Author Archive

Miss Leo High Sierra Love Song

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

Driving home from City Farm on Friday morning, I recognized the sound of a favorite voice on KCBX, and soon after heard Neal Losey announcing that Miss Leo was having a CD release party that night in Morro Bay.  She and her mandolinist, Andy O’Brian, had played at our last Fall Harvest Festival in precovid 2019, and at the time, the beauty of her voice kept distracting me from the bustle of activities that needed attention.

When I got home for my midday nap I lay on the couch, logged on to her website, purchased and downloaded the new collection of 13 songs, and dropped off to sleep soothed as if by lullabies.

Jan agreed to a date at the Libertine Pub, and after checking out the leftovers of the witches’ paddle in the nighttime fog, we arrived there in time to say hi to Leo, her husband and in-laws during the warm up acts.  Dressed up as a unicorn of sorts for Halloween, Leo recognized me and said she’d noticed that I had bought the album. At the start of her set, she told the audience of her surprise and delight to hear herself earlier on the radio.

The pub crowd was loud enough to have drowned out the earlier performers but when she and the three other band members started “Desert Queen,” the driving first cut on the album, either they quieted down or the music was strong enough to overcome the noise. The combination of original tunes and lyrics square on country music conventions along with honey sweet instrumental and vocal harmonies plunged me into another pre-sleep state of relaxation, but this time fully absorbed by the animated performance.

As she started singing “High Country Love Song,” I felt an echoing recollection: as I had half-consciously heard the song earlier in the day, there was a vague sense that I’d been to the place she so vividly described, in particular its references to pure flowing water and mule trains.

But as its idyllic pastoral unfurled in performance, I suddenly realized she was singing about experiences at a Yosemite Park High Sierra Camp, just like ones I treasured from the summer of 1961, when I worked for three months at Merced Lake as a “Camp Helper” between my sophomore and junior years in college. That was 60 years ago, but nothing had changed, the water, the absence of electricity, the mule trains, the ten mile run to the nearest camp or road, and the young romance.

When the song was done, I called out, “High Sierra Camp Helper,” and she stopped, stared at me and said, “how did you know that?” I don’t remember if and what I replied, I was so taken away.  By chance I’d recently come across pictures from that summer job which I’d scanned and put into my Mac photos library and might be able to access on my phone. I scrolled back through the years and there they were.

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At that point the band took a break and Miss Leo came over to the table next to us, where her family was sitting. I told her of the memories the song brought back, and she said that was where she met her husband Mitch, just as it was narrated in the lyrics. I brought out the phone and showed them the pictures.  This got every body worked up and Jan captured the moment.

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Mitch said he’d been the cook at Glen Aulin camp and she worked at Tuolumne Meadows. Every Thursday for his overnight day off he would hike the ten miles to see her. He noted that the camp configuration of 1961 was identical to that of 2013 when they met.  Then his mom said she worked at the Tuolumne store in 2017. He showed me a picture on his phone of a Camp Helper Party, and I almost correctly identified the peak in the background–it was not Vogelsang but Fletcher. I immediately recognized the mistake.

 

 

 

Lund Retreat/Transitions 2021

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The “Atmospheric river” is still flowing.  The drum solo of rain on the roof hasn’t stopped since arrival here yesterday morning.

 

Before departure from the South Terminal, the agent announced that unless the pilot found a hole in the clouds to allow visibility the flight would go back without landing.  But the young captain with delicate wrists and blond hair flowing over her epaulets brought us in smoothly to the cinder block shack of an airport that hasn’t been improved at least since our arrival here in 1970.

IMG_1473I haven’t yet stopped loving this weather.  The compensation for drought in SLO, the heightened coziness of the wood fire, friendly cats and house’s silence, the 14 hour night and half-light of day inviting intermittent sleep, the absence of stimulation and obligation permit words to flow from thoughts and thoughts to flow from words.

This trip has been intended as a retreat to allow processing of recent events that are taking on the appearance of a life transition. “Retreat” has several associations with this place: its mythic remoteness at the end of the road and the time and expense it takes to get here, the initial retreat from war and society that brought us here from New York in 1970, the  summers of 1996 and 1997 holed up to start and finish my book, “Shakespeare and the Bible,”and the writing and meditation retreat on Cortez Island I attended in 2010.

