THE KEROUAC TREE
Dreamed 1983/3/18 by Chris Wayan
Mother Jones magazine has a fascinating article on the Beats. They were mostly working-class guys who rebelled against the male role of the time. They broke two basic rules: be a provider... and consume.
So what of the elitist "Beatniks," obsessed with cool? Just a media fiction, projecting onto the rowdy and emotional Beats a repression more typical of the fifties' mainstream.
In contrast to the Beats, Hugh Hefner and Playboy aimed at the middle class. But even Playboy was a role rebellion: Hefner also preached against the first commandment, marry and become a provider. But, aiming for mass acceptance, he kept the second: consume. He just modified it to: be an intelligent and playful consumer: buy toys, not dull sensible things that tie you down.
It doesn't sound subversive now, but we forget. Back then, it was more shocking than tits.
I'm working at the library. I come across a story by Arthur Conan Doyle I've never seen. The introduction says "His contemporaries saw Doyle as a self-absorbed occultist who produced little of lasting value. But his mystical studies and self-examination gave him a deep tolerance and humor that let him referee in quarrels between the writers of his circle, and beyond. If not for him, HUNDREDS of writers would not have been published! His whole generation's literary history would have been fragmented."
Doyle's story follows a working-class sailor, Jack, who becomes a writer; he seems to be Jack London, but with traces of a later Jack: Kerouac. 'Jack' hiked up with some wealthier friends into the Bay Area hills near sunset... deep woods, with views of the Bay from steep spots. Jack was last in line, behind a butler, when they walked by a huge but yellowing pine. Neither man noticed that the branches behind him swayed in a rhythm not the wind's. The golden arms reached out and grabbed Jack, enfolding him in drying dying needles. The hug didn't last long. The tree let Jack go, and he hurried toward the yellow dot in the shadows far ahead: the butler in his rain slicker, pausing in astonishment at the commotion behind him. That was it--the whole story, narrated by the butler, a sober sort, an unimpeachable witness.
Well, narrative device.
Only now, fifty-odd years later, I meet the narrative device... and he's real. An old man, over ninety now, but he still hikes those woods, and he still recalls that day. The old butler says "It was all true."
Doyle was there himself, visiting San Francisco. The hike was partly to show him the famous redwoods. A dying pine picked up Jack and hugged him. (London or Kerouac? The old man seems to think there was only one.) "Doyle had to publish it as fiction, of course, as a mysterious allegory--his reputation was shaky enough, with all his spiritual dabbling. Houdini and all that. But it happened."
The old man leads me up the trail he walked sixty years before, with all those writers now long dead. Half the way up, it's all shopping malls and condos; Highway 92 to Half Moon Bay cuts across the path. Above that, though, the redwoods still stand. But the groves have changed so much in sixty years he can't recognize any of the trees! We think of people as ephemeral compared to redwoods, but here's the butler still, sixty years later, with his human memory, and it's the trees that have changed beyond recognition.
True, they were young then too. All their elders had been cut down in a frenzy of logging, just as a generation of men were clear-cut by the Great War. The grove has grown and changed so swiftly because its trees were orphaned infants. Now they're adolescents...
Slowly he works out the exact spot where the Kerouac Tree stood. It's gone utterly, of course; I knew that. Soon after it hugged Jack, the tree died. Even its end was strange. It died of spontaneous combustion: all the fire locked in the yellow of its needles broke out and burned it--it alone. Pine-green to yellow, then a churning red flower for a moment, then a black skeleton, then just a charred circle in the lush green of the rainy Santa Cruz woods. A black memorial soon buried by new life.
But tree and man were one for a few moments. It was the dying tree's last deed, an act to be remembered, and it worked. Doyle's wasn't the only account--Jack's own version became perhaps the most famous passage in his autobiography.
The tree immortalized itself with a deed; Doyle and London and Kerouac, with words. But the words that move me, that still haunt me, were the halting words the old man spoke on the site where it happened, confirming "It was real."
The voice of the last eyewitness, who survived both Jacks and the tree, while they burned for immortality.
NOTES ON WAKING UP
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