If I don’t simply sit down and start writing, I’ll never get back to it. So, here goes:
Ron and I have just returned from California. More specifically, we were in the South Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley as it is now known. I loved it last year, and loved it twice as much this year. It is an utterly magical place. My head is still swimming with visions of seals and sea lions, majestic redwoods, and Stanford’s spectacularly beautiful campus. More to come on this journey, which now seems to me to have been momentous for several reasons.
Meanwhile, I find myself entangled, at least to some degree, in three different book clubs. I’m making it a rule simply to opt out if I really don’t want to read the selection – or if the date’s not good for me – or whatever. The only time I require myself to attend is if I’m involved in presenting. (Big of me, isn’t it?)
And speaking of books, the reading I brought with me had nothing to do with California. Let me provide a bit of background to explain my seemingly eccentric choice of reading matter.
Several weeks ago, I read a review of a book that I knew, beyond question, I wanted to read: . I immediately realized that it made no sense to do so, however, without first revisiting its subject, a novel I read many years ago, in my English major days. And so I obtained a copy of Portrait of a Lady from the library. They carry the Penguin Classics edition, with its arresting cover featuring a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler: .
I have seen this painting; it hangs in one of my favorite places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum: . Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler – slightly imperious, even more mysterious - became, in my mind, the image of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer.
I finished Portrait of a Lady last night at 3 AM. Reading it at times felt like a massive undertaking, but the rewards were commensurate with the effort. The pacing is at once stately and urgent, a seemingly impossible narrative coup on the part of the artful Henry James. It keeps the reader glued to the page – at least, it did so with this reader.
Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten how reverent, how brilliant, a great novel can be. Isabel Archer is so very alive for me at this moment. Another thing I’d forgotten was open-ended nature of the novel’s concluding paragraphs. For Isabel, almost nothing concerning her relations with Gilbert Osmond has been resolved. Why has she determined, in the teeth of a profound crisis, to embark on a seemingly perverse course of action? What is to become of her?
One of the few things I remembered from my long-ago first reading of the book is Henrietta Stackpole’s ringing declaration, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph: “‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,…just you wait!’”
One of the many joys of Portrait of a Lady is the strongly evocative nature of some of the descriptive passages. In this one, Isabel, Henrietta, and several others are exploring Rome:
The herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon – it was the third of their stay – to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.
Two thousand year old ruts made by chariot wheels, broken columns casting their shadows courtesy of the brightness of the sun, the intense blue of the sky….I remember it all from my last visit to Rome, more than forty years ago. It came back to me as though it had been yesterday, and the longing to be there along with it. (My journey to Italy three years ago, wonderful as it was, did not include a stop at the Eternal City.)
And as for Henrietta Stackpole: what a pleasure it was, after so many years, once again to spend time on her company! She’s a wonderful, down to earth, straightforward person, utterly immune to the affectations of languid aesthetes like Gilbert Osmond. She is unmistakably a woman of the future, and she is also a fast and immoveable friend to Isabel Archer. The two women have vastly different personalities, yet in the ways and at the moments that matter the most, each is for the other a tower of strength. (The need is invariaby more urgent on Isabel’s side.)
Today I had lunch with my intellectual buddies. At one point in our always lively conversation, one of the group, Ann, turned to me and remarked: ” I read your piece in the Post yesterday.” I looked at her in astonishment. My…what? She went on to explain the subject matter, and then the nickel dropped, though I was still amazed: “You mean, they printed it?”
In fact, the reference was to a letter I’d written to the Washington Post about five weeks ago in connection with an article on literary landmarks in Los Angeles that appeared in the March 11 Sunday magazine. I received no acknowledgement from the paper – not so much as an auto-responder – and so I assumed that my missive had fallen into the proverbial bit bucket, never to be seen from that time forth.
I was away this past weekend, and although I did receive yesterday’s paper, I hadn’t had a chance to read it. Hence, my bewilderment at Ann’s comment.
