The Way the Sun Rises


Sometimes I’ve seen a photo of a beautiful place, or read about some locale which seems fine and attractive in this or that respect. And I’ve wondered what it would be like to live there. But then usually the first question which rises in my mind, sometimes even to my lips, is an alarmed: ‘But can they see the sun rising from behind the mountains there?’ Because for me, I’ve come to realize only quite recently, the sun is definitely something which emerges from the sea someplace thousands of miles away, pours itself out upon thousands of miles of prairies and deserts, then pops up over the Sierra Nevada or California Coast Ranges so I can see it. I seem incapable of thinking of the sun in any other way. 

There are reasons for this that have to do with my own history, of course. I’ve spent most of my life in places where the sun has done just that. As a child I daily watched it soar up over the 14,000 ft. peaks of the Sierra Nevada and flood the orange groves and cotton fields among which our home in California’s great Central Valley was set. As a very young adult, living in Palm Springs, I watched, with a kind of ecstasy of delight in the reassuring warmth and floral scents of the desert dawn, the sun emerge with almost frightening brilliance out the arid Sonoran mountains which separated us from Arizona, and flood our little enclave with light so hot you could almost cook your breakfast in it. Still later, as for the past dozen years, I have lived along the California coast and beheld the sun, when not impeded by the fog and clouds so frequent here, accomplish its morning ascent from behind mountains, to free itself at last into the sky.

This is the best part: from the point when the blackness of night only just begins to give way to the beginning of day, to the actual sunrise itself. Once the sun becomes visible I start to lose interest. I don’t know why this is.

When I think about it, I realize that I don’t conceive of the sunlight as something which reaches us directly from the sun itself, but rather as something which has first passed over the entire continent to get to us. Mentally, at least, I have invested the sunlight I behold with a kind of power and charm which it has acquired during its rapid and intense passage over prairie and desert. And particularly the latter. As if, just before becoming visible to me, it has lingered with such intensity over the brilliant arid wastes that it has assumed a kind of concentrated efficacy, even a mystical and curative force, which it would not have otherwise had. As if, on slipping suddenly over the mountains, it is splashing over the rim of some vast and golden bowl which can no longer contain its properties. It washes abruptly into my world in a way which leaves me breathless and re-anchored. Sunset, by contrast, is something I often find exquisite but unsettling. It disposes me to thoughtfulness and nostalgia. But it also makes me quite uneasy. Perhaps it is merely a vestige of millennia of ancestors who had to think seriously of nocturnal dangers which threatened, but I am really no friend of the night. Dawn is definitely my thing.

In the photo above, you see a moment before sunrise as viewed from the deck off our dining area on August 28, 2009. The high peak is Mt. Diablo. The sun, about to emerge, is a bit to the right, as you can see from the way the light hits the clouds. 



With Georg Trakl in the Evening


Giovanni Rossi. ‘Il Mondo Bucolico’. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

The life of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was short, brilliant and tragic. With the result that I don’t have the heart to attempt even a summary of it here, lest it overshadow the fine poem I have attempted to translate. It is one of Trakl’s best known works. Its German title, ‘Untergang’, can be variously rendered, depending upon the context, by such English words as: ‘destruction’ ‘setting’, ‘(down)fall’, ‘ruin’, ‘death’, ‘doom’, ‘decline’ or even ‘sinking’ or ‘shipwreck’. There are yet other possibilities. Among the many remarkable features which are part of this poem, we might note the pervasive upward and ascending images which repeatedly assert themselves, and which seem quite startlingly juxtaposed with both the title and the feeling of doom which otherwise prevails. Trakl wrote at least four other, and in some ways very different versions of this poem. It is his final version which appears here. It forms part of the collection entitled ‘Sebastian im Traum’,  first published by Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1915.

(to Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Over the white pond
The wild birds have drawn away.
An icy wind sheers from our stars at evening.

Over our graves
The shattered brow of night inclines.
Under the oaks we rock in a silver skiff.

The white walls of the city resound continually.
Under arches of thorn
O my brother we climb, blind clock hands toward midnight. 


(An Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Über den weissen Weiher
Sind die wilden Vögel fortgezogen.
Am Abend weht von unseren Sternen ein eisiger Wind.

Über unsere Gräber
Beugt sich die zerbrochene Stirne der Nacht.
Unter Eichen schaukeln wir auf einem silbernen Kahn.

