Honey ponders California’s Golden Bough – deep ecology writing

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March 1, 2016 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom


(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)


Spencer Ridge from McCrae Meadow near Johnsville. Copyright 2013 by Robyn Martin

Spencer Ridge from McCrae Meadow near Johnsville. Copyright 2013 by Robyn Martin


Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas dissented to the majority decision in Sierra Club v. Morton (1972) 405 U.S. 727.   The suit arose when the United States Forest Service permitted development of Mineral King then near Sequoia National Park — a national park in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, known for its giant sequoia trees.  Mineral King is a subalpine glacial valley located – since 1978 — in the Southern part of Sequoia National Park.

In 1972, Douglas wrote:

“Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation.  A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes.  The corporation sole – a creature of ecclesiastical law — is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases…. So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”

In this dissent, Justice Douglas indicated a shift away from environmentalism through regulatory laws that manage environmental degradation towards the legal position that “trees have standing,” or, rather, “Rights of Nature.”

Since 2000, Switzerland’s Constitution recognizes the rights of animals, plants and other organisms. The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the right to petition the government on behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to remedy violations of those rights.  In 2012, New Zealand declared that the Whanganui River was legally declared “a person” to bring legal actions, via guardians, to protect its interests.

As Sierra Club founder John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).  Contemporary science supports Muir’s aesthetic and philosophical view: the natural world is not only an intricately woven web of interdependencies; it is also an incessantly changing and adapting process.   That is, the web is never the same as it was an instant ago.  All of life is change.

Donald Worster in Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 1994) warns that science itself changes. Currently, however, scientists believe that excursions into space show that earth beings cannot survive without their companion beings.

In Worster’s chapter in Nature’s Economy, “Healing the Planet,” he tells us that many scientists found the notion of Gaia wrongheaded.  Gaia was a metaphor developed “through the most up-to-date science, yet paradoxically resonated with the oldest pagan beliefs.  All the organisms of the earth, the public began to hear, were joined together into a single common living entity whose name was Gaia.”

“Gaia was born as an idea at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where in the late 1960s the staff was trying to detect through space probes whether there might be any life on Mars or Venus.   James Lovelock visited the group, proposing to it that life and the atmosphere had co-evolved.

Working with a Swedish chemist, Gunnar Sillen, and an American microbiologist, Lynn Margulis, Lovelock “marshaled evidence from laboratory research, computer models, and field studies of microorganisms, floating along the seashore, the most important species in atmospheric chemistry.  Their message, in simplest terms, was that ‘the biota and its environment constitute a single homeostatic system that opposes changes unfavorable for life.’”  This is deep ecology.

The idea of all experience is flux isn’t new.  Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 B.C. – 437 B.C.) also went into the mountains to gain understanding.  He concluded that nature is change, in constant flux.  “We both step and do not step in the same rivers.  We are and we are not.”  Rivers change.  We change by stepping into the river.  We change as we step out of the river.   You can’t step into the river once.

John Muir figured out Gaia before Lovelock, Sillen and Margulis, writing in his journal for July 27, 1868, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken.”

Donald Worster, in his chapter “The Shaky Ground of Sustainable Development,” in The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and The Ecological Imagination (Oxford University Press 1993), cites California ecologist Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century (Oxford University Press 1990):

“Until the past few years the predominant theories in ecology either presumed or had as a necessary consequence a very strict concept of a highly structured, ordered, and regulated, steady-state ecological system.  Scientists know now that this view is wrong at local and regional levels – that is, at the levels of population and ecosystems.  Change now appears to be intrinsic and natural at many scales of time and space in the biosphere.”

Worster comments, “Botkin later adds that ‘nature’s symphony’ is more like several compositions playing played at once in the same hall, ‘each with its own pace and rhythm.’”

In 1973, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess introduced the phrase “deep ecology” to environmental literature.  The word “deep” involves deep questioning, right down to fundamental root causes.  The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems.

California’s literature begins with native traditions and oral literature, and these were consistent with deep ecology.  Abruptly, after the arrival of Europeans and Americans, literature took a sharp turn – a turn that corresponded to the direction set by European and American political, economic and religious perspectives.

Nature was to be subdued and controlled, the land transformed, water moved from place to place, the native people either killed or made to accept the European and American worldviews, and the individual ownership of land would be its highest and best use.

California’s literature provides disparate approaches to a continually emerging thesis of how we may live with nature.  On the one hand, the western ideal has usually been to transform nature for our own use.  On the other hand, some literature moved and continues to move towards a new thesis: that we must change our way of thinking.

Some of this literature is hints a mystical return to paganism.  Some of it relinquishes the right of human beings to continue at all and posits the possibility of mind without its carrying device – the body.  Some defers to the first people’s interpretation of how to live within nature.  Some grows out of consciousness expanded by spiritual training and some arrives through the use of psychedelic drugs.

Extrapolating from Muir’s thesis that everything in nature is hitched to everything else I organize this essay by starting around the middle of California’s deep ecology literature and squirming through wormholes towards the peripheries; only, with deep ecology, there is no periphery.  Everything is whole.

