The Illuminated Landscape
A Sierra Nevada Anthology
(Sierra College/Heyday)All I remember about the Sierra Nevada has to do with me and my drunken friends leaving Reno at ten or so at night, heading down to San Francisco on Highway 89 (along a snaky little road) and there was a car in front of us the driver even drunker than we were (you knew it because when he should have curved to the right he went to the left and hit the brakes at all the wrong times and speeded up at even worse times) and just outside the town of Hobart he went (no stuff!) over the cliff ... he jigged when he should of jagged and suddenly his old Buick was in flight and all we got to see before it disappeared was a grimy shot of the rusty greysmudged bottom of it and then zwop! it was over and out of sight.The Illuminated Landscape is a worthy anthology but it is also the prototypical fat book with a slim one wriggling hard to get born. Despite the glories of its subject, much of the writing is hum-drum, and with a few exceptions, the better known writers produce the better prose. John Muir's running up a spruce (during a storm) proves that he really was an angel: to get to the very top he had, apparently, to fly. Kevin Starr reports on the devastation of the mountains 150 years ago in pursuit of gold. The operating method was hydraulic mining which denuded the landscape, knocked down trees, clogged the streams --- all going to prove that the ruination of the Sierra is not the sole province of our generation of politicians, real estate magnates, speculators and other nit-wits.
Friend David wanted to stop and go see if the poor bastard was still alive (it must have been an alarmingly deep canyon ... we heard no thump, bump or crash) but I looked in the mirror and saw five or six cars behind us pulling over to the side people jumping out and I thought Jesus if we stop now we'll be here all night giving statements, dealing with the police my aching back so I drove on but please Judge don't get on my case for disappearing from the scene of a crime it was 1975 and if I were driving the same road now it would probably be me going off the cliff not that fuddy old drunk but rather fuddy old drunk me.
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Everyone seems to have similar precarious memories of the Sierra Nevada. The editors have culled almost a hundred stories, historical snapshots, poems and reports going back to the oral epics of the Yokut, the Washo, and the Konkow indians. The Yokut even come close to Genesis in epic grandeur ("Once there was a time when there was nothing in the world but water.")
The Illuminated Landscape meanders about in sections with fancy titles like "The Opening Eyelids of Dawn," "Always Afternoon," "Shadows in the Alpenglow," and the whole ends with contemporary writers like David Gilligan, Gary Snyder, and Joe Medeiros. The last writes an easy study of the indigenous trees of the area, including limber and foxtail pine, juniper, and the sequoias, complete with exclamation points:
These giant sequoias are the biggest individual species in the world! More than 450 tons of biomass! Hell, if their boles were hollowed out, you could slide three blue whales into them --- with room for a few orcas and what sharks to spare! Seventy-five elephants could fit in there!
There is another side to the goldbugs, though. Jack London's story of a prospector builds wonderful tension in a few pages, and is an intriguing study of how individual prospectors sought out their treasure. And in "Sitting on Top of the World," that nervy, nervous T. Coraghessan Boyle has created a can't-put-it-down story of the stalking of a lone woman in a lone fire tower ... one who spots a fire that may turn out to be her demise (or the beginning of a strange and tortured new affair).
Finally, Mark Twain's expedition to Lake Tahoe from Roughing It is classic: "I got Johnny to row --- not because I mind exertion myself, but because it makes me sick to ride backward when I am at work."
We stepped ashore very tired and wolfishly hungry. In a "cache" among the rocks we found the provisions and the cooking-utensils, and then, all fatigued as I was, I sat down on a boulder and superintended while Johnny gathered wood and cooked supper.
"Many a man who had gone through what I had, would have wanted to rest."
Later, he writes, "Nothing could disturb the sleep that fettered us for it had been fairly earned, and if our consciences had any sins on them they had to adjourn court for that night, anyway."
The wind rose just as we were losing consciousness, and we were lulled to sleep by the beating of the surf upon the shore.
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As we pointed out, unknown writers turn up in Illuminated, but they are unknown for a reason: the glory of the surroundings cannot lift their prose out of backwash. There are a couple of exceptions. One is a stark piece by Jeanne Wakatsuki about the Japanese relocation camp at Manzanar, where she lived between 1942 and 1945. And then there is reporter Jordan Smith's description of the collapse of Folsom Dam in the 1986 mountain floods. Our complaint here is that the report is cut short: just as the structure washes away with an "unearthly rumble" we are cut off. We want to hear and see and feel it all.
As far as the poetry goes, fergetaboudit! Gary Snyder, Bill Hotchkiss, Wallace Stegner, and William Everson just can't seem to get the glories around them down in words.
In "Bride of the Bear," Everson --- better known as Brother Antoninus --- gives us a prosy ramble through a lusty night with a lady who was, apparently, no shrinking violet, especially with ex-monks.
She "wantons" her mouth, lifts her "dream-drenched face to the light ... the wantonness / Splashed like wine on your parted lips."
Stiffly, raised on one elbow, you fumble at your blouse,
The heat under your animal pelt
Oppressing you. When your hand succeeds,
I see the naked globes of your breasts
Flash back the fire.
"Dream-drenched." "Animal pelt." "Naked globes." O Momma. As Lightnin' Hopkins would say, "Have Mercy!"
--- Richard Saturday