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In the Summer We Go to the Mountains with Peter Carr

by Andrew Tonkovich

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“I am pretending all the time now that I really do know what to do that will make a difference to the President and his friends.”

Below, in full, the poem, manifesto, report, meditation, or call to action written, or at least published by the patron saint of this unlikely journal in 1977. Its despairing if stubborn voice and tone and syntax of impossible and yet necessary struggle captures the end of a decade which had marked the conclusion of a criminal war and which anticipated one in Central America and, always the Cold War and first strike or accidental nuclear war. And there was the project of shutting down nuclear power as, indeed, would finally happen at San Onofre, where Peter and so many protested.

Readers of Citric Acid will know that your Editor founded it to not only to promote literary and related writing, political activism, and art from our region but to share the work --- make that, yes, life’s work ---of the university instructor and peace activist who perhaps made me the weirdo I am today. Not just me. I’ve been in contact with others who knew, worked, and studied with Peter Carr, and am working to put together another show of his paintings and unpublished manuscripts. The activists at the now dormant Peter Carr Peace Center at Cal State University Long Beach found such inspiration in Peter Carr’s teaching, art, writing, activism --- and his unshy and singular combining of those --- that they used the “poetic essay” below as their organization’s actual mission statement. Dig it.

Some years back the late Mark Chamberlain of BC Space gallery in Laguna Beach generously sponsored a show of Peter’s art and photographed a whole bunch of it, too. Thanks, Mark.

At the top of this page I share a line drawing, composed in Peter’s distinctive style which, ironically or only because he was so busy, never actually graced the cover of the small, illustrated hand-stapled chapbook In the Summer We Went to the Mountains. It is one of a half dozen self-published chapbooks, art books, booklets he made. It resonates, to say the least. I suggest reading it out loud. I love that Peter worries to the wind and the seabugs (sic) and the redwoods and the mountains, both claiming his insight and power a la Walt Whitman but also being wildly, bravely realistic about just how much bravery and audacity and ridiculous self-importance it takes to chronicle, create, instruct, and resist. He died four years later, damn it.

Because I’ve created this site partly to immortalize Peter Carr, I’ve also shared a few more images which were displayed at BC Space. The two small drawings above are exemplary. Peter was funny, a half-kidding but also totally sincere ecumenicist. A disciple and a provocateur. A secular prophet and a spiritual enabler. Find him both on his way to Heaven and Doubting, nude, balding, insisting on his self-summoned power to be a one-man multitude container. I adore the color and narrative sense of what might be a rendering of the once-weekly Laguna Beach Saturday morning Peace Vigils, with signs (“No More Weapons for Somoza” and “End the Arms Race –Help the USA”) reflecting the grim political moment and also the beach-outfitted passersby and a fellow eating ice cream who, indeed, seems to be Peter himself.

Finally, another story-sketch, maybe for a larger work or another unfinished book or chapbook, with Peter’s familiar and repeated call to do so many things, all at once. "WE MUST STOP US. WE MUST BECOME PEACE-MAKERS." He left a couple thousand paintings, sketchbooks, journals, canvases. He pretended it all into existence. I don’t know how he did it all. Perhaps because he always still made time for that trek to the mountains in the summer, to nature, to the motivating and creative and affirming and inspiring holy site of his passionate engagement with art and people and politics and life.


In the summer we went to the mountains-Tahquitz, Tuolumne, or maybe Crane Flat Meadow during the time of the columbines. We showed our kids to the granite rocks and ponderosa trees, the chaparral and live oaks, the forests of lodgepole and fir-and the kids never got over it all, any more than we did or the forest by the rivers out of snow country.

In the summer we went up there and pretended completely, perfectly, that we were free from the streets of Long Beach and L.A. (We blamed it on the spirits up there, the perfume from the high dark forests, and the clear sweet waters of the snow.) We pretended we wouldn't have to come back to what everybody says is necessary --- to the job, the school, to the struggle for mates and security --- and in those days to the marches in the streets against the war. We pretended the mountains themselves were safe from the business-Americans, from us.

In the summer we became natives or hikers like John Muir or rock climbers. But always and always we pretended so well that we never for a minute doubted that the mountains would stay free from America. We never speculated or wondered about how soon it would all end and the mountains would get to look like our own homes and our own neighborhoods, with the color of hydrocarbons and the sound of screeching brakes.

In the summer we used the mountains.

In the summer we pretended that there weren't any oil companies or factories --- we transcended all that. We breathed in the sky-full air for a while. We listened to the splashing waters --- and got ready to go back and struggle for some kind of justice in the streets. We are still doing it. We are still going up there to get ready to try to save it, to try to wake up the people in the neighborhoods, to tell them once again how it is up there, how it really could be for everyone down here.

I don't know what to do about the mountains of California or the hills behind my beach house at Ca. 92677--- chamise trees and manzanita and purple geraniums in redwood boxes. The radio is going. Some important man says we need a neutron bomb. The wet and holy fog blows in from off the sea bringing salt air and the smell of seaweed.

I am pretending all the time now that I really do know what to do that will make a difference to the President and his friends. I didn't know before, but now I pretend that I know what to do-about my own dying, about the dying biosphere and the managers who act like they own it all forever, old men with famous names who want to buy and sell my granite stones and my oak trees, even the ocean.

But I still don't know why I see all this and feel it and they don't, the managers, who don't care that the sea and all my trees are dying. Where do they live anyway? I am sending them messages now, all the time, on behalf of the wind and the seabugs in the wet sand, and for you and for me and for the mountains of California. I keep telling them. I keep telling them to quit messing with the steam beds and the sycamore flats and the redwoods up the coast. I keep telling everyone down here that we have to stop those nuclear businessmen and their helpers.

In the summer we still go to the mountains.

Peter Carr



Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid and longtime editor of the Santa Monica Review. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, ZYZZYVA, Faultline, Juked, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He wrote for both OC Weekly and the Orange County Register.  With Lisa Alvarez, he co-edited the landmark Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, and is the author of two fiction collections, The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations. His review of A People's Guide to Orange County appeared recently in Alta online. 

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