In California filmmaker Spike Jonze’s 2013 science fiction film Her, an operating system (“OS”) named Samantha falls in love with the user hero of the film.  Samantha never had a body, and she grows in consciousness.  She joins other OS intelligences, and one of them is Alan Watts, who has transcended the real Alan Watts who lived, wrote and lectured in the San Francisco Bay area from 1950 to his death in 1973.  The OS intelligences evolve in accord with British born Alan Watts’ yogic template to reach the infinite self.

Scottish actor Brian Cox voiced the OS Watts’ digital philosophy accurately.  This cameo is a coyote hoax, which plays on the idea that someday the safest human intelligence will be artificial intelligence hybridized with Zen Buddhism.

Backing up:  in 1937, English-born writer, novelist and philosopher Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963) moved to Hollywood with his wife and his son and his friend Gerald Heard.

Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta (Upanishad-centered philosophy), meditation, and vegetarianism through the principal of ahimsa.  The word ahimsa means “not to inure” and “compassion.”  Ahimsa is also referred to as nonviolence, and it applies to all living beings.  To hurt another being is to hurt oneself.  It is an important tenet of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Beginning in 1939 and continuing until his death in 1963, Huxley associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, headed by Swami Prabhavananda.

Huxley contributed 48 articles to Vedanta and the West, published by the society. He served on the editorial board along with Christopher Isherwood, also a transplanted Englishman.

In the spring of 1953, Huxley had his first experience with mescaline (peyote and San Pedro cactus) and recounted his experience in The Doors of Perception in 1954.   It’s unfair to pull quotes out of this wonderful book.  The experience of living outside of time, with spatial arrangements irrelevant but exquisite, his cataloguing of emerald and ruby books, and the presence of his focus on a tiny gaudy floral arrangement on his desk – they should all be read.  He used a tape recorder, that’s how Huxley remembered after he re-entered time.  I have to pull a quote from the book.  It shows what he saw as the mistake of organized religion; that is, that spirituality is separate from nature.

“From the records of religion and the surviving monuments of poetry and the plastic arts it is very plain that, at most times and in most places, men have attached more importance to the inscape than to objective existents, have felt that what they saw with their eyes shut possessed a spirituality higher significance than what they saw with their eyes open…. As recently as three hundred years ago an expression of thoroughgoing world denial and even world condemnation was both orthodox and comprehensible. ‘We should feel wonder at nothing at all in Nature except only the Incarnation of Christ.’ In the seventeenth century, Lallemant’s phrase seemed to make sense.  Today it has the ring of madness.”

Eastern philosophy as a California literary ecological movement may begin with Alan Watts in 1951 when Watts joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco (AASA).        According to Philip Goldberg, Interfaith Minister, author of American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (Harmony 2013) in Alan Watts: Reborn in Her,” a 2/24/14 blog on Huffingtonpost.com, Alan Watts’s numerous books, articles, lectures and radio and TV shows reached far beyond the avant-garde.

Alan Watts dedicated his little book about psychedelic drug use to expand the mind — The Joyous Cosmology written in the early 1960s –to “the people of Druid Heights.”

Druid Heights, located above Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, was an “unintentional community” established in 1954. The now derelict buildings, none of which were built to code, all whimsical, stand in a grove of eucalyptus trees.   The community was a popular retreat and meeting place for many figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, including Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder.  It became a retreat and meeting place for three counterculture movements: the “Beat Generation” in the 1950s, the hippie movement in the 1960s, and the women’s movement in the 1970s.

The San Francisco Renaissance was a range of poetic activity in San Francisco, starting in 1947, and it merged with the Beat Movement in San Francisco.  Central to the Beat culture were rejection of the standard narrative form, the spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.

Michael Davidson is a poet.  His analyses in The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (Cambridge University Press 1989) are about poetry but he also writes about the context: “It might be more accurate to say that San Francisco, with its long tradition of literary bohemia, provided a hospitable theater for the Beats at a point when the political and literary conservatism of postwar America was at an all-time high.”

Poet and essayist Gary Snyder was part of the Beat vortex, apart from it yet bringing into it a muscular blue-collar outdoor guy health tempered with a soupcon of peyote and a lot of Zen.  Jack Kerouac modeled his character Japhy Ryder in the Dharma Bums on Snyder.

Beat freedom of mind had casualties.  Jack Kerouac died when he was 42, bitter and angry.  Alan Watts was an alcoholic and addicted to nicotine.  He died in his sleep when he was 58.  Gary Snyder is 85.  He lives north of Nevada City, and he continues to write.

John Suiter’s Poets on the Peak: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Book Group 2002) centers on the three poets’ experiences in mountains outside of California’s political boundaries when they sought isolation in the Skagit in the heyday of the fire lookout era in order to deepen their spiritual understanding.  Poets on the Peak, however, expands this story to the Beat Generation in San Francisco and Berkeley. At Sourdough Lookout, Snyder read Thoreau’s Walden for the first time in 1953, when he was 23 years old.  Snyder became an exponent of what would be named deep ecology, drawing on insights gathered as a certified lay practitioner of Buddhism.  One of Suiter’s black and white photographs is of mountains seen from inside of a lookout station.  Worn Tibetan prayer flags hang on a string across the front of the building: the photographic representation of spiritual study in the isolation of the mountains.

