Walt Whitman Sings the Song of the Redwoods

Whitman in 1875 by Thomas Dewing [Public domain]

Though Whitman may never have “[Faced] west, from California’s shores,” as he trumpeted in one California poem, his opening stanzas resounded with authenticity. I expected the rest of the poem to be a testament to the grace and beauty of the redwood-covered hills and a condemnation of the jack-screw men intent on plundering ancient natural resources. Then I reached the line which read, “not of the past only, but of the future.” Uh-oh. Continue Reading →

Book Review: A New Ina Coolbrith Biography

Ina Coolbrith Cover

Aleta George spent ten years pouring over newspaper and journal clippings, diaries, literary works, and even Coolbrith’s scrapbook to unearth the quotes, observations and insights that provide an intimate look into the relationships and events that shaped this remarkable woman, one who actively tried to avoid such exposure. It is George’s enthusiasm and affection for Ina Coolbrith and California that gives this biography its vitality and crystal clear resonance. Continue Reading →

Nathaniel Smith: Black Pioneer of the Mendocino Coast

Trader Cabin

Even by the mid-1850s, trouble was brewing for people of color in California. There were frequent skirmishes between settlers and the local Pomo communities. Chivalry Democrats, who were pro-slavery Southern sympathizers, passed California’s own version of the Fugitive Slave Act and, by 1870, would take aim at the large Chinese population with the Chinese Exclusion Act. White workers were up in arms that jobs were allegedly going to the people of color who would work harder, longer, and for lower wages. Given that social and political backdrop, it is remarkable that Nathaniel Smith not only survived but seems to have thrived. Continue Reading →

Book Review: Chronicles of Old San Francisco

Chronicles of Old SF Book Cover

Cities are complicated creatures best understood by peeling back the layers of time and sifting through the accumulation of secrets, lost artifacts, and earlier incarnations that might otherwise go unnoticed. Chosen well and presented correctly, such exhumed history excites our curiosity and exposes our imaginations to the gamut of a city’s character and mystery. We become incapable of seeing it through the same eyes again because, no matter which direction we turn or where we look, the voices, the faces, and the stories instantly appear.

In the first part of Chronicles of Old San Francisco, Gael Chandler makes an ambitious attempt to squeeze 240 epic years into a modest 208 pages, and is surprisingly successful with her efforts. Continue Reading →

William Walker: American President of Nicaragua

Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person that would emerge as one of the era’s most ambitious filibusters was a young man from Nashville, Tennessee by the name of William Walker. Early in life, Walker demonstrated remarkable ambition and brilliance, earning degrees in both law and medicine by the time he was 25. A diminutive 5’2″ in stature, he relied on a robust charisma and commanding presence to develop his following and accomplish his goals. Continue Reading →

Swivel Heads and Dingbats — Early Logging on the Mendocino Coast

Woodcutter by Vincent Van Gogh (1885)

The Mendocino coast at that time was largely virgin wilderness, much of it unexplored. There were few settlers besides the local Pomos. The heavily forested bluffs and mountains were home to large numbers of elk, black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, pumas, and coyotes. As a result, loggers were often confined to their remote lumber camps for months at a time. Put a large group of men together under those circumstances and you’re likely to hear some pretty colorful language, some of it downright profane. Continue Reading →

Skid Roads Greased the Way for the California Lumber Boom

Ox Team on a Skid Road

Skid roads were the main method to get lumber to a mill on the 19th century Redwood Coast, but one that required enormous effort and cost $5000 per mile. Many of the first loggers to arrive on the coast in the early 1850s had been involved in timber businesses back east. But they had never encountered anything the size our Sequoia sempervirens before. Their crosscut saws were too small to span the redwood’s enormous girth, their method of felling it were inadequate, and, once they wrestled the giant to the ground, they were hard pressed how to transport it. Continue Reading →

Finding Grafton Tyler Brown, African American Artist

SF Lithographer Cover

My discovery of 19th century African American lithographer and painter Grafton Tyler Brown began with a search for a character for my novel-in-progress. Little did I know I would uncover such an intriguing story about an important and overlooked figure in northwestern art. Little did I know that the story would be found in a book that had yet to be released.
Continue Reading →