Scientific Delirium Madness, Djerassi 2018. An Essay
Here on the ranch, on the western side of the Santa Cruz mountains, the sea mist begins its slow roll back towards the Pacific Ocean.
We saw breakers yesterday out at San Gregorio, a flash of white foam on the horizon, the rest of the ocean blanketed in fog. Drove the Skyline through the Redwoods, past old Methuselah. A tree so old and big we had to stop, all be it briefly, to stand with our mouths agape trying to see the top.
The smell of pine from the open car window filled me with a sense of calm, dappled sunlight filtered through the canopy. The natural beauty of this place surprised me. I’ve only ever been to New York City, never into the wilds of America. It feels untamed here, ancient, sacred. All of this, only a thirty-minute drive from San Francisco airport. I already know that this place will change me.
As we turned left onto Bear Gulch Road, the sheer drop down into the gulley as Pine and Redwood soared skywards, I felt giddy. It wasn’t just the jet-leg. Rewa told Tom and I about the history of Djerassi, as we wound our way to the ranch. How to say it for starters? Turns out the you need a long ‘ahhh’ sound on the ‘assi.’ Silent D, and the ‘er’ becomes ‘ur.’ Jur-ahhh-si. I’ve been saying it wrong for over a year.
A young man sat next to me on the plane over. Is this your first time in San Francisco? he asked, as I drew up the window blind to watch the landscape below me. He talked me through the patchwork of mountains, rivers, valleys and cities as we flew in over Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, then the North Bay area where his family now live. He pointed out the road and bridge he’d have to cross to reach home. His name was Dean, like the dean of a University, my parents were aiming high. Dean told me he was coming home for summer break after his second year studying International Business at Edinburgh University. I liked the way he said Edinboro’, with that distinctive Californian drawl.
He told me he was from Mountain View originally, went to school in the shadow of the Santa Cruz mountain range, that Rewa now drove us through. UK customs never believed him when they looked at his passport. You live in ‘Mountain View?’ That’s a real place? It turns out Rewa is from Mountain View too, a made-up sounding name to the British, always suspicious if a place seems too good to be true.
Dean pointed out the landmarks of the Bay Area as we began our descent. My face like that of a child in the small window. The long journey from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, via Amsterdam all those hours ago, was worth for this moment alone. The red struts of the Golden Gate Bridge and white lines of surf along the Pacific to the south and north. See the big island, that’s Treasure Island - don’t be misled by the name, there’s no treasure there. The smaller one, Alcatraz. Just like in the movies, right? We flew in low over the city, a grid of houses and highways. I pointed to a long oblong of green that he told me was Golden Gate Park. Similar to Central Park, in New York. The city planners suddenly thought ‘Hey, we need some green in here! Somebody put a line around this bit.’
The skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco seemed inconsequential, compared to the mountains of the Bay Peninsula and the Redwoods we now drove through. The beauty of the estuary and fingers of land. Pink and white patterns in the salt pans to our left as we flew down over Silicon Valley: Palo Alto, Stanford University, Googleplex. We tried to find Dean’s old school, he told me to look out for the green oval with orange track, typical of North American high schools. There were too many to pick his out.
As the plane banked over the Bay Reserve and then headed up north again to land, it was just as Dean told me it would be. That brief feeling that we might actually land on water. There was a newness to this that wasn’t just about being in a place I’d never been before. It was about the freedom I’d been given. The gift of time away from the pressure of work as a doctor back in the UK. Permission to write without any other distraction.
I type these words as I look out over the hills towards an unseen ocean shrouded in fog. It reminds me of the sea mists back home that blot out the sun, and turn Tynemouth black and white, as the foghorn sounds over the town on a continuous and mournful loop. I tell the others about the words for this back home. Sea Fret in the North East and Haar in Scotland. I ask around, but no one knows a name for it here. They just call it The Fog, a thick blanket that covers and uncovers the mountain. Like a flower opens and closes at dawn and dusk only letting you see the beauty within, or under, when the conditions are just right, and you pay close attention.
The sound of birdsong filters through the window of my new home in the Middlebrook Studios, Pod D. I need to learn the names of these birds, trees, flowers, all that I see spread before me. The mountains bleach white into the distance. Fog lingers on the horizon. A small field mouse scuttles back and forth outside my window, along the grey concrete sill. Seven Turkey Vultures feast on carrion in the field to my right. A lone Heron glides down the valley riding the thermals. Several curious, brown lizards run over the wooden chairs outside. One of them stops to cock his head, looks at me with one front leg lifted. Finally, I have arrived.