JOURNAL EXTRACTS OF
DR. CHARLES H. GILBERT
Stanford Professor of Marine Biology
“True wisdom comes at great cost.
Only ignorance is free.”
IN 1906, AT THE TIME these entries were written, Dr. Gilbert was a highly respected instructor and researcher at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.
Dr. Charles Lucas
Department of Marine Studies
Partial diary entry: June 1, 1906
The raging China Point fire was an experience that must be forever etched in the memories of everyone who witnessed the tragedy, though I presently suspect there were those who perceived only profit in the flames. On the night of May 16, 1906, aided by predictably seasonal winds from the southwest, the fifty-year-old Chinese fishing village on China Point was completely burned to the ground in less than one hour. It was the most horrifying conflagration I have ever witnessed. My heart was wrenched with concern for the poor occupants of the village, and I feared the worst for the plight of those trapped in their shanties. The dwellings seemed to burst into flame like boxes of kitchen matches, but there was nothing anyone could do without suffering death for their efforts. By dawn the whole village was nothing more than a black, smoldering skeleton. It was only through the grace of a merciful God that no Chinese were killed in the racing inferno. But it is a certainty to all witnesses that they had lost most of what they once possessed, including some of their nets, sheds, and beached fishing boats.
The fire’s ignition point was most certainly a Chinese-owned hay barn at the south end of the village, and I’m persuaded the deed was initiated with the strong seasonal winds in mind. Though it disturbs me to say so, I am thoroughly convinced that the consequential inferno was the result of a determined and planned act of arson.
If armed with the perspective of hindsight, one can easily deduce that the following narrative has roots that stretch back more than sixty years, and perhaps more than several hundred years if the truth was known. The one person who might be said to have set the engine of destruction in motion is a strange fellow who I came to know in early June of 1898. The man’s name, appropriately enough, was William “Red Billy” O’Flynn.
By any definition, Mr. O’Flynn is a unique-looking individual. Roughly in his midforties, weathered and apparently used to hard labor, the man comes across as keen and observant, and considering his lack of formal education, he shows good sense in most all things. His novel appearance, despite his being born in Ireland and saddled with a brogue broad enough to occasionally make his speech almost incomprehensible, bespeaks a colorful parentage. He once volunteered that his mother’s people were of Moorish blood. “All thoroughgoing Gypsies to the bone,” he said, and “all armed to the teeth with endless batteries of the most chilling curses imaginable.” He had thus inherited his mother’s soft, dark complexion and black eyes, as well as a moderate knowledge of European Spanish, which our local Mexican population disdains for historical reasons.
Mr. O’Flynn’s father, according to his son’s recollection, was “a large and dangerous fellow with a ruddy, moon-pocked face, and hair as red-crested as God makes a peckerwood.” As a result, the young man also inherited a prodigious mane of copper-bright curls. And though he possesses marginally pleasant features, and a muscular physique tempered by hard labor, the abiding contrast between his dark Mediterranean complexion and his vivid red crown of hair is truly a most striking sight to behold. One never quite gets used to his appearance. Every time I came across him at his duties, it was like a novelty surprise all over again.
Only once did Mr. O’Flynn reveal a portion of his history to me, and to this day, knowing his verbal habits as I do, I can’t imagine what inspired him to do so. It was on the day that he first applied to me for part-time work at Hopkins Laboratory. I suppose that, as I was the prospective employer, he felt somehow compelled to reveal that he “first drew breath overlooking the tar-blackened docks of Cork.” His father was a brawling shipyard-pipe fitter, “built like a Birmingham brickbat, but lacking all the wit and modesty God gave a cobblestone.”
Mr. O’Flynn gave me to understand that when he was fourteen years old he escaped Ireland altogether. His father, he said, had long since matriculated well beyond his amateur standing as a tavern tippler, and had gone on to become a renowned professional whiskey drinker. This all-too-common situation, with its predisposition toward physical cruelty, evidently distressed the family sorely. At last Mr. O’Flynn’s long-suffering mother
felt she had endured more than enough. Circumstances obliged her to call forth her mortal quiver of Gypsy curses. Two days later, the senior O’Flynn was discovered facedown in a rain-filled gutter. The coroner formally declared that the notorious and unrepentant boozer had drowned in three inches of rainwater.
I record this here only in passing, because this tragic incident seems to have deeply influenced Mr. O’Flynn, for as far as I can deduce, he has always expressed a total aversion to alcohol. He impresses me as the driest Irishman I have ever encountered. He has for some years been confirmed to the Methodist faith and vehemently speaks against the use of spirits, as well as “all those misbegotten fools what do indulge.”
On the whole, I have always found Mr. O’Flynn a man of simple, if somewhat cautious, honesty. As far as I can discern, he has always spoken the truth, but only as much truth as warranted by the question. On most occasions his natural reticence induces him to say as little as possible, and with the greatest circumspection. Unlike most of his race, Mr. O’Flynn never indulges in idle conversation or even bemused observation. In fact, for an Irishman, he exhibits not the least vestige of Celtic humor. However, he is at all times a stable, capable, and dependable worker, whose efforts rarely if ever draw the slightest criticism from myself, or the laboratory staff.
When Mr. O’Flynn first applied to me for a job, he stated that he had worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for twelve years. He said he had started as a gandy dancer and worked his way up to roadbed foreman with a crew of twenty men to supervise. Then one day a slowly passing engine accidentally ruptured a steam release valve on a piston feed line and badly scalded Mr. O’Flynn and four of his crew. Two of his Chinese workers later succumbed to their burns by way of infection, and O’Flynn almost died himself. Happily, he was pulled back from the brink through the careful ministrations of his hard-nosed Portuguese wife. She bartered housecleaning chores for burn creams and pain medications; these were compounded for her by Charles K. Tuttle’s Pharmacy and given to her at cost. When he later asked the Southern Pacific regional manager for compensation to cover the expense of his injuries, Mr. O’Flynn was given seventy-five dollars and told that he need not come back to work, as his position had been filled in his absence.
