Friday, September 23, 2016

What is art?

 
Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 24, 2016— 
A CERTAIN AMOUNT of reflection on that thorny and unrewarding question lately, ever since a friend stopped by with a painting he'd made while on retreat among the redwoods at the former home of Morris Graves, near Eureka, California. He'd been enormously impressed with the house, built of local redwood by Japanese carpenters for the enigmatic maverick painter, and by the setting.

I asked how the house was furnished. Were there things Grave had made? Well, yes, paintings of course; the furnishings and cabinetry were wood and local…

But were there little objects he might have made, or did he leave primarily paintings? And what were the paintings like?

The conversation was so long ago (though in fact only two or three weeks) and we've covered so much ground since that I no longer recall the details. I have the impression the Graves presence was largely through the architecture and perhaps the feel that he had lived and worked there, that one was seeing his environment, and thus a good part of his "inspiration," through his sensibility. 

But had Graves whittled any of the door handles, or decorated anything, or was there only his art to be seen?

Ah, my friend replied, but what is art?

Oh, Henry, you don't ask easy questions, do you? I've been thinking about that one for decades. What is art? Well, it begins with attentiveness, and ends with devotion…

I was just riffing, of course, but Henry took me seriously. He takes everything seriously. Just look at the portrair he made of me several years ago, working in pencil on paper — a drawing hardly bigger than a postage stamp, enlarged above.

Art is not a noun, I think; art is a verb. Artist is a nount: an artist is a person for whom life is art. He makes things: they are objects, what the French call objets d'art. Often they are madee with crafft, and then art and craft become confused. 

While thinking about these things, before leaving home on our present trip, I came u[pon three things I've made over the years, in moments of art. I don't pretend to be an artist, but I have moments, I think, as do most of us, of art. Here they are:
 
The silver earrings I made (after Duchamp) for Lindsey back in the '60s
 
A painting I found at Deb's house in Flagstaff, maybe in the '80s
 
A little fake Brancusi whittled from a scrap of pine in the '90s

The earrings are kept in one of Lindsey's secret places, of course, and come out on special occasions. The painting hangs casually from a paper-clip hook at the end of a bookcase. (It's really a vertical, on a longer scrap of board; I've cropped it here as a sort of experiment. I like it better in the original format.)

The Brancusi lives on a windowsill over the kitchen sink, where it must annoy Clemencia who comes every couple of weeks to clean things up. So much clutter in the house! But they all contribute to Art…

At best, I think, art is what we live with. We've just spent three days with a friend in Amsterdam. Cynthia is herself an artist, but it's not easy for me to describe what it is she does: she works with organization, administration, the social or communitarian transformation of visual awareness and uncerstanding. Currently, for example, focussing on milk and wool, on seeing them more clearly both for what they are and for what they represent as products: things produced, distributed, consumed. Tough to verbalize.

Cynthia lives in art and I made a dozen photos or so quickly as we were preparing to say goodbye. Ultimately I'll do something with them, after I'm home; meanwhile I leave just one here:

 

Friday, September 02, 2016

Sonata 1: Bachelor Machine

Sonata1thumbnail
Eastside Road, September 1, 2016—

MY FIRST PIANO SONATA was completed November 10 1989 but composed mostly in 1983 and 1984 while working on (in fact, as part of) the opera La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même after Marcel Duchamp’s painting of that name.

A long ballet dominating the middle of the second act, the center of the opera, was conceived as representing the mechanical workings of the Bride and her Bachelors, with solo material given, respectively, to violin and piano. This sonata is the piano material, lacking all other music (solo and choral singing and orchestral accompaniment) but fleshed out slightly with additional notes.

There are two intentions: to make an extended, somewhat virtuosic piece of music for solo piano, and to retain the arbitrary, quirky, stiff characteristic of Duchamp’s conception. The part of the bachelor apparatus that is most present is the “chariot” or “glider,” a contraption that comes and goes in a reciprocating movement, sounding its “litanies (slow life: everyday junk: onanism: buffer of life”) and actuating an elaborate train of machinery which ultimately fails to strip bare the bride.

