Saturday, May 30, 2009

Point Reyes

Before the recent trip to California and points northward, I had never heard of Point Reyes. Or, maybe I had heard of it but didn't know how to pronounce it or whether it was in Maine or Swaziland. I'm still not sure how to pronounce it (Ray's?), but I know exactly where it is. On the map it seems near San Francisco, so it fit with our plan to stay just north of the city so as to have time to make our plane the next day without rushing. We did some research en route, and the Point looked worthwhile.

To get out to Point Reyes, you drive through a series of ranches, all them dating from the mid 1800's and identified by letters: Ranch A, B, C and on to M. Lots of beef and dairy cows on rolling, heath-like hills with very few trees. The animal life on the point includes seals, sea lions, falcons, and numerous water birds such as murres, which nest on the rocks just off the coast. Earlier in the year, people flock to the area to see whales migrating. The geological formations are contorted and interesting, and the May wild flowers are profuse. The lighthouse, which has been there about a century and a half, is down almost at the base of the outermost point--low so as to be visible below the frequent fog. You climb down about 300 feet to get there. The fog horn blows constantly at regular intervals.

To drive from there to the airport, south of the city, it took a couple hours, longer than anticipated. It's a slow trip. For some thirty miles, the route winds along steep cliffs with the surging ocean far below--gorgeous but time-consuming. Fortunately, we allowed some leeway, so we had plenty to time to make our flight home.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mount St. Helens

The northernmost destination in our West Coast trip was Mount St. Helens. We happened to visit on the 29th anniversary of the eruption. Entry fees were waived for the occasion. Along the winding highway leading from I-5 into the park, there are several visitor centers, as well as numerous vista points offering views of the ravaged mountain from afar. The main observation point, Johnson Visitor's Center (named after David Johnson, who died in the eruption) offers an impressive unimpeded view of the volcano's cratered northern side, as well as the lava dome that is gradually building in the opening, constantly emitting a plume of smoke. Even the view of the incredible vista of destruction (still largely a gray wasteland) does not make it any easier to grasp the dimensions of the eruption, the accompanying avalanche of lava and debris, and the blast that was the equivalent of 21,000 atom bombs. It killed 57 people, destroying 15 miles of road and 230 square miles of forest. Much of the land will still not support plant life because of layers of infertile ash, and where trees have come back or been replanted, they look strangely uniform in size. It is an unforgettable monument to nature's power.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


The Upper Falls

Half Dome

El Capitan

One of the highlights of our California sojourn was a day spent at Yosemite National Park. Given the sparse crowds at Sequoia and Kings Canyon early in the season, we were unprepared for the mob scene we found at Yosemite. The place was swarming with tourists. Once we caught our first glimpse of the gorgeous setting with its backdrop of falls and stark rock outcroppings (especially El Capitan and Half Dome) and then followed the steep winding road down into the valley, we could see what drew the crowd: the unmatched vistas along with the ready accessibility of the park's delights and the fact that the park is geared to acommodate large numbers.

After our pleasantly remote hikes elsewhere, we felt a bit overwhelmed, but the numbers of other visitors didn't dampen our spirits nearly as much as our t-shirts were dampened by the refreshing spray from the lower falls, which you can walk to on a paved trail. We climbed above it all on a steep trail with 60 switchbacks that took us to Columbia Rock and an overview of the whole scene.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Big Sur and Sequoia


Big Sur

As we drove south from San Francisco, our travels took us through Carmel (where Clint Eastwood served as mayor 1986-88) and along Big Sur. According to Wikipedia, the name "Big Sur" comes from the Spanish "el sur grande," meaning "the big south." We made stops at Andrew Molera and Julia Pfieffer Burns State Parks, camping at San Simeon, just north of Cambria, the next day cutting east to Sequoia National Park.

