“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.” Jack London 1916
On a long-shadowed October morning, Eric and I crunched our way up the fallen-leaf trail to Jack London’s grave site in Glen Ellen, California. The air smelled of dried eucalyptus from the thick forest that shaded the single-track path and made my sweater a necessity. Surprisingly, no one else was there, allowing us our own private viewing of this historic yet simple site. Once at the top, we stopped for what felt like a few minutes, staring reverently at the fenced-in boulder that lay on top of Jack’s ashes, hearing only the screech of a blue jay and the screaming silence of mortality.
What is it about graves that literally halt us in our tracks and ask us to instantly go deep, to plumb the depths of existential meaning, to truly look at death? We held each other’s hand, perhaps to grip onto life and be grateful for each other’s presence.
I imagined the funeral in 1916 in this exact spot – his wife Charmian, his sister Eliza, his ex-wife Bessie, and daughters Joan and Becky from his first marriage, all in Edwardian black surrounding this rock, contemplating, recollecting, celebrating his life. What would they have said? How would they have described this larger than life legendary nature writer? Who was the real Jack London I wondered?
I had also thought of my own mother’s e-mail that morning requesting Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” at her funeral. Between my Uncle’s passing the previous spring and her upcoming heart surgery, conversations of death were becoming more common, hovering in and out like the hummingbird that she said she would return as, a sign that she was ok.
We inadvertently started our Jack London tour backwards, beginning with his death, perhaps a fitting place to understand a person’s life. The Historic State Park sign said that Jack told his wife Charmian, “I wouldn’t mind if you laid my ashes on the knoll where the Greenlaw children are buried. And roll over me a red boulder from the ruins of the Big House.” An unpretentious rock in the middle of the silent and uncelebrated woods speaks volumes about a man who was born fatherless and knew hard work in the Oakland canneries and the Yukon Gold Country. He clearly loved the land, buying 1400 acres on the slopes of the Sonoma Mountain, complete with vineyard, horse ranch, and pig farm. A guy’s guy. Salt of the earth, rooted in the dirt with rock-hard strength and courage. His most famous book, Call of the Wild, exudes this love of terra firma. Stripped of all civilized niceties, the story reveals the primordial power of animal instinct and dogged determination. No ornamental stonework, no gilded tomb with pithy epitaph. No. Jack London wanted an ordinary rock.
Or was it more than ordinary? Eric and I hiked the half-mile to the Big House also know as Wolf House to find out more about where this rock came from. The narrow dirt path gave way to a more paved drive as we descended to a spectacular bluff overlooking the valley. I can see why Jack and Charmian picked this location for their dream home, backed by a redwood forest and opening out to an expanse of sunshine. Hundreds of huge rocks formed the foundation of Wolf House, the only thing left standing after the fire. As Eric and I walked up to the front of this massive ruin, we read the sign that described the homes inception to death. In 1911, Jack began building this twenty-six-room mansion that would have state-of-the-art plumbing and electricity, a dramatic courtyard pool, and substantial servants quarters. They would be able to host friends and have parties, a destination spot in Sonoma and an inspiration for Jack to write. But in 1913, one month before they were to move in, the house burned down. We wandered around the square foundation trying to make out which rooms would have made up the library, the kitchen, and the game room.
“Can you imagine,” Eric said “putting four years of your life and soul into a dream and then in an instant, losing it all?”
As I looked at the skeleton of the home, I realized this too was a sacred grave site, perhaps like the children Charmian and Jack were never able to have. She later wrote that the fire “killed something in Jack, and he never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss.” After the recent California fires, the stories of families losing everything in an instant echoed in my head. When the writer, Pico Iyer’s house burned down in Santa Barbara, he said that destruction can sometimes bring clarity, quoting the Japanese poet Basho:
My house burned down
Now I can better see
the rising moon.
Meandering through the maze of rubble, I wondered if Jack had a similar clarity. We are not our things, our home, our clothes. Stripping down to the very essence of ourselves can be liberating yet terrifying.
Who was Jack underneath it all? A resolute socialist, he ran for public office under a socialist ticket and championed workers’ rights, a surprising contrast to the number of servants he would have living in the bottom floor of this Wolf House. A great adventurer, he sailed the world, reaching remote islands and tribes, a contrast to the man who now wanted Wolf House to root him – “I am anchoring good and solid, and anchoring for keeps.” A philandering husband who cheated on his first wife multiple times and yet built Charmian the best view in the house, devoted to her their entire marriage. Wolf House was a view into the complicated parts of him, perhaps his personality, but what is left when the house is burned down?
I gazed at the rocks, the only thing left standing, the only material not destroyed by the fires of life. I imagined what my rocks would be standing long after I was gone, what my mother’s rocks would be.
Breaking my reverie, Eric said, “Let’s head back up the hill towards the cottage that Jack and Charmian lived in during the time they were building Wolf House.”
A twenty minute walk up the hill and there stood a simple single story ranch home with a few small rooms that felt more like the Jack London of White Fang and Sea Wolf I knew. Creaky floorboards, simple craftsman furnishings, and handmade quilts gave the intimate space a sense of London’s meager upbringing with his single mother and African American nanny, a former slave. In this informal house, Charmian and Jack loved to play pranks on their guests, drilling holes in drinking glasses, shaking beds and yelling “earthquake!” Here his small office overlooked the lush vineyards, the stalwart mountain, and the plush pig palace. A lover of animals, Jack treated his pigs like royalty creating a sty that was more like a Roman amphitheater than a slop house. The cottage rooms dawned hundreds of sepia snapshots of Jack riding horses, holding chickens, petting dogs.
“My mother would love this ranch,” I told Eric. “She loved to ride horses, claiming she’d always wanted to be either a Park Ranger or a Cowgirl. After years of traveling throughout Spain and Greece as a single mother, she settled us in New Hampshire where she grew a vegetable garden, raised chickens, and rode our palomino, Lightning.” I laughed thinking of the 1970’s Olan Mills family photo with all of us in flowery print prairie dresses that Mom sewed herself, complete with bonnets, Laura Ingalls style.
We finished the cottage tour looking at Jack London’s window bed he slept in by himself because of his late night writing schedule. Three years after the fire at Wolf House, he also died in that same bed at the age of forty possibly from the effects of a full and hard life embracing alcohol, physical labor, and world travel. Above the simple cot were clotheslines of pinned papers – ideas he had for his writing. An ethereal, angelic whisper of his imagination still hung in the air.
These onion-skinned sheaths suddenly took on the qualities of Akashic oracles, and I wondered, “What is left after we are gone?”
As if rising like smoke from the ashes, these papers seemed to answer, “The stories we create, the relationships we forge, and the spark of a life well-lived.”
We returned that evening to our home in Sausalito. Looking out onto the luminous expanse of San Francisco Bay, I watched the sun set into a fiery violet and persimmon sky, the moon beginning to rise.
In an instant, a hummingbird hovered, fluttered, and then darted away.
For more information about the Jack London State Historic Park, check out http://www.jacklondonpark.com/index.html