The Chinese victims of the accident received forty-five dollars each, and the families of the dead were given thirty-five dollars to help defray burial costs. These latter particulars concerning Mr. O’Flynn I eventually learned from Mr. Tuttle, but only after I’d already engaged Mr. O’Flynn on a part-time basis. Indeed, once I understood the man’s predicament, I found myself quite pleased to be of some small assistance in his financial restitution.
I soon discovered that Mr. O’Flynn kept himself adequately solvent by working six part-time jobs every week. On Mondays and Tuesdays he worked for the county on a road maintenance crew. On Wednesdays he came to us. He was taught how to properly clean fish tanks and assisted with all the equipment maintenance at the laboratory. Thursdays O’Flynn worked making deliveries for Tuttle’s Pharmacy, or carefully dusting the hundreds of large glass-stopped medicine bottles that lined all the walls. On Fridays he ran a steam-saw for Thomas Work’s wood yard. But Saturdays were O’Flynn’s special delight, for he alternated between carting and stocking at Steiner’s grocery store and working at Mr. Hay’s ice cream parlor. He cleaned the large copper kettles in the candy kitchen and redressed and oiled the stone taffy tables. A bemused Mr. Tuttle helped him find these additional jobs when he realized that Mr. O’Flynn was in possession of a sweet tooth the size of Seal Rock. The proprietors of both establishments proved very generous with free samples and token prices. His Sundays were just as regular. The mornings were spent worshipping at the First Methodist Church on Lighthouse Road. And, weather permitting, his Sunday afternoons were dedicated to fishing for the Sabbath table with his Portuguese father-in-law. In general, one would appraise all of Mr. O’Flynn’s habits as quite regular, sober, and disciplined. I must here record that these factors, like the man’s sobriety, are indisputable facts that should be taken into account for later consideration.
There was one additional curious facet to Mr. O’Flynn’s social intercourse within the local community. Though he seemed to possess few friends besides relatives acquired through marriage, he spent much of his free time in the company of his Chinese acquaintances. In particular, he was often seen associating with the well-to-do proprietor of a successful Chinese laundry in Pacific Grove. This rather popular fellow goes by the name of Master Ah Chung. O’Flynn has also been known to keep company with Ah Chung’s younger brother Jim Len. I have since been informed that despite all modest appearances to the contrary, both these gentlemen are alleged to be heavily involved in diverse business interests up and down the California coast. It is widely believed that they receive lucrative stipends from the Three Corporations of San Francisco. This mysterious organization represents the most powerful Chinese clans in California. It is under the auspices of these secretive and financially powerful families that ninety percent of all Chinese imports and exports are bought and sold.
The improbability of our Mr. O’Flynn enjoying social congress with the Chinese stood out as an oddity, until I recalled that he had worked for years supervising Chinese road gangs for the Southern Pacific. And it appears that during his time in that capacity he learned to speak a fair smattering of Cantonese, which I understand is the predominant dialect spoken among our local Chinese.
I discovered these obtuse facts quite incidentally one summer day about thirteen months after Mr. O’Flynn came to work for us at Hopkins. One afternoon a Chinese fisherman and his wife came to visit the laboratory from China Point. They accompanied a rude donkey cart that had been tailored to carry a shallow wooden tub four feet in diameter. The tub had a two-sided hinged lid to keep its contents from splashing out. As they walked along, the fisherman’s wife worked a clever double-channeled hand-bellows. This device, I later learned, pumped a steady flow of air into the tub through a hose end wrapped in a sponge. They had come to our laboratory with a very rare specimen indeed. It was a small, black-skinned, deepwater shark. They had caught the ruby-eyed creature on a deep trotline over the Monterey marine canyon.
I should note that there are a good number of Chinese fishermen on the bay who specialize in hunting unusual species of marine life specifically for their use in an assortment of esoteric Chinese pharmacopoeias. I’m given to understand that the export market for these perplexing products is thriving. Commodities like preserved sea cucumbers, sea urchins, needle fish roe, basking shark eggs, and various species of small kelp crabs and azure-colored sea snails are in great demand. All these and many more are highly prized, and can easily pull their weight in gold or silver on the export tallies.
The visiting fisherman and his wife bowed and introduced themselves in thick pidgin English. The man said that Master Ah Chung had sent them along with something special.
As my negotiations for the exotic shark continued, our Mr. O’Flynn suddenly appeared. Smiling broadly, and in a torrent of pidgin Chinese, Mr. O’Flynn suddenly greeted the fisherman as an old acquaintance. They spoke together rapidly for a moment, and then O’Flynn turned to me and asked what price the fisherman asked for the shark. I told him we had settled on a price of two dollars. Mr. O’Flynn quickly confirmed this with the fisherman, and then turned back to me and said, “For two dollars he’s making you a present of the fish, and he’s delivered it more or less alive, no mean feat if you ask me, but he’s done it only at Master Ah Chung’s insistence. You can safely wager there’s some binding obligation involved. To be sure, you’re barely paying for this fellow’s time. He tells me the shark’s liver alone is worth five dollars, and the tanned skin another twelve. I’ll be begging your pardon for the impertinence, Professor, but if I were you I’d up and give this good fellow eight dollars. That way he can honorably fulfill Mr. Ah Chung’s instructions and perchance realize a pittance of profit so as to save face with his family.”
