Fish gotta swim, birds gotta sing

The California Legacy Series

When Santa Clara University and Heyday Books launched the California Legacy Series nine years ago, it was to revive the landscape of California publishing: by nurturing neglected writers from the region’s literary past, and by offering new ways of seeing contemporary writing way out West. Under the directorship of English Professor Terry Beers, the California Legacy Project has already yielded more than 30 books as well as dozens of broadcasts for the radio station KAZU-FM—with more books and broadcasts on the way, naturally. Here is the latest from the series in print.

America, only more so

undefinedWallace Stegner may be the Dean of Western Writers, with his life and work as author, environmentalist, and historian forever tied to California. In fact, he grew up in “twenty places in eight states and Canada,” as he put it, then dedicated much of his life to the preservation of the Golden West and the writing that grew out of the land. But only now, for the first time, a selection of his Western works has been brought together in Wallace Stegner’s West (Heyday, 2008, $18.95)—a volume all the more special because it is edited and introduced by his son, writer and essayist Page Stegner.

Wallace Stegner was 37 years old when he made the continental move to Palo Alto and set up literary shop at Stanford, founding the university’s creative writing program and advising such students as Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry during his 25-year tenure as director. In this new collection, Page Stegner shows why his father “felt a moral responsibility to the place which he forevermore would call home,” and, from a literary standpoint, why he dedicated himself to field and forest with the fervor of a California native.

Page Stegner, former director of the creative writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, draws from his father’s Western fiction and nonfiction, illustrating parts of California that Stegner pinned as “America, only more so.” In this collection are excerpts from Angle of Repose (which won the Pulitzer), All the Little Live Things (which won the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Award), and One Way to Spell Man (honored with the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club). These and other essays, chapters, and stories reveal how, Page Stegner writes, his father “did as much as any aboriginal toward the advancement of [California’s] cultural environment and the protection of its natural surroundings,” and why Wallace Stegner said: “All my life I’ve been going away east and coming home west.”

There is a season

“Nature awaits a time when people will come to their senses and live seasonally,” notes writer and contributor Darryl Wilson in the foreword of Spring Salmon, Hurry to Me! California Indian writers and storytellers celebrate the seasons (paperback, $16.95). “These stories and poems are offered in that spirit: to keep alive knowledge and feeling toward the land and the seasonal rhythms by those who have known it the longest.”

undefinedEdited by Margaret Dubin, managing editor of the journal News from Native California, from which many of these selections originally appeared, and Kim Hogeland, a regular columnist for News, the book highlights the seasonal writing unique to California by such authors as Greg Sarris, Georgiana Valoyce-Sanchez, and Darryl Wilson.

Wilson notes that although the old ways are gone, in this collection “we have poems and memories about rabbit drives, antelope charming, dancing, singing at dawn and at sunset, mountain climbing, and ceremony…the poems and memories are not a longing for the past, they are a planning for the future.”

Divided by season, each section opens with an illustrated woodcut by painter and poet Frank LaPena, followed by myths, poems, and stories relative to the time of year. The Indian language indigenous to Hat Creek and Dixie Valley flows throughout the collection, with accounts of seasonal changes from such locales as Culver City and Marin County.

Major flukes

A Mexican lagoon, an Alaskan bay, and aquatic parasites all have one person in common: Capt. Charles M. Scammon.

Fittingly, Scammon’s Lagoon and Scammon Bay are both named for him. So are the parasites that live on the skin of the California gray whale: Cyamus scammoni.


Baja California to the icy deep of the Bering Sea between 1848 and 1911. During his sails he recorded both advice for whalers and scientific accounts for oceanographers, which he eventually compiled into his seminal work The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Together with an Account of the American Whale Fishery (paperback, $16.95), edited by environmentalist and journalist Dick Russell. In this natural history guide, Scammon supplies expressive, methodical reports and illustrations of the Pacific Ocean’s dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, and seals, which over a century later still astonish scientists at even Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The book includes a foreword by Russell, a whale-fishery manual, and even a whaleman glossary, defining such specialized words as loptailing, scrimshawing, and slumgullion.

Scammon, once a regular contributor for the Overland Monthly, relied upon his magazine articles for the groundwork of this collection, leading the San Diego Union-Tribune to acknowledge, “No more devoted investigator of the whale and its habits ever existed, than Captain Scammon.”

Road to fruition

It was through the pane of a transcontinental railcar that Helen Hunt Jackson first saw a Native American woman. Initially unable to even humanize her presence, Jackson disdainfully noted: “It was the most abject, loathly living thing I ever saw. I shut my eyes, and turned away.”

undefinedYet Jackson’s overland journey to California encompassed more than just mileage and scorn. On a closer look, she saw in the woman not a feral being, but “the face of a woman, of a mother.” Associate Professor of English Michelle Burnham recognized this emotional transition in Jackson’s writing, and decided to trace the author’s personal growth, beginning with that train ride, in A Separate Star: Selected Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson (paperback, $21.95), which she both edited and introduced. Although Jackson is most renowned for her accounts of Native American life, in this work Burnham chronologically compiles a diverse selection of the pioneer’s domestic writing, fiction, poetry, and Indian writing. The collection includes segments from A Century of Dishonor and Ramona, her two final books, which fervently condemn U.S. jurisdiction over Native American tribes. These two works, according to Burnham, mark her maturation as activist and writer, and show that not all lives come full circle.

The whole bird

“A CONFESSION: Before encountering William Dawson’s The Birds of California, I did not like birds.”

undefinedSo says Anna Neher, editor of Dawson’s Avian Kingdom (paperback, $16.95), a collection of ornithological entries written by the celebrated oologist. Dawson spent the majority of his life studying California birds in their natural habitats. Consequently, he became an energetic expert on every aspect of a bird’s life— feeding patterns, nesting rituals, even styles of song. Dawson eventually studied and categorized 580 birds, which compose the 1923 three-volume The Birds of California. Neher decided to condense this high-priced and hard-to-come-by field guide into Dawson’s Avian Kingdom, including her own introduction as well as a biography by Terri Sheridan and a foreword by Graham Chisholm.

In these selected writings, Dawson plays narrator to such characters as the “fellow mountaineer,” “the tricksy bushwhacker of song,” and even “Cousin Cuckoo.” Through his anthropomorphic prose, the scientific accounts of these birds come to life, giving even the casual birdwatcher, according to Dawson, the eye of “the poet, the interpreter, the apologist—the mystic, even—the at-all-times bird lover.”

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