Jim Shere's signature with wave logo

All Things Must Fall

When I was a young boy living with my family on a remote ranch over near the coast not too far from here, we had an enormous grove of eucalyptus trees; and it was one of our routine chores to harvest that grove periodically, just as we milked the cows, tilled the gardens, and picked the fruit. I remember many cold mornings when I would walk down the dirt road to the grove alongside my father, shouldering my single-bit ax the way he shouldered his double-bit, trying to saunter the way he did, though my legs were not as long and certain as his. I was full of my father in those days, knowing he was a drinking man and a terribly hard man for my mother to be with, but knowing just as well that he was a man like I would be some day.

From far below I would watch him easily scale a single eucalyptus, a simple length of rope loosely looped about his waist and the waist of the stalk that he was climbing as he brought his sputtering chainsaw up what seemed a hundred feet or so to cut limbs away, digging his heels into the slippery bark as he worked the whine of the saw against the creaking wood. I remember once hearing him swearing his familiar long cursing line of invective at that great height, as his glasses slipped and fell, and as I ran to catch them before they could break against the branches that lay scattered where they had fallen from him about the base of the tree, down there with me. "Things must fall", my father often said.

Later, after cutting away at the base of the tree for what seemed hours to sever it from its trunk, we would begin to hear the old tree call out to the others that surrounded it, crying "Hey, I'm a goner, guys!" and begin to tilt one way or another. We always tried to cut in such a way that we could direct the tree's lean and fall, but that was always an uncertain art, and often enough the tree would abruptly twist in the wind and follow another path of falling, or its branches would reach out and brush against the others that stood around, as if looking for another to catch and save it at the very last possible moment. But things must always eventually fall, as my father would say, and it would then fall with a great splashing sound, and then there was the horrible crashing against the littered floor of the grove. There was never as silent and complete a silence as that which would come after such a fall, a silence like in church, and I would steal a glance at my father to see if once again there were tears in his eyes as he considered the great length of his felled tree. Yes, things must fall.

One night, when walking back tired from the grove like veterans of similar wars, on a night when there was no moon, we two, man and boy, were suddenly caught terrified by the shrieking fall of a meteor, a brilliant fireball floating down the skies. Our shadows moved about our feet as the great light seemed to glide and fall against the west and beyond. My father had never finished the sixth grade, so I believed I knew perhaps better than he how things could fall that way out of the heavens, but I knew I didn't understood why, or why it made me feel so small and vulnerable. My father seemed to know about that part; and I remember his rough hand absently rubbing my hair back and forth across my scalp as we stood looking at the once again empty horizon, and I remember his familiar, gentle line of invective as he acknowledged the heavens with his curses, and thinking all the while, yes, things must fall.

All this prepared me for that day when I began to understand how my father himself had begun to slip and to fall— from grace with my mother and from favor with the men for whom he had worked, falling down awkwardly in his stagger as he drank, or falling more softly into a bottomless depression when he would sit for hours staring into the fire after my brother's accident, or falling into the jails and into the hospitals, and after our move into the city, how he fell into the homeless streetlife there, and eventually under the wheels of an anonymous hit and run driver. Things must fall, he had said, and after he had died I considered his great length as he had the great trees he had felled, and tears would fall as they must.

Now I myself have a child who has grown to become an adult, and she has now, finally, begun reproaching me for falling, for streaking like that old fireball, that Angel of Light old Lucifer, old Adam, from their celestial positions, out past a now vacant, empty horizon, and I am very glad now that things must ultimately fall.

When I was a young man, and full of myself, an undergraduate at Berkeley that pursued the distractions of literature, philosophy, and a wide variety of the ingredients of drunkenness, I was one time invited to a bring-it-down party at a house that had been singled out for demolition the following day. We were told to bring axes, hammers, crowbars, and any other appropriate implement that we could lay our hands upon, as well as the standards of the day for liquid, herbal and powdered refreshment, and to anticipate taking part in the release of the old building's soul in more kind and conscious ways than would (we believed fervently) the workmen scheduled to arrive the following morning.

