The cement steps leading down to my studio are old enough to have moss at the corners of the tread and cracks to let the weeds push through. 1960 was scratched into the top step when they were poured, right next to a rock wall I built thirty years later. The baby plums are hanging over the stairs from a tree I planted. I’ve been watching them this season, (and every season since the tree started being fruitful), go from bud to blossom to the size of little green peas, rising to form, plum-size but still green moving towards purple. That purple color seems to squeeze the green out as ripeness deepens. The fruit is as big as it’ll get before it starts to crack and ooze with sugar. I pick the first one of this year. The snap of the early fruit, teeth popping the skin, has a pleasant sour pucker of acid not yet catalyzed to sugar—the flesh, light honey-yellow and the pulp next to the pit red like a blooming bandage. Real. Last summer I watched a little cousin, seventeen, never having plucked fruit from a tree, touch a ripe one ready to fall on its own, drop into her hand. On her first bite of warm fruit, I watched her eyebrows shoot up at the shock—such pleasure.
I planted that tree and others over the years—a lingering monument to an idea from the beginnings of my move into the world—leaving the cocoon of school and family. Self sufficiency was the battle cry of many of my generation, my comrades, unhooking from a soul-killing, willfully deceptive politic. The post-WWII triumphal hubris of our American Empire had flushed away all Jeffersonian ideals. Re-connecting to the primacy of a living planet, growing your own food, building your own shelter, became the inspiration for the work of a life based on artistry and imagination. Living at the periphery, “Keeping your distance from the thickening center…” ¹ nourished authentic thinking. We had dynamic models in the 60’s—Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life dog-eared and scribbled with marginalia, spent a couple of years on my bedside table. The Nearings lived in rural Vermont, building a Spartan life growing a self-sufficiency garden to a live free of that “thickening center.” Between Pacific Tides sifted it’s place with the Nearing’s book. It was written by the intertidal biologist Ed Ricketts, the real-life model for Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Steinbeck’s companion in the non-fiction The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Ricketts was my model for paying close attention to the unbleached world.
Robinson Jeffers was my model for the artist’s life—live simply and don’t sell your life for money. Jeffers hand-built a kind of fortress perching his stone look-out tower and house at the edge of the sea, in the grandest of all landscapes—what was in 1914, the wilderness of Point Lobos and Carmel. Isn’t the joy of the creative life enough pleasure for any soul? And to live in a landscape that connects you to something fundamental? Keep it simple, especially if you have work to do that isn’t about cash flow. The magic of planting a seed, working out the body² by making soil productive, to eat home-grown roasted pepper and tomato sauce slathered on potatoes.³ To get a job, that’d pay the bills while carrying the artists’ vision is an old story. It’s the source for a lot of trauma to the soul. Better to live simple and unattached from the hoi polloi. Art is a powerful attractant to the soul for a life’s work, and the economic swarm of the last century has been a capricious distorter of the invisible lines of inspiration—best to stay as far outside it as possible. That was Jeffer’s well-lived dream and Tor House in Carmel is a tribute and shrine to his dream.
I’d seen Jeffers’ Tor House in pictures from the 30’s when it was the lone low-lying house on Carmel Point with a forty-foot stone tower rising as a sentinel over the property, keeping a vigil on the wide Pacific. If you see it from the air these days, Tor House looks like an antigen in the middle of an inoculated petri dish, surrounded, but holding fast to its own little circle of being. The view from Tor House itself takes the eye from crashing sea surge to the knife line of the sea horizon and south to the blue silhouette of Point Lobos. The Sierra Club book from the 60’s Not Man Apart, featured Jeffer’s poetry and some of his life story. There were pictures of the house and camera-shy Jeffer’s himself presenting an adamantine face that’d seen a lot of outdoor living. Moving to California in the early seventies, I drove by on my way up the Big Sur. Tor House loomed out of the fog, defiantly still there. I was surprised to see it surrounded by all the fifties retirement kitsch the village of Carmel could throw at it. Lots of Nordic and Swiss obsessive neatness, half-beam Hobbit huts and redwood ply-covered modernisms. And yet, Jeffers’ house is right there in the soft bosom of what is now some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. His house and a stone tower like a broken-off tooth, were piled up by the poet himself into a rounded romance of survival against the sea and gravity.