O’Flynn grinned, winked, and went on. “Mark what I say, Professor, the good word will soon race about that you’re an honest man of business, and before you can recite the saints’ names, you’ll be up to your braces in all manner of fishy God-knows-what.”
I managed the transaction just as Mr. O’Flynn had so earnestly recommended, but I did so in a confused fog of amazement at his hitherto unknown, and totally unsuspected, ability to make himself perfectly well understood in brogue-laced pidgin Chinese. I was dumbfounded to say the least, but I paid out the eight dollars all the same, and was later happy to have done so, for we managed, with constant diligence, to keep this rare specimen alive and healthy for almost fifteen weeks.
The fisherman and his wife were quite pleased with the arrangement, and a minor festival of bowing, smiling, and amicable chatter ensued. It was then I noticed that the fisherman and his wife treated Mr. O’Flynn with particular deference that entailed bowing even lower with hands clasped together as if in prayer. I found this more amusing than interesting, and didn’t reflect on its significance at the time.
After I had instructed some of my more stalwart students to transfer the exhausted shark to one of the large, bay-fed tanks, the proud fisherman and his wife happily took their leave. I recall that they departed in the company of our Mr. O’Flynn, all the while chirping a seemingly endless exchange of Cantonese salutations and polite laughter.
The discovery of O’Flynn’s hidden linguistic talents opened new and vigorous channels for acquiring specific species for our research and preservation. Mr. O’Flynn even suggested that a reasonable bounty be paid for specimens delivered alive and in reasonable health. This we did to great effect. The demand for our scientifically preserved laboratory specimens had grown fivefold in five years. We at Hopkins soon found we were servicing six other universities, as well as smaller research institutions. We even managed to set aside a complete catalog of preserved specimens to satisfy the needs of the state biologists for whom the Hopkins Marine Station is almost a second home.
Mr. O’Flynn, though he was only employed every Wednesday, made his presence felt by the ongoing delivery of marine specimens from the various Chinese fishing villages. Due to his admonitions and the bounties offered, all but the most delicate or vulnerable creatures were delivered alive. We even occasionally received (free of charge) orphaned sea otter kits, sea lion pups, and the odd storm-stressed, fledgling pelican. In all respects, Mr. O’Flynn had quickly proved so successful acting as our purchasing agent that we soon were at liberty to offer him a decent commission on all accepted purchases, and a five percent wage increase. He expressed himself completely satisfied with this arrangement, though he insisted on an understanding that should we “find ourselves in want of anything particularly big and dangerous,” he wanted the right to renegotiate terms to compensate for the obvious increased risk all around. Personally amused by imagining what exact picture Mr. O’Flynn envisioned for such unspoken dangers, I so stipulated, and it was all agreed.
Since then, I’m pleased to recall the intervening years at Hopkins have passed most agreeably and very constructively, with Hopkins functioning well, albeit at a metered academic gait. And over time Mr. O’Flynn and I have become better acquainted, but only marginally better than I am with most of my own students. As I have previously stated, he is not a fellow who reveals much if he can help it. But after working for the laboratory for a few years, O’Flynn had come to witness a great many marine oddities; most of these specimens he never would have even suspected of existing. This novel if mostly untutored interest seems to have led him to indulge in a sincere if arcane Methodist interpretation of the Creation. In that vein Mr. O’Flynn’s interest became remarkably focused, if not fixated upon the more bizarre and seemingly pointless examples of “the Almighty’s Grand Design.” Creatures “kin” to the common flea, or the “blood-hungry” mosquito, were most assuredly of Satan’s dark creation. “And I ask you honestly, Professor, just what purpose would a caring Christian God have for a man-killing jellyfish no bigger than a nickel? It just doesn’t make sense in the great scheme of heaven’s design.”
Perhaps it was my position as a tenured old pedagogue at Hopkins that encouraged Mr. O’Flynn, on a number of occasions, to call upon me at the laboratory, or at my home. Hat in hand and head slightly bowed, he would beg my indulgence for a few minutes. He appeared interested in a remarkably wide range of seemingly disjointed subjects, as though he’d chosen them from a fishbowl, like a lottery ticket. He diligently and innocently inquired about pole stars, blackamoors, slack tides, narwhals, whip snakes, monsters, and misanthropes, and all with equal interest, intensity, and enthusiasm. And then he might ask some spiritually obtuse question on the subject of biology. To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by his interests. The very fact that a man of his limited education could actually frame such questions, I regarded as something of a novelty. The man piqued my interest in numerous ways, and his interests were always remarkably unpredictable.
With each visit Mr. O’Flynn would bring by some living aberration or semifossilized oddity. Then he would ask me to explain what I saw in light of the Almighty’s faultless reputation for perfection. Following this vein, he showed me numerous examples of two-headed snakes and turtles, frogs and toads with six legs or two, a wingless chicken, and other creatures with all manner of strange malformations.
I attempted to explain to Mr. O’Flynn that there were obvious differences between those creatures that in the majority exist within their own zoological perfection, and those that are accidentally conceived with genetic imperfections that usually result in such malformations. I told him such imperfections could occasionally be found in every species of creature, including humans.
It had long seemed to me that our Mr. O’Flynn had been undergoing some small crisis of faith, perhaps aggravated by his peripheral acquaintance with our marine studies at Hopkins. On several occasions I tried reminding him, in a good-natured manner, that it was generally deemed unadvisable, if not impossible, to attempt to reconcile religious faith and pure science in absolute terms of correlation, faith being highly subjective in nature, and pure science (whenever possible) primarily objective.
