The Blue Bench Patio


I can’t recall now what got me started on D.H. Lawrence again. It would be true to say that I was always, in the past, more interested in him as a person and less as a writer of fiction. But it would also be true that I now find him more interesting as a travel writer than as a person: the more I learn about him, both from his own writings and from those of people who knew him well, the more I’m convinced I would not have been able to spend too much time in his company. Still, that’s one of the great things about a book: you can put it down as soon as you become tired of associating with whoever wrote it or whoever it describes, which is sometimes the same thing. After finishing Lawrence’s 1926 Mexican novel ‘Quetzalcoatl’ recently, I’ve embarked on a series of Lawrence-centered memoirs, which I may write something about later, once I’ve had a chance to digest them. They are: ‘Journey with Genius’ (1951), by the poet Witter Bynner, whose extended excursion to Mexico with Frieda and D.H. Lawrence formed the background for both Bynner’s memoir and Lawrence’s novel ‘Quetzalcoatl’; ‘Not I, but the Wind…’, Frieda Lawrence’s book of reminiscences of her life with her husband; and ‘Life in Mexico’ (1843), by Madame Calderon de la Barca, a classic memoir of the author’s residence of two years in that country in the years before Maximilian and Carlotta. D.H. Lawrence was an avid reader of this last volume, carried it with him during his Mexican travels and was greatly influenced by it in his thoughts about Mexico. I’m finding this all very intriguing stuff.

Meanwhile, since our densely foggy summer seems about to come to an end, and because our three new puppies are growing up and becoming somewhat more reliable when left on their own, I’ve started restoring our garden to its formerly well-maintained state. This is an ambitious project, since I’ve neglected it for almost two years, first because of a year of dismal weather, then the physical decline and death of our beloved elderly dog, followed by the adoption of three lively new puppies. Luckily most of the plants have survived. But there’s a whole lot of excess foliage to trim away and an enormous amount of tidying up to do. Yesterday was gloriously sunny and I worked on what we call the Blue Bench Patio.

When we came here eleven years ago, the very steep hillside you see pictured above was a dense mass of blackberry vines and other invasive pests. The three steps in the bottom left corner of the photo are part of a flight of about a dozen, new steps I built myself to replace some decaying ones constructed decades ago by some unknown soul. The two retaining walls were built from concrete blocks, each of which had to be carried down the hill and put into place in as level a fashion as possible. The bench itself came in three pieces and was not easy to install, but it makes a pleasant spot to sit when the weather is good. The little patio was paved with aggregate blocks, each inset with small colored rocks. The plants surrounding it include  a large Pride of Madeira (top left), a South African protea and two leucodendrons (center, around bench), varieties of the shade-loving helleborus, a button fern, an Ecuadorean ‘marmalade bush’, a miniature ‘bottle brush’ plant named ‘Little John’ and lots of other plant people. The yellow water dish at bottom center is one I originally put out for our dog Bika but which was quickly requisitioned by raccoons and other creatures. They turn it upside down and leave it for me to refill when it’s empty.


The Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Yesterday we had a rare visit from a flock of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. Now this latter eminence, for those not familiar with it, rises 275 feet toward San Francisco’s north-east corner, one of the city’s most celebrated spots, for various reasons. It is easily visible from far away, because of the distinctive Coit Tower which sits atop it, and got its name in 1849 when a semaphore was constructed at its summit to signal to the city’s residents details as to ships that were passing into San Francisco Bay. The Spaniards had called it Loma Alta, or High Hill, and later it was known as Goat Hill, but these names have long since faded into near oblivion. The semaphore was dismantled after 1862, when the electrical telegraph was introduced, and a quiet and prestigious neighborhood with sweeping views eventually developed. Artists and writers and bohemian intellectuals settled in the area in the 1920’s, and their influence is felt there even now and in the adjoining North Beach neighborhood. It’s a picturesque spot.

The wild parrots who have added to the place’s notoriety are known variously as the cherry-headed conure, red-masked conure and red-headed conure. They are also called red-masked parakeets, and their scientific name is Aratinga erythrogenys. When they got here, no one has been able to determine. Before 1993 it was legal to import wild-caught parrots into the country, and they were brought in by the millions. These birds have never done well in captivity, however, and owners found them difficult: they were noisy and they bit and, in addition to those who escaped, many were probably released deliberately by people who simply could not cope with them any longer. A female mitred conure, or Aratinga mitrata, turned up in the summer of 1995. She breeded with the cherry headed conures and created a distinctive line among the San Francisco flocks. Two blue-crowned conures, or Aratinga acuticaudata, have lived among the other birds in the past, but none have been seen for years. It’s an interesting group.

