June Gloom in L.A. lured me to the Huntington, one of my favorite places. Unlike many here, I prefer gray skies. In a few days the weather will warm and the sun will sear. So, I went off for a noontime walk.
I've been there -- every few years at least -- since I was a boy. The contrast between elegant San Marino with its high-fenced estates, luxuriant lawns, and wide streets and whatever humbler neighborhood I've lived calms me. Despite the baking blare that tends in memory and fact to permeate my visits, it's an oasis for the mind and body.
My mind allows me to enter as a library reader. When I was a kid, I glimpsed the Ellesmere Chaucer and Blake's illustrated "Songs of Innocence & Experience," Thoreau's "Walden," and perhaps Joyce's "Ulysses." I suppose it was the one elegant expanse I saw as a child, and I thank now my parents for taking me there. Today's my mom's birthday and I reflect on her death thirteen years ago and my dad's a year ago last spring. They did not like walking that much due to their health, but they took the trouble -- probably on some broiling valley day that seemed so typical of my random moments recalled there whenever I conjure up the San Gabriel Valley -- to show me its marvels, so removed from our daily routine of blaring tv and barking dogs.
There's coolness in the guarded interiors, a hushed atmosphere in the calm galleries. Constable & Turner, Van Dyke & Morris, porcelain & chinoserie filled its dimmed corridors. Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Lawrence's "Pinkie" flirt across the gallery. Reynolds' "Lady Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" writhes nearby.
One of the arguable benefits left by Henry Huntington's rapacity as one of the robber barons who made SoCal what it is -- a farflung web of tangled rail and transport routes clogged with dreamers and dunces -- comes from his wealth amassed from Southern Pacific, water, power, and land holdings. He invested in the cultural patrimony bought from Asia and Europe. His displays attest to the massive accrual of literature, art, and flora that his power carried his way. To his credit, he left his splendid collections intact and arrayed for us to appreciate a century later.
There's a temporary exhibit of a few California landscapes from the early 20c that reminded me of my own upbringing in what were "semi-rural" locales not far away. I found on a caption of a small engraving one street near where I live with that same descriptor, circa 1930. A freeway now hustles me by a few hundred feet away from that slope. The occupant of what's now 2006 El Moran Street, the caption informed me, tried to blow himself up in a gas ignition but wound up only with that house on fire. The artwork stylizes the steps leading up to his dream bungalow in Echo Park.
As a young boy, I longed to study at the Huntington one day. Californians lack much tangible evidence from distant British Isles or the Continent for us to learn from. The Huntington's where I first peered back into the Middle Ages, met the legacy of British authors, and entertained the possibility of a life -- however under-endowed!-- spent pursuing culture.
My doctorate decades later and my academic research enables me to consult the holdings, even the manuscripts. I did some fact-checking that day, as I regularly if sporadically do. I recall one field trip early in grad school for a medieval lit seminar; we peered at the "Piers Plowman" ms. firsthand, if not quite touching it, understandably. For me, it was a thrill akin to my peers, back then, meeting Springsteen, Bono, or Michael Jackson. I prefer my celebrities draped in vellum.
My body allows me to enter the estate as a stroller, if more ambulatory than the fit and groomed chattering and cell-phoned mothers navigating designer perambulators. These filled the entrance and the walkways. Alongside clumps of dogged Asian tourists, their women with those all-enveloping visors you never see on anybody else. Even under overcast sky the females draped themselves against glare. As did I, sun hat on in case, it being around noon, if the light broke through, as it tends to by then.
But, it didn't. Unlike my quick constitutional after driving back from work four months earlier to the day -- when what began when I drove up as but the hint of a slight drizzle but wound up with me drenched in a thunderstorm far from shelter under the bamboo and over the muddy tracks of the hundred-acre garden -- I had no need of protection. I wound up in February soaked through even with an umbrella in my dress-up clothes, my shoes wet for days. Now, mid-June, I enjoyed the relative coolness, the lack of humidity considering the haziness, and the quiet of a few minutes spent away from the flocks of babies, crowds, and talkers.
