Kenneth Rexroth

Three More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1963

A Century of Restraint

On August 16 the Century of Negro Progress Exposition will open in Chicago, and the Post Office will issue a commemorative stamp. Pictures of the stamp have been sent out to all the papers with a story about how it is the first U.S. stamp designed by a Negro. They are too modest in their claims. It is the first U.S. stamp ever designed. The rest, I believe, are “uttered,” as they say of funny money, by some primitive automation device attached to an engraving machine.

The publicity, coming as it does in the midst of the turmoil in Birmingham, points an obvious moral. The American Balkans, as Mencken used to call the southern states, are one of the more barbarous historical backwaters of the world precisely because they have kept down or expelled to the North their most valuable citizens. George Olden, the designer of the stamp, is a vice president of the powerful and prestigious advertising firm of McCann-Erickson. I have met him in New York and a more gracious and intelligent young business man would be hard to find. If he could be transported to the top table at Birmingham’s most exclusive gentlemen’s club, he would be a blazing luminary in the somewhat dim galaxy of the city’s power elite. The unlikeliness of such a contingency is Birmingham’s loss and McCann-Erickson’s gain.

It sometimes seems that the only way white southerners can ever get in the papers is either by writing an obscene book or play about their sick society, or by clubbing, hosing, or police-dogging Negroes. The papers have all set up a great cry for “moderation on both sides.” What are they talking about? The pictures are of young brown men with gentle, sensitive faces, standing on chairs, routed from bed and hastily dressed, begging their fellows not to resist evil with violence and to forgive their persecutors, while in the background are the flames of Negro homes fired by — by whom? — hooligans? Or by the Ku Klux Klan? The Klan may seem to us to be a band of hooligans, but it is, let me remind you, a middle-class organization of eminently respectable citizens, dedicated to the preservation of Our Way of Life. Its opinions are shared by most of Alabama’s elected officials and guardians of order.

I have no idea of what may happen between now and the time this column comes out. But notice that no whites were injured in Sunday’s rioting except police and guardsmen. If it was a race riot, who were the Negroes rioting against? Themselves? It looks suspiciously like an invasion of the Negro section by their protectors.

Meanwhile, how many potential Ralph Bunches and Marian Andersons are in jail with the 7-year-old potential menaces to public safety? And how many illiterate sadists are posing, fire hose in hand, for pictures to be distributed to the newspapers of the world? What do they mean, moderates? It’s a hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Talk about moderation. Talk about long suffering. I for one am sure I would not be capable of such restraint. Not for a hundred years. Not for a minute. Would you?
[May 15, 1963]

By the Waterfall

Thirty-five years ago or so I first started hiking around the long high ridges and deep wooded valleys of northwestern Marin County. Less than an hour’s drive from the city, it is to this day remarkably sparsely populated, a land of a few vast dairy farms, still little changed by man. Several of my books were written in a cabin in Devil’s Gulch, buried in the dense woods on the west side of Mt. Barnabe, beside a narrow waterfall.

Last week I stopped at the headquarters of Samuel Taylor State Park to get permission to use the hikers’ and riders’ camp in Devil’s Gulch, which is now part of the park, and was amazed to see on a large map — “Staircase Falls,” “Rexroth Cabin.” Well, well. Me and John Muir. Not only that, but the Sierra Club had marked with removable yellow plastic ribbons a hike to that very spot for the coming weekend.

I walked to the waterfall while my little girls were fixing up around camp. The cabin had long since crumbled into ruins, but nothing else was changed. All was just as it was the rainy autumn evening in 1928 I first stumbled on this hidden cul de sac in the steep forest. The little cabin was less than 10 feet square, hardly higher than its piled rock fireplace. The door was open, there were pots and pans, an oil lamp, some old quilts hung up out of the way of mice and wood rats, and a primitive shower bath built over the stream. In the still autumn twilight, with the yellow maple leaves falling over it, cabin, clearing and waterfall looked just slightly ominous, like something in a fairy story.

I stayed the night, back then in 1928, and in the next few months met most of the people who used the place. Nobody knew who had built it.

Later in the next gully a somewhat more substantial cabin was built by one of the groups that used the first place. It was considerably larger and stood directly over the confluence of two cascades, like the retreat of some Japanese Buddhist saint. It still survives as a tumbled ruin.

