Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Jack London Park: What it means to close it

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Last June Lillyth Quillan, one of the mothers on our homeschoolers list, came across an article in the New York Times reporting on the permanent closure of Jack London State Historic Park. She brought it to our attention and immediately started organizing a trip to the park and, equally importantly, a campaign to add our voice to those opposing the closure.

It only makes sense that we speak up against the closure of Jack London Park. We live in California, not too far from the park in Sonoma County. A lot us live in the San Francisco Bay Area where Jack London was born and lived most of his life. We are also homeschooling our children, which means that we are quite involved in our children’s education – and Jack London has certainly been part of a good education for generations of children all around the world.

Our group decided to read The Call of the Wild prior to the trip and one of the mothers volunteered to prepare a presentation on Jack London’s life. After much organizing effort on Lilly’s part August 21 was picked as the date when most people could make it. On a beautiful, and thank goodness not too hot, Sunday morning the group met at the entrance to Jack London’s living compound.

What a splendid place!

London’s “Beauty Ranch,” as he called it, is located in the beautifully named Valley of the Moon. It is where Jack London and his wife, Charmian, lived happily and worked quite creatively – on writing, farming, wine-making, raising animals, and building. The ranch consists, among other things, of the cottage in which Jack London lived and died, the remains of the magnificent Wolf House that was destroyed by fire before he had a chance to live in it, and the “House of Happy Walls” that was built by his widow in his memory and is a museum.

All of this – London’s personal effects including his typewriter and collection of books, and everything thoughtfully collected by Charmian and others in the museum – is to be packed and stored in an undisclosed location. The houses will be dismantled and the objects boxed up and scattered. Perhaps many will disappear into private collections. What belongs to the history and people of United States may very well end up in private hands, out of context and inaccessible.

What greatly struck me was how lovingly the building and the grounds have been maintained over the years. The frayed authenticity speaks of care and appreciation. Everybody – from the tour guides to the park rangers and the volunteers of all ages – exuded love for the London legacy and pride in taking part in preserving it. I wondered if there was a chance that the park would be auctioned off by the State of California to developers and turned into some commercial abomination, but the staff said that as far as they knew it was to be shut down and the contents boxed up and stored in Sacramento.

The depth and extent of the love that Jack London inspires was most tellingly on display at his grave site. London’s grave is a simple boulder placed upon the spot where his cremated remains (and later the cremated remains of his wife) were buried. Inside the small fenced-in area of the site we saw piles of ashes. These were the remains of recently deceased folks who had asked that their ashes be scattered at Jack’s grave. I wondered how many people had had their ashes scattered there over the years, to be washed away with each rain. This is love. This is what will be eradicated when the park is closed to people who take strength from Jack London – the strength to live with courage and compassion and to earn success unaided by anything other than raw talent and hard work.

We were so glad we went. When we read The Call of the Wild my son Jack was painfully shocked by the brutality it depicted. People who have close contact with children know how terribly pained children become to witness cruelty to animals. Jack London does not spare his readers the shock and devastation of brutality, whether it is to animals or to poor and working people. His deep compassion – and his unbounded courage – is born of this understanding of raw cruelty, both in nature and in civilization.

Perhaps the message of The Call of the Wild is that the only force as powerful as the call of the wild is love. I thought visiting Jack London’s various houses of “happy walls” in the wilderness of Sonoma County is a good point of departure for contemplating these forces. Certainly Jack London is one of the very few writers in whom the call of the wild and the call of love intersected so clearly.

Did the kids get any of this? I don’t know. But we started them on it.

Sadly – very sadly – only four families of the 11 or 12 who had given their word actually came with us to the park. We picked up a fifth family along the way. After visiting the Jack London Museum there were only three middle-school boys who sat and listened to the little presentations that we gave. My contribution was very brief. I pointed out to the boys the collection of Jack London translations in dozens of languages on the second floor of the museum: “All around the world kids grow up reading Jack London and marveling at the man and his life. Isn’t it a tragedy to wipe out his legacy in the country where he lived and produced his great works?”

Lilly’s contribution was perhaps more in the spirit of Jack London himself. She gave a presentation on how to “fight back” – in the form of a lesson in civics! The kids wrote letters to various state representatives to be delivered in person in Sacramento. That trip will be planned soon. Meanwhile we will try to join efforts with other groups fighting to keep the park from closing – though it appears that the closure is a done deal and not merely a “scare tactic,” as the New York Times article points out.

But as I watched three unruly middle school boys perched on logs by the stone building of the Jack London museum attempting to compose letters to state representatives, I did not just see kids learning about the democratic process. I saw kids embodying the call of the wild learning to channel that force.

As for me, I’m too old for the call of the wild. I just love Jack London.


-- The Parks Alliance for Sonoma County is a good resource if there is any hope for saving the park.

-- According to the John Olmsted website if every California resident donated $1 the parks would have more than the $22 millions currently being cut from the California State Park budget.

Valuable local resources include:

-- The Jack London Foundation and Bookstore

-- The World of Jack London

-- Valley of the Moon Natural History Association 



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