I was already in a heightened state of frenzied vulnerability when I finally arrived, late in the night, having prepared myself at other locations and with other people scattered throughout the city, and so the house seemed already greatly softened, humbled, and in proper submission as I came in the front door, which was already missing. A couple were painting with great strokes large drawings and enormous slogans of encouragement along the hallway walls, and a younger woman was happily punching solitary holes at regular intervals up the stair. In the livingroom a number of people were taking turns slamming the ornate mantle with a heavy iron bar, imbedding the ancient timber with an assortment of what seemed hieroglyphic and cuneiform markings that I thought may have had meaning. I took up a discarded single-bit hatchet, and began working my way up past the young woman on the stair, inflicting indiscriminate damage upon the handsome bannister as I went.

At the top of the stair I thought I heard my name called out from below, but in a voice as if from long before, in another time, and as I turned I lost my balance and fell the entire stair back down again, step by step, somehow missing the young woman still happily at work punching holes on her more deliberate way up. And as I fell I suddenly realized, I suddenly knew that I had fallen down those very same steps another time, another time before, many many years before, when as a toddler I was just learning to walk, and to climb the precarious stairway of my grandparents' home, in another time, long before, years before they— and I— had moved on towards this present. I lay there crumpled at the foot of the stair a long while, regarding the single-bit hatchet still in my hand, remembering the house that I had intended to help dismember.

There are a thousand ways that we may fall, small and large, each time towards such a humbling and healing. We may do it frequently, or occasionally, but we will do it, perhaps with an obscure misstep and a hesitation to briefly correct ourselves almost without perception and knowing; or we may take enormous falls as though by prearrangement with a god who wants us to know something new, a god that had been speaking louder and louder, gradually, implacably, until finally we could hear. Many years ago I fell such a way from my little boat— was thrown, actually— as the raft wrapped around a large boulder at the head of a particularly treacherous stretch of whitewater, and as I felt my body fly across the stretch and plunge into the wet I knew my mortality, and felt the end of my life opening up for me.

I had known every time I rode the river that very few survive who are swept away this way to ride the rocks and falls of whitewater, and as often as I had wondered throughout my life, until that day, how I would die, now I believed I knew the answer to that great riddle of my life at last; and I felt a great satisfaction, a contented peacefulness in finally having the answer— I would die after all heroically, in the torrent and cataract of whitewater that was carrying me without fail to the brink and collapse of a great dropping series of cascades and waterfalls. My next conscious (and last coherent) thought was how absolutely sweet the water of that river tasted in that hot afternoon.

Then I fell and I fell, and was lifted into the air to fall again, as the river in its wisdom carried my limp and yielding body past every rock, without damage, and down every flushing chute, without fear. I was falling simply as God would have me fall, towards something below that was drenched, scoured and washed terribly clean. That was what they found in the pool below, me floating serenely on my back, smiling quietly and not cursing as my father had done, knowing something new about the inevitable play of human mortality against the immortality of consciousness, and still understanding damned little about it.

All I knew, after I lay on the sandbar there, recovering from shock, was that life must now be lived differently, that the rules were somehow changed. If I had died that day, broken against the rocks and caught underwater, I thought, it would have been a terrible interruption of my life. When I do eventually die I will not want death to interrupt my life in that way, I will want my life to be complete; and the only way I could think to accomplish that was to live my life completely from that day on, so that whenever, wherever, however it is that I encounter my death, my life will have been complete. I had fallen to this discovery, finally, and there I found an immense and restful peace.

This essay received honorable mention for the Rosalie Fleming Memorial Essay Prize in the 1998 Soul-Making Literary Competition, sponsored by the Nob Hill Branch of the National League of American Pen Women. The first section appeared in The Listener: volume three, issue four (Winter 1998).

Return to Selected Essays