“California Spring” by Alfred Bierstadt
The painting at the de Young Museum
is so big I can walk ten steps
before reaching the other side.
Stepping out from under the umbrella
thundercloud onto a slope, I pause
inside the canvas and rest
next to a cow. I’ve left the actual
California to contemplate its light
and illuminated mists, the way they billow
and thin as the sun’s roving spotlights
ray out over inky valley oaks.
That dot on the hills---a wagon train?
Stunned settlers stopped to ponder
a life so wide. They’ll snug their hopes
into cabins and live in miniature
under skies with county-large shadows.
One among them wonders
how to cover a canvas with this horizon.
Bringing their pianofortes, they plunge
into birdsong thick along the river’s length
and the rattle of a thousand alders.
With their cousins and aunts
they weave through rock fields
and forests the size of cities.
This landscape devours. They enter
the kind of time that turns grandly
and meanders. I wait for them,
learning to see their earth’s
pastels of space and light,
wanting to take it back outside
and free it from the frame.