From Mt. Whitney to the Alabama Hills

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Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4421 meters) the highest point in the contiguous United States.

My father’s work brought my family to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in the summer of 1960, and we were to remain there in Tulare County for twelve years. Even in those more peaceful and far less populated days, the fogs and smogs that get trapped in the great Central Valley occasionally obscured our view of the mountain peaks themselves, but on crystal clear mornings they were like Switzerland: sparkling white in golden sunlight against a backdrop of purest deep blue sky. Though my parents were great for camping expeditions even into the higher elevations below the tree line, where we would spend weekends or a week at a time among the lodgepole pines and giant sequoias, we were not mountaineers, and I would often gaze up from the valley floor and wonder what was happening up there on Mt. Whitney and its sister and brother summits, what plants grew, what birds soared, what animals called it home. I was interested in the lower slopes and foothills too, and though the treacherous mountain switchback roads often made me ill, I always came away from the heights alternately enchanted and pleasurably mystified by the lofty realms among which we had so recently sojourned. I wanted to know more.

I have since come across writers who have satisfied my curiosity somewhat, though they have in various ways also enticed it still more. The great Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) composed very finely written essays on the Sierra Nevada mountains which rise so abruptly above where we lived. I think especially of the eighteen essays, published between 1875 and 1882 in various magazines, which appeared collected in book form in 1894 as ‘The Mountains of California’. They cover a wide range of topics: ‘A Near View of the High Sierra’, ‘The Glacier Lakes’, ‘The Glacier Meadows’, ‘The Douglas Squirrel’, ‘A Wind-Storm in the Forests’, ‘Sierra Thunder-Storms’, are among the   chapter titles. By far the best, however, and it is really quite an astonishing piece of writing, is ‘The Water-Ouzel’, about a small bird which delights to frolic among the spraying waters and burbling courses and pools of mountain streams and springs. It was another writer’s most enthusiastic reference to this particular essay, in fact, which led me to ‘The Mountains of California’ in the first place. ‘The Water-Ouzel’ is really where anyone should start when beginning to explore the mountains of California. The little bird, and the vivid details of his habitat which Muir describes, are portrayed with such sympathy and charm that, once read, the essay may well stay with you forever. It’s a piece of writing which deserves to be far better known.

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) wrote neither about the highest mountain peaks nor about the western slopes of the Sierras, but about the lower eastern slopes and the broad arid expanse which stretches from the Sierra foothills near her home in Independence, California to the Mojave Desert to the south. ‘The Land of Little Rain’, first published in 1903, describes the Owens Valley where she lived, along with the adjacent small valleys and lower desert slopes. The book takes its title from the fact that the area east of the Sierra Nevada gets only small amounts of precipitation, the clouds being habitually stopped by the mountains in their easterly course as they are carried by the prevailing winds from the sea. Like Muir, Austin has entrancing chapter titles: ‘Water Trails of the Ceriso’, ‘The Mesa Trail’, ‘Nurslings of the Sky’, ‘The Little Town of the Grape Vines’. I’ve always felt that the first lines of books can tell you a lot about the quality of the writing to follow, and Mary Austin begins this book in a grand style which captures you from the beginning: ‘East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders. Ute, Paiute, Mojave and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go.’ Last time I read this book I underlined (digitally, on Kindle) each passage I loved. Followed sequentially, they seem to me like so many lines of finest poetry.

If you look up toward Mt. Whitney from Independence and Lone Pine, near where Mary Austin lived, you will also see the Alabama Hills, named during the American Civil War by miners in the area who were sympathetic to the Confederate cause and who named many of their mining claims after the Confederate ship CSS Alabama, later sunk by the North off the coast of Normandy. If this area looks familiar to you, there’s probably a good reason for that: the Alabama Hills have been used as a backdrop during the filming of dozens of western films for many decades. Just look for any film starring Randolph Scott: you are almost sure to see the Alabama Hills and snow-covered Mt. Whitney rising up from behind him as he so confidently and smilingly rides his horse. You’ll want to go there at once.

When I view these films, so many of them made during my childhood, I wonder what exactly I was doing on the other side of the mountains even as the cameras ran. Because it was precisely during those years that I gazed up at Mt. Whitney from the west and wondered what lived there, and what lay beyond. And it was then that I camped up and down the Sierras, among the lakes and forests, the giant sequoias and wildflower-bedecked alpine meadows, with my siblings and enthusiastic young parents. I was charmed then, but am far more so today. Time to go back to John Muir and Mary Austin, I think. Just as quickly as I can. They’re not bad traveling companions at all. 

