San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1960

The Tao of Fishing
Riding in the Mountains
Upheavals in Cuba and the Congo
More on the Third World



The Tao of Fishing

For the next couple of weeks we are going on a pack trip in the southern Sierra. Nothing startling. We don’t intend to make fires by striking two photographers together, sleep in trees, or dine on muddy dandelions. Just a square type outing,

We will go to Mineral King, above Visalia on the edge of Sequoia National Park, and ride over the hump and have the man leave us with a couple of donkeys. From there on we’ll travel or “set” as we please. If we don’t want to pack up the donkeys and travel, the children can ride them around the meadows. It’s the finest part of the Sierra, the high plateau and peak country just west of Mt. Whitney. If you get off the main trails, as you can with donkeys, it is still pretty unspoiled.

I know plenty of places where there are beautiful lonely lakes, lots of fish, good feed for the donkeys, and few or no people passing by all summer. There are all kinds of peaks to climb if we want to climb them, some you can ride a horse up, others amongst the trickiest in the country.

The red and black Kaweah Range that we will be circling about is the only highly colored group of mountains in the Sierra Nevada, and in my opinion, the most beautiful in California.

For going on 30 years I have spent most of my summers this way. Last year we were in Europe, the year before in the Gros Ventres Mountains in the Wyoming Rockies. I’ll be glad to get back. I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. There I have done the bulk of what is called my creative work. At least it is in the mountains that I write most of my poetry.

Life in the city in the winter seems too full of distractions and busy work. Who said poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility? I don’t know about others, but I find most tranquility camped by a mountain lake at timber line. There whatever past emotion and experience I choose to recollect and write down, take on most depth and meaning.

Dry fly fishing has the same effect on me. It seems to me it is a kind of higher mathematics, practically embodied, of the study of the free flow of water. It combines all the virtues and none of the strains and responsibilities of both art and mysticism. Besides, you catch fish. You don’t have to read books on Zen and Taoism and do funny gymnastics with your breathing and put your legs in painful contortions.

Fly fishing is Taoism in simple and fascinating action. If you let it, it produces, and by much more natural methods, the same results, the crystal clear calm of heart that so many people seek by so much more difficult ways. Maybe if Lao Tse and Bodhidharma had just known about it, they would have been fishermen and not mystics. Of course, you can’t use it, like Zen, to impress gullible chicks in espresso bars. Or can you? I’ve never tried. Maybe I should.

Most men are like that fellow Hercules wrestled with, Antaeus. If they can make contact with the earth every once in a while, they keep their strength. Of course, a lot of people don’t know this, and so they wonder what’s wrong with them.

Bertrand Russell once, in discussing the ideal society of the future, said that one of the essentials of life for most humans was this chance to renew themselves periodically by contact with unspoiled natural environment. Nobody knows this better than the English. They are passionate hikers and bird watchers and “valuable” space is taken up in the most important newspapers with letters describing at length the doings of a family of hedgehogs in the rectory garden or a nest of mistle thrushes in the coppice. This is one of the reasons, and by no manner of means the least, why the English today have so sane and healthy a society.

On the eve of going to the mountains I got in the mail a book just published by the Sierra Club called The Meaning of Wilderness to Science. This is somewhat of a misnomer. It is a book about conservation of our wilderness areas, but the emphasis is on the meaning of wilderness to society, its humane rather than its purely scientific value.

We speak a great deal of the conservation of natural resources. Sometimes we forget that the only primary natural resource is man himself. Coal, iron, oil, timber are just things until they are given value by the labor and life of men. If things, once themselves “natural resources” and then manufactured into commodities, come to dominate life, the means of living have taken the place of the ends, and man is so much less of a human being. Getting and spending do lay waste our time if that is all we have to do with it.

Ecology is the science of how things live together in their environment, and the whole approach of this Sierra Club book is ecological. The contributors to it discuss how plants and animals live together when undisturbed, and how man has come to disturb them, and how some of the more harmful of these disturbances can be put right.

In the end, though, the emphasis is on man as part of the environment of all other living things. Man is a product of a “natural” ecology, too. Once his life was entirely patterned by the same forces that shape the lives of bears and hummingbirds. He has passed that stage and created his own ecology. Whether he is aware of it or not, he can never be completely at home in a manufactured ecology without losing certain powers which have brought him as far along the road as he is.

