Los Angeles environmentalist might at first sound like a contradiction, but not if you look at the life of Lawrence Clark Powell. He was the Librarian at UCLA who had built up the university’s book collection and for whom Powell Library was named. Powell’s California Classics is made up of essays about 31 California writers who brilliantly discuss the land—mountain, deserts, valleys, and coasts—of California.
Of course, Powell writes a good essay on John Muir praising his book Mountains of California, but Powell also includes two even more fascinating essays about two mountain men/writers before Muir: William H. Brewer and Clarence King.
Brewer, a Yale-trained scientist, was field leader of the first California Geological Survey, led by Josiah Dwight Whitney. Brewer and the geological survey tramped from one end to the other of California from 1861 to1864 surveying, mountain climbing, and collecting specimens. Powell describes Brewer as having immense dedication, stamina, and vision.
Brewer also wrote letters to his brother in New York that became the basis of his book Up and Down California 1860-64. Powell tells how during his lifetime Brewer’s letters were never published but during the 1920s Francis Farquhar, a C.P.A. and leading California mountaineer, convinced Brewer’s sons to let him edit their father’s letters into a book which became the wonderful Up and Down California 1860-64. Powell says that the book wonderfully describes the the beauties of the state before cities and earth-moving machinery with Brewer’s “clear and sensuous vision.”
Clarence King, a young Eastern college student, became Brewer’s assistant, and quickly distinguished himself with brilliant climbs up Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta. After climbing many mountains in California with the Whitney survey from 1863-1866, King went on to direct the United States Geological Survey and then wrote Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada published in 1872. Powell comments, “King was the first to climb the Sierra Nevada, and the first to write of the range in sunlight and storm …” Powell describes King as poet of the mountains as well as audacious climber.
Powell includes essays in a charming style mixing literary history, biography of the writers, commentary on their books, and autobiography. Of course, he describes such famous writers and books as Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Silverado Squatters, written when he camped with his wife near an abandoned gold mine in Napa County.
But I found even more fascinating Powell’s writing about three early classic books about the deserts of California: William Manly’s Death Valley in ’49, Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain and George Wharton James’ The Wonders of the Colorado Desert. Powell has a fascinating essay on William Manly’s Death Valley in ’49. Manly’s autobiographical tale describes how he was a young ox driver leading a small wagon train through Death Valley when it bogged down, so Manly and another man went on ahead, finding their way to Los Angeles and returning with food, saving all lives. Powell says Manley book “a classic of the gold rush, a chronicle of death and disaster, survival and heroism, distinguished by narrative power, specific event, and precise observation.”
By the turn of the century the desert was no longer a death field so writers changed their views of that landscape. Mary Austin, who was a repressed but college educated Victorian young woman, came with her family to homestead in the high desert right just south of the Sierra Nevada. After she explored the desert, learning its plants and animals; then see listened and learned from the Basque sheepherders, the Native Americans, and old timers like General Edward Beale, owner of Rancho Tejon. At this point she wrote Land of Little Rain. Her book is the first ecofeminist classic. Austin was a woman who finds herself and her freedom at the same time she comes to know and understand the desert. Powell as right when he said, “She was one of the first writers to exalt the desert.” Austin was a mystic who found home and freedom there.
George Wharton James was a sickly Englishman who regained his health in the 1880s tramping through deserts of Nevada, New Mexico, and Southern California. A fervent booster, he published pre-automobile guidebooks to his beloved deserts. Powell says that his book The Wonders of the Colorado Desert is “composed of learning and love, and fashioned into the several levels of history, science, topography, and visionary idealism.” The desert he so loved was from Twentynine Palms to Yuma and from the San Bernardino-San Jacinto-Laguna Mountains to the Colorado River.
Powell also gives us those writers who brilliantly evoke the California coast: Robinson Jeffers, the poet of Big Sur; and John Steinbeck who writes about Monterey and the ranches in the nearby inland valley. But the most fascinating costal writer Powell discusses is J. Smeaton Chase, an Englishman who came to California in 1890 and who settled in northeast San Diego.
Chase’s third book California Costal Trails describes two long horseback rides he took: in 1910 from El Monte in Los Angeles County down the coast to San Diego; and in 1912 from El Monte to the coast at Malibu up to the Oregon border. Chase wonderfully describes the plants and flowers, the missions he visited, the many Mexicans he met and shared food with along the way, the hermit he met, and, of course, his two horses. Chase’s book sounds like a great California western about the last horseback ride along the coast.
Besides being an environmentalist, Powel is a committed bookman, telling in charming stories his autobiography through books: his childhood in Pasadena watching his father play tennis with Upton Sinclair; his search as a student for these California classics through bookstores in London, Paris, and Boston; his research as a graduate student in librarian studies in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley; his working as a young man for famed book dealer Jake Zeitlin; and his researches on the authors at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley and the Huntington Library in San Marino. He makes the book search sound like one of the great works of life.
Powell is utterly charming writer whose work is permeated with love for the California land. Yes, he really was a Los Angeles environmentalist. Now, the Los Angeles Sierra Club is the largest chapter in the nation. Horseback riders still ride through the little patches of trails in Los Angeles County, with a major equestrian center in Burbank. Yes, Burbank! But before the current generation, Powell was there as well as the environmental writers he so brilliantly brings to life: the mountaineers William Brewer and Clarence King; the desert writers William Manly, Mary Austin, and George Wharton James; and the coastal horseback rider J. Smeaton Chase.