Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Et in Arcadia Ego

As we drive
the quad
the big oak
by the curve,
I smell nothing dead.
My wife does.
You worry
too much,
I tell her,
and drive on,
keen to see
the  newborn calves.
And there they are,
near the lake,
nursing, sleeping,
butting heads,
running in
nonsense circles
the worried cows.
We drive on,
and everywhere
see more
new calves.
Some cows
play dumb--
Who me? Why
would I have a calf?
We stop
to search,
finding their calves
tucked under
sage brush,
or hidden
beneath mustard stalks.
We could touch them,
as they lie curled
tight like shiny pillows.
But we don’t dare
go too close—
The mother might
run us down,
or the calf might
suddenly bolt
in a long, blind run.
So we keep
our distance
and enjoy.
Fall is the bottom
of the year.
The dead, grey grasses
grow short.
Clover burrs fill
the dusty road ruts.
 If it has rained,
the flats
begin to green
with a billion shoots
 of new grass.
The year slowly
             turns over,
like an ancient
The next day
we again
ride the quad
up the hill,
to count
more new calves,
Sally sitting
behind me,
hugging me
But this time
the big oak,
the remains
of a large buck
lie sprawled
across the middle
of the road,
head still fastened
to the spine,
rib cage gnawed clean,
antlers chewed off
at the base.
No legs are left.
Lion kill
so close
to our home,
too close,
so close
to home.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Riding In

Paulino Vicente Guevarra. Rancho San Julian, 1910

One time, a long time ago,
when they were young,
Frank and Vicente
were riding in,
to Rancho San Julian
coming back
from some far-off corner
of the ranch,
from a day of checking troughs
or roping calves
(to pull foxtails from their eyes),
maybe somewhere
out on those
big Santa Anita slopes
above the Hollister,
when they jumped
a bunch of wild pigs,
out on a small flat,
the big sow in the lead,
running ahead, snorting,
heading towards the brushline,
the piglets,
running slower, bunched up,
far behind the black sow,
and Vicente,
he was riding
a big, long-legged bay colt,
one still in la jaquima,
and Vicente,
he spurred that green colt
into a full gallop
across that flat
and, in the blink of an eye,
roped a pig
tight around the belly,
but when that colt
suddenly figured out
(or maybe smelled)
what was on the end
of Vicente’s reata,
he spooked sideways
like a double barreled
shotgun blast
and took off
bucking and plunging
like all hell,
Vicente hauling in
on his mecate,
to one side,
trying to pull the colt
into a big circle,
and Frank,
knowing what’s important,
leaped off his horse,
grabbed Vicente’s riata
and jumped on top of the pig,
sitting on it
so it couldn’t get away,
and when
the dust had settled
and when Frank
looked up,
there, standing still,
was Vicente’s colt,
the saddle
upside down,
dangling loose,
below its sweaty belly--
and there was Vicente,
sitting on the colt,
arms folded,
waiting for his pig.

Frank Begg, Rancho San Julian, 1910

Saturday, August 14, 2010

James Joyce Pilgrimage, Published in the Santa Barbara Independent in the Week of Bloomsday 2004, co-authored with Jim Read

Joyce's grave, Fluntern Cemetery, Zurich

June 16, 2004 will find over 10,000 people crowding O’Connor Street in the heart of downtown Dublin, seeking out a breakfast of fried kidneys. The breakfast, sponsored by Guinness Brewery, duplicates one a fictional Irishman, Leopold Bloom cooked for himself on June 16, 1904, as described in James Joyce’s Ulysses. City officials estimate that up to an extra hundred thousand will inundate Dublin that week, eating Gorgonzola cheese sandwiches in Davy Byrnes’s Pub and having drinks at the Ormond Hotel. What kind of novel, or novelist, could inspire such a gathering, perhaps the largest of its kind in history?

As we stood in front of the counter at Sweny’s Chemist on Lincoln Place in Dublin last January, I remembered the words of one of our teaching colleagues. When she heard that we were going to spend our Christmas vacation seeking out the places where Joyce had lived, she likened our pilgrimage to a “literary Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Would we forge a closer connection to the man responsible for Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and Finnegan’s Wake, or would we end up pursuing a trail colder than the ubiquitous Dublin porter?

“This is probably going to sound odd,” Bob stammered, but the middle-aged Dubliner behind the counter at Sweny’s cut him off. “You’re here for the lemon soap, aren’t ya now?” she said as she reached for a box of faux lemons. Our purchase duplicated an obscure purchase Leopold Bloom made on Bloomsday. Prior to the  Hades episode, the purchase of soap by Bloom perhaps paralleled Homer’s Odysseus’s possession of the magical herb, Moly, a charm that would allow him to be protected from the treachery of Circe and to visit safely the land of the dead to get the information he needed to return home. It seemed a fitting purchase for us as we began our literal journey to resurrect the life and times of an Irish writer who had died over sixty years ago.  Sweny’s had recently survived a fire, and the smoky odor in the small pharmacy suggested that we were lucky to stand in one of only three businesses mentioned in the novel that are still extant. Rumor has it that Sweny’s may soon be closed for good. In Dublin, the Joyce pilgrim is also helped along the paths of Dedalus and Bloom by plaques embedded in the inner city sidewalks, offering quotations from Ulysses and information about what happened on that spot during Joyce’s fictional June 16th, 1904.

In Dublin, the real and the fictional now intermingle. A short walk from Sweny’s front door will bring you to Oscar Wilde’s Dublin house on Marion Square, the very spot where Joyce arranged with Nora Barnacle to meet for their first date, and a block or two the other direction will take you to the old Finn’s Hotel (now occupied by another business) where the young Nora lived and worked as a maid, an escapee from a physically abusive stepfather in Galway, far out on the west coast of Ireland. Joyce never forgot the small details of these personal facts and meticulously embedded them into his fiction and from there they soon entered directly into the great tradition of English literature. The day celebrated in Ulysses, June 16th, 1904, was the date of their first outing, an evening walk to Ringsend and a sexual moment Joyce was never to forget; and, as for Finn’s Hotel (The old name is amazingly still visible in faded letters high up on its west facing red brick wall), its memory is preserved in the very title of Nora’s favorite book of Joyce’s, Finnegan’s Wake.

Today’s Dublin has embraced Joyce in a big way. The turn of the century, conservative, Catholic country shunned his “obscene” books during his own life, and he only visited the country twice after leaving in 1904. Joyce struggled for nearly seven years to get his collection of short stories, Dubliners, in print. Irish publishers and bookstores were afraid of gangs of decency zealots who threatened to break the windows of bookstores that sold such “offensive“ books. Our trip, in fact, would lead us away from Dublin through Italy, France and Switzerland, following Joyce’s own self-imposed exile, but today Dublin has (finally) reclaimed him as her own. On Usher’s Island in Dublin, is the newly restored house where Joyce’s famous short story, “The Dead,” was set. At Martello Tower, the setting of the opening pages of Ulysses, along the city’s southern coast, is now an important Joyce museum, beautifully flood lit at night. During Bloomsday 2004, thousands of pilgrims will tramp up and down the three stories of restored Joyceana located at the James Joyce Center on North Great George Street, perhaps genuflecting before the salvaged door to 7 Eccles Street. The original building on Eccles Street, the setting of Leopold and Molly Bloom’s house in Ulysses, has been sadly lost to demolition, but the door and the character of the Georgian row houses on the street give a glimpse into the Dublin Joyce knew.

Dublin today is a young town, bustling with young people—much like it must have been during Joyce’s lifetime. Modern Dublin pays homage to Joyce, and one senses that Joyce is recognized at last but perhaps not fully embraced. Just as the city paved over its original ancient Viking village on the south bank of the River Liffey recently to erect a bland government office building, Dublin seems to tolerate Joyce as long as he doesn’t get in the way of progress. For instance, Davy Byrne’s pub (where Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, swears off meat forever after realizing that the kidneys he had for breakfast smelled just like the men’s room) is still there. So are the National Library with its elegant, domed reading room; Sweny’s Chemist; the Ormond Hotel; and Bewley’s Oriental Café. Progress, though, threatens much of Joyce’s Dublin, and one gets the feeling that one is witnessing something that won’t be around for much longer. After all, if 7 Eccles Street can be obliterated, what could go next?

