American Sabbatical 040: 10/26/96


10/26.. Arcata.

We’ve given Eureka/Arcata the full treatment and they’ve survived the scrutiny. Neither of them suffers from an excess of charm. Set down in the flats around Humbolt Bay, they are mostly ticky-tak California stucco bungalows, cheek-to-jowl. There are a smattering of eyesome Victorian survivals near the town centers, and one finger-pointing mansion, the William Carson House, in Eureka. Carson was a lumber baron who built this gaudy pile of turreted gingerbread in the last century. Now it’s a men’s club, with the biggest palm tree in the county out front. The palms shiver at night up here, but it wouldn’t be California without them.. wretched stunted things at this latitude.

Just as the lumber baron’s castle lords it over the bungalows, timber towers over the town.. literally and figuratively. This is redwood country, and the mills dominate the view and the economy. Humbolt is a dumbell-shaped bay enclosed by a long finger of sand poking down from the north. Eureka sits on the south end, near the bay's mouth, Arcata is on the landward side to the north, and the towns of Manila and Samoa straggle along the spit to seaward. The big mills are in Samoa, and fill the seaward view from Eureka.

Carson House

Only one of the two pulp mills is now running. When state environmental enforcement forced the industry to address clean water issues, followed shortly by a crash in pulp prices, one mill shut its doors. The other, Louisiana Pacific, converted to oxidation processing and rode out the slump by selling pulp to the Germans, who have a ban on chlorinated product. Of course LP now brags about its environmentalism. A couple of giant sawmills and immense pulp ships at the dock round out the skyline.

Inside the bay two marinas are stuffed full of trawlers and yachts. Nobody was venturing outside during our stay. The "winter" storm that’s been precipping on us has set the salt to tumbling, and the bay entrance is a nightmare of rolling surf, galloping between mile-long jetties, breaking high onto gawking strollers.

So the fishermen were ashore to turn out in force for a public protest of the new Coho regs. And get this: they were complaining that the regs weren’t strong enough. As an election-year fudge the state pols were postponing implementation of landuse standards designed to protect spawning habitat. On this one the timber industry and the fishermen are head to head. Funny to see Green fishermen. The salmon fishery is gasping for breath here (although groundfishing is very healthy, they say), and the perceived problem is habitat destruction. The small logging operators are willing to conform to the new rules, which they generally do already, but the big shows have no interest in cleaning up their act. Hence the smell of fudge. As in Maine, you know who pays the political bills.

Just as in Maine’s paper plantation, timber is the name of the game here. After the initial gold fever was sweated out of these hills.. TIMBER! And logging is still the foundation resource of the Humbolt County economy. The same rules apply, East or West. Consolidation has swallowed the small mills, automation and clearcutting have reduced unit costs, and the corporate giants are logging faster than replacement to maximize profits. Most of the logging is on public land, of course. You’ve heard the tale. This is spotted owl country. One side will tell you it’s all about jobs, prices and the economy. The other decries the devastation of the environment. Clinton calls for compromise and comes down right of center.

Logging Cop

Meanwhile the fishermen in Eureka are protesting that the big loggers are bad actors in the woods. Reporters like David say it’s because they are cutting beyond replacement that the oldgrowth is under the ax. Not to mention the questions of replanting and monocropping. The loggers are replanting their private land, but the national forest? And it’s all clearcut, herbicide, single-specie planting. We’re headed into the big woods today, and will report.

Back in town, Eureka, for all its renovated core of tourist shoppes, is still a seedy milltown. The good old days when logging was a monastic enterprise and the camp bosses would send their gangs into town for a Saturday shambles are long gone. The redlight district is now scrubbed and quainted-up. Except for one holdout, Jimmy Dunn’s, which David insisted I buy him a drink in. Even the beer tasted dusty, and the clientele looked stuffed and mounted. Ah yes, the good old days. The result of which is still visible out back. Homeless vagabonds are much in evidence along the coast as they shuttle back and forth with the weather, avoiding the heat. Eureka even removed park benches downtown to keep them moving. Paradise has its underside, even in Eureka.

