Shoreward breezes waft on top of the long Pacific rollers that crash a dozen yards out from the hard-packed sand. The autumn afternoon is swanky in the sun's richness. The beach's partner in this dance of unrivaled beauty is a promontory whose wind-worn edges unfurl for miles north and south on the coastline. The silences of this isolated area -- about an hour north of the Monterey peninsula -- are broken only by the danger calls of leggy sanderlings scampering to outrun the wave-washes.
For long stretches, no others are on the beach. As an easterner, I wonder about that statistic from the 1950s, that 40,000 people a week were pouring into California. It was a land rush that created a metropolis a month and made California the nation's most populous state. Today, I think it's only the forecast of rain -- wrong, it turns out -- that has kept the shoreline unpeopled.
Californians are laughed at by the rest of us for their mellowspeak language, for inventing palimony suits and for the way they have replaced marriage with the institution of Pairing Off. I'm bemused, too, but Californians can have their personal excesses because they have worked hard -- and successfully -- to preserve the fragile beauty of their -- and our -- coastline. They have kept watch.
Indignation at possible despoilment doesn't always need a mass mailing of Sierra Club letters to rally people against pending dangers. Sometimes a leer by James Watt is plenty. In Northern California, Watt will be a distant unpleasant memory before any oil company gets even close to rigging the seabeds with wells. One of Watt's earliest lessons in the political strength of environmentalists was drilled home by Northern Californians who forced him to back off his assaultive plans to lease such areas as the Big Sur coastline.
At the same time that Watt's oil dreams have been turned into a dry hole, environmentalists farther south are now on the alert. Oil fields of massive proportions have been discovered off the coast of Santa Barbara. In 1969, a coalition of environmentalists, calling itself Get Oil Out (GOO), was on hand to monitor Union Oil when one of its broken wells polluted the beaches.
I remember boating out to the rig and being told by Union officials that Mother Nature herself is something of a dirty old girl by the way oil has long been seeping up naturally from pools beneath the local ocean floor. The suggestion was that, compared with nature, Union Oil was Mr. Clean. That bum argument went nowhere in 1969, and the environmentalists of 1982 -- GOO II, they should call themselves -- are likely to reject it again.
Californians are easily rallied to drive off polluters because they are grounded in forces more enduring than the passing fancies of commercialists. When George Santayana, the philosopher, visited these parts in 1911, he wrote east to a friend: "I am struck in California by the deep and almost religious affections which people have for nature and by the sensitiveness they show for its influences. . . . It is their spontaneous substitute for articulate art and articulate religion."
Santayana didn't stay long, nor did William James, who visited in 1905 and was also awed by the beauty. But nothing the philosophers would have discovered was left unexpressed by some of the poets who came later to Big Sur and the northern coasts. These include Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth and -- still writing memorable poetry -- William Everson.
Jeffers settled in Carmel in 1919 and built with his own hands a granite home on a sea-sprayed hillside that he called "the final Pacific." Between then and his death in 1962, Jeffers' poetry was to the California coast at one end of the continent what Robert Frost's was to the New England woodlands at the other.
In "Carmel Point" Jeffers foresaw by nearly half a century today's demographics:
. . . the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image
of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff."
If California coasts retain a bloom, it's because poets have been among the best retainers.