A long time ago, when I was in High School, 1967, Ed Abbey drove a fat Ford from San Francisco down the Coast Highway, stopping in Santa Cruz to see his sister Nancy, on his way to Carmel to visit Tor House, the home of Robinson Jeffers.
Ed had more to say about traffic, expensive houses and Growth than about Jeffers and his poetry in “A San Francisco Journal.” I think they were opposite sides of a coin: Jeffers waxed poetic about pelicans, rocks and crashing waves, but had little to say about people. Abbey, though known now primarily as a “nature writer,” wrote mostly about those who “peopled” what once was the wild, and thereby engineered its destruction.
Jean and I drove south today in our jaunty yellow 1972 VW bug, under the California sunshine fulfilling its mythic reputation, following Ed’s path to our literary destination. We marveled at long strings of pelicans stitching the sky along Elkhorn Slough, unending fields of artichokes, Brussel sprouts and strawberries near Salinas, industrial agribusiness fueled with lines of illegal aliens stooping over future meals for us legal aliens on the other side of the grocery shelves.
We pulled off the highway on the outskirts of Carmel, the town not yet visible behind cypress and pine. Winding roads through modest cottages brought us to Tor House and Hawk Tower, unpretentious behind a modest, mossy picket fence. Secure in our place in the world, we parked the car and walked the pleasant mile and a half along the beach and to the edge of the Carmel business district, where we enjoyed a salad and some of those artichokes grown just beyond yon horizon. Our walk back out to Carmel Point and Tor House retraced the path of urban development that eventually grew to surround this rocky home on an isolated bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Tor House was built by a series of stone masons, including Robinson Jeffers and his son, Donnan. It’s a marvelous, tidy, homey place, reminding me of a homestead cabin in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, built of local rocks hauled up from the beach below, laid in place with loving hands to a purely mental picture of the outcome desired. Indoors, the walls are filled with books and touchstones of the places and people the Jeffers, Robinson and Una, held dear. It’s a lustrously warm home, inviting, embracing, oozing the human warmth and intellectual expression that filled it to the rafters.
The buildings speak of self-reliance, introspection and a wisdom delved from close association with the earth and all its living inhabitants. Fossils mark the rock walls next to ancient human artifacts imbedded in mortar. The furniture is worn and comfortable, the ceilings low to conserve heat, just high enough for Jeffers to stand fully erect as he paced the wooden floor. Writing desks and reading corners are graced with candle holders, since the Jeffers did not install electricity until 1946.
Walking through the house, reading the spines of the many books in book shelves throughout, touching the furnishings, looking out the windows at the ocean eternally crashing against the rocks left below, walking up the steep spiraling narrow stairs in Hawk Tower, looking out across the pacific and dreaming of far away County Antrim, I came to know Robinson and Una Jeffers and, in a way, to love them. They were my kind of people and I mourn their loss to this world.
I could hear Jeffers walking the floor of his upstairs study, encouraging the flow of words and images with the movement of his legs. Just as I must walk when the words elude me and movement brings them back into focus. I could see Una tapping a broomstick on the ceiling above her writing desk when the footsteps stopped, as her husband was distracted from his work by the view out over the ocean, by an interesting rock in the wall, or anything else to keep from facing the page one more time. Just as Jean gently encourages me back to the task of herding words into flowing columns of speech and imagery.
They lived in a world without television, without computers, without consumer distractions. They lived in a literary world, read to their children at bed time and to each other after. They read and they wrote and they lifted stones and they worked in the garden and they planted trees and they lived embedded in this place they called home. They touched twice life.
Nowadays, most folks float above life on a fog of material distractions, their lives strained through the filter of mediated experience: TeeVee, movies, automobile windshields, booming car stereos set on stun. Noise fills the senses everywhere, blotting out awareness of the subtle, gentle sounds of birds, wind in the eucalyptus leaves, the gentle sigh of the waves, the seductive pull of introspection. Few ever look up to see the wonder of pelicans drifting across the afternoon sky or windsurfing along the curling edge of a sea green breaker rushing along the shore.
For a short while this afternoon, we shared a bit of history, and perhaps, if we’re very lucky, of taste of the future.