Isabel is … collecting Berkeley

Exploring the Bay


I sit with my back to the window, alone in my apartment, surveying a table full of odds and ends, feathers and rocks, painted wood, old pamphlets and melted candle wax. Dust is beginning to accumulate on these objects, as it inevitably does, each particle lit by sunlight pouring through the glass behind me. Contained on that table is the story of a summer, perhaps the best summer of my life.

If you were to trace the history of each item, they’d tell you a story of the places I’ve been. If you could listen not to me, but to the objects themselves, they’d take you to a thousand more places, through thousands of other hands. I know just a snapshot of their stories, experiences that intertwine with my own small life that have led all these items to land on one unassuming black side table.

When Charlie arrived in May, I gave her a notebook with an owl drawn on the cover. We went for a hike, and the owls were the first wildlife we saw on a gray, cloudy Berkeley afternoon. Underneath the tree in which those owls sat we found a single tiny, fluffy feather that ultimately made its way across the Atlantic inside a letter to Charlie’s grandparents. The notebook rests on the black Ikea table, too. Inside are more stories, poetry and tic-tac-toe boards (all ties). As our life together began to accumulate its own stories, we sent mementos of them across the globe.

Charlie has gone now, back to London. My summer is coming to a close, and this is my last article for the season. When the day is done, and when the wood, feathers and even notebooks disappear to their new homes, we are left with stories.

A story I would chase, if I could, is that of the long, perfect feather propped up on a piece of driftwood. It’s soft, white with brown bands, and with my little knowledge of birds of prey, I think it must be a hawk’s. I want to see what that hawk saw as it soared above us, surveying the landscape below.

Charlie and I found the feather in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, and we only discovered it because we took the wrong trail for three miles in the opposite direction before we realized we were headed the wrong way. We hiked out of the redwoods in the dark, the bright  moon rising through the trees.

We eventually made it back to our bed, a cozy Airbnb above a bakery, in the middle of the night, exhilarated, alive and with our feather proudly tucked into Charlie’s auburn hair.  

In Yosemite, there’s a swirling whirlpool below Vernon Falls that polishes tree branches and bark swept down the mountains, creating perfect, smooth circular pieces of wood. Charlie’s father found the spot where the finished wood floated, peaceably, to the shore. Thinking to paint, I loaded up Charlie’s backpack full of the wood. I certainly didn’t carry it back down the mountain, but the wood is stacked neatly on the black Ikea table in front of me now.

The small piece of pine that we used to use as a paperweight, and which I painted the Golden Gate on, went back with her this weekend to London, where she is from and where she and I met, for her mum. It now sits beneath a television on an English sideboard, a little piece of American history completing a long journey. At least for now.

On a rounded piece of redwood bark, I carved the image of an owl with my X-Acto knife, then held it over a candle to burn the etchings into the wood. The owl perches there in the middle of the black Ikea table, resting, now. If you hike up to the Berkeley Fire Trails taking Derby Street to the Tanglewood Path at dusk, there’s a good chance you will glimpse horned owls roosting in the eucalyptus lining the Stonewall-Panoramic Trail.

“Something inside you is always telling a story,” Jim Carrey said in an interview that Charlie sent to me on our first night apart. “I believe everything that you see and hear is talking to you. The bottom line with of all of this, whether it’s performance, painting or sculpture, is love. We want to show ourselves and be accepted.”

I hope that this summer I have seen and heard the world around me as it spoke. Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to show myself in this small way and the home that I loved here in Berkeley and beyond. I hope I have inspired you to take note of this wonderful world around us, too. Sometimes, in the midst of our busy lives, it takes a gentle reminder.

Isabel writes the Thursday column on discovering Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. Contact her at [email protected].