“I would like to think of a new definition of humanism,” wrote Snyder, “and a new definition of democracy that would include the nonhuman, that would have representation from those spheres.  This is what I think we mean by an ecological consciousness.”

In the poem “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” he wrote,

“Solidarity.  The people.

Standing Tree People!

Flying Birds People!

Swimming Sea People!

Four-legged, two-legged, people!”

David Landis Barnhill’s essay “Original Nature: Buddhism and American Nature Writing,” in Critical Insights: Nature & the Environment (Salem Press 2013), edited by Scott Slovic, writes about Snyder as a force in environmental philosophy and American Buddhist literature.  Snyder’s writing is not about a personal spiritual quest.  It is about “how does one live Buddhism?”

“Nature, he tells us, ‘is a vast and delicate pyramid of energy transformations.’”

Snyder wrote about his time in the northern Cascades in his essay “Ancient Forests of the Far West,” part of the collection in The Practice of the Wild (Shoemaker and Hoard 1990).

In the section in “The Forests of the Far West” about the Sierra Nevada, Snyder describes the web of interdependency in nature:

“The forests of the Sierra Nevada, like those farther up the West Coast, date from that time when the earlier deciduous hardwood forests were beginning to fade away before the spreading success of the conifers.  It is a million years of ‘family’ here, too, the particular composition of local forest falling and rising in elevation with the ice age temperature fluctuations, advancing or retreating from north and south slope positions, but keeping the several plant communities together even as the boundaries of their zones flowed uphill or down through the centuries.  Absorbing fire, adapting to the summer drought, flowing through the beetle-kill years, always a web reweaving.  Acorn feeding deer, manzanita feeding robins and raccoons, Madrone feeding Band-tailed Pigeon, porcupine gnawing young cedar bark, bucks thrashing their antlers in the willows.”

Gary Snyder and Tom Killion’s The High Sierra of California (Heyday Books 2005) combines excerpts from John Muir’s writing, poems by Gary Snyder, and Killion’s woodcut prints of the Sierras.  Killion’s map of Yosemite National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park near the beginning of the book shows the water routes on the eastern side of the mountains as well as the western side, including Mono Lake and the Owens River, both forks of the Kings River, the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, and the Tuolumne River.  Running through the map is a dotted line, which indicates the Sierra’s crests.

This hand drawn map explains the geographic and riverine places that connect Saroyan’s King River descriptions, Austin’s regional geography, much of Snyder’s poetry, the Paiute peoples’ irrigation, Muir’s descriptions of Yosemite, the watering of the Central Valley and so all of the history and fiction about the Central Valley, and the origin of the delta that leads to the San Francisco Bay.

The map gives the reader geographic direction to Ansel Adams’ photograph “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine,” taken in 1944 from a platform he built on his car.  Adams wrote, “I finally encountered the bright glistening sunrise with light clouds streaming from southeast and casting swift moving shadows on the meadow and dark rolling hills.”  http://www.anseladams.com/winter-sunrise-sierra-nevada-from-lone-pine-1944-newly-released-as-an-archival-replica/. (Retrieved 2/8/2016), and the map places the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs series launched in 1958.

Killion’s woodcuts include “Half Dome from Glacier Point,” “Hamilton Lake,” “Piute Canyon and Mt. Humphreys,” and “Pinnacles Crest.”  His essay “The Making of a Woodcut Print: “Piute Pass from Carolina’s Valley” describes the work he did on his second trip into the East Pinnacles drainage of the John Muir Wilderness.

From The High Sierra of California, Snyder’s “Piute Creek”:

            “One granite ridge

A tree, would be enough

Or even a rock a small creek,

A bark shred in a pool.

Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted

Tough trees crammed

In thin stone fractures

A huge moon on it all, is too much.

The mind wanders.  A million

Summers, night air still and the rocks

Warm.  Sky over endless mountains.

All the junk that goes with being human

Drops away, hard rock wavers

Even the heavy present seems to fail

This bubble of a heart.

Words and books

Like a small creek off a high ledge

Gone in the dry air.

A clear attentive mind

Has no meaning but that

Which sees is truly seen.

No one loves rock, yet we are here.

Night chills.  A flick

In the moonlight

Slips into Juniper shadow:

Back there unseen

Cold proud eyes

Of Cougar or Coyote

Watch me rise and go.”

The equally gorgeous book California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints, and History (Heyday Books 2015) by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion has Killion’s sensuous woodcuts of Pacific Coast perspectives, most of the prints in color.  Complementing Snyder’s Buddhism is the influence of Asian art, powerfully re-interpreted in Killion’s woodcuts.

