Friday, November 26, 2010

Bolinas, Village of the Whales

In the early Seventies,my daughter Danielle and I made our first trip to Bolinas. It was the kind of day that makes you forget that there is any suffering in human life, a day defined by brisk air, big blue sky, and all the freshness and movement of early autumn. In our pale blue Plymouth Valiant with the word POETRY painted on the driver’s side, we came over the softly rounded bosom of Mt. Tamalpais, winding down the hairpin turns of coastal Highway 1 until we reached the curved shoreline of Stinson Beach. We drove along the edge of the limpid blue water of Bolinas Lagoon, where white egrets nested in tall eucalyptus groves in a nearby canyon and flocks of pelicans circled and dove into the silky water. Past the lagoon, huge eucalyptus trees lined the road on either side as we approached the town.

Once I saw that place, I was done for. I couldn't resist its beauty. It was the fairytale town I had always longed for. Bolinas had a wonderful scent, a perfume mixed of the sea, pungent eucalyptus, wet earth, chaparral, seaweed, cows, horses, fish and roses. Its tiny downtown boasted a charming white clapboard church. There was an old-fashioned general store, a small cafe, a hardware store, a library, a seedily chic old hotel, a small post office, a bar that never seemed to empty, and a surfboard shop populated with a panoply of beautiful young guys. Bolinas was home to many poets and a mecca for artists, musicians, healers, cowboys, fishermen, craftspeople and unique wanderers. From the start, I felt very much at home there in that village of 1200 people, called by some a hippie arcadia and by others a bohemian outpost.

Bolinas in the Seventies was a heady place. I've been writing about my experiences there in Songs of the Inner Life, my current book-in progress. As part of my research, I thought it would be instructive to re-read The Town that Fought to Save Itself, a book written by Orville Schell and published in 1976. Schell became quite a prominent China scholar in the following decades. Schell's Bolinas book (in which he calls the village Briones--Bolinasians like to hide their town's identity and whereabouts--often taking the road sign down so that motorists can't find the turnoff) chronicles the town's efforts to develop and maintain a zero-growth policy, something Bolinas has succeeded in preserving all these years--an unusual and marvelous feat, to my mind. Forty years later, nothing has changed much, thanks to that zero-growth policy. There is still plenty of open space, natural beauty and wildness preserved there. Nothing can replace that. I wish more towns would do what Bolinas has done. How different Ashland, Oregon the town I've lived in for over 30 years would be now if that were true. As it is, new townhouse developments and impressively large houses continue to be built in fields and on the hills, which changes the natural environment drastically. People who move here from LA and NY think it is a quiet, laid back place, but it is far more speedy, impersonal and congested than it was 30 years ago because of growth.

I've had a fascination with whales since childhood so it was oddly coincidental that I wound up in Bolinas. I didn't have any idea that the name of the village meant whale when I moved there, but when I discovered that, it made me happy. In Bolinas, I became involved with Project Jonah, the first environmental organization dedicated to saving the whales, before Greenpeace began. The time I spent in Bolinas was filled with unusual coincidences and magic, and I've been enjoying writing down the stories.

When I opened Orville Schell's book and discovered one of my poems on a page right before the Prologue, I was taken by surprise. I had completely forgotten that my poem appeared in that book. It's strange to encounter something you wrote a long time ago and forgot about. It's a bit like looking at an old photograph or letter from many years past. Here's the poem.


Words themselves are medicine.
By telling the events of our time
we give meaning to them.
Words themselves are medicine.

It was considered a sacred place.
The mountain is considered a sacred mountain.

It is said that they lived here peacefully
naked, that they hunted quail, rabbit, deer.
By the bay, in the village that is now Bolinas
the people lived. They are
all dead now, sang songs no one remembers
nor can tell the things they danced to
when time was called moon of the black cherries
moon when the ponies shed their hair
moon when the deer shed their horns.
Olema they named, for the coyote.
Petaluma they named, that means flat hill.
Whales, then many whales
swam past the coast in the time
of water, in the time of darkening
light, swam south to mate.

The Miwok tribe lived here.
Before the Gold Rush, before the
lumbering started, when the land
was still people with giant redwoods
when trees still spoke, were revered.
Before Spanish, Portuguese, Irish or
Italians, before Chinese or Japanese
came here, the Miwok lived here,
or near here. Some say this place
was such a sacred place that no one
was bold enough to live here, but
came here only to get strong, be healed.

The wind is blowing here in Ashland tonight. I guess we're in for some weather. I enjoyed hanging out with some old friends yesterday on Thanksgiving. I appreciate my old friends even more as the years go by. I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving Day, too.

Oh, I don't want to forget this marvelous item about Super Mamika, in which a photographer grandson encourages his 91-year old grandmother to dress up as a super heroine. Great photos! You will enjoy them, I am sure.

1 comment:

  1. Gaea -- Bolinas is fortunate to have enacted the zero growth policy early on. Otherwise such a beautiful place would be full of condos and McMansions by now. And yes, with growth and good location comes the loss of human diversity. Its like turning a crazy quilt into a flannel sheet. I viewed the Super Mamika -- how clever for both to come up with this idea. Will share the site with my peers. Thanks for another great post -- batbara