Actor, Editor, Writer, Playwright and Painter
George Hitchcock

Wine in Strange Lands
Heading north of the border for the love of the grape.

So Many Myrtles
Unraveling the confusion and contradiction.

Actor, Editor, Writer, Playwright and Painter
George Hitchcock

ONE MAN BOAT: THE GEORGE HITCHCOCK READER. Edited by Joseph Bednarik, Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell. Story Line Press, 2003. Paperback, $18.95.

Literary Arts, the Portland organization that presents the annual Oregon Book Awards, salutes George Hitchcock on November 13 with the C.E.S. Wood Retrospective Award. To list Hitchcock's lifetime accomplishments to date is to recognize his lively wit, artistic sensibility and abundance of literary talents. Now in his 90th year, Hitchcock has created works that express a unique yet accessible vision of art lived as an actor, director and playwright; a poet; a writer of short fiction, novels and memoir; editor of kayak, an influential poetry magazine, 1964-1984; a sculptor and painter; a journalist, teacher, mentor, model; and a friend to the many who know and love him.

Hitchcock will read from the new anthology of his work, One-Man Boat (Story Line Press, 2003), at Lane Literary Guild's Windfall reading series that begins at 7 pm on Sept. 16 in the Eugene Public Library's Bascom-Tykeson room. Poet Meg Kearney will read from her first collection, An Unkindness of Ravens (BOA Editions, 2001).

In his nomination letter to the Oregon book awards judges, Joseph Bednarik, co-editor of One-Man Boat, notes that Hitchcock's "imagination is more playful, robust and penetrating than ever. He is a phenomenon and an inspiration." Regarding Hitchcock's McCarthy era testimony in 1957 before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Bednarik wrote: "His bold testimony was broadcast nationally on television, and his quick-witted response to the question 'What is your profession?' became legend: 'My profession is a gardener. I do underground work on plants.'"

My favorite exchange from the Congressional Record of Hitchcock's HUAC testimony comes when the committee's counsel asks, "Were you a member of the Communist Party yesterday? You said you are not today," and Hitchcock replies, "That is a delightful question. Am I directed to answer it?" The chairman says, "You are directed to answer it," to which the actor in Hitchcock answers, "I must decline; I wish to decline; I do decline."

Delight in being contrary to the status quo, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes and an assured flair for words and appearance distinguish Hitchcock today. During a recent interview at the Harrisburg home he shares with his longtime partner, poet Marjorie Simon, Hitchcock said he and Simon usually leave Oregon by October for La Paz, Mexico, where he owns a house. But this year they will stay until after the Oregon Book Awards ceremony in Portland.

"I don't write poetry or plays anymore," Hitchcock said. "I'm much more interested in the challenge of painting. I have to take a lot of foam-board and paints with me to Mexico, because I can't get them there. I paint every day when I'm there." A number of Mexican galleries carry his work, signed Jorge Hitchcock, and he has had several one-man shows. Although he says, "I consider myself a Mexican painter," Candy Moffett's Alder Gallery in Coburg also carries his paintings and shows his work.

But theater was his first passion, long before he discovered poetry's pleasures or art's rewards. Through his writing directing and acting, Hitchcock was a leading light in the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s and '60s, where original, local plays were discovered and honored. He calls theater "My true love."

His plays have been produced 36 times, he said, mostly at universities. In the preface to the book's "Plays" section, he writes: "Theater, as we all know, is a collective venture, and until a script takes form through voice, body and spirit of the actor it cannot presume to true existence."

Bednarik writes of Hitchcock's acting: "As an actor, Hitchcock brought drama to life, playing forty leading roles, usually in classical plays, and his role of Creon in Antigone was recorded and published by Columbia Records; he also acted in two-thirds of the Shakespearean canon as a member of several theater companies, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival."

During the 35 years he lived in San Francisco, Hitchcock wrote plays for two now-defunct theatrical companies, The Interplayers and The Actor's Workshop. "Both these companies shared a dislike of plastic commercial realism and were devoted to the theater as a way of life to be followed with Taoist fervor," Hitchcock wrote for the anthology, which includes Prometheus Found and The Busy Martyr. The latter is a clever send-up of the sort of self-serving lying that passes for our national political debate today. He also worked for eight years at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music "a couple of evenings a week," where he conducted acting and directing classes for opera.

