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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



June 1963

Fictitious Images of America
The Death of Pope John XXIII
The Spring Opera
Self-Segregation Issues
An Impressive “Ballet ’63”
Performing Arts in the Parks
Planning and Preserving the City
The Power Elite’s Dolce Vita
By the Waterfall




Fictitious Images of America

It is remarkable how tenaciously foreigners long resident in America cling to their old attitudes and judgments, formed before they ever saw the country. Harvard’s Kremlinologists a few years back made an exhaustive survey of the acculturation of Post-War II Russian émigrés in the United States. Many of these people were former members of the Vlasov Army of Ukrainians who fought for the Nazis, others were various other kinds of reconstructable rebels against Bolshevik authority, from Czarists to Socialist Revolutionaries and Anarchists.

They almost all thought that America was a more immoral country than Russia. They were repulsed by our television and movies. They actively disbelieved our press. Most of all they accepted at face value the picture drawn of our society by Madison Avenue, which I long ago first named in a French magazine, the hallucination publicitaire.

This picture of course is of a society motivated exclusively by commercial values, status seeking, conspicuous expenditure, acquisitiveness. It sees itself as lily white, blond Nordic, 30 years old, suburbanite, tall, lean, sex obsessed, yet, except in the women’s fashion magazines where such dirty things are never mentioned, in proud possession of at least two and not more than three beautiful, clean, expensively dressed young children and a jolly, pure-bred, expensive dog.

We all know this picture. We all wonder where these people keep themselves when they are not modeling for ads or appearing on TV. Their antics have a surprisingly slight, yet nonetheless measurable effect on the sales of commodities, and, of course, in the long run they pay the wages of vast numbers of intellectuals, like newspapermen, who never have and never will lay eyes on anybody remotely like them.

From Lyendecker’s handsome youths in their trim Arrow Collars and Cole Phillips’s lovely wife in her shimmering Real Silk Hosiery down to our lovely contemporaries who drive Chevrolets and fly United and drink Budweiser, these figures have been bright spots in my life. But, like all other Americans, I know they aren’t people — they are lures on a free market.

Europeans never understand this. Nor do they understand in the equally imaginary world of Nelson Algren or Norman Mailer. America isn’t all that good, nor is it all that bad.

I was reminded of this problem the other night at a party where I got into one of those ridiculous conversations of the kind you get involved with in Paris restaurants. “Garçon, regardez, une punaise dans le potage!” “M’sieu, regardez les pauvres noirs dans le Midi d’Amérique!” [Waiter, look, there’s a bug in my soup!” “Well, Monsieur, look at the poor blacks in the American South!”] My interlocutor was a thoroughly literate French businessman, long resident in America, married to an American wife, supposedly conversant with our famous way of life, and himself a buyer of space and time in “the media.”

He informed me that if I dared to criticize American advertising, ever so mildly, no newspaper would print it. He said that if I said things like François Mauriac says in his column “Bloc-Notes” in Figaro, I would be lynched. “What things?” I said. “When my column was set up, the managing editor at that time specifically compared it to Mauriac’s column. What do you want said?”

“How about Birmingham?” said he. “Good Lord,” said I, “the problem is to keep the paper from being snowed under and sounding like the Chicago Defender.”

“Why don’t you suggest that the leading writers of America sign a manifesto expressing sympathy with the Negroes in the South?” I pointed out that all the writers in America with no important exceptions were at least deeply sympathetic, and most of them were actively engaged in one way or other.

“No one knows it,” said he. “Look,” said I, “the only way in which the world ever knew about what was happening in the South for 50 years was what they read in the angry books of American writers, most of them white. Don’t forget, there were far more colored people under the Tricolor than under the Stars and Stripes, and all there was in French was one novel and a travel book by André Gide.”

“What is your political position?” said he. “I don’t have what you call a political position, but in answer to your question, I am a libertarian Catholic philosophically. I agree pretty much with Gabriel Marcel and Mounier and Buber. In Paris I attend Saint-Séverin and read L’Esprit. In America I am happiest as an Anglo-Catholic.”