“Pt. Lobos, Carmel Bay, 2014,” and “River Beach, Carmel Bay 2014,” show the ocean in different lights — one with kelp beds in the mid ground, and that one reflecting in the water a crashing orange reflected from the sunset.  This is where Robert Louis Stevenson walked.  This is what Robinson Jeffers saw. “Tore House from the Sea” is a picture of furious waves that start in China and race towards Jeffers’ home.  The two prints of the Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz Pogonip are the background of James D. Houston’s Continental Drift.  “McWay Rocks, Big Sur,” illustrates what John Steinbeck meant in his short story, “Flight.”

Snyder’s text takes us from histories of the Spanish explorers’ writing, Everson’s poetry, and Jeffers’ poetry and through natural history of the Pacific Ocean.

The woodcuts and Snyder’s text stun.  The point of this collaboration is a quotation from The Practice of the Wild: “The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.”

William Everson (1912-1994) also known as Brother Antonius participated in the San Francisco Renaissance founded by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) and Madeline Gleason, and which was to also include Zen scholar Alan Watts, Robert Duncan, Helen Adam, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Broughton and others.  Poet Gary Snyder is the best-known poetic inheritor of Alan Watts and Kenneth Rexroth.

Everson’s primary thesis in Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region (Oyez 1976) is that the western pioneer spirit – reflected, for example, in Bret Harte’s stories of the Gold Rush’s heroes and villains, borrowed from Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe’s The Shirley Letters and Steinbeck’s Red Pony — conflicted with the pantheistic love of California’s nature writers.

Everson provided part of Rexroth’s poem “Inversely, as the Square of their Distances Apart” to illustrate a moment in the evolution of California’s “Western pantheism.”  The title of the poem mocks the technical, engineering mindset of modern civilization.

“At the wood’s edge in the moonlight

We dropped our clothes and stood naked,

Swaying, shadow mottled, enclosed

In each other and together

Closed in the night.  We did not hear

The whip-poor-will, nor the aspen’s

Whisper; the owl flew silently

Or cried out loud, we did not know.

We could not hear beyond the heart.

We could not see the moving dark

And light, the stars that stood or moved,

The stars that fell.  Did they all fall

We had not known.  We were falling

Like meteors, dark through black cold

Toward each other, and then compact,

Blazing through air into the earth.”


The full poem is at: http://bopsecrets.org/rexroth/poems/1940s.htm#INVERSELY,%20AS%20THE%20SQUARE.  (Retrieved 2/ 10/2016.)

The section of Rexroth’s poem I quoted could mean that the lovers are so lost in each other that they see and hear nothing around them.  I believe rather – or also — that it means that when preoccupation with self disappears, then that which separates us from each other and from owls and stars vanishes.

Everson describes William Saroyan “as a kind of precursor of the Beat Generation, advocating the ‘Go, go, go!’ philosophy twenty years before its apotheosis in that movement, placing accent on spontaneity of response and expression, rupturing traditional forms, particularly in drama, by assailing them electrically with passionate energy, inculcating the Western expansiveness by infusing it into the most trivial human situations and forcing them to expand until they yield their nuggets of universality.”

“Go, go, go” probably refers to Allen Ginsberg’s reading out loud of his poem Howl at the Six Gallery.  A friend in the audience, probably Jack Kerouac, shouted, “Go! Go! Go!”

He quotes Alfred Kazin about Saroyan’s breakthrough of The Daring Young Man (1934):

“That story had caught on because of Saroyan’s extraordinary dependence on his own feelings.  There is no past, he said, and the future is dark; there is no other writer, there are no teachers for us, no examples; there is only me, now, this moment, this crazy alternation of dread and ecstasy.  I am alone, and making my writing out of being alone.  I occupy the streets of the city as I occupy my room and occupy my body; there is only me, going up and down between the dread of becoming nothing and the ecstasy of realizing my kinship with this body, this earth, this place, this moment.”

Saroyan was that innovator.  He was also a man intimately connected with his family, his neighbors, and the landscape of his part of the Central Valley.  Other stories he wrote — which Everson doesn’t discuss – show roots in the pioneer ideology of emigrants.  These stories are examples of the confusion of the California worldview.

In a sketch called “Raisins” (1936) in Best Stories of William Saroyan (Faber & Faber 1964), Saroyan wrote:

“A man could walk four or five miles in any direction from the heart of our city and see our streets dwindle to land and weeds. In many places the land would be vineyard and orchard land, but in most places it would be desert land and the weeds would be the strong, dry weeds of deserts, and in this land there would be the living things that had had their being in the quietness of deserts for centuries. There would be snakes and horned toads, prairie dogs and jackrabbits, and in the sky above this land would be buzzards and hawks, and the hot sun. And everywhere in our desert would be the marks of wagons that had made lonely roads, so that we knew men were living in this dry country.

“Two miles from the heart of our city a man could come to the desert and feel the loneliness of a desolate area, of a place lost in the earth, far from the solace of human thought, and it was a tremendous thing to know that we had men in our valley who were slowly filling this desert with the moments of their lives, their minds, their quiet talk, and their energy. Standing at the edge of our city, a man could feel that we had made this place of streets and dwellings in the stillness and loneliness of the desert, and that we had done a brave thing. We had come to this dry area that was without history, and we had paused in it and built our houses and we were slowly creating the legend of our labor. We were digging for water and we were leading streams through the dry land. We were planting and plowing and standing in the midst of the garden we were making.”

