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The Bell

Saturday, July 14th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

First of a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

The Bell was first discovered by James and me on an exploratory outing with a bottle of cheap wine, long ago in the mists of memory before my adult circle of friends had begun to crystallize. The ferry plowed the rough swells of the bay, carrying us out to the tall, green island, past rugged headlands and lush valleys in which stately antique buildings stood vacant but well-tended among groves of palm trees. We stood on the open upper deck, where a salt wind tugged at our hair and gulls swooped hungrily at the rails.

We made our way on the ring road around the darkly forested island to a point high above the water where we could see the great bridge opening westward on the ocean, and from there we scrambled precariously down a faint, crumbling game trail to a small beach of dark pebbles, where we drank our wine, talked, and occasionally waded a short ways into the cold, churning surf. The Bell stood above us, long abandoned and windswept, on its rock that jutted into the bay toward the distant bridge.

Hours later we realized it was high time we headed back to catch the last ferry, but the wine had sorely diminished us. We couldn’t retrace our steps up the precipitous slope, and ventured around The Bell to a long sandy beach with more high crumbling slopes. The tide stopped us at the end of this, and desperate, we began to claw our way up the trackless slope, grasping roots and branches and treetrunks, finally stumbling gratefully out onto the ring road and the way back.

Years later, after my bohemian inner-city loft had evolved from its early turbulence and drama into a hard-working, hard-partying, cohesive community of ambitious young artists, actors and musicians, I led the whole extended family back to the island with a full supply of wine, baguettes, cheese and fruit, in search of the looming Bell. It couldn’t be seen from the ring road above, but again I found an obscure game trail which halfway down the steep slope brought our destination in view, still far below. From there, the narrow dirt track fell off steeper and steeper until it became a landslide. The more confident among us started onto the slide, digging our shoes in for traction, but when we coaxed one of the girls into following, she froze in place, staring at the sharp rocks on the beach below, veering into full panic. None of us had solid footing, but after a tense debate we tottered, slid, and formed a human chain to lower her down. The subsequent debauch found us all laboring successfully to put the incident behind us, as we lay like kings and queens surrounded by our brilliant domain: the sparkling bay, its windblown yachts, its distant bridge and city arrayed for our pleasure as we lounged and played on a broad pedestal of weedy cement, both stage and balcony, high above waves flashing like broken glass in the sun.

Behind us in a small grassy lawn loomed the Bell suspended from its wooden frame, taller than any of us, a stupendous weight of bronze turned grey-green by a century of salt spray, waiting for our primitive driftwood drumsticks to ring it into complex resounding polyrhythms. And below and around our platform, the sheer, black rock hosting a feral garden of agave, yucca and flowering shrubs, anemones crowding in the tide zone, and a fringe of crashing waves out of which the occasional seal hauled itself up to bask.

The pattern was set, and henceforth for more than two decades, through thick and through thin, my friends and I made bohemian expeditions across the bay and carefully down that hidden landslide path to the Bell to celebrate nature near the city but seemingly a world away, to refresh our perspectives, expanding horizons that had been shrinking and confining us in the repetitive toil of our days. Despite millions of people living around the bay, never did we find evidence of other visitors; the slippery slope that was part of our adventure helped keep our secret. On each arrival, time itself seemed to expand as all our senses came alive. Once, we were surprised by historic square-rigged ships emerging from the mist and firing cannons at each other in deafening blasts of black powder. Another time, we saw a horde of giant jellyfish advancing suicidally across the waves, from all directions as far as the eye could see, to be tossed limply on the rocky beach where their soft iridescent bodies flowed over the dark stones like molten glass. And another time, John frightened and amazed us by swimming out into the powerful breakers where none of us had ever dared to go.

We who discovered this place were experimental musicians and performers, and we saw the rock and the Bell from the beginning as both stage and living instrument, seemingly timeless, primitive, and rooted in the wild elements like the temples of the ancient Greeks. There, drumming on the Bell itself was always the central experience, and the holy of holies was to stand inside while your friends kept it ringing around you, and you felt cradled by a great humming, keening, rumbling womb. And always, we hesitated as long as we believed possible before leaving to catch the last ferry back to the city, our bodies exhausted and our spirits restored, wondering when we’d see our Bell again.

  1. katie rauh says:

    this is awesome max! thanks for being our historian.



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