Saturday, June 30, 2012


outhouse.jpgWHEN WE BOUGHT our place here on Eastside Road, hence the name of this blog, we found twenty-eight acres, a horse, three sheep, a blue two-storey house built in 1872 by Lindsey Carson (Kit Carson's brother, an itinerant carpenter who seems to have built the same house on a number of Sonoma county locations), two and a half barns, an oil shed, a machine shed, a chicken house, and a long-since disused outhouse.

The last item was early on converted into a doghouse of sorts, or perhaps the intent was to make it a playhouse. I'm not sure. I didn't participate in the conversion, which was effected simply by shortening the building, probably by turning it on its side, on blocks or sawhorses, and cutting off the bottom three feet or so, and then setting it up in a new location.

After it had served its new purpose we dragged it onto the El Camino and hauled it up the hill to the site of the new house I was building for Lindsey and me. (Until then we'd occupied a room in the big house, where our oldest daughter lives with her husband and, until they grew up and moved out, their two daughters.)

Ten or twelve years ago my brother Timothy and I set it up on blocks, and since then it's served as a casual dumping place for twogallon gas cans, the string trimmer, a bucket of wooden stakes, a family of rats, a big plastic bag full of big empty plastic bags, a box of grapevine cuttings for the grill, and whatever else drifted in.

On the corrugated-iron roof, fourteen or twenty iron T-posts left over from an early fencing project, a plumber's snake, a couple of lengths of iron pipe.

It was an eyesore, of course, and not particularly useful. Lindsey was not happy with it. So for the last week we've been working at a project of architectural restoration. I set a couple of posts in the ground, and added a couple of concrete piers on the downhill side, and built a floor with redwood two-by-fours and half a sheet of plywood.

Then came the tricky part: how to restore the bottom third of the building? I settled on three two-foot panels of plywood screwed to two-by-fours extending beyond, which met the stubs of the corner posts in the shed, and scabbed them on with extensions, also two-bys. Then it was a question of setting the thing upright onto the floor.

We did that the old-fashioned way, levering it up until it reached a tipping point, then swiveling it on the floor until correctly oriented. More recently I've been installing shelving. Later we'll cover the plywood sheathing with scrap weathered redwood siding from the fallendown barn, and add a door.

It'll be a good place for poisons, sprays, gas cans, and garden tools. It'll still look like an outhouse, of course; not much we can do about that. Well, maybe that's okay. Maybe one day the septic system will fail here, and I'll have to readapt it to its original purpose.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Music for the mind

Ojai North at UC Berkeley, June 13, 2012:
Janáček: String Quartet 2, "Intimate Letters"
Reinbert de Leeuw: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai
Ives: Piano Sonata no. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860
  Norwegian Chamber Orchestra;
  Reinbert de Leeuw and Marc-André Hamelin, pianos;
  Lucy Shelton, speaker
CAL PERFORMANCES, the performing-arts booker at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, engaged this summer to bring the Ojai Festival north from its annual May schedule in its bucolic setting in Ventura county, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

There, for a number of decades now, contemporary and standard-rep music, for orchestra and chamber ensembles, has been performed in an outdoors shell in a park by the tennis courts which provide one of Ojai's other tourist attractions. Stravinsky performed here; I heard Boulez conduct here forty years ago; once I even performed, reading one of John Cage's lectures with violin and percussion collaborators.

I've always thought that events like these should tour. California's a big country, close to Italy in size; it's a shame to let the work of producing such festivals be spent all at one location only.

I'm not sure the second week of June is the best time to present such concerts in Berkeley, though. School's out; people are away; the weather's glorious; apparently most people have find even the superb acoustics of Hertz Hall less attractive than competing possibilities.

We too are staying away for the most part: the hundred-forty-mile round trip is just too much to repeat next day, and there's too much work to do at home to stay away for three whole days. But yesterday's double concert was too attractive to ignore.

I like the idea of the schedule: two short concerts, one at seven in the evening, the next at 9:30. And the programs! As Christopher Hailey's lucid, intelligent program note was headed, this is music "between then and there, here and now"; individual pieces which generate among themselves a musical conversation about things both personal and historical, conceived by composers of unusually deep and penetrating minds.

