Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Family story

Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain

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Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.

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Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this fiery DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their supple,  burgundy-red branches wave away from the main bole of the plant to make branch formations that, because of their color, could easily be understood as flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches become rough and as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.

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Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Chronicles of Ubo: Diddie’s garden

Here is a quick early morning dream I had under the influence of the waning moon: My grandmother Diddie (that’s Virginia Culpeper Wellendorf Creely to the rest of you) was a major influence in my life, a trite phrase that does nothing to capture the importance of our relationship. If I was Harry Potter shivering under the stairs, she was Hedwig. If I was Taran, swinging a sword stupidly while making brash statements about who I was and who I thought I could be, she was Dalben, looking up from her book and offering dry and precise utterances about the truth of the matter. If I was— excuse me,  when I was— lost, confused, frightened, unaware, self-hating, doubting and imperfect, she was there inside my personal ecology, which was characterized by a horrible isolation from myself that I barely survived.

She was the golden woman in the center of my darkness, stern but very human, ameliorative, authoritative and loving. Betsy dear, she would say, have you considered, are you thinking about, have you seen….Betsy dear, she would say, do you know? Usually I did not know.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990 When Diddie died in 2001 I had a dream about her, a common dream for people to have about a beloved who has died. You may know the one: they appear looking well, healthy, whole and happy. Perhaps they have a bit of a glow to them. If your mind whispers to you, this is not possible. This person is dead, you may still comprehend that they are, somehow, extant.

Diddie showed up a week after her death. She was leaning against my parent’s kitchen counter, clad in a crisply ironed white shirt dress, the type she favored (Betsy dear, she told me once, trousers do not suit women. She meant short-waisted women like she and I. And she was right. I look better in a dress.) I noted that she was carefully groomed: she was wearing Estee Lauder frosted apricot lipstick, and her blonde hair was waved. Her face was relaxed and radiant with happiness and good humor. Although I knew she was dead, I also knew that she lived, that she still was. Death is not the enemy, my dad told me.

Diddie contented herself with that one glowing appearance and then took off for parts unknown, until two nights ago when she re-appeared. In the dream, I was wandering around aimlessly in a garden bordered by mucky, swampy mud and filled in the center by two small pools. They were configured like a figure 8 laid down flat. The first pool had some water in it; the second pool had almost none at all. The water was quickly percolating out of it, causing the mud to quiver and shimmer. I didn’t like being in the mucky garden: the mud felt unclean, too organic, too busy with small insects. Putrefaction was afoot in this garden and although I felt I was there on some mission, I was— of course— completely confused about what the mission was, exactly. And then in the middle of my puzzled disgust, Diddie showed up.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

It was a dramatic appearance: she stood before me, visible against a dark background with her hands extended toward me. Do you remember the upper garden, she asked and suddenly I saw pink gladiolus, and other flowers bright and blooming and colorful: pink, orange, all illuminated by the sun and as vivid as life itself. Do you remember, she asked again, insistently. I said yes, Diddie I do. I remember! I remember the upper garden! And then I did remember, in one quick moment: there was a garden I had known once and then forgotten.

Get the bulbs, she said. You have to get the bulbs of the, and the words she used to describe the bulb of the flower were words of deep meaning with no equivalent in English or any spoken language on this earth. I repeated the unreal word in hopes of understanding more. Get the bulbs, she said again with some agitation, her hands in front of her, palms up, in the manner of an urgent plea. Get the bulbs. You have to….

It went on from there in much the same manner. She told me more, but I was engrossed in my conversation with her and didn’t remember to remember her directions. I fall into lucid dreaming very easily, but find that when I do, the mythic content of the dream becomes compromised. It’s your consciousness or the dream’s consciousness, I find. The two don’t co-exist.

The next morning I told my friend Tarin about the dream, and she asked, what did she want you to do with the bulbs? I couldn’t answer. I didn’t remember what she said; I only remembered Diddie’s entreaty: the position of her body against the dark and her hands held out that way urging me to get the bulbs and…

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

What did she want me to do with the bulbs? Plant them in the muck and mire of the Lower Garden? What happens when you take vibrant life and put it in relationship with putrefying death? Death is not the enemy, my dad told me as he choked back tears while his father — my beloved grandfather and Diddie’s husband, Bunny— was loaded into an ambulance after suffering a Transient Ischemic Attack in my parent’s backyard, one sunny Christmas day.

Death is not the enemy: these are plain English words spoken on this earth, words that have been spoken to me urgently in waking life. This sentence, this communication is also gestural and Diddie showed me what that gesture was: hands outstretched, and the urgent repetition of the name of a unknown flower. Maybe I’ll somehow discern and say the name of this flower— correctly and often— and find and plant its bulb. And then I’ll start asking this question: What is this ecology?

