The West Shed

Elizabeth Bernays


(Continued—p. 2 of 2)


The blue has gone from the sky. Just a pink tinge in the northwest, where the suggestion of clouds or fog rising so often looks like smoke. Why is it that such stuff is white in the sky above but gray and smoky here on the western view of the coast in northern California? Ah, the geese againa great honking vee formation flies north up the valley towards the sea. I will remember the Canada geese here and how they sit in the grass down there and lazily feed, and how they take off in groups so noisily.


It is nearly 8 pm and the day has suddenly gone. I didn’t waste it, but I let time pass as I need to do here. I am in a new dimension and a new idea. I was burdened with a weariness today that was good for letting go and perhaps needed after so much attempting to make the most of time as the winding sheet of my grief slowly unfolds.  I embrace the fog, the wind, the silence; enjoy solitude and peace. Fog has just hidden the sun. A caddis fly has landed on my desk and I am reminded that I am an entomologist, that I love all these little signs of life, these small sophisticates that most people trample underfoot. I begin to feel a part of this place, as I must do for my mind to merge with itself and find the words for a dream.


A calm warm day. My deck chair made comfortable with pillow and yoga blanket, I sit overlooking the steep bank down to the valley, with its cows and geese. I face northwest and can just see the water of Tomales Bay. Across the valley to the west the hills show the multiple greens of diverse trees in the bright morning sun…Douglas fir, bishop pine, oaks, elders, buckeye, alder, willow. A few houses nestle among them, from before the making of a National Seashore. For the first time there is no wind—just little air flurries that occasionally move the lightweight leaves. The only sound is bird sound. I know the song sparrow and western flycatcher, but don’t yet know the other twitterings in the trees around me. Channeled streams in the valley are full of reeds and weeds and home to the stealth of egrets and herons. Below my deck the underbrush is a riot of flowers—cow parsley, wild parsnip, thistle, yellow and pink crucifers, wild roses and blackberry—painted lady butterflies visit them all. The coyote bushes are covered with the white froth of spittlebugs.


As I sit in this place, knowing that I have another whole day ahead of solitude, without media, phone or email, I find a new sense of myself. Yes, I am older now and some parts of me cease to function perfectly. Yes, I am lost still very lost, my long-term soul mate gone. Yes, I miss my good friends, and I miss a lover. Yet there stirs in me a belief, not yet specific.  Change, imperceptible over each solitary day, accumulates, but  is yet mysterious.


An outburst of honking by the Canada geese and I refocus: I need to be myself as I have never fully been. I need to find my circle, an independence I have never had. For most of my life I was dependent, first on mother then on Reg. Now I put down my bundle of worries, forget what I have been and forget the world’s values. I must learn to feel the lightness of being, nostalgia removed to another closet of my mind where it is safe from overuse yet can still effect my heart, where it is no longer bitter but a remembrance of life lived in love’s embrace


The natural world, which has been my confessor and my priest, my joy and my wailing wall, must be also my place of rest. As I sit in my shed the accumulated changes become more accessible: here in this green place of comfort I accept my terms of life and seek what is left. Here I learn acceptance.


After dinner the cool breeze increases. Twenty-two years ago I came with Reg to this new country with such excitement—and it wasn’t far from here. We thought California was a place of sun and warmth, and marveled that summer afternoons ended in cold fog or wind, as if we never really had a summer at all. And our new friends said isn’t it wonderful that it is never hot here, as we pined for that heat, the heat we missed in England, the heat we thought we were coming to in Berkeley. The memory of how we wanted heat is strong now—how we wanted more sun and less fog. Can one be nostalgic for a past feeling of something missing?


It seems I have been here longer than four days. I know that at the end it will all have been too short and I am conscious of how I must use it, this luxurious time in a beautiful place. This time of separation from the world. I had a writing morning, all about color and how color has influenced my life. As I went on Bear Valley trail this afternoon on a mountain bike I was more than ever conscious of the colors—the multiple greens of a streamside path, with alders and ferns, herbs and moss, with bright yellows of buttercups and monkey flower, blue of forget-me-not, pale pink buckeyes. And everywhere the painted lady butterflies; it is a big year for them, millions must have migrated up here from Mexico.


Now it is 8 in the evening. I am back in my shed. As the sun falls behind Inverness Ridge, the shadows of the waving leaves hit the east inside walls of my shed, their actions dancing on the raw water-stained pine, on the tin boxes labeled “tools” and “seeds”, on the candles in their holders, on the poster of avocets and plovers on the wall, and on the old circular metal label hanging there that has the following words punched out—Standard, wheel-bearing grease—heavy. Standard Oil Company.


A great gaggle of honking geese go by as the sun sinks below the hills. No fog. The sky is clear even in the West. It’s not just the lack of interruption, the total lack of any part of the outside world impinging on my life, that revives my inner dream. It is also the shed. This rustic structure in the middle of nature, with the sun coming in and the wind so close around me is a magical place.


May ended here and June has begun. I had been writing to a plan. Now I write with increased spontaneity. I write of yesterday’s walk at Limantour beach and all the diversions in my head that came there—of childhood, of falling in love, the years. I write of the sights there, of vultures, gulls, egrets, black sea ducks, black oystercatcher, curlews.  Dry sand blown in streaks across the wet sand, small crabs emerging from holes as waves come in, popping back in when the water retreats. The long cream beach where there were only four other people.  Writing becomes different, unplanned. Words are ready to come out. But not all the time; the ideas I want to put down come in pulses. I think I have something and then it disappears.  I wait for next time.