Like Joyce, when he was in his early twenties, we left Ireland for the continent. There’s a sign in the train station at Charles de Gaulle Airport that reads, “All Trains Lead to Paris.” For Joyce that statement rang true throughout his life. His initial flight from Ireland landed him in Paris in 1902, when he decided to attend medical school. It didn’t matter that he had done horribly in medical studies in Dublin. He also hadn’t really thought about his then lack of fluency in French, so when he attended lectures at the Sorbonne, he didn’t understand a thing. Broke and nearly starving, he returned defeated to Dublin—but he would eventually return as a celebrated writer to Paris later in his life.

With the publication of Ulysses in 1922 in Paris, Joyce became, overnight, the most famous writer in Europe and the United States—no mean feet, given that during the twenties he shared the city with such famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust.

One can encounter traces of Joyce throughout Paris, from the Sorbonne where he dropped out of medical school, to the Rue Odeon cafés and bars on the Left Bank. Today, you can still get a drink in the bar at the Hotel Lennox just a few blocks from the Musee D’Orsay. The Lennox is being beautifully restored as a 1930’s period piece, and the amusing night desk clerk, after telling you that he only knows two words of English (“money” and “money”), will smile confidentially when you ask about Joyce living there. In his increasingly fluent and animated English, he’ll tell you, “Yezzz, T.S. Eliot, he told Ezra Pound to find thees Joyce a place to live in Paris, and zeen Pound en-quir-ed and got heem a room here.” Perhaps this was the bar where a drunken Joyce once insulted someone. Rather than have a fistfight with him, the frail and half blind Joyce turned to his drinking partner and said, “Hemingway, deal with him!”

We found that Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach’s bookstore (Beach first published Ulysses), has moved since Joyce’s era, but browsing through the shelves just across from the Seine from Notre Dame brings back a bit of nostalgia for those days. The Paris bookstalls are still set up along the banks of Seine, and one can browse titles in the open air just as Joyce had done during his period of success. Bob purchased an 8 by 10 black and white photo of Joyce from one of the bookstalls, and he and the seller chatted about Joyce.

To the east a few blocks, on the narrow, often sunless rue Git-le-Coeur  (mentioned in the Proteus chapter of Ulysses), loitered the young student Joyce. He enjoyed the Parisian brothels along this shadowy street, and, when done with them, he could walk down to the Seine, cross a bridge to the Ile de la Cite, and stand alone in the back of the cavernous Cathedral de Notre Dame, listening to the mass sung in Latin. As the sunlight flooded through the stained glass Rose Window, he would muse on his lost Catholic faith, discarded forever, along with a promising career as a priest. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s character, Stephen Dedalus, is offered that prestigious vocation by one of his Jesuit teachers at Belveder  College: ”No king nor emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them, the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the alter and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen!”Joyce, like Stephen, however, chose to fall into “the snares of the world,” instead, becoming a priest of the imagination, an artist of life, one who would not be afraid  “To live, to err, to fall to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

Only poverty or Nazi Storm Troopers would remove the Joyces from the City of Light for a very long period of time. Despite his fidelity to the city, there are very few formal traces of Joyce left for today’s literary pilgrims. You can visit the grave of family friend Samuel Beckett in the Cimetiere Montparnasse; Beckett may have spurned the love of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, but that didn’t stop the Joyce’s from taking care of him after he was stabbed by a Parisian pimp. Still you have to draw these connections—there is virtually no recognition of the writer in Paris. We saw the medical school and the library at the Sorbonne where  Joyce spent his  days as a medical student reading French literature. There were several apartments, like the one on Rue du Cardinal Lemoine which Valery Larbaud loaned to the Joyces. But to us, it seemed that Paris had merely absorbed Joyce. It had been a good time and place to be famous and revered and to hole up in various hotels and apartments and write his final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, but the city itself seemed to have little emotional or artistic impact on him. Perhaps his greatest hymns to Paris remain Stephen Dedalus’s fragmentary interior musings on Bloomsday morning: “Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air. Belluomo rises from the bed of his wife's lover's wife, the kerchiefed housewife is astir, a saucer of acetic acid in her hand. In Rodot's Yvonne and Madeleine newmake their tumbled beauties, shattering with gold teeth chaussons of pastry, their mouths yellowed with the pus of flan breton. Faces of Paris men go by, their wellpleased pleasers, curled conquistadores.”

During both world wars,  Switzerland offered the Joyces the neutrality and peace that allowed him to continue his writing. In Zurich we found remnants of snowdrifts and we finally found something of Joyce. Joyce had seemed a tourist attraction in Dublin, as authentic as those leprechaun hats offered in the souvenir stores, his face staring out on the collages on tourist board pamphlets. In Paris he had almost faded into that most beautiful city, just another genius drawn to the city of light. Walking down Zurich’s Bahnofstrasse, though, we found evidence of Joyce everywhere. The restaurants and bars he patronized are still there, as are the various apartments the Joyce family was crowded into during their years there, and even the building where he produced Irish plays.

Zurich is a banking town, and the austere nature of the business is reflected in the buildings and the people we met. They seemed less outgoing than in Paris or Dublin, and when Bob approached one old woman to ask for directions, he soon found how reserved Zuricheans are. “Excuse me,” he said, “can you tell me where Augustinstrasse is?” As he asked this of an elderly woman, he punctuated his question with his closed-up umbrella. The face of the old woman looked horrified, as she shouted, “NO, NO” and darted away around a corner. For the Joyces, though, Zurich was a welcoming place. Although they had lived in Zurich earlier, it was the Nazi presence in Paris that drove them to Zurich where they spent the last years of their lives.

On the way to the tram station near the university, we walked past two of the houses on Universitatstrasse that they’d rented in which portions of Ulysses were written, including one where Joyce became famously infatuated with Marthe Fleischmann, a woman who lived [and undressed] just across the street. They could see each other through their windows. He sent her a book of his poems, and then erotic letters. They had a brief and bizarre encounter. In Ulysses, she and her limp became the virginal Irish siren, Gerty Mc Dowell, who leads Leopold Bloom deep into sexual fantasy on Sandymount Strand. On the steep, grinding tram ride to the Fluntern cemetery where James, Nora, and their son, Giorgio, are buried, one passes the University Hospital, where Joyce died suddenly at the age of 59, following surgery for a bleeding ulcer.

Zurich in Joyce’s day was an exciting nexus of counter culture movements and personalities, a gathering place for the intellectual refugees of Europe, the home of Tristan Tzara and Dadaism, as well as the city where one could consult with Carl Jung, Freud’s most famous student. Many critics have tried to draw a connection between Jung’s ideas and Joyce’s art, although Joyce maintained throughout his life that modern psychology had no influence on his work. One connection between Jung and the Joyces, though, did occur when Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, who suffered from what seemed then a baffling variety of emotional problems.

The heart of Joycean Zurich, though, can be found in the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. Endowed with over $5,000,000 by international banks, the center occupies a beautiful upstairs suite of offices in the pricey shopping area on Augustinergasse. The center resembles a Joycean old curiosity shop, with several fulltime staff, first editions of all Joyce’s works, hundreds—if not thousands—of critical works about the author, and an impressive amount of primary materials. If you charm Fritz Senn, the charismatic scholar who has created this center through his own efforts and will, he might even let you pick up the original Joyce death mask, or grasp one of Joyce’s walking sticks. Fritz may jokingly tell you he’s going to charge you to breathe the air inside one of Joyce’s suitcases, or threaten you with an original, heavy leather pandy bat, one of the actual ones with which the priests at Conglowes Wood College used to beat the young boys, like Joyce and his character, Stephen Dedalus, when they did not do their lessons.

Unlike Paris, there is an impressive Joycean awareness in Zurich. Fritz will give you a map to lead you to the Joyce’s numerous living places, all apartments, scattered throughout the city. Joyce’s favorite taverns and restaurant are listed on the map, including the Kronenhalle Restaurant, where Joyce ate the night before he died. There is another one on Universitatstrasse, whose name has changed, where he read the emerging sections of Ulysses to his close friends.