Arcata is a different kettle of fish. It feels as though the 60s came to visit here and never left. Backing up from the bay marshes into the hills, Arcata has pushed liberal enlightenment all the way into the redwoods. Humbolt U. rears its mock Spanish edifices on the brow of town, and its undergrads, mostly specializing in environmental sciences, long since took over local electoral politics. There is a municipal grove of secondgrowth redwoods (only 150 feet tall), full of beaded and feathered tribespersons drumcircling and rocknrolling on a sunny Saturday. And a municipal marsh, full of birds and birders.

The marsh is one of those environmental success stories we should be hearing more about. When the cleanwater laws began to bite home, Arcata had to address the issue of waste treatment. Between the mills and the municipalities, the bay was an open sewer. The traditional solution would have been to build a big treatment plant, run pipes into the foothills, and encourage development to pay for it. The college longhairs quashed that. Let’s cleanup the marshes! was the cry.

Sewage Plant(s)

So they did, converting abandoned factory sites and landfills back into functioning wetland, with a series of ponds for organic secondary and tertiary waste treatment. We drove around the ponds, watching harriers and peregrines diving on avocets and egrets, while on the bayside wetsuited windsurfers zipped along in the half gale still blowing.. and THE SUN had come out. That California sun. We're still steaming.

Downtown Arcata is the California funky you always imagined. Especially on market day, when the town square is full of vendors, trustifarians, reefersmoke, drumming and doodah.. all looked down on magnanimously by a bronze William McKinley. Great bookstores. Great music stores. And a food co-op to make your mouth water. This institution is the size of our local chain supermarket, jammed with fresh produce, exotic (to us) organics, alternate medicines, poultry, meats, seafood, the works (not without much political agonizing over PC products, we’re told). And it’s the local bulletin board, soapbox, and hey Charlie how are you?

Enclosing the bay, between the marsh and LP, runs the long sandspit that is Manila and Samoa. David says these are the last dogpatch towns on the California coast and they are as down-at-heel as you could desire, minuscule bungalows, trailers, and shanties, dug into the sand dunes with all ten fingers. David owns a tiny bungalow in Manila which he sublets gratis to one of his leading ladies, with husband and son. It is totally hidden behind the plantings, mostly Christmas trees of years past. His neighbors are more taken with lawn ornamentation and junk cars (if you can distinguish). David says it’s the sort of town where your affluence is measured by how many parts cars there are in the yard. So far these seedy paradises have resisted upscale development. Dogpatch may be the only defense against suburbanization.

Manila Foam
We walked the long beach outside Manila in the half-gale, with windrows of jiggling foam up to our ankles, and pippets scuttling along the surfline, dodging sneakers. These are the periodic megawaves that rush up the beach and engulf the unwary. This ocean may be pacific out on the deepwater waves, which are longer and farther apart than on the Atlantic, because of their tremendous fetch (Atlantic seas are shorter and steeper by comparison, hence nastier in a small vessel) but once the seas start humping up on the shoaling shore there’s nothing pacific about them. And the littoral seems to incline less abruptly here, so the long-frequency waves begin rolling over way out, and break and boil forever. Surf City. But you better wear your drysuit. The Aleutian Current washes this coast, and it’s bonenumbing.

Humbolt County, these settlements around the bay, retain a sense of isolation from the larger California, and will tell you so with pride. The roads in often are cut by the weather. We remembered that plowtruck pushing landslide debris off the pavement along the Klamath. And there are numerous places where obvious washouts have been patched on both coast roads, as well. It’s an enclave full of exiles from the faster lane, and the later age. Like Maine it has its own local theater, and like Maine theater, David’s troupe has suffered economic setbacks in recent years.

Starting in the 70’s, these players performed in a defunct dairy in Arcata, slowly transforming the building into a functioning theater. But the owner kept jacking the rent while the grant money ebbed, until two years ago the troupe had to fold its tent and creep away. Is this a familiar tale? Arts institutions suffering from an edifice complex? But they were still $2000 in the hole to local merchants, and determined to pay it back. So this year they reformed as a homeless troupe, and are attempting to draw audiences to instant theaters, thither and yon. Small cast, minimal scenery, low overhead.

