"Nature is the medium in which life transpires,"
Scott Russel Sanders on Wendell Berry.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Day 6: Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

28 May, 2011

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year
I am still in love

--Gary Snyder, “On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years”, No Nature

The day began cool with high cloud cover—good for hiking. I planned to go explore Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park followed by a hike down to the river at South Yuba River State Park. Lucky for me, I managed to procure a friend who is not only familiar with the area, but also had the good sense to bring Gary Snyder’s No Nature along for the ride.

Gary Snyder is, of course, a famous poet who lives near these parks in Nevada County. The language of Snyder’s poems take on the shape of the regional landscape. Reading poetry inside the landscape which the language of the poem enacts is a remarkably powerful experience, and one that, despite all my talk about language, story, and landscape, escaped me until today.

When we arrived at the “Diggins Overlook”, we decided to take a short walk up to the old cemetery, church, and school house left over from the mining days. There are graves from the late 19th century as well as burials as recent as 2009. I wondered about the requirements to be buried in a State Historic Park. Did you have to have relatives already buried here?

After exploring the cemetery, a group of kids told us that the back door to the school house was open. Not being able to resist a look around, we gave the door a push and walked in.

The building consisted of two large rooms with high ceilings. The room to the right apparently serves as a kind of storage space for the park. It contained some giant rolls of insulation, an electric coffee pot, and the buildings only source of heat, a big iron stove—a square variation on the pot belly. However, the old classroom captivated our attention. It held rows of old honey colored desks with ornamental iron braces. Each desk connected itself to matching wooden chairs. There were brass name plates fastened to the left corner of each desk, perhaps in honor of donors. Chalkboards leaned on walls all around the room. The chalkboard at the front of the room hung above a platform on which the instructor would stand to lecture. (This particular configuration makes me grateful for the lecture halls and literally level playing field of today’s paddleless classrooms).

We spent a good deal of time here as the space is very interesting. It made a great amphitheater for reading Snyder aloud, and would make a good place for photographer (who is better than me) to explore. Karl and I are both musicians, and we wondered about the acoustics and possibilities for recording music here. By the time we decided to move on the temperature dropped noticeably.

In a berry-pickers cabin

At the edge of a wide muddy field

Stretching to the woods and cloudy mountains,

Feeding the stove all afternoon with cedar,

Watching the dark sky darken…

--Gary Snyder, “Nooksack Valley”, No Nature

The Diggins itself, once a mountain with a ridge line that matched the surrounding hills, is now a valley blasted into existence by the hydraulic mines of the gold rush. Despite the ecological disaster that resulted from the mining, the Diggins is quite beautiful. The ground glowed with white quartz even in under clouds. The cliffs, Karl noted, are reminiscent of something you might find in Bryce Canyon, but the color is from soil.

At the floor of the valley, the quartz provides a bed for a series of small streams that stretch to the base of the hill on the other side. The streams encouraged the growth of willow and other riparian vegetation, so the colors run from a sparkling white to the red of the southwest to the gray green of willow. It is spectacular.

When I looked up I saw a black cloud heading toward us with great rapidity. Hmmm…I thought to myself, we better turn around. A rain drop hit my cheek. A few minutes later the cloud dumped a good deal of hail. Several good discussions about the nature of wilderness throughout the afternoon echoed this experience: “if you want to know rain, you’ve got to get wet”; “Being outside is 98% hell and 2% bliss”. By the time we got back to the car, we were soaked, frozen, and exhilarated. Like my dog reminds me every time we take a walk in the rain, the exhilaration of being cold and wet is dependent upon getting out of the rain and the cold.

Before we left the park, we stopped at the small historic town at the entrance of the park, and warmed up inside the visitor’s center. The ranger settled fees for campsites, told people about the campfire program (I’m now dying to go), and warned people that, yes, this is bear country.

In the time of the Western expansion into California, many of the bears were California grizzlies, a distinct species of grizzly now extirpated. I should mention that we had to wait freezing and wet outside the visitors center for the ranger to return from giving a tour of the park before going in, because I had seen a taxadermied grizzly batting at a bee hive inside. I pined for a picture with the bear (I’ve had dreams about California grizzlies since I was seven years old), so Karl patiently froze with me until they opened the door and a rush of hot air poured out.

The rain turned slushy as we left, and being wet and cold we decided to postpone South Yuba for another day, although we did stop at a bridge to take a peak and the river rushing below.


  1. Hope you take time to discuss Gary Synder's poetry with his friend, David Robertson, UCD Professor Emeritus. d

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