The Streets of the Mountains

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Mary Hunter Austin House, Independence, California. 

Here are some passages which I find particularly striking, taken from the tenth essay of Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 ‘The Land of Little Rain’. The essay dwells mostly on the beauty of the Eastern Sierra, White and Inyo mountains which surround the Owens Valley where Hunter lived. But the author also spends time reflecting on how the comforts of modern human dwellings (such as Hunter’s own home in Independence, California, depicted above) can result in people’s diminished capacity to understand and appreciate the mountains, and the roads which pass through them, on their own terms. I have chosen these passages for what I find their beauty or their insights or both.

‘All mountain streets have streams to thread them, or deep grooves where a stream might run. You would do well to avoid that range uncomforted by singing floods. You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.’

‘It is even possible to win through the Sierras without having passed above timber-line, but one misses a great exhilaration.’

‘Every cañon commends itself for some particular pleasantness…and, though some are easier going, leads each to the cloud shouldering citadel.’

‘The real procession of the pines begins in the rifts with the long-leafed Pinus Jeffreyi, sighing its soul away upon the wind.’

‘…and the million unregarded trumpets of the coral-red pentstemon.’

‘But in a country of cone-beaers there is usually a good strip of swardy sod along the cañon floor. Pine woods, the short-leafed Balfour and Murryana of the high Sierras, are sombre, rooted in the litter of a thousand years, hushed, and corrective to the spirit.’

‘Sitting islanded on some gray peak above the encompassing wood, the soul is lifted up to sing the Iliad of the pines.’

‘The firs…are tormented, bowed, persisting to the door of the storm chambers, tall priests to pray for rain. The spring winds lift clouds of pollen dust, finer than frankincense, and trail it out over high altars, staining the snow. No doubt they understand this work better than we; in fact they know no other. “Come,” say the churches of the valleys, after a season of dry years, “let us pray for rain.” They would do better to plant more trees.’

‘The meadow is white with violets and all outdoors keeps the clock. For example, when the ripples at the ford of the creek raise a clear half tone–sign that the snow water has come down from the heated high ridges–it is time to light the evening fire. When it drops off a note–but you will not know it except the Douglas squirrel tells you with his high, fluty chirrup from the pines’ aerial gloom–sign that some star watcher has caught the first far glint of the nearing sun.’

‘The business that goes on in the street of the mountain is tremendous, world-formative.’

Route 66: Trap at Cordova

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Martin Milner (left) and George Maharis (center) in a scene from ‘Route 66: Trap at Cordova’, which first aired on May 26, 1961. 

I have spent a lot of time driving and hiking around northern New Mexico, especially in Rio Arriba County, which takes its name from the upper waters (‘arriba’ in Spanish means ‘upper’) of the Rio Grande. Travelers through that region today will know it as the home of Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists who began to be drawn powerfully to the area in the early twentieth century. But for well over three centuries after the Spanish first arrived in what is now New Mexico, the Rio Arriba area remained largely untouched by Europeans. The land was spectacularly beautiful but poor; it was almost entirely dominated by various tribes of Pueblo Indians and considered unsafe for European settlement; and the farms of wealthy landowners and the military outposts which protected them were all located much farther south along the Rio Grande and closer to communications with Mexico and Spain. For these reasons and others, tiny villages like Cordova remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. If you go there today, you will still find it so silent and behind the times as to be positively otherworldly.

Cordova is located on a short spur of road which descends into the relatively unknown Quemado Valley, off State Route 76, which is also known as the High Road to Taos. In 1961 it became the setting for Episode 27 of Season One of the popular TV series Route 66, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, an episode you can view on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwtbEgB6zCo. Cordova has about 400 residents, most of whose families have lived in the area for centuries and use the peculiar form of 16th century Spanish specific to northern New Mexico as their native tongue. The original name of Pueblo Quemado (‘Burnt Town’) refers to an ancient Indian pueblo which had once been reduced to ruins by fire. Europeans did not fare well there, due to Indian attacks, but the place was permanently resettled by 1750 and renamed Cordova after a prominent local family. Cordova today brings in revenue from some small farms and is well known in New Mexico as the home of the ‘Cordova School’ of woodcarvers. When Martin Milner and George Maharis filmed their Route 66 episode in Cordova in 1961, the community seemed to be dying and could not get the state to provide funds for a school. Milner and Maharis (known as Todd Stiles and Buzz Murdock in the series) are taken prisoner by the villagers and forced to teach school. If you go to Cordova today, you can, like Milner and Maharis, visit the little church of San Antonio de Padua, which appears extensively in the episode. Built in 1832, it is known for its large altar screens and icons painted by José Raphael Aragon in the 1830’s. If you’re unfamiliar with New Mexican iconography of the period, you may be quite pleasantly charmed.