After they fled to Zurich in 1939, chased out of Paris by Hitler’s army, the Joyces spent evenings at nightspots like the Café Odeon, just a short walk down the street from the new Starbucks. Nora fought a life-long battle to limit Joyce’s drinking. He’d wait patiently for Nora to have to visit the bathroom, having encouraged her to drink a lot of beer, at which time he’d refill his glass from a wine bottle he’d hidden under the table. After writing all day, in the evenings he would drink his favorite white wine. He was not an alcoholic, like so many of his fellow writers, but he was susceptible to alcohol’s effects and would get quickly inebriated after just one or two drinks. The evenings would end up with Nora going home annoyed (In the early days, in Trieste, she used to sober him up quickly by threatening to have their children baptized!) Joyce and his cronies would keep drinking, and often Joyce would suddenly shout, ”Let’s go see Budgen!” They would all troop downtown to stare up at a naked statue high on a building for which Joyce’s close artist friend, Frank Budgen, had been the model. Then Joyce would do his strange spider dance, a sort of insect-like Irish jig, flinging out his long, thin legs and spinning on his cane, and then they would all finally drift home, perhaps to sing Irish songs at the Joyce’s apartment.

Zurich represents the beginning and the end of Joyce and Nora’s long, complex relationship. In 1905, when Joyce and Nora Barnacle ran away from Dublin, they first came to Zurich in hope of Joyce finding a job teaching English at the local Berlitz  School. They stayed the first night at a small hotel, the Gasthaus Hoffnung, near the train station and finally consummated their relationship, although they would not get married for three more decades when inheritance  issues for their children seemed to require at least a legal civil union. Joyce steadfastly refused to acknowledge the power of the church over his life, even if it would sometimes lead to difficulties for the couple.

Even today, Fritz Senn wonders how the young Irish runaways signed their names in the guest ledger at the Gasthaus Hoffnung at16 Reitergasse, as Protestant Zurich would not have tolerated unmarried couples spending the night together. How they signed will remain a mystery, though—the River Sihl flooded a few years back, carrying the guest book beyond the grasp of today’s tenacious Joyce detectives. “It will always remain a mystery, ”sighs Fritz.  Today, where the hotel once stood, you’ll only find a street that looks like a modern monoculture street anywhere, Denver, London, Los Angeles:  a large brick and metal building houses a computer college, where students in black clothes line up outside classrooms filled with rows of glowing computer screens. Posterity has lost that monument to the brave and crazy love of the young Joyce and Nora, the Paolo and Francesca of their day, impetuous and impoverished young sinners, damned by the church, revelers in life, thumbing their noses at convention and middle class morality.  Zurich is the alpha and the omega of Nora and Joyce’s intense and devoted relationship. While the Gasthaus Hoffnung is gone (It became a sort of nostalgic shrine for them later in life), their graves stand as memorials high atop the mountain towering over Zurich. The cemetery is near the zoo, which pleased the grieving Nora, as she said that Joyce loved to hear the lions roaring. She would have been less pleased, perhaps, to see that her husband’s name remains misspelled ”Joce”on the cemetery directory.

For over three decades the Joyce family had crisscrossed Europe, and for three weeks we followed them, impossibly cheap inter-continental flights allowing us to trace their nomadic, Bohemian lifestyle in 21st century fashion. The final destination on our pilgrimage was Trieste, a city called “the meaning of nowhere” by British travel writer,  Jan Morris. Joyce has an obscure reference to it in Finnegan’s Wake: “And treiste, ah, trieste ate I my liver!”The astute Joycean is asking, by now, what trace of Joyce may remain in Trieste, a city on the very margin of western Europe, located at the southern edge of the former iron curtain on the end of a narrow strip of Italy that seems to dip south into Slovenia.

 Joyce and Nora ended up here in 1904, nearly utterly out of options, shortly after discovering that there were no teaching jobs in at the Berlitz  School in Zurich. But he was told of a job in Trieste, and he and Nora arrived as penniless exiles in dirty, smelly clothes. They got off the train in the morning, and Joyce left Nora sitting in the park next to the station, where she waited all day for him to return. His first day in Trieste ended up with him being thrown in jail with a group of rowdy English sailors for whom he had tried to intervene as a translator. He finally got back to Nora, and they soon discovered that there was no job in Trieste either, but the promise of one at the Berlitz School one hundred miles further south in Pola. After a year in Pola, they returned to Trieste and made it their home for eleven years. As Joyce scholar, Frank MacCourt has said, “Joyce was born in Dublin, but grew up in Trieste.” Trieste was at that time a very cosmopolitan city, a major seaport for the great Austrian-Hungarian Empire to the north.

Trieste is a refreshing, non-touristy city, a place past its several past glories, perhaps. Its most recent boom time was when 200,000 shoppers would pour in from Tito’s Yugoslavia every day to buy western goods, but with the fall of the iron curtain, this intense traffic quickly diminished. It is a busy and vibrant enough city, but its huge plazas and large stately government buildings belie much more important past, one when the huge Austrian navy was headquartered in its harbor.

In Joyce’s day, Trieste was a cosmopolitan, vibrant place, full of political intrigue and a rich mix of Austrians, Greeks. Slavs, Italians (anxious to return the city to Italy), and a large and often prosperous Jewish community. To the once provincial Dubliner, this new city offered a rich and intoxicating mixture of religions and cultures. In Trieste, We met an old friend, Eric Schneider, in the Piazza Grande the morning after we arrived by train. “Meet me in the piazza at the huge, ugly fountain,” Erik told us. We walked to our rendezvous through the busy post-Christmas shopping area, its side streets jammed with parked vespas,  and along the calm Adriatic seafront where we saw delicate, orange jellyfish slow dancing along the edge of the harbor. A large cruise ship lay placidly at anchor to the north. Erik was an old friend from Bob’s UCSB days in graduate school. He married an Italian, Daniella, and has two daughters. He is now the Director of the government funded James Joyce Center in Trieste.

We found the ugly fountain and Eric, who, after a quick stop at an espresso stand, took us on the first of several vigorous hikes through the city as it had been known by Joyce 100 years ago. We went to the old Berlitz School building, now being renovated,  and saw where Joyce and his brother, Stanislaus, spent many years teaching wealthy  inhabitants English. At a domed Greek Orthodox Church Erik pointed to a list of the wealthy congregation carved in stone-- “Many of those were Joyce’s students,” he commented. We realized in a sudden epiphany that we were in a city where Joyce could still be found.

We traveled quickly, following Erik’s long strides up increasingly narrow and winding streets into the Citte Vecchia, or old city, where Joyce frequented the osterias, bars, shops, and brothels of the old 16th century city, where the cobbled streets are not wide enough for a single car and the buildings rise up eight or more stories. “Here is where Joyce was writing the Circe episode of Ulysses, which takes place in a Dublin brothel”, said Erik, pointing to a fourth story window on one side of a dark and narrow street, “and over here,” he added, pointing to the other side,”is where the brothels were.”

In Trieste, as a writer, Joyce often only had to look out his window to do his research, to hear the sights and sounds of the street. “That is God…, “says Stephen Dedalus enigmatically in the Nestor section of Ulysses, “…a shout in the street.” By this time, art had become Joyce’s new religion, and Joyce, like the Irish priests of his childhood, who daily turned wine and bread into blood and flesh, transformed the everyday, the ordinary, the sordid into art, breaking the numbing restrictions of the Victorian Age whenever  possible. Ulysses, after all, includes the first actual bowl movement  and audible farts in English literature.

All across Trieste, there are some 45 plaques that commemorate places important to Joyce. Here he gave lectures on Irish history and politics. Here he bought his pastries. Here he ate his meals. Here he wrote for the Piccolo della Sera, a local newspaper. Here is where he taught the multilingual, multicultural men and women who became characters, or parts of characters, in Ulysses and, later, Finnigans Wake. This is where he swam in the deepest current of ideas, of socialism, of Futurism, of Judaism. While Joyce wrote exclusively about Dublin, he lived perhaps most fully as an engaged and active citizen of the world in Trieste. Because of his teaching and private tutoring he met and associated with wealthy people from all of the many cultures and social levels of the city. Of all the impressive cities we visited to unearth the life of James Joyce, in the plazas, taverns, and narrow, winding streets of the Citte Vecchia is where we felt we came closest to some sort of approximate resurrection anywhere in Europe. Perhaps this is partly because the Common Market has awarded Trieste with a huge urban renewal grant to restore its inner core of the Citte Vecchia: the old city is being impressively restored in a huge urban renewal project, and soon parts of the city best known to Joyce, will be completely renovated.  Walking through this project, we thought of Dublin’s city fathers burying forever the well-preserved medieval wooden buildings of its Viking founders forever beneath a modern building.  But in Trieste, the preservation and resurrection of the past in new and useful forms is an impressive fact.

