Creekwalk, 1988

Second Chautauqua: Gerald of Wales

I want to say it is a pleasure to visit you here in your beautiful state of California. During my times, now more than a century ago, many of my countrymen, fleeing a great disaster in their own land, came here to settle on the lands of this fine peninsula, some establishing themselves not more than a few minutes walk from where I stand. Among them was John Greer, an Irish sailor who on a Sunday shore leave landed in a rowboat at the mouth of San Francisquito creek (not far from Greer Road in Palo Alto), poled his way up (his friends having taken their shore leave in a lusty quest for gold in the Sierra.) The kind of gold that John Greer found was the warmly human gold of Spanish California; within months he had married the beautiful Mexican daughter of this rancho and soon after came into possession of these fine lands now known as Palo Alto.

Many of these Hibernians found rights, privileges, and opportunities denied to them in the eastern United States, and though I myself did not suffer from this kind of prejudice (more characteristic, perhaps, of the narrow New England puritan culture than the gentler Philadelphia where I grew up) I nonetheless understand well their feelings of relief at having reached this distant lovely western land by the sea, so reminescent of the green valleys of the West of their Ireland, washed as they are by the warm waters of the Gulf stream.

These and countless other similar tales that made their way to us from California in the last century bring to mind the observations of that medieval bishop, Gerald of Wales, on his visit to Ireland in 1183. Gerald's report to the English monarch History and Topography of Ireland remains one of the fullest descriptions of late medieval times in that island, which alone in Europe had never felt the yoke of Roman conquest. Gerald found in Ireland a land of health and springtime, in which there were countless marvels, fish with teeth of gold, a woman who made love with a lion, birds born of barnacles, a stone cup that flowed over with wine. In many odd respects the Ireland of these days might be taken as the model of California as this land was found by the early American settlers. Indeed even today I am told that many eastern Americans consider California to be a place of exotic and even outrageous character, not too far different perhaps than the way Gerald saw Ireland some eight hundred years ago:

And there, when I had seen many things not found in other countries and entirely unknown, and at the same time worthy of some wonder because of their novelty, I began to examine everything carefully: what was the position of the country, what was its nature, what was the origin of the race, what were its custom; how often, and by whom, and how, it was conquered and subjugated; what new things, and what secret things not in accordance with her usual course had nature hidden away in the farthest western lands? Just as the countries of the East are remarkable and distinguished for certain prodigies peculiar and native to themselves, so the boundaries of the West also are made remarkable by their o wn wonders of nature. For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, she draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks.

It has sometimes been said of the Irish in America that they refused to enjoy their good fortune and success that though many of them settled here and raised families and established their churches there was about them a certain restless fatalism, a tendency to go from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves within a few generations. It is true enough, to cite a local example, that Dennis Martin of Menlo Park (named after his Irish village) died a poor man, having bitterly quarreled with his daughter and losing his hard-earned wealth and land in litigation. There are those who would attribute this misfortune to the unsteadiness of the Celtic spirit. But I am going to suggest to you that there may be other reasons too, having to do more with the ancient Celtic perception of the unsteadiness of the world, the inconstancy of nature's blessings. As Gerald says, quoting the Roman Lucan the gods easily grant great blessings, but do not easily maintain them.

It may be said by many that it took the coming of the Protestant, namely Leland Stanford and his wife, to bring order and harmony to this place, to transform the land from a wild and abandoned wilderness into the garden that it is today. And it is true, as you shall see, that nature cooperated marvelously in this transformation, causing the rains to become more steady and gentle as they have been these past hundred years. But there is a fair question to be asked here. Was there not a bit of passing luck to all this? Is it not possible that has time now run out? Are we not sensing a new kind of irregularity returning here, and to the world at large? Are we not seeing once again in the air about us a kind of inconstancy, the suggestion that nature has now withdrawn her favors and is now becoming peevish? This is a great question, one that I know you ask yourselves in many ways, and it is the question that I shall, after a short quotation from my writings and some suitable autobiographical diversions, proceed to address.


[1] The illustrations are from a medieval edition of Gerald's work.

[2] Another hibernian, Dennis Martin, passed after many an adventure over the Sierra in a shower of snow (the old Irish tales had the worthy young adventurer gaining entrance to the fairy land through just such a mountain snow shower); on arriving in California he joined Sutter in his military adventures to southern California and then established a community next to San Francisquito Creek three miles upstream from here, in what is now the lands of your atomic accelerator.

A few miles south of here his travelling companion Martin Murphy soon found himself presiding over a sea of golden wheat in the little settlement of Mountain View. Murphy's festive parties were so popular that trains were chartered to bring guests from San Francisco.

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