“But,” said he, “that sounds just like Mauriac.” “Mais, oui,” said I. “Would you dare say such things in your column?” said he. So here’s the answer.

[June 2, 1963]



The Death of Pope John XXIII

Now and again during the last few days, as we passed the headlines on the corner newsstands, all of us thought for a moment of an old man dying, in great pain but graciously, in a palace far away in Rome. He was making a good death said the Vatican newspaper. It was strange to see those two words coupled in the public prints in the state of California.

It is almost universally believed, throughout the rest of the world, that the inhabitants of California believe neither in good nor evil nor in death. As modern philosophic jargon puts it, our lives are value neuter and confined to the empiric instant.

Perhaps. But those bedside bulletins did recall all of us to the final fact of our own lives, the fact that can’t be swept under the rug or drowned in the swimming pool, not even in California. In the official prayer books of most of the major religious bodies in America there lingers on a Prayer for a Good Death. Maybe some of us remembered reading it once, one warm Sunday, during a dull sermon, along with the mystifying instructions for ascertaining the date of Easter. Maybe a few of us wondered, “Will I die as well as this old man?”

For a moment we identified with him in his sickness in his golden palace, and our sympathy was a response to a sympathy he had so obviously shown to others. At the beginning of his pontificate, the Italian magazine Espresso ran a cover picture entitled, “A Pope Like You and Me.” I don’t remember what he was doing — some very ordinary thing, the sort of thing you and I do as part of the burden of our modest roles in life.

During the few years of his pontificate, more and more people throughout the world felt this. They felt the ability of this man to project himself imaginatively into their own lives, to identify himself with their problems, their needs and their joys. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton, the great Catholic historian. To explain his statement he might have added, “As power increases, imagination commonly decreases proportionately.”

The parent has little sympathy with his child who is going through exactly the crisis he once experienced. The policeman on the beat has no understanding of the small boy who pilfers apples. The Congressman exasperates the President. Priests annoy bishops.

Those who in these positions of authority do not lose sympathy with the others — with those who remind them of themselves when young or weak or ignorant — those who never think of authority except in terms of sympathetic responsibility — they are the people who redeem the time. When they come to die, they die in peace and all those who have been touched by their understanding mourn their going.

[June 5, 1963]



The Spring Opera

Another Spring Opera season has come to an end. Three years, and it has certainly proved itself. People will fill every house to see and hear young talent, imaginative repertory, fresh design. Butterfly [Madam Butterfly] sold out, so did The Magic Flute, and so did Bartok and Ravel. This means that the deficit was much less overwhelming than had been expected when the venture was first planned.

But, as always in opera, deficit there still is, not so great that it needs the subventions of millions and millions of dollars, but of just the size that could be met by a genuine democratization of patronage. This is a pet idea of mine. Any art is going to be better off if it is supported by the active interest of people who can only contribute $10 each.

Government money, foundation money, the largesse of millionaires, this is all very nice, but real support should come from the majority of the audience — the people to whom it means the most.

I thought it was a good season, best probably in comedy. The Magic Flute, so lovely when first given three years ago, didn’t mesh somehow. Conductor, orchestra, chorus, singers, they just couldn’t seem to get with it. Tales of Hoffman, Don Pasquale, The Spanish Hour were thoroughly entertaining. Rigoletto was, as this opera often is not, all on a consistently high level and even keel.

Butterfly was beautifully sung, with Richard Wright as a superb Sharpless. BUT!! If they use those sets next time I’m going to picket the joint. The stage looks like a dime store back in 1910, the day they gave babies away with a half a pound of tea. Honestly, I say now.

Why doesn’t one of the major angels of the Spring Opera simply organize a special project, a fund for the best designed Butterfly in the contemporary theater? It needn’t cost much. This is one opera with a great potential for organized movement, choreography if you will, perfectly adjusted to a functional stage. And, of course, it should be designed only by a Japanese. Why not ask the architect Yamaguchi, or the painter Okura, or both?