Another hike with Erik the next day took us up into the wealthy neighborhoods in the hills high above the old city, and he showed us large houses where Joyce did private tutoring. His protagonist in Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew who converted to Catholicism but remains stubbornly secular, one who has origins in Hungary, features not at all unlike the experiences and backgrounds of Joyce’s many clients in the mixing pot of Trieste. Even the names, Leopold and Bloom (Blum) were taken from individuals he knew well during his  life there. We hiked on, up to the church of San Giusto, one of the highest points in the city, where Joyce was best man at his sister Eileen’s wedding to an Austrian bank clerk, Frantisek Schaurek.  Joyce did not have a suit, but he borrowed one that was three sizes too large. In spite of his aversion to the church and its holy matrimony, Joyce behaved very well on that day and evidently gave a wonderful speech.

Beneath San Giusto (an easy walk from where Joyce lived when he started his novel , Ulysses) Joyce certainly knew what all tourists who come there find out. The foundations of the church were once those of a great pagan temple. In his art, Joyce endowed the apparent random, accidental, and even careless experiences of Dedalus and Bloom in Ulysses with a deeper and more enduring foundation provided by the underlying structure of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Perhaps Joyce’s life in Trieste, a city with a deep and rich past and a exotic, innovative  present caused him to understand  in clear and precise ways, exactly  how what is past and present is ever present, and are eternally manifested in the common, the  ordinary and the everyday.

Ha'penny Bridge, River Liffy, Dublin, Ireland

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"A Change in the Weather," A Short Story co-authored with Jim Read while team teaching a Creative Writing class

Jim Read and Bob Isaacson at Allan Hancock College Graduation, 2010

It was 12:54 and Mabel Carver was pushing her oversized cart to the checkout stand at Costco. She was angry at the girl in the frozen food section who was serving free hot olives because she kept fiddling with the olives and didn’t get the samples out in a timely fashion. Mabel made a quick note of the contents in her cart: three bottles of moderately priced California Merlot, a large plastic bag of oranges, two huge slabs of salmon (although she really only wanted one), beef jerky, Viactive to keep it all running through her system smoothly, a bottle of Christian Brothers Brandy, and a bottle of vodka for Gus. Gus. She wasn’t sure if she really liked Gus, but he came around every other evening for a snort and to complain about how the neighborhood had gone to hell. What had she forgotten? The brandy, the only thing she really wanted for herself. She also had a huge bag of coffee beans; she would have been happy with Taster’s Choice instant, but her kids had given her a newfangled coffee bean grinder, and her guilt wouldn’t let her leave it unused.
Gus. What was she going to do about Gus, she wondered, as she slowly wound her way towards the cashier. Gus. Gus. Gus. Gus. If she said his name over and over again, she would always think of a leaky pipe for some reason. Maybe it was the sound. She could see him sitting in her late husband’s La-Z-Boy chair, going on and on about how the next door neighbor’s kids look like they are gangbangers and the guy down the street seems to always have his car up on cinder blocks, doing god knows what to the rusty old Camaro that never seemed to leave the driveway. Gus had obnoxious oil stains all over his own driveway form his own truck overhauls and Easty Ad bargain relics that he had collected over time. Gus clearly thought the two of them had a future, but she had had enough of living with men and their smells and oil stains. What to do with Gus?

She stood, pondering this problem, standing on the cold, grey concrete slab that nowadays seemed to pass for décor. Damn, she thought, her feet felt sore and the cold seemed to penetrate right through her white Costco tennis shoes. Her fingers absent-mindedly ran over the bag of oranges, and she thought for a moment of her childhood. When her father uprooted their family from Iowa one freezing February morning and moved them to the Central Coast of California, she thought she’d been transported to heaven. To her the smell of orange blossoms seemed to signal spring more clearly than any robin, and it seemed like the two orange trees were always blossoming in her back yard. Her late husband had planted them for her, along with trailing jasmine and a climbing rose bush that seemed to explode with flowers every April. Such thoughts seemed to momentarily warm her tired legs.

“I really love to poach the salmon,” the elderly man behind her said, indicating by gesture that both had bought the same thing. He was older than she was, tall, darkly tanned, wearing oversized square photo-grey glass and an immaculate white cap with crossed golf clubs on it perched on top of his white hair. The beak of the cap was white as snow, unlike Gus’ dirty stained one due to his constant work on home improvement projects. This man was wearing searsucker blue pants and what looked to her like white golf shoes, and he had a new-looking, dark blue polo shirt on top. His arms were very thin, but the skin still held the firmness of someone who still had a fairly active lifestyle. “My wife used to love to make salmon before she passed away, but I can’t quite seem to make it like she did. Keep trying though,” he added. “Name’s Tommy.”

Mabel and Tommy stood and talked about what life was like for the recently widowed, finding that they had quite a bit in common. Both of their spouses had passed away in the same month in the same hospital. But they had different doctors. Hers had cancer and his had diabetes. After the cashier finally rang her up and she paid, she looked at Tommy and felt a sudden pang of regret at having to leave him. Tommy seemed to read her mind, saying “would you care to join me for a Costco pretzel and soda?”  She jumped at the chance.

“My wife, Janet, she was a heck of cook, really could poach a salmon. She loved to play golf, too. Our dream was to retire to Hawaii and play golf on Maui all year round,” he said. “We could have done it. We’d even put some money down on a retirement condo, but after she passed away, I couldn’t go through with it,” he added.

Mabel and her husband had talked about going to Hawaii for years, but Orrin had hated to fly, so their yearly vacations mostly consisted of going to Laughlin or a bargain hotel in Palm Springs. They loved the warm, balmy desert evenings where they could sit together unspeaking and drink cocktails late into the. The long bouts of thick, cold afternoon fog on the central coast made them retreat indoors at night and watch TV. But in the desert they felt like royalty, or at least celebrities, in a more warm, luxurious world. There was just something special about it.

The two talked for half an hour. She talked about her children, and he talked about his career—something to do with launching commercial weather satellites at Vandenburg., He was excited about how the satellites had changed the way weather was predicted, He tried to explain the technology to her, but she couldn’t follow exactly what he said. He was clearly an engineer of some sort, she guessed. He said he had gone to Dartmouth College after the war and had studied at Cornell on the GI bill. It was as if he had not talked to anyone for a long time. The way Tommy talked to her made her feel alive, though, warm, like a young woman on a patio with a swimming pool in the desert, the red and pink sunset spreading out a against the darkening mountain outcrops. A warm wind lifting her hair off of her shoulders, like a scene from a made for TV movie she had once seen made from one of her favorite romance novels..  She didn’t want it to end, so she refilled her soda so many times that she started to worry that she’d have to go to the bathroom. She was afraid that by the time she’d get back Tommy would disappear. Again, he seemed to read her mind.

“Would you like to come over this afternoon for a drink?” he asked her. “I could really use a second opinion on how to cook the fish,” he added, giving her an excuse to justify going over. What kind of woman wouldn’t be willing to help such an elegant bachelor, obviously in need of some cooking help? “And from where I live, you can really see an amazing sunset, at least if the fog doesn’t come in. The weatherman said it might rain, and there would be high clouds moving in from the west. That would mean no fog.” She agreed to come over at four, so he quickly wrote down his address and phone number on the back of her Costco receipt. She wasn’t surprised to see that he lived in Elkhorn Estates, one of the newer and tonier addresses in town. It was on the south end of town, near open hills with rusty oil derricks sticking up on the low rolling hills. Her hand felt ice-cold as he enfolded it in his own large hands, half-shaking her hand and half holding it to himself. Mabel felt herself blush involuntarily, and she quickly excused herself and headed for the restroom. A few minutes later she found herself waiting in the long line to get outside to the parking lot, where she hoped she might get a glimpse of whatever car Tommy was driving, although she knew deep inside that the odds of spotting him in the huge lot were slim. Children were screaming and young mothers busy chatting as the long line to show your receipt wound towards the door.

