Monthly Archives: June 2010

Flora Wellman

Flora Wellman

Near Third and Brannan, a few blocks from my office in San Francisco, is an unremarkable building with a green and black stone façade and a plaque on its side indicating the spot where Jack London was born in 1876.  It’s hard to believe this was ever a residential district.  It’s a neighborhood of upscale and downscale restaurants, bars, artists’ studios, and warehouses that have, for the most part, been carved up into offices for technology companies.  But the whole area was leveled and charred in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The day of Jack’s nativity must have been a memorable one for the neighbors.  Not so much, perhaps, for the sake of the famous author the infant would one day become, but for the scandal of his peculiar mother and her troubled pregnancy.  I often think of her when I walk up Third Street on my lunch hour and pass the site where the house once stood.

Flora Wellman was a native of Ohio who had run away from her well-to-do family and fled west.  She wound up a boarder in the house of Henry Yesler, mayor of Seattle in the Washington Territory, and it was there that she met William Chaney, a freethinker and charlatan astrologer who was, by all accounts but his own, Jack’s father.  It’s unclear if the two were ever legally married, but they relocated to bohemian San Francisco, where they went into business together and contributed to the publication of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas.  Flora Wellman was a music teacher by training, but also, like Chaney, a spiritualist, and subject to bouts of possession by the ghost of a long-dead Indian chief.  She had been an especially attractive child, it was said, but had suffered a strange fever at an early age that put a halt to her growth at well under five feet and left her mostly bald: she wore a wig the rest of her life.  Even in the San Francisco of the day, famous for odd characters, she must have made an impression: a dwarfish, baby-faced lady necromancer, humming as she stomped down the street, her belly more and more notably swollen.

On discovering that Flora was pregnant, Chaney insisted she get rid of the inconvenience by whatever means necessary.  She seems to have made a half-hearted attempt at suicide in response, shooting herself with a pistol, but not fatally and with no very serious long-term effects.  Chaney publicly abandoned her and disowned the child.  Then, by all accounts, Flora Wellman lost her mind.  When she found it again, several months later, she discovered that she was a mother.  She and the baby would not live near the corner of Third and Brannan for long, however.  Within a year, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, whose last name was given to her boy as well, and the little family made the first of many changes of address.

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Marginalia, no.132

The more rigorous opinion prevailed, as it was natural to expect, over the milder.

~ Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall

Recall Newton’s Third Law of Opinions: For every act of zealous opinionating there is an equally zealous opinionating to the contrary.  In the public square, persons who want to be heard must yell, and persons who yell all the time lose the ability to hear quieter voices.  Theodore Dalrymple might have had the Gibbon quote in mind when he observed: “Few people are so attracted by moderation that they are converted by it.”

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Marginalia, no.131

To NEESE, v.n. [nyse, Danish; niessen, Dutch.] To sneeze; to discharge flatulencies by the nose.  Retained in Scotland.

~ Johnson’s Dictionary

Time proves itself a comedian.  ‘Flatulence’ derives from the Latin flatum (the supine form of flare, to blow), with no specific implication of intestinal gas, even in Johnson’s day.  ‘Afflatus’ rises from the same root, and the ‘divine afflatus’ may originally have been conceived as a heavenly sneeze.  When Telemachus neeses from the other room after Penelope pledges faith in her husband’s return, it’s taken as a favorable sign from the gods.  Also, note Johnson’s customary derision of the Scots, accusing them of holding in their flatulencies; they’re still considered generally retentive.

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Analog Beach

One of my son’s friends celebrated her sixth birthday this past weekend.  The party took place at an isolated beach on Monterey Bay, accessible only by several miles of county road that twist through shallow canyons and over little domed hills topped with eucalyptus groves and strawberry fields.  It was a cool, windy day and so the barbeque and birthday cake were enjoyed on the bluff in a shelter of cypresses, a hundred feet above the shore.  The children already knew one another and got right to the business playing hide-and-seek and tag.  We adults could only borrow on their familiarity to strike up cautious conversations about nothing in particular and stall into embarrassed silence after every few sentences.