I know that one of the worst difficulties is the dog in the manger attitude of the union. Theoretically, any competent artist can be given a temporary job permit if the proper fee is forthcoming. It doesn’t work out this way, and the bitter fact is that the spectacular record of the Ballet Russe under Diaghilev, who used almost every modern artist of major importance for a period of 30 years, would be totally impossible today in the United States.

This is everybody’s loss, and if there were enough popular protest it would be corrected. Anyway, union or no, the opera can manage to escape from these crepe paper cherry blossoms, 25-watt fireflies and inauthentic costumes.

Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle was a curious experience. Long, long ago Stravinsky, in The Dial, said that he and Bartok were the greatest living composers. He didn’t put it all that brashly, but that’s what he meant. I agreed with him then, I still do. However, I realized the other night that I have always thought of Bartok as a representative of the classical movement in art that dominated the first decades of this century, with the Cubists, the functionalist architects, Brancusi, or Stravinsky. Watching Bluebeard’s Castle and adjusting the really tremendous music to what you are seeing, you realize that Bartok is about as romantic as it is possible to be.

The libretto might as well have been by one of the most extreme of the first Romanticists, Gérard de Nerval or Borel the Lycanthrope. It all bore a resemblance to Dracula or Caligari. One step more and it would have been comic. Lots of great operas have corny librettos, but the significant and rather shocking thing about Bartok’s is that you are slowly convinced, against your will, that the score fits the libretto. The new stage design fitted perfectly, too. It looked like Böcklin’s Island of the Dead worked over by a crew of Expressionist carpenters, Middle European Romanticism at its most far out.

Which reminds me. The other night I dropped in to see the Actors’ Repertory Theater — Ghelderhode’s Escuriel and a play by somebody named Wilensky of whom I’ve never heard. There were only two actors on the stage, the same in both plays, which were not unlike Bluebeard’s Castle.

They were surprisingly good and genuinely original. I don’t know what else they can do, but they are well worth seeing. The night I was there, there was almost no audience, which is a great pity. They are certainly as good as any other little theater group around and they sure have some new ideas.

[June 9, 1963]



Self-Segregation Issues

Most people, I imagine, were mildly shocked by the recent statement of a leading Negro attorney that the Americans of Chinese ancestry had “no right” to the Ping Yuen apartments as an exclusionary Chinese housing project, that a percentage of them should be evicted and their places taken by Negroes.

This raises all the questions of self-segregation, the preservation of old cultural traditions and ways of life, the functioning of groups with their own ways in the complex world of our pluralistic society, the values of subcultures, the dangers of ironing everybody out in one standard stock model American, even the simple problem of choosing to associate with people you understand and get along with.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the most intransigent of the older Negro leaders, in his young days advocated precisely the type of community established in America by the Chinese as a model for the American Negro. So, too, as an interim measure at least, on the way back to Africa or to that all-Negro state, did Marcus Garvey and do the contemporary Black Muslims. So do the various Afro-American groups.

Although Chinatown has a very high TB rate and other symptoms of slum conditions which show up conspicuously in the annual Health Department reports, the Chinese don’t look on it as a ghetto. Long ago, in the early days of the New Deal, Rexford Tugwell had the idea of buying Strawberry Point in Marin County, landscaping it beautifully, and building functional-oriental apartments for the local Chinese and Japanese.

It was a marvelous notion but he got absolutely nowhere with the Californians of Chinese or Japanese ancestry. He couldn’t sell it at all, not to anyone. Too bad: it promised to be the finest of the Greenbelt Towns — but the people concerned preferred Chinatown and the old Fillmore District.

However. The assumption of our society — what makes it as pluralistic as it is — is that any group with its own cultural life has the right to preserve it, and in doing so to stick pretty close together.

If the Hassidic Jews of Williamsburg had the right to deliberately create a ghetto for themselves, one would assume the Chinese have a right to an apartment house. This kind of moderate self-segregation has given American life the richness that it has.

