Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Landscape as Villain?

by Laura Crum

“It is not possible to be quite sane here. The region has a mood that both excites and perverts its people.”

“Was it the wild rock coast and the reckless wind in the beaten trees and the gaunt booming crashes of breakers under the rocks that taught her this dark freedom?”

“Much of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry is a study of what the strange landscape around Carmel and Big Sur can do to people. It is a ‘haunted country,’ according to Jeffers.”

These quotes are from the book, “Robinson Jeffers, Poet of California,” which I have just finished reading. I was inspired to read this book because Jeffers is much quoted in the Tom Killion book I read previously (California’s Wild Edge), and Killion recommends this biography of Jeffer’s life. I found it fascinating.
As with many books I’ve deeply enjoyed, I tend to engage in mental arguments with the author. And in this book my arguments centered on two things—sense of place, and the nature of God. Today I am going to write about “place” (as the easier subject), and save God for another day.

As the quotes above tell, Jeffers was aware of the disturbing energy that swirls around the coast from Carmel through Big Sur. It is palpable to me—I’ve been there often and I never fail to feel it. I could no more live on the “south coast” than I could live on the moon. It would break my heart with its fierce, uncompromising, almost hostile nature. Beautiful, yes—but not friendly.
Jeffers chose to live there, and the inhuman ghosts of Big Sur/Carmel underlie his writing, as well as his life. It was a choice that perhaps suited him, but it would not suit me.
It’s all about place. Different places speak with very different voices and tell very dissimilar energetic stories. Not all places will embrace you and protect you, no matter how much you love them and how long you make them your home. Some places, like Big Sur and the high Sierra, will never be comforting to a human heart. They can thrill you and challenge you, yes. They are beautiful and desirable, yes. They are inspiring to visit. But they are not steady, kind, lifetime companions. Big Sur is oddly haunted and the Sierra heights are aloof. Too wild, too harsh, too steep, too rocky, too windblown—you name it—they are overwhelming to human consciousness. Certain sad human endings, I think, come from a failure to understand how places in/on the earth speak to our hearts. Make your home in a place that will never condescend to be your friend, and watch what happens.
But there are some valleys, some meadows, some protected hollows in the coastal hills (as here in the most inland arc of the Monterey Bay) that will comfort you. They will take care of you, in so much as landscape can love the animal creatures that walk around on her. Vast and intangible energy, but none the less love. These places are friendly and fond. It is there in the soft color of the light, the gentle, relaxed feeling of the land, the freedom of the native plants. It is there in the winter sunlight of a certain southern exposure where I live on this California coast, and it is there in the way of the wild things, plant and animal, that have been here before men walked on this ground. There are places that will nurture you. If you love them long enough, you come to trust them. And your trust is not misplaced. They will protect you.

Love is possible. Love between person and place. But not all places are fitted to love people. A person needs to pay attention to the nuances of the light. Is it warm or cold? Does it soothe you with a calm strength, or challenge you with its restless energy?
Those who choose the wilder, storm-tossed places-- as Robinson Jeffers chose an exposed headland near Carmel, above Big Sur-- are not choosing wrongly. But they are choosing a certain loneliness that will not go away. Such places/choices can make great art; they possibly make an inspiring human, if that being is strong enough. But these places will never hold you in their lap, as a mother holds a child. And there are places that will do this. I live in one.
 Judging by the stories in the book I just finished reading, a great many people who lived near Jeffers ended up caught in the wild meshes of a truly untamable land, and came to sad and untimely ends—driven there, as far as I can tell, partly by the inhumanly beautiful and awful (in the old sense of the word) landscape. Jeffers seems to understand this, and to some degree relish the drama of it all. I can’t say that I feel the same.
To those who can read a sense of place and see clearly, the choice is there. The choice is yours.


Mrs Shoes said...

I never thought about 'place' in such a way before.
Thanks for the perspective.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

I've just looked at some photos of the Big Sur. It looks like a landscape that doesn't readily admit the possibility of human dwelling. Untamed because it's untameable. Living there might just feel like existence upon the back of a large and uncaring beast, as if one is simply too small to matter. It's a path that leads to madness. Or perhaps it attracts the latently mad?