He built the place after hiring out as a laborer to the contractor he himself hired—to learn the art of building. There is a distinction marking his stone work that is both subtle and a far cry from type—the usual cobblestone vacation getaway—the house looks sturdy but one made from a fevered vision, primitive and random. Boulders poke out haphazardly, but ordered well enough to stand for ages. He pulled all the granite up from the shore, either in his own arms or by horse team—rounded granite from the dinosaur time in the Cretaceous. They were piled up like bones of the earth, random, rounded-out, ophiolitic⁴ rock that rose under California, from the giant upwelling of magma 85 million years ago. Orderly and tidy, yet so casual, as to seem eroded into place, Jeffers built Tor House in a remote end of The Monterey Bay when the dense settlement we know today, was unimaginable. He bought the thirty-five lots around him, planted thousands of cedar trees, a forest still standing. and settled into a fifty-year stay.
Some know beauty as an even mix of the twin masks of drama but Jeffers was famous for weighing the scale all the way over to the tragic: the struggle to stay alive and endure when the beasts of desire are loose, to be proud in the face of grim pain, knowing that anguish comes unbidden, its fires stoked by mocking the gods of nature. This was Jeffers lifetime project. Indifferent Nature was the only true thing and when encountered raw and unmediated by the artifices of culture, this truth could be a balm and a damper to the searing flames of our self-created infernos. The theatre where his dramas played used the hawks, rocks, sea and earth as backdrop—the elemental people close to the land trying to live at the edge of the modern world—his players. The bulk of his best-known work was written in the gulf between the wars when the tragedy of armed conflict seemed unstoppable. In this period Jeffers wound up as one of the few poets to ever appear on the cover of TIME magazine, featured in a spread in LIFE magazine, and after his death, appearing on an 8-cent postage stamp.
In the mid-seventies I had only just glimpsed his actual work, or any another poet for that matter. I had read his poem The Answer, in some counter-culture journal, as a kind of anthem in the burgeoning biosphere movement. In the library I had spent an hour with the Sierra Club book titled with a line from that poem-“…not man apart…” , but I had only seen him as a forgotten artifact, as a Cassandra crying cryptic rantings to who ever’d listen. What had in fact inspired me was his home situated in beauty. I became captivated by his actual poetic work riding in my car to and from my job as a drawing and watercolor instructor at the local junior college. I was making ends meet. The English department had just acquired a top-notch set of recorded readings from major American poets on tape. Poets themselves, dramatized versions, public readings by trained voices—it was my real introduction to poetry in general and Jeffers in particular. At first the voices were just a diversion and companion behind the wheel. As I devoured the library’s tapes. a real internal gong was struck. I got along with Jeffers’ lyric poetry, songs of the coming doom as we overpopulate told with both a celestial eye on the eternal and a grounded view of the California coastal watersheds. But his narrative poems were a clear redrawing of some imagined archaic past all going on right now on the ranches and through the woods of the Big Sur coast. Epic poems like the Loving Shepherdess—a young woman gone mad wandering the wilds with her flock, doomed like her dwindling sheep. Thurso’s Landing, the paralyzed rancher who’d had eyes on empire before his accident, becomes both a wounded Agamemnon raging with power and a soft bird of prey with a broken wing. Cuckold and crippled he is the stone unbending. During WWII critical of our entry into the war, Jeffers crashed out of favor. Called a Proto-Fascist, he did believe that the world is unchangeable and that the strong dominate the weak, always have, always will. When I had read my fill of Jeffers, I grew lonely for something softer, more voluptuous and anyway it was just at the beginning of my poetic education. It was time to move on. I migrated to Wallace Stevens, the great & bosomy weaver of word riddles. Stevens was manicured haute-couture to Jeffers calluses and denim. And besides, Stevens wore both masks of the drama, as in, the guy wanting to live forever “…to be released from destruction without the oscillations of planetary pass/pass.” OOH-wee. Deep and FUN. And… I was ready to kick it with the party people of my tribe, the rest of the art makers. I’d of course known slightly the cannon of the Beats but Michael McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface brought the era alive. I moved on from Jeffers.
I had driven down to Carmel on business and thoughts of my time deep into Jeffers came to the front of my mind 25 years after my enchantment. It’s the fifth year of George Bush II, the goofy, capricious dangerous uncle, able to lie without a flinch—a guy you’d want “to have a beer with” famously choking on chicharones—just what Jeffers warned us was coming. Warned us of the danger that blind faith, fundamentalist, rigid, without the nuances the love of nature serves up. George Bush and his ilk had that kind of faith. The ones who have adopted the “true belief” that climate change is a hoax, that every fertilized egg is a person, Jews own all the money in the world, that cave men rode dinosaurs.
