The Fog of Progress

January 17, 1982
Selfie in a library parking lot, Southwest Bakersfield, 1982

Bakersfield is famous for its tule fog. It’s literally a low flying cloud that just can’t escape the ground. Lots of people die in automobile accidents during the fog season, but growing up there, I loved it. Fog days!

Fog is a powerful metaphor, and random google searching brought a short summary lecture on YouTube to my attention. The fog of progress, a final lecture in an online class on machine learning and neural networks, describes why it is so difficult to predict the future in quite meticulous and scientific terms.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s just as difficult to see through the fog of progress to understand the past.

Looking through some more of the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs, I started scratching my head trying to figure out where I took a particular photograph. It isn’t one of my favorites from the series, but I distinctly remember trying to make it work (visually) but thinking of it as a failure. Intellectually though, it’s a new favorite.

King Lumber Company
King Lumber Company, McFarland, CA March 1993

The project I undertook in the early 90s to photograph odd bits of landscape in the Central Valley was inspired by a musician friend, Scott Sturdevant (a.k.a Slim the Drifter) who recorded a cassette called “Songs from the Valley Towns.” Most people thought of the valley disparagingly (as far back as 1873, it turns out), but when Scott looked around he saw the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there. I saw those same hopes and dreams in the landscape. When dreams are in ruins, it’s hard to see them through the fog. There are a lot of ruins along Highway 99.

This photograph was one of the first I can identify from the series. I drove up Highway 99 from Bakersfield to the first real exit worth getting off at, which might have been McFarland— yes, the same McFarland immortalized by Kevin Costner in the 2015 track movie. I remembered vaguely, revisiting this one, that it was King Lumber Company (hard to forget, given the “crown” cut in the sign.) Nothing much remained but the “Co.” One of the great innovations, in my opinion, of photography in the 21st century is GPS data. It’s hard to remember where you actually took photographs as the fog of years rolls in.

King Lumber was a big clue, it turns out. Looking further into it turned up this photo from Bakersfield, captioned as being a location on Union Avenue (old Highway 99, actually) from 1911:

c45f637ba573b371bf77b43b9a98dd96A bit more research turned up that King Lumber was founded by twin brothers Everett and Elmore King, circa 1904.

Elmore-King The California Lumber Merchant from April 1, 1923 tells a story of Elmore King slipping out of a posh dinner to exchange clothes with the chef, in order to confront his host and demand payment up front for dinner.

His lumber empire grew to be huge. He founded a brick company as well, and I found notices that he became an importer of straw hats, clearly a great opportunity given the Bakersfield sun.

The trade publications also noted that he loved to play golf, and there are multiple references to his performance as a golfer. He expanded King Lumber to at least five different locations up and down the valley.

I located the address of the McFarland location from an old ad from 1961. This is what it looks like now, courtesy of Google street view:

KIng Lumber McFarland

The telephone poles are still there, and Highway 99, but not much else. King was the founder of a huge empire that is now largely gone. One thing seems to have survived from the King empire, at least in spirit. Although it’s a different organization from the Kern River Country Club King helped found (which died in 1935) The Bakersfield Country Club is located on the same spot.

Bakersfield Country Club is the area’s most exclusive golf club offering a limited number of full equity memberships and non-equity tennis and social memberships. It has a friendly tradition that started with its founding members. These were families with great pride and values born out of the farmlands and oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. These same values and friendliness have survived into second and third generation memberships since the inception of Bakersfield Country Club. There are many golf, tennis, and social events that keep the calendar busy year round.

I visited the Bakersfield Country Club once around the time that the photograph at the top of this post was taken, somewhere between 1980-82. The club is located near the Kern River, next to Lake Ming in a fairly deep valley, traversed by Alfred Harrell Highway. In the early years, the highway lead right to the golf course that the King brothers were instrumental in founding. Elmore King contributed redwood saplings from Eureka to the project. But when I was there, the highway ran from the bluffs on Panorama Heights to Highway 178, the Kern Canyon Highway. Notably, the county dump sat midway between, with oil fields on the other side of the river to the north, where my father worked until he retired in late 1982.

I wasn’t a member of the country club, but the lumber and hardware store where I worked, Sackett and Peters, threw a Christmas party there. I remember that party well, because it was the first and last time they ever booked the country club in the fog season. Down in the river basin, the fog was about a hundred times worse than it was in the city. By the time we stumbled out of the party around 2am, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t, without exaggeration, see the end of your own car from the driver’s seat.

Most people gave up and slept in the parking lot. However, my girlfriend Lisa and I braved it, along with Jim Powell, a nursery salesman and good friend of mine. Lisa and I were in my old Ford, and Jim had a small pick-up truck. It seemed like it took around an hour to locate the exit to the parking lot. I was reduced to driving with my door open, following the curb around the perimeter. Jim followed my tail lights, because my car was lower to the ground and it was easier to see the curb. When we got out of the parking lot (the toughest challenge of the night) the road up to Alfred Harrell Highway was easier; as you got higher, the visibility improved slightly.

Jim and I parted ways at the highway. I remember trying to convince him not to go his normal route back to his house in Panorama Heights (because the road dipped down lower from there), but he decided to brave it anyway. I turned left, toward the relative safety of the mountains. Jim headed towards the dump. I knew those roads like the back of my hand and felt like even if I couldn’t see, I could still drive them, and I’m sure Jim felt that same confidence of youth. Lisa and I made it home fine, as did Jim.