Written under the influence of the Waning Piscean moon.
Great for dream-work; not so great for work-work or business communications about non-existent MOU’s and contracts.
By the by, Gladiolus symbolize remembrance and are associated with August according an entirely non-scientific Google search.
 
Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

 

Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.

A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)

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Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)

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The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.

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Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.

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This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.

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I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.

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 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.

 

824 Florida Street

joepats

Sunday, after a late morning breakfast of hot cross buns and coffee at Joey & Pat’s, my husband and I slowly perambulated the Mission, doing errands in a desultory way. On Florida Street, between 20th and 21st, we encountered a scrum of people on the sidewalk.

Two men in their fifties or sixties were presenting a building plan to the neighborhood. Blueprints were on a folding table. You could take a copy. The men and the table were in front of an old, white house with a garage door right at the sidewalk. We stopped to see what was happening. Why were they sitting in front of the house with an attitude of resignation?

The “house” is, or was, a dwelling for someone, but when it was constructed (in 1908, as it turns out) it wasn’t built to house people. It was clearly a garage or a space for light industry.

Two women were looking at the plans. The table was in the shade of the building, a nice place to linger. Two children biked around the women. We walked over to the table.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re presenting these plans to the neighborhood,” replied the sitting man. He was older, maybe in his late sixties. “We’re adding a vertical element.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the plans. “Are you the owner?”

The man shifted in his chair. “We’re the designers,” he replied. “We’re going to add a couple floors.”

Sensing circumvention, I tried again. “Who owns this place?”

The heavyset man sighed and moved in his folding chair again, almost imperceptibly. Evasion hung thick in the air. Crosstalk prevented the moment from becoming too acute.

One of the women knew the building’s history. The Travertini family had made pottery there. A truck used to pull into the garage and load up, she remembered. She moved to Florida Street in 1965, when she was eight years old, and has lived here ever since. “I’m first generation,” she said. Her parents were from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was full of Italian families when her family moved to the Mission, she said. “We were the minority. Can you imagine that?”

I said immediately, as I always do when Mission history comes up, “My great-great-grandparents lived down the street!” The woman and I beamed at each other, pleased to find another ancestral Missionite.

The standing man said the building was originally a gymnasium.

Back to the question hanging in the air. “Are you the owners?” I asked again.

The sitting man sensed that I wasn’t going to let it go. “There’s a group of owners,” he said. “I’m the face of the owners.”

He wasn’t going to say who. He wasn’t going to name names. Eleven owners? Twelve? Three? We thanked the men and left.

At home I went online. The San Francisco Public Library has online city directories from 1850 to 1982. I searched the 1963 Polk’s City Directory and found Travertini & Co. Mfg., “plaster casting,” owned by Gino and Ulaldina Travertini at 824 Florida Street. No pictures emerged on Google of Mr. and Mrs. Travertini. The only picture of them with their plaster and lathe and delivery trucks is a memory held in the mind of the woman who moved to the Mission in 1965, the year I was born.

My husband went back to get a blueprint at 2 p.m., perhaps thirty minutes after we’d seen them, but the men were gone. Nothing was posted on the building or the telephone pole in front of the building. Apparently, the men had given notice to the neighborhood.

The men were nice, and spoke to us in a civil fashion about the change in the neighborhood, the alteration of the Travertini place. But a description posted last year on Zillow seemed offhandedly callous. It described the structure as a “Great one open space with bathroom, kitchen, lots light and huge backyard. . . . We will tear down place in 22 months.”

It’s bewildering, this speculative wilding in the Mission, where prices are so high that groups of investors need to pool their money to purchase property, where the blueprints detailing changes to the neighborhood are grudgingly unveiled for a few minutes on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons and then folded up and secreted away so that neighborhood re-visioning can start, and where the perfect moments of the Mission stay preserved in memory.

824-Florida-Street-620x429

This article originally appeared in on March 10, 2015 as a feature in Mission Local, San Francisco’s finest local newspaper. Many thanks to Lydia Chavez.

Diddie’s house

From a 2001 entry in my dream journal: “Diddie died last October. On the weekend that she died, Emily and I were at Orr Hot Springs. We drove back Saturday morning to meet our sister Anne at my house on Alvarado Street. Our poor sister had to tell us that our grandmother was dead. 

I dreamt about Diddie’s house two nights ago. She was my Grandmother. Her real name was not Diddie. The dream was produced under the influence of a few things: a late night conversation with my sister who was describing her house to me –“It reminds me of Diddie’s,” she said excitedly- and also the vivid dreams I often have after not sleeping well. (The dream was not a happy return to a beloved place: there was strange man warning me that I might well have to leave California.)

The house was hard to describe even in the first few minutes of waking consciousness. It was inchoate; mesmerizing.

