Tag Archives: History

The Man Who Walked

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion.’

The quote is from William Dalrymple’s interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor, conducted at the latter’s home in the Peloponnese.  It’s encouraging to see that Fermor has acuity and humor enough to make such remarks at 93 years old; encouraging, too, to catch Dalrymple’s reported sighting of the “8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.”  It would be a double loss were Fermor himself to end before finishing his planned three-volume travel memoir – the second installment of which arrived over twenty years ago.

Reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water is an education in print, just as the 1933-35 trek recounted in the books served as an alternative university for Fermor, who had a knack for getting kicked out of school.  Without too much posturing -I think- on his own behalf, Fermor becomes in these pages a sort of everyman on pilgrimage to Byzantium, his life a bildungsroman even Childe Harold might envy.  In every wintry starving solitude he is the object of unexpected charity; in every metropolis, the consummate flâneur; under every gothic arch, the questioning, curious student; at the door of every fire-warmed baronial schloss, the adopted cousin of infinite fascination.

That particular Europe is gone.  It was on its way out even then in ’33, the year Hitler was made Chancellor.  The Rhine Valley, the Vienna, Hungary and Transylvania that Fermor describes, from the dual perspective of enthusiastic youth and world-wise soldier turned writer, is a heavy lesson in the cultural and personal costs of war: buried under a merciless weight of history, stamped out by the boots of the two great twentieth-century totalitarianisms.  But Fermor’s prose is an amber preservative, full of golden glimpses of a world-that-was.

About that prose: On first introduction you may experience the briefest hesitation, like a bather stepping into a swift, cold stream.  But then you give yourself to the current and are carried effortlessly, joyfully along.  Fermor’s is not the kind of writing that makes for the convenient collection of aphorisms or that encourages consumption in fits and starts.  It is seductive and intelligent, full of vigor and keen observation (I’m still haunted by his description of a Sunday morning in Germany, when the bells for mass pealed through the liquid atmosphere of a downpour: “We might have been in a submarine among sunk cathredrals,” he says).  Fermor’s is the kind of writing that makes for the slow, warm digestion that assures you that, yes, you’ve dined very well indeed.



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Dragon Trees of California

There is a craze all over the state about the eucalyptus or Australian blue gum tree…  Eucalyptus will frighten away fevers and murder malaria.  Its leaves cure asthma.  Its roots knock out ague as cold as jelly.  Its bark improves that of a dog.  A dead body buried in a coffin made from the wood of the blue gum will enjoy immunity from the exploring mole and the penetrating worm… [T]his absurd vegetable is now growing all over the State.  One cannot get out of its sight… It defaces every landscape with botches of blue and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman’s medicine chest.  Let us have no more of it.

~ The Argonaut (San Francisco), April 22, 1877

The Englishman William Dampier was a professional pirate and an amateur naturalist. He was also the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.  After a stint in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Dampier turned buccaneer and spent most of the 1670s and ‘80s harassing Spanish trade routes in the Caribbean and Pacific, with occasional overland raids through Peru and the isthmus of Darien.  In 1688 Dampier was employed aboard a ship called the Cygnet which had careened for repairs on the coast of New Holland – what we know today as Australia. While the Cygnet’s bottom was being scraped, Dampier took the opportunity to explore the area and take notes on the native flora.  He described one unusual species which he named the “dragon tree” (after similar trees he’d seen in the Madeira and Canary Islands).  These dragon trees, he wrote, produced a gum that “distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of the trees.” 

Dampier was describing the eucalyptus.  There are over seven hundred varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.  The story of how the tree came to fly its isolated homeland and within the space of a hundred years colonize the Indian subcontinent, Africa, parts of Britain, China, the Middle East and the Americas is a curious one.  Here in California, as in certain corners of Uruguay and South Africa, the eucalyptus once threatened to dominate the entire landscape.  Even today, long after the 19th-century eucalyptus craze ended, coastal California is thick with eucalyptus groves.  Many Californians simply assume the trees have always been here.  Any other tree of a size comparable to a full-grown eucalyptus would necessarily pre-date Spanish and American settlement.

Exactly how the eucalyptus came to California is a point of some debate.  It seems likely that it first arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush.  That year nearly 3000 Australians left for California.  The passage from Sydney to San Francisco, across the full immensity of the Pacific, was in those days shorter than the passage from New York to San Francisco, since the latter required rounding Cape Horn.  (The transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal were achievements of later generations.)  The Australians, in ships built of aromatic “blue gum” eucalyptus, were some of the very first to arrive for the California Gold Rush.  Somewhere aboard one of those vessels was probably stowed a bag of seeds.

The eucalyptus was soon celebrated as a “wonder tree” – and it really is a wonder.  It grows extremely fast.  Some varieties reach 40-feet in five years, or over 150-feet in 25 years.  Planted in California’s sparsely wooded central and southern coastal pale, it offered a quick return in firewood and lumber, and made a fast-growing wind-brake.  And though it will thrive in arid climates, eucalyptus roots can drain great quantities of water from the soil.  It was planted in many of California’s wetlands to open them up for farming and deny the mosquito a breeding ground in the standing water.  The eucalyptus is largely responsible for putting an end to the endemic malaria that plagued California through the 19th century.  It promised other health benefits too.  Oil distilled from eucalyptus leaves, for example, could be used to produce cleaning products or medicinals like decongestants and cough drops.