If Jews can set up an all-Jewish club, or German-Americans a Turnverein, is this type of self-segregation to be permitted only to minorities, the more oppressed the better? Does it amount to saying that everybody can associate with whom he pleases except the white Protestant majority and that as other groups approach their standards and ways of life they shall be progressively inhibited from self-segregation?

How about the Muslims and others who want to live and trade and play and worship only with what they call Black People? Shall they be restrained by law? Will the Anti-Defamation League sue the Black Muslim press and pulpit for what they say about whites? If some people are afraid of chittlins and maws and red beans, shall the chop suey restaurants of America be forced to carry pie à la mode?

[June 12, 1963]



An Impressive “Ballet ’63”

So far the new season of the small group of the San Francisco Ballet, “Ballet ’63,” has been a joy. Some of the critics thought the male dancers were not up to usual standards when the full company gave its performances this spring. If that were so, it is surely no longer true. Everybody has both rested from the long road tour and had time to practice. Terry Orr is coming up as one of the most sprightly dancers in the history of the company. Equally impressive has been Robert Gladstein’s choreography in two ballets he has just designed.

Young choreographers tend to think in set pieces, they move their dancers from figure to figure, step to step, with little consideration of how they got them there. In the same way young musicians proverbially fill their compositions with poorly connected musical bright ideas. What is remarkable about Gladstein is his grasp of linkage. He is able to move six people about the stage with uninterrupted fluency. This is no small skill. Many choreographers older than I have yet to master it.

What is remarkable about “Ballet ’63” as a whole is the wonderful sense of freshness these people can always impart to anything they do. I think it is pure love of dancing, unspoiled by high aesthetics, deep fashionable notions, or plain show business. They have all that betimes, in one piece or another. But what comes across is dance as joy. When they are at their best, the San Francisco Ballet’s dancers dance like birds warble.

This euphoria has its drawbacks, entrancing as it may be. One of my colleagues compared two ballets, the work of a young member of the company, to the work of Kurt Joost, with its biting social satire, macabre comedy and flat-footed functional dancing. Maybe — but Joost wasn’t all that good tempered. I get the feeling our young choreographers are immersed in their work, confident of their abilities, content with their lot. This is fine, but so is, in this still naughty world, a little wrath, especially from the young.

Joost’s Green Table is still the greatest anti-war utterance in the history of dance. People still sit about green tables planning the death of millions, but Green Table is still in the repertory only in Chile and Yugoslavia. Why should the modern dance addicts have a monopoly on sit-ins, freedom rides, nuclear disarmament? I’d like to do a ballet with John Handy’s music, with a voice reading the Bible text of the story of Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego, with a largely male cast, the principals Negroes. Its relevance is obvious. Any takers?

At one time the Christensens were criticized for holding back their young dancers. If it was ever true, it certainly is no more. Gail Visentin, the newest of the étoiles, was still in high school when she graduated to the front line. Tina Bernal and Joan DeVere are even younger, and they are just simply terrific. Both have great style and individuality. Tina has an electric snap and resilience that brings you up in your seat. Joan is a more legato dancer — con amore is the term — and should prove to be one of San Francisco’s leading stage heartbreakers. They are both of an age when many a young chick is still hung up on comic books.

Lew Christensen’s Bach Concert was what a lot of ballet to Bach is not, unstuffy, relaxed, spontaneous. It carried me back to Adolph Bolm’s great fugue — was it the D Minor? — with designs by Jane Berlandina. This was one of the local high points of collaboration between artist, choreographer and dancers. When will we see something like it again? When can we get our best artists back on the stage? Think of a fugue by Webern, black and white leotard choreography by Balanchine, design by the late Franz Kline, or a mystical ballet by Morris Graves or a social one by Ben Shahn. These are the most obvious possibilities and the field is limitless. Is it going to be left entirely to the modern dancers? Ann Halprin does it with her annual three, four and five legged Stool. Is she going to be the only one left?