 

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Nights Over Finland

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Arkhip Kuindzhi. ‘Study for Winter Sunlight on the Hoar Frost’, 1890. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

The works of the German Expressionist poet Paul Boldt are experiencing something of a revival in Germany at the moment. But he remains a mysterious and largely forgotten figure whose career was cut short by a combination of war, ill health and disillusionment. Not a single photograph of Boldt is known to exist. Born in 1885 in an area of West Prussia which today is part of Poland, the son of a landowner, he studied philology in Munich and Marburg before coming to Berlin. There he began to live an increasingly bohemian life and was most frequently to be found at the Café Josty on the Potsdamer Platz, an artistic and literary gathering place for the avant garde. He gave up his formal studies in 1912 and began to publish a series of poems in the leftist journal ‘Die Aktion’, attracting attention especially as the author of the celebrated poem ‘Junge Pferde’ (‘Young Horses’) and appearing at readings alongside well known writers such as Gottfried Benn. In 1914, eighteen months after the publication of his first poem, a volume of verse appeared, the only one he would ever publish. He joined the artillery in 1915 but was discharged in 1916, judged unfit because of what was described by doctors as a ‘nervous disorder’. The few poems he wrote during this period are in stark contrast to his earlier optimistic period, and Boldt’s work began increasingly to take on the general spirit of despair and imminent disaster characteristic of so many writers of the period, especially those of the Expressionist movement. Boldt began to study medicine in 1919, underwent a seemingly successful operation for unguinal hernia in 1921, then died a few days later of an embolism. The poem I have translated here, from his earlier and more hopeful period, appeared first on July 10, 1912 in the journal ‘Die Aktion’. Boldt’s original follows my translation.

 

Nights Over Finland

The forests of fir darken away in the East,
And from the lakes the ghost of night emerges,
The yellowed head, crowned with fire and smoke,
To taste the smell of stars of newborn night.

The trunks of spruce are felted white as mushrooms,
And branch on branch in burnished tender light,
The frozen lines, with filigree encircled,
The contours drawn in pure and ripened frosts.

Down to the ancient round and blackened ice
Of earth, the rivers lie fast frozen.
The level gneiss shines in piled moraines

And in the shining bright and polished moors.
The crows cry out forever: day–and deed–
Mist and cold fall like sack and seed.

 

Nächte über Finnland

Die Nadelwälder dunkeln fort im Osten,
Und aus den Seen taugt das Nachtgespenst,
Den gelben Kopf, von Feuerrauch gekränzt,
Den Sterngeruch der neuen Nacht zu kosten.

Zu weißen Pilzen filzen Fichtenpfosten,
Und Ast an Ast in zartem Lichte glänzt,
–Befrorne Linien–Filigran umgrenzt,
Zieht die Kontur aus reinen, reifen Frosten.

Bis auf das alte, runde, schwarze Eis
Des Grundes sind die Flüsse zugefroren.
In Schuttmoränen glänzt der glatte Gneis

Und in den leuchtenden, polierten Mooren.
Die Krähen schreien ewig: Tag–und Tat–
Nebel und Kälte fällt wie Sack und Saat.

 

 

The Siesta

Many of the poems of the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910) may seem uneventful and tame to us today. But in his own time he was quite ground-breaking, even shocking to most of his contemporaries in his unusual use of imagery, metaphors, subject matter and linguistic combinations to achieve his literary effects. His work, especially in the last ten years of his life, marked a distinct break with the poetic conventions which had gone before as he ventured into Modernism and Surrealism, and in doing so provided a model which many other Latin American poets would follow. Herrera y Reissig lived almost his entire life at his family’s home in Montevideo, making one short visit to Buenos Aires and periodic forays into the Uruguayan countryside, where his family had a rather extravagant neo-gothic retreat. He died before achieving fame. Here is my English translation of a sonnet which first appeared as part of the series ‘Amaryllis’ in ‘El Diario Español’, Buenos Aires, on April 2, 1905. Following my translation is Herrera y Reissig’s original Spanish text. 

 

The Siesta

A single clock throbs: the tower,
Which counts the lovely boredoms of the town;
It shines in the January sun with an edge,
With its distant visage of stubborn old man…

Seated in his doorway, the apothecary sleeps…
In the spreading plaza a chicken clucks,
And a branch of witch-hazel burns on the hearth,
Beside which the pastor meditates his prayers.