I was driving down Carmel Valley for a meeting to help produce a book about a beloved art teacher. I’d been given a grant from her family’s foundation to pay me to produce the book. Carmel Valley, inland from the Big Sur heart-throb coast, is a tucked-in valley with the covers drawn up—a retirement haven, a green Valhalla of golf courses and houses all carbon-copied to a developer’s code of “normalcy”. To me, it looks like a green manicured hell designed by Ken Kesey’s Big Nurse herself. It’s an, is-you-is, or is-you-ain’t land of the over fed and nearly dead, with looping golf greens and the attendant sand traps. I pull in to the low-lying motel-like pocket of what in this context of multi-million dollar extravaganzas, would be the elder ghetto, but in any other place it’s a pretty nice antechamber for the next… It’s the Carmel Valley’s Neighborhood Association’s nod to low-income housing.
It has finally become an engaging project—this is my fifth visit. Engaging, because the woman, Carol the art teacher, used her formidable skills to teach everyday folks, how to draw. Drawing, she taught, could alter states of mind toward a more successful life in general. Kind of new-age-y, sure, but the truth was the drawings people made were pretty good and did significantly move the needle on the self-esteem-o-meter. Carol became something of a local celebrity when she dropped teaching and became a psychic. Had her own radio show and gave on-air “readings” from what she called Source. Pulling the threads together on this project will be a challenge because she really taught a lot of people how to draw.⁵ The challenge was that the rock solid organized practicality of her method, was mitigated by a nervous breakdown she’d had, her recovery leading her to the psychic path as a “channeler”. Turns out she didn’t want to do a book about her teaching of drawing—she wants to report on lengthly conversations she’s having with a 16th century Samurai Mushashi. She wants me to include the dialogue she’s been having with James Dean’s psychiatrist. I’m getting the feeling I’ve been hired to patronize her, to keep her out of the family’s hair. She speaks with the assured confidence of someone like a cross between Tammy Faye Baker and Noam Chomsky. This is fundamentalism raw. In different circumstances, maybe the late 19th Century, she’d have founded a new church like Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, or even lately like L Ron or Werner Erhard. Carol and I have journeyed through my own stubbornness, from “No, the trust wants to do the drawing book to “OK, lets turn your “information” into a book. Big risk on the sales end but once we turned the corner and dove into her material, the flavor of our meetings aired out to a billowy landscape of clouds and chirping. And though she is going blind she has the twinkle of pure sweetness and forgiveness about her. Truth told, from any distance at all, she’s pretty much a batty old loon. But, close in, I’m discovering an irony-free zone. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Every time I leave from a session with Carol, I feel dipped in honey. Our book will be called James Dean from Spirit with the cover photo of ole James (she calls him Jimmy) Dean riding his motorcycle out of Rebel without a Cause into your lap. The family thinks I’m the only guy on planet earth who would do this—probably true.⁶
On my way home, I swing by Carmel point to have a gander at Tor house—Jeffers on my mind. The Jeffers property is still intact, a pile of softly rounded boulders, still an unmitigated fist surrounded but not surrendered. The wide gate is open, I’d never seen that before driving by, so I park and stroll into the yard filled with the toughest spring flowers; fifty yards from the crashing turquoise and blue. It’s a sunny spring day, crisp, blowing strong and moist toward a coming storm. The smell is coppery with the tossed up sea, the a base note of seaweed going to rot. In the cramped little office of the Tor house foundation I see a group is formed to go on tour. Reservations are required and the tour is full, but, I recite The Purse Seine by Jeffers, one I know by heart and it’s my passport to join the group. I pay the fee to the guide who gets a little nervous that I may be “a Jeffers Scholar” My guess is he’s worried that his gig as a knowledgeable volunteer might get out shone. He asks, “Are you a Jeffers scholar”? “No worries man, I’m no scholar, I’m just glad to have the serendipity. I memorize poems to get me to sleep. My Ambien.”