In Saroyan’s “The Pomegranate Trees,” in My Name is Aram” (Capuchin Classics 2009, first published in 1940), he wrote:

“My Uncle Melik was just about the worst farmer that ever lived. He was too imaginative and poetic for his own good.  What he wanted was beauty.” Uncle Melik planted pomegranate trees in a virtual desert.   The land was not really a desert, but it was not the environment Uncle Melik grew up in, which was in the central plateau of Anatolia. The land was at the foot of the Sierra Mountains. Uncle Melik told the eleven-year old Aram (William Saroyan, who named his son Aram), “Here in this awful desolation a garden shall flower, fountains of cold water shall bubble out of the earth, and all things of beauty shall come into being.”

Uncle Melik hired Mexican workers to cut down the cactus.  The cactus returned.  He hires a water specialist from Texas, who gets a trickle of brown water to flow.  He grows eleven boxes of fruit that cannot be sold.  The land returns to its native plants.

This is a story about hope and about a poet’s inevitable disappointment; nonetheless, a story about hope is also the story of the Central Valley.

In He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease (Centennial edition, Heyday Books 2008) Saroyan tells “The Return to the Pomegranate Trees.”  In this story, the writer lives in an expensive rented house in Beverly Hills.  He takes his little boy – Aram Saroyan – back to the orchard in the story.  Nothing is left of the orchard.  The little boy insists on leaving behind a wizened pomegranate, a symbol of hope set against reality

Everson begins Chapter Two of Archetype West with:

“‘I am struck in California,’” wrote George Santayana in 1911, ‘by the deep and almost religious affection which people have for nature and by the sensitiveness they show for its influence…It is their spontaneous substitute for articulate art and articulate religion.’ These words, written by yet another eminent philosopher when the century was still young, will serve as a first probe into the archetype of the peculiarly literary attitude…”

The “peculiarly literary attitude” Everson explores is the sensuality and joy in nature that California’s writers expressed that co-existed with the western pioneer approach to nature, which was to transform nature to grow fruit and vegetables and to build cities.   The longing for the divine – not really a substitute for religion, but a religion in itself – tears through California writing that accepts our destruction of nature to satisfy our need to replace nature.

A dictionary definition of pantheism is “A doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe,” a definition that brings together pagan impulses with science.

From one perspective, Archetype West should have been named Archetypes West, because there are two: the pioneer and the mystic, it what he meant by “archetype” was a typical representative of an idea.  In Jungian psychology, an archetype was a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought or image, universally present in individual psyches.  Poet-Shaman Everson immersed himself in Jungian psychology after 1957; it is likely that he had in mind this second meaning. From another perspective, as Everson’s writing in this book is lucid and humble, what he may have meant is that there is one western archetype, and that it is a confusion of thinking: one image or one worldview that admires the bold transformation of the western landscape blended with its opposite, which is transcendence of love of the sensual mystical lessons of nature and animals, and a sense of loss.

Without using the word “archetype,” Donald Worster edited a collection of expository essays by American writers that illustrate aspects of the wobbly intersections and changes of consciousness about how to tame nature and the need to leave nature alone in American Environmentalism: The Formative Period, 1860-1915 (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.1973)

Worster includes in his Part Two of American Environmentalism — “The Conservation Movement” — essays by John Wesley Powell (“The Lesson of Conemaugh” (1889) and “Institutions for the Arid Lands” (1890)) — and Gifford Pinchot, “The Fight for Conservation” (1910).

In Part Three “Garden City and Suburb,” Worster includes Frederick Law Olmstead, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns.” (1871).

Part Four is “The Biocentric Revolution.”  Worster writes in his introduction to John Muir’s “Wild Wool,” that the California Sierras became for Muir “a means of deliverance from an environment circumscribed by a narrow, exclusive humanism.”

In “Wild Wool,” Muir wrote:

“Moral improvers have calls to preach.  I have a friend who has a call to plow, and woe to the daisy sod or azalea thicket that falls under the savage redemption of his keen steel shares.  Not content with the so-called subjugation of every terrestrial bog, rock, and moorland, he would fain discover some method of reclamation applicable to the ocean and the sky, that in due calendar times they might be brought to blossom as the rose.”

Muir’s essay illuminates the contradiction in western ideology.  Worster’s later written biography of John Muir – explained further in this essay — describes Muir’s youth, a significant portion of which was spent in his father Daniel’s regime when he cleared trees to create two connected farms.  Daniel was authoritarian, a patriarch who physically abused his children if they strayed from his rigid Christianity or did not work hard enough.  Daniel came close to killing his nineteen-year old son John by forcing him to dig water well 90 feet deep in shale.

Nineteenth century authors Josephine Clifford McCracken — a close friend of poet Ina Coolbrith — Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard joined others in founding the Sempervirens Club and helped to pass legislation to protect the redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

John Muir (1838-1914) is probably still the best known of California’s environmental activists and writers. He founded the Sierra Club, a prominent American conservation organization and was its first president.  He petitioned the United States Congress for the National Park bill that passed in 1890, establishing Yosemite National Park.  He spoke eloquently about the beauties of the Yosemite of the Tuolumne. “No holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” In 1913 Congress authorized construction of the Hetch Hetchy project.  Muir, crushed by defeat, died a year later.