At Sequoia National Park, we made the obligatory visit to the unfortunately named "General Sherman," billed as the largest tree in the world in volume if not in girth or height. Most of the sequoias show evidence of past lightning or fire, not surprising for trees that have been around over 3000 years. Despite the scars, their thick bark and durable constitution makes them impervious to fire damage. John Muir, who named many of these trees, wrote the following in his journal in 1875:
The sequoias are the most venerable-looking of all the Sierra giants, standing erect and true, in poise so perfect they seem to make no effort--their strength so perfect it is invisible. Trees weighing one thousand tons are yet to all appearance imponderable as clouds, as the light which clothes them, so fine is their beauty.... They are antediluvian monuments, through which we gaze in contemplation as through windows into the deeps of primeval time.
Muir was given to hyperbolic statements about natural phenomena, but the sequoias deserve all the hyperbole they get.

For additional trip photos see my Flickr page.

Monday, May 25, 2009

San Francisco and Ferlinghetti

San Francisco was the first stop on our recent two-week trip to the West Coast, most of which was spent in various National Parks and Monuments. J and I stayed a couple nights in the modest but neat and centrally located Mosser Hotel, just off Market St. a few blocks south of Union Square. One memorable, bright morning we walked along the bay from Fort Mason and the Marina over to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then we hiked onto the bridge out to the first tower for a stunning view of the Bay, Alcatraz, and the city's skyline.

During our walk to Union Square, up Grant St., and onto Columbus Ave. toward Fisherman's Wharf, we stopped at City Lights Bookstore, one of my four favorites (the others being Gotham Books in New York, Prairie Light Books in Iowa City, and Powell's Books in Portland). Upstairs in the poetry section, I ran into Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the store's founder, the city's poet laureate, pal of the beats, and a relentless campaigner for the arts--and for the integrity of San Francisco itself. I bought his book, San Francisco Poems, and had him sign it. He sat at a table for a brief chat as sounds from a jazz combo in Kerouac Alley wafted through the window. He wore his trademark scruffy beard and a baseball cap.
Daily Routines web site: How creative people organize their days.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Story of a Poem

Mexican poet Octavio Paz, once said the following:
In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests--and these are what they have found.
In 1998, just after Paz died, I wrote a poem called "Looking for Mexico," using that quote as my epigraph. My poem began,
To honor your life, Octavio Paz,
I will no longer look for myself
in your country.
And my poem ended,
In my domestic dreams I'll discover
the rattle of Pancho Villa's
bandoleros, the sleepy strumming
of a guitar behind an adobe wall,
the whisper of distant sands
in Cuernevaca, Morelia,
Oaxaca, Guadalahara.
I've always thought it was a pretty good poem, but over the ten years I've been sending it out, hoping for publication, 24 magazines have rejected it. Finally today I received notice that at last a nice little magazine has taken it. I was about to give up on it; poets must have tough skins, but 25 rejections is about my limit. I am delighted that the orphan has found a permanent home. Now it can rest in Paz. The poem has, after a lot of wandering, located its best reader, and that's all any poet, including Octavio Paz, can ask for.
A link between creativity and mental illness

Ihab Hassan -“Literary Theory in an Age of Globalization”

Malcolm Gladwell on the full-court press
This is the season of the commencement speech. An excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's 2008 speech at Duke:
Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you’re trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you, after your last exam. I know it’s true for writers -– when people love a book, whatever they say about it, what they really mean is: it was wise. It helped explain their pickle. My favorites are the canny old codgers: Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing. Honestly, it is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.
The late David Foster Wallace's 2008 commencement speech at Kenyon

Conan O’Brien’s 2000 Commencement Speech at Harvard

The top ten graduation speeches

Saturday, May 02, 2009

England's New Poet Laureate

Carol Ann Duffy has just been appointed the first woman Poet Laureate of England.
One of her poems:
Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
Why Don't Students Like School? Daniel T. Willingham examines the issue in a new book, review in The Wall Street Journal.
Ten Literary One-Hit Wonders from The Times Online
Excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Annie Proulx:

This is a country where awards are invented every day because that’s how readers and publishers and others keep a list of what one should and shouldn’t read. People don’t choose books by covers, they choose them by the gold thing that says, winner of the Blue Shark Award, or whatever. So the awards did a great deal, especially the PEN/Faulkner, because I was the first woman to get a PEN/Faulkner. And then I guess the thrill of awards, like the thrill of traveling, sort of fell away. I’ve moved into a different category of people who have won awards but don’t necessarily have to win one now. Which is all right with me.