The highest achievements of man spring from the controlled use of his most primitive endowments. At least until we turn into a different species, it would seem that if we transcend our environment too far we run the danger of losing the ability to transcend it at all.

California is especially lucky. Most of the state is still by the standards of other places a wilderness. There are parts of the city of San Francisco almost as wild as the Forest of Deane or the Cotswolds in England. There is a spot I go to to work in northwestern Marin County, less than 30 miles from town, which is more of an unspoiled wilderness than any place on the European continent. In much of California the so-called economic resources are trivial, and once exploited they will be gone forever and the wilderness with them. The wilderness is a primary resource. It is the place we can go to draw strength and wisdom for our economics — for the life of making a living. It is a resource of the heart.

[August 7, 1960]

NOTE: The fishing/Taoism theme is discussed in more detail in two Classics Revisited essays, on the Tao Te Ching and The Compleat Angler.



Riding in the Mountains

Well, we all came back from our pack trip unscathed and fit as fiddles. We decided to go deluxe and ride every day instead of being packed in and left with a couple of donkeys. This, of course, delighted our little girls, and as for father, there’s nothing like 20 or more miles a day on horseback over mountain trails to jar off the grease.

Pack trips with everybody mounted, a pack mule for every two people and a packer in attendance don’t seem to be as popular as they used to be. I have the impression that rising costs, insurance and wages have priced them out of their old market. I can remember when a fair horse rented for $1 a day, the packer’s wages were $4 or $5, and if you insisted, you could always take the stock yourself and dispense with the packer.

Now everything costs five times as much, and no sane pack outfit would trust a dude alone with a horse. Still, it is quite possible to take a trip of a week or more at a cost of about $10 a day a person, less, if the party is large. As vacations go nowadays, this is not really expensive.

Although the old middle and professional class market for such trips seems to be going, I don’t see why clubs, organizations, groups got together spontaneously for just that purpose, can’t take over. Burchell’s Pack Station at Mineral King, which we used, was packing in a girls’ riding club from Los Angeles on a long trip of two weeks or more. I figured out the costs and they were considerably less per girl than two weeks in any first- or even second-class “summer camp” in California.

All this is posited on the assumption that you like to ride, at least that you begin to enjoy it the second or third day after you’ve got the aches and cramps out of yourself — and that you like the mountains and the outdoors generally. Plenty of people simply loathe the whole business.

It’s a wonderful way to capture just a little of the feeling of the Old West. In fact, I guess it’s the only way left. When I was a boy, bumming around the West out of Chicago, I bought myself a little zebra dun up in the Horse Heaven Country in central Washington. I rode him all over the intermountain country, drifting from job to job — just like Hashknife Hartley, the Cowboy Detective, or one of Ernest Haycock’s heroes. Each fall I’d board him out where I happened to be, and next spring I’d come back and get him.

I, too, have ambled down off the rim rock to the green homestead in the box canyon, building a wheatstraw “cigareet” with one hand while the sun set over the distant mountains. To my children this will be as improbable as though I claimed to have fought at Waterloo or Thermopylae.

How little time ago, and it’s all gone. Still, you can imagine it back, riding down the switchbacks of Black Rock Pass, the Kaweahs rising in front of you and a lightning storm battering the pinnacles. I can, anyway, and whatever my daughters imagined, they so obviously just loved it.

Nights under the thick stars, dawn swims in the cool mirror of a lonely lake, golden trout that quarrel to climb on your fly, vast stretches of park-like forest where nobody ever comes, meadows like square mile bowling greens full of elderly bucks with top heavy antlers — they are still there. Some day I’ll be too old, but I will still have some wonderful memories to wander in.

I never go in the mountains nowadays but what I think of what might be done to develop, but not spoil, them if we just weren’t spending billions on past war, war, and future war. The reason we decided to ride all the way and not bother with donkeys is that the old pass out of Mineral King, five steep miles directly into the cream of the high country, has been washed out, fallen apart and hopelessly impassable for stock for several years now. Its repair would require the work of two small trail crews, one on each side, working one summer or less. This would make a difference of thousands of dollars yearly to the resort village of Mineral King — but the government can’t find the money.