Such moments are rare, I reflected, even in such retreats. The sirens out in San Marino -- an enclave where one must drive cautiously as I always see patrol cars on its winding, broad, nearly empty streets -- kept blaring over the foliage that half-distanced us from that wealthy suburb. Twice I was asked by families to direct them. I could not help the grandmotherly type with her tyke who wanted to find again his favorite Lion's Chair, as my guesses as to its provenance in the Chinese or Japanese gardens were rebuked by his head-shaking. I tried to help a couple with baby in stroller as they sought a ramp up to the Zen House on the way to the Rose Tea House. It seemed a circuitous route to a libation, as the Chinese version was much closer, but they insisted and I scouted the way up the hill for them to follow.
That Chinese "Garden of Flowing Fragrance" was new to me. Familiar with the comparative humility of the Japanese model house, bonsai displays, and raked Zen realms with red bridge, I found the Chinese counterpart as brash and confident as the chattering clamor that filled its teahouse "Terrace that Invites the Mountains." I'd never entered this setting before; the Huntington had a massive expansion that my past visits, often confined to the library for my research stops, had not shown me. So, today I figured I'd look about more.
"Liu Fang Yuan," its Chinese name, surrounds a man-made lake on the site of a natural pool for water on the grounds. I had no idea what had been here before. The typical Los Angeles amnesia; we pass a place a year later and can't remember what preceded whatever concrete structure rises fresh and raw. The walls were white, as if miniature fortresses, and the solidity of the edifice (financed by East-West Bank as plaques noted) spoke to the San Gabriel Valley where I was raised, itself transformed by Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants the past generation into a realm utterly changed from the dull, blue-collar smoggy sprawl of my childhood and teenaged years, when I could hardly wait to get out of its featureless dusty shimmer.
On my rainy day visit, I'd paused at its farthest vantage point, away from the walled lake and teahouse and walkways. "The Pavilion of Washing Away Thoughts" stood by a small statue of the Buddha, but it had no benches inside its tiny shelter. A bench was nearby, but in the downpour, it presented little incentive to wait out the thunder and lightning that had surrounded me suddenly.
Today, however, I stopped there to read at "Di Lu Ting" this couplet again: "Flowing water can purify the mind. Fragrant mountains are good for quiet contemplation." I fantasized an unhurried stay there, but even at the Huntington, a hundred acres appear too few for solitude. Those roads and rails laid down by Huntington worked too well. They raised the cash he used to build his museum and gallery and gardens, and they lured millions here where a century ago thousands lived. And we all want in.
There's really nowhere for the public to sit apart from where everyone else passes. For safety I am sure, but this does diminish the message of calm. The pavilion facing the hazy mountains we could not see crammed with Chinese taking pictures of each other in a facsimile of a setting I imagined (at least before the Cultural Revolution) commonly found back home. Their voices rang off the stucco and wood. I walked past the throngs and found myself in mud along a trail not yet funded for completion in what will be an ampitheater, as construction continues to make this site an arena for festivity rather than a cove for meditation. So, whatever benefits may be afforded those who stop at Liu Fang Yuan, they may remain more for memory, a contemplation plucked later if amidst the city to which I had to return.
I drove up Allen Ave. through Pasadena, on a straight route that neatly terminated where I picked up my boys from school. They sought their own cultural tastes, so we stopped at the local library for them to check out graphic novels for vacation. On that shelf, my eldest showed me Harvey Pekar's on the Beats and R. Crumb's on Kafka. So, another Californian, a near neighbor to a robber baron, can drive down Huntington Drive (or pass Huntington Park on the way to Huntington Beach), to pass on another patrimony. My sons admire media that may one day join Blake's Tyger and the Cook's Tale illuminated that day on display from the Ellesmere Chaucer. Even if they don't follow their father into a Middle English text or a Zen garden's raking.
Photo: The Huntington.org