All is peace in the house. A sky without rigors
Blesses labors, doles out sweats…
Mothers, sisters, aunts sing in a round

As they wash the clothes the peasants suffer on Sunday…
And the vagabond ass now brought to heel
Flees kicking away from the neighborhood dogs.

 

La siesta

No late más que un único reloj: el campanario,
Que cuenta los dichosos hastíos de la aldea,
El cual, al sol de enero agriamente chispea,
Con su aspecto remoto de viejo refractario…

A la puerta, sentado se duerme el boticario…
En la plaza yacente la gallina cloquea
Y un tronco de ojaranzo arde en la chimenea,
Junto a la cual el cura medita su breviario.

Todo es paz en la casa. Un cielo sin rigores,
Bendice las faenas, reparte los sudores…
Madres, hermanas, tías, cantan lavando en rueda

Las ropas que el domingo sufren los campesinos…
Y el asno vagabundo que ha entrado en la vereda
Huye, soltando coces, de los perros vecinos.

 

 

The Handkerchief Tree

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Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree or Handkerchief Tree of China

I don’t remember how we discovered Sonoma Horticultural Nursery. But I think it was the result of going online in an attempt to find the elusive Rhododendron cinnamomeum, the undersides of whose leaves look as though they have received a dense dusting of cinnamon, and which we had been unsuccessful in finding after admiring an older specimen at San Francisco’s Strybing Arboretum. We did find the cinnamomeum then, eventually adopting two slightly different plants, and along with them the marvelous nursery whose name I have given above. It sits on seven and a half acres set in rolling green hills near Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California, and specializes in rhododendrons and azaleas and what they call ‘companion plants’, because they require similiar growing conditions to rhododendrons and azaleas and do well together in the same garden. 

The nursery is located about sixty miles north of San Francisco. There are many thousands of plants to choose from, with some very rare varieties among them, a rhododendron bedecked pond large enough to row a boat around in, and even picnic tables where you can have your lunch. The proprietors live in a house overlooking the pond, at the top of the property. You can sit in the shade of a Victorian-era gazebo and take in the scene. We have nearly always left the nursery with the trunk of our car, and often some of the back seat as well, loaded with plants. At one point I counted about thirty varieties of rhododendron in our garden here in San Francisco, and a large percentage of them came from Sebastopol. We’ve adopted many rare irises, primulas and other smaller plants too. Most have survived.

On a particularly warm late spring day a couple of years ago, our elderly and much beloved Tibetan terrier named Bika accompanied me up to Sebastopol. It wasn’t hot in San Francisco when we left, or I might not have gone, because dogs are not allowed on the grounds, and I knew I’d have to leave little Bika in the car. Which I did, rushing back to check on her every few minutes, taking her out beyond the nursery gate to walk, giving her water, etc. She did fine. And that was the day I discovered the Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree or Handkerchief Tree of China. They have a 70 year-old specimen there at the nursery, and I had been told over the telephone that its white flower-like leaves were out and fluttering. And looking, from a slight distance, just like white doves or handkerchiefs, a peculiarity which in England gave the tree its name. It grows in front of the nursery owners’ house and is classified as Sonoma County Heritage Tree #20. It’s a most amazing tree. Totally unsuited for our windy cold garden here in the city, or I would have brought a smaller version home. There was one there waiting, in a one gallon pot.

The species came from China to Europe and North America in 1904 and is a popular ornamental in many gardens. The genus name ‘Davidia’ comes from a French missionary and naturalist, Armand David, who lived in China and who was the first westerner to describe another rare Chinese species, the giant panda. Though Armand David was the first to describe the Davidia involucrata in 1905, in the form of a single tree found at over 2000 meters elevation, his specimens were lost in a wreck on some river rapids. It was the Scotsman Augustine Henry, who also found a single tree, though in a different location, who sent the first specimen to Kew Gardens near London. A team was later sent out to find Henry’s tree, only to find that it had been felled for building purposes. But then they found a whole grove of Handkerchief Trees overhanging a sheer precipice. Specimens were taken and, despite another river mishap, arrived safely in England, whence the plant eventually came to America. Our specimen near Sebastopol has quite a history.

