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Natural State

Natural State: A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing

Selected and Edited by Steven Gilbar
With a Foreword by David Brower
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Natural State
    Book Description:

    This is the first anthology of nature writing that celebrates California, the most geographically diverse state in the union. Readers-be they naturalists or armchair explorers-will find themselves transported to California's many wild places in the company of forty noted writers whose works span more than a century. Divided into sections on California's mountains, hills and valleys, deserts, coast, and elements (earth, wind, and fire), the book contains essays, diary entries, and excerpts from larger works, including fiction. As a prelude to the collection, editor Steven Gilbar presents two California Indian creation myths, one a Cahto narrative and the other an A-juma-wi story as told by Darryl Babe Wilson. Familiar names appear in these pages-John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, John McPhee, M.F.K. Fisher, Gretel Ehrlich-but less familiar writers such as Daniel Duane, Margaret Millar, and John McKinney are also included. Among the gems in this treasure trove are Jack Kerouac on climbing Mt. Matterhorn, Barry Lopez on snow geese migration at Tule Lake, Edward Abbey on Death Valley, Henry Miller on Big Sur, and Joan Didion on the Santa Ana winds. Gary Snyder's inspiring Afterword reflects the spirit of environmentalism that runs throughout the book.Natural Statealso reveals the many changes to California's landscape that have occurred in geological time and in human terms. More than a book of "nature writing," this book is superb writing about nature.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92033-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)

    This book is a feast and requires a celebration. For one thing, I have known, or am almost old enough to have known, so many of the authors: LeConte, Twain, Kerouac, Brewer, Stevenson, London, Steinbeck, Stegner, Abbey, Chase, Powell, Miller (Joaquin and Henry), Muir, and Austin—all of whom preceded me (which isn’t easy). I was overwhelmed with serendipity, not to be relieved by the current host of authors who are younger (who isn’t?), including John Daniel, who had learned about writing from Wallace Stegner and was fleetingly a student of mine, when as a Berkeley dropout (1931) I briefly...

    (pp. 1-6)

    California is a land of contrasts. Both the highest and lowest elevations of the lower forty-eight states are in California—and then only eighty miles apart. The hottest temperatures in the United States are found there. It has some of the world’s greatest wonders, and has had some of its worst natural disasters. Naturally, this landscape has inspired prose that, like the land itself, is diverse and full of contrasts. This book aims to corral the best of it.

    The special quality of California’s landscape has affected all sorts of writers, not all of whom fall into the category of...


    • The Creation
      (pp. 9-12)

      Every day it rained, every night it rained. All the people slept. The sky fell. The land was not. For a very great distance there was no land. The waters of the oceans came together. Animals of all kinds drowned. Where the water went there were no trees. There was no land.

      People became. Seal, sea-lion, and grizzly built a dance-house. They looked for a place in vain. At Usal they built it, for there the ground was good. There are many sea-lions there. Whale became a human woman. That is why women are so fat. There were no grizzlies....

    • Grampa Ramsey and the Great Canyon
      (pp. 13-18)

      It was a summer before I kept track of time. In our decrepit automobile, we rattled into the driveway, a cloud of exhaust fumes, dust, and screaming, excited children. A half dozen ragged kids and an old black dog poured from the ancient vehicle. Confusion reigned supreme. Uncle Ramsey (after we became parents, his official title changed to “Grampa”) was standing in the door of the comfortable little pine-board home just east of McArthur. Aunt Lorena was in her immaculate kitchen making coffee.

      Just as quickly as we poured from the vehicle, we disappeared. There was a pervading silence. Always...


    • An Elk Hunt
      (pp. 21-26)

      When the spring came tripping by from the south over the chaparral hills of Shasta, leaving flowers in every footprint as we passed, I set my face for Mount Shasta, the lightest-hearted lad that ever mounted horse. A hard day’s ride brought me to Portuguese Flat, the last new mining camp and the nearest town to my beloved Mount Shasta. Here I found my former partner in the Soda Springs property, Mountain Joe, and together we went up to Mount Shasta.