Immer klingen die weissen Mauern der Stadt.
Unter Dornenbogen
O mein Bruder klimmen wir blinde Zeiger gen Mitternacht. 

Lunch al Fresco


Pedro Figari. ‘Primeros Pasos’. Oil on paper, 50 x 70 cm. Galería Prato, Montevideo, Uruguay.

Here’s another poem by Julio Herrera y Reissig which I’ve been working on. I’ve accompanied it with a painting by his countryman, Pedro Figari (1861-1938). Figari was born in Montevideo too and would have been about fourteen years old when Herrera y Reissig appeared on the scene as a no doubt most precocious infant. Inevitably with poems, it seems, it doesn’t matter how long I put them into a drawer or hide them away on a shelf: I always feel compelled to rework them. Thus this, like nearly all the others, is merely a working version. The original first appeared in ‘El Diario Español’ in Buenos Aires on April 2, 1905, as part of the series ‘Las Manzanes de Amaryllis’. 

This is one of Herrera y Reissig’s pastoral sonnets. And of course it is quite striking for the way in which he personifies and animates nearly everything: the sun convalesces and leaps and keeps itself at a distance; the torrent pants; the countryside vibrates and smiles; a goat considers; the sky contemplates naively; a crease in the earth is pensive; even Delight seems to be portrayed in almost human form, busy seasoning food upon his knees. Only the bowl of figs and berries seems inanimate, and even with them I’m not too sure.

A word on Damócaris and Hebe is in order. These two are perfectly situated in this bucolic scene which is meant to evoke the eclogues or pastoral poems of the ancient world, though Herrera y Reissig is perhaps the first and only person to put them together in this way. Damócaris was a grammarian of the Greek island of Cos who lived at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th centuries of our era. He is the author of four epigrams in the Greek Anthology. In Greek mythology, Hebe was the goddess of youth, daughter of Zeus and Hera. She was the cupbearer for the gods and goddesses on Mt. Olympus, serving them nectar and ambrosia until she was married to Heracles. Her successor was the Trojan prince Ganymede. She also drew baths for Ares and helped Hera enter her chariot. She is usually depicted wearing a sleeveless dress and was the goddess of forgiveness. Prisoners who had been freed often hung their chains in the sacred grove of her sanctuary at Phlius. I have a strong suspicion that Herrera y Reissig chose Damócaris the grammarian for this scene because he was meant to represent himself. 


The Midday Meal

Rain…A convalescent sun frolics in the distance,
A beast of prey springs forth from the rocks,
And to the sound of the dense pantings of the torrent,
The countryside vibrates in rugged smiles.

A goat hanging from the precipice considers,
A golden calf leaps among the brush,
And the rustic sky contemplates naively
The pensive crease enfurrowing the mountain.

Over the hornèd trunk of a snowy spruce
Damócaris and Hebe have just left off loving;
One reanimates the ashes with his staff,

The other dispels idleness with simple chat…
And from the same wooden bowl they eat figs and berries,
Dishes seasoned by Delight upon his knees. 



Life Among the California Clarkias


Asleep by 9:30 last night, wide awake before 2 a.m., thinking about the Clarkias of Tulare County, where I lived for the twelve years between 1960 and 1972 because of my father’s work. The nearby foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the Tulare County Clarkias’ native habitats, were also my parents’ favorite weekend haunts and we spent much time there. That’s Clarkia cylindrica pictured above, one of the three Clarkias which are native to the Yokohl Valley or the upper Yokohl Creek. The others are Clarkia speciosa ssp. polyantha and Clarkia unguiculata. I suspect there are more, because they seem to be wily little creatures adept at survival and that means not being show-offs lest you get yourself dug up and carted off to someone’s city garden–there are people who do this–where you’ll be far from your friends and suitable conditions for life. Altogether there are eighteen species of Clarkias in Tulare County, and three of them are rare: Clarkia exilis (Kern River Clarkia), Clarkia xantiana ssp. parviflora (Kern Canyon Clarkia) and Clarkia springvillensis, the little guy we talked about yesterday. The first two of these are found in some other parts of California, however, so they’re only endangered in Tulare County. But the Springville Clarkia is quite threatened. It exists only near Springville. It could easily be vanquished with only a few photos on Flickr or other cyberspaces to show that it had ever existed. Meanwhile, here’s Clarkia ssp. polyantha:  Image

