There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.
This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.
Jack London, The Call of the Wild
“Why should we refuse the poor city folk a ramble over our field, because, forsooth, they have not the advantage of our acquaintance.”
LONDON RANCH, Glen Ellen—But soon he realizes that the Private Property, No Trespassing sign is a necessary aberrant in an Edenic valley, otherwise Jack London State Historic Park or Jack’s “Beauty Ranch” in the “Valley of the Moon” would not remain so idyllic, so oddly well-kept, so unlike the rugged, untamed frontier wilderness I had imagined as Jack’s final resting place. Even Tilden, spoiled and overrun by flocks of local East Bay patrons, comes closer to the mark—the challenge of the uphill hike, as evidenced by deep impressions of heavy boots in muddy earth, in the shadow of Wildcat Canyon’s enigmatic ridge.
It was too peaceful, unruffled, close to London Cottage and the adjacent vineyard; even near the ghostly remains of Wolf House, the easy trails allowed my feet to traipse lazily under Sonoma’s scorching summer sun, pausing every now and then to give a grazing deer the right of way, or to observe a rafter of wild turkeys. (Not that I minded much—the heat was enough to rebuff wistful musings of a serious hike.) I found myself wondering if the Mountain Trail or the Sonoma Ridge Trail, toward the outer edges of the park, would offer more passion, less restraint, a dusty afterglow of Jack’s vibrant charisma, his adventuresome spirit; after all, you would only need a percentage of that to taste the edge.
I was hoping to sense the remnants of that spark, Jack’s “superb meteor”, not this rustic interpretation of the quiet life. I was waiting to hear “the call,” the same howl off the bluffs of Point Reyes, the magnetic silence near the edge of the Mojave desert, the pull that never failed to lift me off paved streets and onto naked paths. But there, near the stone marker, the rustic fences and service roads, there was no ecstasy, only the slow-fading memory of one man’s robust history. It’s been one hundred years, Jack, and it’s a good thing you wrote that book because it amplifies “the call of the wild” more clearly and more intensely than these historic ruins.
As it should, I guess. Well, if Jack was looking to anchor somewhere in Arcadia, “to write and loaf”, as he said, this really was the perfect setting. That doesn’t mean I was willing to forfeit an idealized vision of what Jack’s final port and onshore lifestyle should have been; my imagination, without a harness, refused to take the bit on this matter—hell, not even life (or nature or divine judgment) was willing to grant him that kind of pastoral retirement when Jack was still kicking it, and maybe that’s why he was ultimately denied Wolf House and bronze-cast kidneys to carry him past the age of forty. Maybe it was just fitting for Wolf House to burn as brightly and as rapidly as Jack did.
I intentionally framed some of my shots to see if I could recreate—no, reanimate the scene, revive the feral beast. Not Jack’s park—Jack’s land—Jack’s wood. Where Nature’s vigor roots deep into the soil and sprouts tall like redwoods, slinks along happy walls like a lone cougar to wrap around charred foundations; those stained man-built walls that fought through a blaze of fury and spite before crumbling in a smoldering heap of ashes and broken dreams. All the grit and grind before the inevitable, the muscle and sweat, all that beautiful toil for that unapologetically rakish, romantic rogue.
Most of this happy house really did have the look and feel of a museum, as was intended by Charmian Kittredge London, Jack’s second wife and “Mate Woman”. Even discounting the more obvious glass displays of Jack’s seafaring ventures (“Prince of the Oyster Pirates”) and literary accomplishments, almost every corner was filled with some artifact or memento from their travels. It’s not surprising that the parts of the house that seemed to hold the most character, imbued with a kind of living spirit in suspended animation, were Charmian’s personal quarters, where she lived for a time after Jack’s death.
