Saturday, April 18, 2009

Where Light Takes Its Color From The Sea: In Memory of James D. Houston

I was surprised and saddened to discover this morning that James D. Houston died on Thursday. Of the people who are familiar with Houston and his work most know the book Farewell to Manzanar, which he co-wrote with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston about her childhood experiences in a Japanese American internment camp during WWII. I first read Houston eight years ago, and while it's not unusual for me to forever associate a beloved text with the time and place in which I first read it, the memory of Houston's book In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey invokes my early adult life in California like few others.
In 2001 I read In the Ring of Fire while stretched out in a hot tub in Carmel Valley, at a vacation place where I had gone each summer with my family and a group of family friends since I was a child. Carmel Valley is like many other valleys in coastal California--dry and hot and covered in golden scrub and valley oaks. The coastal range rising on either side holds back the fog, which sits complacently at the Valley's mouth where the Pacific meets Carmel and Big Sur. The place where we used to stay is ten miles inland from the coast, but occasionally on summer mornings we would wake up to find the fog still settled among the cottages. By noon we would all be swimming or stretched out on the grass reading.

From the hot tub I could see the Santa Lucia mountains, which form the Valley's southern border and which conceal one of Houston's favorite places, the San Francisco Zen Center's Tassajara Monastery. It was only fitting, then, that I read In the Ring of Fire with that view in sight, and that this took place in the Summer of 2001, when California was very much on my mind. I had run the Big Sur Marathon a few months before, on a cold sunny day when children in the Carmel Highlands handed out strawberries to the runners, and after finishing and eating and laying down in the bone-chilling surf I napped on the white sands of Carmel's beach, my favorite beach. I had missed the U.S.S. Missouri ceremony for my family in Honolulu for this marathon, and so Hawai'i and the rest of the Pacific rim were very much on my mind as well. And I had just finished a seminar with Maxine Hong Kingston, so that the lens through which I normally saw California now refracted Oahu and Hanoi, Tahoe and Okinawa, Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal. I was about to buy my first road bike, and, in a few months, to move to England. I couldn't help but wonder if I should be going West instead of East.

But I went East. And while here, thousands of miles from my part of the Pacific, I read Houston's Where Light Takes Its Color From The Sea, which put into words the sensibility I've spent years trying to explain to people unfamiliar with California, that the light is the first thing we miss in other places because it highlights the absence of everything else--the coastal mountains, the bracingly cold water, the morning fog.

Houston was born and raised in San Francisco, and lived in the same neighborhood where I went to high school, ten blocks from Ocean Beach. As a child he would have seen Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands to the north and the Farallon Islands to the west, and when he went to college in Santa Clara County, not far from my own university, he would have seen the Bay stretching up towards Berkeley and Treasure Island, and the Santa Cruz mountains blocking the Pacific from view. It was after he moved over those mountains to a home rich in California history--it belonged to a descendant of the Donner Party--and within sight of Monterey Bay that he wrote the books that I found in my hands years later. These are the books with Tom Killion woodcuts on their covers and echoes of Stegner, Steinbeck, and Hong Kingston in their pages; the books that still make me wonder if I should be going West instead of staying East.

It seems inevitable that I self-identify with Houston because his stomping grounds are my own, but he explains these stomping grounds in words better than mine, so I've included them here, as follows:

"We traveled north and south of San Francisco, as I have continued to do throughout my life, exploring this region I call my natural habitat. And by habitat, I do not mean California. Not all of it, from border to border, from Berkeley to Tahoe. As a subject, or as a vast network of interlocking subjects, California can give you a lifetime of things to think about, and write about, and wrestle with and brood about. But as somewhere to call home, it's just too big. There is too much to grasp. Our nervous systems are not designed to identify with something as large and diverse and contradictory as the State of California. Its population is greater than Canada's. In square miles it's larger than Japan. Along the eastern seaboard it would encompass everything from Boston to Cape Hatteras. It would include the Adirondacks and parts of Appalachia".

In September I'm finally going to Tassajara.


  1. i believe you read Farewell to Manzanar in ELEMENTARY school. way more than eight years ago.

  2. That was Larkin--I didn't read Farwell to Manzanar until recently; In the RIng of Fire was the first Houston book I read.