After his immersion in theater, he began writing poems. Several years ago at a now-vanished restaurant on the mall, I heard Hitchcock read found poems and marveled at the power of conviction in his voice. The anthology includes several found poems, including the one he read that night, "What to Say to the Pasha."

Hitchcock's original poem, "Botanizing again," celebrates the summer when George was 16 and carried the press book for his highly esteemed grandfather, botanist Louis F. Henderson, on a field trip through southern Oregon. Curator of the UO Herbarium in Eugene, Henderson and Hitchcock trekked from Eugene to Douglas County. Hitchcock writes of the "traffic of birds in / the summer air / flights and hoverings / rustle of / lizard or grouse" and of the "botanist's press banging / at my knees with its / absorbent papers and / burden of slain flowers."

For 20 years Hitchcock edited a literary magazine out of San Francisco that published unknown and famous poets alike, kayak. In the anthology's foreword, poet Phil Levine said poets welcomed the journal as "the most original and readable American poetry magazine in decades." During kayak's publication, Hitchcock received an unsolicited grant of $10,000 for "advancing the cause of unknown, obscure, or difficult writers," Bednarik notes. He used the money to publish small books of poetry by such now well-known writers as Philip Levine, Raymond Carver, Charles Simic and James Tate. Corvallis poet Clemens Starch was an early contributor and is still "a good friend," Hitchcock said.

In 1970, Hitchcock accepted a half-time teaching position at UC Santa Cruz, where he taught "everything" for 19 years, including magazine editing; playwriting workshops; poetry workshops; and the plays of Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Eugene O'Neill. He was made a Regents Professor when he retired from teaching and moved to Oregon. Recently Hitchcock endowed UCSC's Porter College poetry program. "Pass it on to where it can do some good," he said.

During his years at Santa Cruz, he never taught winter quarter, taking off each year for Baja California. "I'm an Oregonian by birth and origin," he said, "but I've tried to arrange my schedule to be in Mexico every year." Besides the lure of warm, sunny weather and the joy of painting every day, Hitchcock said he and Marjorie host a regular weekly Saturday night at the movies for their friends. When he's in Oregon, he buys recent good movies from the $5 used shelves in video stores to take to Mexico with him, he said. He doesn't paint here, though. "Too many distractions," he said.

Appropriately, Literary Arts' lifetime achievement award is named in honor of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, another larger-than-life Oregonian. "I met Wood at an anti-fascist rally," Hitchcock said. "He was a speaker, along with Upton Sinclair. Wood had a long beard and a frontier look about him." A graduate of West Point in the 1870s, Wood served as a colonel in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. He later practiced law in Portland, then moved to California where, Hitchcock said, he wrote a "sensational book, Heavenly Discourse, that was really alive."

Don't miss this opportunity to hear a local son whose contribution to American letters and arts is an ongoing delight. At 7 to 9 pm on Tuesday, Sept. 16 in the Bascom/Tykeson Conference Room, Eugene Public Library. Free.


Wine in Strange Lands
Heading north of the border for the love of the grape.

Decades of sleuthing for wine has taken me deep into strange and beautiful places and encounters with rare and remarkable people.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, I was moping around the tasting lab, got a call from Bob Sogge, respected Oregon wine educator. Bob Sogge probably has done as much to bring fine wine to Eugeneans as perhaps any other single person: In 1970, Sogge operated a photography studio by the UO campus but applied to OLCC for a license to conduct wine classes in his home. A natural teacher, Sogge turned a lot of tenuous wine consumers into avid students of the grape. He's still teaching; for example, he sang some sweet praises for my wine columns, then pointed out, quite gently, that I had misidentified the grape for a Spanish rosé: "Um, Lance, far as I know uvi libri on the label is another term for tempranillo." Oops: "Gosh, Teach, I think my cat walked across the key board, or, um ...." He chuckled, then gave me important news.

