In Search of a Sense of Place
RAH from California’s Central Coast
April 25, 2007
I arrived in California March 1st, on a flight from Washington’s National Airport to Saint Louis, then on to San Francisco. It was an overcast day in Saint Louis, with the weather gradually worsening. Various televisions reported snow to the north and tornadoes to the south, but fortunately nothing serious to the west. Thus I spent two uneventful hours eating lunch while other people glanced worriedly at the monitors. Outside the window, I beheld a little piece of the Midwest just beyond the runways: some bare trees and a patch of brown grass that suggested the vast expanse of prairie beyond.
I have not lived in the Midwest since I left college, but this sere winter flatland is where I derive my sense of place. All other places make sense to me in terms of this, my homeland, in so many ways like the New England of Henry Adams:
“Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain. Town was winter confinement, school, rule, discipline; straight, gloomy streets, piled with six feet of snow in the middle; above all else, winter represented the desire to escape and go free. Town was restraint, law, unity. Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless delight of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing…”
“The place that I come from they call the Midwest,” sang Bob Dylan on his first album, which he made when he was about 19 in 1960. I first listened to it about 10 years later, when I was 19, but it was not the first album I listened to and “listened to” hardly does justice to the experience, of a hot August night in the Chicago suburbs, sitting around with friends, listening to the Loving Spoonful without paying attention, when someone put on Bob Dylan’s first electric album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” and turned the volume up. The music and the words slammed inside of me without bothering to go through my ears:
Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine
I’m on the pavement thinkin’ about the government
Man in a trenchcoat badge out laid off
Says he‘s got a bad cough wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it’s something you did
God knows when but you’re doing it again . . . .
The demonstrations, the assassinations, the war in Vietnam, the violence and the stridency of the 60s all seemed bound up with that music and that voice, that strange, loony, angry, articulate voice.
Despite this revelation in the heat of the night almost all of my college years memories are of winter, listening to music indoors at night, staying up until the wee hours of the morning because that was the only time it was quiet in the dorm. Mostly it was classical music that I loved, Sibelius, Mahler, Brahms, but Dylan songs became a favorite of these cold midnight hours, especially the one including the lines:
Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees . . .
Staring out the window at this still-life in brown and gray brought back these thoughts of Midwestern winter. Finally my flight departed on time and we climbed swiftly out of this darkening world into the last of the day’s sunshine. When I walked out of the terminal in San Francisco, one breath of air told me that I was in a different place. The air smelled good. It always does, even at the airport. I spent the next two nights at Peter and Annie’s old clapboard house in Berkeley. I got to know them at Dartmouth College, where I was a chaplain in the 80s and Annie was one of my many student interns. Their kids jumped on me when I walked in the door.
So I came to this green and pleasant land in the springtime, where the wind carries the aroma of sage and a thousand flowers I cannot name.
I picked up a biography of Allen Ginsberg a few weeks ago at the Pacific Grove Public Library. It happened to be on the shelf of new acquisitions. He grew up in New York and lived there or was based there for most of his life, but he spent a lot of time out here, some of it in a small backyard cottage in Berkeley on Milvia Street. Both house and cottage have been replaced by some small and rather ugly apartment buildings, but have been immortalized in the pages of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. There is a poetry garden dedicated to Ginsberg and his associates across the street in front of Whittier Elementary School, now known as the Berkeley Arts Magnet School, which Peter and Annie’s kids attend. Thus the man who spent time in a psychiatric ward and whose work was considered obscene has now attained respectability, at least in Berkeley.
I often fancied myself a beatnik during college, reading most of Jack Kerouac’s early books and much of Ginsberg’s early poetry. In the biography I discover that due to Columbia University lending its buildings to the war effort, Ginsberg lived on the 6th floor of Hastings Hall at Union Theological Seminary on 122nd Street and Broadway for his first semester of college in 1943. Kerouac walked over with him at the beginning of second semester to help carry his stuff over to Columbia when a room opened up there. I lived on the 4th floor of Hastings Hall for my first two years at Union three decades later.
Whenever I heard New Yorkers make disparaging remarks about California and Californians, which was fairly often, I thought, “I can’t wait to go there.” I first went in the summer of 1982 for two-week seminar on the Gospels, an experience recommended by one of my seminary teachers. The retreat center was in Lake County, near Middletown. I did not particularly enjoy the seminar, but I loved being in California for a few weeks and went for my first swim in the Pacific Ocean. I went back the following summer, this time to Esalen in Big Sur and fell in love with the place. I have been back at least once a year ever since and have lived in California more than anywhere else.
In Pacific Grove, California, I live in a small cottage about fifty yards from the ocean and about a half-mile from Cannery Row, which is now a neighborhood of stores, restaurants, and the Monterey Aquarium, not the haunt of proto-beatniks rhapsodized by John Steinbeck. His bust graces the bicycle path along the waterfront where the railroad once ran. There is a bust as well of “Doc,” the Renaissance man and scientist from Western Biological Laboratories who was the main character in the book.
Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino discovered the Monterey Peninsula on a warm, still and cloudless day in December of 1602, some eighteen years before the English colonists came ashore in Massachusetts Bay. The warm weather held for several weeks as he and his crew wandered amazed through the sandy forests and rocky outcroppings. They were warmly greeted by the Ohlone, a peaceful people who had never known war. Monterey became the first capital of California. Robert Louis Stevenson lived here, as did Jack London and Robinson Jeffers. Henry Miller lived down the coast in Big Sur. Kerouac spent time in Big Sur in the early 60s and wrote a book about it, a rambling, heart-breaking, stream-of-consciousness articulation of the late stages of alcoholism.
All of these literary worthies were often ignored or hated during their lifetimes, but have become part of local legend. When Grapes of Wrath first appeared it was panned by California newspapers, pilloried by the California agricultural lobby and called a degenerate piece of Communist filth by an Oklahoma Congressman, an earlier incarnation of current Senator James Inhofe, the man who needed to have John McCain explain to him why the United States Army should not practice torture. On the other hand, President Roosevelt read Grapes of Wrath and it sold 400,000 copies in its first year of publication.
New York editors found Robinson Jeffers’ early work too dirty and too long. I actually think that describes much of Henry Miller’s work, but he wrote eloquently of his life in Big Sur, of walking along Partington Ridge and down to the hot springs in the afternoon and the slow walk back at night, guided only by a flashlight and the stars overhead.
On sunny days the ocean here is stunningly beautiful, always in motion; the air is always fresh and the hillsides are green and covered with wildflowers in the winter. It is a magical land, far from the haunted trees.