The column in which my letter appears is called, “Your Turn: Reader reactions.” It contains two letters; mine is the second. Newspapers and magazines always warn you that letters sent to them might be edited, and so it was in this case. Here’s the full text of what I actually wrote (should you be interested):
I very much enjoyed “City of Angles” Bill Thomas (WP Magazine, March 11, 2012). I do wish, though, that Thomas had mentioned Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience. Here’s a quote from The Zebra-Striped Hearse:
“The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.”
Your readers might also be interested to know that in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist made a starting discovery:: Some sixteen minutes into Double Indemnity, Raymond Candler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intense study of this landmark film noir), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. Follow this link to an article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/05/raymond-chandler-double-indemnity-cameo
Also, the scene in question appears in a YouTube video, at normal speed and in slow motion: http://youtu.be/vN9THMXxndw
Still, all in all, I got a chance to sing the praises of Ross MacDonald, a writer whose work I deeply admire.
I also took the opportunity to present my own take on literary Los Angeles in a post entitled Los Angeles in literature.
Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an enjoyable feature on the literary landmarks of Los Angeles. Writer Bill Thomas first and foremost makes a point of how changeable the landscape of the “City of Angles” actually is. There is a restaurant, however, that is peopled with the ghosts of great screenwriters of the past. The Musso and Frank Grill, est. 1919, in its day played host to the likes of William Faulkner, Nathanael West, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Ernest Hemingway.
Says manager Mark Echeverria: “In the 1930s, and ’40s, the movie studios hired a lot of novelists to come out to Hollywood and write screenplays. Of course, the studios would hack their work to pieces. So, they’d walk over here to get drunk and vent.”
Nathanael West – born Nathan Weinstein in New York City – has long fascinated me. I read Miss Lonelyhearts in college. Thomas’s article has served to remind me that I need to read The Day of the Locust, considered by many to be West’s masterpiece and one of the genuinely great novels of Hollywood. (West’s oeuvre, though celebrated, is slight in length. In 1940, while on his way to Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral, he ran a stop sign and was killed along with his wife in the ensuing crack-up. He was 37 years old.)
Although much of the landscape of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles has been altered, the house used as the dwelling place of femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, last name “Dietrichson” in the film version of Double Indemnity, still stands. Bill Thomas went to see it:
The colorful Spanish colonial house on Quebec Drive that was used in the movie doesn’t look nearly as ominous as it did in black-and-white, or grab your attention like the one Cain introduces in the first paragraph of the book. Insurance salesman Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie), whose affair with a customer’s wife leads to homicide, tells the story in the form of a confession: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”
Last September, the Usual Suspects enjoyed a vigorous and enlightening discussion of James M Cain’s classic noir novel. Several of us also watched the film. While researching my blog post on that discussion, I came across a rather astonishing fact. Three years ago, in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist discovered that some sixteen minutes into the film Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intensive study of this landmark in the film noir canon), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. The Guardian ran a piece on this remarkable find. And here’s the actual scene, rendered in both real time, slow motion, and even slower motion. (The music is Miklos Rozsa‘s chilling score):
Probably the most notorious actual crime that occurred in Los Angeles in this postwar period is the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. Almost invariably referred to as the “Black Dahlia” murder, this case has intrigued novelists, filmmakers, and investigative journalists for decades. Bill Thomas provides the context:
A wave of violent crime hit L.A. in the late 1940s. Growing prosperity, a larger population and an influx of ex-GIs exposed to the brutality of war were all blamed at the time for the upsurge in lawlessness. Whatever the cause, there’s nothing left to remind anyone what happened here. The vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s body was found has been developed into part of a quiet palm-treed subdivision of modest ranch-style homes with manicured lawns, not what you’d associate with a grisly homicide.
James Ellroy, author of a highly praised novel based on this crime, knows from personal experience about the lawlessness of the Los Angeles of his youth: his mother, a nurse, was murdered in 1958. Just as with Elizabeth Short, the killer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy has never been found.