The Janáček quartet was played in an adaptation for string orchestra (6-5-4-4-2 in this configuration), with solo players occasionally bringing strategic moments further forward from the ensemble. From my seat centered in the last row — my favorite spot in this hall — the sound was marvelous, both full and focussed. The dynamic range was amazing: pianississimi barely audible, recalling Berg's frequent direction wie ein Hauch, "like a breath." (Except that such silences are breathless; they force you to suppress all activity in your total concentration on the moment.)

At the other end of the range, full-throated fortissimi, almost taking the instruments beyond the range of musical sound into that of noise. Janáček's quartet is "about" his illicit love for a much younger woman, an obsession that found its final musical outlet in this late piece. He was 74 when he wrote it, in the last year of his life: it is in many ways a valedictory. Themes and instrumental assignments are identified quite directly with himself, his ardor, and the young woman; but the piece is also "about" larger, more general matters than personal experience: life and death; age and youth; release and control.

And beyond these matters, which can be individuated within the score and its performance, there is the uniquely musical component, perhaps most easily identified in the transitions — from solo to ensemble, soft to loud (or the reverse), note to phrase, phrase to section. Janáček was famously concerned with finding musical equivalents of speech, specifically the urgent rhythms and crisp consonants of his native Czech language (born in Hukvaldy, near the Polish border, he was Moravian); and his melodic style is given to short thematic outbursts, repeated motives, nervous pacing, all now and then contributing to a longer, fuller statement. Listening to Janáček, you can't help thinking his music is telling you something; and frequently he — and his performers — seem as frustrated as you at the fact you can't tell exactly what it is.

You could tell exactly what it is Reinbert de Leeuw was "talking" about in Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, his cycle of twenty-one (three sets of seven) mediations on well-known Lieder by Schubert and Schumann, setting poems by Heine, Müller, Goerthe Eichendorff, and Ludwig Rellstab. He was telling us what these marvelous songs mean — to him, to us, to the world; and what they meant at the ardent time of their first hearing, when both poem and setting were dashed off, apparently so quickly and unsuppressibly.

And so once again we were confronting age and youth; but now the age of our present postmodern condition and the youth of German Romanticism. On the one hand, by pushing the material of these songs to dramatic extremes, de Leeuw almost succeeds in making what T.S. Eliot would have called a contemporary "objective correlative" of them, not only restoring the youthful, almost adolescent freshness of the original songs through the heightening of their musical expression, but also creating a new, contemporary equivalent of them, by linking Schubert and Schumann (and thereby Heine and Goethe, who after all have lost, for most of us, the surprising immediacy and presence they must have had for their contemporaries) to the long arc of musical and poetic culture their work generated, nearly two hundred years ago.

So de Leeuw not only suggests Mahler and Brecht-Weill and Schoenberg; he also suggests — especially through his technical means — the world of cabaret and rock opera. The American soprano Lucy Shelton, billed on the program as "speaker," certainly speaks some of these lines: but she also sings, and shrieks, and "sprechstimmes" in the manner of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (which she performed two weeks ago in Glasgow), always using a body microphone, alternately standing, turning her back to the audience, facing one or another of the instrumentalists, sitting dejectedly, or stalking about the stage, wearing a black vaguely Biedermeier sheath with a dramatic gold wrap, boldly decorated with what seem to be abstract Klimtian roses or pomegranates, thrown over her back and shoulders. She was ingratiating, seductive, sorrowful, boisterous, reflective, defeated, exhausting, magnificent.

De Leeuw played piano, occasionally beating time or indicating entrances, upstage center, six wind players (flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn) at his left in an open arc toward downstage left; six strings (two each violins and celli, viola and double bass) symmetrically disposed to the right of the harpist who sat on his own right. Fourteen musicians; thrice seven texts.

De Leeuw is of course Dutch, born in 1938 in Amsterdam where in 1974 he founded the Schönberg Ensemble, and since then seems to have been more active as pianist and conductor than as composer. According to Wikipedia his last composition was written for them in 1985; "Since then he has only made adaptations and instrumentations." But if Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is any indication these "adaptations" are full-fledged new compositions in their own right, and this one a particularly significant one, endlessly rewarding and persuasive for its strictly musical content, and meaningful and provocative for what it has to say about the philosophy of music and history.