A small sampling of Charmian’s wardrobe, or what I assumed was a small sample, was put on display: elegant vintage gowns, enchanting hair pieces and headdresses, delicate footwear. Theater costumes, I thought, charmed, as I stood near the small closet space between the main living area and Charmian’s sitting room. Turning my eye to the small assortment of frames hung on the wall, the collection of sake cups on the windowsill, toiletries by the tall vanity mirror, hand-painted teapots displayed on a shelf above a mint green sink, a tender feeling of unbidden nostalgia prickled along the back of my neck and cascaded down my shoulders.
a haunting tune dusts
black + white stills, sake cups,
silk skirts + hairpins
“I wouldn’t mind if you laid my ashes on the knoll where the Greenlaw children are buried. And roll over me a red boulder from the ruins of the Big House.”
Charmian takes it literally lol.
Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchway, and savagely chewing the end of a cigar, was the man whose casual glance had rescued me from the sea. His height was probably five feet ten inches, or ten and a half; but my first impression, or feel of the man, was not of this, but of his strength. And yet, while he was of massive build, with broad shoulders and deep chest, I could not characterize his strength as massive. It was what might be termed a sinewy, knotty strength, of the kind we ascribe to lean and wiry men, but which, in him, because of his heavy build, partook more of the enlarged gorilla order. Not that in appearance he seemed in the least gorilla-like. What I am striving to express is this strength itself, more as a thing apart from his physical semblance. It was a strength we are wont to associate with things primitive, with wild animals, and the creatures we imagine our tree- dwelling prototypes to have been — a strength savage, ferocious, alive in itself, the essence of life in that it is the potency of motion, the elemental stuff itself out of which the many forms of life have been molded; in short, that which writhes in the body of a snake when the head is cut off, and the snake, as a snake, is dead, or which lingers in a shapeless lump of turtle-meat and recoils and quivers from the prod of a finger.
Such was the impression of strength I gathered from this man who paced up and down. He was firmly planted on his legs; his feet struck the deck squarely and with surety; every movement of a muscle, from the heave of the shoulders to the tightening of the lips about the cigar, was decisive, and seemed to come out of a strength that was excessive and overwhelming. In fact, though this strength pervaded every action of his, it seemed but the advertisement of a greater strength that lurked within, that lay dormant and no more than stirred from time to time, but which might arouse, at any moment, terrible and compelling, like the rage of a lion or the wrath of a storm.
With the last remnant of his strength he managed to stagger along behind till the train made another stop, when he floundered past the sleds to his own, where he stood alongside Sol-leks. His driver lingered a moment to get a light for his pipe from the man behind. Then he returned and started his dogs. They swung out on the trail with remarkable lack of exertion, turned their heads uneasily, and stopped in surprise. The driver was surprised, too; the sled had not moved. He called his comrades to witness the sight. Dave had bitten through both of Sol-lek’s traces, and was standing directly in front of the sled in his proper place.
He pleaded with his eyes to remain there. The driver was perplexed. His comrades talked of how a dog could break its heart through being denied the work that killed it, and recalled instances they had known, where dogs, too old for the toil, or injured, had died because they were cut out of the traces. Also, they held it a mercy, since Dave was to die anyway, that he should die in the traces, heart-easy and content. So he was harnessed in again, and proudly he pulled as of old, though more than once he cried out involuntarily from the bite of his inward hurt. Several times fell down and was dragged in the traces, and once the sled ran upon him so that he limped thereafter on one of his hind legs.
But he held out till camp was reached, when his driver made a place for him by the fire. Morning found him too weak to travel. At harness-up time he tried to crawl to his driver. By convulsive efforts he got on his feet, staggered, and fell. Then he wormed his way forward slowly toward where the harnesses were being put on his mates. He would advance his fore legs and drag up his body with a sort of hitching movement, when he would advance his fore legs and hitch ahead again for a few more inches. His strength left him, and the last his mates saw of him he lay gasping in the snow and yearning toward them. But they could hear him mournfully howling till they passed out of sight behind a belt of river timber.
The Call of the Wild
where savage flames lick
the sinew, the defiant
snarl of the wild thing
With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself–one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was of old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.
The Call of the Wild