The cherry-heads come from a small area on the western side of the Andes Mountains in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. The mitered conures range from southern Peru to central Bolivia and even into Argentina. There are perhaps 200 of these birds in San Francisco, but since they travel all over the city throughout the year, an exact count has been impossible to achieve. They do not migrate. They eat all kinds of things: juniper berries, pine nuts, cotoneaster berries, fruit from trees in domestic gardens. They love cherry blossoms. Some people feed them, though there is a city ordinance against this now, and many of those who lobby for the parrots’ welfare say that attracting the wild parrots to bird-feeders also informs hawks of the parrots’ presence, and hawks have been known to kill parrots. There are many hawks in San Francisco, large noisy creatures which perch in trees and on telephone poles and rooftops and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Few people would want to attract hawks into their yards, parrots or no parrots.

We have had visits from the wild parrots perhaps three times in the eleven years we’ve lived here. The first visit came at lunchtime. I was sitting at the kitchen table, beside our large window looking out over the city, when suddenly I heard a loud and raucous flock of birds approaching rapidly. As I stood up to investigate, they swooped in, about fifteen of them, and landed on the branches of the large cypress tree which rises above our upstairs deck. They chattered there for a couple of minutes, while I ran off to get my digital camera, but when I opened the window to begin my photo shoot they were frightened off and departed just as lustily as they had arrived. I could still hear their deep-throated shrieks when they were several hundred yards away, headed back downtown, perhaps to Telegraph Hill itself. And this is how they always announce their arrival: that raucous unmistakable group chorus, followed by the abrupt swooping in of a squadron of a dozen or perhaps fifteen birds. This is what happened yesterday too, just at lunchtime. I managed to get a couple of decent photos, however, and I’ve posted one above. I tried to get more, but the parrots saw the camera and decamped in a noisy huff.   

Tricks of the Trade: The Muse


Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

Here is my translation of the third section of Anna Akhmatova’s five-part poem entitled ‘Tricks of the Trade’, written at various times between 1936 and 1959. This section is undated. The whole poem concerns the creative process and various related topics, and the different parts bear the following headings: ‘Creation’, ‘I Have No Need of Odelike Armies’, ‘The Muse’, ‘The Poet’ and ‘The Reader’. My translations of the first two parts have appeared elsewhere on ‘Nordic Mountain’, and I plan to post translations of the remaining sections in days to come. For those not already familiar with her, Anna Akhmatova was the literary name of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko (1889-1966), one of the most celebrated poets of Russia’s pre-revolutionary Silver Age and of the Soviet period, whose atrocities she chronicled in her work. She is also known for having chosen to remain in Russia after the Revolution, a decision which brought her much hardship but of which she was also very proud, as it enabled her to remain faithful to the land of her birth and to bear witness to the tragedies which engulfed it in the course of her life.

The Muse

How can I live with this burden?
And yet they call her The Muse.
They say: ‘You and she in the meadow…’
They say: ‘Divine babbling…’
More fiercely than a fever she chatters on
And then all year without a word.


Как и жить мне с этой обузой,
А еще называют Музой,
Говорят: «Ты с ней на лугу…»
Говорят: «Божественный лепет…»
Жестче, чем лихорадка, оттреплет,
И опять весь год ни гу-гу.



D. H. Lawrence on Lake Chapala, Mexico in 1923.

Just finished reading D.H. Lawrence’s novel ‘Quetzalcoatl’, which first appeared in 1926 under the title ‘The Plumed Serpent’, because the publishers thought Lawrence’s original title would not appeal to readers. He wrote it during and after an excursion to Mexico, a trip which seems to have by turns irked him mightily and increased his at times wavering interest in the country. 

Kate, widow of an Irish revolutionary, has left her children to be raised by her mother in England and has travelled to Mexico with her cousin and his friend, these last two loosely modeled on Lawrence’s New Mexico acquaintances, the poet Witter Bynner and his partner Willard (Spud) Johnson. Kate soon tires of Mexico City and moves to a dilapidated rented villa on the shores of Lake Sayula (the real-life Lake Chapala), where she is alternately charmed and disgusted with the local residents and their way of life. She also becomes involved in a rather fantastic plot led by a minor landowner (Ramon) and his pal, the powerful General Cipriano, to proclaim themselves the returned Aztec gods Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, overthrow the European based civilization brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, and establish a new kind of society which they believe will be much better suited to the indigenous Indian population. After a certain amount of violence, intimidation and rather improbable joyous cooperation on the part of civil authorities, clergy and people alike, they do manage to effect major changes at Lake Sayula and in surrounding regions, even in nearby Guadalajara, before the at first fascinated and ultimately terrified Kate manages to escape the country. It is a very odd book indeed.