Summer is a-coming in and I am off to the mountains, first Giant Forest and then a donkey trip with my daughters from Tuolumne Meadows. Before I go, don’t forget — one of the great joys of summertime in the Bay Area, Music in the Vineyards, has its first concert this weekend, Saturday this year as well as Sunday. This weekend has been sold out for a long time, so get in your reservations for the Brahms concert on the 27th and 28th of July.

[June 16, 1963]



Performing Arts in the Parks

The R.G. Davis Mime Troupe is putting on Mandrake, their mime adaptation of Machiavelli’s Mandragola. This is the greatest of all bitter comedies, greater even than Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and their treatment of it is very much worth seeing.

For some time now, Davis has been fussing with the Park Commission to get them to let him put his things on in the public parks — for free. They’re polite enough, they take it under advisement, then nothing happens. I guess they just can’t conceive of anybody wanting to do something like this without some hidden scheme to make money out of it.

I’m all for Davis. I think it would be fine if all the small groups in the performing arts were permitted to use the public parks, especially the smaller ones in the neighborhoods. Let John Handy organize jam sessions in Jefferson Park, I’m sure it’s a better musical environment than even the best after-hours joint; let the Playhouse and the Interplayers put on one-acters in the Marina and Gaslight Square; let there be chamber music in the Mission, variety entertainment in the row of parks on Scott and Steiner Sts.; it’s a splendid idea.

It would do something else at least as important. It would diffuse such interests out amongst the general population who now are never touched by them.

A favorite word of modern students of city life is “anomie.” This is the loss of personal identity and the accompanying abandonment of all belief in the validity of social relationships that comes with the life tedium and loneliness of modern city life. Think — there are at least six theatrical groups and several musical ones in the Mission District. They play to empty seats or to little groups of migrants from North Beach.

All the bored adolescents in the Mission or the Fillmore are not going to throw away their switchblades tomorrow and take up music or drama, but if it happens to one out of hundreds, much has been accomplished. After all, it’s the ones out of the many hundreds who make the world go round — and who today so often we let go to waste.

[June 19, 1963]



Planning and Preserving the City

As the first stirrings of the campaign for Mayor begin to manifest themselves in the grass roots, it is apparent that there is really only one hot issue. As a city, San Francisco is singularly blessed with an absence of severe tensions. The great parade the other Sunday showed that there is a reservoir of interracial good will here that needs only to be represented and coordinated politically. We need more Negroes, and people of Mexican, Chinese and Japanese ancestry on our city commissions.

If we had an aldermanic system we would long since have had them on that board — as it is, it is difficult to secure such representation on the Board of Supervisors. The difficulty is simple enough — members of minority groups will not unite around a candidate from the ranks of their own people. Everybody except the machine pols certainly wishes they would. It is absurd that a city as polyglot as this chooses, year after year, its representatives from about three groups — the Irish, the Italians, and the “old Americans,” and very rarely, a Jew.

I am not in favor of racial representation as such, except for the Negro, who at the present badly needs direct spokesmen at all levels. That is not the point. The point is that large areas of interest find expression only outside the regular governmental processes.

It is obvious, for instance, that all the complex economic and social problems that make up the little world we call Chinatown should have some way of manifesting themselves on the civic governmental level — legislatively as well as administratively — and not exclusively as a congeries of pressure groups. We do not have a division into wards and we do not have aldermen representing districts. This is a blessing in many ways. It has kept City Hall, in the words of one of my colleagues, “ridden with honesty.” But it has disadvantages that it is up to the Mayor’s office to make up for.

Another fact we have to realize is that the Mayor does not have a great deal of power. It is largely a policy job — and even then he can only influence policy. The charter under which we operate set up a remarkable system of checks and balances. It is a most Jeffersonian document also, and its framers tried to keep government interference with the city’s life at a minimum.

