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The Eye by Barbara King

A place where nature takes you by the hand

Robinson Jeffers' house speaks to the 'unbridled and unbelievable beauty' of Carmel.

October 09, 2003|Barbara King

Doris Day movie posters big and small hung in back of the bar at the Cypress Inn and above the small sofa where a woman sat languidly twisting her finger around the ear of one of her pugs while the other pug waddled and snorted over to a table to check out a new arrival -- some kind of hairy, massive-headed mountain rescuer who didn't look as if he belonged in a beach town.

I stepped over the reclining figure of yet another dog, a blackish brownish female whose name, not coincidentally, was Lazybones, and who was of a certain age but an uncertain ancestry. She had been found wandering the streets, and she was spending her last years making up for all the peace and quiet she'd been denied as a stray. There was no better place for an old dog gal to do that than in a cozy Moorish inn in Carmel, where the dog biscuits flowed freely, as it were, and the concierge welcomed you with a hearty pat on the head. You even got your photo in a fat scrapbook at the reception desk, and everyone who came and went told you what a good and adorable girl or boy you were, what a comedian.

The fog had rolled in with all its suggestive mystery, and that -- along with a bar full of amusing canines at a hotel bought by Miss Day because she loves animals so much she wanted them, too, to be accommodated in Carmel -- that was what brought me back to this Northern California town. And kept me there for three years. OK, that and the beach and the cypresses, the wildflowers, the whales, the sea otters, the sandpipers, the fireplaces crackling in summer, the rain sluicing down the skylights in winter, the "unbridled and unbelievable beauty," as the poet Robinson Jeffers wrote, that "covers the evening world ... "

No wonder so many writers and artists and photographers found their way there, and settled in: Jeffers, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston.

Carmel is its own poetry, the sublime realization of nature. I lived, first, in a redwood house built on a bosky slope that grew ever more green and colorful as December moved into January and January into February, the months when the crashing rains created a river below that sometimes raged.

Every day, even in those rains, I walked the hilly trails behind me or the narrow tree-shrouded streets or the beach, one end to the other, and on many -- maybe most -- days, I walked them all. Go to Carmel, and nature first takes you by the hand, then grabs you and spirits you away. You fall in love with it, you dream of it constantly, you want more and more of it and you feel impossibly diminished without it. It informs your whole being.

My second house was a tiny wooden cottage a few blocks from the beach. All day I could smell the ocean, hear its rhythmic roar. You can't live that close to the waters of Carmel and not feel called by them, and I was, from morning to night. It took real discipline to go about one's ordinary existence. Like most people who lived here, I wanted to watch the waves and watch the leash-free dogs dive into those waves; I wanted to feel the sand under my bare feet. Our social life happened on the beach or on the trails, because that's where we felt like going.

Jeffers could see the ocean from his own cottage of "sea-worn granite," as he described it in his poem "Tor House." ("Come in the morning you will see white gulls weaving a dance over blue water.") That he built Tor House himself made it all the more beautiful to me. It was not far from either of my houses -- nothing is terribly far from anything else in this village -- and at least once a week I passed by with my dogs, Chooch and Annie. It was a house that had character, in the manner of a human having character: stalwart, stout-hearted, true to its nature. It didn't strain for effect, it wasn't "real estate," like so many others on this prime stretch of sand and sea. "My fingers had the art to make stone love stone," he wrote, and so they did.

I loved Tor because it was so obviously a labor of love, in the truest sense of that description. Jeffers labored, really labored, in the name of love, dragging rocks from the shoreline to dry land to build, with his own hands, a house and a tower sanctuary for his wife, Una.

Alex von Wuthenau, an architect and anthropologist, once said that "the grace of imperfection is worth more than graceless perfection." Tor House was pure imperfect grace. It had the appearance of having been born directly of the sea, fully formed. In that way, the house was, I thought, more unified with the environment than any other on the oceanfront. It belonged.

And Jeffers belongs there with it. He and Una are buried in the gardens, along with all their dogs. There are gravestones for Winnie, who looked like Winston Churchill, and Deirdre, and the now famous Haig, an English bulldog who is the subject-narrator of the poem "The House Dog's Grave." But we needn't look for Jeffers' ghost at Tor House, as he tells us in his poem of the same name.

... it is probably

Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing

on wind

With the mad wings and the day moon.


Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at

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