Two authors not covered by Bill Thomas are worthy of mention here. The first is John McPhee. His piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” originally appeared in The New Yorker Magazine and was subsequently included in the collection The Control of Nature. There’s more than a hint of irony in that title. Controlling nature is exactly what the denizens of Shields Canyon in Greater Los Angeles thought they’d succeeded in doing. The Genofile family were among those who dwelled in this typically paradisiacal residential community in southern California.
One night, after there had been torrential rain in Shield Canyon, Jackie and Bob Genofile heard a loud noise, which was followed by silence. They and their two teen-aged children looked out a rear window of their single story house. Jackie describes what they saw: “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.” What follows is one of the most terrifying descriptions of a natural disaster – or perhaps a better term would be natural/man made disaster – that I have ever read. The entire Genofile family came within inches of complete annihilation.
Thar’s just one incident – the first, in this long, mesmerizing essay, a form that has attained near perfection in the masterful hands of John McPhee.
Another who I believe ranks high in the pantheon of Southern California writers is Ross MacDonald. Ages ago, my lifelong friend Helene handed me The Zebra Striped Hearse. I was immediately hooked. I read as many of the Lew Archer books as I could get my hands on. I asked Helene what, in her opinion, accounts for the peculiar power of these novels? She replied that they’re like Greek tragedies. The destructive effect of warped family relations have rarely been depicted as so devastating and so inevitable. And for my money, this paradigm – which does indeed seem doomed to play itself out over and over again, with Lew Archer as the Greek chorus - is nowhere more powerfully bodied forth than in The Zebra Striped Hearse.
Oh – and I love the spare eloquence of MacDonald’s writing:
The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
I love California. And I love reading about California.
Last June I spent several days visiting family members in the South Bay Area. I stayed in their home in Los Altos Hills, a place I’d never heard of before they moved there last year. I had almost no familiarity with that part of the state. But when I got there, I felt as though I had landed in paradise. The enchantment began on the way back from the airport and became more potent in the ensuing days. It did not lessen when I returned home on the east coast but only grew in retrospect. “Everything is larger than life out there,” a friend recently observed. Exactly.
Once back in Maryland, the need for some California-based reading asserted itself. Although I had been in the northern part of the state, it was Los Angeles I wanted to read about. This is because my recent sojourn had brought vividly to mind a piece entitled “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” by John McPhee Having first appeared in the New Yorker, this remarkable essay was subsequently included in a collection called The Control of Nature.
I read this book when it came out in 1989. “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” has stayed with me since then, largely because of the story with which McPhee begins the piece:
One night in February, some years back, the Genofile family – Bob, Jackie, and their two teenaged children – were awakened by a thunderous crashing sound:
Ordinarily, in their quiet neighborhood, only the creek beside them was likely to make much sound, dropping steeply out of Shields Canyon on its way to the Los Angeles River. The creek, like every component of all the river systems across the city from mountains to ocean, had not been left to nature. Its banks were concrete. Its bed was concrete. When boulders were running there, they sounded like a rolling freight. On a night like this, the boulders should have been running. The creek should have been a torrent. Its unnatural sound was unnaturally absent. There was, and had been, a lot of rain.
There were, then, two ominous sounds: loud noise and silence.
Jackie and the children, Kimberlee and Scott, gazed up the street from a window in Scott’s bedroom, which was located at the back of the single story structure. This is how Jackie describes what they saw:
“It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”
What happened next happened very fast. John McPhee is such a terrific storyteller, and the story he tells here is so harrowing, it beggars belief. Events are extremely compressed, taking just under four pages to relate.
The phenomenon being described is called a debris flow.
Then, of course, there is fire….
Here, McPhee explain the origin and nature of the famed Santa Ana winds, and the effect they have on the city’s mountainous ecosystem:
In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range. Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even dryer and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes called the foehn. The fire wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana. When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before. The Santa Anas bring what has been described as “instant critical fire weather.”
McPhee quotes Charles Colver of the Forest Service: “‘…moisture evaporates off your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking.’”