We arrived at a defunct middle school in Manila, and were ushered into the old cafeteria to sit in portable seating. It had all the ambiance of the community shows in the Magdalens.. even to the crashing surf. We were ready to suffer through another hideous downhome performance. Instead we were riveted by as professional a rendition of A Walk In The Woods as we might have seen on Broadway. David’s room-mate Tom was the Russian diplomat, and his comic timing was immaculate. In an instant we were transported from seedy Manila to the Swiss woods, and into the magic realm of theater. When its good, like this, there is nothing to compare with the live stage.

We spent the following evening with a crowd of thespians, and had the riotous good time you might expect. These are folks who have to act, but who’ll never try to make it on the Great White Way. Smalltown (or minicity) actors, who are CW DJs, or local reporters, or whatever pays the bills in their other lives, but who are transformed under the lights, and who transform us. Good show.

But the best show of Humbolt County was waiting for us just up the coast. David had choreographed his tour de Humbolt. From Jimmy Dunn’s and the phantasmagoric naive yardart of Gabriel Romano, now behind glass in downtown Eureka, to the mills and ambiance of Manila, through the hippidom of Arcata, to the grandeur of the northern coast. We ambled along in his van, drifting through stopsigns, halting in midpavement for a vista, or an anecdote, running up over the curbing, where there was any. David drives as he is, large and shambling, and declaims nonstop. All you can do is sit back and enjoy.

He took us along the old coast stagecoach route, a treacherous bit of precipicity through secondgrowth redwoods, looking down onto foamgirt seastacks and hazy sands, to the smallest city in CA, Trinity. Whose other superlative claim is being the oldest continuously settled site in North America, its local tribe having been perched there since 5 or 600 AD. Ah, local pride. Now it has the requisite native casino, fish pier, and seafood house.

We were all toting binoculars, as David is an avid birder, and most of our sudden halts were to check out avian visitations. I can’t recite all the feathers he identified for us, but it changes the landscape when you are sorting it for flutters and flits. Pelicans, and bald eagles, big ravens, California quail, rufus this and tufted that, curlews, and redtails, it’s easy to share in someone’s eager enthusiasm. The psychic imbalance between our 500 pound friend and these light-than-air actors makes our hearts lift off, too.

But birds weren’t the only show. First it was down to a small cove to see sea-lions cavorting on a ledge. Then it was out to Patrick’s Point to spot for whales.. we saw three gray whales spouting along, on their way south. Even at 300 yards it buoys you up to watch the big fish blow and roll. (At the point there was also a reconstructed Indian village. Hunched, half-submerged buildings of redwood planks and posts tied together with roots. Very much part of the landscape, with fourfoot circular entrances you had to crawl through, and slatted roofs for light and smoke.) After whales it was elk, and we admired two herds of Roosevelt elk (protected since near-extinction in the 20’s) browsing in meadows by the highway. But the elk weren’t the crowning touch.

We had been driving through newgrowth redwoods, with an occasional monster tree spiking out of the canopy, or standing swollen in the rainforest gloom. Now we went up into the great groves. Climbing 1000 feet from the shore we were lifted into the Ladybird Johnson Memorial Grove, where Peggy and I took the ultimate walk in the woods. The majestic stillness and overpowering solemnity of this oldgrowth forest leaves you utterly silent. All the human noise drains away. Peggy actually burst into tears touching a venerable leviathan. Vegetables 250-300 feet tall, their shattered tops disappearing into the sky behind their dainty foliage, which only spreads out an hundred or more feet above the undergrowth. The only other visitor to this grand cathedral was a large raven who laughed at us mere mortals, so far below. We came down to earth chastened and speechless. For a spell.

Tree Hugger

(Memo #3)

Karok Basket
(James Toms Picture)
Oct. 27 - Yurok, Karok, Hupa

Who? First People of northern California

What? reconstructed village and museum displays

Where? both coastal and inland settlements

When? thousands of years ago to today

How? adapted to variety of environments

Topics: First nations/Native Americans of California, adaptations/relations between Anglos and First Peoples in California.

Questions: Why do our popular images of First People/Native Americans exclude the people of California?

