East of Eden by John Steinbeck

last updated 2021-08-03

This book was recommended to me a while ago by Russ or my brother Malcolm, or them both. Although I haven't read Steinbeck's other works, I've read that he calls it his magnum opus - it's a long novel chronicling multiple lives, sometimes from birth til death, starting in Massachusetts and settling in Salinas Valley, California. It was moving from an emotional level and a fascinating recounting of life in the valley at the turn of the 20th century.

Some of the passages were deeply resonant, and the closing sentence left me silently and inexplicably teary-eyed at midnight, in the dark.

Adam stood up and strode out of the room. He went to the back door and looked out on the afternoon. Far off in the field his brother was lifting stones from a sled and piling them on the stone wall. Adam looked up at the sky. A blanket of herring clouds was rolling in from the east. He sighed deeply and his breath made a tickling, exciting feeling in his chest. His ears seemed suddenly clear, so that he heard the chickens cackling and the east wind blowing over the ground. He heard horses’ hoofs plodding on the road and far-off pounding on wood where a neighbor was shingling a barn. And all these sounds related into a kind of music. His eyes were clear too. Fences and walls and sheds stood staunchly out in the yellow afternoon, and they were related too. There was change in everything. A flight of sparrows dropped into the dust and scrabbled for bits of food and then flew off like a gray scarf twisting in the light. Adam looked back at his brother. He had lost track of time and he did not know how long he had been standing in the doorway. No time had passed. Charles was still struggling with the same large stone. And Adam had not released the full, held breath he had taken when time stopped.

At one point, Steinbeck injects a lecture on work, purpose, creativity. Interviews I've seen hint that Steinbeck hoped to capture his experience and essence for his two sons.

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man. And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

The topics of my labor with Upstream Tech - hydrology, water scarcity, and agriculture - were a main focus of the plot.

A rancher crossed his denim knees. “You ought to go see Sam Hamilton,” he said. “He knows more about water than anybody around here. He’s a water witch and a well-digger too. He’ll tell you. He’s put down half the wells in this part of the valley.” His companion chuckled. “Sam’s got a real legitimate reason to be interested in water. Hasn’t got a goddam drop of it on his own place.”

Samuel’s eyes looked over the heads of his friends, out of the dark forge to the yellow sunlight. “You’ll have to know that under a good part of the valley, some places deep and others pretty near the surface, there’s a layer called hard-pan. It’s a clay, hard-packed, and it feels greasy too. Some places it is only a foot thick, and more in others. And this hard-pan resists water. If it were not there the winter rains would go soaking down and dampen the earth, and in the summer it would rise up to the roots again. But when the earth above the hard-pan is soaked full, the rest runs fresheting off or stands rotting on top. And that’s one of the main curses of our valley.”

I’ve thought that if you could drive thousands of holes through it to let the water in, it might solve it. And then I tried something with a few sticks of dynamite. I punched a hole through the hard-pan and blasted. That broke it up and the water could get down. But, God in heaven, think of the amount of dynamite! I’ve read that a Swede—the same man who invented dynamite—has got a new explosive stronger and safer Maybe that might be the answer.”

For some reason the mountains to the west of the Salinas Valley have a thicker skin of earth on them than have the eastern foothills, so that the grass is richer there. Perhaps the peaks store rain and distribute it more evenly, and perhaps, being more wooded, they draw more rainfall.

There were others who prophesied, with rays shining on their foreheads, about the sometime ditches that would carry water all over the valley—who knows? maybe in our lifetime—or deep wells with steam engines to pump the water up out of the guts of the world. Can you imagine? Just think what this land would raise with plenty of water! Why, it will be a frigging garden!

The coyotes nuzzled along the slopes and, torn with sorrow-joy, raised their heads and shouted their feeling, half keen, half laughter, at their goddess moon.

“Maybe everyone is too rich. I have noticed that there is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich. Feed a man, clothe him, put him in a good house, and he will die of despair.”

It was a deluge of a winter in the Salinas Valley, wet and wonderful. The rains fell gently and soaked in and did not freshet. The feed was deep in January, and in February the hills were fat with grass and the coats of the cattle looked tight and sleek. In March the soft rains continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground. Then warmth flooded the valley and the earth burst into bloom—yellow and blue and gold.

The traditional dark cypresses wept around the edge of the cemetery, and white violets ran wild in the pathways. Someone had brought them in and they had become weeds.

“Seems to me you put too much stock in the affairs of children. It probably didn’t mean anything.”

“Yes, it meant something.” Then he said, “Mr. Trask, do you think the thoughts of people suddenly become important at a given age? Do you have sharper feelings or clearer thoughts now than when you were ten? Do you see as well, hear as well, taste as vitally?”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Adam.

“It’s one of the great fallacies, it seems to me,” said Lee, “that time gives much of anything but years and sadness to a man.”

“And memory.”

“Yes, memory. Without that, time would be unarmed against us.

“Now I see. The word was timshel.” “Timshel—and you said—” “I said that word carried a man’s greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it.” “I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it.” “It set him free,” said Lee. “It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.” “That’s lonely.” “All great and precious things are lonely.” “What is the word again?” “Timshel—thou mayest.”

He remembered the great oaks and the clear living air, the clean sage-laced wind from the hills and the brown oak leaves scudding. He could see Abra there, standing under a tree, waiting for him to come in from his work. And it was evening. There, after work of course, he could live in purity and peace with the world, cut off by the little draw. He could hide from ugliness—in the evening.

Train schedules are a matter of pride and of appre­hension to nearly everyone. When, far up the track, the block signal snapped from red to green and the long, stabbing probe of the headlight sheered the bend and blared on the station, men looked at their watches and said, “On time.” There was pride in it, and relief too. The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, “Oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?” But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt every­thing around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.

You know,” Adam said, “I don’t remember when I’ve felt so good. I feel—well, you might call it fulfilled. Maybe it’s only a good night’s sleep and a good trip to the bathroom. And maybe it’s because we’re all together and at peace.”

He felt that he didn’t want his office much longer. He remembered hearing a doctor say, “I love to deliver a baby, because if I do my work well, there’s joy at the end of it.” The sheriff had thought often of that re­mark. It seemed to him that if he did his work well there was sorrow at the end of it for somebody. The fact that it was necessary was losing its weight with him. He would be retiring soon whether he wanted to or not.

Everything is only for a day, both that which remem­bers and that which is remembered.

Time must be drawing down for me, but I don’t feel it. I feel immortal. Once when I was very young I felt mortal—but not any more. Death has receded. He wondered if this were a normal way to feel.

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2021-06-28 
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