We wait around in the stuffy office, for the tour to start, our little group of 8 now 9, the couples paired up. I’m the lone party so I engage, ask the usual questions who, what, where. One couple carries the puffiness and ruin of longtime alcohol use, both are a little tipsy. He’s the poet on pilgrimage, all business, on point to “find Jeffers” and she’s the unsteady wife who is just maintaining. There is a retired military couple. He’s been dragged here, all posture and square, but now truly happy to find a kindred spirit in the credible evidence of Jeffers’ manly work all around us. Jeffers may have lived in a tower but he worked with his hands. A guy. A quartet down from San Jose, she’s brought her Midwest cousins to be on the tourist track—off the tourist track at the same time. The cousins are goggle-eyed at the dazzle of being by the sea on a beautiful day. The waiting room is book-lined with the bound work of all the real scholars dedicating their lives to this guy’s work. It’s impressive and consequential. The framed Time magazine cover is on the wall along with a blow-up of the stamp.
As we tour the house we see a life fixed for the making of art, everything pared down to be free, to let the waves of inspiration wash over the mind untroubled by making a life to impress anyone. A life free of gluttony, envy and avarice and certainly a life free of sloth. This was no hideout from hard work. Mottos and quotations are carved into the beams and boards. Bookshelves line the walls filled with his collection, now behind a protective brass wire grid. I have the feeling of seeing an old sweetheart at some school reunion, I love Jeffers again. Besides his poetry, the witness to his life lived so close to the elements, right here. The enchantment of Source with Carol has cracked some shell I didn’t even know I was carrying. I say OK when the guide says he liked my voice. Would I read? He asks me to read from a sheaf of poems he’s placed on the Piano. He draws out one of the most sentimental poems Jeffers ever wrote. The one about the large oil portrait of his four year old granddaughter. The portrait, pink and gilt framed, abnormal for this Spartan lair, a sentimental flowery thing, a grandparent’s rapture. The painting is hanging there and so I read. It’s a shame to read this one, a little cheesy, with little of Jeffers strong love of ruthless nature. I see the guide has others in sheets and I choose the one about the broken-wing hawk Jeffers shoots to, “give it the lead gift…” to put it out of its misery. “I’d sooner kill a man, save the penalties, than hurt a Hawk.” Tough stuff for this time with the sentimental “culture of life” — PETA and veganism touted as Realpolitik.
I sit out in the garden away from the group to wait for the tour preceding us file out of the tower so we can go up. A broken sky is moving faster, the breeze picking up. I see the alcoholic woman move in her studied slow-motion way, arms out like a sleepwalker picking her way along the garden path to a bench for a landing. She’s sitting across from me. “Boy, they didn’t have much, she says and no hot water, just a woodstove for heat. In the twentieth century, no less.” You can see from her weariness her life force spends a lot of its capital burning up alcohol. “Not much, I say but a lot of great writing.” “Yea,” she slurs letting the word expand and drift off–way out to the sharp line of the horizon, pulling her pink sweater close, synthetic wool filled like a stuffed sausage on her arms. She’s the opposite of Jeffers’ rigor but some drift from Carol makes me like her for coming all this way.
Jeffers placed himself at the start of the Big Sur coastline at a time when it was fully waking as an artist’s colony. The 1906 earthquake had brought refugees to the Art colony of Carmel established in 1902. Eight years after the quake Jeffers and his new wife were refugees from a personal earthquake in Los Angeles. He and his Una rose into front-page headlines, a scandal item rising out of their affair busting up her marriage to the local DA. They eloped by stage coach to Carmel. He had written two books by the time he settled on the coast, but it wasn’t until he began building with stone that his true voice came through. Una describes it in a letter that once he started building with stone, a transformation bloomed like a boy falling in love. His hand was moving the elemental forces of the world—he felt real gravity with all its weight. The stone against his hands, growing horny and animal strong, was eternal. His music was the bass rumble and final solid conk as a stone fell into place. The stars were no misty points seen between buildings, they were blazing hydrogen fires, crystal bright against the purple dark. Jeffers knew the atoms in the rock came from those stars, were the same thing as stars. Alive at every level. The leaves the dirt, his house, his wife-companion in the lean into the world as an artist. That’s what artists do, lean with all their might right into the world, Una always right with him, his goad and carrot. Our guide tells us that Jeffers had a habit of pacing as he wrote, and Una on the floor below would bang a broom handle on the ceiling if she heard the clomp of his boots stop. He chose to write stories about all that cosmic thinking, playing out through the human lens, his stories peopled with, the common ranchers, miners, children, both the power-mad and their victims, living in a panorama of infinite sea, giant redwoods, wind rain and scorching heat.