Yurok, Karok, Hupa, Miwok, Chumash, Yana, Maidu, Achumawi. These are some of the 500 different groups of First People that existed in California before white contact. They are much less known than the Plains or Eastern Woodlands cultures who have been portrayed often in Hollywood melodramas. The California Indians did not raise corn or hunt buffalo. Coastal groups in California relied on marine mammals and shellfish, inland groups depended greatly on acorns and - perhaps - pine nuts. I have wanted to know more about the California groups since I heard of them from a college Archaeology professor.

We have no romantic images of Indians grinding nuts for acorn soup. Longfellow didn’t utilize Miwok mythology. No major oil painters seem to have depicted the First Peoples of California, although Edward Curtis made wonderful photographs of the California peoples at the turn of the century. Ishi was perhaps the most wellknown California native. The last of his people, Ishi spent his later life at the anthropology museum at Berkeley, early in the century. The First Peoples of California were contacted early by Spanish and Russian ships. Potatoes gotten through contact were grown quite early by some groups. Some south California First People were collected into Catholic missions. Americans streamed into California during the Gold Rush. After this, there seem to have been numerous violent actions by Americans against the native peoples. In the massacre at Indian Island off Eureka, Americans attacked a group that had gathered for a religious dance.

Yurok House

In northwestern California, we encountered the First Peoples in a number of ways: we drove through the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and the Sumej township, we visited the Clarke Museum in Eureka, and walked through a reconstructed Yurok village. The first two visits gave us glimpses of First Peoples of California today, who drive pickups and live in ranch houses and bungalows, wear Nikes and jeans or suits and ties. We saw no pre-European housing or traditional costumes in use on the reservations or in towns. There was little visible to indicate that the residents were First Peoples.

Entrance to Sweat Lodge
Our reporter friend said California peoples are less known because they had far less spectacular material culture than First Peoples elsewhere, and worked in wood, shell, hides and plant fibers. The craft that makes them famous to Anthropologists is basketry. The Clarke Museum of Eureka boasts that it has “the biggest basketry collection in the world” filling cases and cases. Baskets were used by the California First Peoples for fishing, trapping, storing, carrying, ornamenting, cooking. The people wore small basketry caps, carried their babies in basketry cradles, used basketry eel traps, and cooked in baskets (by dropping hot rocks into mush). The baskets come in all shapes and sizes.They are all twined, in simple colors, with designs that have names like shark’s tooth, friendship, and whirlwind patterns. The women worked with a variety of plants - hazelwood and willow, alder and grape, spruce and pine.

The museum had other items - a redwood canoe, stone tools, shell jewelry (long chains of dentalia). There were photographs of the flower dance (a female puberty rite), the white deerskin dance, the jump dance, the world renewal ceremony. Some of these are apparently still practiced. A mannequin showed the Pre-Columbian female dress complete with chin tattoos. Still, the museum gave a very incomplete picture. The culture was reduced to a series of objects cases which just didn’t give me the sense of a living culture. We’ve seen other museums that did.

We came closer to the reality when we visited a reconstructed (pre-European) Yurok village in the Patrick’s Point National Park. The setting was wonderful, fields and woods overlooking the ocean. There were three traditional houses and a sweat lodge. Yurok houses like those of the coast farther north were made of planks. Visually they are unlike First People habitations to the east. They are low square houses (perhaps 20 feet across), semi-subterranean, reached by a low round doorway. The floor has several levels, a large central square pit area with fire in the middle, then a higher level around the sides.The roof has a center hole to let out smoke and a roofing system that let air out under the eaves as well. The planks are held to great posts with fiber ropes. The floor was partly stone as well as tamped earth and wood. The sweatlodge was smaller and lower with stone and wood walls. The three houses were perhaps thirty feet apart and a quarter of a mile from the cliff. There were no objects in the houses or sweat lodge. It was like an empty stage.

I still don’t have a good sense of the culture of the First Peoples of California, just an odd jumble of objects and foodstuffs and rituals and house shapes. Acorns and clams and dentalia. The representation of California peoples we have seen so far seems to be what anthropologists scathingly call a “butterfly collection”, the old system of categorizing, arranging and labeling bits of material culture (or animal species) in a lifeless way in glass cases (baskets with baskets, monarch with monarchs ). The more recent approach of museums is to focus on the people who use the object s and show things in context. We’ll see other sites and museums associated with the California First Peoples. I hope we’ll get a sense of functioning societies.

Inside Yurok House
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