I’m persuaded that I made no appreciable impression on O’Flynn whatsoever. It appeared that some complex amalgam of “bog-bound Irish superstition,” a rank amateur’s appreciation for the laws of nature, and certain orthodox dictums of faith had all collided at once. It appeared he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge the proposal that measuring scientific validity using religious calibrations was a fool’s errand. Just how this impasse affected Mr. O’Flynn, I really can’t say, but it certainly did not appear to dampen his enthusiasm for our occasional interviews.
He once appeared at my door with a very small human skull that had obviously been buried for centuries. I saw at once that it was not a child’s skull, but rather a fully formed adult whose defined features, though less than half scale by contemporary measurements, were all quite proportional and well formed.
On another occasion he brought me an unusual bronze-shanked iron arrowhead. It appeared to be of considerable age and was obviously not of indigenous design. The shank was approximately six inches long, and the point remained embedded in the neck vertebra of what later proved to be a very large and extinct species of bear. The arrowhead itself was of a fluted, three-edged design and had much in common with medieval bodkins I had seen illustrated in museum catalogs years ago. I asked Mr. O’Flynn how he’d come by such an unusual item. He was reticent at first, as is his way, but when pressed he explained that clearing and grating the county’s roads brought up all manner of strange and wonderful things. I didn’t quite take to this explanation, and he seemed mildly amused by my incredulous response. He took pains to point out that most of the present roads in California, like roads everywhere in the world, were laid out to follow long-existing paths and trails, which had probably been traveled upon for centuries. He went on to speculate that a good number of those thousands of travelers were always losing things along the way while moving from here to there, and to his way of thinking, it only stood to reason that at least some of those lost articles would come to light again one day. He confided that every now and then he came across various items that put a few odd dollars his way, but mostly it was discarded junk, with a few curiosities thrown in every so often. I was obliged to admit that O’Flynn’s serendipitous methods of discovery were impeccably suited to the needs of an incidental seeker of errant roadside treasures.
It was about this same time that I became aware (through the normal channels of idle gossip) that Mr. O’Flynn was spending more and more of his time with his Chinese friends and acquaintances, and less with his fellow parishioners at the First Methodist assembly hall. A later interview with one of the church elders suggests that Mr. O’Flynn’s attendance at services fell off considerably over the years since 1900, until at last he ceased going to church altogether.
Further reports of Mr. O’Flynn’s close social affiliations were verified by his presence as an honored guest at an elaborate Chinese wedding held in Pacific Grove. On December 18 of 1900, the locally popular, and deftly inscrutable, Ah Chung hosted his own elaborate wedding and reception in front of his prosperous laundry establishment on Grand Avenue. I’m told the bride was a well-connected Chinese maiden from Santa Cruz. However, I was mildly surprised to later discover that a handsomely attired Mr. O’Flynn was one of the appointed groomsmen sent to welcome the prospective bride’s train at the depot. The groom even arranged to have a twenty-piece brass band in attendance. Nuptials of this scale and expense are all but unheard-of in Pacific Grove. It was said that only a Chinese New Year celebration could have rivaled Mr. Ah Chung’s wedding in color, ceremony, or festive largesse. An abundance of food and drink was made available to one and all. I was amused to learn that a good number of our local citizens attended, some out of simple curiosity, but most to enjoy the festive nature of the celebration, the copious fireworks, and the colorful Chinese lantern processions. I’m sorry to say I was in Santa Cruz on laboratory business at the time, or I too would have been easily lured to attend the spectacle.
A number of our students did witness the festivities, which is how I discovered that Mr. O’Flynn had a noticeable participation in the ceremonies. This particular fact I did find very interesting, as the Chinese are well-known for being every bit as racially and socially prejudiced as we are, and thus rarely if ever admit “barbarians” to the inner circles of family ceremonial life or clan business. And what proved even more curious, though not totally unexpected, was the fact that Mr. O’Flynn never hinted at his participation in the wedding ceremony. As he was only a part-time worker, I felt any pointed inquiries would be deemed impertinent, and most likely go unanswered for all my curiosity. I chose to err on the side of civility and let the matter pass. If I were to hear anything on the subject, Mr. O’Flynn would have to volunteer the information, and my odds were not favorable in that respect.
Life and work went on in like fashion for a good while. I was privileged, at least for the present, to be unburdened by the requirements of any prospective marital constraints on my time and concentration. This freedom allowed me to indulge in all manner of agreeable research until the spring of 1905, when the warmer southern currents flowed north, and with them came a remarkable change in the local fish populations. The salmon and herring stocks were driven farther north to colder water. They were subsequently replaced by southern species like Mexican mackerel, Humboldt squid, and basking sharks, to speak of just a few. As one can well imagine, we became extremely busy collecting, preserving, and cataloging the encroaching species throughout the year. Even the state biologists were up to their waders in triplicate reports on the fluctuating fish stock appraisals, and the depleted projection of fishery revenues. But even with the increased workload, our two agencies managed to be of enormous service to each other.
At this point I must record that without the enigmatic relationship of our Mr. O’Flynn with the local Chinese fishermen, our ability to assemble a current and relevant collection, and to then preserve and catalog to such a professional standard, would have been very much impaired, if not altogether impossible.
But our success and gratification aside, all normal activities on the bay changed for the worse during the last four months of 1905. The warmth of the southern currents had a detrimental effect upon the weather. The unseasonable storms that raged out of the southwest caused widespread damage, of which the coastal Chinese seemed to suffer the worst material losses. Many of their seaside shanties and storage sheds were blown down, and a fair number of their fishing boats were badly damaged, if not destroyed altogether.