Meditating hasn’t yet happened here, but this journaling may better serve my purposes.

Life transitions are times when the future seems undetermined, subject to the vagaries of chance and choice, when the present holds promise and danger, when the past reopens.  This one was brought on my long-anticipated retirement from the position of Executive Director of City Farm SLO.  The result of the successful accomplishments of our two young staff members, Kayla and Shane, whose salaries were financed by generous new supporters, it became clear that finally the organization could survive and thrive without me.

At the advice of a canny professional fund-raiser, a campaign was planned to mark the changeover in leadership with a public celebration targeting people of means and influence.  The admission price was $50 along with discreet requests for additional donations. Using a well-tried method for non-profits to generate support and money, the theme was to be a tribute to my past dedication. Kayla focused publicity on her photo of me tending our sheep that recalled the literary archetype of the old shepherd I’d explored 40 years ago in my doctoral dissertation. I sent personalized invitations to all the friends and relatives for whom Jan and I had addresses.

Attendance was good, both by the targeted audience and the thirteen of our relatives who showed up.

The program consisted of a lecture by Tim Lasalle, an expert on the regenerative agriculture and carbon farming practices we recently adopted, and short talks by Jan, Heidi, our ex-mayor, Kayla and me.

Extending back to the prehistory of City Farm, Jan chronicled the tumultuous history of the Agricultural Reserve of which it forms a part, a history of which she often was the center.

 

Thank you everyone for being here to celebrate Steven’s retirement. Thank you for that kind introduction, Kayla.  I am happy to speak as a representative of the City of San Luis Obispo, former Mayor and environmental activist. More important, I speak as Steven’s wife and life partner of 55 years.

The City of San Luis Obispo, is proud of City Farm SLO’s stewardship of the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Open Space. This nonprofit not only educates youth, produces wonderful organic food and combats climate change by sequestering carbon, but it is also the real life embodiment of our City’s 1994 vision.

In 1994 the City Council voted to save the County’s finest productive soil, now the soil of City Farm SLO.  The General Plan Update provided that upon annexation, half of each of the three properties between 101 LOVR and Madonna Road would stay under cultivation, as a “signature working agricultural landscape at the southern gateway to San Luis Obispo” The three owners, Madonna, McBride and Dalidio promised to devote half of their land to ag open space in return for the right to develop the other half. Madonna and McBride gave the City the land we are on right now, City Farm SLO, keeping their promise. However, Dalidio did not.

Instead, Mr. Dalidio proposed to build a Mega Mall right next door to what would become City Farm SLO.  For decades, on or off SLO City Council, I fought to preserve half of this incredibly rich and productive land in agricultural open space as promised. Here is a brief account of the twists and turns:

In 1998, Dalidio applied to build a shopping center on all of his land.  The Council on which I served denied the project for not devoting half of his land to ag.  In 2001 Dalidio applied to the County for a bigger mall, but the County sent it back to the City. In 2004, Dalidio proposed an even bigger mall, and the City Council–which I was not on then–approved the project.  It allowed taxpayers dollars from the Mall to pay for the Prado Road overpass, not Dalidio. The voters overturned that decision by referendum, which I organized. In 2006 Dalido mounted a Countywide initiative for Mall development and won. Then City residents sued, which I organized. The Court overturned Dalidio’s initiative. Then, the CA Supreme Court overturned that decision. But then, the economy collapsed during the Great Recession of 2008, so the Mall was dead in its tracks.  In 2010, Dalidio sold the land, now San Luis Ranch, to a developer who will preserve the ag land. So instead of a Mega Mall, City Farm SLO will have acres and acres of organic agriculture next door.

In the years I fought to save ag land, Steven stood by my side.  But, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day he would be the one to actually implement the vision of preserving this “signature working agricultural landscape,” on this very soil by guiding the evolution of City Farm SLO.  I stand in awe of all that he has done to envision, nurture and lead this incredibly positive enterprise. As an enthusiastic volunteer over the past decade, whether dealing with pesky irrigation issues, teaching disabled students or planning the future, Steven is devoted to City Farm SLO.  I would like to thank the organizers of this event for giving Steven the recognition he so richly deserves.  I’m so happy he and I found each other when we were in our twenties and so proud of him, every single day.  Let’s hear it for Steven!

