The Double Cone Quarterly
Window to the Wilderness
Spring Equinox 2001 || Volume IV, Number 1

Fu Sang


Stories of Our First Arrivals

by Chris Lorenc, © 2001



Coast of the Santa Lucia, by Boon Hughey, © 2001

After matins at the hermitage I carry toast and tea down to a secret perch I know, through the brush and beneath sprawling live oak, to watch the coast and idle in the morning sun. I think of Jaime de Angulo's character Esteban Berenda, who fled the Portolá expedition in 1769 for these mountains, married an Esselen woman, and when she died would sit out against the wall of his cabin and doze in the sun as I do now. He would dream of the Spanish galleons that would drift by each year on their way to Acapulco, carrying porcelain and spices and silk above all, to be offered in return for the silver they would carry back across the Pacific to Manila.

I come here again and again to this spot where the Pacific stretches out before me just as dreamily, and where any writing upon it is as delible as a voyage, since in the end she always takes all things back; Chinese coins, the mast of a forgotten junk, olivella shells, fishing baskets, the rumor of five Buddhist monks who walked this shore fifteen hundred years ago -- a text I love, since so few know it.

We love myths of our origins. They help to locate us in the world. By telling us who we were, they tell us what we might become. On one hand creation stories, and on the other, allied with them, but not identical, are the stories of our first arrivals. Lovers know by heart the story of the moment they first met, and each of us who love this coast can tell the story of how, in one way or another, we first came here, too. Not a bad evening would be spent around a campfire in the backcountry, sharing those stories. Every poet has them. Robinson Jeffers tells his in the form of his first trip down the old coast road with Una in Corbett Grimes' mail stage in December 1914. Jaime de Angulo describes riding on horseback below Post's with Roche Castro around Christmas in 1915, where the coast trail becomes so narrow and dizzyingly steep, a thousand foot sheer drop to the Pacific, that de Angulo had to dismount, steady himself, and stand in awe.

These myths of creation and the stories of our first arrivals here: the first exist in a dateless, cyclic, mythopoetic time. The latter, by definition, begin with a date since they mark the first moment in a personal history, the arrival of a discrete "I" upon this shore. We find the fragments of creation stories in all the first peoples of this coast, the Rumsen and Esselens and Salinans and Chumash. In fact, the evidence points to a vast, integrated, epic culture wheel of myth so that what remains to us as fragments only appears so because our own recovery and understanding has become fragmentary itself. But to my incomplete understanding, there aren't stories among these fragments that depict the arrival of the first people here. Perhaps someone can enlighten us otherwise, someone like Joe Freeman working with the earliest Salinan stories. But so far the origin stories all seem to be about how the human being was created anew in this very place after the flood, when eagle and coyote - with perhaps hummingbird or kingfisher - perched on a height somewhere like Pico Blanco and succeeded in riddling out the complexity of human existence once again.

For arrival stories we have had to wait for the Europeans. Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo made the first European voyage along the coast in 1542, then Sebastián Vizcaíno landed in Monterey Bay for three days in 1602. And perhaps most consequential of all, the Portolá land expedition of 1769, when history walked up this coast in the apparently meager form of a few Spanish officers, two Franciscans, a group of Catalan volunteers, leather-jacketed soldiers from New Spain, and neophyte indios from Baja California. Together they stood for an historical consciousness, a scientific mind in the form of engineering and cartography, a written script that appeared in four separate journals, and the story of a personal salvation and a personal aggrandisement, the cross and sword together. And meager as they might be, they would be enough.

But that alone should've been enough to warn us from the easy myth of a western movement, as if we could ever have had more in common with the eastern seaboard than we do with the vast and imponderable Pacific stretching beyond us like a dream towards the western islands of the dead and then beyond even them, the only western movement of any last import, the inevitable movement beyond the limitations of the self.

And then there is that other story that I love so much because it appears so incidental and so rare. In the year of Everlasting Origin - 499 AD in western reckoning - a Buddhist priest named Hui-Shen appeared in the Chinese court and said he had just returned from a land he called Fu-Sang, named for a plant we would later call the agave or maguey or yucca, and which the Spanish would call Our Lord's Candle and which native peoples all along the coast used for food and cordage. You can follow Hui-Shen's descriptions and distances from the Ainu in Japan to Kamkatcha to Fu-Sang, which measures out to California although the culture resembles people further south since the people of Fu-Sang had a form of writing and parchment made from the fu-sang plant. There is no iron in Fu-Sang, but plenty of copper, which like gold and silver, is not prized in trade. There are no tariffs or fixed prices or citadels or walled cities or warfare or implements of war. Houses are made with wooden beams and mats are made of reeds. Criminals are judged in excavated places and if guilty are strewn with ash. If the offender was a person of rank, the stigma could remain for generations.

