Douglas Murray opens his memoir, “Over the Back Fence, Learning Nature in A Bygone Napa Valley” with a quote from Isabel Allende: “Write what should not be forgotten.”
In these days of pandemic-inspired virtual realty, not to mention political confusion and environmental catastrophes, it could be hard to imagine the blissful adventure of growing up in simpler times.
Nonetheless, with a few words and photos, Murray evokes “my recollection of childhood and youth as a courtship with the natural world as I found it on the fringes of the Napa Valley from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.”
Murray, a professor emeritus of sociology, was part of the wave of new residents who moved to Napa after World War II.
“Like many of their generation, my parents longed for the middle-class dream just beginning to take shape in post-war society,” he writes. They had fled the rural heartland and “the hardships of agrarian life with the onset of the Great Depression.”
After his father mustered out the Navy, they settled in the Bay Area, where Douglas was born in 1947. By 1951, they had moved north to Napa where, he writes, his first home was half of a duplex across the highway from the KVON drive-in theater. From bedroom windows he watched the movies of “triumphal postwar America in all its glory, absent the sound.”
The family lived briefly in town, near the old Food City Market, before moving to the country where new developments were cropping up in what had been ranch lands. They settled on Woodside Drive, “a dead-end street with a dozen or so other houses,” he writes.
“Beyond our backyard fence , my world opened into a large fruit orchard of perhaps 30 acres, although it seemed as vast as a country to a five or six year old.”
To the south was open space “seasonally devoted to grazing sheep,” he writes. “It was the property of an old hermit and rancher, Louis Gasser, who would intermittently run me out of his orchard or, in turn, invite me to climb up on the two-mule drawn buck board wagon he rode around his ranch for as long as I lived there.
“Exploring those orchards, fields and creek beyond my backyard fence became the defining feature of my Napa Valley childhood.”
Douglas calls it “a free-range childhood,” where kids explored the natural world in a thousand and one adventures in a world more populated by tadpoles than parents.
“A child left to his own devices and a certain degree of opportunity will invent worlds unique to and known only by himself,” Douglas writes. “When I had the chance, I would invariably go over the back fence and into open territories, a whole world unto myself.”
In this deftly distilled memoir, Murray brings a reader along on his adventures, spending afternoons beside a creek, watching birds and fish and frogs and “the most exciting denizens of the summer creek bed,” snakes.
“Sometimes I would just squat on the ground a few feet away and watch a large king snake,” he writes. “I would stare back for a time, flicking its tongue at me, then glide effortlessly back into the undergrowth as if to say ‘nice visiting with you but I have more pressing matters to attend to than a gawking, little, freckle-faced kid.
“There were also rattlesnakes around,” he notes, “but fortunately, I never encountered one.”
Inevitably, life carried him away from creek sides to college and career and worlds beyond Napa, but what he carried with him was a love of nature and that deeply rooted sense of wonder that once it takes root and thrives is hard for the rest of the world to vanquish.
From early work as a cub reporter, back when there were such creatures at the Napa Register, Murray went on to a distinguished career as a professor and author, a Fulbright fellow and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Fellow in the Program on Peace and International Cooperation.
For some years, he said, his writing was limited to academic work. But at the urging of friends in Napa, he decided to begin writing his memories of what he calls Napa’s “bygone age.”
One person who encouraged the work is retired Napa judge and author Ray Guadagni, who writes that in a “short, very readable book,” Murray answers the question of “how the place you grew up in affects you for the rest of your life.” Murray’s book, says Guadagni, lets readers come with him, “walking the land, hearing the frogs, birds and the calming creek waters, while smelling the scents of the flowers and fruit trees — all of it.”
Napa historian Lauren Coodley, who also urged Murray to write this book, calls it “an overdue treasure...So very few Napans who grew up here have written their own story, and no one has revealed the Napa that was luminescent in the creeks of a ‘50s boyhood.”
Posing the inevitable question — can you go home again? Randy Skidmore from the Land Trust of Napa County, acknowledges that none of the places Murray describes “survive now in their original form.” But he also raises hope that stories like the ones Murray tells in “Over the Back Fence” might inspire more conservation efforts, such as those the Land Trust leads.
As for the author, living now, in the Colorado mountains, he writes, “It is another place of natural beauty where almost daily I ramble over a range of many thousands of acres ... With each passing decade I have found myself more a part of the natural world than an observer.
“I am increasingly conscious of not only from whence I came but more importantly of that which I am but a most minuscule constituent element. When I venture out tomorrow over another back fence, I will be reminded again that the warp and weft that is the fabric of my life is in large part held together by a single thread that began three-quarters of a century ago in a bygone Napa Valley.”
“Over the Back Fence,” published by Westview (www.publishedbywestview.com) is available now in a paperback form with a hardback, coffee-table version due out soon. Murray shared his hope that readers who wish to purchase it will go to Napa Valley’s independent bookstores, Bookmine (www.napabookmine.com) in Napa and St. Helena, and Copperfield’s Books (www.copperfieldsbooks.com) in Napa and Calistoga.
“You are lucky to have them,” he said.
Watch now: How to Teach Your Kids to be Eco-Friendly
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