Impressions of Marin County

Sitting around the dinner table a little while ago, dogs at my feet and a family of eyes on me, I was asked what I thought of Marin. I found myself struggling to answer. Not because I didn’t have anything to say about it – quite the opposite. I hadn’t yet been able to fathom what this strange stretch of land immediately north of San Francisco really meant to me.

I’ve been going to Marin for years. Like many places steeped in a rich history, Marin becomes more mysterious, more complex, with every visit. It has multiple personalities rooted in its timeless features: the pristine rolling hills; the charming, inconsistent architecture; the swathes of artists; the many deep and unexplored forests; the ludicrous wealth; the ubiquity of water and that perpetual, creeping marine layer.

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Each element found its way into my consciousness that first time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and through the rainbow-rimmed tunnel. Little did I know, driving out the other side and into the saturated Pacific sky, that Marin was to become everything I thought was at once beautiful and devastating about this country. I’ve since found it impossible to talk about the place without sounding woefully obsessed with a long lost beloved (the love/hate kind in particular).

These were the thoughts racing through my head in the seconds after the question had been fired.

‘It’s tragic,’ I replied.

The county of Marin occupies an odd place in American consciousness: somewhere between a staple of cultural heritage and just another suburban landscape for the wealthy to put their feet up on the weekends. To much of the country, Marin county is yet another example of the growing divide between rich white folk and the disenchanted working classes. Demographic aside, such a generalisation disregards the vast cultural impact the place has had on this country.

More importantly, it ignores the remarkable changes happening today to reignite the movement that changed the shape of the nation’s social and political identity over the past century.

In the mid 1950s, Marin saw an influx of artists of every ilk – writers, potters, chefs, painters and philosophers, among others – who sought to escape the trappings of the city and the materialist brand of modernity it propagated. The move from city to forest was somewhat seamless. The burst of political activism and corresponding literary publications in the Bay Area from the fifties onwards was rooted in what is known as the beat generation, coined famously by Jack Kerouac in 1948. The movement flourished throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, all the while sparking an exodus to the houseboats of Sausalito and the log cabins above Mill Valley. By living within nature, influential figures such as Alan Watts and Elsa Gidlow sought to establish a return to a simple, communal existence. The forest embodied a literal and proverbial liberation from the toxicity of civilization, in which to create a space entirely devoted to artistic and spiritual endeavour.

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The sixties in the Bay Area brought with it the dawn of the hippie movement, defined by its calls for free speech and a politics founded on solidarity and love. During this time, multiple artist collectives sprouted across San Francisco and Marin in small towns such at Fairfax, San Rafael and Bolinas. When the influence of city life crept into Marin – that is, when crossing the bridge wasn’t enough to escape the ‘city’ – the original wave of exiles fled deeper into the county. One such influential community buried itself within the woods on Mount Tamalpais (“Mt Tam”). This little collective – no more than a handful of structures built mostly from wood – was known as Druid Heights.

Druid Heights has grown to bear almost mythical status, (thankfully) proving difficult for anyone to find, including locals. The commune consisted of a library, several studios and a few living spaces. ‘With [Elsa Gidlow’s] skill as a gardener and [Roger Somers’] as an architect,’ the philosopher and Druid Heights resident Alan Watts described it, ‘they transformed this area into a paradise, a Garden of Eden.’ Several buildings in the hamlet still stand today. The current inhabitants live as the artists did who came before them: devoted to a life within their means, self-sustaining, among nature and for nature. Maps showing the commune’s specific location are hard to find. Several I’ve seen display vastly different locations.

The lifestyle implied by Druid Heights has echoes in Rousseau’s noble savage. In particular, the thought that man in a state of nature is man where he or she is supposed to be. This of course lies in pointed contrast to modern man, swayed as he is by the follies of status and wealth. The collective was a statement as much as it was a lifestyle. Druid Heights, Watts wrote, ‘has what people who are only rich find so frustrating, because you cannot buy it with money.’

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Walking through Sausalito one evening, I thought about how different the current conception of the artist is from what it was only a decade or two ago. Today, artists and bankers alike will sit in an office; the act of creation of course extends beyond that of the easel or the recording studio. I needed only to take a bus back from Marin to San Francisco (“the city”) to find that most of my fellow commuters were artists working at studios in and around Mill Valley. I was told these hidden studios are today nestled among the hills surrounding the towns at the base of Mt Tam. Little has changed, then.

But cultural legacy is only one side of Marin. The ideas expounded by those who fled to its forests were founded on the principle that immersing oneself in man’s natural state is most conducive to the act of artistic creation, one that lives on to this day. 

