Margolin share his and other 'first sightings' of California

August 1, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books, remembers the first time he saw California.

It was 1967, the Summer of Love, and he had no idea, being a committed Easterner, that something was going to happen that summer that would change his life.

Margolin was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1964. He then moved to New York City.

"I loved living in New York, the writing life and the culture. I thought I would spend my life on the Lower East Side. But my wife and I rented this car and drove out across the plains, the badlands, the desert and came to this place called Yosemite and I was just knocked out by it. It was so wonderfully colorful."

He remembers floating down the Merced River on an air mattress.

"And then we came to downtown Berkeley. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I discovered California and it came with amazing freshness," he added.

He soon discovered Tilden Park, too, and remembers seeing a deer in the wilds of the park and a truly breathtaking view across the Bay.

But the summer was coming to an end and they had to drive back to New York City. So they did, but they also made two resolutions: to have kids and move to California.

"And neither one was a mistake," the bearded Margolin said, speaking in Davis earlier this month.

In the 32 years that have passed since his first sighting of California, it's safe to say that Margolin has lost very little of his early enthusiasm. In fact, he has been a publisher for the past 25 years of books devoted to, among other things, a celebration of the history, literature and environment of California.

(So it comes as high praise to have Margolin thrilled to be in Davis on a hot July night. "Davis has become the center of my world," he said. Why? Because of the work being done by eco-poet Gary Snyder; the Art of the Wild writing program conceived by Jack Hicks; ongoing studies by Native Americans Jack Forbes and David Riesling, and environmental design projects by Heath Schenker. "This is the most exciting place you could ask for," said Margolin.)

"This fresh discovery of California has been repeated again and again from the first Europeans to the present," said Margolin. He read excerpts from diaries kept in 1769 when soldiers making up the first expedition from Spain trudged up the coast from Mexico to the San Francisco Bay. These early reports, written under great physical duress, record the beauty of the virgin land as they began the process of mapping, planning for missions, and assigning everything European names.

Margolin read diary excerpts from several different expeditions and pioneer journals through the years, struck by the freshness and energy of each description.

The poet Philip Levine has written more recently about his first night in California, too. That memorable night took place at a motel in Squaw Valley. Levine knew he had arrived when he tuned into Berkeley's KPFA and heard the late poet Kenneth Rexroth reading his poetry. A poet on the radio!

In fact, said Margolin, a whole literary tradition exists based on seeing and describing California for the first time.

Margolin also told the story of another first-time visitor to California shortly before the Soviet Union disintegrated. The woman came to San Francisco with her husband, a translator, on one of his jobs. She was tired, jet-lagged, and recovering from some sort of a bad experience in Brooklyn, her unhappy introduction to the United States. But then Margolin took over. He arranged a picnic on Mt. Tamalpais, and walks to the Zen Center, Muir Beach and dinner at Greens restaurant in San Francisco. The weather cooperated 100 percent, it was perfect. At dinner the woman, who had been rather quiet all day, said this: "I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. It's as if I have been in a box all my life and someone just let me out."

Margolin said Heyday Books has republished many of the diaries he read from. He also has written "The East Bay Out: A Personal Guide to the East Bay" (1974), "The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories and Songs" (1993) and he is the publisher and co-editor of "News From Native California," a quarterly magazine that he founded in 1987.

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