It is shocking to realize that the basic structure of access to the high country in both the National Parks and the National Forests was all developed in the years just preceding the First World War. It is not just shocking, the date is significant — ominous.

Look at those pie-shaped charts in the paper each year of the disposition of the national budget, and think of all the wonderful things that could be done to make life in our country better if just a small part of that immense hunk that goes to support wars, past and to come, could be given to the permanent, peacetime services of the government. Ask the superintendents of Yosemite or Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks what they could do with the price of an ICBM! Or, for that matter, ask the principal of your youngsters’ high school.

So we had our outing and came home, driving up the San Joaquin Valley, where the white elk used to roam, in a sunset straight out of one of Bill Everson’s poems.

Two of the best Chinese restaurants in the state are in Fresno and the girls always want to eat there. (The Paris and the New China.)

Full of Chinese food, we passed a rented trailer with a complete, but dismantled bar, tables, chairs, plywood imitation mahogany bar, a neon sign, “PEGGY’S PLACE,” a Missouri license, and in the car a grim, worn, but hopeful and pretty young woman and three tired little girls; after them, another rented trailer, with a good old faithful battered roll-top desk and nothing else, a Texas license, an Austin dealer’s name on the plate holder, and in the car, all by himself, a good gray college professor, puffing Bond Street in his good old faithful battered briar, oh so pleased with himself, Berkeley bound. Just at that moment a sign pointed off to the right: SANDY MUSH ROAD.

Home again and a visit from a physicist from Boston. We sat up until after midnight talking of Lumumba, Tshombe, Castro, Che Guevara and the troubled view ahead. Vacation was over. At least we could console ourselves with the Royal Danish Ballet and the latest Neo-Plastique painter.

[August 14, 1960]

NOTE: See Rexroth’s Autobiography for more on his early trips out West.



Upheavals in Cuba and the Congo

The evil men do lives after them. In politics as in love, all too often, injuries once suffered can never be healed, chances once lost can never be regained. The old bloated and benighted imperialists are gone today. Nobody advocates sending gunboats to the cannibal isles, nobody thinks that clearing the streets with a “whiff of grape” will keep them clear for more than a few hours.

There can hardly be anybody left in a position of authority today who does not realize that the most important problem next to the avoidance of the war that will end all wars is the orderly introduction of the former colonial countries into the worldwide, interdependent economic community.

We all know today that if we can ensure the welfare of the peasant in India, the miner in the Congo, the factory worker in Havana — some time in a future that he himself can foresee, we will have ensured the welfare of our children and grandchildren. If we cannot, our descendants will not have any welfare. They will very likely not exist.

We can only hope that this realization has not come too late. It is going to take a lot of work to undo the damage of the past. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” So true. Today in the Congo and in Cuba we are paying with compound interest for the past. In politics, as in love, when you sow sloth and indifference, you reap their opposite — the whirlwind.

The degree to which the former colonial powers have been able to disengage politically from their “subjects” and still preserve friendship, and more important, economic interdependence, has been strictly proportional to the enlightenment of their colonial policy.

Neither political party in the United States ever really tried to do anything about the bloodthirsty and incompetent dictatorship that gripped Cuba for so many years. Of course, I don’t believe in interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Still, if the State Department and the great companies whose properties have just been confiscated had pursued a policy of enlightened self-interest, of course they could have aided the development in Cuba of a broadly based economy and a democratic government. It is too late now to talk of what might have been.

The Cubans are not possessed by devils flown through the stratosphere from Moscow. They are possessed by the bitterness of the past. This is the tragedy of the Cuban Revolution itself and of Castro and his followers as people. It is hard to believe that a program of extremely difficult and complex social change can succeed if its principal motor fuel is rabid hatred and melodramatic demagogy. The revolutionaries may even hold power — but the revolution, as we learn from history, almost always turns into its opposite. Love affairs that end in blind hate and obsession with past pain usually leave the participants permanently incapacitated for any future normal love or even life.

I am very far indeed from being a partisan or even sympathizer of Señors Castro and Guevara and their friends, but I have yet to see a convincing “long-range program” for redeeming the past and restoring friendship with their unhappy country — no matter who comes to power there. I believe the present regime is doomed by its own follies. After it falls, then what? If the conditions which produced the present explosion return and we just sit on the lid — the next time the country blows up it is going to be very nasty indeed.