“Hurry up,” she thought to herself, as the woman in the red Costco vest at the door whose job it was to match everyone’s receipt to their purchases insisted on gabbing with every fool going out the door. It always made her feel like some sort of criminal to be checked and double-checked like this. Finally, Mabel’s turn arrived, and she thrust the receipt into the gabby girl’s hand, barely pausing as she wheeled her oversized shopping cart into the parking lot. She looked around, but Tommy was nowhere to be found. Every car leaving the lot seemed like a banged up SUV or a midsized Ford, and Mabel was sure Tommy would be driving something more elegant. A strong wind from the south blew papers and sycamore leaves through the vast parking lot. Crowds of people walked back to their parked cars, some carrying new umbrellas. “Oh, well,” she thought to herself, “I’ll see him this afternoon.” She loaded her goods into the back of her Oldsmobile—one young man had the audacity to ask her if she needed help!—and headed home to unpack and get ready for tonight.

As she rolled into the short, uneven concrete stub that served as her driveway, she noticed with relief that Gus’ beat up Ford truck was nowhere to be seen. That was good; she could get herself ready without having to explain to old nosey what she was up to. She was just about sick of Gus, really; everything she did he’d poke his big nose into, asking endless questions. “Where have you been? What’s for dinner? Have you seen my extra set of keys? But no, he wasn’t here now. He was likely immersed in some long overdue plumbing project beneath his sink, she guessed. She wondered why his sink area seemed to smell so badly: there was probably a leak with long forgotten moss-covered Ajax cans and  Windex bottles piled under the sink. Gus was right about one thing, she thought. This neighborhood really is going to hell. Bizarre spray-painted tags marked the wall of one of her neighbors, and another neighbor seemed to be conducting an experiment to see how high, and brown, the grass in his yard could become. It wasn’t always like this, she thought. Not when Orrin and I bought in here. It was really different. There were more engineers from the base then. But they had all moved on, moved elsewhere, back to Florida or Vandenberg Village near the country club, or Elk Horn Estates.

When she and Orrin bought the place in 1963 it was a brand new subdivision. She remembered touring the model homes, amazed at the spaciousness of even the 1200 square foot model. The builders called that model “The Love Nest,” and Orrin said that was some kind of sign. Never mind that they had one baby in diapers and another on the way, the place seemed spacious compared to the apartment they had been living in. Looking back, she supposed that Orrin always had been a bit cheap; they could have afforded more than the $65 mortgage payment at the time. Still, it had been a nice neighborhood for the first twenty years that they lived there. Something changed,though, right around the time Reagan first became president. Suddenly extended families started moving in, and the place became a magnet for every other ne’er-do-well in the city. She and Orrin talked about moving out, but then one spring day in 1985 he dropped dead of a heart attack, and any extra money she had would so go to pay for the kids’ education. These last 15 years had been lean ones, and soon she felt like a stranger in her own neighborhood. Except for Gus, she couldn’t name a soul on the block.

What if, she let her mind wander, Tommy took her away from here? Thirty years of scrimping and saving and postponing her dreams had almost left her unable to even conceive such a thing. She’d always thought she deserved better. A lifetime of hard work and never complaining, of suffering foolish men’s dreams and schemes replacing her own had almost drained the life from her, but suddenly something stirred deep within. Tommy would be her knight in shining armor, come to vanquish the near poverty that defined her life. Not just economic poverty, either; the spiritual and intellectual poverty she suffered was worse than having to buy bulk goods from a cavernous warehouse. Tommy was her ticket out of here, her chance to redeem the last quarter of her life. She’d have to act quickly, she thought, with so many pushy old broads in this town. She ran to her index file of recipes, furiously flipping through for anything with Salmon in it.

The next few hours were filled with the kind of primping that she hadn’t done for thirty years. She briefly debated running to the May Company to buy a new outfit, but the month was shaping up to be a tight one and there wasn’t enough time. “I’m like a giddy girl heading to the prom,” she thought, but though she realized her foolishness, she didn’t stop the preparations. It was just like her rationale for buying Lotto tickets whenever the prize got over $20,000,000: somebody’s got to win, she would tell herself as she made a special trip to the liquor store. Somebody’s got to win. At last five o’clock came; she grabbed her purse, her stained and faded salmon recipes and headed for Elkhorn Estates.

Elkhorn Estates had gone up just about the same time as her neighborhood had started going downhill. One of her best friends in the neighborhood had sold her house and moved out there in 1983; Mabel just realized that in nearly 20 years she’d never gone out to see her friend. It was funny the difference a few miles of suburbs made in a friendship sometimes. Why was it just she and Gus? As she nosed her Oldsmobile into the gated estates, she gasped silently at the opulence. In front of the gate she caught a glimpse of a huge mansion with huge Doric Columns in the front; Mabel though them a bit tacky, but she was amazed at the size. Who lives in these houses, she asked herself over and over. She could have sat there all day just gawking at the estates beyond the closed gate, but first she had to get back to the security guard, who was asking her who she was coming to see. A gust of wind from the south moved over the tall eucalyptus trees like a wave of the sea. The guard had a plastic rain cover over his policeman’s hat.

“I’m here to see Tommy…” she trailed off, realizing that she didn’t get his last name. “Wait a second, I’ve got the name in my purse,” she stammered, and started pawing through the salmon recipes, coupons, and breath mints that filled her purse. Where was that Costco receipt, she wondered.  She must have had fifteen receipts in her purse, but not one of them was the one that Tommy had scribbled his address on. Like the first blast of cold water in the morning shower it suddenly hit her—in her haste to get out to the parking lot, she hadn’t taken the receipt back from the gabby girl checking receipts.

“Listen, young man,” she said, “Do you know a gentleman named Tommy who lives here?”

“Tommy who, lady, I need a last name,” he answered and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. She tried to describe him, but the guard seemed to have no interest in helping her. Just then a silent black Lexis with gold trim drifted in behind her, waiting to get through the gates. “If you aren’t an invited guest, you’re going to have to turn around now.” The guard added, “ This is one of those gated communities.”

She drove home automatically, barely paying attention to what she was doing. A few spots of rain hit her dusty windshield, but they dried before she got home. It was as if the car had a mind of its own and took her home. Her mind raced through all the possibilities—maybe the girl still had her receipt. Maybe she could go to Costco every Friday around noon and she’s see him again. Maybe she’d go back to Elkhorn Estates tomorrow and there’d be a different guard. Maybe Tommy would hire a detective to find her.

As she pulled into her truncated driveway, she noticed Gus’s truck out by the sidewalk where he always parked it.  By now he had his very own oil stain in front of her place. He’d let himself in to her house, and she found him sitting there on the Lay-Z-Boy, sipping a vodka drink and watching the local evening news. “Don’t care what that weather girl says,” he yelled to no one in particular as she walked through the door, “Don’t look to me like there’s gonna be a change in the weather anytime soon. This wind is just a dry heave if you asks me.” He took another sip of his drink. He had been waiting for her to microwave up some Costco dinner. “Those weather satellites of hers don’t know shit. All you gotta to do is look out the damn window to know the goddamn weather. Any fool knows that. Any fool.”

In Memoriam: Al Vail, 1921-2000

Vail & Vickers Ranch Headquarters, Santa Rosa Island

 About 10 years ago I had the unusual task of writing a lengthy poem about Al Vail. It was an occasional poem to be read at a barbecue he was giving on the San Lucas Ranch. I had met Al before, but in truth I hardly knew him. I had to interview him to get some of his personal and family history for the poem, so I drove to the dingy and dusty Vail & Vickers office on Padre Street. There wasn't much in the office except for filing cabinets, photos of cattle work on the ranch, various chairs, and an old black telephone. Beneath the glass on a central table was a big aerial photo of Santa Rosa Island, with all the pastures, springs, and roads marked out on it. Al asked me if I wanted some coffee. It was early in the morning, and I said, "Sure." Al got up and disappeared into another room. I remained seated, thinking he was going to bring me a cup. Suddenly he hollered from the back room, "Come get your own goddam coffee!" There was no standard, polite office protocol for visitors in this outfit. "Come get your own goddam coffee!"