Sonata: Bachelor Machine was first played by Eliane Lust, July 25, 1990, in San Francisco, on a wonderful program also including Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau, Bartók’s Sonata, 1926, and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. What a night!

Parts of the sonata were later used by the choreographer-stage director Margaret Fisher for mixed-media productions of her own: for these, Eliane returned to the piece, even performing it in costume while being towed, with her piano, from one side of the stage to the other.

The three movements are called Cadre, Desires and Frustrations, and Action and Inaction. I wouldn’t mind finding an English word for the title of the first movement, but nothing quite does what the French cadre does: framework, context, grouping...

The music of the Sonata can also make a fairly substantial Piano Concerto, a Big Concerto to complement the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, but it hasn’t yet been notated, except as part of the Duchamp opera. Perhaps one day.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It'll take about sixteen minutes.

Wind music

Windquartetwaveform

4pieceswindquartetthumbnail

Eastside Road, August 31, 2016—

I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED to write a piece for woodwind quintet. I played bassoon in high school, and a little clarinet and French horn then and in my early college days, and playing chamber music for winds was a lot of fun.

I'm not sure I've ever heard a piece for winds that didn't please me. Especially the Czechs, of course: Janáček's Mladi has been a favorite since I found a ten-inch LP in a used record store in San Francisco back in the 1950s. But all the others: Reicha, Mozart, Haydn. Even Schoenberg, whose Wind Quintet I think is one of his masterpieces.

Here's how close I've come to writing for wind quintet:

1965 Ces désirs du quatuor, for any four musicians
1970: Bachelor Apparatus, for pairs of winds
1974: Parergon to woodwind quintet: trio, for English horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon
as you can see, not very close. There's another Parergon, for unaccompanied flute; and there's Rose, for unaccompanied clarinet. They were meant to go into a sort of kit for wind quintet, the idea being that any of the independent pieces can be pulled out of the box and played alone, or in sequence, or superimposed on one another if the performing space allows the scattering of the performers. I may get back to this one day.

In the meantime, as a self-imposed penalty for moving further into the ninth decade, I've been trolling the files, sorting out gems from dross. Precious few gems, but some intriguing relics: and among them a few tiny essays for recorder ensemble, written in early 1960, while approaching my 25th birthday.

I was working as a clerk at the post office in Berkeley, where I fell in with a serious, intelligent, good-humored fellow named Charles Watson. Like me, he played the recorder, and before long we’d put together a little recorder ensemble — three or four of us playing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.

Charles was an engaging man with connections in the community, ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to a louche bar called The Chicken Box, and before long he suggested our ensemble should work up a little concert. He got us into the AME Church somehow, and we played a short program of mostly arrangements from Baroque masters.

I had not yet studied composition — only a couple of rudimentary college courses in harmony and modal counterpoint, in which I fared not so well, finding them tedious and, I thought in the heady flush of Modernism, irrelevant. The twelve-tone method attracted me, but I hardly knew what it was. I had come by the four-LP set of Anton Webern recordings put out by Columbia and was fascinated by the master's short, glittering pieces for instruments; no doubt they lay behind these juvenile recorder pieces.

I'm preparing scores of them in the original instrumentation, for soprano, alto, and bass recorders. In the course of doing that it occurred to me to arrange them for a more conventional ensemble, and here's the result. The upper two voices, for soprano and alto recorders, were left at the original pitch location and given to flute and oboe: the lower two, for alto and bass recorders, were transposed down an octave for clarinet and bassoon. A few other notes had to be transposed an octave one way or another to suit my new orchestra, and I got rid of a few fluttertongues that would have been too brash on double-reed instruments; otherwise the thing's the way it was, fifty-six years ago.

One reason for doing all this, perhaps: play with the fossil and see if it can lead to something. I might add some notes for French horn, and then I'd finally have addressed that old desire. Or I might insert silences along the way — I've come to like them more and more — or cut up the pieces and reconfigure the scraps, to get rid of that stuffy four-movement tempo layout. Don't know. We'll see.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It won't take much of your time. Three minutes.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three operas: Agrippina; Vixen Sharpears; Powder Her Face

•Handel: Agrippina.
•Janáček: Příhody Lišky Bystroušky
    (The Cunning Little Vixen).

•Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face.

Seen at West Edge Opera, Oakland,
   Aug. 12-13, 2016
El jardín de las Delicias de El Bosco
Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500, oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Eastside Road, August 17, 2016—

A COUPLE OF young men meet in a London pub, strike up a conversation, and have a few drinks. They're guys: the conversation inevitably turns to sex. They agree on most points. Sex is a natural component of animal life, after all, and if its expression, in individual activity, results in social criticism or disapproval, that says more about social neuroses than individual maladjustments.

But after a few drinks the brash young Londoner is impatient with his new friend, a German who’s just arrived from a few years spent in Italy. The guy has been around, he dresses fashionably, but his ideas seem conventional, even provincial, and he's a little priggish. Born at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the Englishman points out that civilized restraints on sexual behavior only encourage hypocrisy. The only positive contribution made by this repressiveness is the entertainment value it provides to the tabloids.

The immigrant isn’t so sure. His father was a surgeon; he knows what happens to the bodies of dissolute youths. He’s spent time in the Vatican and in major and minor power-centers in Germany and Italy, and he knows a lot about intrigue and betrayal. A child of the Enlightenment, the turns to Roman history for his discussion. It was a disgusting time, first-century Rome, lacking all civilized restraint, celebrating power and cruelty. Among humans, the pursuit of pleasure too easily becomes compulsive. It leads to social decadence and personal ruin, and must be restrained. You don't want your London to turn into Imperial Rome.

A rather shabby old man listens quietly, musing about the irony of his own situation. These two youths are out of his league. His English has a strong Czech accent. He’s a small-town schoolteacher, not a social butterfly; he loves the forest, not cities. He's been contentedly married for many years — yet he's become obsessed with an idealized kind of love for a younger woman, also married — and at a time when sexual performance is no longer relevant.

The bartender's been listening to the conversation, as bartenders do, and finally makes a comment of his own: You could write a novel about all this, he says, or even an opera.

THE BARTENDER IS Mark Streshinsky, General Director of Berkeley Opera, which produced the results of this conversation this last month. West Edge has settled into an interesting formula, presenting in repertory, in a three-week season, three operas: one from an early era, performed with period instruments; one from the neglected standard-repertory period; one new or relatively new title. (Last summer these were Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Alban Berg's Lulu, and Laura Kaminsky's As One, discussed here August 3, 2015; next year we are promised Vicente Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana, Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, and Libby Larsen's Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.)

The operas were produced in an evocative space, Oakland's "abandoned train station," a Beaux-Arts building designed by Jarvis Hunt, opened in 1912 by the Southern Pacific Railway, closed following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, bought ultimately by the developer Bridge Housing, and planned, it is to be hoped, to be retained for public use. (The symbolism – a grand public building erected a century ago for commercial purposes, abandoned and allowed to decay, then stabilized and restored as a nostalgic if somewhat sketchy place for the performing arts — invites comment: but I digress.)

A distinctly musky fragrance hovered in this architectural curiosity last weekend, when we saw the final performances of this randy triptych: Agrippina, composed in Naples by the then 24-year-old George Friedrich Handel in 1709; Vixen Sharp-Ears (a better translation than The Cunning Little Vixen ), completed in 1923 by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, then just shy of seventy; Powder Her Face, composed by the 26-year-old Thomas Adès in 1996.


AGRIPPINA WAS STARTLING from the moment we entered the theater: the stage was fronted by an enormous enlargement of Hieronymus Bosch's own triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, so large the figures in the lower corners of the central panel — whom we came to feel we knew — were life-sized. The overture, conducted from the harpsichord by Jory Vinikour, was gripping: suggestive in its slow tempi, thrilling in the fast.