We haven’t been back to Sonoma Horticultural Nursery since our much-loved Tibetan passed away last summer. Partly this is because we already have plenty of plants to care for, and partly because we’ve since adopted three lively puppies, making excursions just about anywhere a rather complicated affair. But I suspect it’s also because we associate Sonoma Horticultural Nursery with many years of happy activities with our little Bika. The sight of the nursery might be too much for us right now, since she wouldn’t be along in the car. But I’m looking forward to our eventual return. And perhaps, come to think of it, part of her is there too. Yes, I’ll look for her when we go. In the rows of rhododendrons, in the flowering banks of the pond, in the overarching branches and in the breeze. And, if it’s May, in the fluttering Handkerchief Tree leaves. I’m so glad Bika came along on that bright warm spring day. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, we both knew we’d need to remember. 

 

 

 

Another Evening with Georg Trakl

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Koloman Moser. ‘Semmeringlandschaft bei Sonnenuntergang’, 1913.

In 1912, Georg Trakl re-enlisted in the Austrian army and was assigned to serve as a pharmacist at a hospital in Innsbruck. There he became involved with the local artistic community and became the protegé of Ludwig von Ficker, editor of the literary journal ‘Der Brenner’. Von Ficker published many of Trakl’s poems, helped secure for him the anonymous financial assistance of the wealthy Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and began to seek a publisher for a larger collection of poems. These efforts led to the publication in 1913 of Trakl’s ‘Gedichte’ (‘Poems’), by Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig. It was in ‘Der Brenner’, which began the Kierkegaard revival in German-speaking Europe, that the poem I have translated here first appeared. Trakl’s original text follows my new English translation.

 

Evening

With dead heroic figures
You fill the silent woods,
O Moon,
O sickle moon–
With the gentle embrace
Of lovers,
The shadows of eminent times,
The mouldering cliffs around;
So bluish it shines
Toward the city there,
Where cold and evil
A rotting race lives,
And a dark future readies
For innocent heirs.
You moon-entwined shadows,
Breathing a sigh
In the empty crystal of mountain lake.

 

Der Abend

Mit toten Heldengestalten
Erfüllst du Mond
Die schweigenden Wälder,
Sichelmond–
Mit der sanften Umarmung
Der liebenden,
Den Schatten berühmter Zeiten
Die modernden Felsen rings;
So bläulich erstrahlt es
Gegen die Stadt hin,
Wo kalt und böse
Ein verwesend Geschlecht wohnt,
Der weißen Enkel
Dunkle Zukunft bereitet.
Ihr mondverschlungnen Schatten
Aufseufzend im leeren Kristall
Des Bergsees. 

 

Georg Trakl’s ‘Spiritual Twilight’

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Edvard Munch. ‘Moonlight’, 1893. Oil on canvas, 93 x 110 cm. National Gallery, Oslo.

Here, followed by Georg Trakl’s German text,  is my new English translation of the poem ‘Spiritual Twilight’ (‘Geistliche Dämmerung’). It was first published as part of the collection entitled ‘Sebastian im Traum’, by Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig, 1915. An earlier and in some ways very different version of this poem, ‘Am Hügel’ (‘On the Hill’), was found among Trakl’s papers after his death.

 

Spiritual Twilight

Dusky prey in silence appears
At the forest’s edge;
Softly the wind of evening dies on the hill.

The plaint of the blackbird is muted,
And the gentle flutes of Autumn
Are stilled in the reeds.

On a blackened cloud
You sail, drunk with poppies,
The pond of the night,

The heaven of stars.
The lunar voice of the sister resounds forever
Through the spiritual night.

 

Geistliche Dämmerung

Stille begegnet am Saum des Waldes
Ein dunkles Wild;
Am Hügel endet leise der Abendwind,

Verstummt die Klage der Amsel,
Und die sanften Flöten des Herbstes
Schweigen im Rohr.

Auf schwarzer Wolke
Befährst du trunken von Mohn
Den nächtigen Weiher,

Den Sternenhimmel.
Immer tönt der Schwester mondene Stimme
Durch die geistliche Nacht. 

 

Shasta Springs Resort

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Shasta Springs Resort, near Dunsmuir, California

As a young man in my twenties I had a friend named Rick who was much given to adventure. On weekdays a civil engineer mostly tied to his desk, on weekends and during vacations he headed into the local hills and mountains to test his physical endurance and to explore places most people would not have imagined going. He was a great railroad aficionado, for instance, and was fond of seeking out remote and lofty train trestles spanning mountain rivers and streams, climbing to the level of the tracks and then crossing them from one end to the other and back. When he took me along on what I had thought would be a rather innocent hike one day and I discovered it was actually a terrifyingly high, impossibly long and dangerously rickety wooden trestle he planned to ascend and cross, I sat out the adventure below. Which was fine with Rick. He was very good-natured. He knew his various hobbies were not of the sort to appeal to others.

