William Everson on the California Landscape
[NOTE: These passages are excerpted from Everson's introduction to Robinson Jeffers' The Alpine Christ and Other Poems, in which Everson alternates between comments on Jeffers and observations on the place where he is writing.]
I am writing from a remote cabin on Long Ridge, the extended hump of mountain that separates Rocky and Bixby Creeks on the coast south of Carmel. . . .
It is early morning. The sun, peering over Mescal Ridge, leaves its near flank in shadow. The giant redwoods that line Bear Trap Canyon, huddled together without distinction, are deep in shade. I know that by noon each one will stand out like a green cone under the straight descending light. By nightfall the sun at my back, shining flatly through, will reveal the skeletal structure of trunk and paired limbs. That, however, is ten hours away.
It is, I see by the sun, midmorning, and I pause a moment to relax. I get up to go inside for a cup of lukewarm coffee left over from breakfast, but a stirring deep in my entrails tells me it is time for the morning ablutions. I start along the trail to the outhouse. It lies a hundred feet or so downslope from the cabin, and is built without a wall to the front, so that you can sit there and gaze out into tranquil space, the sunlight falling about you, and ease yourself as people have done for thousands of years before the invention of plumbing. It is, as always, a relief to have the weight of so much dross taken from one, and, musing there in the aftermath of purgation, I let my gaze rove over the vast panorama before me. A lizard races around my toe and fixes me with unflinching eyes. I stare back at him unblinkingly and he moves on, impelled by a curiosity for marginal areas I deeply share. When I have finished the small ritual of cleansing, I stand up and fasten my clothes, then walk slowly back the trail to the cabin. Up in the yard I go under the redwoods where the spring is piped and wash my hands in the tin basin with a piece of soap. I toss the water into the ferns, and, not finding a towel, I wave my hands gently in the air to dry them. Going back to the cabin I get the lukewarm coffee I started for earlier. It is too savorless now to sip, so I gulp it down, then light a cigar. I could easily kill an hour or so like this, but soon put the cigar aside and get back into my chair. Crossing my legs with a sigh I take up my pen and pull together my thoughts.
Looking up from my page I see by the sun that it is nearly noon (or, by daylight saving time, one o'clock) and time for lunch. I get up and go into the cabin and take out a loaf of bread and some cheese. Outside in the cooler over the spring are butter and milk, and in a bag under the eaves some apples and grapes. I make a sandwich and eat it slowly, gazing reflectively out in the void, thinking as I chew. A slight haze has thickened against Mescal Ridge, but the cool of the morning is not all dispelled. The distant redwoods, as I anticipated, stand out like phallic flames, each green cone thrust at the sun. Bear Trap Canyon kinks its wrinkle up the groin of Bixby Mountain. Time seems to hang over the world, suspended. After my sandwich and milk I slowly peel an apple and munch it. I would like some raisins and nuts but I have none, and instead eat the grapes, crushing them refreshingly in my mouth, spitting out seeds. I remember how, as boys, we used to wander the vineyards of the San Joaquin, finding the bunches of grapes the pickers had missed, gulping them down, spitting seeds before us as we roved. When I finish my meal I walk a bit through the cool redwoods back where the road curves in. I freshen my eyes on another view, west toward the mouth of Bixby Canyon, and the level sea. Then I return and sit down to my work again. In my mind I gather together the threads of the poem, and pick up my pen.
Pausing in my writing I look out over the vast expanse of Bixby Canyon. It is mid-afternoon. The sun is beginning to slant down toward the western rim, but the solar intensity is still at crescendo. Down below me a redtail hawk circles and dips, his remorseless gaze searching for prey on the slopes beneath. After a time he gives up and cries angrily, disturbed by something intruding below him which I can't see. In the redwoods over my head a jay answers the hawk feebly, only a scrawny imitation of the master he cannot rival. I get up and go over to a patch of sunlight splashing the cabin yard. On the slope to the east a group of wild pigs, almost rust color in the strong afternoon light, scampers out of the brush. Slipping inside the cabin I get my binoculars and in a moment I have them in focus. They pause tentatively to snuff the air, their weak eyes blinking, and move along again. I have seen their sign everywhere hereabout. The cascara berries are ripe, and the pigs, gorging themselves, discover the painful way that it is a powerful emetic. Across the slope they disappear into the brush, and I put the glasses down, exhilarated by this sudden manifestation from the wild. I go over to the spring, and from the dipper I gulp down a long draught of cold water, and am refreshed. Deceived by strong light I have the illusion that time is still young, and experience a momentary feeling of lassitude, but the urge to get on with it is nevertheless relentless. Going back to my chair I pick up the story of Jeffers' life.
Now, at last, my ear picks up the sound of the Toyota toiling up the long three mile grade from the old coast road at Division Knoll. Behind me, over Long Ridge, the sun is sinking. The flat light, striking the side of Mescal Ridge, plunges its rays deep in the crooked canyon, the zig-zag bear-trap jaws clamped on the thigh of Bixby Mountain. Like a luminous flood the light pours in and drenches each redwood of the slope, staining the tall trunks and the graceful, paired branches, which noon had hidden in dense shade, with living gold. It is the moment for which I have been waiting, the last leveling of the day. Now is the time to put down the pen, the time for the lighting of fires and the pouring of wine. But I have been stirred by a singularly compelling poem, a work of unformed genius, inchoate and bizarre, a work that will take years, and stricter minds than mine, to bring into focus.
My gaze, lingering on for a moment, perceives that the skeletal redwoods, pressed flatly together by the enveloping light, are like fossils of fish, matted on the sea floor silt many aeons ago. Trunk and branches are now spine and ribs, and the soft pointedness of each conifer is the fish-shape of long gone forms palpably impressed in the retentative element, retrieved out of time.
And I marvel at the subsuming power of life. As living forms we carry the fossils of our future within us, the unconscious element, ignored in our passion for objectivity , inexplicably to survive.
from The Alpine Christ and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers, with Commentary and Notes by William Everson. Cayucos Books, 1974.
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