Vinikour's orchestra comprised three each of first and second violins, two violas, two cellos, one bass viol, two players doubling on oboes and recorders, one trumpeter, and, most effectively, Richard Savino playing theorbo in the basso continuo. I've read that the original orchestra included contrabassoon and timpani; I missed the latter, and wonder what the former would have done. In any case this orchestra was captivating.

Mark Streshinsky's staging was perhaps in the style of the original, staged in Venice. The plot concerns Agrippina's plots to elevate her son Nerone to the Roman throne after the reported death of the emperor Claudio. Other characters include Claudius's friend Ottone; his inammorata Poppea (desired also by Claudio), Agrippina's two feckless assistants Pallante and Narciso, and Claudio's servant Lesbo. (I reproduce the Italian names: Nero and Claudius are the more familiar English forms.)

Of this crew the only decent person is Ottone; the others range from Claudio's woolly-minded covetousness, through Nerone's impressively indiscriminate appetite, to Agrippina's truly evil manipulativeness. The entire cast was thoughtfully chosen, directed, and costumed: this production was well conceived and integrated. Until I saw Powder Her Face, the next evening, I thought Streshinsky's direction had gone over the top: the central intelligence, I guess you'd call him, was Nerone, whose unfocussed amorousness was like a totally immoral Cherubino. His mother Agrippina was infected with the same virus, and you could see that while the rest of the cast, even Claudio, had misgivings about this, they found it irresistible.

Perhaps because I'm a prig I found Ryan Belongie's portrayal of Ottone the high point of the evening. His counter-tenor voice is strong, sweet, clear, and affecting; his lament was the finest moment of the evening. This is unfair to other performers, who seemed almost equally to occupy their roles, with almost equal gifts and technique: Celine Ricci as an androgynous Nerone, Sarah Gartshore in the disgusting title role; Carl King as Claudio; Nikolas Nackley, Johanna Bronk, and Nick Volkert as Pallante, Narciso, and Lesbo.

Musically, these singers, and their orchestra, made this a marvelous evening. Visually, Sarah Phykitt's set design, Kevin Landesman's lighting, and Alice Ruiz's intriguing costumes anchored Streshinsky's thoughtful, playful, completely amoral direction. I'm not sure what Handel's father would have thought.


VIXEN SHARP-EARS is one of my very favorite operas, if I may make a personal remark. I have always loved Janáček's spiky, evocative, quite original music, whose roots lie in Central Europe's 19th century, but whose individuality reaches far into the twentieth century, toward such other total individualists as, for example, the Italian Giacinto Scelsi. Janáček's gifts for melodic rhythm, harmonic sonority, and instrumental technique are overwhelming, and like Handel he brings these essentially instrumental qualities to a very sympathetic ear for the human voice.

He composed a number of operas, but to my taste Vixen is the best, partly for its musical compression and inventiveness but especially for the great, deep humanity of its subject, expressed through the composer's own adaptation of, of all things, a graphic novella (a sort of comic strip) that appeared in a Prague newspaper for a few months in 1920. The story is simple: a young vixen cub is captured by a forester, escapes back to the forest after growing to maturity and attacking the henhouse, couples with a fox with whom she raises a number of cubs, is shot by a hunter.

There are three principal roles: Vixen, marvelously sung and acted by the soprano Amy Foote; Forester, strongly and engagingly represented by the bass Philip Skinner; Fox, particularly sympathetic in the performance of mezzo Nikola Printz. The large cast also includes a frog, several hens, a cricket, a goofy dog, and Vixen as a cub; these roles were taken by members of the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir.

I've seen three productions of Vixen that I can think of, all of them quite different solutions of the staging problem of rendering animals (and insects even!) both natural and sympathetic without resort to anthropomorphism or sentimentality. Two things are crucial to success: costuming and makeup, here ably rendered by Christine Crook, Alice Ruiz, and Sophia Smith; and physical acting, credited in this production to Pat Diamond (director) but achieved for the most part compellingly by each actor, even — perhaps especially — the children.