De Leeuw is a fine pianist — his recordings of Satie are among the finest I know. We last heard him in November 2010, when he provided the music for Hans van Marien's ballet Without Words — playing the piano accompaniments to Hugo Wolf's Mignon songs, the dance alone providing the normally sung component. He played then, as he did last night, with taste, care, and restrained passion: he is a thoroughly admirable example of intelligent, artful restraint.

He is also the co-author (with J. Bernlef) of the important Dutch monograph Charles Ives (1969: De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam), where he writes of the Concord Sonata
In het kolossale stuk worden, misschien als in geen ander, de kwaliteiten van Ives' muziek verenigd. De schitterende paradoxen, de onverwachte associaties, de stilistische vrijheid worden samengevat in een geheel, waarin bij wijze van spreken een eeuw muziek wordt samengevat en daaraan tegelijk een niuewe inhoud geeft. (op. cit., p. 228)
(In this colossal piece, perhaps as in no other, the qualities of Ives's music are united. The stunning paradoxes, unexpected associations, stylistic freedoms are summarized in a single unity, in which in a manner of speaking a century of music is at once summarized and given a renewed meaning.)

Ives, in this great sonata — Lawrence Gilman, writing in the New York Herald Tribune after its 1939 premiere, called it "the greatest music composed by an American," and I could argue that it remains that — is inspired by his long and deep contemplation of the lives and work of four forces of the New England Enlightenment: Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau.

He "depicts" these subjects, and the site-specificity of the Concord in which they lived, with musical concepts and procedures. This isn't tone-painting, at least not often; you won't hear sound-portraits of carriages or steam-trains (though Thoreau's flute is portrayed realistically, wafting in quietly from offstage during the final movement). Instead, cultural associations most of us have been led to form with known musical sources — patriotic songs, hymn-tunes, Beethoven's Fifth, ragtime — are woven into a texture whose nearest artistic equivalent, I think, may be Molly Bloom's very different stream-of-consciousness soliloquy at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses.

De Leeuw quotes Lou Harrison (from the essay "On Quotation", published in Modern Music 23, Summer 1946) on this:
His aim is amazingly close to that of the best Chinese poetry (wherein observed fact is more expression than referred likeness) and of Chinese painting which is concerned with observation of nature, human nature as well as 'natural' nature." (Een opvatting die dicht staat bij de bekende uitspraak van John Cage: "to imitate nature in her manner of operation".) (op. cit., p. 145)
(A formula that recalls the well-known one of John Cage:)

The resulting sonata has the depth, luminosity, inevitable near-nostalgia of the great late Schubert sonatas, in which the huge Understanding of ineffable experiences and matters, so valiantly attempted by Beethoven in his own late sonatas and string quartets, manages to be expressed without the distraction of personal heroics or suffering. There have been other great piano surveys of huge vistas — those by Pierre Boulez come to mind — but no one else, that I know of, manages to train such explorations on specific (though panoramically specific) terrain. Perhaps only a man like Ives, between Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and on the margin of the European art-music tradition, could have achieved it.

I thought Marc-André Hamelin's performance, while persuasive and fluent, lacked passion. It seemed, well, bloodless. This in spite of a marvelous dynamic range, a careful attention to such details as the barely-heard "wrong-note" overtones hanging out of chords and clusters, and what seemed a perfect command of the (memorized) score. I didn't have mine on my lap, so I can't swear to it, but he seemed to have played every page, with perfect authenticity, an achievement I've rarely heard (if ever) even from pianists who had the pages in front of them on the rack.

A French-Canadian, born in 1961, he has recorded Haydn, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Alkan, the Brahms, Shostakovich, Shchedrin, Reger and Strauss concerti, and his own cycle of études in the minor keys, as well as jazz-inflected music by Swiss and French composers… all suggesting that his interest in Ives is logical as well as personal: perhaps the half-full Hertz Hall, or the relatively late hour, had something to do with what seemed to me a softened edge to an otherwise commanding performance.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Four Harrison songs

HarrisonSongsCoverThumb.pngAND NOW, MARVELOUS how much time is gained on fast days, here are four more songs, written more recently, only three years ago…

IN THE SPRING OF 2009 the tenor John Duykers asked for some songs on the subject of planting, and a number of poems from Lou Harrison’s book Joys and Perplexities came quickly to mind. I first met John in 1976, when he sang two songs of mine, “The White Hunter” and another whose title I forget, in a recital at the Oakland Museum, part of the Bicentennial celebrations. Ten years later he took on the demanding role of Heldentenor in my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, when it was workshopped at Mills College, also in Oakland.