      The Indian chief, Blackbeard, gave me a beautiful little valley then known as Now-ow-wa, but now called by the...

    • Ramblings in Yosemite
      (pp. 27-31)

      July 30.— . . . In the afternoon we pushed on, to get our first view of Yosemite this evening, from Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. . . . About 5 p.m. we passed a high pile of rocks, called Ostrander’s Rocks. The whole trail, from Westfall’s meadows to Glacier Point, is near eight thousand feet high. From this rocky prominence, therefore, the view is really magnificent. It was our first view of the peaks and domes about Yosemite, and of the more distant High Sierra, and we enjoyed it beyond expression. But there are still finer views ahead, which...

    • Lake Tahoe
      (pp. 32-39)

      We tramped a long time on level ground, and then toiled laboriously up a mountain about a thousand miles high and looked over. No lake there. We descended on the other side, crossed the valley, and toiled up another mountain three or four thousand miles high, apparently, and looked over again. No lake yet. We sat down, tired and perspiring, and hired a couple of Chinamen to curse those people who had beguiled us. Thus refreshed, we presently resumed the march with renewed vigor and determination. We plodded on, two or three hours longer, and at last the lake burst...

    • Climbing Matterhorn Peak
      (pp. 40-51)

      “Well here we go” said Japhy. “When I get tired of this big rucksack we’ll swap.”

      “I’m ready now, man, come on, give it to me now, I feel like carrying something heavy. You don’t realize how good I feel, man, come on.” So we swapped packs and started off.

      Both of us were feeling fine and were talking a blue streak, about anything, literature, the mountains, girls, Princess, the poets, Japan, our past adventures in life, and I suddenly realized it was a kind of blessing in disguise Morley had forgotten to drain the crankcase, otherwise Japhy wouldn’t have...

    • A Mount for All Seasons
      (pp. 52-63)

      From Muir Woods, from Mill Valley, from almost any place around the base of Tamalpais, a trail network leads to all parts of the mountain, offering exploration and adventure, refreshment and renewal to all who can walk. In order to know this mountain of diverse moods, it is necessary to hike its trails in every season and every weather.

      One August morning, for example, when San Francisco was dark beneath a heavy overcast, I drove to the mountain by way of Mill Valley and on the road above the town found myself in a thick fog. Switching on the windshield...

    • Trumpets of Light
      (pp. 64-72)

      This July morning a light breeze streaks the otherwise calm surface of an alpine tarn, then dies, leaving a polished, stainless-steel skin. Yesterday my elder daughter, Susan, and I hiked eight miles into the Sierra, and twenty-five hundred feet up, into the northeast corner of the Yosemite backcountry wilderness, which brought us to this charming tarn nestled into a granite bowl at around ten thousand feet.

      The sky brightens but does not heat; I enjoy earth’s staging time, getting everything adjusted, ordered, before turning on the sun. By six, full sunlight stains a ridge ruddy at the far edge of...

    • The Fourth Dimension
      (pp. 73-80)

      Ten years passed before I went back to the Siskiyous. During that time I walked into a number of wild places, and acquired what I thought was a fair knowledge of western mountain wilderness: of the climb from chaparral or sagebrush in the Upper Sonoran Zone; through Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and white fir in the Transition Zone; past lodgepole pine, red fir, or Engelmann spruce in the Canadian Zone; to stunted whitebark pines and heather in the Alpine Zone. I went to a few places where there were still grizzly bear tracks as well as black bear tracks. So...

    • Climbing Half Dome
      (pp. 81-90)

      No sound disturbed the natural quarry below Half Dome. In predawn light, I smeared cream cheese on a flattened onion bagel and looked out over the whole of Yosemite Valley. A surprising view from so high above, from a place I had until now only looked up to: the right wall of the valley was an ordered row of forms: Washington, Column, the Royal Arches, Yosemite Falls, the Three Brothers, and El Capitan; the left—Glacier Point, Sentinel Rock, and the Cathedral Group. Even at five a.m. the air held midsummer heat, dried sweat and dust caked my skin from...


