Tuna (Not the Fish)

In Spanish, Tuna Refers to the Fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus

Although the prickly pear cactus grows in all fifty states of the United States, I believe that only in the Southwest does it bring forth an edible fruit. In Spanish, that fruit is called Tuna. It is full of seeds which are easy to spit out, and is not excessively sweet the way some fruits are. In Mexico, it is cheap and readily available. I remember once in the 1980s buying a whole bag for fifty cents, more than I could finish in a month.If you ever visit the Southwest, you should give it a try, as it is not only tasty but incredibly nutritious.

But if you go to Mexico, be careful about ordering a tuna sandwich. The word for tuna (the fish) in Spanish is atun.

 

Cabot Yerxa: A Life in the Desert

Cabot Yerxa as a Young Man

In that great migration westward that characterized the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, there were many men of genius such as Mark Twain, who wrote Roughing It; Frank Hamilton Cushing, the ethnologist who studied the Zuñi Indians of New Mexico; John Muir, the great Scottish-born naturalist; and Cabot Abram Yerxa (1883-1965) who, in discovering the eponymous springs of Desert Hot Springs (DHS), embarked on a fascinating life full of creativity at every turn.

Today he is mostly remembered by a school in DHS named after him, but most especially for the pueblo he built of mostly found materials in imitation of Hopi pueblo architecture.

The Cabot Museum in Desert Hot Springs That Served as Yerxa’s Home

Last Sunday, my brother Dan and I attended a Mexican Day of the Dead festival (more about which in a following post) at the Cabot Museum. There were unfortunately too many attendees for us to take the guided tour of the inside, so that will have to wait for another visit.

When Yerxa first settled in DHS, he had to walk thirteen miles to the nearest known well. Using a dowsing stick, he discovered a well on his own property and commenced to dig. What he found were the first hot springs. That was fine for bathing, perhaps, but not for drinking. Taking up his dowsing stick again, he located another possible candidate and, this time, found cold water not too many feet away from the hot springs. DHS is right on the San Andreas fault, so there is a large underground aquifer in the area that is being replenished by runoff from the surrounding mountains.

The Pueblo Contains Many Examples of Pueblo Indian Art

During the 1950s, Yerxa wrote a series of newspaper columns for The Desert Sun during the 1950s describing his life on the desert. The Cabot Museum Foundation published these columns along with other biographical information in a volume entitled On the Desert Since 1913. In the weeks to come, I intend to reprint some of these columns for this blog.

 

Serendipity: Nabokov’s Mademoiselle

Vladimir Nabokov (L) with Brothers and Sisters

I am in the process of reading one of the greatest biographies ever written: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967). It ranks in my estimation with James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and the Journals of Sir Walter Scott. For many years in his childhood, he had had a French-speaking Swiss nurse called, in his autobiography, simply Mademoiselle. Here, years after she had retired, he describes seeing her in her old age:

Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. “Il pleut toujours en Suisse” [“It always rains in Switzerland”] was one of those casual comments which, formerly, had made Mademoiselle weep. Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself into a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start. But although I soon forgot that dismal light, it was, oddly enough, that night, that compound image—shudder and swan and swell—which first came to my mind when a couple of years later I learned that Mademoiselle had died.

She had spent all her life in feeling miserable: this misery was her native element: its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction? Just before the rhythm I hear falters and fades, I catch myself wondering whether, during the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more she than her chins or her ways or even her French—something perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness,* or to that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancer’s pale arms; something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart.

* Nabokov had bought her deaf old nurse a hearing aid which she said made it possible to hear her former charge’s voice perfectly, except that Nabokov had not said anything.

 

Stuck on Cactus

As I Sat and Rested, I Loved This View

This morning, I returned from a restful and enjoyable weekend with my brother and sister-in-law in the Coachella Valley. It seems that it takes half again as long to return to Los Angeles as it does to leave it. That’s because I usually leave early in the morning, a full hour before rush hour begins. It means staring into the rising sun as I approach Corona, but that lasts less than an hour. As Dan was working on building a home on Friday, I re-visited the Moorten Botanical Garden and hung out there for a couple of hours: It seems I never get bored looking at cacti. Then I went to Sherman’s Deli & Bakery for lunch, and spent the afternoon at a large Barnes & Noble close to where Dan lives. I picked up copies of Henry Green’s Back and Ross Macdonald’s The Way Some People Die. By then, Dan was back, and I drove the mile or so to my final destination.

Saturday was a special day, about which I will probably write a number of postings. In Desert Hot Springs, there is a museum named after and started by Cabot Yerxa, the man who discovered the hot springs at Desert Hot Springs. There was a Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration, a few weeks before the November 2 date that is the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic Liturgy. Dan and I wandered around the premises, but did not take the tour because of the number of people present. I promised myself to return to Cabot’s Museum and lose myself in the wonderful zaniness of one of those original minds that seemed to blossom in the deserts of the Southwest.

Sunday, Dan, his wife Lori, and I went to see Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018) starring Ryan Gosling about the space launches that culminated in the U.S. astronauts first walking on the surface of the Moon. The film was so intense that I was not conscious of two and a half hours passing, which I normally would be. I highly recommend this film.

 

Serendipity: Exile on Exile

Writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

If there is a poster boy for exiles, it is W. G. Sebald, who was born in Germany, but spent most of his life in self-exile. In his collection of essays, Campo Santo, he is curiously unable to come to life talking about the ruins of the Second World War. The farther his subject is from Germany, the better his essays are. One of the very best is “Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov.” Himself an exile from Red Russia, Nabokov became one of the leading lights of American literature. It is from this essay that these selections are taken:

At any rate, the most brilliant passages in his prose often give the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy, whose emissaries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed by the living. Just as they appear to us, Nabokov conjectures, so we appear to them: fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose. They are most commonly encountered in dreams, “in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence,” and are “silent, bothered, strangely depressed,” obviously suffering from their exclusion from society, and for that reason, says Nabokov, “they sit apart, staring at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret.”

Vladimir Nabokov With His Butterflies

.   .   .   .   .   .

In the fifth chapter of Pnin he speaks at length and in different voices of the price you must pay on going into exile: not least, besides the material goods of life, the certainty of your own reality…. Unexpectedly finding themselves on the wrong side of the frontier, [Nabokov’s young emigrant heroes] are airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses, just as their author lived at one remove from the reality of Berlin in the twenties.

 

My Rudeness Backfires

The Santa Monica Pier at Sunset

I was waiting for the Number 1 Santa Monica bus on 4th Street, near the Expo Line Terminus, when two young women suddenly hove into view as my bus was approaching. When I don’t want to talk to strangers—and I almost never do—I answer them … in Hungarian. Well, these two girls went away thinking I was some kind of a genius instead of a rude bastard manqué.

In English, they asked me which way was the ocean.

In Hungarian, I answered, “You mean the beach?” Their eyes widened. How did I know they were Hungarian? I gestured toward the beach and said, “That way!” in my best Magyar. They thanked me profusely as I boarded my bus.

Actually, they were rather cute.