The wife and kids and I spent last week at a cabin near Mendocino on the northern California coast, just down the road from what must be the world’s most scenically situated cemetery. If I could pick any place at all for my “long retirement,” the cemetery at Little River would be it. I’d order a custom-built casket with a window and periscope attached; in my earthy drawer beneath the pines I would decompose in perfect contentment with a view of the Pacific bluffs.
Mendocino was settled in the 1850s by New England logging families, Chinese laborers, and fishermen from the Azores. The Yankees left their mark in the town’s carpenter gothic architecture and converted water towers. The Chinese (whose numbers in the mid-1800s were greater than the total current population) built a Joss House, a Taoist temple, that still functions today. The Portuguese planted the otherworldly echium pininana that sprout twelve-foot-tall pink and purple floral towers, each of which could support whole colonies of bees and hummingbirds.
By the early years of World War II, when Japanese subs prowled off the coast, Mendocino was in decline. Later, James Dean’s East of Eden was filmed here, and several episodes of Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is sustained today by tourists motoring up Highway 1, by weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the regular patronage of gray-market marijuana farmers who filter down from the woods when they need things like toilet paper or milk or a sit-down-and-talk at the local bar.
In the checkout line of the small grocery store in downtown Mendocino you can buy the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, but no celebrity gossip rags. You can buy superior tonic water for your evening cocktails and several types of gluten-free baked goods. Mendocino is that kind of place. Every restaurant down Lansing and Ukiah Streets serves local, organic foods. The coffee shop stocks organic almond milk for the dairy-intolerant. The toy store highlights products not made in China.
From the top of nearby Van Damme State Park we hiked through a “pygmy forest” where the acidic soil, without benefit of drainage from higher ridges, has stunted a dense growth of Mendocino Cypress, Pacific Rhododendron and Bishop’s Pine. Down a steep decline we came into the redwoods. Here wild clovers grow as big as a man’s hand. Butterflies, flapping drunkenly from pool to pool of light, tempt you off the path like fairies.
At the beach below the town bluffs we unexpectedly ran into some acquaintances. While we talked, the kids made friends with a local boy named “Monday” who liked to bury insects in the sand and watch them crawl out again. Next day, en route to the botanical gardens at Fort Bragg (where we would spot an osprey), we saw the beginning of a grass fire at the edge of the same beach. We pulled up to a hardware store and told them to call for help. When we drove by again several hours later the firefighters were still smothering the last patches of heat.
Back at the cabin, furnished in a 1940s theme, we cooked beans and rice and listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records on vinyl, then watched (of all things) Back to the Future. It was, in every way, an escape from the present. There was no cell reception and I’d left my work computer at home. We drank in generous measures of quiet. The kids wanted to stay and breathe the salt air indefinitely, to give more time to the woods and beach, to dedicate themselves to chess and cards and drawing pictures. In full relaxation mode, my wife drank tea and read Stendhal while I drank tea and read Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and passages from Walden.
Framed on the walls of the cabin’s one bedroom were old photographs of the proprietor’s parents, a then-young Navy officer and his high school sweetheart. There were framed love letters they had written each other during the last months of WWII, as well as birth and baptismal certificates, a marriage license, and paper menus from hotels and restaurants where they had dined, back in the days when fifteen cents would buy you a slice of pie, and five cents a cup of coffee.
On the nightstand I found a short essay written in 1945 by the proprietor’s mother, in a pleasant cursive script without erasures. She had titled it “The Edifice of Peace” but the c in “peace” I at first mistook for an s. Intentional? I wondered if it were perhaps a playful rather than a serious exercise, but not at all. Drafted by a nineteen-year-old girl on the threshold of marriage and the armistice, it was written in an inspired spirit of charming, heroic naiveté.
“You and you and you,” it begins, “are the builders of tomorrow’s world. Out of the chaos and destruction of the war each one of you has a stone to build into the structure of peace. What sort of a structure are you going to build? Not the same as the last one, which has crumbled away so completely before the whip of Mars.”
“This time,” she resolved, “we shall not build our foundations on paper treaties.” I nod my agreement. The foundations of even a moment’s peace, it seems to me, can only be built on more substantial things – things like exhaustion, necessity, and desire. Sometimes we’re lucky with the materials at hand.