This isn’t so evident on the surface. The artistic flourish of the fifties, sixties and seventies in Marin has dispersed. Wondering around one of its larger towns, Mill Valley, there remains an overbearing nostalgia of a place once teeming with musicians and poets. Like much of wealthy suburban America, the artists who once wandered the streets in a mushroom-induced sway have been replaced by Lululemon-clad housewives pushing their prams from one boutique store to the next.

There are, however, a few gems in this gorgeous little town nestled in the hills. Particularly good coffee and a serene atmosphere in which to read can be found at Equator Coffee, located in the town’s centre. For a cheap but tasty lunch, the bookstore in the main square doubles as a cafe called the Depot. I had the bagel and lox, the salmon caught that morning – and tasting like it.

The only hotel in town is the modest yet charming Mill Valley Inn, also centrally located but on a quiet street leading up to the forest. My room was tastefully decorated in a comfortable Californian white linen with a view out onto the wooded hills along Mt Tam. The service was fantastic. More than anything else my time there felt like that of a welcoming home, making it one of the most pleasant hotel experiences I’ve had in months.

Sausalito was my next stop. This hillside town will forever be associated with the houseboats that line its shores. Despite the influx of wealth onto the peninsula and its neighbours – Belvedere and Tiburon – Sausalito preserves its nautical charm through its various sleepy marinas and understated bars and restaurants. For a light and healthy lunch, Cibo is consistently brilliant, offering a range of fresh sandwiches and salads. The Vegetable Hash stands out as a particularly tasty and filling option.

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Across the road is the local favourite, Fish, where you can find some of the best fish and chips this side of the Atlantic.

For dinner or a glass of wine from nearby Napa and Sonoma wineries, Bar Bocce sits across the road from Cibo, right on the water. My favourite time to go is at sunset, as the boats sail into the harbour and the water turns silver under the sky. Huddle around the fire pit with a glass of wine on a chilly evening or sit under the veranda eating one of their wonderful pizzas. I never leave Sausalito without visiting Bar Bocce at least once with a few friends.

It is around calm waters, dear friends and good food that I stumble upon peace of mind. Sausalito has a way of always delivering on this rare feeling.

***

What is the feeling of Marin? Despite its stark homogeneity and the pristine lifestyle it now represents, I find myself heartened by its inability to shake its colourful past. As I sat reading in a small coffee shop waiting for the hourly bus back to the city, several people sparked conversations with me regarding the book of poetry (Ginsberg…when in Rome) I was reading. I didn’t imagine the hint of wistfulness I detected in one stranger’s voice when she spoke of what the beat poets’ legacy meant to her.

Between the clothing boutiques and plastic surgery clinics stand Buddhist centers and small bookshops that look the same as they must have done fifty years ago. One morning, as I drove up and over the mountain to the coast along a tree-lined pass steeped in fog, I flew by house after house built from old wooden frames that give the appearance of having been patched together from idle planks of driftwood on a long walk. Several of Sausalito’s houseboats have the same precarious look, as though one loose nail could crumble the entire structure. Affect or not, I’m continuously captivated by the ways in which so many of Marin’s details betray its fascination with the past.

What motivated me to write about Marin is not its rich past. More interesting to me than the writers and hippies who descended upon Marin in the twentieth century are the children of many of those artists. Today, the Marin spirit of artisanal craftsmanship and free thought is being powerfully articulated by a group of young creatives who share the goal of modernising the ideas so powerfully expounded by the generation before them.

How to describe this new brand of Marin ‘culture’? Over the past several decades the values implicit in the hippie movement found a voice in a convergence of the environmental movement with a way of life informed largely by eastern philosophy, particularly that of Buddhism. In this fusion lies a minimalist, so-called wabi-sabi mentality that prizes negative space over abundance; a culture of sustainable living paired with lifestyle design. In art, we see a blend of Japanese and Californian craftsmanship embodied in everything from architecture to food. These East-West cultural syntheses amount to an approach to living that incorporates a deep consideration of the environment alongside personal mental and physical wellbeing.

Gimmicky rip-offs of this life philosophy abound. Brands today devote millions of dollars in marketing towards the millennial penchant for minimalist sustainable living and other lifestyle trends. For what it’s worth, the aims of the current wellness movement, including a systematic ‘decluttering’ of one’s mental and physical lives, are mostly benign and, if executed well, can make a large positive impact to both the individual and the community.

How are these movements, and the lifestyle they suggest, being channeled through art? A few days ago I was introduced to a young artist at the centre of Marin’s creative revival. We’ll call him Sam, for the sake of anonymity. Sam went to art school in LA, he told me, where he developed a fascination with Japanese art. In college he spent most of his time between Japan and his dorm room where he would study the language and styles of Japanese craftsmanship. There he also learnt about the art of sustainable eating and, paired with his love of surfing, cultivated an interest in the relationship between the land, the sea and food. After graduating he had a job lined up in Tokyo working with a local artist, but before leaving, his father mentioned to him that he was thinking of developing a piece of land in Sausalito, next to several of the original beat poets’ boats and residences. The more they thought through the potential of the project, the more attractive the idea of remaining in Northern California and developing the property into something unique became.

