24. The Story of the Ark

Ramblin Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie in Washington Square, 1954

We sometimes arrive at self-definitions that really don’t mean that much.  I say I’m a writer, and I do write, every day, but just writing doesn’t fulfill all the requirements of the definition.  I also clean our pool, work in our garden, clean our house, cook our dinners, do work for non-profits, and have lots of ideas. But I would never call myself a pool boy, gardener, house cleaner, chef, community organizer, or thinker.  It leaves me kind of stuck.

In Jack’s case, when pushed into uncomfortable territory (asking to be interviewed, setting up his iCloud service), or when he just wants to say “bug off”, he’ll say, I don’t care about that.  I care about Trucks.  And I care about Boats.  That’s what I care about.

That, of course, is not his only self-definition but it’s one he’ll tactically rely on.  It shuts down the high fallutin people because they mostly don’t care too much about trucks.  And it’ll shut down all the others, because few people can talk boats the way that Jack can talk boats.

Today Jack boards a plane for a five week string of gigs on the east coast.  He’ll be playing in the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center with Jackson Browne, the Dropkick Murphys, Ry Cooder, Rob Wasserman, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams and a crowd of other people the Grammy Museum was able to round up in honor of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth.

What’s Jack doing there?

No matter how you cut it, the true answer can be kind of complicated.  Like the Boat, Jack absorbs near everything that he comes into contact with.  His photographic memory allows him to take in and then carry all manner of information near indefinitely:  boat lengths, dates, events, conversations, engine sizes, distances, you name it.  It also includes not just a body of music, but a manner of playing it.  And in this case, the manner of one particular person.

To talk about Woody Guthrie and Jack would be to layer myth upon myth upon myth.  I don’t want to muddy things.  But here’s one more layer of varnish.

Woody’s fate was spelled from the moment of his conception, sometime in October of 1911.  In a moment of passion his maternal and paternal DNA split and recombined, and the fetal being that we now know as Woody Guthrie, inherited a mutation of his IT15 gene that governs the Huntingtin protein.  Without his knowing, before even the moment of his birth, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was fated to die from Huntington’s chorea.

In the intervening years, though, between conception and death, something very important happened.  The vessel called Woody Guthrie, while plying the American waters, essentially fashioned and helped save a body of American folk culture.  He played with Lead Belly and chronicled the plight of Dust Bowl refugees.   He wrote protest songs and songs glamorizing the WPA and Columbia River projects.  He captured songs and materials from his travels and recorded them with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

By the time Woody had moved to Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, he had penned ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘Roll on Columbia’.  In New York he began to experience erratic mood swings.  Within a few years he would begin his descent into dementia.

It was at about this time that a young Jewish kid from Connecticut showed up and moved in with the Guthrie family.  The boy wanted to learn folk music and he decided to learn the music and playing style that Guthrie carried within him.  I wouldn’t hazard to guess yet what those years in Brooklyn were like or how they even came to be.  But I can imagine the feeling of a photographic mind coming into contact with Guthrie’s deep well of experience and intelligence.

The waters were rising and the situation required an Ark.  And that Ark came in the form of Ramblin Jack Elliott.

21. The Fable of the Cat Killer

For those who lived it, California in the 70’s and 80’s was time run wild. It was the years of water bed shops in OB, British Invasion rockabilly revival, Dylan being booed at the Sports Arena for going Christian on the eve of Johnny Rotten.  It was the drought ridden years when people drained their swimming pools and boarders from Venice Beach learned to skate them.  Of  PSA 182 crashing in flames in our neighborhood.

PSA 182 crashing in North Park

Most of my friends were selling weed and discovering ever better ways to rip each other off.  It seemed that if you were fourteen in those years, your parents were gone or disappeared in divorce or drinking.  And so their kids pulled their own disappearing acts into weed and meth.

The only truths told were the lies to one another.  And it was all mostly bad whether it was true or not.  You might say one day that Gerry Coon’s sister worshipped the devil. You might say that she had gathered with her friends at the pentagram laid into the stone work of the old Presidio. And that they performed satanic rituals there.  That she had stolen someone’s cat.  That she killed it that night.  But it’s not true.  None of it.  She never drank the blood.  She did not kill the cat to be real cool. Despite how the stories spread.  A song was never written.  How could it have been?  We were kids.  Not the stuff of legends.

18. The Room of Requirement: The Fifth Incarnation

A September day a year ago.

We have not even moved in, boxes still stacked, the house in chaos.

The Nichols family has come up from Davis and Sacramento and San Diego to help us inaugurate the place.

It’s our new home, but it’s not yet our home.  It will be a while yet before it becomes that.  What up with the chicken barn, Evan Nichols asks.

We open the french doors and step inside.  The group oohs and aahs – the unclad raw wood interior has that kind of impact.  Evan’s wife Amy announces that it would make an incredible yoga studio.  Evan considers this.  I see writing workshops, he says.  Mazie can see only the ping pong table. My friends and I are going to hang out here, she says.  I declare that I’d rather it be a beer making room.  Or perhaps cheese once we get the sheep going.  No way, says Anna.  It’s going to be my pottery studio.

