Saddleback Mountain in early morning

The unheard songs of Saddleback Mountain

The last time I saw you, more than half a decade ago, you were much the same as you had always been throughout my childhood: silent, motionless, stoic above the fray of frantic, superficial California. Your presence was a promise and reminder that some remnant of wildness persists beyond the freeways and strip malls that lined the edges of my young life. And even as the money-grubbing real estate developers have pushed up against you, as the madness impinges on the boundaries of your westward facing visage, you have not flinched. Other than a few strategically placed antennas and cell towers on your summit, you remain as I have always known you.

Would you still know me now? I left you decades ago, returning rarely for the briefest of stays. My last visit brought me close to your outstretched arms on a tour of the wild lands that surround you. It was as close as I ever came to actually touching you. You appeared so much larger and complex than your visage seems from a distance, less a single twin-peaked mountain and more a complex system of intersecting ridges and drainages rising majestically from the coastal plain.

We came in late fall, two days after Thanksgiving. Your colors were variegated shadings of browns, with some dark green of the California live oaks crowding your arroyos. Late afternoon shadows highlighted the textures of your terrain as we drove and hiked along the broad perimeter of your sprawling foothills from the Anaheim Hills through Tustin and Irvine to El Toro. Up close it’s impossible to say where you end and the rest of the world begins. But isn’t that true of all of us?

Saddleback Mountain
Hiking the approach to Saddleback Mountain (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2014)

More than just a geological oddity, you are home to a surviving ecology of the California past. Rabbits and a variety of rodents provide ample nourishment for the foxes, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions that haunt your ridges and canyons. Overhead hawks circle seeking the promise of a meal moving nervously through the chaparral. Vultures glide to carcasses left rotting in the hot sun. In this densely populated dreamstate of California fantasy, you have somehow kept your wildness.

From afar you appear a two-dimensional backdrop to all the dramas and happenings of the flat lives occupying the plains. But up close you become a three-dimensional complexity of thriving life. A thin squiggle of switchback lines crisscross up your slopes to the top, a service road to access the antennas placed on your lower peak. But other than the occasional service crew going about their routine duties, few humans enter your precincts.

Saddleback Mountain
Saddleback Mountain from Laguna Niguel, California (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2008)

I once caught sight of your subtle magnificence from behind the parallel strands of barbed wire that guard an empty field above densely treed rows of houses. What goes on in those houses? How many of the quietly desperate occupants cling to ambitious hopes that will never materialize? Which of those homes hide the cruelties of bitter men exercising daily violences on those who have no one else to love? Those homes and a hundred thousand others that you watch over shelter a myriad of human potentials, foibles, and cruelties while you stand amused above it all.

From the ocean the low line of a coastal ridge covered with the Newport Beach version of sprawling tract homes eclipses your silhouette. Not exactly the cookie-cutter cheap houses of lesser neighborhoods, but also not the oversized gaudiness of custom-built McMansions infecting older neighborhoods in transition to new ambitions. These are modestly large homes lined neatly up the terraced ridge, all facing seaward, not even noticing your distant form pressing the landward horizon. The restless expanse of the Pacific Ocean suits their temperament better than your saddled patience.

Newport Beach
Saddleback Mountain from the Balboa Pier, Newport Beach, California (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2014)

All across the lowlands from the Newport Beach shoreline to the crowded hillsides of Yorba Linda, you appear as the moral backdrop to human aspirations gone astray. Palatial homes decorated with exotic plantings of palm trees and tropical flowers lined along wide curving suburban streets, or ranch-style stucco dwellings stacked noisily in the urban chaos between shopping malls, or sprawling complexes of garden apartments pushed hard against the railroad tracks, you see it all and weep in silence. But who notices your sadness as they grovel for another handful of fleeting gratification?

Saddleback Mountain
Saddleback Mountain across the tracks, Tustin, California (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2014)

I saw you nearly every day of my young life. So much of me happened in your shadow. I learned to walk and to talk, to read and write, to ride a bicycle and drive a car. My first kiss, my first sex, in love and out of love all played out under your unchanging presence. Serenity and violence both were my companions throughout childhood. Long hot summer days, cold dark winter storms. I became who I am beneath your watchful gaze.

In the springtime the hills that surround you and the ridgelines that flow up your slopes sprouted green. Every wild place skirting your perimeter burst into a living array of color and activity, dancing to sunshine and ocean breezes. You were as a proud mother standing watch as new worlds came to life.

By fall, and actually long before, your lands had all returned to the crisp browns of a desiccated season. The sage and grasses, the sumac and live oaks, all persevered through the arid seasons, awaiting again winter rains and another soaking that would bring new life and new joy to a singing landscape.

My own voice learned to sing by watching you. Something in your ancient patterns sparked a deep song buried in my soul. In time, my singing impulse subsumed to more insidious ambitions, and eventually the song ended as the melody ceased to be the gift that gave life to my days. Music no longer seemed enough to feed the tyranny of ambitious desires.

In time I left you, and somehow you too left me. I sought other means to satisfy the demands of desire. My eyes closed to your magic, your stillness, your song. And soon enough the music faded altogether from my soul. I forgot that it first came from you.

I had good reason to abandon the places of my youth. Too much pain there, too much violent memories in the house where I spent long years in your shadow. When I left, you stood aside without desire, without ambition, without needs.

The human world swells and swoons at your feet, but mostly ignores your presence, sinks deeper into the pathological desires and reckless ambitions of quickly passing lives. None of that alters your presence, your breath, your song. You sing in registers unheard by human ears. Your melody is not meant to save humanity; you wish to neither change the world nor destroy it. Without pity or judgment, you remain as you have always been, a quiet stillness in a tumultuous world.

Storms sweep in from the ocean, dry winds rush down from desert terrains, heavy rains soak your undulating slopes. Through it all, you abide, singing, laughing, waiting.

Saddleback Mountain
Saddleback Mountain on a fall afternoon (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2014)

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