    • Into the Valley
      (pp. 93-100)

      Monday morning, April 29, [1861,] . . . we crossed the San Luis Pass of the Santa Lucia Mountains, a pass about 1,500 or 1,800 feet high, and entered the Santa Margarita Valley. North of the Santa Lucia chain, which trends off to the northwest and ends at Monterey, lies the valley of Salinas, a valley running northwest, widening toward its mouth, and at least a hundred and fifty miles long. The valley branches above. One branch, the west, is the Santa Margarita, into which we descended from the San Luis Pass. We followed down this valley to near its...

    • The Sea Fogs
      (pp. 101-107)

      The scene . . . is on a high mountain. There are, indeed, many higher; there are many of a noble outline. It is no place of pilgrimage for the summary globe-trotter; but to one who lives upon its sides, Mount Saint Helena soon becomes a center of interest. It is the Mont Blanc of one section of the Californian Coast Range, none of its near neighbors rising to one-half its altitude. It looks down on much green, intricate country. It feeds in the spring-time many splashing brooks. From its summit you must have an excellent lesson of geography: seeing,...

    • On Sonoma Mountain
      (pp. 108-115)

      One weekend, feeling heavy and depressed and tired of the city and its ways, he obeyed the impulse of a whim that was later to play an important part in his life. The desire to get out of the city for a whiff of country air and for a change of scene was the cause. Yet, in himself, he made the excuse of going to Glen Ellen for the purpose of inspecting the brickyard with which Holdsworthy had goldbricked him.

      He spent the night in a little country hotel, and on Sunday morning, astride a saddle-horse rented from the Glen...

    • Flight
      (pp. 116-128)

      It was the first dawn when he rode up the hill toward the little canyon which let a trail into the mountains. Moonlight and daylight fought with each other, and the two warring qualities made it difficult to see. Before Pepé had gone a hundred yards, the outlines of his figure were misty; and long before he entered the canyon, he had become a grey, indefinite shadow.

      Mama stood stiffly in front of her doorstep, and on either side of her stood Emilio and Rosy. They cast furtive glances at Mama now and then.

      When the grey shape of Pepé...

    • Spirits of the Valley
      (pp. 129-134)
      M. F. K. FISHER

      Some people believe that it is a fortunate thing if a person can live in a real valley instead of on flat open land, and they may well be right. For some sixteen years, from 1940 on, I lived most of the time on ninety acres of worthless land southeast of the little town of Hemet in southern California, and they were fine magical ones, important in the shaping of many people besides me, perhaps because Hemet Valley was a true one in every sense. At its far eastern end rose the high mountains that separated coastal land from desert,...

    • A Reflection on White Geese
      (pp. 135-149)

      I slow the car, downshifting from fourth to third, with the melancholic notes of Bach’s sixth cello suite in my ears—a recording of Casals from 1936—and turn east, away from a volcanic ridge of black basalt. On this cool California evening, the land in the marshy valley beyond is submerged in gray light, while the far hills are yet touched by a sunset glow. To the south, out the window, Venus glistens, a white diamond at the horizon’s dark lapis edge. A few feet to my left is lake water—skittish mallards and coots bolt from the cover...

    • In Condor Country
      (pp. 150-157)

      It is early in the morning and we are near the top of a mountain. Along the shoulders of the road, hunters appear and disappear; their fluorescent orange hats and coats take shape and then diminish in the fog, the visual equivalent of clanging buoys. Visibility perhaps extends to one hundred feet. Rain and wind have drawn a maze of channels on the windshield of the pickup, although it is September—officially too early for rain in California. Nevertheless, water falling from the sky is beating a steady snare-drum roll on the camper top. I sit under it in the...

