Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The postmaster and the activist

                      9. I've been wondering when you'd call
                                                       (From The Far Side of Eden)      
     Shortly after the formation of Friends of the Napa River, Chris Malan heard about Peter Mennen. He was the eccentric St. Helena postmaster, one of a long line of individualists who had been coming to Napa Valley for more than a century to get away from the pressures of life in America, before the valley came to symbolize them. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Mennen was wealthy, the interest in him might have stopped right there.
     His postal customers considered him a friendly, idiosyncratic, intelligent holdover from the sixties, a “character” who had inherited a fortune and dedicated some of it to environmental causes. Few people knew of the extent of his involvement in these things, and that included Chris.
     Friends of the Napa River was sponsoring a river festival, and she decided to call Mennen up and ask him to finance a Klamath River dory, to be offered as a raffle prize, and asking herself, “What do you have to lose?” She looked up his telephone number in the directory and dialed it, and a man with a soft, youthful-sounding voice answered. After she had identified herself, he said, “I’ve been wondering when you’d call.”
     During the fight over Stanley Ranch, Chris called Mennen again. She was peripherally involved and wanted him to speak at a gathering in Napa against the project, since Mennen often stood up at public meetings and expressed opposition to development. His letters to the editor were surprisingly hard-hitting for a public servant, but his attention, and his money, was usually focused on organizations operating outside the county. That was the word on Mennen and his wife, Carlene, a figure less outspoken than Mennen himself, as together they engaged by proxy in distant battles in Utah and elsewhere.
     The Mennens had political preferences at home, too, but remained apart from the local environmental organizations and indifferent to the reigning social hierarchy. This rendered them sideliners to the greens and irrelevant to the local elite, who tended to assess those in the valley by their access to the celebrated producers of its famous product and who didn’t keep up with environmental activities elsewhere in the nation.
     Then in 1998 the Mennens held a fundraiser for Mike Thompson, who was running for the U.S. Congress for the first time. They invited most everybody in the valley with any claim to being “environmental,” and that included Chris Malan. She took her photographs with her, as was her habit, those taken by Parry Mead from the airplane showing razed land high in the hills, dire evidence of environmental damage, and these included photographs of Jayson Pahlmeyer’s new vineyard, put in under the supervision of David Abreu.
     The Mennens lived in a modest subdivision in St. Helena, just down the street from Stu Smith and his new wife, Julie Ann, and the Mennens’ front yard was quite unlike others on Sylvaner Avenue. No neatly mowed lawn, no lawn at all, in fact, just a postage stamp of natural aridity that annoyed the neighbors, all rock and wild azaleas and a coffeeberry tree that attracted birds in unusual numbers. Inside, the little house had a Southwest feel, nothing fancy, with wooden beams and nice wooden furniture and sliding glass doors overlooking the creek between the Mennens’ and the Spottswoode vineyard which also, in season, flowed past Peter Newton’s and Buddy Meyer’s properties on its way to Sulphur Creek and the Napa River, San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay, and finally the Pacific Ocean.
     Peter Mennen didn’t look like a postmaster to Chris. He was tall and casually dressed, and the clear stems of his glasses disappeared into abundant hair that had turned from blond to off-white without aging him. Carlene, Mennen’s physiognomic opposite, was maybe five feet six, with black eyes and a mien more American Indian than Anglo. She had straight black hair much like Chris’s and, if truth be told, looked a little bit like Chris: solid, dark complexion, with a transforming smile and a level gaze.
     When Chris showed the photographs to her hostess, Carlene said, “You’re ruining my dinner.”
     Undeterred, Chris asked why she and her husband spent money on environmental causes far from Napa when right here there was much to be done. Home was the problem, Chris said, launching into her familiar refrain: people will work, and spend, to protect distant mountains, wild washes, even the Napa Valley floor, but they can’t get it together for the hills. The blaze resulting from this exchange would take more than a year to kindle, its provenance indistinct and the chronology of its progress imprecise.
     But in the end it wouldn’t matter who did “exactly what, exactly when, for the effect would be profound and there would be more than enough credit and acrimony to go around.

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1 comment:

  1. What? No comments on Memphis Afternoons? I am only on page 54, but I can recommend this to anyone who likes reading beautifully written 20th century American memoirs.