When I heard Al say that, suddenly a sense of relief came over me. Now I knew that Al was no Hope Ranch gentleman rancher who whacked golf balls around the lake. I suddenly felt as if I had gone home again, back to a home I had known years ago. Al Vail, Vail & Vickers, and Santa Rosa Island all reminded me of what the cattle business was when I was a kid in the '50s and early '60s. Al brought to mind men like Raymond and Glen Cornelius, my own father and grandfather, Pida Pedotti, Bill Cooper II, Jerry Griffith, Bun Burnside, and others, still older, like Ed Vail, Fred Bixby, and Senator Hollister, about whom I had grown up hearing many stories.

Nearly all of these men had died already, some 40 years or more before Al. But here I was, in the presence of a much younger man who was still clearly out of the same mold. Perhaps the mold hadn't been broken after all. In Al's presence, I returned to that era when the term "cattle business" was not an oxymoron, and savvy men knew how to make an honest living at it. Like Al, they lived their business. It was a way of life and any other life was simply unthinkable.

Al and I had a good visit. It was the year of the March Miracle, when eight inches of rain fell late in the season after a long, mid-winter dry spell. Al was glad of the rain, but, true to form with cattlemen, there was always something to complain about. He grumbled that every fence that crossed a creek on Santa Rosa had been washed out by flood waters, and it would be a lot of work rebuilding them all over the 54,000 acre island. The year we talked was one of plentiful feed and sky-high cattle prices, and Al said, "A guy would have to be a damn fool not to make any money in the cattle business." I stayed quiet and didn't mention that I had panicked and already sold my unbranded calves, having given up just before the big rains came. A good cattleman really knows how to stick it out, against all odds, and I could tell that Al had that ingrained knack, something you just can't learn from a textbook on animal husbandry.
One of my neighbors, Pida Pedotti, once praised Ed Vail, Al's uncle, as having had that knack. Ed ran Vail & Vickers before Al took over. Pida told me that Ed Vail had forgotten more about the cattle business than the rest of us would ever be able to learn. For me, that was certainly true of Al Vail as well. I wish that I'd known Al earlier in my life; I could have learned a lot from him. Not only do cattlemen have to know how long to stick it out through a dry spell, they also have to know when to fold and throw in their hand to cut their losses. A man may not gain enough knowledge in a lifetime to do well in the cattle business, but Al had the advantage of the accumulated, hard-learned wisdom of his father, Russell, and his uncle, Ed Vail. They, before him, had acquired the knowledge of Walter L. Vail, Al's grandfather.

The Vail family's land and cattle interests started in the 19th century when, as a kid, Walter Vail drove a big flock of turkeys from San Francisco to the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada. Now if a man could make money doing that, he could make money at anything, and he did. He eventually built up the Empire Ranch south of Tucson, Arizona. It was bordered by four mountain ranges and occupied a thousand square miles of range land. Once during a railroad strike Walter Vail drove his cattle from Tucson all the way to the Warner Ranch in Riverside County, across one of the bleakest deserts in the world. Later, Walter established the 107,000 acre Pauba Ranch in Riverside County. It was so large that there were two headquarters, and they were over 10 miles apart.

When the Pauba Ranch was finally sold in the 1960s, my grandfather, who had been in the cattle business near the Vail's Empire Ranch in Arizona, lamented, "Now the big Pauba Ranch is gone. Will there be anything left?" He was a hard-boiled Arizona desert cowman, not sentimental at all, but I distinctly remember his deep sense of loss and sadness when I showed him the L.A. Times article. It announced that the Pauba Ranch would become "Rancho California," a huge planned residential and business development for four or five distinct cities. My grandfather 's eyes almost teared up as he read about the last ranching remnants of his own era disappearing. Today, I feel a similar deep sense of loss as I write these words. The Santa Rosa Island cattle operation was closed down in late 1998. It was one of the last fully intact Mexican land grants in California run as a cattle ranch, and was certainly the biggest cattle operation in Santa Barbara County.

During his career, Al continued the 98 year old Vail & Vickers operation, probably changing it very little, continuing to stock the island with yearling steers and selling them when they reached an optimum weight. He kept the lighter ones for another year on grass. Once, I asked Al what kind of season he had had on the island, and he replied, "Oh, every year's different, and every year's the same." I'm still puzzling over Al's cryptic utterance, and, damn, the more I think about it, the truer it gets. Heraclitus himself could not have coined a better paradoxical aphorism to explain the cattle business.

Al cared deeply about Santa Rosa Island and his livestock. Once a cattle buyer negligently shipped Vail & Vickers a big lot of steers whose tails and bellies were covered with cockleburs, the seeds of which might have infested the whole island. Al and his vaqueros meticulously combed the cockleburs off of every yearling steer before turning the cattle out onto the island's grasslands. "Don't ever do that to me again!" Al warned the agent. As for the cattle Al sent off the island to market, his only criterion was quality. Al knew that in the long run, and he was definitely in it for the long haul, delivering quality cattle would be more profitable over time than selling junk or unconditioned cattle for short-term profit.
As for his herd of some 200 ranch horses, Al displayed the same high level of integrity. Once a cattle buyer eyed some of the older, broken down horses, and suggested that Al sell them for slaughter in order to generate more profit that year. Al quickly dismissed the idea, saying, "Those old horses have carried my big ass all over this Island. There's no way in hell I'm going to sell them for dog food!" Al's philosophy was to turn retired horses out and allow them to die on the island where they had been raised.
I don't know the economics of ranching on Santa Rosa Island. However, hauling cattle boatload by boatload across 30 miles of ocean, maintaining a sizable horse herd, and feeding and housing a crew of vaqueros surely ate into Vail & Vickers' profit margin each year. Part of Al's ethos, the principles he guided himself by, would have demanded that the cattle operation stay in the black and show a profit each year.

But there was also something deeper at work, something to do quite simply with who he was and the deep values he held and knew to be true. When the great Matador Land and Cattle Company in the Texas Panhandle went out of business in 1951 after some 81 years in the business, Henry Drought, who had been on its board of directors, wrote a letter to a friend. Perhaps the eloquent conclusion of his letter seems to speak not only for Al, but for the rest of his family as well:

"And so the . . . company is going into . . . liquidation. I consider myself very fortunate to have been a part of its fine organization. Regardless of how advantageous to the shareholders the sale may have been, there are many heartaches caused by this conclusion. The company, however, will live forever in the history of the Southwest. We were connected with a cattle empire and our pride in it outweighed our desire for profits."

That last sentence seems to say it all. Al took great pride in Santa Rosa Island and the long history of the Vail & Vickers cattle operation, as well as his own role in that epic. His life as a maritime cattleman and the Santa Rosa Island ranch were each one of a kind, utterly unique, unrepeatable.

Today, the powerful winter winds in the Channel blow across Santa Rosa Island and through its vast, rolling grasslands awaiting the first good winter rainstorm. The wind relentlessly howls through the parallel boards of the old corrals and cattle pens, rattling the big wooden gates against their chains. It whistles through the vacant barns and empty tack room, stirring up in swirling eddies the slow gathering dust.

Adios, Al.

 Vail & Vickers Corrals,  Santa Rosa Island

A lay person looks at California Grassland Habitat and the Grazing Issue

El Chorro Ranch

Published in the Santa Barbara Independent, April 17, 1997-- Earth Day

What is the Grass?
A lay person looks at California Grassland Habitat and the Grazing Issue           

A child said What is the grass? Fetching  it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...

Or I guess the grass itself is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means.