By the 1870s, as the Gold Rush petered out, a “Gum Rush” took hold.  Tens of thousands of acres were planted on any available open land.  Lumber mills dedicated solely to the eucalyptus were built.   Professional naturalists and amateur enthusiasts toured the state preaching the benefits of the eucalyptus and advocating its broader cultivation.  Ellwood Cooper was one such gum tree evangelist.  As president of Santa Barbara College, Cooper planted hundreds of acres.  His lush groves of eucalyptus were renowned through all California.  In a lecture delivered in 1875, Cooper praised the eucalyptus as a sort of universal remedy for health complaints and meteorological inclemency.  Plant more gum trees, he said, and the winds will calm, the summer heats moderate, and human health and social well being will improve all around.

But just as the Gold Rush had come and gone, the Gum Rush fizzled out.  The wood couldn’t be properly seasoned to fulfill all the uses for which it had been intended.  The pharmacists lost interest.  A hardwood shortage that contributed to the fevered planting of eucalyptus was instead resolved by increased use of other building materials such as steel, bricks and cement.  And just as the Gold Rush had left behind a landscape transfigured, the short-lived enthusiasm over the Australian gum tree utterly changed California.  The trees were everywhere – and not everyone was happy about it.  The editorialist in San Francisco’s Argonaut newspaper, quoted above, spoke for not a few of his fellow citizens.

Today, botanists and environmental purists in California consider the eucalyptus a “weed,” an invasive, non-native pest.  They style eucalyptus groves “infestations” and call for its total elimination from the landscape.  But there are still others, like yours truly, who recall fondly the blue gum ships that sailed into the Golden Gate in 1849, and who honor the tree that cured malaria.  There are still those who love the cool stillness of a eucalyptus grove in mid-summer, the bark that peels in long crisp sheets, and the clean antiseptic smell of the blue and green dragon scale leaves.


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The Librarian of Auschwitz

To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare…as if the authority of the texts in our own lives were immune from recent history is subtle but corrosive illiteracy.  …We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.  To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant.  In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferrable to those of conduct?

~ George Steiner, Language and Silence

It may be impolite to say so, but it seems to me that intellectuals of the war generation frequently suffer from a too acute sense of historical exceptionalism.  Perhaps we find an example here.  Of course, in the mid-1960s -when Steiner wrote the above- the Second World War was a fresher scar than it is today, so some indulgences are granted.  But the idea seems to be that the events of the war, and the barbarity and suffering they entailed, were somehow qualitatively other (rather than quantitatively greater) than the human race had seen before.  According to this line of thought, the war brought to light facts of human depravity and moral fracture no prior generation had ever been forced to grapple with – such that all the past was forfeit and the religious, philosophical, and cultural wisdom of millennia was rendered irrelevant.

Should it be so surprising that a person can recite Goethe by heart or play a Bach prelude with a measure of skill and still be a monster?  It betrays an almost Victorian naiveté to think so.  A generation or two before Steiner, Paul Valery and Thomas Mann thought the First World War had stanched all such idealism – but the myth of the morally ennobling powers of western culture died a slow and sputtering death.  In fact, you can still hear it gurgling today, both among those on the right who continue to bluff faith in its innate superiority and those on the left who make it the West’s only evangelical task to lift the swarming masses of the third world up from poverty and ignorance into the liberating glory of consumerist post-modernity.

In J.G. Farrell’s Booker Prize winning The Siege of Krishnapur, the character of Mr Hopkins is disappointed by the failure of western culture to ennoble, as he saw it, the lives and minds of colonial India’s subject population.  “Culture is a sham” he finally concludes. “It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.”  We needn’t be so completely embittered as that.  But it’s certainly true that the noblest achievements of art and culture do not in themselves confer nobility on their appreciators or chart a progress up from barbarism to any summits of moral refinement.  Something more is required.  The products of a culture are not that culture itself, after all, but they are just that: its products.  They reflect the biases and obsessions and conflicting impulses of a particular people at a particular time, laboring under influences that are often obscure, as well as the constant, unfudge-able human nature that is the same everywhere and at all times.  They are not entirely without the ability to influence, but that ability is gravely limited even within the culture from which they are born, and they work no alchemy on the hard core of the heart.

Lest we fool ourselves, it’s precisely the fact that the same person can recite poetry in the evening and wake in the morning to return to work at Auschwitz that is at once our utter condemnation and our glory.  To hold these two possibilities in tension, albeit unconsciously, is to be human.  The truest and greatest products of art and culture, like the most profound insights of religion and philosophy, reflect that paradox.  This same vexed and violent, despairing wretch, Man, is also Shakespeare’s quintessence of dust godlike in apprehension, infinite in faculties and noble in reason – the most maddeningly contradictory of creatures.