First, last, and center, Vixen Sharp-Ears is about Life. Life as a natural force, a force so general that it overcomes individual life and death, spans time-periods beyond individual lifetimes, addresses ethical realities beyond human desires and frustrations. The one overwhelming instinct is to be free, and you can take Janáček's meaning to include individual, political, moral, and economic freedom; freedom from the conventional restrictions of social class and position, but also freedom from the constraints most of us manage to create for ourselves every day as we substitute comfort and convention for vitality and instinct.

I have to confess that after seeing Agrippina and reading about Powder Her Face I was worried about what West Edge might do with Vixen. It would have been easy to sell the opera short, to sensationalize the sexual component, to trivialize the humanity. But Diamond's direction respected the intent, I think, of the original creators; and Foote, Printz, and Skinner beautifully conveyed the depth and reach of the moral and ethical issues. (So did Joseph Raymond Meyers as the dejected Schoolmaster and, in a more comic approach, Carl King as the drunk poacher Harašta, who shoots Vixen.)

Janáček's score was brilliantly performed, in a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Dove, by Jonathan Khuner, leading asixteen-piece orchestra. Janáček needs a lot of notes for his music, and this orchestra was kept busy: I was particularly impressed with the five string players, but the winds were equally up to the task. What a fine, far-reaching, lasting opera this is; what a fine job West Edge did with it.


POWDER HER FACE failed to interest me. Thomas Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher (also a Londoner, five years older than the composer) collaborated on it deeply under the influence of Alban Berg's opera Lulu and Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and the result seems to me greatly over-worked, too self-indulgent about inner jokes and allusions, and too ready to excuse its own undisciplined bawdiness with the pretext of ironic social commentary.

The story is that of the Duchess of Argyll, whose compulsive fellatios with strangers were a tabloid scandal in the mid-1950s, and who apparently lived an increasingly pathetic descent into reclusive poverty over he next thirty-five years. This "rake's progress" unfolds through five scenes in the first act, four in the second. I can't comment on the second act; we left at intermission.

We left for two reasons: the action of the opera, at least in this production (but inescapably, judging from the plot summary provided), was tediously jokey and in-your-face; worse, the music was unrelievedly busy, strident, and loud. Stage routines ran the gamut, as Dorothy Parker would have written, from A to B: soft-core pornography to lewd comedy. Laura Bohn, as the Duchess, might have been sympathetic but was rarely given scope by either composer or director. Hadleigh Adams was two-dimensional, whether as Duke or Hotel Manager. Jonathan Blalock was perhaps the most successful singing actor by virtue of his role, which allowed him some individuality. Worst of all, Emma McNairy, who was such a splendid, musical Lulu last summer in Berg's opera, was made to shriek at virtually every opportunity.

Mary Chun worked hard to open the busy, opaque textures of the score, and her fifteen-piece orchestra, the contemporary music specialists Earplay, played their hearts out. But I have to believe these gifted singers and musicians, and stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer, did all this in the service of the opera, but they had little help from composer and librettist, who seemed to want to spend endless talent and intellect and awareness of precedent on a silly, one-dimensional, deliberately vulgar piece of theater.

Adès's score has a number of arresting ideas, but except when they're repeated too often — the baritone saxophone bleat, for example — they're too often lost in the crowded, overly busy orchestration. And the vocal writing doesn't work: you can rarely understand the sung English (thank heaven, I suppose, for the supertitles), and the extremes of tessitura are physically painful.

But then I'm an old man, my tastes and sympathies much closer to the Forester's than the Duke's. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have heard half of this opera, I think; and I respect the intellectual content of this three-opera season, whose effect only makes sense, I think, thanks to the triangulation provided by Vixen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Amended

THE RIGHT OF
THE PEOPLE
TO FEAR ARMS
SHALL NOT BE
INFRINGED

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The saga continues, and I show my age…

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Mt. Jackson, from our ridge, Eastside Road
Fri. May 27: broken toe
Sun. May 29: Coast walk
Sat. June 4: 22 mile history walk
Mon. June 6: Walkabout at home
Tue. June 7: 8 miles, to Healdsburg
Eastside Road, June 10, 2016—
CONTINUING THE LOG : I left you a little over a week ago after a fine nine-miler out at the coast, with a fair amount of climbing and descending involved.