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Kayla introduced me:

Steven loves the phrase “agrarian recreation”. It’s meaning may not be immediately clear, which is why our strategic planning committee shied away from steven’s consistent recommendation that it be included in our mission statement.

But really, “agrarian recreation” captures what Steven has worked tirelessly to provide to our community. Because of the volunteer program he initiated years ago, hundreds of people have come here to learn, to recreate, and to connect with one another.

Because of the partnerships he forged with local school districts, students have been engaged in agrarian education here for 8 years – and Steven has always found a way to ensure that recreation is involved… he enlivens farm lessons with impromptu “tomato toss” competitions, and enlists students in meal preparation (like our grilled corn elotes this week)

His passion for this work and for this place is infectious, so much so that I’ve personally witnessed him convert the most disengaged teens into vegetable eating, sheep herding, young farmers.

And on a personal note, working alongside Steven is the most tremendous gift. Whether we are wrangling escaped sheep or wordsmithing project proposals – Steven brings levity, perspective, and verve. I can only hope some of his spirit rubs off on me.

Please join me in raising a glass –  cheers to your work Steven, and this slice of model agrarian utopia that you have built for our community.

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Marta Peluso photo

None of us having read the others’ talks in advance, I was surprised and flustered by their intensity. Then it was my turn.

Good afternoon.  Thank you for coming, supporting City Farm, and honoring me, Steven Marx, and also toasting me, and also celebrating my contributions, as it says on the invitation.

Serving as the object of a tribute like this is painful, but under the circumstances, profitable, as I’ve been told. And since the appointed occasion is my retirement, I’ll try to make the best of your terrifying attention with some backward reflection on my 79 year-old story.

I discovered a central theme of that story captured in Kayla’s unposed photo of me with the crook and sheep, placed at the top of the invitation to this event –a theme named in the word, “pastoral.” That word comes from the latin word for shepherd, “pastor.” It refers to an ancient idea applying to all herders, farmers, their agrarian way of life and the landscape they inhabit.  Pastoral contains a paradox. It applies not so much to the realities of herding or farming, but to an ideal and a longing, expressed in poetry, music and art that’s often contradicted by those realities.

That’s why it fits my story: I’m not really a shepherd or a farmer; I grew up in apartments in NYC; I don’t have a green thumb; I cant back up a trailer or maneuver a tractor, let alone repair a rototiller. And despite repeated efforts, I could never make a dollar using the talents and skills required by rural life. The only way I’ve been able to earn a living has been as an English teacher and literary scholar.

But nevertheless, I’ve always been captivated by the pastoral ideal.

I can trace that enchantment back to my parents, refugees from Nazi Germany who had in their youth been members of Naturfreunde or Nature Friends hiking groups, and who sent me, during hot New York summers, to a farm camp in the mountains of Massachusetts. That was followed by job experiences during college as camp counselor and High sierra camp helper.

While a grad student avoiding the draft, I desperately searched for an original doctoral dissertation topic and finally landed upon an obscure set of pastoral poems to decipher, written in 1576 and called “The Shepherd’s Calendar.”

After participating in the 1968 student takeover of Columbia University where I taught, Jan and I spent a summer and holidays at a rural artist’s commune in Vermont known as “Total Loss Farm.”

My last course before the losing the faculty position because of not completing the dissertation in 1970 was called “pastoral and utopia: visionary conceptions of the good life.” It drew a large student enrollment.

Soon afterward, we headed for Canada to get away from the violent government crackdown on anti-Vietnam war protestors and from the violent tactics of the protestors themselves, some of whom had been good friends. We ended up at the end of the road on the British Columbia coast, where we settled in an old homestead, found a community of like-minded “back to the land” exiles, and lived out a lot of the pastoral dream–supported by nearby junior college teaching jobs.

