As we have pointed out in other barely read missives, Anaheim Landing is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year — making it (and thus Seal Beach) Orange County’s second oldest community — behind only the Mother Colony herself, Anaheim.
There are actually plenty of descriptions about the Landing’s early days — most are newspaper articles, but there is also an essay about the Landing by future Nobel winning author Henryk Synkiewicz. (He would win for authoring Quo Vadis.)
In the early spring of 1876 Synkiewicz and another Polish intellectual were sent to California by a group of Polish artists and writers seeking not only to flee Russian tyranny but to locate a new commune based on Thoreau-eque (i.e., Walden Pond-ish) principles. The other gentleman returned to Poland with glowing accounts from California; Sienkiewicz, who had set himself up in a shack at Anaheim Landing, wrote equally enticing reports of the weather, the land, and most of all, the possibilities. The reports motivated a commune of Polish artists, including Madame Helena Modjeska, to come to the Orange County area and establish residence in a two bedroom farmhouse. After six months, the practicality of the artists commune did not live up to its hoped for ideal, and the artists separated. Modjeska returned to the stage in America and earned great acclaim. Sienkewicz returned home where his best days were still ahead of him.
While at the Landing, Sienkewicz wrote rough drafts of short stories that became parts of his later more extensive efforts. His essay “The Cranes” tells how Anaheim Landing was the inspiration for one of his well-known works.
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Translator: Jeremiah Curtin
Homesickness (nostalgia) tortures mainly people who for various reasons are utterly unable to return to their own country, but even those for whom return is merely a question of will power feel its attacks sometimes. The cause may be anything: a sunrise or a sunset which calls to mind a dawn or an evening at home, some note of a foreign song in which the rhythm of one’s own country is heard, some group of trees which call to mind remotely the native village–anything suffices!
At such moments an immense, irresistible sadness seizes hold on the heart, and immediately a feeling comes to a man that he is, as it were, a leaf torn away from a distant but beloved tree. And in such moments the man is forced to return, or, if he has imagination, he is driven to create.
Once–a good many years back–I was sojourning on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in a place called Anaheim Landing. My society was made up of some sailor fishermen, Norwegians for the greater part, and a German, who gave food to those fishermen and lodged them. Their days were passed on the water; every evening they amused themselves with poker, a game at cards which years ago was common in all the dramshops of America, long before fashionable ladies in Europe began to play it. I was quite alone, and my time passed in wandering with a gun over the open plain or along the shore of the Pacific. I visited the sandbanks which a small river made as with a broad mouth it entered the ocean; I waded in the shallow waters of this river, noted its unknown fishes, its shells, and looked at the great sea-lions which sunned themselves on a number of rocks at the river mouth. Opposite was a small sandy island swarming with mews, pelicans, and albatrosses; a real and populous bird commonwealth, filled with cries and uproar.
At times, when the day was calm, and when amid silence the surface of the water took on a tinge almost violet, changing into gold, I sat in a boat and rowed toward the little island, on which pelicans, unused to the sight of man, looked at me less with fear than astonishment, as if wishing to ask, “What sort of seal is this that we have not seen till to-day?” Frequently I looked from that bank at sunsets which were simply marvellous; they changed the whole horizon into one sea, gleaming with gold, fire, and opal, which, passing into a brilliant purple, faded gradually until the moon shone on the amethyst background of the heavens, and the wonderful semi-tropical night had embraced the earth and the sky. The empty land, the endlessness of the ocean, and the excess of light disposed me somewhat toward mysticism. I became pantheistic, and had the feeling that everything surrounding me formed a certain single great soul which appears as the ocean, the sky, the plain, or diminishes into such small living existences as birds, fish, shells, or broom on the ocean shore. At times I thought also that those sand-hills and empty banks might be inhabited by invisible beings like the ancient Greek fauns, nymphs, or naiads. A man does not believe in such things when he turns to his own reason; but involuntarily he admits that they are possible when he lives only with Nature and in perfect seclusion. Life changes then, as it were, into a drowsiness in which visions are more powerful than thought. As for me, I was conscious only of that boundless calm which surrounded me, and I felt that it was pleasant to be in it. At times I thought of future “letters about my journey”; at times, too, I, as a young man, thought also of “her,” the unknown whom I should meet and love some time. In that relaxation of thought, and on that empty, clear ocean shore, amid those uncompleted ideas, undescribed desires, in that half dream, in semi-consciousness, I was happier than ever in life before. But on a certain evening I sat long on the little island and returned to the shore after nightfall. The flowing tide brought me in–I scarcely had need to lift an oar then. In other regions the flow of the tide is tempestuous, but in that land of eternal good weather waves touch the sand shore with gentleness; the ocean does not strike land with an outburst. Such silence surrounded me that a quarter of a mile from the shore line I could have heard the conversation of men. But that shore was unoccupied. I heard only the squeak of the oars on my boat and the low plash of water moved by them.
Just then, from above, certain piercing cries reached me. I raised my head, but on the dark background of the sky I could discern nothing. When the cries were heard a second time, directly above, I recognized in them the voices of cranes.
Evidently a whole flock of cranes was flying somewhere above my head toward the island of Santa Catalina. But I remembered that I had heard cries like those more than once, when as a boy I journeyed from school for vacation–and straightway a mighty homesickness seized hold of me. I returned to the little room which I had hired in the cabin of the German, but could not sleep. Pictures of my country passed then before my mind: now a pine forest, now broad fields with pear trees on the boundaries, now pleasant cottages, now village churches, now white mansions surrounded by dense orchards. I yearned for such scenes all that night.
I went out next morning, as usual, to the sand-banks. I felt that the ocean and the sky, and the sand mounds on the shore, and the plains, and the cliffs on which seals were basking in the sunlight, were things to me absolutely foreign, things with which I had nothing in common, as they had nothing in common with me.
Only yesterday I had wandered about in that neighborhood and had judged that my pulse was beating in answer to the pulse of that immense universe; to-day I put to myself this question: What have I to do here; why do I not go back to my birthplace? The feeling of harmony and sweetness in life had vanished, leaving nothing behind it. Time, which before had seemed so quiet and soothing, which was measured by the ebb and flow of the ocean, now seemed unendurably tedious. I began to think of my own land, of that which had remained in it, and that which had changed with time’s passage.
America and my journey ceased altogether to interest me, and immediately there swarmed in my head a throng of visions ever denser and denser, composed wholly of memories. I could not tear myself free from them, though they brought no delight to me. On the contrary, there was in those memories much sadness, and even suffering, which rose from comparing our sleepy and helpless country life with the bustling activity of America. But the more our life seemed to me helpless and sleepy, the more it mastered my soul, the dearer it grew to me, and the more I longed for it. During succeeding days the visions grew still more definite, and at last imagination began to develop, to arrange, to bring clearness and order into one artistic plan. I began to create my own world.
A week later, on a certain night when the Norwegians went out on the ocean, I sat down in my little room and from under my pen flowed the following words: “In Barania Glova, in the chancellery of the village mayor, it was as calm as in time of sowing poppy seed.”
And thus, because cranes flew over the shore of the Pacific, I composed “Charcoal Sketches.”