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Living Life Well

Some remarkable summer reading
Living Life Well

By Jim Shere

Before Jack London came to our storied valley to build his Beauty Ranch and an international reputation for telling thrilling stories, this had already become a special place for authors and poets. The 19th century world of Charles Stuart, who named this place Glen Ellen, was elegantly captured by his son, Charles Duff Stuart, in Casa Grande, the melodramatic story of a rancher who fell in love with the daughter of homesteading squatters on his ranch. Fun and well worth reading to get a good sense of that time, it can be downloaded free at archive.org/details/ casagrandeacali00stuagoog.

Then there was Edna Poppe Cooper, our first published poet. Her sister wrote about her, “After two years in high school, she sold her schoolbooks to pay for the publication of a song, of which she had written the words. Then she walked home, a distance of seven miles. Thus ended her schooling.” Charmian Kittredge London later wrote about Edna, “We could not know the all of her. For hers was the poet’s spirit, walking in a dreaming, secret sphere, builded of stuff that we may not guess until the song floats out.”

Of course, we also have Charmian’s husband Jack, whom she helped write dozens of novels to finance their lifestyle on their ranch, which became a destination for writers and artists. It was London’s reputation that eventually brought to Glen Ellen a young freelance writer for magazines named Hunter S. Thompson, where he wrote to a friend, “I have discovered the secret of writing fiction, calling it impressionistic journalism” — eventually known as Gonzo Journalism. The recently published book Savage Journey: Hunter Thompson, by local writer Peter Richardson, about Thompson’s incubating sojourn in Glen Ellen, is on my reading list.

Two other local groundbreaking writers of the past century who settled here were M.F.K. Fisher and Robert de Roppe. Fisher was a Californian who spent enough time in France to qualify as a temporary expat, enjoying the bucolic quality of the Gallic countryside lifestyle. She helped establish the trend toward California cuisine, writing about the pleasures of good and healthy food and influencing her young Francophile friends Julia Child and Alice Waters. De Roppe, on the other hand, held court at his home on Sonoma Mountain, writing the seminal books that helped establish the human potential movement, including, among many others, Drugs and the Mind, The Master Game, and Eco-Tech: the Whole-Earther’s Guide to the Alternate Society.

Now, this century, new writers have emerged in Glen Ellen. A few years back six of them began meeting fairly regularly in the pool room at the Jack London Saloon to write and read to one another, creating a special private salon for auditioning new writings. Now there are eight members of the Glen Ellen Writers Circle (at glenellenwriters.com): Ed Davis, Tracy Salcedo, Arthur Dawson, Rebecca Lawton, Fran Meininger, Ann Peters, Jay Gamel, and (in full disclosure) myself.

Davis is just now getting back from a wildly successful whistlestop speaking tour, reading from his recently published and already best-selling novel The Last Professional — a breathtakingly vigorous pageturner about coming of age while riding the rails with an enigmatic hobo mentor. Salcedo — intrepid traveler, articulate lover of the wild, and winner of the prestigious National Outdoor Book Award — has written more than 25 guidebooks to a number of destinations in California, Colorado, and Alaska, and her recently published collection of true-life adventure stories, Search and Rescue Alaska, documents the risks and heroics that have taken place in Alaska’s wilderness.

Dawson’s two most recent books showcase his thorough understanding of the historical and ecological significance of our local landscape in Where the World Begins (a luscious coffee-table homage to Sonoma Mountain with Meg Beeler, Rebecca Lawton, and Tracy Salcedo) and What a Place for a Home (a thoroughly researched historical narrative of the place settled by Glen Ellen pioneer Redwood Thompson, with sections written by Linda Dodwell). Lawton’s most recent book, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West, is a collection of essays examining the human attitude regarding the role of water in our future. A Nautilus Book Award winner, it’s also on my reading list.

Along with the work of other members of the Circle that can be found on the website, I’ve been watching the refreshing new voice of Hannah Hindley. Her finely written essays — also award-winning — are posted at hannahhindley.com, where we read that our local mariner, backcountry guide, and Harvard graduate says that her real education “is rooted in the mountains and tidepools of the west.”

Recently, another local writers’ group, the Jack London Writers Guild, met at the saloon and found themselves seated next to our Circle. Mark Hewitt, a member of the Guild, asked on Facebook, “Who knew two groups of writers could gather the same night?” I wasn’t too surprised. Clearly, Glen Ellen is a reading and writing sort of town. Hewitt has just published the third in his true crime series about the infamous serial killer known as the Zodiac, which I have yet to read and hope to soon; I remember the serial killer’s reign of terror all too well.

Linda Dodwell’s rather picaresque memoir, The Road Taken, describes a woman’s coming of age — crossing Australia’s desolate outback by motorcycle, alone, before joining an adventurous (and at times dangerous) car rally through the hazards of the Middle East, from Peking to Paris. Her story stands in fascinating comparison to Elisa Stancil Levine’s This or Something Better, in which Stancil skillfully describes the awakening of a woman’s awareness, and the gradual discovery and understanding of the world and oneself. The two memoirs should be read one after the other, providing together an appreciation and insight into the lives lived by strong women who would eventually arrive in Glen Ellen, recognizing this as a good place to settle down, and to write.

And then there are the recent collections of poetry by local writers Bill McNamara, Sophia Naz, and Ada Limón. Poetry is an entirely different matter than prose, for a poem needs liberation from the collection of poetry in which it is found, the way a flower can be brought from the garden to become a centerpiece. If good fiction is a page-turner that urges the reader along, a poem is not. A good poem is not simply a story being told; it is a guide to finding the meaning of the story within the reader’s mind, and so must be taken in and slowly turned, sensed out, and dwelt upon instead.

McNamara’s travels throughout the Far East in search of endangered botanical specimens, and his tenure at Quarryhill Botanical Garden (now Sonoma Botanical Garden) up on Sonoma Highway, is deeply felt in each of his Collected Poems, the Later Years. They are presented simply, with neither introduction nor explanation, and without embellishment. Nothing stands in the reader’s way to find and know the poet’s poignant intention — conservation, in the face of impermanence. His spare phrasings and constant return to the presence of an abiding nature reflect classic Asian forms of poetry, and of Buddhist thought.

The poetry of Naz, on the other hand, at once intimate and universal, local and exotic, captures her world of the Urdu and Bengali languages. Born in Pakistan but now living here, she says “exile does bring with it undercurrents of loss and displacement. These often turn up in my writing.” Her new book, Open Zero, is hauntingly infused with such loss and longing. In 2017, her home on Warm Springs Road was among those that became lost to wildfire. As she said in a recent interview, “It is through writing that one can recreate, as if conjuring out of thin air, a landscape that no longer exists.”

And finally, there is Ada Limón, graduate of Dunbar School, Altimira Middle School, and Sonoma High School — and just now named Poet Laureate of the United States of America. I was introduced to her poetry a few months ago by a good friend and eagerly sought her most recent collection, The Hurting Kind. Limón writes — like Lawton, McNamara, and Hindley — from a deep concern for, and troubled consideration of, our relationship to nature. In a recent interview she said “we have to understand that it is reciprocal. Growing up in Sonoma, I remember nature hikes and classes outside and starting early with plant identification in the Bouverie Audubon Preserve.”

She — and all the other writers that I’ve written about here — are stirred by what stirs me. They have the courage and the skill to put into print what it is that they think and they feel. And they live right here among us, right here in Glen Ellen — shopping beside us at the market, passing by us in the regional park, or sitting next to us in the saloon — and they have given us books to help us notice and understand what it is that they see.

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