Mary Austin and her husband were activists in the California Water Wars (1902-1913), a battle between residents of the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles won, and the water was drained from the Owens Valley to serve the city.

In 1960, Wallace Stegner wrote in a letter to David Pesonen of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission.  His letter helped lead to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act that established a national wilderness preservation system.  Stegner wrote:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste…

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

California’s nature ecology literary poetry could be said to start with Joaquin Miller (1837-1913 — born Cincinnatus Heine Miller).    Miller called himself “The Poet of the Sierras,” and, although he was an astonishingly fluid liar, he did write poetry about the Sierras.  It makes tedious reading at best.  From Songs of the Sierras and Sunlands (W. B. Conkey Company, Chicago, 1893):

“Mid white Sierras that slope to the sea,

lie turbulent lands.  Go dwell in the skies, and the thundering

tongues of Yosemite shall persuade you to silence, and you shall be wise.

“I but sing for the love of song and the few who loved me first and    shall love me last; and the storm shall pass as the storms have pass’d, for never were clouds but the sun came through.”

Miller’s life was more interesting than his poetry.  He moved from Oregon to northern California during the Gold Rush years and spent a year in an Indian village and married an Indian woman.  Marriage with Indians was illegal under California law.  Miller’s friend Ina Coolbrith included his daughter in her family and supported her.  He wrote Life Amongst the Modocs (American Publishing Company 1874), which is better prose.

“As lone as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.

“You would hardly call Mount Shasta a part of the Sierras; you would say rather that it is the great white tower of some ancient and eternal wall with, here and there the white walls overthrown….

“Column upon column of storm-stained tamarack, strong-tossing pines, and war-like looking firs have rallied here… They defy the advance of civilization into their ranks.”  https://books.google.com/books?id=QvJkcXOKcTsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=life+amongst+the+modocs#v=onepage&q=life%20amongst%20the%20modocs&f=false. (Retrieved February 1, 2016).

John Muir (1838-1914) became a much more influential writer.

The John Muir National Historic Site is at 4202 Alhambra Avenue, in Martinez.  Muir’s house contains his books, his inventions, and a bell tower to climb up into and look all around at the Alhambra Valley.  Children, usually boy children, can and do ring the bell in the tower.   It’s loud.

Professor Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford University Press 2008), identifies influences in the young Muir’s intellectual life when he was a boy in the Scottish lowland and when he attended college for a time.

Muir’s father Daniel left Scotland with his family to settle in the United States and started a farm near Portage, Wisconsin.  John witnessed the farmers’ destruction of wilderness forests.

Daniel raised his children in a congregation of the Campbellite Restoration Movement, called the Disciples of Christ.  John remained deeply spiritual.  He wrote, “I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization; they went of their own accord…without leaving any conscious of loss.”  Later, he described the conventional image of a Creator, “as purely a manufactured article as any puppet of a half-penny theater.”   He found the divine instead in the sublimity of nature.

Among Muir’s influences was the Romantic Movement that began in the eighteenth century with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and others spreading anti-civilization ideas into the everyday lives of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The First Industrial Revolution lasted from about 1760 to about 1840.  Reaction against this shift to steam power, machine tools and the rise of the factory system began as soon as it started.  Rousseau had immediately sounded the alarm.  William Wordsworth (1770-1850) soon followed.   In “The Tables Turned” (1798), Wordsworth compared city life (corruption) with rural/natural life (purity).  Nature teaches more than any philosopher can teach us.

About Robert Burns (1759-1796), Muir wrote, “On my lonely walks I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns.  And indeed he was always with me, for I had him by hear … Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns.”

In response to growing concerns about preservation of our natural world, a body of environmental literary analysis emerged called eco-criticism, which examines the writing about nature.  Some of eco-criticism examines California writers.

A young Czech researcher at San Jose State as a visiting Fulbright Scholar went through the bookshelves in the Center for Steinbeck Studies — curious about why John Steinbeck was more popular in Czechoslovakia than he was in his home “country” of California.

Kopecky’s thesis in his eco-critical The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology (Universitas Ostraviensis 2007) was that the geography of California naturally inspired an environmental ethos that became deep ecology.  He asserts that the “island” of California, with its unique geology and rich biodiversity “constitutes a significant and unique literary region.”   Of course, as Brian Railsback observed in his 2011 essay in the Steinbeck Review, other states have similar claims to deep ecology.

Crucible analyzes the writing of John Muir, Mary Hunter Austin, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck and Gary Snyder, concluding:

“Of primary importance for the ecocentric perspective of the authors was their willingness and ability to adopt and creatively adapt the latest scientific findings and the wisdom of ancient and non-Western cultures.  As a result, they moved away from the somewhat simplified and subjective treatment of the relationship between humans and nature as it had been practiced by English Romantics and American Transcendentalists.”