I listen at my desk here in the writing shed.

Was that you outside and was there a message?

My head fills with sound, chords from Valhalla

Yet forming. Wind.

Wild branches beat on my window

Their oak and ash cantatas

Their sun leafy waltzes.  Wind.

Shadows polka on the raw wood

Of the wall across the room.

Black calls of crows, geese flying out loud

Towhee’s tiny tweet. A song-sparrow gives his best

Against the buzz of a fly trapped on the window pane.

Symphony of my head come to me here

Come quickly and fill my fingers with

Music on the silver keys. Was it

The wind in the trees outside

Or did you say something?

My thoughts emerge without conscious effort and I begin to feel writerly. And I feel the sweetness of loss, the sweet pain of memory as I renew myself, new air to breathe and new wind and sun on my body, new greens outside. And I am becoming more and more a part of my shed as blackberry bushes and grapevines grow across my stone steps, my path to and from the West Shed.         


After dinner I get in a couple more hours of writing. At 8.10 the sun goes down behind the hill. I hear noises below the shed and hurry to the porch. It is busy below. I peak through the wooden slats of the deck and see two raccoons gamboling in the horsetail plants. I live in the wilds in my shed. It has been a very sunny day—no morning fog, no evening fog. But the wind blows as ever and a few pink clouds hover over the western sky. In the gathering dusk I see a scrub jay in the willow below and then a robin in an old apple tree at the side of the shed. Two common egrets fly up the valley. And as always, the honking of geese down in the grassland as a group of them heads north to the shore.


Some nights I light all the candles in my shed. Isolation is enhanced by the blanket of night. I write of my walk up Mt Wittenberg and to Tomales point, of all the flowers in this early summer show. In the darkness I see them all again in my mind’s eye, helped perhaps by the fact that I know their names, that the quiet of this shed allows my memory to work, that I let go here. There is faint moonshine in the valley and the air is also at peace. I hear no night birds, but now and then a scrabbling below suggests the raccoons are here. 


One warm calm day I work with the entrance door open, which, facing south, lets a little sun in onto a multicolored rug in the doorway. A western flycatcher lands on the willow outside and spends some time darting about and returning to its post to look around. It spent an hour or so foraging in this manner before disappearing into the bushes below when an Allen’s hummingbird buzzed by.  Back at work with the background of crows and geese I heard a new bird sound coming loudly through the door; a harsh, repeated single note. Getting up to look I saw him just six feet away on a high dead branch by the door. He was black on head and neck, abruptly becoming white on his front, his black tail had a white stripe across it near the tip, his wings had white streaks. He sang for a few more minutes and then flew off to the north. Eventually I found him in Sibley’s book, but he was not supposed to be here, he is an Aztec thrush, rare north of Mexico. I checked and rechecked until there seemed no doubt that I had made a rare, indeed new, bird sighting from my West Shed.


In an interval of dreaming I look again around the lightness of my shed. The big west windows and the smaller north window are what I look through to the green world, but the door to the shed and the door to the deck also have glass panes, and the high A of this A-frame shed is also of glass on both north and south. Looking up through the northern triangle I see the leaves of a Catalina ironwood tree, long with regular curved serrations. It must have been planted here. Through the southern triangle, the topmost leaves of a bay laurel. Then, on warm days like this one, with both doors open, one is almost outdoors and the combination of shelter and exposure to nature is right.


A towhee visits briefly at my doorway and I feel it is time to look around me once more. A wren-tit sings in the willow and two scrub jays hop about in the bay laurel. Two crows fly by, then another. I take up my binoculars to search the valley. The Canada geese of course. A bunch of them right below me. Twenty-seven bodiless heads sticking up from the tall grass. Seven headless bodies asleep, four real geese walking about foraging. The fifty or so Friesians have been moved to a field nearer the shore of the bay..


Days pass. Most of them windy by afternoon. Then it becomes violent. Wind. What can one say about it. Cold. Hard work to walk against. Need to bend over into it. Ears deaf to everything but wind. It is a day when insects and small birds hunker down out of sight and the sound of the wind drowns any bird song there may be out there. As I look out of the window from my shed I am struck by how tough the branches and leaves of the plants around me must be. They take such a beating and yet remain intact. The young ash trees in front on long thin trunks swing right over and beat the shed with force. The thicker willows rant and rave, the hemlocks on long stems sway wide but with less violence. From time to time I am suddenly disturbed by a great bang—some branch has hit the roof of the shed extra hard.


Time passing. I came to the right place at the right time and the peace of solitude came closer. Life is possible without Reg. It seems that intuition, that curious inner working of the mind that governs so much of our behavior, was particularly important in my time here, hemmed in by the breath of nature. I traveled down an unknown road that led me to the right dream. I wrote in the West Shed, and in the West Shed I found something new that is yet nameless. It is related to peace. It has to do with solace.


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Elizabeth Bernays was born in outback Australia.  After obtaining her bachelor's degree at Queensland University, she traveled to Europe on a working holiday before returning to academia to obtain higher degrees in Entomology at the University of London. Her career in entomology included being principal scientist in the British Government working in developing countries, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Regents’ Professor and Head of Entomology at the University of Arizona. She has published over two hundred technical papers and books on in her field. More recently, with an MFA at the University of Arizona, she has published three essays and eight poems and is currently completing a memoir.



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Essay Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Bernays. All rights reserved.