I met Lou Harrison earlier, in the middle 1960s, and saw him off and on in the years following, at Mills College where we both taught, at the Cabrillo Music Festival where for years he was genius loci, and on increasingly frequent visits in the early 1980s, when I was working on a biography of him, never to be completed. Lou was of course a wonderful composer and a valuable poet; more than that, he was, as Virgil Thomson wrote, what the French called une grande Nature, a force of Nature, an extraordinarily cultured man with a fine intelligence and a photographic memory. He was also an anti-Modernist, by which I do not mean a Luddite — he enjoyed gadgets as much as anyone — but a person who celebrated and participated in life and humanity throughout the entire range, from the cosmic and biological principles governing our existence to the pleasures and perplexities issuing from the flowering of the human mind and imagination.

Lou, John, and I have one thing in common: Though we travel internationally, and enjoy the benefits of international correspondence and experience, we are Californians resident in a rural context. We value silence and the presence of Nature relatively unmodulated by industrialization. Such a life naturally suits a contemplative mind, the sort Lou evinces in his poetry.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Two Rakosi Songs

RakosiCoverThumb.jpgSOME LITTLE WHILE ago, in July 2007, I wrote here about Carl Rakosi's poem "Cenozoic Time," and Michael Kincaid's book Solar Margins.

The other day we visited an old friend not seen for years, a singer, and I took her some old songs also not seen for years. On getting them ready I discovered the file for one had become quite corrupted. Fortunately I have a recording of it, and was able to reconstruct the score to "Riddle" by listening and transcribing.

Here, then, is the score to my Two Rakosi Songs, composed in 2003. You can listen to the first song, "Cenozoic Time," here; and you're welcome to download the score for nothing, and print it out if you like, and perhaps even sing it, or give it to someone to sing.

Last time I said I'd post my farewell column from my days on the Oakland Tribune here. It's occurred to me, though, that I really ought to ask permission to do that from the newspaper, and the person I need to talk to is apparently on vacation for another week, so that matter is going to have to wait. Sorry.

What is Being, as Carl asks.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Critics and criticism

A FRIEND POSTS, via Facebook, Sibelius's famous remark about criticism:

"Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic."

I commented: "Yes, well…", having spent a few years working as a critic of art and music. Whereupon another friend, still on the Facebook thread:

"Enlighten us, please, Charles, on what the best and brightest can contribute in their refections on the world of music."

I've always been impressed by a seemingly off-hand description of the nature and purpose of criticism that I read in the mid-1980s:
Criticism — the study of the meaning and value of art works
Joseph Kerman: Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology, p. 16

And here's a lengthy report I ran across while looking for Kerman's quote, written 32 years ago, but perhaps still interesting:

What music critics say about themselves
September 28, 1980
By Charles Shere
Tribune Music Critic

Something like 100 music critics were in San Francisco at the opening of Davies Hall ten days ago, gathered not only to see and hear the San Francisco Symphony's new concert hall but also to convene the annual meeting of their Music Critics Association. Most of the events of the meeting were significant only to those in the trade, but a few matters came up which might interest the layman — particularly the layman who reads music criticism.

At one panel, in which four composers made pleas for more responsive criticism of new music, Andrew Imbrie made the enlightening observation that while others in the music business may overestimate it, music critics seem to underestimate their own influence.

The truth is, we don't like to think out our influence much. It makes us nervous. We tend to think it shouldn't matter that much: we know what we think of most of the criticism we read, and hope that no one will take most of it very seriously.

We're leery of Nicholas Slonimsky's famous "Lexicon of Musical Invective," which is full of critical judgments, no doubt ignored in their own time, surviving only because they're so far off the mark. Make one mistake and you'll go down in history, but most of the time we seem to have very little influence on the direction music takes.

It's probably just as well. No one sector should determine the course of so important a part of the culture. On the other hand, the short-run influence we can exert is dismaying. Perfectly intelligent people form opinions of orchestras and opera companies, of composers and performers, of music itself on the basis of reviews read in only one or another of the area's many newspapers. They'd never dream of making political opinions, or shopping decisions, in a similar way.