Walt Whitman
            We stood on the deck of a newly built house, perched upon a slanting sandstone outcropping, gazing down the mile long vista to where the canyon narrows to a "V", prior to where it opens up again and reaches the coast. Through the gap we could see the western most points of Santa Rosa Island as the evening shadows spread across the variegated slopes of the spectacular landscape.
            The valley, perhaps a view shed of 250 acres, was filled with dry summer grasses, headed out and gone to seed, gold under the clear sky. As the owner and I looked at the vista, my host  said, "Do you know where I can buy some Purple Needle grass ? I want to try to reestablish it in this area." The long grassy vista stretched before us in the growing darkness. Beyond the pale of the driveway and the small orchard of Macadamia nuts, the vast, silent army of dry, alien grasses rustled in the coastal breezes.
            The  purchased native bunch grasses, now only grown in small quantities in a few specialized native plant nurseries, would likely survive along the protected edges of the new house, where careful yearly spraying with Roundup or constant hand weeding would protect them from the competition of the billions of annual grasses covering every uncultivated, uncemented, or untarred square inch of California grassland. But would these grasses ever cross the entrance road, spread down to the small creek, and eventually reach the coastal bluffs in the distance?
            Prior to the land occupation of this region by the Spanish government in 1769, the situation was quite different. This small valley, like every other part of California's Mediterranean grassland region, stretching east to west from the Sierra Nevada to the coast and north to south from Redding to the Mexican border, was dominated by perennial bunch grasses, green most of the year, going dormant during only the driest months, and then sprouting from the same roots through the thick bunched stalks at the base of the plant when the autumn rains began. Evolving through tens of thousands of years in the geographical isolation of California's rare Mediterranean climate, the native perennial grasses were uniquely suited to the area's warm, wet winters and long, dry summers. 
            Not long after 1769, with the arrival of European civilization, California's millions of acres of native perennial grassland fell to one of the largest and most rapid botanical blitzkriegs in recorded history. Largely the invasion was inadvertent. For instance, the ballast soil of European ships, shoveled into the sea by sailors and washed ashore by waves, was full of millions of annual grass seeds from Mediterranean Europe. It is said the Padres introduced some intentionally, such as the Alfillerie, native to the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa. They are also credited with introducing the teasel, whose comb-like dried seed pods were used to card the sheep wool produced by mission flocks. They may have brought the yellow flowering mustard, originally a European field crop, which has now become a common sight on hillsides in our area.
            But evidently  the vast majority of European annuals arrived simply by chance. The vigorous seeds of the wild oats and barley, the perennial and annual ryes, the foxtail, bromes, wild radishes, hemlock, and so forth, entered accidentally, hitchhiking along with the inevitable spread of western civilization, embedded in the dried mud of soldiers' boot heels or entangled in the tail hair of imported horses and cattle. The near total transformation of California's vast grasslands from native perennial bunch grasses to annual exotic European weeds must have been very rapid indeed. Only about eighty years after the first Spanish land expedition had crossed the Sonoran desert into California, William Cooper, an early Anglo sheep rancher, rode over Rancho Lompoc to see if he wanted to buy it. Far up in the isolated San Miguelito Canyon, he found hillsides covered with wild oats, a European annual, so tall that he could tie them in a knot above his saddle horn.
            Largely unmanaged herds of semi-wild horses and cows, established along the chain of missions, had grown unchecked, and certainly contributed to the spread of the invading annuals. Even without these unmanaged grazing activities, it is probable that the European exotics would have conquered the native perennials. Each of the invasive European plant species, being largely annuals, germinates anew from seed, and one plant, when it dies, can exponentially produce dozens of seeds, ready to germinate the next season, to ensure the survival of its kind.
            In their native European habitat,  these annuals had evolved to spread rapidly, to occupy bare ground. Many of our exotic European weeds, such as the wild oats, are said to fulfill a specialized role in their original habitat. In Europe's Mediterranean region, for example, they can serve as a transitional plant, one that can quickly cover bare terrain after a fire, assisting in the prevention of erosion. After serving in this temporary role, they generally yield the ground back to perennial bunch grasses, which were originally dominant before the conflagration. However, this is not the case in California. Researchers don't know why, but here, ever since the European exotics overwhelmed the native perennials,  they have remained the climax crop. The European weeds' impressive and unchallenged dominance remains abundantly clear on virtually every public and private patch of ground, whether it be a rare vacant lot along L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard or the steep, rugged foothills of Sequoia National Park.
            The various events leading to the near total transformation of California grasslands were serendipitous for livestock grazing. The vigorous annuals provide a far greater biomass of forage for animals to consume than the native perennials would have, had they been able to fend off the huge European invasion. The exotic annual grasses offer a wide variety of forage that grows at different stages of the wet season, ranging from the early germinating, extremely hardy Alfillerie to the late growing annual rye, which can grow and stay green well into June, after other annuals have already died and gone to seed. Livestock, when properly managed, can stay in extremely good condition throughout the long dry months by foraging on the dry stalks of the dead grasses and the many nutritious seeds produced by annual plants, such as those in the small clover burrs lying on the ground. In the autumn, even the tiny mustard seeds will be consumed by cattle.
            In short, from a strictly botanical point of view, California's grasslands are now utterly dominated by invasive European weeds; however, from an agricultural perspective, these grasslands have also been transformed into extremely productive, natural forage, a forage that requires only normal seasonal rains for its germination and growth. Furthermore, the utilization of California grasslands requires no synthetic fertilizers or chemical spraying whatsoever. Also, unlike most of the grazing operations in the rest of North America and in Europe, no massive, expensive mechanical cultivation and storage of artifically grown feeds and hay are generally required. Moreover, beef raised on Mediterranian California grasslands, if not injected with growth hormones and antibiotics or fed hay sprayed with pesticides, can be as wholly "natural" a food source as one can find anywhere.
            Once when I was on a botanical tour of the southern portions of Vandenberg Air Force Base, the leader, a college instructor, would not take the group to the old Sudden Ranch, a 14,000 acre stretch of grassland along the coastline north of Jalama Beach,  because he said it had been "ruined" by grazing. Evidently, from this point of view, the solution would be to eliminate all grazing on the base, and this action in and of itself would eventually allow the native plants to return to their former dominance. This approach appears to be the general consensus of many groups interested in native plants. The Nature Conservancy, for example, immediately eliminated all grazing, by both cattle and sheep, on Santa Cruz Island when they acquired the property. Most public agencies, at the State and Federal levels, tend to agree with this assumption. This concept obviously has merit when what requires protection is in fact being directly or indirectly destroyed by the actions of grazing animals. On the mountainous parts of Santa Cruz Island, for example, the totally uncontrolled grazing of feral sheep has obviously contributed to serious erosion on steep slopes. Quite sensibly, some public and private agencies have interests that do not necessarily include providing forage for commercial grazing animals.
            It is interesting to note, however, that in Santa Barbara County alone, since World War II, over 200,000 acres of once private grazing land have been acquired by  Federal and State agencies or private environmental groups. These areas include Vandenberg Air Force Base, the two big channel islands, the former Segwick Ranch, and Gaviota State Park. Of course, grazing has become a controversial issue on all of these lands, and has either been totally eliminated, tightly restricted, or recommended to be gradually phased out.
            The "rangeland war" currently being fought on public lands in the mountain and great basin states from Montana to Arizona has led to a nation-wide polarization between commercial grazing interests and public  agencies and private environmental organizations. However, many, if not most, of the issues raised in this huge and complex national debate about the role of grazing on public lands in those western states need not concern us when we turn to the unique situation of California's grasslands.
            Much of California is an ecological island on the edge of a continent, an exception to everything else in north America. Most of California's land area is one of a few very rare Mediterranean climate zones in the entire world: Europe's Mediterranean Basin, the tip of western Australia, the southern part of South Africa, and central coastal Chile are the only other similar climatic regions. In terms of grassland habitat and grazing issues, what happens to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountains has virtually no relevance to what happens to the west. To assert the same arguments about the negative impacts of grazing in Winnemucca, Nevada and Gaviota, California is simply to be walking and talking blindfolded.
            Over many years, I have made a point of closely observing fenced highway rights of way throughout Santa Barbara County and California, some of which have been closed to grazing for 75 years or more, and I have seen no evidence that eliminating grazing promotes the restoration of native perennial grasses. In fact, the vigorous European exotic weeds, once liberated from the suppression of grazing animals, merely start to compete with one another for seedbed space, evolving into a near botanical monoculture, with wild oats or mustard generally winning the contest.