About five years ago, Sogge and an active group of wine people got together and began making moves toward creating a viticultural program that would encourage young people to transform their sense of the "romance in wine," as Sogge called it, into entry-level knowledge of wine, grape-growing and winemaking. They organized, talked to schools and wine pros, wrote a grant application. Result: Chemeketa Community College for the last four years has developed and offered a program that allows students to earn an AS degree in viticulture, and on Friday, Sept. 5, will dedicate the Viticultural Center on the campus. On a final note, for wine-inquiring minds, Sogge will teach two courses this fall, Wine Appreciation and Wines of the World; of course, students will taste many wines, but (for worried bluenoses), Bob notes that, "We don't swallow. We spit it all." But everyone learns that "all you need to know about a wine comes before you swallow." True dat.

As a loyal Eugenean, it takes me some severe mental yoga to imagine Salem as a center for wine, but the simple truth is that some of the state's best vineyards grow there. Rumor has it — probably silly — that the capital also has some fine dining now. Sure.

Wine in strange places? How 'bout British Columbia. Last year, Kat and I, with partners Peter Poet and Soho Sandy, visited parts of B.C. and came back dazzled. This year's experience was even more palate-pleasing. Foodies, write this down: Vancouver, B.C., has to be one of the most cosmopolitan and food-obsessed cities in this hemisphere.

Kat and I rolled off the ferry from the north country, crossed over Lionsgate Bridge, cruised through huge and spectacular Stanley Park, passed the marina at Coal Harbour, into the heart of the city. We rambled through canyons of great glass and steel highrises, most of them apartments and condos, most with patios for outdoor living above the streets. We flipped down Denman Street, sidewalks teeming with natives and visitors, berthed at the venerable Sylvia Hotel on the shore of English Bay. Then we ambled Denman's mere seven blocks, seeking the food. Omigaw: half-dozen restaurants per block. Wattayawant? Partial list, gotcher Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Indian, Persian, Russian, Ukrainian, French, Italian, Spanish, English even. Two coffee houses every block, ice cream shops, specialty markets, everything from hot dogs and snacks to exquisite desserts. The air wafted with tang of sea salt from the bay, gas and diesel from the cars, protean alterations of cooking scents. Stomach juices raging, we reeled into Banana Leaf, this month's hot spot, serving Malaysian fare ("No reservations. We open five o'clock, place full by six, line forms until 9:30"): fresh clams in fermented bean curd ($8 U.S.), Abundance of Seafood ($10), grilled snapper in bay leaf ($9), every dish superb.

Wine another matter: B.C. is making jazzy juice, especially from the Okanagan Valley (at this time burning up, over 800 wildfires), but restaurants there (as here) serve white wines way too cold, and the servers typically struggled, even in the best places. And the wines were spendy — imported wines (including U.S.) way overpriced. Change will come.

Good wines from wheredat? Hugues de Beauvignac 2002 Viognier Vin de Pays des Cotes de Thau ($8); in none of my books could I find where in France the Cotes de Thau might be, until importer Greg Zancanella pointed to Languedoc, between Béziers and Montpellier. From any place, this is tasty viognier at bargain prices. Put this next to fresh crab, savor flavors of ripe pears and white peaches, citrus tang on a crisp, clean frame. Same folks, same place, same price, tasty 2002 Chardonnay, lightly oaked to yield flavors of apples, tropical fruits, with food-friendly acidity.

Want a touch of sweet to match the hot in Asian foods? Look for the dog's head label, find O'Reilly's 2002 Riesling Yakima Valley ($8.50); Oregon producer (Newberg) is fast becoming one of our fav's. This wine is simply lovely, concentrated with flavors of pears, peaches, lychee, as delicately balanced in acidity as a fine Moselle Valley spatlese.

Next month, more on British Columbian experiences (just an eight-hour zip up I-5 to a new world), then it's time to investigate autumnal wines — rich whites and lively reds — to revel in the glories of the harvest, the romance of wine.



So Many Myrtles
Unraveling the confusion and contradiction.

