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Sunday, November 28, 2021

In Our Nature: The Cosumnes’ Endless Flow

If there’s one thing that’s safe to say about college, it’s that when you go there, life changes. Everything starts to get more complicated. Some people thrive on the complexity, while others (like me) often find themselves lost in reverie, dreaming of simpler times. As pastimes go, this one is bittersweet; even while the memories bathe us in their warmth, their frailty as mere imaginings lends a melancholy tint to their glow.

Few things trigger this melancholy more powerfully than returning to places we once knew. When I go back and wander the streets of my childhood, I find myself surrounded by time capsules attesting to all my past selves and states of mind. The local park where my friends and I always used to meet; the corner café we used to frequent, where now no one knows my name. These places and many others are emblems of a past I cherish, and life has changed so much since then that it sometimes knocks me breathless thinking of how much I wish I could live in them again.

But as I was walking at the Cosumnes River Preserve south of Sac the other day, I was struck by a strange realization. Through all the times I’ve been there and all the memories I’ve made, in the coalescence of my thoughts of it there is no tinge of loss. I remember the still air of the autumn dawn I saw just after I moved into my first apartment. The pale orange haze and the half-deserted trees it softened with tentative warmth reminded me that even as one time draws to a close, others begin. Then there was the bright spring morning when I first brought my best friend there, and that glowing evening long before I came to Davis when my parents and I watched sandhill cranes fly into the sunset. And then there was that time just a few weeks ago, when the day had proven too heavy but Cosumnes ushered me into its quiet night with gentle and caring arms.

All of these are times I’ll never have back, moments that will never repeat. And yet with this truth I find myself oddly at peace. The memories of Cosumnes do not feel distant to me, they are not part of some remote and inaccessible reality to which I am enthralled. As I’ve come to realize, this is because over the course of my time with it, Cosumnes has grown and changed alongside me. Unlike the buildings and boulevards of my adolescent wanderings, its natural display renders no static images. With every experience I’ve had there and each second I’ve spent, I’ve received something new, another layer of understanding of the place and of my place in it. I’ve seen it develop through days, seasons and years, and mirrored in its passage I’ve seen my own.

The amazing truth is that this continual transformation underpins all things, even those we want to deem “permanent.” What we learn through nature is that the only thing that’s permanent is life’s constant change. Like the throng of water comets John Muir once saw in Upper Yosemite Falls, life is made of a tumult of moments, “ever wasting, ever renewed.” Unknowable before they occur and starting to fade the instant they do, these moments come and go in continuous flow, with infinite freshness and boundless originality. In things that we build and attempt to control, this flow is often difficult to see. But in nature, it is as present and obvious as the sun’s ongoing journey through the sky and the river’s never-ending exodus to the sea.

To understand the flow and to feel one’s place in it can help us see our memories in its context as well. All the moments we’ve known, whether loved, hated or dearly missed, have been instants along life’s path. They’ve shaped us into who we are, and holding them close to our hearts is one of the wonderful capacities that make us human. But it’s also important to remember that we only have this capacity because our consciousnesses, our selves, are here now. Life’s changes and complications are all part of the journey ending in the present moment, and it is in this moment we are always living. This means we won’t always be able to hold onto everything we once loved, but that’s OK; in each present moment, nature brings a million new wonders into the world, ready and waiting to be made into beautiful new memories.

So I encourage all of you to find time to seek out a wild place — try Cosumnes! And when time and circumstances allow, go there to soak in the changes and truly experience present-ness. Through nature, you can uncover the flow that’s always present but easily hidden in your own life.

For my part, when I’m not out there with you, I’ll be finding a new café where I can spend my lazy afternoons. Maybe someday, they’ll know me too.

Look up, look out, look around — change is in our nature.

If you have any questions or comments, want to get more in touch with nature, or just want a down-to-earth chat (I promise I don’t always talk like this!), feel free to contact me, NICK JENSEN, at njensen@ucdavis.edu.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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