From Clay I Came, and to Clay I Shall Return

I have returned as an adult to scrutinize the little kingdom on the Wenatchee River where Lord and Lady Brown and their princeling and many princesses and royal menagerie ruled the apple orchard world.

 

Wenatchee River

The little kingdom on the Wenatchee River... (Photo Credit: http://www.blueskyoutfitters.com/why-wenatchee.php)

From the top of the hill, I have tried to remove the gossamer crazy quilt of memory and see the landscape for what it is. I want to see it as ordinary, to strip myself of sentimentality and see clearly at last.

 

"I want to see it as ordinary, to strip myself of sentimentality and see clearly at last." Looking upstream from the hills of northwest Wenatchee; a train hauling containers runs along the Wenatchee River.

Looking upstream from the hills of northwest Wenatchee; a train hauling containers runs along the Wenatchee River. (Photo Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wenatchee_River)

I see the river makes a wide bend, carving the steep cliffs of Sunnyslope on the far side. Then it sweeps in green rapids under the high trestle where the black pipe banded in iron cable carries irrigation water to the orchards; after that, it enters directly into the Columbia River.

During the as many as twenty-five Bretz Floods 15,000 to 13,000 years ago, when the ice plug on ancient Lake Missoula worried free and let loose at 80 miles per hour, the landscape of my childhood was shaped from the clay.

Map of Bretz Floods

When the ice plug on ancient Lake Missoula worried free and let loose at 80 miles per hour, the landscape of my childhood was shaped from the clay. (Map Credit: http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Bi-Ca/Bretz-J-Harlen.html)

The flooding Columbia backed up the Wenatchee and backed up Horse Lake Creek until my whole future life was under water. As the lake slowly settled, fine white silt created the clay bank a short ways up the canyon road from our house on the flood plain.

This steep cove was built of layers and layers of hard-packed clay laid down in parallelograms, so when I picked up a chunk and pulled it apart, it broke along angled paths. My siblings, cousins and I would scramble to the top and heave our clay bombs to the county road below. They exploded with satisfying cracks and poufs of white smoke that hung suspended in the quiet air.

Example of a clay bank

Little did we know we were dismantling thousands of years of slackwater sentiment. (Photo Credit: http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous/2009/06/the_lake_missoula_megafloods.php)

The clay was also just the right texture for tunneling. The soft, white dust got embedded under my fingernails, and I could feel it sifting down my shirtfront, caking in the sweaty creases of my knees. We jumped bare foot from high up, suspended like our bombs in the timeless air, revolving like the earth does around its sun at 18 and a half miles a second, until we came down rolling in a flying flurry of powder.

Image of jumping children

Like these kids jumping off a sand dune, we would join hands and throw ourselves in the air. (Photo Credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education /2009/jul/21/summer-holidays-children-opinions)

The bank faced north, so the clay stayed cool and shady during the scorching afternoons of August. We kids often played up there until the sun could be seen glinting red on the distant snowfields of the high Enchantments. I see this from my adult, God’s-eye perspective because I know that if I were riding my horse up Hay Canyon,

Photo of the Enchantments from Hay Canyon

The glowing Enchantments would be visible, watching over our miniature valley world. (Photo Credit: by Marc Dilley http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/VN5RmjFqNB1OGPOq8VOh_g)

But down in the canyon, we couldn’t see outside the clay cove surrounding us. It especially surrounded us as we dug holes and interlocking arches and tunnels. Completely absorbed in our play, deep inside the earth, we didn’t notice the movement of the sun across the sky.

 

Mandala image

You who run backwards through time, tell me, what have you learned from that old river of myth and blood, apples and wheat, river of snowmelt and memory? (When I Was a Child Mandala by Sandy Brown Jensen Prismacolor on black paper http://nightvisionjournal.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2008-10-31T21%3A33%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=7)

The 15,000 year old clay held other curiosities for us. Every once in a while, we would unearth concretions—stone-hard nodules, usually flat, with funny appendages; like fresh ginger, they had knobs and ears that made me think of Ice Age animals. These we kids collected and hauled home to show Mom and Daddy, the assembled uncles and aunts.

Image of clay concretions

Claybabies, also called concretions—stone-hard nodules, usually flat, with funny appendages; like fresh ginger, they had knobs and ears that made me think of Ice Age animals. (Photo Credit: http://www.foxisland.net/newsletter.htm)


After a long afternoon of digging and bomb throwing, we straggled back home through the apple orchards like a gang of little ghosts covered with our sheets of fine, white clay. Mom would meet us in the yard with a hose and turn the water on us: clothes, shoes, hands full of concretions—everything got hosed down. My dark braids plastered wet against my cheeks like twin question marks I would carry with me into my mysterious future.

 

Wet and shivering, we each got an old towel and were sent into the house through the basement door. Wet clothes got left by the washer, and we all went screaming with chatter and laughter back up the stairs to warm clothes and dinner.

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Dreaming My Father’s Nightmares

When I was only three or four years old, my family lived in a small, cedar-shaked home close by to Lake Stickney in western Washington State. This house had an attic accessed by a set of stairs that swung down when you tugged on a cord dangling from the ceiling.

One day, Mom pulled the stairs down and let me play in the attic while she concentrated on her sewing.

 

Lake Stickney

I rubbed a circle in the dust of a little dormer window, and I could see across the narrow county road to the vine maple and cedar thickets beyond. (Photo credit: http://www.century21nhr.com/SearchResultsGM.aspx?freetext=Lynnwood+Territorial+views)

I had plenty of boxes up in the attic to make a playhouse for my dolls. In my rummaging around for objects that might amuse them, I found a plastic box full of fascinating objects; I didn’t know it then, but they were two purple hearts, a bronze star, a sharpshooter’s medal, various foreign coins, and a small, brass-studded German language Bible.

Military medals

Two purple hearts...

This was treasure that demanded an immediate explanation. I held the box carefully to my little chest as I negotiated the steep, slightly unbalanced stairs. Mom looked up from her sewing when I came into the room holding out the box.

Her eyes widened in shock, and she said with excited force, “Put those back where you found them! Don’t ever mention them to your father!”

The medal box, and Mom’s swift reaction to it was my first—and at age sixty, I have to now, most enduring—clue to the grim shadow thrown by my blond and sunny father.

Warren and Mickey Brown 1075

Mickey and Warren Brown 1975

In those youngest years of my life, I often had nightmares of being in a foreign country and having to enter a dark, low house built into the side of a hill full of hidden people. I was a grown man, I had a gun, and I was terrified.

 

I was a grown man, I had a gun, and I was terrified. (Photo credit: http://play.tm/gallery/6935/america-s-army-rise-of-a-soldier/image/5/)

These mysterious and frightening dreams held no content from media for no such thing existed in our household. Nor did the content come from my father’s stories of the war, for in my whole life with him, he only once mentioned the war. He told me he had learned to peel an orange in one continuous strip from a British soldier.

He said he learned how to peel an orange from a British soldier. (Photo credit: http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/88417261)

I believe now that my psychic bond with my father was so permeable that I either dreamed his nightmares or that his repressed memories entered my sleeping mind.

Warren Brwon, Lisle Brown, Sandy Brown Jensen

I am eight years old with my brother Lisle, my sister Toren and our dad in our childhood landscape, which seems now both immediate and yet so far away and so much like a dream...