He knew the sciences—tried medical school and then forestry and knew the new science of atoms, of space-time; his brother being a topnotch astronomer at Yerkes Observatory. He knew the truth of Darwin, Einstein, Freud and Jung. As the new science of psychology was taking cues from the Greek classics; Jeffers had read them in the original. Here he found tales of incest, greed and madness, war; cues from Euripides’ Elektra, Sophocles’ Oedipus—timeless metaphors more easily apprehended in a timeless vista with Point Lobos. His characters were locals, just like in Euripides’ original Medea. Iphigenia was that poor girl from south down the coast they all talk about in whispers. shot dead by her father.
I am looking at Jeffers tower as the last group files down out of the tight winding stairs out into the open. The lady in the pink sweater says “think I’ll just sit here, ‘s pretty though,” tipping her chin toward the pile of rock shaped to a tower. It’s a great lookout with a closed in room below the top deck, a rock room with portholes, brass from some ship. From the top deck I look down into the neighbor’s yard to a house made of T1-11 plywood siding vertical parallel grooves every 8 inches.⁷ It’s painted Copenhagen Blue, with white trim to “match” the sea. I’m looking onto the sun deck where a sixty-ish man is sunbathing, bare chested. He’s silver haired and nut brown, in relaxed confidant retirement, his tanned skin stretched tight around the barrel of his body. Jeffers could have never written his work here, now.
And now on my drive home along the coast, I continue on Highway 1 past Santa Cruz to San Francisco, the first of the storm hits, hissing on the windshield, gray going to dark of night. I think of the people I met on my trip today, the art teacher gone psychic, the alcoholic lady in pink, the nervous smile of the tour guide, are now just floating ghosts as their characters sift into my meat, my memory, my imagination. Things, images of things float forward too. The dark redwood paneling of the bookshelves everywhere in that low-slung stone house, pictures of Irish towers, a drawing of Yeats, that oil portrait of the granddaughter. The grand fireplace built in the addition of a dining room to the house in the 30’s when Jeffers was receiving the world of his fame, his typical substantial lumpy style of stone work but, with bits of stone from all over the planet. Added in are a Roman brick, a trilobite fossil, then a chunk of stark white chalk from Dover and glossy black obsidian from Mt. Lassen. Then comes the image of a book behind the diamond-pattern brass wire cages to protect the books…A thick maroon volume with gold stamping on the spine. Anatomy of Melancholy—Robert Burton’s famous treatise and compendium on the subject. That’s it! I both loved the gloom of Jeffers and the searing honesty. I can’t read The Loving Shepherdess without a lump of heartache in my chest. But then, as the skyline of San Francisco hooves into view I am ready to return to my own mind. My rabbity mind, clean of any of Jeffers’ discipline ready to leap at any thought that brings a smile, leaving the gloom of the stone donkey Eore. After all, my own mother, as she passed from this world, her family gathered to witness her last breaths, made faces at us to let us know just how serious a good laugh is. After all, the Greeks had two masks for their plays.
¹ From Shine, Perishing Republic amazing in1925!
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth…But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
² The workout rooms all over the civilized world abound with those never knowing the joy of productive work. Hamster wheels spinning away while the eyes are glued to CNN, never knowing the sweetness of exhaustion from labor or the mystery of seeing the stolid spider in the tomato patch day after day hanging in her web springing to life catching a wasp and watch for long minutes while they dance the life/death spin. Lean in to a honey bee floating from flower on the lavender sipping nectar, packing her thighs and the crises of the human world dissolve. Think if all that working out were attached to generators linked up to the grid…
³ All from the Solanacea family which includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers both hot and sweet, eggplants, datura (loco weed), tobacco, deadly nightshade, 109 genara total. Pound for pound, the most productive palette for the home gardener.
⁴ The complexity of the geology of Northern and Central California is driven by the churning of the exceedingly complex plate activity at the margin of the Pacific and the North American Plates. The Granite that Jeffers used was igneous rock tumbled by the grind of plates and the wave washing of the sea. Nicely rounded boulders of fairly consistent size are the result.
⁵ If you want learn drawing from a book, get Betty Edwards’ best seller, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Edwards was a student of Carol’s.
⁶ The book was eventually published:
⁷ T1-11 is so ubiquitous and so iconic of mid-century California that an artist friend made an eight-foot tall outline map of California. One side of the sculpture is faced with T1-11 the other is 1/2″ sheet rock.