Currently Reading: Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, by Henry Miller.
I picked up this book for $5 last week at the used bookstore in downtown Fortuna. Recently I have been in a lull with my reading; starting one book, reading half of it, then starting another and not finishing the first, for whatever reasons. Disinterest, boredom, whatever it may be, I did not feel that way when I came across this novel. Elated, I dug in as soon as we got home.
I hadn’t read any more of Henry Miller’s work before this, but I knew there is a library dedicated to him in Big Sur, the Henry Miller Library. Avery and I were camping in the Sur, I believe it was in August of 2014, when we were driving by the Henry Miller Library and saw a sign that read, “Outdoor Movie Showing Thursday 7 p.m.,” which happened to be that same night. Ecstatic, we shared a couple beverages at our campground and when the time was right, walked down to the library and saw three incredible independent short-films under the stars in the middle of the Redwood Forest, for free! It all fell into place at that moment, when I realized we are always where we are meant to be. I will always remember that moment and relate it to the great writer, Henry Miller! So, it is safe to say I was thrilled when I found an entire book written by Miller dedicated to the beautiful Sur.
So back to the novel: published originally in 1957, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch tells the story of Henry Miller’s time living in Big Sur, where he spent fifteen years of his life. This is simply fascinating to me because the descriptions of places and sceneries are all relatable, as I have seen and photographed the same places glorified by a classic American writer. For example, on the first page Miller describes where he lived when he first moved to the Sur: as a house guest in “a log cabin around which the celebrated ‘Nepenthe’ has been built,” a cliffside restaurant in Big Sur that I drive by every time I visit! It is details like this that get me so excited, especially being able to personally relate to the story at hand.
This novel is not as much as story as it is an autobiographical account, from what I’ve read so far at least. Miller begins with a section entitled, “Chronological,” where he takes the reader back in time to the 1940s, when he first became a resident of California, continuing with an introduction of his early days in Big Sur. The next section, “Topographical,” is especially interesting to me because it describes the early days of Big Sur itself, dated back to when the first humans, the Esselen Indians, inhabited this geographic region. He describes the creation of Route 1, the coastal highway spanning the entire West Coast; “The stretch of scenic highway referred to earlier was cut through at an enormous expense, literally blasted out of the mountain side.” If you’ve ever cruised down this 60-something mile section of Route 1 that takes you through Big Sur, you will understand he is by no means exaggerating this description. Before establishing any serious plot-line, Miller uses these introductory sections to illustrate Big Sur’s majestic properties:
“This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”
Avery sat next to me, witnessing the pure emotion exuded from such a statement as I read this line over and over again. Ah, the power of the written word. Compelling, isn’t it?
“There are no ruins or relics to speak of. No history worth recounting. What was not speaks more eloquently than what was.” The unestablished, untouched, untainted aspect of Big Sur is what sets it apart from the rest. No man has yet to squander this land. The beauty that presents itself in the Sur is all-natural, created from the Earth, incomparable to the greatest, most majestic man-made structure ever built. A class all of its own.
“At dawn its majesty is almost painful to behold. That same prehistoric look. The look of always. Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity.” There holds such power behind these words. I read this, trying to grasp the concept of eternity. The only measly attempt at understanding such a concept larger than myself was in Big Sur, accessed on a mountain peak in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, as the trail opened up to an incredible viewpoint. I was left paralyzed by the indefinite shades of turquoise the ocean produced, the impeccable hues of green the trees emitted, all contrasted against the richest blue sky one has ever seen.
“It may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise such as this rather than a celebrity in a world which has lost all sense of values.” And this was written in the 1950’s. I wonder what Henry Miller would have to say about the morals of society nowadays…
In closing, I will write a follow-up upon completion of this novel, but as of yet I have only rave reviews to express. Call me biased, but anyone else who has even driven through the Sur can attest to the perfection and awe-inspiring manner brought about when in this utopian environment. For a more visual display of my favorite place on Earth, and to put a picture to Miller’s words, reference my photography section, “Big Sur”.