In 1996 I lived in the U.S. for the year. I was in their charming parlance, a ‘resident alien’. I was an alien in San Franscisco, north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. One of the points of cultural association that I have come to increasingly appreciate since I have left this country was City Lights Books, a bookstore in the city.
It isn’t City Lights I love really, but the associations that hang around that geographical location. Lawrence Ferlinghetti started the shop in the early 1950s and it became a gathering point for certain beat poets, such as Gary Snyder. In 96′ I was sitting in a bookstore by the name of A Clean Well-lighted Place for Books in Marin listening to Snyder, the old man with the creased, experienced face, give a reading from his book of poems Rip-Rap and Cold Mountain Poems, however it wasn’t till more recent years that I came to realise the value of some of Synder’s limpid moments of being in the natural world expressed in his poetry.
In Snyder’s world sometimes nothing has meaning, except ‘that which is seen is truly seen’. Read ‘Piute Creek‘ and you might understand what I’m talking about.
And then there were the woods, the redwoods…
These are the tallest trees on our planet: redwood trees. It’s not a mark of rectitude to talk in cathedrals, so I’ll be quiet about this place.
In winter I was in Yosemite National Park, and I looked up at ‘El Capitan’, as had Ansel Adams before me. Where Adams looked, saw and photographed some of the most perfectly composed black and white compositions ever, errant stone monkeys have looked at El Cap and scaled it, intoxicated by a visceral sublime. Before such people knocked about rocks, John Muir walked around Yosemite, writing prose about the place which expressed a truly ecological imagination, and inspiring the president Theodore Roosevelt to protect the joint.
After reading ‘Piute Creek’ you’ll perhaps understand why I was interested to visit the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Zen monastery in secluded valley of the dry southern moutains in California. I was here for a few days, and although I didn’t actually spend that much time meditating, I spent plenty of time walking down the valley, along a creek which provided relief from the heat.
In the south of California I also explored the world of the Spanish monks who had come here in 1771. At Mission San Antonio I participated in an archeological field school, where after study was over for the day I saw cougar flash across the fields, and was woken in the morning to the sound of coyote wailing like tormented banshees. Some hot nights I would stand in the mission quadrangle… you could hear only the soft splashing of the fountain, see the see the lambent cream of the adobe walls topped by the orange of tejas. One evening I remember the moon was particularly large and bright as you looked up past the cypresses. A monk walked past the other side of the tree-filled square. The air had a comfortable warmth to it for my t-shirt and shorts shod body.
So I was skirting my way around the crass and commercial parts of California. It then found my way to another desert monastery: Joshua Tree National Park. Here I had intimations of the south-west of the U.S. that Edward Abbey writes about in his books (yes, I know he wasn’t writing about California, but for me there are certain associations between his books and this place). Abbey, if you don’t know him, was a savage, funny, and incandescently intelligent voice out of the American desert. Read him at your merry peril.
Finally, in my last American adventure, I helped onboard the good sloop The Clearwater. The Clearwater is a ship which sails down the Hudson River in New York State, delivering a positive environmental message to school kids to clean up the Hudson. It has as its founder and patron spirit, Pete Seeger, that great voice of politically progressive American folk music. In fact I went to Pete’s 80th birthday party, at his house on a hill above the Hudson. We need more voices like Pete Seeger’s in this world.
Here I am, standing on deck, giving a hug to a New Yorker who followed our floating hippy bandwagon down the Hudson. The rusts, yellows and reds that are the autumn colours of New York State made a fine backdrop for a river voyage.
These are just some snapshots of the points of interest on my personal map of America. It took some clever navigation all those years ago, but I did learn that the US isn’t all blaring soap operas and endless billboards.