I find several things about this book to be quite engaging. The basic premise is an interesting one, though quite improbable, even almost ridiculous as it plays itself out. The characters are particularly well drawn: Kate, the disillusioned and somewhat confused European with a bad case of Wanderlust; Felipa, her earthy and inscrutable Mexican housekeeper; Ramon, the ruthless, politically savvy guru who is convinced he is a god; Cipriano, the steely-eyed, handsome and diminutive Indian general one could easily imagine ruling all of Mexico from the Emperor Maximillian’s castle of Chapultepec. But there are some very disconcerting elements that plague the writing: the constant repetition of words, such as ‘dun’ or ‘buff’ to describe the lake; the rigid stereotyping of groups (lower class Mexicans as lazy semi-animals; ‘the priests’ as fascistic fiends); European culture as so much dead refuse to be swept away; ‘the blood’, a term Lawrence uses constantly to refer to some kind of pre-determinative quality in all of us, a kind of fatal DNA. Some scenes are memorable but, despite their tragic nature, so improbable as to make one laugh–such as when the peace-loving Kate suddenly takes a revolver into her hands and brutally kills a peasant who is attacking Ramon, or when villagers and clergy joyfully carry sacred statues from the church in procession, place them on rafts and, to music and gleeful chants, send them off across the lake to be destroyed, in favor of their newly-embraced Aztec gods. It is exactly these types of things which convinced me long ago that D.H. Lawrence should have stuck to travel writing, of which, in my view, he is a much under-appreciated master.

One of the more disappointing aspects to this novel is the abruptness of its ending. The story seems hugely unfinished. But then, Lawrence himself was desperate to get away from Mexico at that point, so it’s all quite understandable. And the greatest irony of all is this: Lawrence, the great foe of a European culture he considered dead and long-since overdue for burial, was so horrified by the Aztec gods and culture he had attempted to resurrect that he was sent scurrying back to Europe just as quickly as he could go. Moral: read his ‘Sea and Sardinia’, ‘Twilight in Italy’ and ‘Etruscan Places’. You’ll be so glad you did.



The Oaks


The Oaks, or Merritt Manor, Tulare, California

Many years ago I chanced to pick up a volume of condensed books a relative had left lying around, leafed through it casually and started reading the novel ‘Whitewater’, published in 1969 by Paul Horgan. Now what intrigued me was neither the title nor the author’s name, but the latter’s account in the introduction of how he can come to write the book. While traveling a remote highway through the seemingly endless flat expanse of the Texas panhandle, he had seen a roadsign for a town which was only distantly visible as tiny specks of buildings on the far horizon. He kept on driving, but began wondering about the town, about its citizens and their lives and histories. From those wonderings his book began. And the novel that took shape was not merely about the town itself, but about the previous life many of its residents had once lived in a different but nearby town now vanished beneath the deep waters of a reservoir. What fascinated me was the dual idea: that a whole town with a complex of relationships could have existed and then vanished, and that the lives once lived there could still profoundly influence the lives of those who had survived its destruction, but now in very different circumstances indeed.

A similar thought comes over me whenever I see photos of houses which once existed and had long histories, but then vanished for one reason or other and live on only in memory and in pictures. One such house which fascinates me was originally called The Oaks and had been built on 32 acres toward the end of the 19th century in the tiny hamlet of Tulare, toward the southern end of California’s great Central Valley. The builder and first owner was P.J.S. Montgomery, manager of the vast Paige and Morton Ranch west of town, but it eventually attracted the attention of Hulett C. Merritt, born 1872, a Pasadena investment banker, owner along with John D. Rockefeller of the Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines, known as the Merritt-Rockefeller Syndicate, and one of the ten principal owners of U.S. Steel, among many other things. Merritt had palatial homes in Pasadena and Santa Barbara, but he also had large agricultural holdings in the Tulare area, then a peaceful and relatively unpopulated region of the state with pristine air, unpolluted resources and some of the richest alluvial farmland in the world. Merritt acquired The Oaks in 1920, and it was kept always in perfect readiness to receive him and his family, whenever they came to spend a few weeks or months in their chosen rural retreat. Merritt died in 1956, and three years later the house, long a source of mystery and interest to locals, was opened for public viewing for the first time. Shortly after, having been neglected by Merritt in his declining years and after his death, the house was razed to make way for a 32 acre tract of houses known as Merritt Manor, like the mansion. Some of my childhood friends lived in houses built on the spot, and the groves of rare imported trees which remained from the early days were like magical forests to us, unlike anything else in town.