There are more technical and professional students this year from Negro Africa in one French university than there are technicians and professionals of Negro race in all the Belgian Congo. The Negroes of the French Congo have been amongst the most helpful in the present crisis. When hordes of terrified white people swarmed across the great river in the night, the mayor and officials, and the common people of French Brazzaville forgot the indignities and pain of the past and comforted them. They fed them and took them into their homes until they could be cared for by the official agencies.

Nigeria slipped almost unnoticed into independence and promises to at least try to become the Switzerland or Sweden of Africa as far as civilized political behavior is concerned. Ghana, after so short a time to find itself, seems to be very like Manchester or Chicago politically.

On the other hand, what will happen when the darkest spots on the once Dark Continent, Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, blow up — as blow up they surely will in the next few years? What frightful apocalypse are the Boers constructing for themselves in South Africa? I, for one, would just as soon not be around.

It’s not just what happens to the former imperialists. I suppose a lot of people, reading about the week of panic in the Congo, safely on the other side of the world, said, “Well, the stinkers are getting their just deserts.” Vengeance is sweet, at least to read about, but who is going to make the wheels go round? Contrary to popular belief, most of the former colonial countries are not lavishly endowed with economic resources. Their principal problem is to find the wherewithal for capital investment. Where are you going to get the money to build irrigation projects in Ceylon? From the savings of Ceylonese peasants?

Civilized Europe tore itself to pieces for 300 years of wars and revolutions in the process of building our present industrial and commercial society. What the economists call the “primitive accumulation of capital” or the Industrial Revolution is not going to come about in Africa or Southeast Asia in the way it came about in Europe. These enormous masses of people are restive and defiant. They see the luxury of the rest of the world and demand their share. If they don’t get it soon, they will make trouble, whoever has won them over — Russia or America, it makes no difference. Big Brother, whoever he is, is going to have to produce, or else.

“Economic imperialism,” the export of capital to undeveloped countries in exchange for raw materials, is no longer necessarily to the advantage of the junior member of the partnership. In actual fact, it has been shown time and again that it is of so little profit to the older nation that private industry will no longer undertake it unless subsidized and guaranteed.

It is theoretically quite possible for the highly developed nations of the world to act in concert, banish poverty from the earth and preserve the capitalist system and political democracy at the same time. In fact — there is no other way to preserve these two desirable forms of human association. Chairman Mao says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and talks of leading a worldwide anti-imperialist war — in brutal fact, a race war. I can’t name the hour or the day, but it is evident that we have only a limited time to prove him wrong.

[August 21, 1960]



More on the Third World

Last week I wrote about the Congo and Cuba. It didn’t seem to do any good. Things aren’t a bit better. Maybe last Sunday’s Examiner hasn’t got to Havana, Leopoldville, or even the UN yet.

I wonder how many people realize that we are at the very beginning of a new epoch? At least a generation of complication and political worry, if not serious trouble, lies ahead. During the late ’20s and the early ’30s the Bolsheviks were always talking about the “new round of wars and revolutions” that was going to break out any day. As a matter of fact, those years were, for the 20th century, comparatively peaceful.

The days of turmoil, so often prophesied, have come at last. Contrary to the prophets, the turmoil is not due to the “contradictions of capitalism” or to class conflict or “imperialist rivalries.” On the contrary, capitalism is in better shape than it has been in years. The economy is booming, working class militancy is at its lowest ebb, and the leading industrial nations of the world are not just lowering tariffs, but slowly evolving a federated economic community.

It is precisely because of the fundamental qualitative change in the economic life of the older commercial and industrial nations that the former colonial world has been able to break loose. “Free enterprise” in the old sense no longer exists. A fact seldom mentioned, the “public sector” of the American economy is proportionately about as big as it is in Britain, and considerably bigger than it is in India, a presumably socialist country.

Furthermore, private enterprise in America, by various direct, indirect, and subtly concealed mechanisms, is as controlled as it is in Sweden. For such a rationalized economy, political imperialism is simply too expensive. Germany, the USA, Sweden, Switzerland, the most prosperous countries in the world have no colonies in the old-fashioned sense, and the two most stable have never had any.

