Thursday, June 21, 2012
Robinson Jeffers died in 1962. But he lives in Carmel, by way of words, life and spirit resurrected every Friday and Saturday during docent-led tours of his Tor House and Hawk Tower.
When Jeffers and his wife Una first moved to Carmel in 1914 and chose the site that would become their home, it was a barren landscape dominated by windswept shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, punctured by rock outcroppings called, in Celtic terms, “tors.” Today the Jeffers home compound feels like a pocket of magic.
Modeled after a British Tudor barn and built in 1920, it’s comprised of two cottages: a Celtic tower built for Una and a courtyard, all composed of imposing hunks of boulders and rocks lifted into place by Jeffers’ own arms.
Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts – a poet, former Monterey Peninsula College writing professor and the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation’s first vice president – is a faithful guide to the poet. He and 23 volunteer docents take turns conducting tours that immerse people in Jeffers’ life, lore and, in site-specific recitations, poetry. Streams of people come to experience it, including luminaries like 2001-03 U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, National Book Award winner Robert Bly and NEA and Guggenheim fellow Dorianne Lux. Singer Patti Smith just wanted to take pictures.
“[Jeffers is] so powerful as a writer,” Ruchowitz-Roberts says, “you can almost touch his words.”
The tour winds through the cottages and the tower following a nearly linear narrative of Jeffers’ life and works. In the office space in the first cottage, copious black-and-white photographs on the wall compile a big-picture profile. The tour then moves through a drawing room that connects the two cottages, a converted kitchen that ends in a gothic reading nook, a library and music room with original furniture and books from the couple’s library, and the iconic four-story Hawk Tower, with its medieval-but-cozy atmosphere.
Along the way, there is a museum’s worth of hallowed artifacts, paintings, inscriptions, architectural feats and vistas. In the guest bedroom, a death bed in which Jeffers meant to – and did – die. In the tower, a porthole from Napoleon’s ship The Inconstant, which sank in Monterey Bay in 1832, and Jeffers’ worn-smooth writing chair.
Embedded in and adorning the rock walls are pieces of literary and anthropological treasures: the tusk of a narwhale; jade from Big Sur’s Jade Cove; stone from Yeats’ Norman tower, Thoor Ballylee; a round stone from the beach below Tintagel, the supposed castle of King Arthur.
Ruchowitz-Roberts stands next to an evocative painting of a little girl and intones Jeffer’s poem, “Granddaughter”:
“And here’s a portrait of my granddaughter Una/ when she was two years old… She stands in a glade of trees with a still inlet/ Of blue ocean behind her… Now she is five years old/ And found herself; she does not ask any more but commands,/ Sweet and fierce-tempered; that light-red hair of hers/ Is the fuse for explosions… When she is 18/ I’ll not be here… I hope she will find/ Powerful protection and a man like a hawk to cover her.”
As paeans to their respective authors, the National Steinbeck Center and the Henry Miller Library reach wide and far to host events sometimes thematically or even tangentially related to their authors. The nonprofit Tor House Foundation remains stubbornly and jealously affixed to all things Jeffers.
He’s published in many different languages, most faithfully in the Czech Republic, where his poems about humanity’s relationship to nature were seen as a call to freedom by readers under a Communist government too obtuse to detect it. Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw is researching Jeffers’ influence on Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell, who all read the poet at about the same time. Among Deep Ecology adherents like Joanna Macy and John Seed, Jeffers is a beacon. Last month’s three-day 18th Annual Robinson Jeffers Association Conference at Asilomar included an astronomer, Jungian psychologist and ecologists, academics and scholars like Guggenheim fellow Robert Zaller from Drexel University and Geneva Gano of Antioch College.
“He’s always been read and admired by American poets,” Ruchowitz-Roberts says. “Academia [ignores him], but most people will come to Jeffers on their own.” As they carry his words and sense of place with them, they’ll also contribute to his ongoing life.
Docent-led tours of Tor House and Hawk Tower happen hourly 10am-3pm every Friday and Saturday, for six people at a time. $10/adult, $5/student 12 and older. 624-1813 for reservations, www.torhouse.org for info.