The endless days of sharp, contrary winds and torrential rains brought on inland flooding in the Salinas Valley and beyond. Needless to say, the local fishing industry and tourist trade all but withered on the vine, and we locals could do little better than hunker down to ride out the storms as best we could. In retrospect, one wonders if the dangerously inclement elements only presaged the disasters yet to come. The storms claimed a fair number of big trees all over the county, and in several cases these old-growth monsters had crushed a few barns, outbuildings, and parts of houses. Others had blocked all movement over important streets and roads.
One blustering, black day an oilskin-clad Mr. O’Flynn appeared at the laboratory to say that for the next two weeks he would be obliged to work for the county helping clear the roads. The situation had been voted an emergency by the county board, and they needed qualified men at once.
Due to travel difficulties by land, rail, and sea, the laboratory had temporarily suspended operations; therefore I had no objection to Mr. O’Flynn taking as long as he liked. Remembering the inherent danger in that line of work, I wished the fellow all the best of luck. I didn’t see O’Flynn again for more than a month.
Then one cold, fog-bound Sunday afternoon, while I worked on student papers in my fire-snug study at home, the bellpull at my front door clanged twice. I answered the summons and was mildly surprised to find Mr. O’Flynn, hat in hand, standing under the portico. He bowed his head modestly and apologized for not seeking a proper appointment. Nevertheless, he asked if I might be so generous as to oblige him with a few minutes of my valuable time. I could tell from the look in his eyes that this was a serious application. He declared there was something very important that he wished to consult with me about.
Fully prepared to be shown almost any variety of exotic object or malformed wildlife, I invited Mr. O’Flynn to come warm himself by the fire. He thanked me and sat toasting his hands while I poured out hot sweet tea. He began by saying that his work with the city and county was almost at an end. He was proud to say that he and his crew cut up and hauled away 137 “widow-makers” in less than four weeks. The city of Monterey had even awarded the road crews a modest bounty for speed, which was paid over in addition to their county wages.
O’Flynn paused, scrutinizing me closely, as if deciding whether or not to tell me the purpose of his visit. I must have passed inspection, as he cautiously commenced his story again. He informed me that part of his job was to survey those trees that had been blown down, and determine in advance what kinds of tools and how many men and wags would be required to clear them away. He confided that the city and county were recouping a reasonable portion of their costs by selling the timber to Mr. Work’s wood yard and the railroad.
Mr. O’Flynn had been instructed to ride out to the cypress groves overlooking Moss Beach. One of the older trees near the road had blown down and was effectively blocking most of the route south. He rode out to the location in a very leisurely fashion, free to enjoy the quiet and make his own hours, as there was no county supervisor about to hurry him along.
When O’Flynn came upon the scene of the fallen tree, he was surprised to see how large a root ball the cypress had pulled up with it. He said the collapse left a deep, eight-by-eight-foot hole in the ground. While he was examining the scale of it all, something entwined at the bottom of the torn root ball reflected a strange pink light, so he jumped into the hole to get a closer look. As he patiently brushed away the dirt with his fingers, he realized that he was looking at a very large piece of finely polished pink stone. Using his sheath knife, he carefully cut away the remaining tangle of small roots that enmeshed the stone. He declared it took him almost an hour to free the figure. Once it was liberated, he gently withdrew the oddly shaped object from its ancient cradle in the roots. But it was only after wiping away the dirt that O’Flynn realized the object was a carved stone figure of some kind of animal, and sculpted from very beautiful stone. Evidently, it was while he was climbing out of the hole with his prize that his foot accidentally dislodged a decorated stone plaque. Again it took some time to carefully cut the object free of its root-bound nest, and by then it was getting too dark to examine his finds in any detail. He then packed up the stone in a burlap sack and stowed it in his mule cart. The animal figure he wrapped in his poncho. O’Flynn made his way home as quickly as possible, unloaded and stashed away his discoveries, and then returned the work cart to the county stable.
O’Flynn made a point of saying that his wife had been away for a few nights looking after her ailing father, so when he returned home from the stable later that evening he found ample opportunity to clean and examine his discoveries unmolested by witnesses.
I asked O’Flynn to describe the objects in complete aspect while I took careful notes. My curiosity was palpable and my instincts sharpened.
O’Flynn described the stone plaque as a rectangular, headstone-
like slab, approximately thirty-five by twenty-five inches in area,
and a little more than two inches thick. The stone itself was finely cut, detailed, and highly polished. It was carved and en-graved on one side only. He said it was also remarkably dense and heavy for its small size. The animal figure, on the other hand, was beautifully carved from a large piece of opaque pink stone with slight streaks of white marbled throughout. It too had engraved script on its base. O’Flynn said the stone animal looked almost brand-new, highly polished, and not a chip anywhere.
To say that Mr. O’Flynn had by now thoroughly piqued my interest would be a bald understatement. I’m sure he could read the look of inquisitive anticipation that must have colored my expression. I asked him if he had brought me anything to see, and without another word he withdrew a soft leather parcel from his coat, untied the laces, and carefully unrolled the contents onto his lap. From a protective hide of rabbit fur he removed the magnificent figure and set it on the table between us.
The first sight of this treasure took my breath away. From the presence of knobbed horns, I presumed the long-necked creature to be a stylized Asian representation of a giraffe. The figure was approximately nine inches tall, and was posed resting on its knees in the fashion of a camel or llama. But what proved the most enthralling feature of the treasure was the fact that this noble object was obviously carved from one perfectly flawless piece of milky-pink jade. I gently turned the object around on the table several times to examine it from every quarter with my big magnifying glass. I found myself openly praising its intricate engravings, and the simple but aristocratic proportions chosen by the craftsman who created this magnificent work of art. The very posture of the animal, with head facing left and slightly down, seemed to have been chosen specifically for the purpose of allowing the darker pink jade to form a continuous bright crest for the creature from head to tail.