Nine years later, we returned to California and I finished the PhD thesis on pastoral, which led to publication, and eventually the only academic job offer I could secure at age 46–at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—which I’d never heard of. In the title of their book about this place, Josephine Clifford and De Guy Cooper called San Luis County A Vast Pastoral Domain.With its immense holdings of 10,000 acres of largely undeveloped land and its heritage of agricultural and natural resource management programs, the University allowed me to teach courses in reading and writing about the environment, that required hiking through pastures and mountains and hanging out with farmers and herdsmen, without actually being one.

Just when I retired from Cal Poly in 2011, the City of SLO completed its Master Plan for the Calle Joaquin Ag Reserve. It needed a non-profit organization to manage the property by carrying out the formidable tasks of subleasing to independent organic farmers, providing educational programs for youth and offering opportunities for public engagement.

Having witnessed Jan’s struggle to keep the Reserve whole, I felt it would be a sad failure not to find the financial and organizational means to implement the vision.  Though keeping a low profile because of the continuing controversy, I joined with a group of volunteers who created what we decided to call City Farm.

Those words themselves seemed like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms combining urban and rural, that echoed the paradox of “pastoral.”

Along with the sense of the incredible value of its soil and its real estate, it’s that resonance with my own pastoral ideals that’s bound me to this place over all these years.

For most of them the existence of the organization that’s managed the farm has been marginal. Tenants, facilities, staff, programs, and finances have come and gone, and on occasion the Board has sought a new owner or planned for liquidation. But for the last year and a half, thanks to the efforts of our amazing staff, accomplished tenant farmers, enthusiastic volunteers, devoted board, and the generosity and initiative of major donors, things have taken off.

Now, when people walk through the gate, I can see in their expressions, even behind masks, a delight and a desire that I recognize from way back.  That’s what’s given me permission to step down and celebrate the future of City Farm SLO.

The audience paid attention, laughed at the wisecracks, and cheered. Afterwards, they enjoyed the food, drinks, displays, farm tours and one another’s company.

Including responses to Kayla’s follow-up email, we tallied more than $10,000 in donations from those who attended and others who learned about it.

In the days following, the event’s impact grew on me. I felt disoriented by the discrepancy between the rhetorical portrait painted by others and my own self-image.  And I had to face giving up the farm’s daily duties, decisions and dramas along with the steady companionship of my fellow workers.  I recalled William Blake’s lines,

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

To process my bittersweet peak experience, I needed a little distance. So I decided to take some time at the end of the road, Lund B.C. Canada.

COVID travel restrictions have for the last two years broken the annual rhythm of our three generation family pilgrimage to the property we call Knoll House because of its location at the top of granite outcrop 400 feet above the Salish Sea.

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We bought it in 1995 after having sold the old homestead down the road we lived in all through the 1970s. The place has been leased out when we’re not there at low rent to tenants who appreciate its wilderness seclusion, amazing views, rustic architecture and modern amenities. For the last ten years, those tenants have been Tai and Theo, who produced a feature length movie about the local community which was featured at the SLO Film Festival and is available on Amazon Prime. Maintaining ties with the land and the residents who stayed promises background stability for current transitions, especially  during October’s dark and rainy time of year.

My shared 50 year history and common experiences of passing into old age with those folks in that place balances another transition that Jan and I now face.  We’re preparing to move from our home near the University since 1988 to a subdivision under construction adjacent to City Farm.  The move is occasioned by the conversion of our once staid neighborhood to a loud, crowded student ghetto, as older residents succumb to the demographic change and the allure of high house sales prices.  Our new home has green-built amenities, is smaller than the house we’ve occupied with children and grandchildren, has no stairs, no yard, and no view, but space for all sorts of new beginnings.

This change requires examining possessions accumulated over all those years–including inherited artifacts, books, papers, and letters–and deciding what does and does not have continuing value.  Somehow going to Knoll House seems part of that process. The present visit confirms that it remains something to keep.

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B.C. retreat photo album

City Farm Transitions photo album

 

 

 

 

 

Loss

Monday, February 8th, 2021

 

Lionel Webb (1947-2020)

Monday, September 21st, 2020

Lionel, I think of you

as an old grizzly bear
all burly and tough
but also a teddy bear
full of cuddly stuff

or as my grandfather,
all seasoned and wise
but also my grandson
full of awe and surprise