The two most appealing items in the three-day meeting, then, were those which considered short-term influence by opening communications between critics and other parties among the musical scene — a panel on ethics and the composers' panel.

The ethics panel began out of concern for such nuts-and-bolts matters as libel and slander. (That's not properly a matter of ethics all, but of litigation: what has legal accountability to do with the moral standards of a profession?) It soon moved into two more public areas, however: "conflict of interest" and general competence — and those areas need to be discussed, publicly, a great deal.

"Conflict of interest," which seems to be a uniquely contemporary preoccupation, is in the air this month because of a remark Edo de Waart made in an interview published in the September KQED program guide. The conductor of the San Francisco Symphony was interviewed last April, just after a particularly negative review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It is too bad that this city, which deserves better, has a composer like Heuwell Tircuit writing reviews," de Waart told Alan Ulrich (who has the music desk at the San Francisco Examiner). "Somebody who gets frustrated because we don't play his works."

The fact is that each of the three major dailies has a composer working as music critic: Tircuit on the Chronicle, Michael Walsh on the Examiner, and this writer. There's plenty of precedent for this, going back to such eminent critics as Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

"It would have been too bad to have lost such fine critics (as they,)" Michael Steinberg pointed out to the critics. (The San Francisco Symphony's artistic advisor was himself a widely respected critic when he wrote for the Boston Globe.)

"Not that composers or critics of such quality are necessarily in evidence today. But I must admit that there's something about composers doubling as critics that makes me uneasy."

Harold Schonberg, until recently the chief music critic of the New York Times, confirmed that; that newspaper has an absolute policy against composer-critics. The danger, presumably, is "trade-offs": favorable press in return for performances.

But can't corruption take other forms? Isn't a non-composing critic as open to bribery, or as immune to it? What about picking up extra money writing program notes, giving lectures? What about the free seats themselves?

The real danger is that the public will suspect "trade-offs" where none exist: that's what's likely to happen as a result of the de Waart-Tircuit affair. And that because of a proto-paranoid fear of "conflict of interest" we may lose something much more important, namely community of interest.

About the critic's competence the issues are even more vocally expressed. Richard LeBlond, president of the San Francisco Ballet, raised the critic's obligation to be properly trained, to have background in the discipline he discusses.

He cited a music critic who admitted that lacked familiarity with the basic vocabulary of dance and that he felt it irrelevant to his reviewing ballet. When asked if he felt he could review a symphony without knowing something about classical music he refused to answer.

(LeBlond is particularly sensitive to this, of course: there's a long tradition of sending music critics to review dance, even though the two arts really have little in common. Would you send a blind man to review dance?)

Another of LeBlond's challenges to the critics — "You have the obligation not to be bored, not to be lazy" — tied in directly to the comments made by the composers at their panel.

"Listen for what will come next, not just the predictable expectation," Robert Hughes pleaded.

This challenge focuses on the double function of the critic. The traditional public role has been that of evaluator, arbiter: the writer who ]istens for the false note, the lapse of memory, and who totes up the hierarchy of great and lesser artists.

We do have to do all that, but it's basically a sideline activity. Our real function is to figure out what's going on — whether in individual reviews or collectively, in the anthologies of critical writing which develop over the generations.

Our assignment is to figure out what's going on, to see and hear it, perhaps to help others see and hear it, and only then to hook it up to something to make sense of it.

Before coming to the judgment (although perhaps simultaneously, since listening to music can stretch the present instant), we must respond to the intuitive quality of the moment, on its own terms and for its own revelation.

We work, as all musicians do, in a curious mode, neither analytical nor not analytical. We hear sounds and we hear them hooking up to other sounds; we listen to them only for themselves and at the same time as part of the context, the flow or language of sounds.

That's not as esoteric as it may sound. It's a common interpretive process — what simultaneous interpreters do at the United Nations, what mature parents or lovers do when responding to their intimates, what artists themselves do when mediating, somehow, between their sources and their work.

It doesn't work at all in a climate of suspicion, and it doesn't work very well in a polarized, us-and-them kind of adversary relationship. For the process to flourish it needs to operate as publicly as possible, even with public response to the critic. There are signs that organizations like the Music Critics Association are facilitating such publicity: We're beginning to talk to one another.
In another seven years, though, I'd had enough of practicing criticism — partly through discouragement in the wake of another Music Critics Association meeting, where the majority of the assembled "professional" critics seemed of questionable use. Next time here I'll post my final column from the Tribune.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Long walk to Fort Ross

Fisk Mill Cove, Sonoma coast
FtRwalk.pngSATURDAY, JUNE 2: GLORIOUS weather, fine terrain, good company — only the pace, a little slow and far too often halted, detracted from a first-rate long day's walk.