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Marginalia, no.4

[M]ankind is eager for truth, lives by it, will not let it go, and turns desperate in the teeth of contradiction…  We must recognize that our work to attain truth succeeds only piecemeal.  Where our hope of truth breaks down is at the stage of making great inferences from well-tested lesser truths.  Still, we cannot help inferring.  Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles.  We need them both for comfort and for action… As the historian knows, the breakup of old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement, which are part of man’s fate.  It should only make us strengthen tolerance and lessen our pretentions.

~ Jacques Barzun, “The Search for Truths”

2008 is my year for lessening pretensions; you may judge my success (or failure) for yourself.  But perhaps my happiest bookshop find of the year so far was a hardcover edition of the Jacques Barzun Reader – for a mere three bucks!  If the search for books, like the search for truth, is subject to recurrent bafflement, it still has its “Eureka!” moments.

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On the Right Hand of the Indies

California existed in the imagination before it existed on the map.  Some would say it’s still a fantasy, a figment, more a state of mind than a state of the Union.  But this has always been so.  Tucked snugly into their beds at night, the children of Europe were dreaming of California years before they ever set eyes on its shores.

The earliest possible reference to California –as “Califerne”- appears in the 11th-century Song of Roland, verse CCIX. Following the death of his nephew, Charlemagne cries out:

Roland, my friend, fair youth that bar’st the bell,
When I arrive at Aix, in my Chapelle,
Men coming there will ask what news I tell;
I’ll say to them: `Marvellous news and fell.
My nephew’s dead, who won for me such realms!’
Against me then the Saxon will rebel,
Hungar, Bulgar, and many hostile men,
Romain, Puillain, all those are in Palerne,
And in Affrike, and those in Califerne…

Though the other peoples and places mentioned in these lines are generally familiar, “Califerne” has never been identified.  This ambiguity provided a literary opening for others to exploit.

Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (d.1504) was the true inventor of “California.”  Its name first graced the page in his chivalric romance, The Exploits of Esplandian. This was Montalvo’s sequel to Amadis of Gaul which, you may recall, was a sort of second Holy Writ for a well-beloved knight of La Mancha.

Know that on the right hand of the Indies is an island called California, very close to the terrestrial paradise

wrote Montalvo. He described a land of magnificent natural defenses, rich in gold and inhabited solely by a tribe of beautiful, deadly Amazon warriors, with not a male in sight.  Most beautiful and deadly of them all was the Queen, Califia. In the Exploits, Montalvo’s hero, Esplandian, joins the defense of Constantinople against the Turks when the pagan Queen Califia rather decisively comes to the aid of the infidel with her lady-warriors and an army of griffins.

In the 16th century, Montalvo’s tales of Amadis and Esplandian held such sway over the imagination that conquistadors by their evening campfires on the Sea of Cortez convinced themselves the mysterious island to the west (Baja California) was none other than Queen Califia’s territory, just bursting with Amazon women and mountains of gold.  The martial Spaniards had been fed on the story since childhood and apparently couldn’t accept that it was a fiction.

Cortes himself was not immune.  In a 1524 letter to the King of Spain, Cortes mentions reports from mainland natives that the westward isle (“rich in pearls and gold”) is, in fact, governed and inhabited by women of a remarkably fierce disposition. Cortes mounts an expedition and becomes the first European to set foot in California. But he encounters no Queen Califia, discovers no gold, and finds the place largely inhospitable. His attempt to plant a colony along the desert shore near La Paz fails miserably.

In 1539, Cortes commissioned Francisco de Ulloa to more extensively explore the coast in pursuit of another fiction of history and geography, the Straits of Anian.  A variation on the Northwest Passage, the Straits of Anian were supposed to connect the Pacific to Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence or Hudson’s Bay. In the process of his doomed reconnaissance, Ulloa discovered that (Baja) California is not an island at all, but a peninsula. Despite this, California continues to appear as an island on maps well into the 17th century.

Building on the knowledge gained by Ulloa, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo –who as a young man soldiered for Cortes in the conquest of Mexico- made a 1542 voyage up the coast.  We don’t know what sort of place he imagined it to be, but in addition to unmasking California Cabrillo also hoped to discover the Straits of Anian or, alternately, a short-cut to China.

Cabrillo soon passed Ulloa’s northernmost point on the western shore of Baja and moved into the uncharted waters off Alta California (today’s American state). He was the first to explore what is now San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island, and Santa Monica Bay.  Farther north, he set anchor in Monterey Bay and continued past the Golden Gate, possibly reaching as far north as the Russian River before autumn storms forced him south again. Cabrillo had set anchor at Santa Catalina for the winter when some of his crew were ambushed by natives, who, as it happened, were not Amazon warriors. Cabrillo came ashore on a relief mission, stumbled on some jagged rocks and badly injured his legs. The wounds became gangrenous and he died ingloriously in January 1543.

Cabrillo’s dispirited crew returned to Navidad (Acapulco) in the spring. They were sure they had come “very near” to China.  But they had failed to locate the Straits of Anian, had lost their captain, and had learned that whatever California was, it wasn’t the demi-paradise Montalvo described. If Queen Califia had ever reigned there, she was long gone.  After Cabrillo’s misadventure, serious Spanish exploration and settlement of California would be put on hold for over two-hundred years.

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