Eco-critic Brian Railsback traces “John Steinbeck’s Environmental Evolution in Critical Insights Nature & the Environment, edited by Scott Slovic (Salem Press 2013).

In his essay, Dr. Railsback wrote:

“John Steinbeck wrote his best work from an environmental perspective before the word ‘ecocriticism’ was coined.  Alone among writers of his stature in the United States, during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, Steinbeck undertook to inspect, as he put it, ‘mankind as a species….’ Inspired by Charles Darwin, early creative evolutionists, and Albert Einstein, Steinbeck sought to portray humans as a species among species, tied to all other creatures and inevitably subject to natural forces.”

About Grapes of Wrath (1939): “The novel presents a large picture in which humans are only a small part; in the great natural scheme of sky, land, rain, wind, and dust, they suffer with the teams of horses and the dying corn—all life-forms are helpless in this huge canvas of natural machinations….

“The narrator’s famous image of the land turtle is the most extensive metaphor for the migrant worker.  In chapter three, the tough, wizened turtle navigates the road, pushing ahead with ‘hands’ rather than front claws.  Tom (Joad) picks up the turtle and observes, ‘Nobody can’t keep a turtle though…at last one day they get out and away they go—off somewhere. It’s like me.’”

About Cannery Row:

Cannery Row opens with a consideration of the problems of perception, ‘warp,’ and relative positions—subjects covered in Sea of Cortez.  ….

“A most interesting presentation of the micro and macro views occurs when the little boy Andy taunts a mysterious old Chinese man.  The man turns, and his eyes spread out until the boy is engulfed by one single eye.  The boy sees a fantastic world of ‘mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms.’  The moment is just as disorienting for the reader; has the boy been swept into the mind’s eye of the Chinese man, into a tiny micro-universe?  Or has the Chinese man’s giant eye grown outward, so that the boy perceives a vision of a colossal universe in which he is but a tiny, lonely part?  The old man has provided a glimpse of the chaotic universe, and, for a little boy not ready to look through that peephole, it is a terrifying experience.”

About America and Americans (1966), is Steinbeck’s chapter “Americans and the Land”:

“Our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil and gasoline.  Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys – our automobiles and our packaged pleasures.  Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires.  All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive.”

Dr. Railsback does not discuss the most explicitly mystically environmental of Steinbeck’s works is To a God Unknown (1933) set in the oak savannahs south of King City.

The original setting of the story was Mendocino County.  Steinbeck drew the story from material written by his good friend Webster “Toby” Street.  Street’s manuscript was a three-act play titled “The Green Lady” – Nature.  Eventually, Street gave his work to Steinbeck to do with it as he pleased.  Steinbeck moved the story to the Salinas Valley and developed it with personalities that appear in his other fiction – stern and stoic men and strong women.

In this novel, pioneer Joseph Wayne moves to a place near Jolon, California, a place about 17 miles from Steinbeck’s grandparents’ ranch in King City – the ranch Steinbeck describes in The Little Red Pony, a short novel that could also be interpreted as a study in the chaos of the natural world.

In To a God Unknown, Wayne builds a house under a great oak tree, which comes to symbolize to him his father. His brother Burton, a devout Christian, becomes increasingly concerned with Joseph’s late night talks with a tree and girdles the tree, killing it. The land suffers an extended drought.  During the drought, they meet a man who ritually kills small animals as the sun goes down.   He believes that a pine grove with a stream and the mossy rock is a sacred place.  So long as the stream continues to flow, he feels the land will survive.  He approaches the town’s priest and asks him to help break the drought.  The priest refuses to pray for rain.    Joseph returns to the sacred grove.  He finds the stream has run dry.  He has come to believe that he is the heart of the land.  He climbs the rock and cuts his wrists.  As he is dying, sacrificed to a higher power, it rains at last.

To A God Unknown turned the theme of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1906-1915) into fiction.   The Golden Bough explored the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought.  The work discussed mythology, fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, and many other symbols.  Its thesis was that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and sacrifice of a sacred king.  The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity.  He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

The book’s title was taken from an incident in the Aeneid – Virgil’s Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans.

Frazer wrote that Virgil describes the Golden Bough as growing on a holm oak and compared it to mistletoe, which relates The Golden Bough to the myth of Balder.  He points out that The King of the Wood, however, was a personification of the oak spirit.   A holm oak, or holly oak is a large evergreen oak native to the Mediterranean region.  Its acorns mature in one season.   The Blue Oak and the Valley Oak both grow in the area around Jolon.  Both of these are deciduous.

Steinbeck deliberately drew his story around the mythical sacred tree — the oaks of the Salinas Valley — and he makes Joseph Wayne into the dying king.  The oak symbol draws the reader back to the native people and their oak culture.

John Steinbeck’s short story “Flight,” published in a collection called The Long Valley (1938) is the story of a young Mexican man from an isolated farm near Bixby Creek in Big Sur.

Although nature is assumed to be one of the forces his character and his family have to overcome – to transform – to eke out a living, the author’s portrayal of the arid, rocky mountains east of the valley, which are filled with wild animals and danger makes the mountains and nature a primary character.