I love crime fiction set in the L.A. region. Ross MacDonald is one of my perennial favorites. And I just had a darn good time with Double Indemnity by James M Cain. (The Usual Suspects are discussing this taut little noir gem Tuesday night.) Ron and I just watched the film – yet again, and yet again it was terrific.
In “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” John McPhee introduced me to a rather singular scholar. British by birth, architectural critic Reyner Banham cherished an extravagant love for the City of Angels. He’s the author of a book to which I’ve seen the adjective “seminal” applied more than once: An outfit called Esotouric offers a Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles Bus Tour. And the BBC made a documentary of the same title in 1972. Here’s a short video from that production:
“What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountains sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls, waded through meadows deep in lilies, laughed at the exuberant antics of grasshoppers and chipmunks, stroked the bark of towering incense cedars and sugar pines, and slept each night on an aromatic mattress of spruce boughs. Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,’ he wrote, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ Nature was all one body, beating with a heart like his own, and more intensely than ever before in his life he felt his own heart b eating in unison. He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
John Muir was a marvelous writer; his biographer, equally so.
In Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard describes Villa Fersen, a deserted estate on the island:
“Inexpressibly romantic in its solitude and decline, it was cared for by a custodial Caprese family who for years intrepidly occupied the kitchen quarters at the landward rear of the building, while the haunted drawing rooms, shedding stucco and gold leaf, teetered ever closer to the limestone brink. The damp garden tended by the housekeeper was ravishing: suitably overgrown, encroached on by a cloud of ferns, creepers, acanthus, agapanthus, amaryllis; shadowed by umbrella pine, and by cypress and ilex; lit from within by massed colours of fuchsia, hortensia, azalea, and all manner of trailing mauves, blues, and purples–wisteria and iris in spring, solanum and ‘stella d’Italia’ in high summer; in autumn, plumabago and belladonna lilies. Geraniums were the size of shrubs, and of every red and coral gradation. The different jasmines flowered there, on walls and trellises, in relays throughout the year.
In September and October, crowds of wild cyclamen, small fragrant flowers of Italian woods, sprang from the crevices of the rock face in which the house is virtually framed….Fersen’s in those years was a garden of mossy textures and dark dense greens, with impasto of luminous flowers: a place of birdsong and long silence; of green lizards and shadowy cats, and decadent Swinburnean beauty.
I read Greene on Capri because I am headed for Naples and the Amalfi Coast next month. As part of the tour, a day trip to Capri is planned. Shirley Hazzard is a writer whose style has posed difficulties for me in the past – I barely got through The Great Fire. But I was enchanted by this slender little memoir detailing the friendship that Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene on that magical island during the postwar years.
Villa Fersen, near and distant:
A potential nightmare in California, a real nightmare in Italy – and a tribute to author Marc Reisner
Here is the post I was working on when I heard about the earthquake in Italy’s Abruzzo region:
I got the idea for this post from an article that appeared in New York Times on February 14. Michael Cooper’s piece on President Obama’s stimulus package, entitled “Big Ideas, Grand Plans, Modest Budgets,” cites several ambitious infrastructure projects in various parts of the country. Two are in California, and one of those in particular caught my attention. It concerns the state’s supply of drinking water:
“Officials say that a major source of drinking water for about 25 million Californians is at risk. That water currently comes from the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet, and the levees that protect the region are more than 100 years old and are vulnerable to earthquakes. A state task force recommended restoring the delta’s endangered habitat and building a new aqueduct to bring water from Northern California to the arid south, without passing through the delta. A similar proposal was voted down in 1982 because northerners viewed it as a water grab by the south, and farmers in the delta region feared losing their water. But the current drought, and climate change, have provided a new sense of urgency. The bill included $50 million that can be used in the delta region, but that is only a tiny fraction of what the state estimates it will eventually need.
This shudder-inducing peril was detailed very specifically by Marc Reisner in A Dangerous Place. In this book, Reisner imagines a scenario in the future in which a major earthquake strikes the Bay Area.
