The Kenwood Press
: 02/01/2014

A Valentine for the Valley

Jim Shere

When the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote about the legendary village Llareggub in his gorgeous play Under Milk Wood, his original intention was to write about an entire town of eccentrics that had been summoned to be prosecuted in court and declared insane. The name of the play was, at first, “The Town That Was Mad”; but as he continued to write about the delightful people that lived there, his concern for ordinary sanity was relieved by the discovery of endearing eccentricities. While introducing the townspeople Dylan Thomas clearly fell in love with each of them, one by one.

A similar story is told in the cult film King of Hearts. During the final days of World War II, the townspeople had fled the imaginary French town of Marville, where the retreating German army had planted explosives. A hapless private is sent to find and disarm the bombs, but finds instead that the residents of the local insane asylum have taken the town over, pretending to be its citizens, and – despite his alarmed warnings – refusing to understand or care about their danger. While searching for the hidden explosives the soldier is brought into their magical world, struggling with the conflicting realities of war and play. I understand.

Over the years I’ve come to know the people of our valley, and recognize what makes each one of them unique in this complicated world – and in most cases it’s their irrepressible eccentricity. Now, eccentricity is a very common, ordinary occurrence; yet while it may be unconventional it is not the denial of convention, but rather a natural elaboration that introduces variety, in order to avoid stagnation.

Although we are each of us different, it’s good to recognize the things we have in common: we wake and wash ourselves, we feed ourselves what our bodies request, work at what we do and rest when we can, and find sufficient sleep to entertain the private dreams that we need. We become sick and we get well, we play, and we fall in love. We meet one another at the post office and the market, shake hands and smile, and sometimes slap one another on the back. We appreciate our similarities, yet recognize one another by our differences.

No planet travels about the sun in a perfect circle – there is no perfect circle in nature, where everything is irregular. Instead the planets all move in a variety of eccentric ellipses, agreeing upon the sun as a common center while disagreeing upon the other – more individualizing – center of their own. And that center is what sets each one of us apart, making us unique.

There have always been those in our valley that live outside the box. We have had our share of outlaws and eccentrics, who seem to thumb their collective noses at mere assumptions of propriety. Hunter S. Thompson came to the place Jack London had come to, to be with Charmian a half century before – all of them credentialed mavericks.

Once settled here, Jack himself brought fellow bohemians from the City to his Beauty Ranch. His pal George Sterling was one. “There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism,” Sterling wrote, “The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life, as unconventional.”

There are many unconventional folk we remember who have left their mark – Chef Cardini, MFK Fisher, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Juanita – and many others that have come and gone unnoticed by most – remarkable individuals, every one of them, and every one always extraordinarily generous with their presence. More names could be named, but you know who you are.

In my years here I have met and grown to know so many fine people – the exuberant student skipping towards school, the silent and thoughtful farmer, the trembling lovers, the caring parents, and the elderly ones that move slowly, lamenting the broken heart that has outlived a life’s companion. And I know about the special challenges and triumphs, and marvel at the special ways of each of you. Every one of you, like every other one, is unique, and so very remarkable.

At some point in the very early morning, in Under Milk Wood, Reverend Eli Jenkins recites a prayerful poem to the empty streets of Dylan Thomas’ Llareggub, beginning by admitting that “I know there are towns lovelier than ours,” and ending with “I should love all my life and longer to stroll among our trees... and never, never leave the town.” Again, I understand.