The name myrtle has been attached to a bewildering variety of plants. The situation is particularly confusing on the West Coast, where myrtlewood bowls and ornaments are whittled from Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia californica), while the more common (at least in Oregon) and unrelated Myrica californica goes by the common name of California or Pacific wax-myrtle. The popular ground-cover plant periwinkle (Vinca minor) is called myrtle by some people. Yet none of these is related to true myrtle (Myrtis communis), a charming Mediterranean plant with fragrant leaves and wood that belongs to the same family as eucalyptus, clove and guava. A dwarf form of true myrtle, now covered with fuzzy white flowers, lives in a pot on my deck.

In a warm Willamette Valley summer, another "myrtle," related to none of these, is more conspicuous than any of them. The scientific name for it is Lagerstroemia, so you may prefer to stick with crape myrtle, or, more correctly, crape-myrtle. (The hyphen indicates that some other plant has a better claim to the name myrtle. Hence also Douglas-fir, and rose-of-Sharon.)

Lagerstroemia indica is native to China. It is considered hardy in USDA Zone 7 but needs a hot summer to bloom well. When it gets the heat it needs, a big one can stop traffic with its showy, eight inch panicles of frilly, crape-textured flowers in white, pink, rose red or light purple. This year, crape-myrtles in the southern Willamette Valley began blooming in early August, but most years they appear in late August or September. Those years when we can scarcely ripen a tomato, the flowers may not open at all.

Crape-myrtles have more to offer besides their stunning flowers. I once saw a massive old crape-myrtle in front of a house in Ashland. It had a beautiful, low, broad head, with lovely branch patterns. I have never seen one as big as that in Eugene, for a very good reason. Every now and then, we'll have a freeze that will kill crape-myrtles to the ground, and this last happened in 1990-91, the winter before I moved here. Many plants have slowly grown back since then to form respectable small trees. They just have not reached their maximum breadth of crown.

Unlike every other plant I can think of named myrtle, crape-myrtles are deciduous. Before they drop, the small, glossy, deep-green leaves develop excellent fall color that varies (with location and variety) from yellow to orange and russet. In winter you can admire the branch structure and the smooth, multicolored peeling bark. The leaves are red when they emerge in spring, so this is truly a plant of year-round interest.

The classic Chinese crape-myrtle grows into a multi-stemmed tree up to 25 feet tall, but there are dwarf (3-4 feet) and semi-dwarf (5-9 feet) varieties. And since they bloom on the current year's growth, any crape-myrtle can be pruned while dormant to control its size without complete loss of bloom. Pruning actually improves the size and quality of the flowers.

Semi-dwarf varieties of special interest in our zone are hybrids with Japanese crape-myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei). They are bushier in shape but can be trained into tree-form. They are somewhat hardier than Chinese crape-myrtles, and can be expected to bloom a little earlier. They are also said to be more resistant to mildew. Look for them under Indian names like 'Zuni,' 'Hopi' and 'Pecos.' Do you have the right conditions for a crape-myrtle? They like lots of sun and need good drainage: Csrape-myrtles don't demand great soil and will grow on clay, but they won't put up with wet feet. And because they are not absolutely cold-hardy, a location with protection from cold winds and frost is ideal.

I notice that Sunset's Western Garden Book describes these plants as drought tolerant and slow growing. Plants that Merit Attention: Trees (an excellent book originating, I believe, on the East Coast) says they are fast-growing and intolerant of drought. Since we don't live in California or the eastern U.S., I turned to Trees and Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Gardens, which says the plant "will grow in the Pacific Northwest but may not flower well because of our cooler summers. The plant likes good drainage, summer irrigation, and needs a warmer than average site to perform well in our climate." So there you have it.

Coming up: Friends of Scobert Gardens will hold the 6th Annual Whiteaker Plant Sale from 9 am to 2 pm Sunday, Sept. 28. Expect great variety, great prices, freebies. The sale is at Scobert Gardens, on 4th Avenue off Blair Boulevard. Proceeds help to fund activities at this lovely, vital neighborhood park. To donate plants, take them to the Gardens between 8 to 9 am or 5 to 6 pm Thursday, Sept. 26. To volunteer, call Ellen Schlesinger, 686-4646.


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