I was so completely preoccupied that it took me a moment to acknowledge that Mr. O’Flynn had spoken for the first time.
“Now, sir, I ask you fair as a university man, a doctor and all, just what kind of animal is that supposed to be?”
It amused me to ask, “What does it look like to you, Mr. O’Flynn?”
“To be sure, Professor, to my untutored eye it looks blood-kin to a hump-shy camel what’s been hung for the untoward loss of it. And I ask you, sir, just what are those odd stumps on its head? What kind of animal is it?”
“Well, Mr. O’Flynn, for centuries, books about mythical beasts called it a Quilin, but one day people were forced to acknowledge that the animal wasn’t a myth after all; in fact, it was modestly abundant in Africa, so people began to call it by a version of its African name, giraffe. The animal is most assuredly a giraffe, Mr. O’Flynn, and those stumps on its head are short horns.”
“So you are saying this ‘gee-raff’ creature is an animal that lives in dark Africa?”
“Yes, Mr. O’Flynn, except for the few that reside in some of the world’s better zoos, giraffes are native to the savannahs of central Africa. I’d be happy to show you a picture if you like.”
Mr. O’Flynn looked confused, but he nodded his head, and I reached for my zoological atlas. I showed him a photograph of a small herd of giraffes pictured in their native African veld. O’Flynn looked at the picture, and then looked at the figure, and then back again to the photograph. He silently repeated this back-and-forth comparison several times, and then closed the atlas with a bang. He sat back with a frustrated sigh and took up his tea. He appeared to be pondering some troubling question that forced him to knit his brows, occasionally suck his teeth, and stare off into space. After a minute O’Flynn spoke up again. “Africa, you say, Professor? And how long have these animals been common knowledge in the old countries?”
“Mr. O’Flynn, the giraffe is unquestionably an African animal. And I’d say it’s very likely the early Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, would have come across such animals in their extensive trade networks.”
“And what about the old-country Chinese, Professor, would they be in the know about such things?”
“I really can’t say without further information. Africa is a long way from China, but I’ve learned with the years that nothing is impossible. I see no reason why a culture as advanced and curious as the Chinese could not sail, or even travel overland, to Africa. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Professor, I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, mind you, but I have seen a fair number of downed trees in my time, and you can tell a lot about them from the root ball, you can even come close to the real age of a tree if you know what to look for. I’m told the old cypress groves hereabouts are spot-on rare, even for California. And they don’t thrive well at all in other climates. Well, sir, that’s what the county surveyor told me when he came out with the cutting crew the next day; the county man wanted to inspect this particular tree, mind you, and when he’d had an eyeful he politely asked that we cut him two sample disks from the trunk for the county forestry office. We were right pleased to oblige, but before he left I asked what they would use the samples for. He said they could date the tree to within a couple of years, and even read the weather for those years.”
“That’s a very common forestry practice.”
“So I was told, sir. I then asked the surveyor if he could take a look at the cuttings and give me an unofficial count of the tree’s age, if only to satisfy the curiosity of the men who would have to spend many hours taking the poor tree down to cordwood. Well, the fellow said he wasn’t really a forestry technician, but he showed me how to count the growth rings for myself. He told me that to make it easier, a man counts off by tens, and then pencil checks each ten. When you’ve reached the core, you go back and count the checks and multiply by ten. And I did just that.”
Mr. O’Flynn gently picked up the jade figure with callused hands, drew it close, and looked deep into its opaque luster. He spoke in an odd fashion, as if the power of ancient superstition now came into play. “Now, there’s something to truly ponder, Professor. This valuable object was purposely buried along with that stone plaque at the bottom of a hole over which a cypress sapling was planted. Do you follow me so far, Professor?”
“I believe I’m keeping abreast for the moment, thank you.”
“Well, sir, if all is as I say it is, then you’ll appreciate that this jewel of a beast and the stone plaque were actually buried in that very spot at least four hundred years ago. And that’s the best evidence accorded by the rings on the tree. You see, I cut a trunk sample of my own and ciphered the rings twice more to be sure. What do you think now, Professor?”
“If what you say is true, Mr. O’Flynn, I’m far more than just interested. Your find begs any number of historical questions, and certainly merits further study and research.”
“Well, then this will give you something more to think about, I’ll wager.” Mr. O’Flynn carefully handed me the figure. “If you’d be so kind, sir, look what’s carved into the bottom.”
I turned the figure over and was surprised to discover that the base was a large, fully inscribed seal. There were ten vertical lines of beautiful Chinese script, each character inset with remnants of gold foil. The same foiling was used on an elaborate oblong cartouche at the bottom right of the inscription. The engraved characters still showed slight traces of the red cinnabar used to print the seal on documents.
I was thunderstruck to say the least, but my curiosity leaped even farther ahead. I asked Mr. O’Flynn if the stone tablet had any writing on it, and he said it had. Three different types of script were displayed, and one of them seemed to be Chinese, but he had no idea what the other two were. He’d never seen the like before. Then I asked whether the lettering on the stone plaque showed any signs of having been inlaid or painted with gold. He answered in the affirmative. He said the stone had been highly polished on one side, and the characters cut into its hard surface. He also mentioned that the whole inscription was bordered within a carved design of flying serpents, flowering vines, and bats. With a perplexed look, he said that the stone had an odd property. When dry, it looked mostly coal black, but when he flushed away the dirt using clear water, the stone appeared to shimmer a beautiful dark green.
Reexamining the superbly engraved characters on the bottom of the jade figure, I told Mr. O’Flynn that while I was certainly no expert in the field of Chinese artifacts, it was my considered opinion that no further useful progress could be made on this mystery until the Chinese characters on both objects had been translated. I asked him what his Chinese acquaintances had thought of the inscriptions. His answer surprised me.
