• Otter Views: The Steinway’s Coming Out

    It’s daunting, nearly a century later, to try to picture Carmel Point as the poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una saw it when they moved into their stone house there. But during a Sunday “garden party,” many of us tried.

    The most obvious vantage was Hawk Tower, a lofty column of beach boulders whose rough masonry mimics the Irish ruins that inspired it. To reach the tower’s windy summit, guests climbed a narrow stairwell that spiraled past oaken sitting rooms and secret niches shadowy enough to please a druid.

    The view seaward from the tower included the same booming surf, the same proud headland, the same glittering horizon the Jeffers’ saw every day. In other directions, things had changed. Carmel Point and the city beyond had filled in. Point Lobos no longer ran cattle. Distant traffic sped past on a paved highway.

    Peering downward revealed a sight that would have horrified the reclusive poet and his protective wife: all of us. Crowding the garden pathways, milling about the courtyard, pressing in and out of tiny rooms, we swarmed that hallowed property like ants on a cake.

    But we swarmed for a cause. Sunday’s party celebrated the return to playing condition of Una Jeffers’ long-silent Steinway grand. Plied in its heyday by George Gershwin, Vladimir Horowitz, Ansel Adams and other luminaries, the piano had succumbed after a seaside century to rust, must and dust.

    Enter the docents. After Robinson Jeffers died in his beloved Tor House in 1962, the property remained a national historic landmark and a Carmel cultural treasure. “Carmelites,” as they were known in Jeffers’ day, formed a foundation to maintain the buildings and grounds and welcome visitors to the site.

    Docents lead small group tours of the property on Fridays and Saturdays. They also host periodic Tor House poetry readings, music recitals and public events like Sunday’s fundraiser. When the Steinway project arose, Paula Karman, wife of Tor House board member Jim Karman, put up $9,000 for repair and restoration work. The garden party marked the piano’s coming out.

    Piano technician Russell Brown spent several weeks replacing the Steinway’s cor- roded strings and worn hammers and then tuned it to vibrant, ringing resonance. Pianist MaryClaire Martin validated Brown’s handiwork Sunday by playing Gershwin tunes and Celtic ballads from Una Jeffers’ library. Martin also regaled visitors by coaxing dance music from one of Una’s four “melodians,” small pump organs powered by foot bellows.

    Also paying musical homage to the Jeffers’ Hibernian ancestry was bagpiper Ed Jarvis. Resplendent in his Wallace hunting tartan, regimental tie, Balmoral cap and high-top “gillie brogue” shoes, Jarvis piped bold Gaelic airs from the tower and from the garden paths. Even on a bright afternoon, the solemn, skirling music conjured some of the mythic characters and ancient deeds Jeffers cherished.

    Lest the other arts be overlooked, Sunday’s party included plein air painters like Bobbie Brainerd, who wisely chose a seascape vista into which few visitors stepped. Less fortunate were docents Barbara Stout and Mary Jane Dziedzic, who toiled in the cramped confines of an impromptu tea room.

    Whatever this room had been in its day – parlor, kitchen, bedroom, dining alcove? – serving tea, sweets and cucumber sandwiches there for scores of jostling guests taxed it heavily. Brooding over the room from a high shelf was a bust of the hermitic Jeffers, whose aversion to intruders is legendary in Carmel. On Sunday, the statue seemed to eye rather wishfully an antique rifle hanging on the far wall.

    As with other historic homes, Tor House tempts visitors to imagine walking in famous footsteps, leaning over immortalized parapets, or sharing sensory prompts beloved to bygone occupants. The sea still sounds; the wind still “wraps” and mutters about the stone walls. Hawks and gulls visit; migrating whales still pass.

    The couple’s tools, furnishings and instruments remain in situ, as do icons from their travels, portraits of their twins, well-thumbed volumes from their libraries. It’s all there, or enough, anyway, to sustain the illusion that a heavy wooden door might creak open at any moment, and one of the Jeffers step through.

    As illusions go, that’s a tricky one to maintain amid happy throngs strolling the premises on a sunny afternoon. Better a solitary vigil on a stormy night to summon famous ghosts, or a cold morning whispery with fog. But if the spirit couple does yet hover about Tor House, they might direct attention away from themselves and onto the setting.

    “From the high peninsular yoke, the breath of the morning hung in the pines,” Jeffers wrote. “And this, we felt, was our home. This, the narrow bay; the promontories; the capes beyond, to the left, of Lobos, and yonder of Pescadero. We were glad; we had found our place.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 8, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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