Carl Redin painted the Cordova church in 1934. Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1892, he emigrated to America, arriving eventually in New Mexico in 1916. He is known for his lively and colorful landscapes of the West. It is images like Redin’s, which to me are an odd combination of Realism, Modernism and rather extreme Romanticism, along with my own long familiarity with the rustic charms of the region, which make me think it would be pleasant to end one’s days in a place like Cordova, or even in Cordova itself. I know that Milner and Maharis would not be passing through town in their ’61 powder blue Corvette, but there are many other, and much more lasting reasons to draw one to Cordova than that. 

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             Carl Adolph Hjalmer Persson Redin. ‘Cordova Church’. Oil on canvas, 1934.

Mt. Davidson Spring

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Grasses and Wildflowers, Mt. Davidson, California. Photo by Leifhendrik.

The full rush of blooming wildflowers has not quite come to our mountain yet. You have to look a little closely to find them these days, but in a week or two they should be literally flourishing. Meanwhile, the mountainside has long since turned green, there is a softness and warmth to the air, and various birds are singing which we haven’t heard from in months. During the past few years, organized groups of native plant enthusiasts have been clearing excess brush and planting native bulbs and seeds, so once again we should soon have much that is colorful and inspiring to admire. I’m accompanying this post with two photos I took on the dry side of Mt. Davidson, which faces west and south and rises abruptly just opposite our front windows. In the first, the lovely grasses are burr or spikelet-bearing plants which soon will prevent me from taking the dogs onto the mountain: the burrs get lodged in canine paws, tummies, noses and ears and require multiple expensive trips to the vet for extraction. In the second, you can see some of the native succulents which grow among the rocks on the non-rainforest side of things. The succulents tend to last a long time, and I try to remember to greet them individually as friends whenever I pass by.

Here are some lovely quotes excerpted from ‘Lady Bird Johnson in Her Own Words’, which can be found on the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin (www.wildflower.org). When it comes to plants, she’s one of my great heros.

“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.” 

“My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life, is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land-to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas and thus help pass on to generations in waiting the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since my childhood.” 

“Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world. Well, I, for one, think we will survive, and I hope that along the way we can keep alive our experience with the flowering earth. For the bounty of nature is also one of the deep needs of man.”

“The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”

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             Succulents and Rocks, Mt. Davidson, California. Photo by Leifhendrik.

Georg Trakl: ‘The West’ (3)

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Emil Nolde. ‘Sonnenuntergang am Fluss’. Watercolor on paper. Emil Nolde Stiftung, Seebüll, Neukirchen, Nordfriesland Germany.

Here is my translation of the third and final section of Georg Trakl’s poem ‘The West’. Trakl’s German original follows.

3

You great cities
Raised up in stone
Upon the plain!
So mutely follows
The homeless one
With darkened brow the wind,
The naked trees on the hill.
You far-fading rivers!
Hideous sunsets
Violently on edge
In the stormcloud.
You perishing tribes!
Pallid wave
Breaking on the shore of night,
Falling stars.

3

Ihr großen Städte
Steinern aufgebaut
In der Ebene!
So sprachlos folgt
Der Heimatlose
Mit dunkler Stirne dem Wind,
Kahlen Bäumen am Hügel.
Ihr weithin dämmernden Ströme!
Gewaltig ängstet
Schaurige Abendröte
Im Sturmgewölk.
Ihr sterbenden Völker!
Bleiche Woge
Zerschellend am Strande der Nacht,
Fallende Sterne.

 

 

 

Lakeside Plantation

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Lakeside Plantation, near Batchelor, Louisiana, built 1832. Photo copyright 2007, The New York Times Company.

Lakeside Plantation, near the isolated town of Batchelor, Louisiana, is a particularly graceful and charming example of early 19th century Louisiana plantation architecture. Built on land at one time owned by the Marquis de Lafayette, it has been quite well preserved, and now fashionably spruced up, by its current owner, the New York artist Hunt Slonem, who owns another ante-bellum house, Albania Plantation, on Bayou Teche, near Jeanerette. For an informative and really quite amusing account of Hunt’s life at Lakeside Plantation today, including some very good photos, be sure to read this article which appeared a few years ago in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/31/garden/31hunt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

Batchelor, Lousiana, is located in Pointe Coupée Parish, which is part of the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Statistical Area. The parish seat is New Roads, near which is the well-known Parlange Plantation, built in 1750, a classic example of the French Colonial Style of plantation house, home of the Tenant and Parlange families, whose descendants still live there.  Lakeside has been the home of the Stewart and Batchelor families. As for the latter, you can view a summary of the archived family papers, which include much information on Lakeside, at the website of the Louisiana State University: http://lib.lsu.edu/special/findaid/1293.pdf Though Lakeside is in prime sugar cane country, and was the largest sugar producing estate in the north part of Pointe Coupée parish before and after the Civil War, its owners experimented with cotton production during the Reconstruction period. You can read a bit more about this era in articles in the really interesting issues of ‘The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer’, a now long defunct periodical which published news relating to the Louisiana sugar business well into the early 20th century, and whose articles often include interviews with and obituaries of plantation owners who had been among the great sugar plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South. Many of these articles are available to researchers at the academic website, http://www.jstor.org. You might even have access through your local public library, and not realize it. It’s a tremendous trove of information on all kinds of things.