Evan ponders all this.  It’s everything that anybody needs it to be.  It’s the Room of Requirement, he says.

The Room of Requirement

15. The Sailor Washes up on Shore

When the neural pathways are shaken or shattered, it can go either way.

In the case of Howie Usher, he was laid up in a hospital for a better part of too long.  And then rehab in some place in Phoenix. This is where you learn to inch your arm into a sweatshirt and shuffle with a one legged walk.  You regain your manual dexterity by counting pennies.  And you kindle whatever is in you to fend off the darkness.

Which all is what Howie has done. He’s making it, for sure, whether he feels it or not.  He’s home.  He’s walking.  Last month his confederates took him down the placid part of the Colorado from the dam to Lee’s Ferry.  And inside, that thing that can only be described as Howie Usher, is supposedly alive, and wry and strong and well.

Which is all to say, heck to the naysayers.  Leave it to a higher power to judge whether a boat or a boatman is ever done and gone.

14. Surfacing

Coming to after a long summer.  And lots of ground to cover between installment #13 and #212.  So I’m holed up for the moment at the office, essentially a bar in Bolinas.

The summer: Howie had a stroke.  My daughter studied hard for her geometry test.  She wrote new songs.  And went to LA and camp.  We made an offer on a piece of land.  And finally fixed our salt chlorinator.  And started a new set of stories.  Built some garden beds.  Bought an apple press.  Pressed 30 gallons of cider.  Endured a fatal computer crash and resuscitated tens of thousands fo files.  My brother moved in with us.  And a bunch of others.  Went to a college reunion and Asheville.  Woody Guthrie celebrated his 100th birthday.  And Jack went on the road enough time to lose count.  Resolve quickened and failed and renewed itself again.  And slumbering and rising and slumbering again through it all was the boat.

Time to pick up where I left off.  Which was with an incarnation.  And a sailor.  Belly up.  And bear with.

212. The Last Day

Jack is still a bit reluctant.  Never known a boat builder to plan a launch date before the boat was actually finished, he said.  So we recast it as a christening. Today Brett Baer turns thirty.  Tomorrow he sets off toward South America.  And this boat has become his own personal right of passage.

It’s a year ago, nearly to the day since Anna arrived here and the day Poe died.  Back then the plants were dying because we didn’t know we had an irrigation system.  The pool was green.  The house stacked to the ceiling with boxes.  Yesterday?  I put in a wild flower / lavender garden in the front island.  Spread mulch in the newly reconfigured vegetable area.  Wrangled missing chickens.  Picked a basket of raspberries.  Brett layered in gunwale gray paint in the belly of the boat.  And I made a celebratory abalone dinner with three kinds of pasta in the colors of the Peruvian flag.  It was absolutely, one hundred percent, the shittiest meal I have ever made.  Completely inedible.  A great day all in all.  And so it goes.

7. The story of the third forest

Yerba Buena Harbor, 1853

Patience yet.  In due time we’ll get to the Boat.  We still need to finish with the forests.

The story of the third forest

Once upon a time, through a series of ecosystem successions, great hardwood forests emerged on the eastern seaboard. The first Europeans to experience the woods were astonished at the almost park-like feel – the result of centuries of thinning and burning of the understory by the native inhabitants who each spring would clear the woods to make it easier to track and follow game. The Europeans experienced grassy glades shaded by maples and conifers, their trunks an easy ten feet in diameter.

We all know what happened, of course. Within a couple hundred years all of New England was timbered out – by the 1800’s 98% of Vermont had been deforested and the land turned over to sheep and dairy. A chunk of that wood made its way down to the McKay Shipyards in Boston and Kennard & Williamson in Baltimore where it was refashioned into clipper ships, vessels so strongly masted and engineered that they could cut around Cape Horn with record speed.

These were the ships that carried the miners to San Francisco after 1849.  When they set port in San Francisco Bay, their crews jumped ship by the droves and headed up into the mountains to work the gold fields. With no one left to sail the ships back, and the investors and owners left holding the bag, that forest of masted clippers and schooners floated idly amouldering in Yerba Buena Harbor, a nation of hardwood that was gradually dismembered and refashioned into the parlor houses, cribs, gin joints, and Victorian filagreed domiciles that graced the city.

That was until 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, when the ground shook so fiercely that the city of San Francisco collapsed and the gas lines burst into flames.  Within days the Great Fire had consumed over 25,000 buildings.

In a strange arc, those wonderful ancient forests tended by the Algonquin and Abenaki, and tendered by hundreds of years Atlantic nor’easters, as well as vast stands rounding Seattle rooted in tons of salmon flesh, came to be consumed in a holocaust at the gateway to San Francisco Bay.

But not all of the wood burned.

Regardless of what forest or what ocean she came from, some of that wood fashioned of steelhead and moutain fiber made it’s way to a spot of land newly parceled out from the Blucher Rancheria in newly incorporated town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County.  The boards were stacked on the open meadow on the knoll at the crest of our ridge.

One morning in 1901 or 1902 a few sawyers and carpenters arrived and, through their hands, the Room of Requirement wrought as ocean, and then as wood, in all cases ferrying whatever was into Safe Harbor, entered it’s Third Incarnation.