[encore] 523: Our Valley

[encore] 523: Our Valley

[encore] 523: Our Valley

This episode was originally released on October 14, 2021.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I grew up about an hour away from the Pacific Ocean,  in a place that sounds made up. The valley where I grew up is actually named, The Valley of the Moon. We had long dry summers (summers that are now plagued with wildfires), and mild green winters. Winters were so green that I was confused when I moved East and everything turned dead and brown as soon as the days shrank to nothing. 

That valley will always be home for me. No matter where I live. No matter where I travel to. I like to call it my valley, though nothing belongs to me. I have no ownership over the land.

The Valley of the Moon is situated between two low mountain ranges, the Mayacamas Mountains and the Sonoma Mountains. In the mornings, we get the coastal fog that hangs thick over the vineyards... and it feels like the actual breath of the ocean. Even if you don’t see it, even if you don’t look at it each day, you get a sense that the large pulsing body of water is out there, massive and unknowable. 

Today’s poem captures what it’s like to feel  the sea, and sense its presence — even when you are somehow in the middle of a landlocked valley. Written by Philip Levine who was, in fact, my very first cherished poetry professor in graduate school, this poem reminds us of the importance of awe. A feeling that makes us know we are small, a feeling that is both full of wonder and terror.

This poem makes it clear that no matter how much we worship the natural world, want it to be ours, love it, write about it, it still doesn’t belong to us. Like human life itself, the natural landscape will always remain something too mysterious to comprehend. And, for me, that’s the gift.

Our Valley
by Philip Levine

We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

"Our Valley" from NEWS OF THE WORLD by Philip Levine, copyright © 2011 Philip Levine. Used by permission of the Estate of Philip Levine.