What I didn't mention was that I did that on a broken toe.

Until Friday, May 27, I had never broken a bone in my eighty years. But that night, in an excess of high spirits (though sober as a judge), I ran through the house, barefoot, to get someone a glass of cold water, having thoughtlessly served only myself. I failed to notice a box of files on the floor in one room — a box that's been there for years — and hit it with the fourth and fifth toes of my left foot.

I wish I'd thought to photograph it: the toes pointed off to the left instead of curling nicely toward the big toe. So I taped them back to the proper position and put an ice pack on it for twenty minutes. And, it being a holiday weekend, made a note to see the doctor on Tuesday. Memorial Day Weekend is no time to visit an emergency ward.

Next morning there was some pain, of course; the entire foot was somewhat swollen, the affected toes particularly so. I took it easy that day, doing a little work outside, because we'd planned that long hike at the Coast on Sunday. As I say, the Coast hike went okay. I took a couple of walkabouts at home the following week — I'll describe them in another post — and then gave the toe its real test last Saturday.


FOR A NUMBER of years the Sonoma County Historical Society has put on an annual walk of about 25 miles, at various locations in the county in the even-numbered years, in San Francisco in the odd-numbered ones. The hikes were the idea of the late Jeff Tobes, an enthusiast for both history and hiking who taught in Sonoma county and shared his enthusiasm with students and members of the Society.

I first met him four years ago, when I joined the hike taking in Fort Ross and environs — an area of particular interest to me since my mother lived and taught out there for a few years back in the middle 1950s. That had been a lovely walk, and Jeff was a remarkable leader, pointing out sites of special historical interest — the smallest California State Park, for example, which surrounds Beniamino Bufano's sculpture dedicated to peace.

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Toward Carneros, June 4, 8:20 am
Alas, Jeff died earlier this year, quite unexpectedly I think; this year's walk was dedicated to him as a memorial, and led quite ably by the competent, easygoing Ray Johnson. About eighty participants convened at 5:30 in the morning last Saturday, in the Sebastiani Winery parking lot. We walked a few blocks, past Sonoma Mission, to the Plaza, where we heard a little talk about the Bear Flag Revolt, and then proceeded south and a little east, out of town, toward Vineburg.

The morning was really quite beautiful. There was no traffic on the city streets at that early hour, and we were reminded to speak quietly when we stopped at a little park for breakfast: residents in the neighborhood were likely still sleeping. It was cool and pleasant, and when we got to open countryside the morning sky was low and gentle. We turned east and north again, then further east to the Gundlach Bundschu winery.

There we had a rest and listened to a winery staffer tell us the history of her company — a history going back to 1858, surviving the utter destruction of the winery in the 1906 earthquake (it was located in San Francisco; grapes were shipped their by barge from a Sonoma county landing), the disaster that was Prohibition, and the vagaries of the wine book of the late 20th century.

The winery is meticulously landscaped; even the vineyards seem gardened. I had always assumed Bundschu was Swiss; the name seems so, but we were told both he and Gundlach were German. Still, there's an impressive degree of neatness here, and I was inspired to try a bottle of their Gewurtztraminer next opportunity. (We had it the other night: very clean; very good — I prefer the Alsace versions.)

We resumed the walk, through the vineyard to a gate on Thornberry Road, finally up off the Sonoma flats and near the Napa County line. The houses here are big, on big, wooded lots, and mostly behind ornamental but effective gates. The road's nicely shaded and a fine stroll, but it is not my kind of place, I'm afraid.

We headed north, then west again, past a few historical sites Ray pointed out, and finally were back at Sebastiani where our lunch awaited us. In half an hour we were walking again, first to visit General Vallejo's grave in Sonoma's Mountain Cemetery, then into the fine oak-studded grassland hills forming the extensive back yard to his home, whose grounds we'd visit later in the day.

