Jack London’s forward-thinking novel, published 104 years ago, touted the value of rural life and sustainable farming.
By Bill Reynolds
August 7, 2017
Note: This begins an occasional series in the Out West blog on classic books on the American West and its many characters. They may be new, old or out of print, but are certainly worthy of your time and a place on your bunkhouse bookshelf.
The 1913 novel by writer Jack London, The Valley of the Moon, is titled with the mythic and romantic name for its the location—in the wine-growing region of Napa Valley, where Jack London was a resident and built his ranch, now a California State Park in Glenn Ellen.
It’s a story of a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, struggling laborers in Oakland at the turn of the 20th century, who searched central and northern California for suitable farmland to own and escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Personally, London felt that rampant industrialization would ultimately destroy the planet by using up its limited resources. Sound familiar? But this was California around 1900, just 40 years after attaining statehood. The book is notable for the scenes in which our proletarian hero enjoys fellowship with the artists’ colony in Carmel but ultimately seeks to settle in the Valley of the Moon.
Historian Kevin Starr writes in the 1998 edition’s forward, “In his frequently stated pleas for respect for the environment and for scientific (read: less intrusive) farming, London anticipated the rising tide of environmentalism in 20th century California. He presents this philosophy and practice being driven by a post-frontier consciousness that America, both the people and the place, could be used up. Although London does not have the word sustainable in his vocabulary yet, that, in contemporary terms, is what he meant: The effort to create ranch communities and ways of life that are not based upon fatal consumption of resources but, rather, upon integrated cycles of use and re-use set within patterns of nature herself.”
This novel has been described as a “road novel fifty years before Kerouac,” and called “overly romantic” compared to other, more notable books by the author, including The Call of the Wild. The Valley of the Moon takes on the issues of living responsibly and realizing we own nothing; we simply are renting the place and should leave it better than we found it. That was London’s attempt when he built what he hoped would be both a personal and scientific utopia. This is a valuable read, and still in print 104 years after its publishing by one of America’s finest writers.
Jack London State Historic Park
Jack London’s Beauty Ranch is the legacy of his passion for the land, and it features the remnants of Jack and Charmian London’s life on the ranch. Combined with great scenic beauty and many miles of hiking and riding trails, the park attracts fans of the writer and nature lovers year-round.
In 1905 London bought the first of several ranches on Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen, California. Using proceeds from his prolific writing career, London acquired adjoining parcels over several years and expanded his ranch, also known as the “Ranch of Good Intentions.”
By 1913 London owned 1,400 acres on the slopes of the mountain, and by 1916 employed nearly 50 workers building, farming, and tending prize livestock. Self-taught and inventive, London sought to improve farming methods using common sense, research, and concepts gleaned from travel. Visitors to the ranch today will see examples of his ingenuity and foreshadowing of organic and biodynamic methods that are popular today.
In 1915, London wrote: “I am rebuilding worn-out hillside lands that were worked out and destroyed by our wasteful California pioneer farmers. I believe the soil is our one indestructible asset, and by green manures, nitrogen-gathering cover crops, animal manure, rotation of crops, proper tillage and draining, I am getting results which the Chinese have demonstrated for forty centuries.”
To find out more about Jack London State Historic Park, visit jacklondonpark.com.