When I look at pictures of Merritt Manor, and think of some of the homes which exist today on the spot where its white columns once soared gracefully into the sky, I find myself wondering many things. Whose present living room, with all its 21st century activities, was formerly the exact site of Merritt Manor’s wide front verandah, and what conversations were held there long ago? Which Merritt family memory lay ill or dying in an upstairs bedroom whose space is now occupied by rooms packed to the ceiling with digital gadgets and examples of the latest in wireless technology? Who now microwaves nearly instantaneous dinners in a space where Merritt’s armies of servants once took entire days to laboriously turn out buttermilk biscuits, wild pheasant pies and complicated cakes from scratch? But perhaps most intriguing of all: what events happened at Merritt Manor, and what words were once spoken, which have had rippling effects down through the years so that, in undiscoverable ways, they still profoundly influence the lives of people who live in that town today? In what ways have I myself been influenced, living now in a very different part of the state?

A few years ago I reread Horgan’s novel. And I found it a very enjoyable experience. But what has given me most to think about is Horgan’s introduction to that book, how he came to write it, and how a tiny town, glimpsed from afar by someone passing rapidly by on a remote highway on a seemingly uneventful day, can give rise to so many speculations about life. Perhaps just about any book has the power to do that, to help us to think new and absorbing thoughts, if we will only let it.

D.H. Lawrence and a San Francisco Garden

Image2010 was a year of near year-round rainfall and heavy drippy fogs for us. It was really discouraging gardening weather. I am just not a fan of getting drenched, covered in mud head to toe and buffeted by gale force winds hurling themselves against our mountainside after passing over thousands of miles of open ocean every time I want to pull a weed. So that year I tended to stay inside. And there was another reason: our elderly little dog Bika began losing mobility in her back legs that year and was spending much more of her time in the warmth of the house. I wanted to be with her every moment I could, and the garden just had to take second place. That state of affairs continued into the first half of 2011, at which point  faithful little Bika died, and I neglected the plants for another year. Then today I realized: it’s time for the garden to wake up. 

Above is a picture of our brugmansia or datura tree. It started out in a pot, in which it didn’t do well, then was put into the ground, where it fared miserably for a couple of years in wind and fog. Brugmansias love sun and protection, so it was eventually moved to a spot just beside a fence, where it has done pretty well. Some years it hasn’t bloomed at all, but this summer it has had at least a dozen impressive flowers. I’m always amazed whenever I look at it. All in all, it’s been fine weather this year for the garden. For weeds too, so I’ve got plenty of work ahead of me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our gardening climate as I make my way through my current reading project: D.H. Lawrence’s 1926 novel, ‘Quetzalcoatl’, which takes place in Mexico, mostly along the shores of Lake Chapala, where Lawrence was in residence while writing it. Mango and banana trees; afternoon rain showers so warm you can bathe and wash your hair in them; a thin cotton shirt and open sandals sufficient protection from the benign elements in most of the seasons of the year: what could be more different from our wind-thrashed, fog-enshrouded Nordic Mountain? Still, even the somewhat frustrated gardener in me has never dreamed of living in such a climate. All that steaming moisture seems as unhealthy to me as it apparently seemed to Lawrence, who could hardly wait to finish his novel so he could go back to Europe. I wonder if anyone has done a study comparing the attitudes of D.H. Lawrence and Robert Louis Stevenson toward topical weather. Both had weak lungs, both had a horror of Celtic mists and factory smoke, and both wrote some rather fantastic fiction. But Stevenson apparently adored a steaming jungle, while Lawrence ran just as quickly as he could in the opposite direction. For my part, I’m no lover of precipitation. I think water should come exclusively from wells.

Next up on the reading list: ‘Journey with Genius’, a memoir of Lawrence by the poet Witter Bynner who travelled with D.H. and his wife Frieda in Mexico and who was the basis of one of the characters in the novel I’m reading. Witter Bynner was a poet and translator and had a house in Santa Fé (currently a bed and breakfast called ‘Inn of the Turquoise Bear’ and for sale, if you’re in the market), where Lawrence and Frieda stayed on their first night in New Mexico. It was because the Lawrences got on so well with Bynner and his partner Willard Johnson (founder of the literary journal ‘Laughing Horse’) that the four travelled south of the border in the first place. Meanwhile, I don’t know what I’m going to enjoy more, Bynner’s memoir or making a start at bringing our poor little garden back to life. The garden, most probably, but I’m really looking forward to both. 