Hui-Shen says that forty years before his journey five Buddhist monks from Kabul first brought the dharma to Fu-Sang, along with images of the Buddha. They introduced monasticism and, Hui-Shen says, "reformed the manners of the entire land."

Czeslaw Milosz imagined a similar case, a Japanese survivor from a shipwreck washed up upon this shore, perhaps a fisherman or merchant or even a poet. The story is not only likely, but inevitable, since it is a straight line from Japan to here following the Kuroshiro current right along the coast. Then if the castaway moved upcanyon and found a group of brownskinned inhabitants, what would have happened then, Milosz wonders, since no rumor of the castaway would ever return home.

This is the perspective of an exile, of course. This coast appears in Milosz as a vanishing point, a kind of pure space that swallows history. Milosz partly took the idea from Jeffers; the beauty and violence intermingled in a wilderness like this, and also from a Jeffers' poem he borrowed the idea that the only trace of the first inhabitants here was a cave of painted hands near Tassajara whereas the mountains are full of middens and bedrock mortars and birthing stones and jimsonweed marking ritual sites, the fit signs of people who moved in small groups, loved their children, knew the plants and animals and every nuance of the watersheds that fed them and were their calendars as they passed through the seasons like the deer they also followed, a son taking a kill from the herd his family knew for centuries in an elaborate and familiar dance between the hunter and the sacred prey. And while there are no relics of cathedrals or ramparts, they had poetry, too, those epic culture cycles that we only hold fragmented notes to, notes that only an eccentric few would even bother to attend to. Poetry and dance and visions and night-fears and hunger and intimacy and love. Hui-Shen and Esteban Berenda stand for a word coming back out of the wilderness, which is the only place the word ever comes from, and they allow us to affix a date to the dateless, that precious intersection, which perhaps relieves us a moment from the anxiety, or even terror, we feel when we enter this pure space for ourselves.

But that is the other story we know so well and tell around our campfires, if we are honest enough, the panic terror we have felt at the footfall of our own abandonment and aloneness and confrontation with what we love and fear and which will inevitably consume us, alienation or communion, the guise dependent only on the habit of mind we have come to trust, grace upon grace, carrying us beyond even this beloved coast, beyond even the impeccable sunset islands of the dead.

In the year of Everlasting Origin, Hui-Shen appeared in court. In 1769 the Portolá expedition walked up this coast…


Notes

Esteban Berenda is a character in Jaime de Angulo's brilliant novella The Lariat.

Jeffers tells of his first trip downcoast in his preface to Jeffers Country: The Seed Plots of Robinson Jeffers' Poetry, with photographs by Horace Lyon. That preface was reprinted in Not Man Apart.

Jaime de Angulo describes his first visit to Big Sur, on horseback with Roche Castro, in "La Costa del Sur," which appears in A Jaime de Angulo Reader, edited by Bob Callahan.

Hui-Shen's narrative of his travels to Fu-Sang are re-printed, with commentary, in Fu-Sang, or the Discovery of America by Chinese Buddhist Priests in the Fifth Century, by Charles G. Leland. This ancient chronicle is also discussed by historian Charles Chapman in his chapter "The Chinese Along the Pacific Coast in Ancient Times" from A History of California: the Spanish Period, and also by Sandy Lydon in Chinese Gold: the Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region.

Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz imagines the Japanese castaway and discusses Jeffers' poem "Hands" in "The Edge of the Continent" in Road-Side Dog. Milosz is one of the most perceptive readers of Jeffers, who figures prominently in Milosz's Visions from San Francisco Bay, most directly in "Carmel." Cf. in particular Milosz's poem "To Robinson Jeffers."

I am grateful to Jeffers' scholar Rob Kafka for our correspondence on "panic terror in the Santa Lucias," a theme that recurs in Jeffers' poetry, in de Angulo's writings, and in Steinbeck's short story "Flight."


|| DCQ || FeedBack ||