On the Summit of Cathedral Peak, 1999. Photograph: Dan Pattitucci
I first went into the Sierra Nevada in the summer of 1969. I was living in Davis, California then, and with two friends drove east up Highway 50 to Twin Bridges where we followed a trail into Desolation Valley by way of Horsetail Falls. 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. I took two long walks in the early eighties: one from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park, and another from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney — the John Muir Trail. In 1995 I started mountaineering in the “High Sierra,” the region from northern Yosemite to southern Sequoia National park and in a few summers climbed all of my favorite peaks. Many of these poems were conceived on mountaineering trips.
In 2004, after living in Davis for nearly forty years, I moved to Port Townsend, Washington in the rain shadow of the Olympics. Beautiful as these mountains are, the Sierra Nevada remains my home range. I still visit twice a year. A migratory bird returns to the same tree.
Norman Schaefer has been a laborer and gardener, climber, and expert Sierra Nevada backpacker for over twenty years. But more than that he is a unique poet. He sat in on one of my early poetry workshops when I was teaching at UC Davis in the early 90s, and after the first year I told him, “You’re good enough now to keep going on your own and leave other influences behind.”
He has stayed in touch with me though and kept me up on his long mountain trips and also his writing. We did a poetry reading together one time in Davis where we each read West Coast mountain poems. I have seen his work become more compressed, refined, and intense over time. His very short poems are wry precise, totally to the point, and memorable, some are unforgettable. “When I lied to her / I felt like an egg / in mid-air.”
The poems in this chapbook Bluest Sky are a selection from a much larger number. They are virtually all from the long, high, almost invisible from outside, California Sierra Nevada. Many of them show the influence of Chinese classical poetry and a bit of Han-shan, the “Cold Mountain” poet. Even so they all have Schaefer’s own stamp. Part of his uniqueness is the modesty and underlying humor woven through the poems. He is a mountain lover without showy piety or bravado.
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. Some are at night, cold, and hungry, but they are always quietly joyful. A story of his life and his practice of walking in the Sierra weaves through the poems.
Norman has given much of his life to this mountain walking. Yet he is not a single-minded fanatic—just a dedicated person (in the old style) of the Way. And as it works out, a fine poet as well.
Poems by Norman Schaefer:
Friend moon, hello again.
I have watched you from hundreds of places
hundreds of nights,
and here where marmots do their perfect work
you bring me my shadow.
you float up like a lost balloon
above Mt. Williamson.
In the free air and free spaces
there is always room enough
and time enough.
Your cool light strangely arouses
and I see why Li Po is said
to have embraced you in a river.
Aspens turn again.
Soon these silver peaks will be dusted with snow
and deer will walk down the dry east slope.
How much I value your companionship.
Shall we meet next spring when the larkspurs bloom
and the good bears prowl the sweet-scented woods?
The Sunny Top of California
Dew gathers on the meadow grasses.
Deneb takes its place in the center of the sky.
Step by step around Rockslide Lake,
keeping my eyes on the radiant moon,
I call out the names of old Chinese poets,
who instruct me by saying nothing.
All my life I’ve loved high lonesome places.
Odors of moss and bark
and cones and twigs and snowmelt mud,
I feel like I’ve been coming to the Sierra
for a thousand years.
A human life is no more than a flicker of lightning,
but to die on a glacier
my bones would be pure forever.
Watching the moon begin its slow descent,
my mind quiets down
until there’s scarcely a ripple.
In the morning I’ll look for a campsite
somewhere green and steep and wild
where a wolverine might feel safe.
I talk brave,
but all I want is an autumn alone
with books and tea
and Bugler cigarettes rolled-your-own,
to be deeply enjoyed without hurry
on the sunny top of California.
Biting wind quivers Dade Lake.
Tonight will be cold on Bear Creek Spire.
Ice rims the creeks.
I sense the sun’s frustration
spread so thin in autumn.
Following a ridge to the summit,
I am led again far out of myself.
To be on any mountain is privilege enough,
but what would I give tonight
for a shot of Early Times
and my lovely neighbor with me
inside my sleeping bag.
Sometimes it seems I climb mountains
when all I need is down on the ground.
Night wind stings.
Gladly will I welcome the morning star.
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