On The Mountain With Bika



There are no happy endings
endings are the saddest part
just give me a happy middle
and a very happy start.

Shel Silverstein

Our beloved Tibetan terrier Bika passed to her eternal reward one year ago this morning. She would have been sixteen years old in November, which of course everyone will tell you is a fine old age for a dog and you must be grateful for what you had. All of which is true, of course, but the cold fact remains that there is never a good time or age at which to lose a truly wonderful friend. This was abundantly true in little Bika’s case. Her death was truly unexpected, totally unlike anything we had ever imagined, and in this way, I suppose, the end of her life was as mysterious as the whole course of the rest of it had been. 

She had been in perfect health until sometime in her thirteenth year, when an ear infection gradually led to, or at least coincided with, the loss of most of her hearing. But the rest of her was fine, quite vigorous and cheerful as always, and it wasn’t until she was nearly fifteen that she began experiencing trouble with her legs due to osteoarthritis. At that point some shots she received monthly seemed to help her, at least for awhile, and she was able to continue her much-loved daily walks around the neighborhood and even up the mountain opposite our house, activities she adored and which form a central memory for me as I look back upon her now. Those recollections are among the most priceless things I possess. I would gladly give up most of the rest of what I have, as long as I could retain and cherish them. Little persons though they are, dogs can give us so incredibly much.

The day she got sick, little Bika woke up to a sunny cheerful morning to match her disposition and apparent good health. We made a brief trip to the vet, then to the pet shop for some needed supplies, and she leapt in and out of the car with more agility than she had demonstrated for many months. Back home, she had a fine lunch and then lay down for a rest. I did some reading in the early afternoon, and when I opened my door at around three I found that Bika had lost her lunch and had clearly been experiencing intestinal problems. Nothing unusual, it seemed, because such things happen to all of us at times. But by evening she was clearly disoriented. She was having difficulty with her back legs, so that she found it hard to stand up. By then, of course, the vet’s office was closed until Monday, because it was a Saturday evening. We began to be concerned.

All day Sunday she seemed to improve. I planted a tree out in front, and when I came in for lunch I found Bika waiting for me, sleeping peacefully on her little mat by the front door. She had navigated the thirteen steps from upstairs all by herself, but I wondered how she had done it. It seemed a very good sign. She ate nothing that day, but lay down with me on my bed in the mid afternoon while I read. We have some pictures of her taken of there that day, and they are very hard for me to behold: there is a sadness in her big dark eyes, a real suffering I hadn’t noticed at the time. She clearly knew she was unwell, though we wanted so much to believe she would be fine. And she seemed to recover slowly as the day progressed, and even scampered about the house somewhat energetically that evening. But at bedtime she was clearly disoriented again. She kept going out onto the upstairs deck in the darkness to bury her face in the foliage of the strawberry plants which grew there in pots, and to gaze out into the night through the vertical posts of the railing. She seemed to be listening to something, as if someone were speaking to her, and she was intent to hear. Finally I led her to a little bed I had made for her on the floor in a room just a few feet from mine. It was my office, where she had spent many happy years at my feet as I worked at my desk. I kissed her good night and lay with her for some time in the darkness. We planned to take her to her regular vet first thing in the morning. But by first light, when I went in to check on her, I found that she had already expired. We will never know what took her life, or what she experienced at the end. All we have is the comfort of knowing that her illness was short, and that she died in her own warm bed. And there is the treasure of our blissful shared past.

The picture at the top shows Bika as I remember her best: having just scurried down the steep mountain slope above our house on a bright sunlit morning of wildflowers and birdsong about a year before she died. She is flashing that incomparable expression of delight which characterized her better than anything else I can remember. I think of it, in fact, off and on pretty much all day long: Bika blissfully watching a bumblebee dancing sleepily inside a bright orange poppy; Bika sitting on a step in the garden to gaze at iridescent hummingbirds darting among the flowers and soaring into the sky; Bika leaping gleefully through the tall golden grass on the first of what would be many visits to our beloved seaside getaway on the rugged Sonoma coast. Some people say this: that the past is no more, the future doesn’t exist, and that all we have is the present. But to me the present includes both glorious past and a joyous future of reunion as well, and the trick is to live in all three at once, as if all three are alive, which I believe they are.  And it is Bika who has taught me to do this. And I thank her for it. Again and again.