That was as far as I had gotten, and now I do not want to complete the post, at least in the manner I had planned. I do want to say that Reisner’s harrowing depiction is one of the scariest things I have ever read. He did not write it, however, solely to frighten people; rather, he meant it as a warning. Marc Reisner was living in the Bay Area at the time, and he personalizes this account by imagining his own frantic attempts, as the disaster unfolds, to reach his wife and children.
A Dangerous Place was completed in 2000. Lawrie Mott, Reisner’s wife, states in the Acknowledgments that her husband considered it a matter of utmost urgency “that the manuscript for this book reach print.” It did, in 2003. Marc Reisner died of cancer in 2000. He was 51 years old.
Another of Reisner’s books, Cadillac Desert, tells the story of the American West’s development and the region’s consequent desperate need for water. It formed the basis of a multi-part PBS series, which, like many such worthwhile productions, is currently difficult to obtain.
Cadillac Desert is number 61 on the Modern Library’s list of the one hundred best nonfiction books of the twentieth century.
The National Italian American Foundation is taking donations to the relief effort currently under way in Italy.
I’ve already written fairly extensively about Ross MacDonald. (See The Way Some People Die.) And I just posted a quote from The Doomsters this past Sunday. But can I read a MacDonald novel and not write about it? Never!
So I thought I’d concentrate on the language of the novel. As I was reading, I placed post-it notes at particularly memorable passages. So of course, by the time I finished the book, it resembled the literary version of a porcupine, fairly bristling with little yellow scraps of paper. (How, one wonders, did we ever manage before the invention of post-it notes?)
The Doomsters (1958) has a strange opening: “I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself. His trouble was that people were always trying to get in.” Lew Archer is awakened from this hallucinatory vision by someone knocking at the side door. It’s a young man, wild-eyed, dishevelled, agitated. His name is Carl Hallman and he has just escaped from a nearby mental hospital. Archer lets him in. And of course, into the private detective’s life Hallman brings the inevitable world of trouble. Welcome to Archer/MacDonald country, where love shades into hate in an instant; motives are nothing if not suspect; women are either saints, lushes, whores, or some combination thereof; corruption, especially among public officials, is rampant; and family members desperate for money and power seem hellbent on destroying one another.
Sounds like rough terrain, doesn’t it? It is. It can be violent, depressing, hopeless. Why do I keep returning to it? I don’t know.
Well, I do know, sort of. There is something grimly compelling about watching these families implode like something out of a Greek tragedy. The glimpse of a used-to-be southern California, with its vast orange groves and its oil wells, certainly fascinates. And finally, there’s the mordant wit, the economy of expression, the figurative language and the rapier-sharp dialog that make Ross MacDonald’s prose so compelling:
“I went in through the curtains, and found myself in a twilit sitting room with a lighted television screen. At first the people on the screen were unreal shadows. After I sat and watched them for a few minutes, they became realer than the room. The screen became a window into a brightly lighted place where life was being lived, where a beautiful actress couldn’t decide between career and children and had to settle for both.
“Veins squirmed like broken purple worms under the skin of his nose. His eyes held the confident vacancy that comes from the exercise of other people’s power.
“She had the false assurance, or abandon, of a woman who has made a sexual commitment and swung her whole life from it like a trapeze.
“The dining-room had a curious atmosphere, unlived in and unlivable, like one of those three-walled rooms laid out in a museum behind a silk rope: Provincial California Spanish, Pre-Atomic Era.
“Headlights went by in the road like brilliant forlorn hopes rushing out of darkness into darkness.
“‘He oughtn’t to have ran,’ [Sheriff] Ostervelt said. ‘I’m a sharpshooter. I still don’t like to kill a man. It’s too damn easy to wipe one out and too damn hard to grow one.’
The Doomsters is the seventh of the eighteen Lew Archer novels. While it has many of the signature qualities that make this series so memorable, it is not without flaws, the chief of which is a verbose, almost hurried explanation of what has actually occurred in the course of a very complicated investigation. This lengthy exposition is delivered by a single character and is crowded into the novel’s concluding chapters. It was the only time the plot lost momentum. And I have to say that if anything, it left me even more confused about just who did what and why.
