Biologist, historian and author Jeff Norman lives on a strikingly beautiful 20-acre plot of land in Big Sur, halfway up the steep coastal mountains that climb from Highway 1 to Coast Ridge Road. On his spread, a steep three-mile hike from Highway 1, Norman has a large barn, a variety of fruit trees—including one that produces mandarin oranges and another currently bearing a single grapefruit—and a narrow, cave-like root cellar burrowed into a hillside where he can store goods like cheese, eggs and tortillas for up to two weeks.
His 700-square foot cabin, approximately the size of a motel room, has running water piped in from a spring a mile away, a wood stove and a shelf of large glass jars containing dried chanterelles, flour and honey. Even though Norman has a candle chandelier and some kerosene lamps, he also has solar panels that generate electricity for powering his computer, printer and radio.
Basically, Norman’s cabin and the surrounding land would be the perfect spot to write a book about Big Sur’s pioneering families. This is exactly what Norman has done with the release of Big Sur, a 128-page book chock full of rare photos of the region’s pioneers, shots of the old South Coast gold mining town of Manchester, and images detailing the construction of Highway 1.
Accompanying each photograph are paragraph-long captions written by Norman that sparkle with tidbits of interesting information. One example is a paragraph by a picture of a family picnic in 1915 where all the individuals photographed are raising or drinking from bottles or mugs. Norman’s caption reveals that the family’s actions are simply a play on the group’s surname, which is Drinkwater.
In his cabin’s library/kitchen/recreation room, Norman tells me how his book, which is being released by Arcadia Publishing, came into being. The energetic author says he was approached by Carol O’ Neill, a member of the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers, who had recently written a book for Arcadia about the Point Sur Lightstation, during September of 2003. Norman says O’Neill told him he should propose a book on Big Sur to the publishing company.
In a windfall for both parties, Norman and Arcadia realized that the amount of interesting information about the region actually warranted two books. After just completing Big Sur, which mostly chronicles the area during the time of the construction of Highway 1, Norman has started working on a second book, tentatively titled Bohemians of Big Sur and due out next fall.
While historical accounts of Big Sur had been written before, Norman wanted to do something different with the publication of Big Sur. For one, he wanted to focus on the entire Big Sur region from Carmel Highlands to San Carpoforo Creek. Also, he wanted to include some important pioneer families that had been neglected in other works.
“I thought, this is a chance to get the right story out,” he says.
For Norman, who has been interested in Big Sur’s history since childhood, writing the book came pretty easily. After growing up in Pacific Grove and pursuing an independent study program at UCSC titled Nonviolence For Social Change, Norman moved to Big Sur.
Though he makes his living as a consulting biologist for developers, Norman has been actively gathering information about Big Sur’s history for years. He has interviewed many Big Sur old-timers on tape; he gathered information for a revision of John Woolfenden’s book Big Sur: A Battle for Wilderness 1869-1985 that was never published; and he has edited the Big Sur Historical Society’s newsletter for about 10 years.
“All that information was just waiting to be published,” he says.
Since the book is filled with characters—from Eve Miller Ross, a former champion swimmer and a stunning beauty who married Henry Miller, to Dr. Linus C. Pauling, the Nobel Prize winning chemist who lived on a ranch by Salmon Creek—I had to ask Norman what Big Sur pioneer he found the most interesting. He turns to page 52, where there is a portrait of a rather wild-looking man with an uncanny resemblance to Mark Twain sitting down for a portrait, outdoors, in a wooden chair. Then, Norman explains why the man, Alfred K. Clark, stands out in the sea of interesting individuals who have called Big Sur home.
“He was considered to be a little on the eccentric side,” Norman says. “He was kind of a mystic. He thought every precious metal had a mother and a father.”
The pioneer, who was born in England, was a miner, a carpenter and a banjo picker. His theory that every precious metal had a mother and a father sustained him despite the fact that he was actually rather poor. “He just kind of bopped around and enjoyed his life,” Norman says.
When asked about his favorite photograph in the book, Norman quickly points to the cover, which is a black and white photograph of Cole Weston’s, titled “Cabin, Redwoods and Pacific.” The photograph depicts a small cabin in front of a stand of redwoods. It is a scene that makes the viewer want to shake the shackles of society and escape for a more contemplative, natural existence.
“It sort of shows the nexus of the wilderness and the human part of Big Sur,” Norman says. “For me, that’s what living in Big Sur is all about.”
Jeff Norman will be signing copies of his book at Costco, located at 801 Tioga Rd. in Sand City, Saturday, October 30 at noon. 899-4173.