In the course of time all the people who used either cabin drifted away or outgrew such activities, and I was left in sole possession. Twice during the war, when it was impossible to get to the Sierra, I spent the entire summer in the larger cabin. Whenever I had some thorny literary job to do, I would go over and work in solitude until it was done. Then the property became a State park and I was evicted.

Last week, sitting in a little patch of sunlight at the foot of the waterfall, I felt as though I might just have found the place a few minutes before. There was no mirror to show me my changed face or my gray hair. If I looked down at my body — it was dressed in just the same clothes — jeans, red shirt, ankle length boots. I thought over the long intervening years, that now seemed to have slipped by imperceptibly. Deaths and marriages, two children, 13 books, travel about the world — had the maple and Douglas fir beside the waterfall grown or decayed? Had the number of ferns increased?

Down below, along the main stream, things had changed. During the war the range was badly overgrazed and in a couple of years the water tore loose great trees along the banks, the meadowy shores were changed to cobbles; thistles and poison hemlock grew everywhere. The damage of overgrazing is sudden and dramatic, the healing processes are slow indeed. However good care the park authorities take of Devil’s Gulch, I will never live to see it as once it was.

I sat by the waterfall and watched the golden laurel leaves spin down into the pool.* A mourning dove moaned softly off in the woods, red tailed hawks screamed, playing together in the sky, a doe and two fawns crossed the clearing, unaware of my presence.

Had all those years really been? Maybe I had drowsed away in the warm sunlight amid the sound of falling water and dreamed it all — the Depression, the War, books, paintings, girls, the achievements and troubles of a life. I looked behind me, the cabin certainly was gone; but when I looked at the wet greenish black cliff and the twisting water I sank into their own timelessness.

At last the sunlight went away and it grew chilly. I got up and went down the steep trail, and back down the valley to the campground and my busy daughters. I was a little stiff — I must have sat too long by the waterfall.
[June 30, 1963

The Real Coal Mine Disaster

Coal fires in an open grate are universal in Britain, and millions of people have sat before their glow, and read of the slow strangling death of men in the bowels of the earth. There are several poems on the subject, best of all perhaps Wilfred Owen’s that speaks of the whispering and the sigh of the coals — “I listened for a tale of leaves and smothered ferns, frond-forests, and the low sly lives before the fawns. . . . But the coals were murmuring of their mine, and moans down there, of boys that slept wry sleep, and men writhing for air.”

Coal is remote to us now, here in oil-burning San Francisco. In England it gives a subtle flavor to the bread and the special smell of British coal, “of leaves and smothered ferns,” meets you about midnight, out in the Irish Sea as you steam toward Liverpool.

In California we never think about it until headlines in the paper bring disaster to our breakfast tables. Then for a few days we follow the rescue efforts, as gripping with suspense as an old-time movie serial. The trapped miners are finally brought to the surface, dead or alive, and we say, “What a way to make a living!” and turn to the new disasters that come from around the globe with our coffee and toast.

Cave-ins and explosions involve only a few men at a time, but they get the headlines. How many of us are aware that there is an incomparably worse disaster going on all the time, and has been for years?

On the other side of the country in an area about a third the size of California, and almost a mirror image in shape, whole populations are obsolete. Hundreds and hundreds of mines in the Appalachians are exhausted or unprofitable. The ones that are operating are profitable because they are mechanized and give a high yield of good quality coal at low labor cost. The coal doesn’t need them anymore, but the people stay. Miners are an obstinate lot; if they weren’t so many would not survive to be pulled out of the ground by rescue crews. So they cling to the vestiges of the life they’ve known. The United Mine Workers, once the country’s most powerful union. closes its locals in village after village and lifetimes of accumulated benefits vanish. Men who were once the hardest workers in America now sit on their porches and stare out at the mountains, scarred with erosion and denuded of what was once the most beautiful hardwood forest in the world.

Here that Madison Avenue word “obsolescence” fits exactly — these people are going out of use, decaying as human beings, kept alive on the scrap heap by relief checks. Possibly they are the first and largest casualty of the onrushing technological revolution, but they are only the first swallows — harbingers of a terrible spring.

Three billion people in a world where people are going out of date.
[September 11, 1963]

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