There are more than forty species of Clarkia, most of them in North America, though one of them, Clarkia tenella, is native to South America. I don’t know how this happened. Thirty-one species of Clarkia grow in California. A reader of yesterday’s post asked: ‘How did they get their name?’ They were named after the explorer Captain William Clark (1770-1838), who accompanied Meriwether Lewis on what became known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803 to 1806 across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.  Many other things were named after Clark: the cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki); Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana); counties in Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana and Washington; Clark’s River in western Kentucky; Clark Fork in Montana and Idaho; Clark’s Fork, Yellowstone River, in Montana and Wyoming; the Polaris nuclear submarine USS Lewis and Clark; Clark Bridge between Missouri and Illinois; a college in Vancouver, Washington and a lawschool in Portland, Oregon. The list seems endless. But it is the wildflowers which have captured my heart. Here’s Clarkia unguiculata, one of those Yokohl Valley locals:Image

Edward Gibbon, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and a truly spectacular autobiography, spent five very happy years as a young man in Lausanne, Switzerland and often dreamed of returning there in his declining years, which he did in fact blissfully do. For my part, I have often over the years dreamed quite idly of returning to dwell among the foothills of Tulare County, scene of so many happy times with my young parents and brother and sister in an age forever gone. I file this vision along with the many other idle dreams I occasionally entertain–perhaps just the mental equivalent of going to the movies. Life among the Clarkias would be possible and no doubt delightful, but for the Clarkias themselves and their animal and vegetable and mineral fellows, it’s a most serious business. Because they are anything but idle, and not merely photogenic. In so many ways, they could be great models for us all. 


Into the Valley of the Yokohl


When John Muir, the naturalist and writer who later made Yosemite famous, stood atop the hills east of what is now Livermore in Alameda County and looked out across the great Central Valley of California for the first time, he described it as ‘one vast sea of wildflowers’ stretching to the snow-covered Sierra Nevada peaks sparkling in the sun in the distance. Those days are now long gone, of course, and the Central Valley is jam-packed with subdivisions, freeways, meth-labs and billowing clouds of dense toxic smog which more often than not obscure any view of the mountains which drew John Muir so powerfully into their charms. But pockets of unspoiled California remain, and the Yokohl Valley in Tulare County is such a place. Situated in the foothills southeast of Fresno, it is an area particularly rich not only in natural beauty and rare plant and animal habitats, but more than thirty important Native American sites, including the remains of villages, rock art, burial grounds and ceremonial locations. It has only managed to survive this long because first Spanish, then Mexican, then later Anglo-American ranchers have maintained operations in the area since Europeans first came to the valley beginning in the 18th century.

Now, however, the J.G. Boswell Company of San Diego has created The Yokohl Ranch Co. and plans to turn about 36,000 acres of the Yokohl Valley into a city of 30,000 people, to include 10,000 houses, several golf courses, a commercial center with retail stores, a new dam to create water storage with water pumped over from the Kaweah River, a waste treatment plant, new roads and major traffic corridors, police and fire stations, schools, etc. Concerned citizens, allied with members of the local Yokut tribe of American Indians and others, are seeking to block all this development through legal means. So far the whole project has been stalled for several years. But J.G. Boswell Co. has acquired the land, and most people familiar with the lamentable fate of so much of the Central Valley tend to be pessimistic about the future of such small enclaves as the Yokohl. J.G. Boswell claims that what it offers is much needed housing for Central Valley communities so that farmland can be saved for farms. Opponents say Boswell merely offers relatively affordable housing in a spectacularly beautiful area to people from other parts of the state to whom the Yokohl Valley will be a bargain. I’ll be watching developments closely.

Meanwhile, from my point of view, the millions of plants and animals who live in the Yokohl, the rocks and streams, the hills and ravines, are daily going about their joyful business just as they have been diligently doing for countless thousands, or in some cases perhaps millions of years. There is something impressively focused and even meditative about that, as if the valley and all the living things it contains, animate and inanimate alike, are ever blissfully unaware of human beings and the havoc they are quite capable of wreaking. 

And there’s one more thing: the Clarkia springvillensis. It’s a very rare species of flowering plant, a member of the evening primrose family, native to only a few scattered parts of Tulare County, where it is known from fewer than twenty occurrences around Springville and the nearby Yokohl Valley. Most of these are on private lands which, like much of the rest of the Yokohl, may soon be gobbled up by development. A large part of the tiny surviving population of Springville Clarkias was some years ago totally destroyed in the creation of a mobile home park. I am rooting for the Springville Clarkias, however. They’ve definitely got my vote, for whatever it’s worth. I believe they’ve devoted their lives to something truly essential. 