The event was planned and organized, admirably, by Jeff Tobes, who has led similar history-oriented group walks on a number of previous occasions. This was in fact the eighth annual 25-mile walk produced for the Sonoma County Historical Society, and Jeff got more than he'd bargained for this time, as 130 people eventually signed up for the day.

Most of the walkers boarded big yellow school buses in Santa Rosa, but Thérèse and I opted for the closer departure point in Forestville. This allowed me to get up at 3:15 am rather than 2:30. I can't recall when I've got out of bed so early in the morning: but we were rewarded by a rare sight, the almost full moon about to set, huge and eerily apricot-colored, in an otherwise pitch-black sky.

IMG_3356.jpgAbout quarter past four the bus arrived for us. It took us out River Road, through Guerneville and Monte Rio and Jenner, then up Highway 1, Meyers Grade Road, and Seaview Road to the parking lot at Fort Ross School — about thirty miles from Forestville, but a slow slow grind; some of the roads were hardly wide enough for the bus, and the turns were tight, the drop-offs scary.

We arrived at the parking lot, still dark, about five-thirty, grouped for a count and instructions, did a few stretching exercises, and waited for our six o'clock departure time. I suddenly realized I'd forgotten to wear a hat: at 3:30 am, a hat was the last thing in my mind, and I'd neglected to set it out with my pack the night before. Oh well: I've done without before.

IMG_3361.jpgWe set off almost on schedule just a few minutes past six, daylight by now well on the way. The morning sun was glorious through the tall firs and redwoods, and we walked past a few dooryards surprisingly tucked behind fences — you never realize how many people live out here in so apparently remote a place.

When I was in high school, in the early 1950s, the few students whose families lived out here usually boarded in town — Sebastopol — during the winter months. My mother taught a few years at Fort Ross school, and after only a few weeks realized she'd have to live out near the school; the commute from Hessel, 45 miles away, would take a good two hours in fair weather, much longer in heavy fog or rain. (She always had a chain saw and a shovel in the car.)

We walked three and a half miles up Seaview Road, then turned onto Kruse Ranch Road for another half mile, to Plantation. I knew this from the old days; Mom and my two youngest brothers lived here for a few months — I think they were boarded by school families by turns during her tenure: Fort Ross School, Plantation, Salt Point, Timber Cove. (Finally she found a place of her own, near the north end of the bridge over the mouth of the Russian River near Jenner, in a little two-room shack that disappeared long ago.)

In those days Plantation was a rather run-down boarding school run by the Crittendon family. Now it's a much more polished looking farm camp; I can imagine it would make a fine summer experience for kids needing to learn the basic skills of hard work and healthy living.


The sun was slanting down brightly over the gleaming white dormers of the main house, and we all gathered around outside the restored Druids Hall, where volunteers cooked a welcome breakfast for us — scrambled eggs and bacon, beans, rice and salsa, tortillas, and cases of fresh peaches and strawberries; best of all, plenty of good hot coffee — and, of course, the possibility of a pit stop.

I was impressed with Plantation. Improbable as it seems, it was a working resort a century or so ago; people rode up on stage coaches. By 1871 there was a saloon and a stage house nere and that same year a school was organized. The Druids Hall went up in the late 1870s — people needed their society in those days — and a post office followed at the turn of the century.

After half an hour or so we resumed the walk, continuing on Kruse Ranch Road, then on narrow trails through fairly dense forest in Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, where the native rhododendrons, lanky and a bit past their peak, still showed blue and purple high among firs and redwoods.

IMG_3376.jpg In the understory, at our feet at the edge of road and trail, among the ferns, we saw lilies, orchids, iris, and a number of other flowers — Khloris knows I am no botanical expert; I'm content to enjoy the imponderable generosity of their mere flowering existence.

By now, of course, we were descending at a pretty good clip; Plantation was about a thousand feet above sea level; we were headed for the coast. (Our starting point at Fort Ross School was the highest point of the day, at 1285 feet.)