Old King Leopold ruled the Congo as his own personal kennel and met revolt by chopping off the hands of the population. Whatever skullduggery may be going on right now in Katanga, we should not forget that the Belgians gave the Congolese their freedom after a few petty riots that would never have troubled the siestas of the colonial administrators of the last century.

Freedom? What is this freedom? The Belgians dropped an expensive burden, and the Congolese picked up a European export far more unsettling than fire water or religion — the ideas of the American and French Revolutions and the British Constitution. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Mirabeau, what meaning do their explosive words have to Africans and Indonesians? To a tiny handful of intellectuals they mean pretty much what they meant to their authors.

Africans are far from being savages, but most of them are certainly very backward peasants. There is little evidence that the Declaration of the Rights of Man has meant much to the Russian peasantry since 1917 — what do the “rights of man” mean to an impoverished family raising yams in a jungle clearing or working as laborers on a palm oil plantation? And yet, they too want “freedom.”

The two countries in the Caribbean that may well be the next to blow up are Santo Domingo and Haiti — for almost exactly opposite reasons. One is a personal despotism, the other is under an “enlightened,” bumbling and inefficient, democratically elected regime. Both are falling apart at the seams. Both are “free” in the sense that they are independent, sovereign nations.

The United States has no so-called imperialist interest in either country of any real consequence. Our only political interest is mildly strategic, and if the Pentagon wishes to make doubly sure of our Caribbean flank, the cheapest things to do would be to buy out all foreign interests as well as American, and put the entire population of the island on relief. This is essentially what we did with the Virgin Islands, to the apparent satisfaction of all concerned. Of course, we can’t do that in this instance, so instead we are going to have to put up with another minor international headache.

I like Haitians, they are a proud-stepping people that no one has dared call “Boy!” in a long, long time. They all know that they are the Negroes whose ragged armies defeated an army of Napoleon. They are free. But Haiti has the lowest standard of living in the Western Hemisphere, one of the very lowest in the world. What does “freedom” mean to the illiterate, starving, voodoo-ridden peasants of the Haitian hills?

This is the essential question. Too few people realize that there are two great revolutions going on in our time. One is the movement of the industrial nations toward a controlled economy and a welfare state, with various degrees of “private enterprise.” The other is a “Green Revolution,” the struggle of the peasant majority of the world to rise from a way of life which has not changed since the Neolithic Age and which today is utterly worn out.

Doubtless, the Haitian peasant is exploited, but is you wiped out every vestige of exploitation, you would not wipe out the poverty, you would simply generalize it. The productivity per acre of the most inefficient Iowa farm, as Khrushchev discovered, is far greater than that of the most efficient Russian state or collective farm. The productivity of, not Haiti, but even Greece, is probably less than it was 3000 years ago.

Stalin killed millions. He made Russia the second most powerful industrial nation in the world, but the agricultural problem of the Soviet Union is still far from complete solution. The “Green Revolution” is still beating on the Kremlin gates. Today that same unanswered, and so far unanswerable demand for fundamental, total social change is facing the world community of nations. Presumably it is no longer possible to try to solve it by exterminating millions of troublesome peasants with the flick of a pen on an official document.

The brutal fact is that nobody has an answer. If we had a hundred years, we could probably evolve one out of experiment, controversy, and bloodshed, out of “trial and error,” the good old way in which mankind has got as far as it has. But we can no longer afford trial and error. So far, nobody has proposed even one “trial” which shows any promise of working. The Russians and the Americans are deadlocked is a struggle of Free Enterprise versus Marxian Socialism. There is no Marxian Socialism in Russia and there is precious little Free Enterprise in the United States. These are metaphysical entities, like Plato’s Ideas. There is nothing metaphysical about a Javanese baby, dead of malnutrition on the mud floor of a peasant hut. There are more peasants suffering from malnutrition in the world than there are Bolsheviks or businessmen.

Having got that off my chest, we are going to the circus, one of the few genuinely international activities, enjoyed by everybody, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and with a tradition, like peasant agriculture, going back to the beginnings of civilization. The only trouble is — it is no longer profitable. They tell me that, just like opera, the greatest American circus runs on the subsidies of enthusiasts. Times are certainly changing. Isn’t it exciting just to be alive in this epoch-making epoch?

[August 28, 1960]


“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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