Searching for the Land of Salt
Sadness is the salt that gives happiness its taste. - Mahmoud Emam
Salt happens. It pervades our waters and diet and bodies. It flavors our language: Taken with a grain of salt. Salt of the earth. Worth your salt. Don't spill the salt. Salt brings life to food, heals wounds and relieves sore throats, transforms the harvest into pickles and jerky. It even sees us to the end of life; salt embalms the dead. What is it about salt that is both poetic and common?
There's an easy-to-miss turnoff on the Hwy 1 that blurs into forest until it becomes a trail beside the sea. The place possesses a vast and lonely beauty. Nothing about it soothes the senses or offers comfort or softness, yet somehow that coast and its nameless waves restore the spirit. Hope glimmers there like salt caught in the rocks.
The first pilgrimage - each time is a pilgrimage, never just a trip - was on a chicken-skin-raising, windy winter afternoon. I went with a dear friend who knew the place and also knew, intuitively, that gathering traces of salt and seaweed were a medicine, helpful in gathering the spirit. We drove seven hours that day to share just four hours on the rocks, but it was enough. The second was in June, when I brought my parents visiting from the Philippines. Their hair tossed by the wind, they bravely and half-reluctantly followed the winding trail as I insisted we keep going, to find one bright seam of salt we could symbolically gather from together. My mother's province is Pangasinan, which literally translates to "The Land of Salt" (asin means salt). We were cold and tired, yet I felt half-superstitious this trip could strengthen the wavering bridge linking our two worlds.
The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. - Isak Dinesen
Just before the fall solstice, I returned to the point once more to search for the small pools we had spotted in the spring. After a hot, sunny summer, the pools were thickened and crystallized, their surface cloudy and still. We fell into a quiet meditation, wielding dinner spoons to separate salt from water and delicately scrape crystals from sandstone. Curious, I dipped a finger into the water and tasted it. It was nearly unbearable, an entire ocean concentrated into a brine that brought tears to my eyes.
The bag of salt from that day still sits in my kitchen, untouched. Next to it rests a pouch of red clay sea salt I've carried for years from the Big Island, and a large-grained sea salt from Pangasinan. I tell myself these are to be used for guests, as a celebration and for presents. While our household liberally uses boxes of sea salt and Kosher salt, I hoard these talismans, traces of another place.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. - Nelson Mandela
My promised land is not one of milk and honey, but of salt. Its the substance of my mother's home province, and a point off the map on Hwy 1 where I remember how to feel alive. In some inexplicable way, this last pilgrimage on the solstice also helped me to recover my creative salt. It reminded me that I am worth my salt only when I return to the creative outlets that refuse to be abandoned, to heed an inevitable pull that calls me to the kitchen and the blank pages of my journal.
We write as we cook as we salt to affirm a place in the universe. Our lives can be scrawled or simmered, set in loaves or stanzas, recipe or verse. They sing the same words in different languages: I am here, I am here.
Happy Filipino American History Month!
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