Sundown on an Era

Twitchell Island Poplars, 1981

That special place you go for the renewal you feel — that special place you have come to count on to provide just the tonic you need — that special place that you think will always be there? Well, maybe it won’t be. And how will you feel when what you knew would be there for you is gone or radically changed in some way?

“You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” — Joni Mitchell

Imagine your special place. A place you return to time and again. A place that, because of its dependability and quietude, draws you back many times over the years. Anglers, I’m told, have favorite fishing holes. Where, even if the fish aren’t biting, they’re happy to visit. And revisit. I have such a place that I have returned to many times over the years. Sometimes the conditions of weather and light are simply stunning, compelling me to make photographs.

Twitchell Island Poplars, 1982

On most visits, however, the conditions are not remarkable enough for me to unbag my camera. But the journey was — and still is — worth the trouble for the reassuring calmness that I feel by being there. I first discovered ‘my place’ in the early 1980’s while just cruising Delta roads enjoying the wonders that abound.

I had visited this place many times but let a few years go by. Then, thinking I’d take a run out that way for a change, I rounded the bend in the levee road in early 1986 expecting to receive my usual. You know, the way you can order something in a café or bar where they know you? “I’ll have the usual, please.” Of course it will be there. Reliable and steady and ready to give what I had come to expect. Instead, my heart sank. 

Twitchell Island Poplars, 1986

What once was a magnificent stand of ten poplar trees had dwindled to only three. I know hadn’t been there in some time, not sure just how long, but this seemed a very abrupt change and I remember feeling a loss. I called around trying to find a voice of authority, someone who may have known something about the attrition of the poplars to no avail. I have since discovered that poplars have an average lifespan of only about forty years. 

Twitchell Island Poplars, 1996

I continue to make my periodic pilgrimage to that special place occasionally. Since that sad day in 1986 there has been even more attrition. That magnificent stand of ten stately and tall poplar trees standing as sentinels on the eastern levee of Twitchell Island have been reduced to only one. The last one standing.

On our first date I introduced ‘my place’ to a beautiful woman who also is a plein air painter. I referred to this extraordinary spot as my private stash.  She later told me that her opinion of me changed after that and we were married about a year later. Now, happily, it’s our private stash.   

Last One Standing, 2014


“Taken For Granted” was the original title of this essay, written a few years ago and published in Beacon, but I thought I should see if anything has changed since then for a possible update. Yesterday, February 7, 2018, my heart sank once again, causing the necessity of a new title and this epilogue. 

Sad though it may be, magnificent living trees someday die. But that does not diminish their beauty shared over many years with countless people who’s lives were enriched – even if only just a little – as they passed by. 

“You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”

February 7, 2019

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  • You know, you could possibly contact the land owner to see if he would allow you to replant those ten trees. You wouldn’t live to see them in their glory, but I imagine in your last breaths you would know that others will enjoy them in the future. My wife and I did something such as this in Doran Park in Bodega Bay while camping in our 20’s. She died in 2006, but the saplings that we lovingly propped rocks agaisnt are now huge trees. I felt a pang when I saw this because I couldn’t look over at her and ask her if she remembered…..but I remembered, alone. Derek

    • Yes, bittersweet for sure, Julie. But I find myself reflecting on the beauty and the quiet joy given rather than the loss. It’s the natural order of things, however much we may wish otherwise.

  • Everything changes as they say and you have captured this in each time period. Your talent to find the beauty behind the camera in each stage just amazes me. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Krystina. Who knew that in just a few short decades that landscape is changed forever? A lesson in appreciating things before it’s too late, for me at least.

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