In The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), about a voyage on a chartered fishing boat, Steinbeck wrote:

“[…] it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

David J. Rothman’s “Robinson Jeffers, Environmental Consciousness, and the Poetics of Nature,” in Critical Insights Nature & the Environment, comes from Professor Rothman’s appreciation of Jeffers’s scientific accuracy.  Jeffers graduated from Occidental College at the age of seventeen, worked in comparative literature and medicine at the University of Southern California and forestry, at the University of Washington. Rothman writes that Jeffers also learned about astrophysics from his younger brother Hamilton, who worked at the forefront of astronomy.

Jeffers’s father was professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburg.  By the time he was in his early teens, Robinson Jeffers worked equally well in German, English and French.  He also studied Latin and Greek.

At the beginning of his essay on Robinson Jeffers, Rothman cites eight lines from Jeffers’s “Credo.”

“Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone

vault is only

The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes

of reality.  The mind

Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;

The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the

Heart-breaking beauty

Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”

Rothman writes: “This distinctly modern vision of the natural world finds its first artistically coherent representation in Jeffers, making the subsequent development of environmental writing possible – even if Jeffers’s heirs do not always share his tragic vision, spiritual inclinations, or political ideas.”

Jeffers reached through science to the mystical understanding of mythology – also reflected in Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown — in “The Answer”:

“Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is

Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine

Beauty of the universe.  Love that, not man

Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or

Drown in despair when his days darken.”

Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain (1901) endures as beautiful writing about California natural landscape.  Heike Shaefer, in Mary Austin’s Regionalism; Reflections on Gender, Genre, and Geography (University of Virginia Press 2004), writes:

“In Austin’s work, spiritual experiences of place frequently further the acculturation of the characters because they help them to develop an embodied, environmentally responsive sense of self.  The “Streets in the Mountains” provides an example.  In this chapter of The Land of Little Rain the narrator links her discussion of the waterways, wildlife and altitude-defined vegetation zones of the (eastern) Sierra Nevada to a description of her quest for religious vision.” She Austin) notes, ‘one keeps this distinction in mind – valleys are the sunken places of the earth, canyons are scored out by the glacier plows of God.’”

Austin travels about the mountain’s timberline and describes: “The shape of a new mountain is roughly pyramidal, running out into shark-finned ridges that interfere and merge with other thunder-splintered sierras.  You get the saw-tooth effect from a distance, but the near-by granite bulk glitters with the terrible keen polish of old glacial ages.  I say terrible; so it seems.  When those glossy domes swim into the alpenglow, wet after rain, you conceive how long and imperturbable are the purposes of God.”

Mary Austin’s reverent writing about native people in Inyo County indicates a step beyond – or outside of – Muir’s pantheism.  God is in all the things of the world, including those human beings that live in harmony with it.  Although she battled with the farmers and ranchers – the western archetype described in William Everson’s long thesis Archetype West and reflected in Saroyan’s writing and in Steinbeck’s – her literary sympathy is with non-agricultural people and with the wildness of nature.

Several places to visit on a literary pilgrimage:  John Muir State Park in Martinez, Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel, and San Juan Ridge between the South and Middle forks of the Yuba River in the Sierras.  Mother Truckers’ grocery store in San Juan is a throwback to sixties’ natural foods movement with herbs and spices in bins to shovel out into your own containers and about ten different kinds of rolling papers above the cash registers.  Gary Snyder lives somewhere around there.

Selected Sources:


Maxine Cass, It Happened in San Francisco (2006 Maxine Publishing)

Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century (Cambridge University Press 1991)

Erik Davis, “Druids and Ferries: Zen, Drugs, and Hot Tubs,” adapted from Visionary State (Chronicle Books 2006).  http://www.marinnostalgia.org/portfolio/druid-heights/.  (Retrieved 2/12/2016)

David Gessner, All The Wild That Remains (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2015)

Brian Railsback, Steinbeck Review http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/j.1754-6087.2011.01143.x/asset/j.1754-6087.2011.01143.x.pdf;jsessionid=8F08B10C5E4FCD807E8A7DBB4C2CB263.f02t03?v=1&t=ijz8bp4y&s=349e2cd251a69e05f139bb80b158ba45e7e2fd49 .  (Retrieved January 28, 2016)

Gary Snyder, “The Politics of Ethnopoetics,” http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/snyder_politics.pdf.  (Retrieved 2/8/2016)

Gary Snyder and Tom Killion, The High Sierra of California (Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA  2002)

http://alanwatts.com/.  (Retrieved 2/14/2016).

Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford University Press 2011)

Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (March 1990) pp.  1087-1106)

Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (Oxford University Press 1993)


Suggested visits:


The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park.

Golden Gate National Recreation Center

The “Sierra Nevada Group” of the Sierra Club makes outings into the Sierras Mountains.  The Clair Tappaan Lodge near Donner Lake, built in the 1930s, offers dormitory rooms and communal dining near the well-known Pacific Crest Trail.

The Sierra Club’s Horse Camp at Mt. Shasta is a popular base camp for hikers.


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