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Open Space Preseve on the Vallejo property
This was some of the best walking of the day: off pavement. The trail had climbed a bit, up to the huge water tanks drawing on Vallejo's springs for the Sonoma water supply; then traversed through oaks, as you see in the photo, before descending quite sharply back to city streets and sidewalkes.

We turned north again, paralleling the highway through Boyes Hot Springs, then diverging to stroll through another hilly residential area at Fetters Hot Springs — a more modest version of Thornerry's wealthy enclave. Then west, to turn south again and explore a third hotwater town, Agua Caliente.

It became clear Ray knew how to draw a historical route. He was following old railroad rights of way, for the most part long since co-opted into city streets but occasionally developed into footpaths. He wisely refrained from trying to expand on this history; there were too many of us, and many of us perhaps too inattentive, for even an impromptu lecture. (I'm sure he could have attempted: he seems to know the history well.)

Down here in the flats, in Boyes Hot Springs and El Verano, I felt more at home. The population seems much more modest: blue-collar workers for the most part. The houses are mostly old and small, many of them survivors from a long-ago time when they may have been vacation homes for San Francisco clerical class. In those days you'd have travelled from the city by boat to a landing on the Sonoma county coast, then taken either a carriage or, later, a train to a residential hotel or perhaps, if you had the money, your own vacation cottage.

We walked past parked RVs, small boats on trailers, and basketball goals on little wheeled bases. In one front yard a man was carefully trimming another man's handsome haircut; they smiled and waved to us. Two or three schoolgirls giggled as they saw us troop by, hailed us, asked where we were going, wished us a nice day.

We walked past a number of buildings that had once been inns — not only the spas profiting from the hot water ( agua caliente ) not far below ground, but also ramshackle old buildings, some boarded up, which must once have been boarding houses and, before that, country inns; one even had an attached one-storey addition that probably housed the stablehands. (Why didn't I photograph it?)

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Mother and child on the creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park
By now it was getting on toward four o'clock and it had heated up — and we'd been walking for miles on asphalt or concrete. My toe was holding up, but my soles were beginning to fry. Fortunately we turned into a marvelous park on Sonoma Creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park. Again we were on forgiving terrain: packed dirt paths and trails through what once had apparently been orchard or vineyard and woodlots along the creek.

It didn't last long enough: we emerged through a playground and picnic area back onto streets and sidewalks for the remaining few miles back to Sebastiani. When we reached General Vallejo's charming home, already closed to visitors for the day, I'd had enough: the last mile was on a paved footpath we'd already taken. I caught a ride.

My hiking buddy, who'd driven the forty minutes from home to Sebastiani, had thoughtfully brought a few beers in a cold box, and we were glad to have them with the quite satisfying Mexican dinner provided by the Historical Society.

IMG 7447After the hike
photo: Thérèse Shere

Monday, May 30, 2016

Alors, I resume…

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Mt. Baldy hike, April 24
Eastside Road, May 29, 2009—
IT HAS BEEN a long time since my last post here. One of the recent distractions has been my resumption of walking. Last month I began serious training, for a Long Walk I'm taking with my daughter Thérèse next Saturday, June 4 — a twenty-miler in and around the town of Sonoma, led by a local historian who will point out interesting sites en route. I look forward to this walk with mixed emotions: it will be mostly flat; much of it will be on pavement; it begins at 5:30 am (and that an hour's drive from home!); it is forecast to be hot weather.

I try to walk every other day, at least a mile, preferably more. A one-mile walk is easily done right here at home: Up past my lamentable "vineyard," then through the gate to the water tank, around the tank field, back to the other gate up to the ridge pasture, up to the ridge, down to the back fence, back to the ridge, and home. If I add a trip to the mailbox, that's another third of a mile and another couple of hundred feet of dénivèlement — total up-and-down elevation change (isn't there an English word for this?).

In addition to not blogging, I haven't been keeping a very good journal lately. I think my first training walk was April 12, as described just now, a total of 45 minutes. On April 18 I walked into Windsor, our nearest town, 4.3 miles, in an hour. That's not the pleasantest walking, as it's nearly all on our country road which has a fair amount of traffic. Still, the air is good, the views very nice, and there's a pleasant café at the end. I repeated that walk on April 21.