It dawned on me, as I went through the trouble of remembering this foggy story, and using arcane resources to locate addresses lost decades ago, that “the fog of progress” works both ways. While we are in constant danger, moving forward, of hitting the car that rides just ahead of us, we also flirt with the problem of running into the cars we used to be in, colliding with the past just as surely as we might crash into the future. After all, today is yesterday.

Oddly enough, this also implies the rota fortune, a distinctly medieval, rather than progressive, concept.

Personality Crisis

New York DollsAnd you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon, hooowww

All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got

Now with all the crossin’ fingers that mother nature says
Your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends

I doubt very much if Bernard Leach would have cared for the New York Dolls. And yet somehow, the conclusion of A Potter’s Book made me think about  “Personality Crisis.”  Civilization’s mirror is indeed jammed up with all our friends:

Personal relationships of a group of individual craftsmen are not easy to resolve. The inability to give and take seems to be more pronounced than in ordinary human contacts. In the East, restraining influences of tradition still enable people to work together as the limbs of a body under the directing mind, with us a more highly developed individualism, nowhere more conspicuous than among artist-craftsmen, tends to create an impatient and critical desire for independence.

Experience prompts me to advise any young potter contemplating sharing a workshop with others to choose untrained local labour. Likely boys learn the jobs quickly, enjoy them, and readily form a permanent team if sensibly handled. An older man, trained in the pre-War Winchcombe Potter making pancheons and flower-pots is an asset, for such men know their locality and set a standard of horse-sense and breadth of treatment necessarily lacking in art students. In many cases the latter are capable of doing excellent work under direction, or as moderately free members of a group which is held together by a living tradition, but it is quite another matter when they cast off their shackles and begin to make shapes and patterns of their own.

They then usually join the ranks of the thousands of indeterminate second-rate artists for which high industrialism is responsible. It stands to reason that only rarely does the work of a student from one of the Schools of Art bear the imprint of a character. It is difficult to advise those whom one feels practically certain will not achieve genuine originality. (257-8)

poindexter_inThe problem, as always, is who gets to say whether a unique moment in the history of craft (such as the New York Dolls) is “genuinely original”? I find it altogether too fitting that David Johansen’s next move was to appropriate a traditional form and re-introduce it.

This reminds me of a strange moment in my own history, during the heyday of Buster Poindexter. My friend Slim was appalled that I wasn’t familiar with the New York Dolls, and made it his mission to introduce me to a lot of the old school punks. We were listening to a Replacements album that I hadn’t heard that he bought me one evening.

The blinds were drawn, and a few minutes in there was a knock on the door. It was the police. They informed me that they were there to search the premises and did not require a warrant because I was currently sheltering a parolee (my first wife’s little sister).

As twenty policemen (I’m not exaggerating) filled my living room, they started looking at my walls and noticed the hundreds of photographs that surrounded them. One asked:

“are you a professional photographer?”

Slim, in his typically punk fashion, replied: “Oh, he’s just a second rater!”

It may sound odd,  but it was the biggest compliment that he could think to give me. I thought he was brilliant, and he was sure that all the best people were “second-rate,” at least when examined by people who were fans of the current popular taste. It became a bit of an inside joke between us; we were the “second raters.”

Bernard Leach, obviously, isn’t using it as a compliment, and doesn’t think the modern “personality crisis” is a good thing either:

In a machine age, artist-craftsmen, working primarily with their hands, represent a natural reaction valid as individual expression, and they should be the source of creative design for mass-production whether they work in conjunction with industry or not. The machine has split the human personality.

It has brought humanity within sight of safety and leisure for the first time in history, but at this moment fear of a universal disaster is upon us all, and the only leisure is of the unemployed and the rich and idle, because we have not learned how to use art, science, leisure, or real wealth. Instead, we increase the tempo of industrial slavery, and, refusing to distribute money equal in value to saleable goods and madly pursuing escapist pleasure, we allow under-consumption to be described as over-production, and as a consequence the sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself.

Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognized function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. (258-9)

Herbert Read has a completely different take; he declares that the “humanists” have lost the battle and that the reigns of industrial design belong to a special class of abstract mathematicians, as rare as artists but even more precious. The designer is, according to all accounts at the turn of the twentieth century, something to be severed from the reigns of the average “artist-craftsman.” Even Leach suggests that only a few carefully selected traditions are worth of continuing into a new age.

Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say. Not improbably those who seek the meaning and beauty of life through art may suffer an eclipse, but meanwhile let us ‘bring out weight and measure in a year of dearth,’ as William Blake urged amidst the blindness and apathy of early industrialism. (259)

I suppose that the New York Dolls/Buster Poindexter moment might be a perfect example of the “decay and recrudescence” that Leach is on about; Poindexter and the resurgence of lounge singers of the old school did indeed happen in the era of post-punk.

The Blake quote is quite interesting. It’s from “the proverbs of hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of aphorisms where only about half of them can be considered as useful: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is another one. Really? Sounds like something Satan might say, which is of course what Blake was on about. It’s hard to tell the devils from the gods, really. Not exactly a set of prescriptions for the good life.

Bringing out “weight and measure in a year of dearth” would have been precisely the wrong move in reaction to the punk rock movement; some of the most raucous voices in the punk movement also turned out to be the most eloquent. Another “proverb from hell” springs to mind as I read Leach: “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

Isn’t it ironic? And not in Alanis Morrisette’s usage. Leach’s personality crisis doesn’t seem as useful as David Johansen’s. Perhaps, like Rev. Dr. Trusler, he’s fallen out with the spirit world.