    • Winter’s Fog
      (pp. 158-160)

      On cold winter nights I step out into our porch to check the thermometer. It has not changed much all day, ranging between a cold in the low thirties to a high in the mid-forties with a damp, biting fog blanketing the valley farmlands. From my porch I hear the tap-tap-tap of dewdrops trickling down the barren branches, falling and landing on the damp leaves below. I can feel the cold on my cheeks and the warmth of our home’s wood stove still within my sweater.

      Beyond me the vines and peach trees change seasons too. I think of the...

    • A Vanishing Land
      (pp. 161-168)

      When I first came to live in southern California, around 1925, I was looked upon as a foreigner from Indiana, so much was the lack of nativity formerly noticed by born Californians. I had not been here long before I saw how desirable it would have been, in a country whose character was equally strange and absorbing to me, to be bred and born in the grain of mountain, desert, palm, and semi-tropic. My family came here for the same comfortable and aesthetic reason that has always turned midland and prairie Americans toward the coast. We came to live in...

    • Remnants
      (pp. 169-186)

      Nearly every morning a coyote works the pasture beyond our yard fence. He comes up out of the woods that fill the little canyon to the south—woods out of sight from our windows, under the roll of the hill—and quarters the field, hunting under the unpastured grass now matted by the rains. He is as pointed as an arrow; his plume, carried straight out behind his lean shape, feathers him for swift accuracy. His nose is long and sharp, his ears are alert, his head is always turning while nose, ears, and eyes appraise some tenuous signal. His...


    • Desert Walking
      (pp. 189-199)

      My friend John, whom I’ve known since childhood, entered a Vedic monastic order after college and spent ten years as a renunciate monk in southern California, cut off from his former life and the outside world. In those years he studied rigorously and meditated four to five hours a day. When he decided to emerge from isolation, he bought a four-wheel-drive pickup and started traveling to desert places in California and Arizona. He camped and hiked, usually alone, for days and sometimes weeks at a time. It was in the desert that he felt closest to the mystery of being....

    • Death Valley
      (pp. 200-212)

      From Daylight Pass at 4,317 feet we descend through Boundary Canyon and Hell’s Gate into the inferno at sea level and below. Below, below . . . beneath a sea, not of brine, but of heat, of shimmering simmering waves of light and a wind as hot and fierce as a dragon’s breath.

      The glare is stunning. Yet also exciting, even exhilarating—a world of light. The air seems not clear like glass but colored, a transparent, tinted medium, golden toward the sun, smoke-blue in the shadows. The colors come, it appears, not simply from the background, but are actually...

    • Overlooking Carrizo Gorge
      (pp. 213-218)

      I gaze out from Carrizo Gorge above Interstate 8 and piece together the new Sonoran wilderness where I will hike and backpack over the next two weeks. On foot, I will cover sixty miles of the pristine yet long-traveled desert sands. It’s the edges and borders and ecotones that drive me wild. I need to know how the Mexican Sonoran melts into the United States’ Sonoran, how the Peninsular Mountains of coastal California melt into the Sonoran Desert floor, and how Anza-Borrego State Park flows into its adjacent wild lands: Carrizo Gorge Wilderness, 15,700 acres of deep canyons; the Jacumba...

    • The Palms in Our Hands
      (pp. 219-234)

      Around Palm Springs, California, half of the sixty thousand residents are over sixty years old. In August, the asphalt running in to the various retirement subdivisions drives the thermometer up over 170 degrees. The pavement is so hot, you can fry a snowbird’s egg on it—if you can find one. Most of the old birds who stay year-round stay inside during the summer. They may take a couple of showers a day to stay fresh. Many of them pay Southern California Edison a thousand dollars a month or more to keep their air conditioners running straight through the summer....


