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for people who care about the West

The call of the tame

Jack London was a sustainable farmer


In 1916, Jack London invited a friend to his ranch in California's Sonoma Valley: "Come to see what I am trying to do with the soil, and with hogs, and with beef-cattle, and dairy-cows, and draft-horses." Who knew that the adventurous, womanizing, hard-drinking public celebrity spent the last years of his short life building a humane "Pig Palace" for his livestock and pouring manure down a slope to avoid using chemicals?

London was best known then, as he is now, as a writer. But he wanted his legacy to be in land, not words. He wanted to "leave the land better for my having been," and so he pioneered what we would call today sustainable agriculture on Beauty Ranch, his 1,400-acre farm in Glen Ellen. The ranch, now home to the Jack London State Historic Park, shatters stereotypes.

By the time he settled at Glen Ellen in 1905, London was sick of writing, tired of editor's demands to churn out more adventure stories just like those that had made him famous. But writing was his meal ticket, the only way he had to earn money for soil and stone. So he pushed himself to write 1,000 words every day. "Do you realize that I devote two hours a day to writing and ten to farming?" he wrote in his journal. "My work on this land, and my message to America, go hand in hand."

He started small, buying 130 acres of land for $7,000 -- "130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California," London said. He built a barn and bought horses, a buggy, a cow, a plow, chickens and other livestock and equipment. He planted 65,000 eucalyptus trees and went after more acreage, gobbling up struggling ranches nearby.

And he kept cranking out prose, sloppy stories that do not compare to earlier masterpieces such as The Call of the Wild, the book that made him an instant literary celebrity. A friend said he "mortgaged his brain" for the ranch.

When he cleared 40 acres to raise hay, he discovered the land had been depleted by "old-fashioned methods of taking everything off and putting nothing back." London wanted to succeed where his predecessors had failed, seeing his work as part and parcel of his socialist politics: "In the solution of the great economic problems of the present age, I see a return to the soil."

In his obsessive way -- this is the man who, when he decided he wanted to spend time on a boat, taught himself sailing and navigation and crossed the Pacific -- London, who had never farmed before, taught himself everything he could about farming, reading  agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. "I adopted the policy of taking nothing off the ranch," he said. He used techniques he had seen as a war correspondent in Korea: terracing, rotating crops and using natural fertilizer, "so that instead of one-tenth of one meager crop a year you can grow three rich crops a year."

He built the first concrete block silo in California and filled it with silage from his and neighboring ranches. He hired Italian stonemasons to build a barn for his horses as well as a manure pit to develop fertilizer. 

In 1915, he built his "Pig Palace," a round structure with feed in the middle and stalls surrounding it. Each sow and her piglets had their own "apartment" with a sun porch in front, which served as their dining room, and an outside run in back. All the troughs were filled by opening a single valve, so one man could care for over 200 hogs. At first, nearby ranchers laughed, but the design later won awards and drew nationwide attention. Today, many of London's techniques are standard operating procedure.

London died in 1916 at the early age of 40, either by suicide or the side effects of alcoholism, no one is sure. By then, his ranch was one of the largest in Northern California. But either because he was so far ahead of his time -- or because he was a distracted drunkard who was often away on sailing adventures (despite his philosophical commitment to the place, he had a hard time keeping himself down on the farm) -- the ranch was an economic failure.

After London's death, his wife, Charmian, asked his fans to remember what London once called "The Ranch of Good Intentions." "Have any of you thought what is to become of the great thing he has started up here? ... I am begging you now, with all my heart, not to forget that he laid his hand upon the hills of California with the biggest writing of all his writing and imagination and wisdom …"

Today, if you visit the lovely Jack London State Historic Park, you can take a tour of London's enduring, fertile masterpiece. You can see the silo and the Piggery and walk down paths shaded by the thousands of trees he planted. All the buildings are crumbling a bit, and their stone remains recall European ruins from much earlier ages. But they endure. London's writing may still overshadow his ranch, but fortunately both legacies are open to the public.