Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Walk Back in Time

The weather turned to perfect yesterday so we headed to Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen for a hike.

In 1905 Jack London and his wife Charmian began purchasing parcels of land that would become the 1,400 acre Beauty Ranch. They built a small cottage (pictured above) to live in while their dream home, Wolf House, was being built. 

Though he was known primarily for his adventures, writings and politics, he was also a visionary. Much of the land purchased for the ranch had been over farmed for years and the soil was worn out. Jack decided to change that and after writing each morning, he turned to ranch management. He read the latest agricultural bulletins, and consulted with Luther Burbank in Santa Rosa and scientists from UC Davis.

He developed a vision of sustainable farming, recycled ranch materials and as few resources as possible came from off site. He terraced the hillsides to lessen erosion, dammed a creek to provide gravity-fed irrigation, and used the manure from his livestock as fertilizer. His vision was prophetic, but at the time California agriculture was dominated by big business (sound familiar), and only today is his model appreciated for it's considerable benefits. A section of the ranch remains under grape cultivation for wine today. 

Wolf House was designed by San Francisco architect Albert Farr. It was a 15,000 square foot 4-story building constructed of volcanic rock, which came from a quarry in the Valley of the Moon; the roof was constructed of Mexican-style tile, which came from Oakland; the wooden beams on the outside and the trim on the inside came from Redwood trees which were cut and seasoned on their property. The house had 26 rooms, 9 fire places and a reflection pool. 

Construction started in 1910 and it was nearly completed when it burned down in August 1913. Several years ago, a team of forensic experts studied the cause of the fire and concluded that the fire was started by spontaneous combustion, perhaps from the oil soaked rags left by workers finishing interior walls. Much of the stonework of the ruins remain and are worth seeing. There is a scale model in the museum built from pieces of stone and wood that survived the fire. Jack vowed to rebuild the Wolf House, but had no financial means to do so. Instead, he built an annex to the cottage, where he worked for the next three years and where he died in 1916.  

Charmian built the "House with Happy Walls" in 1919. It was similar to Wolf House but is much smaller and more formal. She lived here from 1934 until 1945 whenever she was not traveling abroad or staying with relatives.         

After her death in 1955 at the age of 84, her will directed that the house be used as a museum and memorial to Jack London. Items on display include a scale model of the Snark, the boat they built and sailed to the South Seas in 1907, and became the basis his book The Cruise of the Snark. There is also a complete set of first-edition books by Jack London, many of the items he and Charmian brought back from their travels around the world, and many stories depicting his life and adventures.  It is definitely worth a visit and there are several other hikes to enjoy on the property from 1.6 to 8 mile round trips.

Food for thought: Jack London's Credo:

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.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.