Another enthusiasm was waterfalls. They were not for admiring, of course, but for swimming under. Thus one weekend I found myself hiking down a 19th century horse trail to the pool at the base of the 50 foot high Kings Creek Falls in Lassen Volcanic National Park. In we went, and, though the water in the pool was only about waist high during that summer season, I was astonished at the force of the water as it hit my head after plummeting the entire length of the falls from top to bottom. Mostly I was worried about rocks that might descend with the water, however, and convert me into a statistic. But no injuries occurred. Rick was totally in his element in situations like that, though for him of course the level of adventure was ridiculously low. The fun he had in such dousings came from his delight at watching someone else discover something new. A 50 foot waterfall was not much of a challenge to him. Later we swam in the much deeper, far more impressive and nearly ice cold waters at the base of the 129 foot high MacArthur-Burney Falls in Shasta county, a waterfall set in a deep bowl-shaped ravine so blue and mist-enshrouded that you feel you are entering into the center of a great cool wet sapphire as you descend the trail to the pool. Which you must plunge into, of course, if you plan to swim beneath the falls, which we did, then emerge on the other side to follow the short trail which leads to Lake Britton. Later Rick insisted that I climb one of our local semi-dormant volcanoes, Mt. Lassen, which rises 10,462 feet into the sky. The trail ascends only the last 2000 feet from the surrounding area, but it’s still an adventure. By then I was becoming more adventurous myself, and I managed to climb Mt. Lassen a second time, without Rick, accompanied by friends from San Francisco. I was learning some lessons.

Shasta Springs was a very popular summer resort on the Upper Sacramento River, north of the town of Dunsmuir, California. Its heyday ran from the late 19th century into the early years of the 20th, and it lay along the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad, so I’m sure that’s what brought it to Rick’s attention in the first place. It was located just north of Upper Soda Springs, and natural springs on the property were the original source of the water which was eventually bottled and sold and which evolved into a major brand of soft drink. The resort began at the railroad platform, situated right above the river, where various reception centers and kiosks greeted travelers and prepared them to ascend the steep mountainside by incline railway (an open carriage set atop a precariously inclined wheeled base), at a cost of 5 cents per trip. The resort closed in the early 1950’s and was sold to a theosophist organization which had its origins in the area. There are almost no traces  left of the reception buildings and kiosks by the tracks today, but many of the cottages which formed the main part of the resort still stand higher up the slope. It was those buildings, supposedly deserted in wintertime, which Rick was determined to see. But he was hoping to find someone there, since he wanted to see if he could be given permission to stay as a paying guest at some point in the future, if such a thing were possible. He was really fascinated by the place.

We clambered up the snow-covered slope from the railroad tracks then, getting coats and hair caught in the branches of bushes and trees. It wasn’t easy. Once at the top, we found a large open snow-covered clearing and about two dozen white wooden houses, some large, some small, but there was not a human being in sight. The snow was about two feet deep, and there were no automobile tracks visible anywhere. No smoke came from the chimneys. We looked around a bit, hoping to find someone to speak to, and stumbled upon a cottage whose front door gave way as we turned the knob. It was a sort of café/soda fountain, clearly intended for summer use, with tables and chairs and a bar where attendants would make sodas and milkshakes for guests. Various items of food and drink were listed on placards on the wall behind the bar, but there was something very odd about them: all the prices were hopelessly out of date, by several decades, as if we had stepped back half a century in time. It was a very odd sensation, and the absolute silence and desolation of the place made us nervous. We felt we should not be there, and even Rick sounded a bit anxious as he expressed this concern. We were examining the prices, backs to the door, which we had left wide open, when suddenly we heard the door slam shut, causing us to turn around. As we approached it, very startled indeed, we saw a crudely scrawled note tacked to the inside of the door, at eye level. ‘Get out while there’s still time’, it read. And so that’s what we did. I have rarely been so rattled in my life. I was sure I would be shot down by a cross-bow before ever reaching the railroad tracks at the base of the slope. Even without the experience of the door-slamming and the note, there was something very eerie indeed about the place. It was not a good feeling.

I lost track of Rick more than thirty years ago, but the experience at Shasta Springs Resort does not appear to have dampened his spirits significantly. I recently learned that he’s still in the area, still climbing trestles and mountains, still following railroad tracks wherever they might lead. Whereas I don’t do any of those things. But there’s really something to that spirit of adventure, especially when you’re young: it gives you some marvelous things to remember.