April 24, Sunday, Thérèse and I took a longer walk, say five hours, about eight miles with 3000 feet dénivèlement, on the flanks of Mt. Baldy, in the Sonoma valley. That was a glorious day, with quite a few wildflowers and long long vistas. Three days later I walked into Healdsburg, our local "city": eight mles, flat, on country roads; two hours.

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At Armstrong Woods (photo: Mac Marshall)
Then, on April 30, a seven-mile loop involving some serious scrambling with Mac, my buddy from the 2008 Alpwalk, on a loop around Armstrong Woods. I'd done it a month earlier, that same loop, seven miles, 2700 feet of dénivèlement, and wanted to see how my training was paying off. Not well: I slipped on loose gravel on a steep descent, fell, broke my fall with my right ringfinger, and dislocated it.

That hasn't kept me from continuing. I take two-mile walks around the pond across the road — a four-mile round trip from home. Three weeks ago Thérèse and I took a fine long ramble down to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a fourteen-miler that took seven hours with a half hour off for lunch — a glorious day. There've been more walks in to Windsor and Healdsburg, and today a hike out at the coast: almost nine miles, 2800 feet dénivèlement, three and a half hours.

We left the car at Goat Rock Beach, walked a couple of miles along the coast on level ground, through typical beachfront vegetation and past weathered rock polished in some places, they say, Thérèse explained, by mammoths, many thousands of years ago. At Shell Beach we turned inland, climbing steeply up toward Red Hill. We didn't bother with summiting; there was enough haze in the air to leave us satisfied with the long views we had from the shoulder.

I'd taken a delicious sandwich — salami and lettuce on buttered bread — and a hardboiled egg. After a twenty-minute lunch break we hiked back. The country was mostly open, but punctuated by a couple of marvelous redwood stands and a very dark fir grove. It was a fine walk. I hope to get two more long walks in this week, before the Saturday ordeal.

All this is leading up to something…

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(photo: Thérèse Shere)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Road trip

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Paso Robles, March 29, 2016—
WE'RE ON A SHORT road trip with a 13-year-old grandson, introducing him to favorite California roads of ours. Until recently I've hoarded some of these roads, telling only certain and special people about them, not wanting them to become too well known. Today I discovered (once again) the folly of this kind of stinginess. They've become better known, of course, as the California population has grown from 20 million in 1970, when we first drove some of these roads, to nearly twice as many today.

Still, they are marvelous roads, two-lane roads, relatively well paved for the most part, through the ranchland and mixed woodland tracing the San Andreas fault from Hollister in the north to San Miguel in the south. The northern half of the road began this morning, for us, at one of my favorite landscapes, looking across the broad San Juan Valley northeast of the Mission San Juan Bautista, and took us first to the formerly sleepy agricultural town of Hollister — now famous as a tee shirt brand and disfigured by shopping centers — to Highway 198, which runs east-west from San Ardo to Coalinga, neither of which towns we actually saw.

The southern half — ah, that's a very special road. It's been improved since last I drove it, several years ago; more of its own northern half has been paved, and today there was no water in the creek, meaning we didn't have to put our Prius to the test of fording open water.

From the summit, at 3500 feet, the road — now gravelled, not paved — drops down into Parkfield, population 18. Today both the motel and the restaurant were closed, so we continued, turning southwesterly, to close the day at a second favorite mission, San Miguel, where the church has been beautifully restored following a long closure after the disastrous earthquake of Dec. 22, 2003.

The proximate motivation of this trip was wildflower season. This year's rains suggested there would finally be a season worth seeing, and the Highway 198, at Priest Valley, promises much for tomorrow's leg, in the Carrizo Plain. The photo at the head of this post was taken toward San Miguel; the one here at the foot, in Priest Valley, looking north. Buttercups, poppies, lupine, owl's clover so far, and others not yet indentified. We'll see what happens next. IMG 6199