Japanese culture and design has for decades endured great popularity in California. The attention to simple, minimalist aesthetics has fueled an enduring trend for Japanese-influenced interiors. We see the roots of this marriage of Californian and Japanese craftsmanship in the beat poets and the revival of East to West design consciousness, alongside Alan Watts, who is largely credited for articulating the teachings of Zen Buddhism for a western audience.

For Sam, the project along the shore of Sausalito represented an opportunity to extend this aesthetic as a way of life. The decision was made to create an updated artistic commune akin to those seen during the sixties and seventies. There would be multiple spaces for galleries, a barge devoted to entertaining large groups for dinners, shipping containers converted into experimental art studios and several cabins that would host artists in residence. Motivating the entire project is an innate desire to promote the creation of art in dialogue with others around us (in contrast to the classical vision of the artist-hero toiling away in his studio for months in self-imposed isolation). I couldn’t help thinking, as Sam told me all this while walking through the property, that the project represented what Northern California, and Marin in particular, has always fostered: the value of community in art.

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Sam’s idea of the artist is distinctly modern. The artist is the chef, the dancer, the maker of organic soaps, the local gardener. He wants to avoid the commune becoming a space for MFA types looking for what he calls ‘white cube gallery art.’ But then again, despite its wealth, Sausalito has never been the place for that crowd; its Californian counterparts – artsy coastal towns such as Laguna beach and Carmel – happily fill this space. If history is anything to go by, then, I doubt Sam will have trouble attracting the right types.

The underlying feeling I got from the project was that it is genuine. Nothing about Sam’s pitch felt affected. From the assortment of books on the floor, the scant dining spaces, the variety of architectural inspiration for the larger gallery he wants to build beside the commune, I gathered a real sense of the sincerity and fearlessness of the whole idea. That mindset is why I have faith in Sam to pull it off.

There is, as is often the case in places of immense beauty, an elephant in the room feeling to Marin. It is the feeling I get when I hike in the headlands, or walk along the silky beaches, or wander the little galleries in one of its many tiny towns: that it is all, in a way, out of reach for most of us.

Perhaps this is where the tragedy of Marin lies. I’m only ever there to visit, never to stay. In this life rarely do I get to see an idea grow through inception to finish – one of the perils of constant travel. In Marin it feels like no matter how much time I spend there I will never get to see the end product of its artistic toils, the ‘goal,’ if there is such a thing. 

***

It was early September in Stinson – a long beach on Marin’s stretch of coast leading up to the sleepy town of Bolinas – when I was asked the question at dinner. I’d been invited to a friend’s house on the dunes overlooking the ocean. The interior was a clean white spread with large sofas and a stream of people and dogs flowing through the doors. On the first night I decided somewhat impulsively that I’d cook for everyone. As I chopped the vegetables the whole family gathered around the kitchen counter engaged in various conversations. The dogs sat at our feet mumbling, as if to tell us where they, too, would live next, the places they’d like to visit, what it meant to be from Marin.

This last topic kept coming up over the following days. Walking along the beach with the dogs the next morning, my friend told me that despite her thirst for travel, she feared she might never leave Marin if she worked here, or if it were socially acceptable to just ‘be’ in a single place. I smiled at this, my subconscious conspiring with her. I could do it. A marine layer rested above the beach that day, the horizon morphing sea and sky into a silver cloth broken only by the bobbing masts of wooden fishing boats.

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I am comfortable here. Comfortable around a family, comfortable by the ocean, by nature. By dogs. Comfortable knowing that Sam is doing what he’s doing.

But comfort isn’t enough, nor is it ever enough, really. I resonate with the pace of life here and will likely, somehow, make it a home one day. But like any home, Marin is also my point of departure. I will always be here, just as a part of me will always be in the places I have travelled to and lived. 

‘It’s tragic, yes,’ I said. ‘No matter how much it changes it always feels stuck in the past.’ I told the dinner party about Sam and his project. I told them that the feeling of Marin, for me, is one of nostalgia. One of ongoing creation and re-creation. Like the rest of us, Marin is in a constant state of becoming. 

The conversation stood there, undeveloped, just as I’d wanted it to. Before I knew it we were back to heavy politics. The dogs sighed beneath us. For a brief moment I understood the fleeing artists, those mavericks who first buried themselves in the forests away from the plague of civilization. Maybe one day, I thought. 

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