Passion for Place: Community Reflections on the Carmel River Watershed, edited by Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, Laura Bayless and John Dotson. RisingLeaf Impressions, 2012, 172 pages; $49.50
Reviewed by Jonah Raskin
Like rivers, books can take time to reach their destinations. Published in 2012 after years in the making, Passion for Place—a compendium of art, essays, and interviews—is finding a niche close to the river that inspired it.
Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, the editor and driving force behind the book, is taking the book this August, September, and October, along with her own paintings and photographs, to events around Monterey County. The literary Carmelites Mary Austin and George Sterling, who lived in the watershed a hundred years ago, would likely join the festivities if they were around today. So would their summer guests, Jack and Charmian London, who often visited from Sonoma. Jack London raved about Carmel; he’d probably rave about Passion for Place. Like his best books, it takes readers on a journey, in this case inland, upstream, and into a watershed.
The product of grass roots creativity, the coffee-table book offers short stories, poems, sketches, essays, and a CD, plus color paintings and photographs by Berthoin, an Englishwoman who arrived in Carmel in 1965 and has never taken her eyes off the place. In more than 50 dazzling oil paintings, including “View from Carmel Valley Road,” she transforms familiar scenes into magical landscapes with bold, bright colors. Her “Storm Clouds, Los Laureles Grade” conjures an ominous scene that the Big Sur poet, Robinson Jeffers, might have depicted in blank verse.
In the foreword, Freeman House— author of Totem Salmon, a classic about Humboldt’s Mattole River—distinguishes between denizens linked to the land and citizens connected to cities. He suggests that Californians might want to define themselves as inhabitants of watersheds rather than urban or suburban neighborhoods.
In “How I’m Taught Green,” Barbara Mossberg plunges into the vegetation around the river. “It could be a weed, wild, /How it grows by the river, free,/Unplanted by any human hand—a dart of random green,” she writes. Pam Krone-Davis aims to think and feel like a steelhead trout. “When I first hatched from the nest my mother had made in the small stones with her tail, I was very small,” she writes. Mark Stromberg keep track of the animals in and around the river, including a ring-tailed cat that looks in the artist’s rendition like a creature from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Stromberg and fellow denizens depict the watershed as a wonderland to explore and protect—and as an expensive one, too. Inhabiting a beautiful watershed, Stromberg points out, comes with a price tag these days, in more ways that one.
At its best, Passion for Place creates a strong sense of a singular environment that is sacred to Native Americans and beloved by landscape painters such as Berthoin. Moreover, the book could serve as a guide for artists and writers who might want to explore, portray, and work to save California’s endangered watersheds, from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific, and from urban and suburban neighborhoods to rural farmlands.
Jonah Raskin is the author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and their Work and a frequent contributor to Boom.
Images courtesy of Paola Fiorelle Berthoin: painting “View from Carmel Valley Road,” photograph “Reflections on Black Rock Creek Lake.”
On her website—www.passion4place.net—Berthoin posts up-to-date information about events.