            On the other hand, I have watched a ranch that had been conservatively operated with 180 cows and that was dominated by wild oats and mustard suddenly have its stocking rate raised to 250 cows. The impact of this increased grazing pressure was the reverse of what many of us thought would happen: Instead of being "ruined," over the years a wide variety of European exotics, including much more burr clover, began to grow on the ranch. Also, more native spring wild flowers, the California poppy and various species of Lupines, appeared, due perhaps to the decreased competition by the coarser European annuals, such as mustard, for example, which actually exudes a toxin that suppresses the growth of neighboring plants, native or exotic.  I had not expected the ranch to grow more diversified botanically and to increase the quality of its forage, but that is surprisingly what happened.
            The several hundred acres of coastal grasslands in Gaviota State Park, removed in the 1970's from grazing by state policies for managing park lands, have not progressed towards the ancient perennial bunch grass prairie seen by Cabrillo when he sailed north along the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542. I have been told that Cabrillo referred to these same hills as "lomas de oro" or hills of gold; however, he was certainly not referring to the eight foot high stands of mustard, an introduced European field crop gone wild, that now dominates much of these same hills. It is most likely that Cabrillo was actually seeing large stands of California Poppies, spread throughout the interstices between the native perennial bunch grasses. As long as State Park policies remain what they are, Poppies, our State flower, will rarely, if ever, be seen on those protected hills again. After several decades of being protected, the coastal Gaviota grasslands remain a botanical embarrassment, a mammoth preserve for exotic European weeds, perhaps a native plant botanist's worst nightmare. Certainly, from a strictly native plant point of view, this State protected grassland has remained just as utterly "ruined", if not more so, after a quarter century of protection from cattle, as are the still grazed grasslands of Vandenberg or any private local ranch.
            Sadly, the results of these policies  in Gaviota State Park will be the conversion of the ancient grassland seen by Cabrillo into Baccharis, commonly known as Coyote Brush, a vigorous woody plant. Gaviota's coastal grasslands will soon suffer the same fate as those in Montana del Oro, a 4000 acre coastal State Park west of San Luis Obispo. When it was privately owned and grazed, I have been told that Montana del Oro's coastal mesas offered the most spectacular spring wildflower displays one could find anywhere in the state. The very name of the park probably refers to its once famous stands of native wildflowers. Now those same grasslands are lost, covered with thick stands of brush, protected from fire and grazing forever by the State Park system. Which would the California public prefer to see, fields of native California floral displays or a climax crop of dense, head-high monotonous brush? Which most closely approximates the "lomas de oro" that Cabrillo observed four-hundred years ago?
            The Coyote Brush is, of course, a native California plant; however, it is doubtful that it once dominated the Gaviota and Montana del Oro coastal habitats in the pre-European era. If these areas had originally been brush-choked habitats, it is unlikely that they would have been selected as the sites of Spanish and Mexican era land grant ranchos, whose irregular boundaries intentionally enclosed the best grasslands and generally excluded brushy and rough unproductive land. Also, there are no historical records to my knowledge of large scale Nineteenth Century Spanish, Mexican or Anglo period brush removal efforts. Early ranchers simply used the land as they found it, and did not bother with range improvements.
            I have been told that the Coyote Brush may itself be a transitional plant; if so, its invasion of ancient grassland areas might lead to other plant establishment opportunities, such as oaks in some instances. I have often observed Coyote Brush protecting young oaks from grazing animals where I live. But it is doubtful that soil and geological conditions along most of the Gaviota coast would ever naturally permit the growth of an oak forest: I suspect that the brush will remain as long as the State's policies protect it, and the ancient grassland area will be lost in a few decades to Coyote Brush, looking very differently from the "lomas de oro" that Cabrillo, the first European visitor, once saw.
            In California, at least, one can approach  grassland issues by using a theological analogy.  California's perennial bunch grass prairie was the result of an ancient Edenic ecological balance, one attained after tens of thousands of years of trial and error evolution. Once this pristine habitat fell to the exotic European weeds, it was gone forever, a paradise lost. Now we should accept the realities of this new post-lapsarian age. The more vigorous of these imported weeds will continue to prosper whether they are protected from grazing or not. The simple truth is that when livestock grazing is eliminated from Mediterranean California grasslands, the European weeds will merely compete with one another, until a few vigorous species dominate the entire area, crowding out both other non-native plants as well as suppressing the opportunities for the recovery of the natives. On California's grasslands, all that the elimination of grazing most commonly achieves is the successful dominance of the most aggressive European plants. The evidence is overwhelming, and, if we choose to look with care and attention, this evidence is all around us. We need to realize that grassland California is an utterly fallen, corrupted botanical world, one dominated nearly entirely by greedy and indefatigable exotic European annual weeds, vegetation which no native plants botanist would have any interest in preserving and protecting whatsoever.
            These conclusions lead me to question why there is such an uproar over the continuation of the grazing operation on Santa Rosa Island. I have read in the News Press that 5% of the island's land area is occupied by rare and endangered plants. The remaining 95% has been "ruined" by what botanists justly call exotic European weeds. Certainly, the isolated rare and endangered plant areas should be managed in some logical way to foster the perpetuation of those diminished species. No one wants to promote extinction. The island is, of course, National Park land, and parks are created in the public's interest to protect and preserve what is wonderful, rare and endangered for future generations.
            However, what is the argument against grazing at least the remaining 95% of the island indefinitely? In Marin County the 65,000 acre Point Reyes National Seashore, a complex coastal ecological habitat, continues to be grazed by numerous private dairy and beef operations, as well as a sizable government sponsored elk restoration project. If grazing is totally eliminated from all of Santa Rosa Island, will not its vast, spectacular and productive 54,000 acres of grassland become in a strictly botanical sense our State's largest exotic European weed preserve? What is the evidence that the island will revert to an approximation of California's pre-European grassland habitat simply through the elimination of grazing? What, in fact, do policy makers want the island's enormous and magnificent windswept grasslands, perhaps its chief attraction for the visiting public,  to look like in fifty or one hundred years?  Gaviota State Park's coastal hills? 
            If native plant specialists consider 95% of the vast island grassland "ruined" by invasive European weeds, and if past experience informs us that Santa Rosa's grassland will continue to remain utterly dominated by the most vigorous of those alien plants, whether or not they are grazed, then what exactly are policy makers preserving and protecting by discontinuing grazing? Also, if grazing were to be totally eliminated, could there not be some unanticipated negative consequences for the stability of endangered native plant populations? Could not the already diminished native flora come under increased competition for scarce moisture and space from the extremely aggressive exotic European weeds, their chief rivals, once these weeds are no longer suppressed by grazing animals?
            Each season, all over California, the European weeds produce billions of tiny seeds. These plants' rapid, ruthless, astounding invasion of California probably has few rivals in recorded botanical history. Annually, they deposit their enormous seed bank over every square inch of potential grassland soil. These seeds produce vigorous plants that eventually crack cement sidewalks, quickly fill vacant lots with eight feet tall mustard, and provide excellent forage for livestock on land that can't be used for anything else. Perhaps spraying hundreds of gallons of Roundup on newly germinated exotics and then hand planting many thousands of expensive nursery raised native bunch grasses would momentarily restore a few acres of the ancient California bunch grass prairie. However, wherever it may be located, such a sanctuary would inevitably be surrounded by many thousands of acres of aggressive European annuals.  A mere handful of mustard seeds would obliterate the entire project in two growing seasons. The Edenic past of California's ancient perennial grasslands will never be restored, and eliminating grazing on public or private grassland as a step towards recovering this lost botanical habitat is a false and incoherent policy. Perhaps we need to learn that even by not meddling with what has already been meddled with, we are still, in fact, ruthlessly meddling with it.
            I have often searched my family's ranch for remnant pockets of Purple Needle grass or other pre-Columbian native grasses to discover how, where, and why those that did survive the astounding European botanical blitzkrieg have managed to do so. I have admired our indigenous grasses in native plant nurseries, where they are carefully raised in individual pots, artificially perpetuated like zoo animals whose natural habitats have been largely destroyed.  They are beautiful, delicate looking grasses, and they continue to survive in well tended native plant gardens or in isolated pockets in remote, rugged areas on private ranches where they have not been subjected to the competition of the European weeds or unduly heavy grazing. 
            Once I thought I had found a large area of native bunch  grasses; however, the grass turned out to be merely a perennial rye, yet another European invader. But one time I crossed a steep barranca to check some old, rusty fence. I spotted some widely spaced, extremely delicate, lacy  bunch grasses that I had never seen before, growing together in a space the size of a kitchen table, a small, sunlit opening surrounded by tall oaks. To my jaded eyes, they looked strange and odd, foreign, unfamiliar. I admired them and moved on. I like to think that they are the lost remnants of our ancient bunch grass prairie, hidden, like Ishi, the last of a local tribe. They still remain on that sheltered north-facing slope, stoical, undisturbed, indifferent to all that we have done and to all that we have not done.