    • Gaviota Coast Trails
      (pp. 237-242)

      The coast road from this point west for ten or twelve miles is little more than a track, and that of the roughest kind, quite impossible for wheeled vehicles. There was a fence across the path, and a notice was posted that travelers must take the beach. I rode down to the shore, but when I saw that a little farther on the tide was washing up to the base of the cliffs I turned back, found a way through the fence, and trespassed on my way.

      The country hereabout is monotonous and unattractive. Low undulating hills run for mile...

    • Where the Mountains Meet the Sea
      (pp. 243-249)

      My boyhood and youth were nourished by the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos, which ranges wall out the desert from southern California. It was not until I went to work at UCLA and moved near to the campus that allegiance was transferred to the Santa Monicas, a less spectacular range that rises in Hollywood and extends fifty miles to a marine ending at Point Mugu.

      From living in Beverly Glen, I came to love the surrounding range of chaparral, oak, and sycamore. It was a good place for our sons to live as boys, and now that they are...

    • Big Sur
      (pp. 250-258)

      It was twelve years ago on a day in February that I arrived in Big Sur—in the midst of a violent downpour. Toward dusk that same day, after a rejuvenating bath outdoors at the hot sulphur springs (Slade’s Springs), I had dinner with the Rosses in the quaint old cottage they then occupied at Livermore Edge. It was the beginning of something more than a friendship. It would be more just, perhaps, to call it an initiation into a new way of life.

      It was a few weeks after this meeting that I read Lillian Bos Ross’s bookThe...

    • The Sundown Sea
      (pp. 259-268)
      T. H. WATKINS

      You ran, dog at your side, not just to keep warm or for the simple joy of it, but because you wanted to take advantage of every secret moment of this time. Your parents had not forbidden these unsupervised expeditions; they simply did not know about them, and you wanted to keep it that way. God knew, it was dangerous enough a business, clambering barefoot over rocks polished by centuries of beating surf, made slick, smooth, and wet. One slip, and you could break an arm or leg, or even crack your skull. And if you were injured as far...

    • A Certain Moment
      (pp. 269-273)

      The fisherman’s day began before daylight. Roads were lightly iced where water had seeped from a rain earlier in the week, and a dense tule fog hugged the valleys. Eaves were white with frost in San Anselmo, and the vague predawn light showed Fairfax utterly deserted. The landscape surrounding the rest of the drive lay pristine beneath a silver mantle: White’s Hill, San Geronimo Valley, Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Tocaloma, and, finally, the Olema Grade, giving rise at its crest to the full sweep of Inverness Ridge and Tomales Bay, where the fisherman was going after striped bass.


    • Tapping the Source
      (pp. 274-278)
      KEM NUNN

      The night was filled with the song of insects, the earthy scents of grass and sage, the damp salt smell of the sea. The moon lit the road and threw a silver light upon the blades of grass, the polished rails of the boards. They walked for what seemed to Ike a long time. His arms ached and each felt about a foot longer when they finally put everything down. They rolled the bags out between the roots of some thick trees on the side of a hill. The ground fell away into darkness, more trees. The moon was straight...

    • Santa Rosa
      (pp. 279-284)

      Green, no one here remembers when it started. Maybe three days ago, after seven months of brown. “It comes on like blindness,” one of the cowboys says. “One day the green puts your eyes out, and you didn’t even see it coming.” I’m standing on the mountainous top of Santa Rosa island off the Santa Barbara coast. Out across the channel waters-white—capped, big-swelled, and shark-glutted—I can see, on the California mainland, the ridge where my house is perched. From there, the view down a canyon perfectly frames Santa Rosa. It is as if this marine shard were the...

    • Lost Coast
      (pp. 285-298)

      It doesn’t get any wilder than this.

      California has a very long coastline, and millions of acres of wilderness, but it has only one wilderness coast.

      The Lost Coast.