“To be honest, Professor, you and I are the only two people who have seen this carving in centuries. But begging your pardon, sir, the last people I’d wish to know about this are the Chinese. Mind you, they’re a remarkable race, and I have a great deal of respect for their strength of character and ingenuity, but they’re a right proprietary and dangerous tribe when they construe that a Chinese grave has been despoiled, especially by a Christian. And to be sure, Professor, just because I personally saw no bones doesn’t mean they weren’t there hundreds of years ago. Until we can make out what all this means, I’d far prefer to keep our local Chinese friends ignorant of the discovery, if such is even possible.”
O’Flynn leaned forward and lowered his voice in a slightly conspiratorial manner. “Just between you, me, and the gatepost, Professor, when those cheeky fellows care to put their crafty minds to it, they can also become the finest thieves and bandits in the world. And it’s a fact that I wouldn’t have this treasure very long if certain Chinese elders knew about it and felt they held a binding interest. I wouldn’t stand a tinker’s chance in Hades if those gentlemen truly wanted them back. As of now I can trust only you to help me.”
I was gratified by the man’s confidence, and said as much. I admitted that I was honored that he consulted me, but reminded him that anthropology was not quite my field. Nonetheless, I was deeply fascinated by the prospects of sinking my teeth into such a rare discovery. I suppose no thinking person in my position would be averse to daydreams of scholarly glory, but I already knew the pitfalls inherent in such ambitious endeavors, and believed I could keep a tight rein on my perspective.
In careful consideration, I informed Mr. O’Flynn that translating the inscriptions was still of paramount importance. And if he wished no one to see the objects as yet, then reliable copies of the originals had to be made. He inquired whether I knew of a method for accomplishing such a thing, and I said I believed I did, and using only materials readily at hand.
O’Flynn thought for a moment, and then politely asked me if I might demonstrate. From a large roll of sturdy white Japan paper, which I keep for mounting botanical specimens, I cut a piece that would overlap the base of the jade seal. Using a wet cloth, I moistened one side of the paper and pressed it firmly against the engraved text, using my fingers to pressure the paper firmly into every detail. Then, using a clean, dry handkerchief, I continued to pat and press the paper into the stone while holding it near the Franklin stove to help it dry. When it was done, I took a soft charcoal pencil and, working gently, began to make a rubbing across the surface. The process worked quite well, as I expected, and the text was handily duplicated as white on black. Mr. O’Flynn paid close attention to every step of the process, but when I told him he would have to come by with the plaque so that I could make a rubbing of that text as well, he seemed very hesitant to comply.
After pressing him to explain his reticence, I learned that O’Flynn was very fearful of removing the plaque from its hiding place for such an errand. On the other hand, if I gave him the proper materials, he thought he could copy what I had done. I agreed, but insisted that he first make another impression and rubbing of the jade figure’s base, so I could be sure he’d done the work correctly. O’Flynn happily agreed, and his third attempt was every bit as good as mine.
As I packed up the materials he would need, Mr. O’Flynn asked what I planned to do with the rubbings once I had them. I said that, with his permission, I would consult with suitable colleagues at Stanford University, but do so without telling them the origin or present location of the originals. If they agreed to help me, then we might well be on our way to solving the mystery of the burial. O’Flynn asked how long I thought it would take to get the answers, and I told him that I honestly couldn’t say. It all depended upon how difficult it was to find someone qualified to translate the texts. If they were as old as O’Flynn believed, based on the tree-ring count, then a true Chinese scholar might be required to do a proper translation. Understanding the difference in language usage over the centuries might be as complex as translating ancient Gaelic runes or Mayan hieroglyphs. I told Mr. O’Flynn that the process could not be rushed, and the outcome was by no means predictable, or necessarily profitable. However, I made it known to him that whatever happened, the value of the jade seal alone made it a formidable treasure in its own right, considering the quality and size of the jade, worth perhaps many thousands of dollars.
I admonished him to keep the figure hidden and safe until I should receive some response from the university. I also asked him if I might see the tree-ring sample at his earliest convenience. If I was expected to continue with the necessary research on his behalf, I felt scientifically obliged to make the ring count for myself, and this time using published botanical scales for reference. Mr. O’Flynn happily agreed to every particular. Then he carefully rewrapped the jade seal, took up the materials I had given him, and, with brogue-laced phrases of gratitude and confidence, quietly departed just as the setting sun peeked between the thick gray clouds and the ocean’s horizon. Suddenly, golden shafts of azure-flecked fire lanced through the trees, and the belly of the clouds all turned flame red. The whole experience took O’Flynn and myself quite by surprise, and we stood speechless in my little front garden watching the dramatic play of light as it changed color and intensity. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my guest made several furtive gestures with his hands that appeared ritualistic in nature, as if to protect his soul from the darker powers. Perhaps it was just an errant quiver of his Gypsy blood, but it led me to wonder how O’Flynn’s superstitious temperament was managing this unusual series of events.
I must admit that at this juncture I was feeling childish pangs of excitement. Like a little boy with a secret to share, I longed to have somebody to tell about these matters. I was saved from such indiscretions by circumstance alone. I had no wife to wheedle me into making premature confessions. My housekeeper, old Mrs. Bailey, already believed I was but a few steps from being committed to a mental institution, and thus never listened to anything I said, and I knew better than to share my special knowledge with any glory-hungry academics, who just might feel free to poach in their neighbor’s woods. I cast no immediate aspersions, of course, but I have personal knowledge of several such examples of academic chicanery, and I flatter myself that I wisely chose not to test my luck in that dangerous arena.