What this all adds up to is that there are no flaming issues confronting the electors. The city government has been reasonable efficient, enlightened and honest. Nobody can raise the cry, “Throw the rascals out!” There haven’t been any rascals, but there has been a certain lack of creative imagination. National magazines have run whole issues devoted to the proposition: San Francisco is slipping. Things aren’t as bad as they make out; so far the symptoms of that great American disease called characterlessness are small, but they are nonetheless ominous.

Last winter The Examiner ran a big spread on planning for San Francisco. This is the issue — planning and conservation. We must keep and enhance what we have. Every aspect of our city life that helps give the city its charm and character must not only be preserved, but bettered. No more destruction of historical sites and priceless architecture, no suggestions to sell off “unnecessary parks” to the speculators, no more defacing of the most precious parts of the city with freeways, no more obliteration of the Bay with walls of apartment houses.

Quite the contrary, we not only need a Planning Commission with some teeth to protect what we’ve got, we need one with plenty of brains to urge on and coordinate the building of a mature San Francisco which will be the San Francisco we love, only much more so.

This is what the new Mayor should do, provide dynamic leadership for the commissions that are concerned with the “image” of the city — that image which is, commercially, by far our most valuable asset. We need not only new blood on the Planning, the Parks and Recreation, the Arts Commission and the rest — we need equally dynamic leadership from the Mayor himself.

When the rest of the world judges San Francisco, it does not compare it with other American cities of equal size, nor even with Chicago or Los Angeles, but with the other world capitals. This is not important just for the tourist business. It is far more important for the kind of permanent residents it attracts and for the kind of business enterprise it fosters. We are not selling nearby coal and iron deposits, or 30 railway junctions, or even climate — but a climate of the heart, a kind of life. If we lose the facilities for that kind of life, we’ll just be another Ashtabula.

[June 23, 1963]



The Power Elite’s Dolce Vita

More accurate diagnosis, more abundant information, more rigorous statistical methods — or is the malady in fact increasing? This is a standard public health problem. A tart quarrels with her ponce; they fall afoul of the powers that be; they expose each other and in the course of their recriminations, the powers that be are themselves exposed; heads roll; the throne totters; Heaven withdraws its Mandate; the powers that be, be no more.

This is the standard ending of the classical dynasties of Chinese history.

In recent years the general public has been confirmed in its suspicions of its masters and sanctified in its self-righteousness by three peeps at the dolce vita of the power elite — the Montessi case, the Lescaze case, and now the Profumo imbroglio. Art does in fact resemble life; the ruling classes really do disport themselves as they are portrayed in the moving pictures.

The curious thing is that so many of the guardians of public morals are panicked by such goings on. Press and pulpit thunder, the liberal weeklies talk of the collapse of the Judeo-Christian ethic, the Russians smirk, capitalism decays. Everybody says it’s just like ancient Rome and we are coming to the end of our tether.

I wonder if in fact man’s capacity for mischief has changed much since the Cro Magnons cornered the flint market and kidnapped the Neanderthal girls. What is so peculiarly Judeo-Christian about the theory that it is wrong to share the bed of a courtesan with the spy of an enemy nation — unless of course you are yourself spying on him? What is so capitalistic about collusion?

Over in Russia the boys in the Electrical Trust get together and defraud the government and make headlines, just like in other countries except they shoot them. The bad Babylonians that bothered Hammurabi cut just the same capers as contemporary rascals in Katanga or Buenos Aires or San Francisco, Calif.

One of the liberal weeklies recently devoted a whole issue to this subject, largely as it applied to business methods; they concluded that we have come to the end of our Victorian morality, and our whole code of human relationships needs overhauling. Why?

Courtesans, embezzlers, traitors, cheating merchants, false advertising, sex orgies, adulterous actresses, ruthless entrepreneurs, didn’t they live between 1837 and 1901? Reading the list over, it seems to me like a description of some of the more notorious figures of those days.

