Why downstream in the town of Marysville private landowners had built a system of levees to protect their land from the seasonal flooding. Flooding had always been a problem down in the valley. But now previously valuable farm land was rendered useless. Covered in silt or scoured by flooding it could no longer produce the peaches, black walnuts, pears, cherries this area was known to provide to the miners. Surely such destruction wasn’t part of being a good steward or engineer.