Monday, July 28, 2014

Week 20

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

I spent the last week doing the most important research of all. I went camping in the Sierras. I volunteer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, where I spend weeks teaching a class: Poetry in the Shadows of the Giant Trees. It was an intense week with nearly too much to remember.

What I get the most out of it is the science. The natural world is endlessly fascinating. I’m not terribly interested in naming all of the species of plants and animals. If I were a real scientist, I would have to know that, but I’m not. It’s much more interesting for me to know how things work and why than what the name of each plant is.

I watched the way that leaves change in size and appearance as they move out of a meadow and into the forest. Down near the water, they are broad and wide because they can afford to lose moisture while higher up they get narrower and narrower until the pine trees have only needles for leaves to retain that precious water. I learned about cave dynamic in Sequoia’s Crystal Caves. I learned about the growth rate of giant trees. I learned so much more, too.

I experienced the mountains as well. I hazed bears to keep them out of our camp and to keep them safely afraid of people. I watched a mother doe nursing her fawn in the middle of a green meadow that was surrounded by the burned out black stumps of trees that had died in a fire years ago. I watched a thunderstorm through the trees.

In truth, none of this was new to me. I’ve lived in the Sierras and traveled to them the years I didn’t, but they still move me each time. I hadn’t been there in a lot of years, and it was a week when I didn’t check my phone or computer once.

How will that help me with my writing? It’s going to add verisimilitude of course, but more importantly it just put me in a great mood.

I stood there on the edge of Crescent Meadow and agreed with John Muir. Muir called it “the Gem of the Sierra,” and he was right. It is certainly the most beautiful place I have ever seen on earth.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Week 19

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

I’ve been planning and researching this project for so long that it’s a little strange to get to the actual writing. I’m about a tenth of the way through the first draft of it, and I’ve already changed a couple of things.

I don’t know why, but I had planned to have the Mulholland and Muir sections completely separate from the Harrison section. Harrison is the character I come back to again and again in my work. He’s the protagonist of my book Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. He’s the character telling the story and reflecting back on the two other characters.

It became quickly obvious that separating them made absolutely no sense. Why bother having the three main characters in the same book then? So I’ve modified it, and they’re all going through roughly the same thing (in Harrison’s mind) at the same time. Here is a sample from the first part:

Heading out this morning in the blue-dark,
I think that maybe I’m less Muir and more his
father, or maybe I should have been like he was.
Muir never got in real trouble, never attacked
a kid with a bat. Stan has his reasons
but so does everyone. William Mulholland
drained vast regions of water, killed hundreds
when the St. Francis dam released its tons
of water on the valley. Mulholland
wasn’t a bad man. He had his own visions
of how he could help the world. He wanted
to make water free for everyone want the land
to grow enough food for the millions
of people who had relocated or planned

to move to LA. I think about him
and Muir, each in their own paradise, Muir in
what he saw as a natural perfection,
Mulholland, trying to carve an Eden
out of the arid scrub, but that’s what we
all want. As I turn onto the road at
Puddingstone Lake, I realize that
I’m trying to find it with Stanley.
Maybe it’s flawed. Dreams always are. I guess,
nothing is ever what we imagine it or
want them to be. When Mulholland brought us
water he thought he had done the best
thing he could have possibly done for
LA. He never thought it could be such a mess.

This is, of course, a first draft. Maybe these poems will be altered. Maybe the style will be. Who knows? Maybe I’ll scrub these altogether. I’m pushing forward however, and it feels great.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Week 18

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

I’m about twenty sonnets into the project now, but the research continues. What is perhaps most interesting to me is the number of people I’ve talked to and the way that we all seem to relate to these characters. In the last month, I’ve had to deal with the fact that I have grown to understand Muir and Mulholland in a tremendously flat way.

To me they were stereotypes, Muir standing in as all good and Mulholland as all bad. It surprises me how ingrained into my consciousness that has been. Part of it is my love of Yosemite and the national parks and another part of that is my love for the movie Chinatown, which targets Mulholland as pure evil.

When I’ve talked to people they have had similar reasons for hatred or love. Nearly everyone sees Mulholland as flatly evil because he brought water to Los Angeles, and there is clearly too little water to sustain the population of Los Angeles. These people see him nearly as a terrorist against the environment. The irony is that since I live in Los Angeles, most of the people I talk to live here. They don’t seem to see the irony of what they are saying. Mulholland only facilitated the overpopulation. They are the people who overpopulated the region. So am I.

What he was trying to do in part was make sure that all people had resources so they didn’t starve. Bringing in water was seen as a social good, and he was doing it to help poor people make it in a hostile environment. He was also trying to become rich, of course.

Muir was an environmentalist far before his time. He also clearly believed in manifest destiny and found Native Americans disgusting, but if you bring up these negative beliefs to people, they cannot seem to jibe their preconceived notions of the man with the fact that he wasn’t perfect in all ways. He loved nature; therefore, he was perfect.

I don’t know how this is going to affect the project except to make it more interesting for me.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Week 17

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

Of course, I’ve read all of Muir’s books. They’re brilliant and fun. There are flaws to the work, but as Californian environmentalist, I have stayed willfully blind to them. That’s dangerous. And if I want to turn him into a character, he needs to have real and true flaws. Since I’m structuring his first section after the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, he needs to have a sin equal to that of Adam and Eve’s.

So I’ve reread his work with this in mind. It’s a strange way to pick through the work of one of your heroes, trying to make him human. And if humanity is the same thing as being flawed, he was human in a number of ways. All of this is tempered by the fact that he was much more progressive than anyone else of his age, and he helped to create the national parks system. He helped us to understand what the natural world could be for us and how we should view it.

Creeping through his books, however, is the ever present sense that the Native Americans were somehow sub-human. There are passages that you could show me that fight against this interpretation, I know, but his dislike and mistrust of natives reveals itself again and again, as does the sense that manifest destiny is a legitimate way to view the world.

So Muir was human after all. He was flawed. If his views on Native Americans weren’t enough, he also left the natural world to itself to take up a kind of farming that I think Cesar Chavez would have found unethical. He understood the dangers of this life himself even as he was becoming an incredibly rich man.

So what was the original sin that cast him out of the Eden of the Sierras? I think it was his pursuit of money. As far as the structure of the first section goes, that will be what humanizes him. I’ll leave his prejudice for later.

This is not to say that my project is going to be to bring down the great man. Far from it. I’m still a huge fan. But I do think it’s important to allow human beings to be human. No one can be a god, and it’s not fair to expect that from anyone.