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Two books of Sierra Nevada writings, with Davis connections, featured at Friday book-signing

Former Davis resident Norman Schaefer will sign copies of his book, "The Sunny Top of California — Sierra Nevada Poems and A Story," at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Avid Reader. Courtesy photo

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From page A4 | April 10, 2012 | Leave Comment

Two books collecting poems and prose about the Sierra Nevada will be featured in a book-signing at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in Davis.

One featured title will be “The Sunny Top of California — Sierra Nevada Poems and A Story” by Norman Schaefer, who lived in Davis from 1966 to 2004. Schaefer first visited the Sierra Nevada in 1969 — a trip that took him up Highway 50, and then by trail into Desolation Valley in Eldorado National Forest.

“I smelled the bark of a Jeffrey pine, learned Indian paintbrush and saw my first bear. After climbing Pyramid Peak the next day, I was hooked,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer ultimately walked from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park on one trip, and also hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.

On one of his camping trips, Schaefer had the uncommon experience of being attacked by a bear while he was asleep in his sleeping bag. He escaped with relatively minor injuries — the bear was far more interested in the sleeping bag itself, rather than its human occupant.

It is an experience Schaefer recounts in the essay “Bear Lessons,” which forms the third of the book’s four sections.

“(The bear’s) curved, almost catlike claws, sharpened by constant contact with granite, stream gravels, dirt, sand and tree bark, cut all the way through my sleeping bag, wool sweater and long underwear and scraped my back.

“Like a fish to a hook my mind rose to the fact that a bear was on my back, and instinctively I rolled over, faced him, and yelled ‘Bear!’ as loudly as I could.

“In the Sierra, making loud noises like shouting or beating an iron frying pan with a long-handled spoon usually chases a bear away, but when he didn’t move it was ‘root hog or die,’ and I grabbed the thick coarse fur below his throat and tried to push him off.”

Schaefer earned a degree in art history at UC Davis, and he worked as a gardener and a laborer for a number of years. He started writing in 1991, at the age of 44. “It came late to me,” he told The Enterprise.

Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who started teaching at UCD in 1987, recalls that Schaefer “sat in on one of my early poetry workshops (at UCD) in the early 1990s, and after the first year I told him, ‘You’re good enough now to keep going on your own and leave other influences behind.’ ”

Describing the poems in Schaefer’s book, Snyder said, “Many are physical, muscular, gritty and full of fresh air. I know of nobody else who catches the feel of the high country rocks, trails and winds with the immediacy that Norman does.”

The other book to be featured at Friday’s signing is “In The Sierra: Mountain Writings” by Kenneth Rexroth, edited by longtime Davis resident and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson.

Rexroth (1905-1982) was a major figure in San Francisco’s literary renaissance during the 1950s and ’60s — as a poet, a translator of ancient Chinese and Japanese poems, an essayist and a playwright.

The book collects in one volume Rexroth’s writings about the Sierra Nevada — including nature poems, prose selections from his memoir, newspaper columns (Rexroth was a regular in the San Francisco Examiner for decades), correspondence and sections from a “how to” book for novice Sierra campers (written during the Great Depression for the Works Progress Administration).

Robinson said that while “Rexroth is often seen as a San Francisco poet, a lot of people were not getting what a fantastic mountain-and-nature poet he is.” That’s partly because Rexroth’s writing in this vein is scattered over different books, or has been out of print for decades.

“So I drew the material from about 40 different sources, representing about 40 years of Rexroth’s life, from age 27 to 67,” Robinson said.

Appropriately enough, the book is published by New Directions, which published much of Rexroth’s work. Rexroth was a friend of founding New Directions publisher James Laughlin (1914-1997), and Rexroth recommended West Coast poets like Snyder and William Everson to New Directions.

There are several  links between Schaefer’s book and Rexroth’s, both in terms of themes and occasionally in a more literal sense as well. At one point, Schaefer writes about an October Sierra camping trip in which he wakes up at night and spends some time reading “a dog-eared copy of Rexroth’s (translation of)  ‘One Hundred Poems from the Chinese’ ” by flashlight, and looks up at the stars.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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