A Moment of Survival

“I feel like I’m on a different planet,” Amelie said a few minutes after we’d arrived at the sand dunes just north of Fort Bragg. Gazing out at the hills, meadows, ripples, swells, and rivulets of luminous sand around us, all covered by the blanket of blue sky overhead, I quickly agreed. Whenever I arrive at the sand dunes, the reality of highway, ocean, and towering redwoods is quickly superseded by sand and sky and the sense of infinity. Even walking becomes defamiliarized, as I am either supported by the sand beneath me or pulled downward as it collapses beneath my step.

Although we had all arrived together–Jonah and his family, Stephen and I—we each quickly found our personal relationship with the dunes. Poppy and Amelie took to trudging up the hills, then launching themselves from the crests, to see just how far they could jump, with Jonah serving as referee. Stephen, who loves water, set out for the ocean, which was out of sight. Anya went off in search of protection from the wind. And I found myself lured by what appeared to be a plant growing in the midst of a great expanse of sand.

When I first began writing about small, the seedlings pushing up through the rocky shores of the Navarro River caught my attention. The strength of these fragile signs of new life amazed me, finding their way up through the hard darkness to the light each spring. Entities so small and delicate that they looked as if they might succumb to the slightest breeze, but were forceful enough to grow to adulthood. I began seeing these burgeoning plants as metaphors for many of my writing students, who had survived their traumatic childhood and had found their way to thrive in an MFA program.

As I approached the dunes plant, I saw that it was windblown, slender, and lying mainly on its side, except for several inches of what must have been the main stem, which was fatter and remained upright. Nearly blending with the sand, its color just a bit whiter in places, from a distance the plant was defined by the delicate shadows cast by a few basal leaves and spindly stems branching helter-skelter against the sand.

Once close enough to see it all clearly, I realized that most of the random upper leaves were dried to a grayish green, while several fleshy and deeper-hued leaves near the base were newer growths, the plant’s attempt at staying alive in what was clearly a hostile environment. I quickly interpreted what I saw as an image of survival, or at least the struggle to survive.

Alone in an ocean of sand, this plant was the opposite of the tendrils of life I had once observed on the banks of the Navarro River. There, I was in the presence of new, fresh, green life pushing upward to the surface toward the sun and the air. In front of me now, here on the dunes, was a plant fighting to remain alive in the most adversarial situation. Perhaps once, under better conditions, this plant had thrived, standing upright, its delicate branches filled with fleshy, greenish-grey leaves that fluttered in the wind. But that was all in the past.

Now, clinging to life, this plant was teaching me a different lesson. Not about determination but about persistence. If determination is focus on the purpose, persistence is the continuation of action around that purpose. And both are needed for success. I understood that this was a lesson I needed to learn, and that for me the plant was the perfect communicator or deliverer.

But more important, as I lifted my head and looked around, then back down, I realized that more than anything, the plant was beautiful, like a moment in a ballet caught on camera, each dancer and every limb caught in a perfect rendering of a momentary gesture.

Clinging Vine


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