The Theater of the Lowly


José Cuneo Perinetti (1887-1977). ‘Rancho y Luna II’. Oil on canvas on board, 57 x 38.5 inches. Private collection.

This sonnet by the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig first appeared in ‘El Diario Español’ in Buenos Aires on May 12, 1907 as one of the poems of the series entitled ‘Extasis’ (‘Ecstasy’). The author’s original Spanish follows my English translation here. 

The Theater of the Lowly

A guileless page from the Bible is the landscape…
Evening on the mountain in dying reclines,
And the sun threads a last flash, like a fine needle,
Through the ghostly lacy look-outs of the towers.

A vapor of infinite wild throatiness,
Of abstruse dissonance, ascends on the sly…
Night smiles sweetly before the village
Like a fine death with dawn-white conscience.

Over the great green-blue and olive-colored land
The sheep-folds curdle in vague nebulous waves;
A hundred exuberant stars have opened one by one.

A cricket scrapes the silence perfumed with roses…
The mill in the distance, embracing the moon,
Breathes olden days of romance into things. 


El teatro de los humildes

Es una ingénua pagina de la Biblia el paisaje…
La tarde en la montaña, moribunda se inclina,
Y el sol postrer un lampo, como una aguja fina,
Pasa por los quiméricos miradores de encaje.

Un vaho de infinita guturacion salvaje,
De abstrusa disonancia, remonta a la sordina…
La noche dulcemente sonrie ante el villaje
Como una buena muerte a una consciencia albina.

Sobre la gran campaña verde azul y aceituna
Se cuajan los apriscos en vagas nebulosas;
Cien estrellas lozanas han abierto una a una;

Rasca un grillo el silencio perfumado de rosas…
El molino en el fondo, abrazando la luna,
Inspira de romantico viejo tiempo las cosas. 

The Return from the Fields


Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and spent almost his entire short life there. Apart from a single visit to Buenos Aires and a few sojourns in the Uruguayan interior, he divided nearly all his time between his family’s mansion in the Uruguayan capital and their summer retreat, the Castillo Piria, a Gothic castle-like structure near Piriapolis. This was due to a serious congenital heart ailment, and his refuge was reading, which eventually led him to embark on a literary career which would only reach fruition some years after his death. In 1900, at age 25, he transformed the top floor of the family home in Montevideo into a literary salon nicknamed ‘La Torre de los Panoramas’ (‘The Tower of Vistas’) because of its fine view out over the city and the Rio de la Plata. There he himself underwent a transformation, from Romanticism to Modernism and Surrealism. He is best known for his sonnets, particularly the ‘Sonetos Vascos’, devoted to the landscape of Northern Spain which he had never seen, but from which he considered himself to be an exile. 

Here is my translation of the sonnet ‘The Return from the Fields’, one of the eleven poems in the cycle ‘Las Manzanas de Amaryllis’ (‘The Apples of Amaryllis’), which first appeared in ‘El Diario Español’ in the Argentine capital in April 1905, followed by Herrera y Reissig’s original.


The Return from the Fields

Evening recompenses labor with divine gold…
Cleanly dressed women in percales appear,
Plaiting their hair with lindens and white lilies
Or doing needlework on the thresholds of doors.

Cleated shoes and staffs and shawls…
Two girls with large pitchers just slip past.
The sleepwalking flight of the placid hours.
A breath from Arcadia combs through the thickets…

An austere silence falls. From the enhaloed pool
A twangy ballad of xylophones explodes.
The lakes fade with flashes of spectral light,

The hilltops, unreal now, crown themselves with roses…
And the dusty roads smoke in the distance,
Where the laborers return from the fields.


La vuelta de los campos

La tarde paga en oro divino las faenas…
Se ven limpias mujeres vestidas de percales,
Trenzando sus cabellos con tilos y azucenas
O haciendo sus labores de agujo en los umbrales.

Zapatos claveteados y baculos y chales…
Dos mozas con sus cantaros se deslizan apenas.
Huye el vuelo sonambulo de las horas serenas.
Un suspiro de Arcadia peina los matorrales…

Cae un silencio austero…Del charco que se nimba
Estalla una gangosa balada de marimba.
Los lagos se amortiguan con espectrales lampos,

Las cumbres, ya quimericas, coronanse de rosas…
Y humean a lo lejos las rutas polvorosas
Por donde los labriegos regresan de los campos.