Unfortunately the U.S. Government Historic Buildings Survey, which photographed and otherwise recorded many details of southern architecture in the 1930’s, does not seem to have preserved anything but a blurry exterior photo of Lakeside taken during that period and some drawings of the two matched pigeonniers, or dovecotes, which are a peculiar feature of some Lousiana plantation homes and which are to be found at Lakeside. But Lakeside’s present, under Hunt Slonem, is quite opulent in its own way. And if you get really interested in the Louisiana sugar phenomenon, you will have no lack of things to study. A good start would be John B. Rehder’s ‘Delta Sugar: Louisiana’s Vanishing Plantation Landscape’ (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999), which examines the gradual disintegration of historic plantation architecture against the backdrop of a changing sugar industry and post-Civil War culture. You might also take a look at the work of the 19th century plantation painter, Marie Adrien Persac (1823-1873). In relation to this artist and others, I can recommend John Michael Vlach’s ‘The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings’ (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001), and the fine biography of Persac, including many illustrations, by Reeves Bascot, published by Louisiana State Univ. Press in 2000.

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Entry Hall, Lakeside Plantation. Photo copyright 2007, The New York Times Company.

Georg Trakl: The West (2)

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Kolomon Moser. ‘Ausblick durch Stämme’. Oil on canvas, 1907.

Here is my translation of the second part of Georg Trakl’s three-part poem ‘The West’. Trakl’s German original follows.

2

So soft are the green woods
Of our homeland,
The crystal waves
Dying away on the crumbled wall,
And we have wept in sleep;
They wander singing with hesitant steps
Along the thorny hedge,
In the evening summer,
In the sacred peace
Of the far-shining vineyard;
Shadows now in the cool lap
Of night, sorrowing eagles.
So softly a shaft of moonlight closes
The empurpled wounds of sadness.

2

So leise sind die grünen Wälder
Unsrer Heimat,
Die kristallene Woge
Hinsterbend an verfallner Mauer
Und wir haben im Schlaf geweint;
Wandern mit zögernden Schritten
An der dornigen Hecke hin
Singende im Abendsommer,
In heiliger Ruh
Des fern verstrahlenden Weinbergs;
Schatten nun im kühlen Schoß
Der Nacht, trauernde Adler.
So leise schließt ein mondener Strahl
Die purpurnen Male der Schwermut.

Vicksburg Plantation

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Walker Evans (1903-1975). ‘Ante-bellum House, Vicksburg, Mississippi’, 1936. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. The photo reproduced at the bottom of this post is from the same photographer and source. 

Nowhere have I been able to find any detailed identification of this ruined ante-bellum house in or near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The only extant photographs I have found were all taken in 1936 by an American photographer named Walker Evans (1903-1975) as part of a really heroic effort on the part of the U.S. government to document examples of historic southern architecture before it was lost forever. Like many others photographed in the government survey, this particular house is in very sad shape. But I find its lines especially pleasing, the entire effect massive and imposing, but the elements which comprise it simple in the extreme: thin Doric columns; high but unadorned pediment; graceful tripartite chimneys; the front façade built very low to the ground, so that the house seems to soar up out of the earth in a series of narrow upthrust shafts of construction. I would like to know much more about this place, including whether or not any of it remains today.

What eventually became Vicksburg, Mississippi began as a Spanish military outpost known as Fort Nogales, a name taken from the walnut trees (‘nogales’ in Spanish) which grew in the area. The Americans took possession of the site in 1798 and changed the name to Walnut Hills, which in 1825 was renamed Vicksburg after a Methodist minister named Newitt Vick who had established a mission there. Located 234 miles northwest of New Orleans, Vicksburg is situated on a high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, both important trade and communications routes before rail and paved roads became widespread in the South. But the city is best known as the scene of the Siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War when, between May 18 and July 4, 1863, it was both bombarded and starved into submission by Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee, driving the Confederate forces of Lt. General John Pemberton into defensive outlying areas. The combination of the Confederate surrender on July 4th and General Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania the previous day is often seen as the decisive turning point against the South in the Civil War. After that, the entire Trans-Mississippi area was cut off by the Union from the rest of the Confederacy for the remaining two years of the war.

You can read a fascinating account of life in Vicksburg in George Washington Cable’s ‘Strange True Stories of Louisiana’ (1889), in the section entitled ‘War Diary of a Union Woman in the South’. I have been unable to determine exactly how much first-hand documentary material was utilized by Cable in this piece. He presents the entire account as the diary of a woman from the North who has married into a southern family of mostly Unionist sympathies and finds herself stranded in first Louisiana, then Mississippi, during the war. After abandoning her own Louisiana home, fearing that her husband would either be taken prisoner by Union forces or conscripted into the Confederate army, she and her family eventually make their way to Vicksburg, where they spend much of their time under bombardment by Union warships in a fine mansion much like the one depicted in the photos reproduced in today’s post. Perhaps it is even the same house. If any of my readers can tell me, I would be very grateful indeed. 

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