      A day’s walk north of Fort Bragg I’m greeted by towering shoreline cliffs, rising abruptly like volcanoes from the sea. I get just a glimpse of the two-thousand-foot-high cliffs before the morning mist turns to heavy fog and the coast is lost to my view. The Lost Coast is so rough—rougher even than Big Sur’s coast—that it even thwarted California’s highway engineers; much to their frustration, they were compelled...


    • Continental Drift
      (pp. 301-304)

      From high above, say gazing down from one of our tracking satellites, he can see it plain as an incision, a six-hundred-mile incision some careless surgeon stitched up across the surface of the earth. It marks the line where two great slabs of the earth’s crust meet and grind together. Most of North America occupies one of these slabs. Most of the Pacific Ocean floats on the other. A small lip of the Pacific slab extends above the surface, along America’s western coastline, a lush and mountainous belt of land not as much a part of the rest of the...

    • The San Andreas Discrepancy
      (pp. 305-315)

      Farther north [of Los Angeles], it loses, for a while, its domestic charm. Almost all water disappears in a desert scene that, for California, is unusually placed. The Carrizo Plain, only forty miles into the Coast Ranges from the ocean at Santa Barbara, closely resembles a south Nevada basin. Between the Caliente Range and the Temblor Range, the San Andreas Fault runs up this flat, unvegetated, linear valley in full exposure of its benches and scarps, its elongate grabens and beheaded channels, its desiccated sag ponds and dry deflected streams. From the air, the fault trace is keloid, virtually organic...

    • A Wind-Storm in the Forest
      (pp. 316-325)

      The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty. However restricted the scope of other forest influences, that of the winds is universal. The snow bends and trims the upper forests every winter, the lightning strikes a single tree here and there, while avalanches mow down thousands at a swoop as a gardener trims out a bed of flowers. But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with...

    • The Santa Ana
      (pp. 326-329)

      There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I...

    • Nurslings of the Sky
      (pp. 330-336)

      Choose a hill country for storms. There all the business of the weather is carried on above your horizon and loses its terror in familiarity. When you come to think about it, the disastrous storms are on the levels, sea or sand or plains. There you get only a hint of what is about to happen, the fume of the gods rising from their meeting place under the rim of the world; and when it breaks upon you there is no stay nor shelter. The terrible mewings and mouthings of a Kansas wind have the added terror of viewlessness. You...

    • The Storm
      (pp. 337-348)

      A deluge during the night made planning for the day useless. By morning two inches of rain had fallen; as the forecast had pre dicted, a two-inch sheet of water laid out on 39,000 acres. In the middle of the morning, over leisurely cups of coffee, I thought of my good luck the day before in escaping back to the ranch in mid-afternoon despite the prevailing dark and forbidding mood. I also relished revisioning the scene encountered on the way, especially the Mexican cattle gathered on the mesas in all their odd shapes and colors—many more than in the...

    • After the Fire
      (pp. 349-354)

      Fire . . . is a natural condition of life in the chaparral regions of southern California, and an essential condition if vegetation is to remain young and vigorous. Without an occasional clearing out, the underbrush gets so thick and high that deer and other mammals can’t penetrate it and ground-dwelling birds have trouble foraging. When this happens the chaparral, normally rich in wildlife, becomes incapable of supporting its usual share. Fire occurring at twenty- to twenty-five-year intervals is a benefit, a cleaning-out of dead and diseased wood and groundcover. (Before any nature lover sets off into the hills with...

  11. Afterword: Coming into the Watershed
    (pp. 355-368)

    I had been too long in the calm Sierra pine groves and wanted to hear surf and the cries of sea birds. My son Gen and I took off one February day to visit friends on the north coast. We drove out of the Yuba River canyon and went north from Marysville—entering that soulful winter depth of pearly tule fog—running alongside the Feather River and then crossing the Sacramento River at Red Bluff. From Red Bluff north the fog began to shred, and by Redding we had left it behind. As we crossed the mountains westward from Redding...

    (pp. 369-374)
    (pp. 375-378)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 379-383)