In the dense forest my trail-mapping app lost sight of the GPS satellites it needs, but on a walk this long I think the resulting margin of error is acceptable. (You can download the .kmz file of waypoints for the entire walk from my website.)

After about three hours' walking, not including the breakfast break, we hit sea level at Stump Beach, downcoast from Fisk Mill Cove, which looked to me like about the one-third point on the walk. This part of the northern Sonoma coast, from Jenner at the mouth of the Russian River up to Sea Ranch or so, is studded with coves, most of which were used for loading lumber onto schooners in the sixty years or so after the Gold Rush.
IMG_3397.jpgFisk Mill Cove, Gerstle Cove, Ocean Cove, Stillwater Cove, Timber Cove: we skirted all of these, sometimes on trails in parks, sometimes bushwhacking across fields, a couple of times marching three or four abreast in one lane of Highway 1, when twice it was restricted to one-way car traffic just to accommodate us.

The flowers were truly extraordinary. Reds, orange, yellows, blues, most of the blooms quite small of course — these plants have to be thrifty on their windswept, salt-sprayed bluffs. At times we came to groves of low mounding beach cypress; our trail even entered these mounds at times, and we found ourselves in dark, fragrant caves.

At Gerstle Cove we headed inland, climbing through fairly thick forest to cross the highway and head for the picnic grounds at Woodside Campgrounds in Salt Point State Park. Sadly, because of the California state deficit, many of the state park facilities are closed; but these campgrounds are operating — though curiously empty at the moment. The Fort Ross Store provided sandwiches, milk, and juice, and we sat at a picnic table, Thérèse and I and an interesting woman who joined us.

photo: Thérèse Shere

Among these 130 people there were few solitaries. Most seemed to be in pairs, some in larger groups, families perhaps, or walking buddies. Most seemed pretty well geared, many with hiking sticks and backpack-canteens; and though Jeff had cautioned us against carrying backpacks — and offered "sag wagons," cars that convoyed along and met us at strategic locations, to carry any packs, coats, extra shoes and the like for us, still nearly everyone had a day pack or a fanny pack or something of the sort. (I wore my hiking bandolier, which carries a one-liter water bottle, my iPhone and a couple of external batteries, a handful or two of dried figs and another handful or two of salted nuts, a notebook, sunglasses, and the like.)

By now it was past two o'clock, and I began to wonder how we'd ever manage to arrive at Fort Ross by six. We headed back to the coast, skirting Ocean Cove by walking on the highway for a quarter-mile or so, then returning to the trail along the edge of the bluff, southeasterly to Stillwater Cove. Here we took a detour up the Stillwater Ranch driveway, past its handsome stone house and its annoying peacock, and into Stillwater Park, one of Sonoma County's regional parks, where I was surprised to find the one-room Fort Ross schoolhouse — so surprised that I didn't think to photograph it, even though it was the building my mother taught in half a century ago — before it was declared surplus property, given to the state, then abandoned to the county's care, occasioning its relocation in this historically irrelevant place.

Oh well. From Stillwater we head westerly, away from the coast, up a pretty steep trail and through a private homeowners' association reserve — the sort of thing that can only be done by special permission, one of the reasons it made sense to walk in this group. This being the county historical society, and our leader being a retired history teacher, we took a short detour to ring a historical bell.

Before long we reached Timber Cove Road, whose quite steep, dead straight descent south to the coast was probably my least favorite part of the walk. Downhill on asphalt, after twelve or fifteen miles on the trail, is hard on toes and calves. We kept to the soft edge alongside the road where possible, but it was pretty narrow.

But soon enough we were at Timber Cove. I stepped into the Timber Cove Inn and phoned home to arrange for a pickup at Fort Ross, as we'd decided not to ride the bus back — it was going back via our start-point at Fort Ross School, and would take a long time, on twisty roads in the dark, right after dinner: not an attractive prospect.

The other 129 walkers were out in the parking lot, where the sag wagons and the trailer with its two portable toilets were steadying the troops. We were within shouting distance, only three miles or so, of our destination. But first our leader wanted to show us Beniamino Bufano's Madonna of the Expanding Universe, a 93-foot obelisk in the sculptor's characteristic naive-deco style which often strikes me as simple-minded, but occasionally attains considerable strength.