But up until that point, I was, as usual, enthralled. The Doomsters marks the end of MacDonald’s apprenticeship, as it were. It was followed by the terrific Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, and my all time favorite, The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
I thought the title of this book was some kind of made-up word. Turns out it was made-up all right, but not by Ross MacDonald. On p.226, he quotes these lines:
‘Sleep the long sleep; / The Doomsters heap / Travails and teens around us here…’
I googled them and found that they were from a poem by Thomas Hardy: “To an Unborn Pauper Child.” Well, that’s what you get when you have a writer of hardboiled fiction who also happens to have a Ph.D. in English (awarded by the University of Michigan in 1951).
I have, from to time to time, heard California referred to as Lotusland. This morning, with California on my mind, as it is for most Americans right now, I decided to track down the reference. Turns out, it is from The Odyssey, a copy of which has been on my coffee table for the last week. (The Teaching Company lectures on CD are responsible for my renewed interest in classical literature.) In Book Nine, in Samuel Butler’s translation, the passage reads thus:
“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the
sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who
live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take
in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near
the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see
what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a
third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the
Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus,
which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about
home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to
them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eater
without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept
bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the
benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them
should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they
took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.
Alas, Southern California resembles anything but Lotusland right now. Rather, the news footage makes it look downright apocalyptic. Thank goodness that as of this writing, the worst appears to be over! We have family in northern San Diego County, so it’s been a nervous time for us. At this writing, they and their house are no longer threatened, but they have harrowing stories to tell concerning friends who have not been as fortunate.
I’d like to recommend a powerful you-are-there piece of reporting by Amy Wilentz in yesterday’s (10/25/07) Washington Post: “When the Hills Are Burning.”
Apparently, the latest trend in development in Southern California is to build further inland, coastal property having become prohibitively expensive for too many potential buyers. The problem is that this move into the hills of California’s interior is creating a whole new sphere of vulnerability. In an article in Wednesday’s Washington Post , Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine, suggested that in order to fully comprehend the nature of this newest danger, “‘…you simply drive out to the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.’” (Chaparral is a highly flammable, drought-resistant scrub oak which almost invariably provides tinder for California wildfires, although its exact role in these fires is the occasion of some controversy.) Davis then adds, “You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans.”
Nine years ago Mike Davis published The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. His chief concern in this book is what ecologists term the “urban/wildland interface” and how this phenomenon specifically affects Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Here is a sample of chapter titles: “How Eden Lost Its Garden,” “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” “Maneaters of the Sierra Madre.” Floods, drought, and, of course, earthquakes are likewise covered. I read this book when it came out, so I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember the mounting sense of dread as I read on. And yet…
Who would be crazy enough to live there? My family, composed of basically sensible people. and, given half a chance, my husband and myself. For California has had that Lotusland affect on us when we have visited the San Diego area and the desert towns of the Coachella Valley, where my parents used to spend their winters. On the approach to the Palm Springs Airport, you descend to what seems like the bottom of a bowl ringed around with mountains. The airport itself is open to the air, with citrus trees in abundance. The air is scented with them; the sky is blue; the mountains are everywhere. My father loved this place, and he bequeathed his love of it to me.
Another memory: I am standing on a corner in the quaint little downtown of Carlsbad. Soft breezes are caressing my bare arms. I close my eyes and simply stand still. This is a time of trouble for our family; these gentle zephyrs seem to impart a kind of consolation. Every time I have traveled to Southern California, I have been reluctant to leave. I have desired, like the lotus-eaters, to stay where I was forever.
I have no desire to post photos of these terrible fires; we have seen plenty already in the mass media. Rather, I would like to post just a few beautiful shots of San Diego: this is why people love it there!
From left to right: the San Diego Skyline at night, San Diego Bay from Harbor Drive, Point Loma Lighthouse, Two Towers in Balboa Park, and View of San Diego from Seaport Village
[The Los Angeles Times has a list of agencies accepting donations for victims of the California wildfires.]