Suppose we do overhaul our ethics. Should they be more permissive, or less? Or maybe we should pass some new laws? As somebody said recently, there are 3742 laws on the statute books of California, and half the people don’t mind the Ten Commandments. Something ought to be done. Things weren’t like this in my day.

[June 26, 1963]



By the Waterfall

Thirty-five years ago or so I first started hiking around the long high ridges and deep wooded valleys of northwestern Marin County. Less than an hour’s drive from the city, it is to this day remarkably sparsely populated, a land of a few vast dairy farms, still little changed by man. Several of my books were written in a cabin in Devil’s Gulch, buried in the dense woods on the west side of Mt. Barnabe, beside a narrow waterfall.

Last week I stopped at the headquarters of Samuel Taylor State Park to get permission to use the hikers’ and riders’ camp in Devil’s Gulch, which is now part of the park, and was amazed to see on a large map — “Staircase Falls,” “Rexroth Cabin.” Well, well. Me and John Muir. Not only that, but the Sierra Club had marked with removable yellow plastic ribbons a hike to that very spot for the coming weekend.

I walked to the waterfall while my little girls were fixing up around camp. The cabin had long since crumbled into ruins, but nothing else was changed. All was just as it was the rainy autumn evening in 1928 I first stumbled on this hidden cul de sac in the steep forest. The little cabin was less than 10 feet square, hardly higher than its piled rock fireplace. The door was open, there were pots and pans, an oil lamp, some old quilts hung up out of the way of mice and wood rats, and a primitive shower bath built over the stream. In the still autumn twilight, with the yellow maple leaves falling over it, cabin, clearing and waterfall looked just slightly ominous, like something in a fairy story.

I stayed the night, back then in 1928, and in the next few months met most of the people who used the place. Nobody knew who had built it.

Later in the next gully a somewhat more substantial cabin was built by one of the groups that used the first place. It was considerably larger and stood directly over the confluence of two cascades, like the retreat of some Japanese Buddhist saint. It still survives as a tumbled ruin.

In the course of time all the people who used either cabin drifted away or outgrew such activities, and I was left in sole possession. Twice during the war, when it was impossible to get to the Sierra, I spent the entire summer in the larger cabin. Whenever I had some thorny literary job to do, I would go over and work in solitude until it was done. Then the property became a State park and I was evicted.

Last week, sitting in a little patch of sunlight at the foot of the waterfall, I felt as though I might just have found the place a few minutes before. There was no mirror to show me my changed face or my gray hair. If I looked down at my body — it was dressed in just the same clothes — jeans, red shirt, ankle length boots. I thought over the long intervening years, that now seemed to have slipped by imperceptibly. Deaths and marriages, two children, 13 books, travel about the world — had the maple and Douglas fir beside the waterfall grown or decayed? Had the number of ferns increased?

Down below, along the main stream, things had changed. During the war the range was badly overgrazed and in a couple of years the water tore loose great trees along the banks, the meadowy shores were changed to cobbles; thistles and poison hemlock grew everywhere. The damage of overgrazing is sudden and dramatic, the healing processes are slow indeed. However good care the park authorities take of Devil’s Gulch, I will never live to see it as once it was.

I sat by the waterfall and watched the golden laurel leaves spin down into the pool.* A mourning dove moaned softly off in the woods, red tailed hawks screamed, playing together in the sky, a doe and two fawns crossed the clearing, unaware of my presence.

Had all those years really been? Maybe I had drowsed away in the warm sunlight amid the sound of falling water and dreamed it all — the Depression, the War, books, paintings, girls, the achievements and troubles of a life. I looked behind me, the cabin certainly was gone; but when I looked at the wet greenish black cliff and the twisting water I sank into their own timelessness.

At last the sunlight went away and it grew chilly. I got up and went down the steep trail, and back down the valley to the campground and my busy daughters. I was a little stiff — I must have sat too long by the waterfall.

[June 30, 1963]


*One of Rexroth’s most beautiful poems, The Signature of All Things, takes place beside this same waterfall, with golden laurel leaves spinning down into the same pool . . .


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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