This particular piece, probably unfinished, takes a lot of thought if it isn't to be dismissed (or for that matter accepted) too glibly. There's no denying its seriousness of intent, and any work of art with so much thought, work, and intention behind its creation deserves reflective appreciation.

I won't describe it; you can read about it here. You must know, though, that it is the property of the State, and placed in a state park, the second-smallest in California — just big enough, we were told in an interesting and very enthusiastic little lecture by the park ranger, to contain it should it topple, which Poseidon forbid.

(The smallest state park contains Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, in Los Angeles: the two parks, and the two works of art they contain, make an interesting symmetry: the product of compulsive idealist outsider artists during the peak of Modernism, with foreshadowings, ironically, of the most intellectual conceptual art that would seem to displace them utterly in the history of 20th century art.)
We single-filed away from the Madonna on what struck me the most dangerous part of the walk, a dozen feet on a tight path that skirted a drop of fifty feet or so to the rocks below. At one point I stumbled on my own shoe and caught hold a branch hanging over the void: it would never have held me, but it steadied me, and I didn't attract any attention that I noticed…

IMG_3424.jpgAfter a half-mile or so on the highway, again protected by flashing red lights at each end of the stretch, we turned once again toward the coast, walking through first a private campground, then someone's side yard — amazing, that people can privately own territory at the very edge of the continent. We stepped through a private gate, walked through another enchanting field of flowers, and then surprisingly trod a hundred feet or so of ice plant, the succulent leaves breaking and weeping underfoot.

Another grove of cypress, another stretch of roadside trail, and then we came to a board gate at a fence. In a ludicrously clumsy ballet 130 of us laboriously hauled ourselves over the boards, our toilet-truck standing by in case of emergency I suppose; and then we set out again through a long final field, some of the most difficult footing of the day, a cow-pasture full of gopher holes, molehills, and hidden pools and runnels. This led to a second set of board gates, and here I actually had the sense, after watching a few people climb over them, to find the sliding bolt, draw it back, and open the gate for the others. (Of course, not being that smart, I'd already laboriously climbed it myself.)

photo: Thérèse Shere

By now the light was changing; the wind had come up; we were all ready to end the walk — and the fort still lay a mile or so off. All discipline was gone, 130 walkers were scattered across the cow-pasture, many toiling along a track, others of us heading on our own ideas of a more direct route to where we thought the fort must lie, teasingly out of view.

And then there we were. An asphalt road led underneath an overhanging cypress; beyond, the school buses were parked, and the sag wagons, and there was fragrant smoke in the air. We walked past the Call house, then through the stockade gate. I hadn't been here in years, not since the last big earthquake caused a lot of damage, and Highway 1 was routed away from the site, and the old Russian church was restored, and more recently a replica was built of the imposing Magazine, which I hadn't known about at all.

photo: Thérèse Shere

Another crew of volunteers were cooking up rice, beans and chicken in huge iron pots over an open fire. There was an array of what I think of as Oklahoma funeral salads: potato salads, macaroni salads, olive-and-sweet pepper salads. The rolls had been donated by Franco American, and took me back sixty-five years when they were a family favorite in my childhood; and the butter was churned on the spot from cream donated by neighboring milk-cows. Plenty of coffee; plenty of fresh fruit; delicious Russian cookies. It was cold, an hour and a half later than we'd planned, and we hunched over our plates.

Then came our reward: a quick lecture on the history of the site, and a cannon salute. Walkers volunteered for the five-man crew: Tent the vent! Clear the piece! Fire in the hole! Our leader set a match to the fuse; we covered our ears; a fine loud satisfying POP! roared across the champs-de-Mars, and our day was over. IMG_3432.jpg

It was l'heure bleue, and the full moon had climbed to the tip of a windblown cypress east of the stockade. Lindsey was waiting for us in the parking lot, we thought; soon I'd be home, perhaps with a celebratory Martini.

Of course it wasn't quite so simple. Unsure of our exact location, and concerned that we hadn't shown up in the parking lot, she'd driven off — to Fort Ross School; to Plantation; to Timber Cove, where she messaged me. Alas, there is virtually no cell phone coverage out on that coast. Ultimately we found one another, of course, after we'd walked another mile or two between parking lot and stockade. A long day; a strange day; a tiring day; a glorious day. I realize, just now, typing these words, I'd do it again.