Diddie’s house is a recurrent theme in my dreams. It’s usually a different shape or in a strange location. Secret rooms appear, which I never knew existed. These rooms give me hope that the house is has grown, is living. I explore them curiously, tenderly. There’s the backyard, always. The interior of the house- the painting, the large medallion of Shakespeare, the picture of the geraniums, the small watercolor of Charity Farms, the farm in Hogsthorpe, England where her Grandfather grew up- these do not appear.

Bunny's desk with painting of Charity Farms

Bunny’s desk with painting of Charity Farms

The missing objects prevent this dream from becoming my own personal version of the children’s book, Goodnight Moon. These items, which catch and snag my memory, are still around. Two of the paintings hang in my house. They are not lost. But the house is. I watched it go: watched the insides get taken out and disposed of (a terrible process that provoked an scary and unprecedented fight between my beloved Aunt and myself. And my poor Father.)

Dream journal entry from June 2001: “Last night I walked into Diddie’s bedroom. To the left hand side of the door was a hole with a rickety staircase descending down. I stared into the hole, wondering what was down there. It wasn’t dank, dark or scary. It was, instead, illuminated with the light of the mid-afternoon sun. I began to weep, hugely, almost athletically, pulling energy up from my diaphragm and shoving it out the front of my face. I pounded the ground, I hugged my knees and crouched and howled and when there were no more tears, I still tried to cry…”

Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918

Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918

The house was too valuable to keep. It was located in Newport Heights in Newport Beach, a sleepy seaside town when my grandparents arrived there in the early forties. Diddie’s house was on Aliso Street, just east of a bluff that overlooked Pacific Coast Highway. When the weather was clear, you could walk down the street and look at Catalina, crisp and clear, and smoky blue in the distance. Developers, looking to monetize the perspective of bluff-ocean-island, built huge homes on the edge of the cliff and privatized the view.

The city of Newport Beach grew and asserted itself. Ranch-style homes and pseudo-Eichlers started to appear alongside the square little bungalows. Still bigger homes were built. Skyscrapers appeared to the south. Fashion Island, the modernist outdoor mall, was built.

The house, screened by a pepper tree and a hedge of toxic and fragrant white oleander, didn’t call attention to itself. None of the houses on Aliso Street did at that time. They were smaller, low-slung, relaxed. It was Newport Beach. The outdoors was the attention-grabber. The sun set, it seemed, just forty miles away over the long spine of the submerged mountain range that is the Channel Islands. The winds blew calmly over that small white house with the redwood rafters.

From the dream journal: “I dreamt that Diddie’s house, with the knowledge and connivance of Diddie…had been blasted to make way for a new structure. ..somebody had cut down the ancient pepper tree in the front yard. That is what sent me over the edge. The tree had been ripped asunder, torn apart. It was a horrible dream… I screamed at Diddie…”

The house was torn down. I knew it would happen. My father and I made a last tour of the house, shortly before it went up for sale. I took pictures of the house and the grounds it sat on. I took pictures of the glassware that still sat on her dining room table, the way the light hit it.

I ran water in the sink and remembered a time when I was an eight, washing dishes next to Diddie. The water flowed over my hands and the sunlight that came in through the window above the sink illuminated it.

“Look at this!” I said to Diddie. I  meant: look at this incredible element in your house. Look at the liquid light running over my hands.

Diddie nodded and said, yes. I see. She saw the light, too.

Diddie's house is full of light.

The table in the dining room

Here is a summary of a dream that all the other dreams made, the logical end point to the ripped-out pepper tree and the wailing and the snarling rage of my dream-soul: My brother Jim and I stand looking at Diddie’s house, which is pale green. It stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There is a narrow path that borders the sheer drop – one misstep, and you’re over the edge, falling to your death. The house is very old and loved and beautiful. I am aware of a stained glass window- old and English in an ecclesiastical way.

The house is condemned. It is going to be destroyed. Jim and I walk around the house looking at the decay: it is slick with moisture. Green vegetation shoots out the windows, slowly covering the wooden boards. The house is being reclaimed not by mechanical forces, but through natural means: it is slowly re-enfolded in verdant green vegetation. I start to cry as the ground crumbles under our feet and the house begins to fall.

And then Jim and I push the house and help it fall, down into the ocean, which is bright blue and sparkling.

****

It seems that the death of Diddie and the destruction of the house hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of someone still living in it.

I think I go there more often than I know.

Have the people who live in the new, modern house heard the quiet sound of a door being closed? Muffled conversations in a living room that isn’t there? Do they hear the sound of running feet? Are the secret rooms in Diddie’s house passageways into the new house?

Have the current occupants seen a elderly woman with blonde bobbed hair who walks briskly from room to room? Do they sense my presence? Hers?

The house that used to be there?

Virginia C. Creely  in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990