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The Call of the Wild Organic Farmer

Jack London's Sonoma home holds the history of the author, socialist and adventurer.

July 02, 2006|Michelle Locke | Associated Press Writer

GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — You've heard of Jack London, celebrated author of "The Call of the Wild," and "White Fang." You also may know him as an intrepid world traveler and socialist crusader.

But chances are you don't know Jack London the sustainable farmer who pioneered environmentally friendly practices on his sprawling ranch in Northern California's wine country.

London, it turns out, thought about more than dogs, danger and derring-do. State parks officials hope to tell his story as they meticulously restore the Sonoma County cottage where he spent the last years of an action-packed life.

"This is where he lived, where he wrote, where he died," regional parks Supt. John Crossman says of the cottage, which is to be finished by late summer.

"That house has so much history to it," says London scholar Jeanne Campbell Reesman.

Ninety years after his death, London remains a complicated character.

He was a socialist who worked hard at making money, becoming one of the highest-paid writers of his day.

As an author, he broke ground by having nonwhites as protagonists in some books, yet made troubling ethnic references, consistent with the racism of his day, in others.

He was an adventurer who braved the Klondike, but a bookish type who took along Milton's "Paradise Lost."

And although he was famous for the canine-centric "Call" and "Fang," his subjects ran the gamut from love stories to political dystopias (opposite of utopias) to the supernatural. Astral projection is the subject of "The Star Rover," a hallucinatory tour-de-force that attacked inhumane conditions in the California prison system.

"Most people just think he wrote the dog books and he wrote books for boys. Actually, he's one of California's most distinctive writers," says Reesman, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and executive coordinator of the Jack London Society.

The early details of London's life are a bit murky. He was born in 1876 in San Francisco, but it's not clear who his father was.

He tried his hand at a variety of livelihoods, including oyster poacher, hobo and laborer. He dropped out of high school but went back to finish at 21, attended the University of California briefly and ran twice, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Oakland as a socialist.

He died young, at 40, something that's easy to forget when you consider his body of work, which includes scores of novels, short stories and essays, all fueled by a diligent 1,000-words-a-day habit.

Scholars differ on the merit of his work, with many preferring his short stories, such as "To Build a Fire," a visceral parable of a rather reckless man versus nature. (Nature wins.)

London's pastoral period started around 1905 when, already a successful writer and celebrity, he moved to Glen Ellen, about 65 miles north of San Francisco. Eventually he bought 1,400 acres that became his Beauty Ranch.

The land had been exhausted by poor farming techniques. Soon London was throwing his formidable energies into reviving the property, says Greg Hayes, a former park ranger who helped plan the cottage restoration.

London introduced terracing techniques he'd seen as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war. He also promoted using animal waste as fertilizer instead of the new chemical fertilizers that were coming on the market.

"He was pre-organic, but I think he'd probably sign on if he were around now," says Hayes.

The plan was for London and his second wife, Charmian, to stay in the cottage until their dream home, Wolf House, was built. But Wolf House burned to the ground in August 1913.

At the time, the fire prompted whispers of arson, but it's now believed that oily rags spontaneously combusted.

Step into London's restored study, a book-lined retreat, and you see the desk -- facing away from the windows to avoid the distraction of sweeping green vistas -- the safe where he kept his manuscripts, his broad-brimmed hat tossed on a convenient table. All that's missing is the scratch of pen on paper.

Many of the artifacts used in the restoration were donated by London's descendants, who have preserved his legacy.

"I was raised to protect the stuff," says Milo Shepard, grandson of London's stepsister and ranch manager, Eliza Shepard. Most of the original Beauty Ranch now belongs to the state, some of it donated by the family, and forms Jack London State Historic Park. Shepard, 80, still lives on 180 nearby acres and has worked with officials on the $1.4-million restoration project.

Once finished, visitors will have a chance to see the rooms as they would have looked in London's time, including the restored kitchen that gives an idea of the meals the Londons' two cooks would turn out for the ranch's frequent guests.

Crossman notes that some overnighters got to see the playful side of London. He is said to have been fond of tying ropes to their beds, then jerking the ropes during the night while yelling, "Earthquake!"

In fact, London was a big part of the real earthquake of 1906. He saw the "lurid tower" of smoke from Sonoma Mountain and he and Charmian traveled by train and ferry to San Francisco, where London wrote about and photographed the wounded city.

Ten years later, London's death was cause for controversy, sparking rumors of suicide. But he probably died of a stroke brought on by kidney failure, Reesman says.

It's no surprise, she says, that the larger-than-life London inspired "an awful lot of mythology." The truth is, he was a mythic character.

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