The beach was less picked over than most.  At the tide-line were necklaces of seaweed from which broken sand dollars and brilliantly colored bits of abalone hung like charms.  Scallops of clam shell and the discarded moltings of sand crabs (Emerita analoga) bleached in the sun.  In fact, the beach is home to a populous colony of these little creatures—also known as mole crabs—, few of which were bigger than the tip of my thumb.  One scoop of a plastic toy shovel turns up dozens, flailing their phalanges to right themselves and burrow under the sand again.  Standing calf-deep in the water, my daughter screamed with glee when the retreating waves momentarily uncovered thousands at once, all around us, paddling seaward together like the reflected image of a great flock of birds.

I’m curious about their genus name: Emerita, which puts me in mind of a retired lady professor.  I wonder if that’s something like the intent.  I can only speculate, since I don’t own an etymological scientific dictionary, but they do seem of a more retiring nature than some of their predatory, claw-flashing cousins.  Sand crabs only ever move backwards, for instance, and from their shallow nests they hunt passively by straining plankton through furry antennae.  Their shells are precisely the color of the sand in which they live and so they usually escape detection by the shore birds that might like to eat them.

I feel a strange shudder whenever pelicans fly overhead.  I don’t know if this is a common experience.  They always seem impossibly large to me.  The eye marks them and the mind calculates distance and perspective to arrive at an estimate of their size, but it freezes up, it panics like Gregory Syme when he first sees the supernaturally large Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.  California Brown Pelicans regularly attain wingspans greater than eight feet.  There’s something weirdly primeval in their movement and shape; something perverse and dimly threatening in the way they glide so solidly through the air, like shaggy pterodactyls, and explode into the sea from a height to stun and swallow unsuspecting fishes.

I wonder what the ocean looks like to a sand crab.  Probably she never sees it at all, just as we never really see the air.  It’s only the universal, invisible medium of her life.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever properly seen the ocean either.  I can look at it; I can’t see it.  Scale is the challenge, like it was with the pelican.  The surface area of the Pacific is substantially greater than that of the entire planet Mars, but smaller seas must present the same difficulty.  One stands on the beach and looks in the direction of the ocean.  One tries to swallow it with the eye as a discrete object.  The shoreline is no trouble.  The first fifty yards recede sensically.  Any farther than that, however, and it collapses into two-dimensionality.  The mind abandons any attempt to comprehend volume or distance.  The infinite ocean is reduced to a roaring cardboard mural.

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Marginalia, no.130

BOWESS, or BOWET, in falconry, a young hawk, when she draws anything out of her nest, and covets to clamber on the boughs.

~ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771 ed.

At bedtime my four-year-old daughter likes to pretend that she’s a painted bunting named Rose.  She makes her bed a nest, wraps herself round in sheets, and stretches a thin baby blanket over her shoulders for wings.  I’ll hear a thumping sound from her room and come in to find that she’s kicked all the stuffed animals from her perch and climbed up the headboard to leap squawking through the air.

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Marginalia, no.129

The bronze statues by the city gates show their right hands worn thin by the touch of travelers who have greeted them in passing.

~ Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

I leaned recently that forensic DNA analysis has advanced far enough for viable samples to be recovered by swabbing the wall, table or door where a hand had only briefly settled.  Science appears determined to make us all into lepers.  Now, whenever I shake someone’s hand I’ll know that I’ve given a little of myself away.

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Three Paragraphs of Excuse

I’ve neglected you, dear reader, but against my will.  In the peculiar life of businesses there are occasional moments of crisis (usually self-imposed or imaginary), and my employer has seen fit just now to schedule one without consulting my convenience.

Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution writes that “most men of business love a sort of twilight.”  Bagehot had in mind an “intellectual haze,” but I’ve seen the literal twilight of evening here from my office window more than once these past few days, and the midnight dark too.  I haven’t loved it – which consoles me a little for the vile image of myself as a ‘man of business.’

Meanwhile, Orion is climbing down the sky again, the tomatoes fatten dreamily in the planter box and the oleanders explode into color.   The ritual baring of flesh commences in street and park, and it’s suddenly hot enough at midday to resent the sun.  There is no doubting the summer.

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