The following Wednesday O’Flynn appeared at Hopkins for his regular day of work, and he brought with him a package containing two rather well-executed rubbings of the stone plaque, as well as a pie-cut slice of the disk of wood taken from the cypress trunk. From heart to bark it was thirty inches long, which would have made the whole trunk a hefty sixty inches in diameter. Even a cursory glance at the wedge convinced me that there were at least three centuries recorded there. But I waited to examine it and the rubbings until I got home and could be guaranteed uninterrupted privacy.
I thanked Mr. O’Flynn for his fine work on the rubbings and invited him to call upon me at home on Friday evening after supper. I felt sure that by then I would be able to tell him more. I also requested that he bring back the jade figure so that I might make a camera image to verify the origin of the inscription. I pointed out that it would be helpful to have an image of the plaque as well, but I understood his natural reticence to move it about.
I had decided against using the specimen camera at the laboratory because it was too large, too heavy, and too cumbersome to transport with ease. Besides, my use of the equipment would attract unwanted attention, and awkward questions were sure to be posed by the curious.
After considering my alternatives, I went to visit my friend Charles K. Tuttle at his pharmacy. Besides being a good friend and Hopkins’s principal supplier of bulk chemicals, Mr. Tuttle is the county’s most reputable and successful druggist, a man trusted by all who know him.
But the real reason I approached him was because Mr. Tuttle is a keen and ardent photographer, and the owner of several very fine cameras. He also keeps a well-stocked darkroom to process his own plates and print his own photographs. Locally, he’s quite famous for the quality of his work, and I am the proud owner of six of his prints.
I asked Charles if he could set up one of his cameras in my house, with all the distances, focus, and lighting predetermined, so that I could photograph a certain object at a later time without making any adjustments beyond changing the negative plates and triggering the shutter.
Mr. Tuttle was kind enough to visit me that same evening to better understand my needs. I felt obliged to tell my friend that the project in hand had a somewhat clandestine aspect about it. And I went so far as to divulge that the proposed photographs involved something that might or might not have historical significance. The problem lay in the fact that the person in possession of the artifact wished to keep its existence confidential until more was known of its origin. In this way all parties might avoid undue embarrassment if existing presumptions and appraisals should prove to be in error. I explained that many important archives abound in undiscovered forgeries of every description.
Charles Tuttle was in total sympathy with my constraints and subsequent requirements. I might even say that he warmed to the mystery of it all and promised to be of any assistance he could. He helped determine where the table and the object should be placed for best effect with the camera angle, and since the photograph would most likely be taken in very poor light, he recommended that I gather together six to eight bright reflector lamps, and a number of small standing mirrors to help increase the light value focused upon the object to be photographed. After that, success depended upon the right lens for the distance, a properly placed and undisturbed subject, and, of course, the correct length of exposure. To help with this variable, Mr. Tuttle promised to write down all the settings and timed exposures in detail.
By Friday afternoon everything was in place. Charles had generously set up one of his better cameras, along with oil lamps and mirrors all preset to his professional satisfaction, using a porcelain platter as a stand-in for the unnamed artifact. When he departed, Mr. Tuttle left me with a case containing a dozen negative plates, and he added that he would be happy to help me develop them in his darkroom if I wished. I thanked him for his kindness and said I would take the utmost care with his equipment. Not wishing to slight his open generosity, I decided not to tell him that I planned to do that job at Hopkins, as we possessed all the necessary equipment. I felt bad about misleading a friend, but it was the strict need for confidentiality that precluded his kind offer. I knew Charles Tuttle to be a gentleman of consummate discretion, an essential qualification for one whose profession entails a long catalog of personal and medical confidences. If it were my secret to share, I’d go to Charles Tuttle first. However, this was O’Flynn’s discovery, and I was determined to prove myself worthy of his trust and confidence, such as it was.
Mr. O’Flynn failed to put in an appearance at the appointed hour, which I found most exasperating after all the arrangements had been made. Evening came and went, and after a light supper of grilled abalone, I decided to forgo any further waste of my time by going to a warm bed with a folio of scientific journals that I had put aside for study.
I had just banked the coals in the fireplace for the night and doused most of the lamps when there came a knocking at my front door. I answered the summons and my lamplight fell upon a bedraggled and sour Mr. O’Flynn. The heavy night mists had thoroughly dampened his clothes and his demeanor, for he answered my surprised greeting with a frustrated grunt and a burdened shrug. It was then that I noticed my guest was shouldering a heavy, damp gunnysack. By its shape and apparent weight, I knew at once that he must have brought along the stone plaque.
I ushered my moist and disgruntled visitor into the parlor and sparked up the hearth with fresh kindling and split pine. Mr. O’Flynn set his burden down near the fire, removed his coat to the rack in the hall, and sat down to warm his hands by the fire. He said nothing at all at first, so I went to the kitchen and returned with a hot mug of sweet cider and a tin of shortbread biscuits. He looked up and smiled at last when I presented him with these refreshments.
After taking a few moments to enjoy his cider, Mr. O’Flynn volunteered an explanation without the least prompting from me. He said that he was aware that he had arrived at an untimely hour and apologized for doing so without sending some kind of notice. He was forced by circumstance to change his plans at the last moment. He went on to lament the necessity, but he had felt obliged to move his discoveries to a new hiding place away from his home. He suspected that word had seeped around the Chinese community. He’d heard that people were talking about the ancient fallen cypress, and the fact that he had been the man who had supervised its final destruction.
“Now, you may not know this, Professor, but our Chinese friends hold the local cypress groves as sacred. Some say those trees were planted for a purpose generations ago. They believe that tampering with such things can only bring down a cruel fortune on a man’s head.” O’Flynn shook his head in frustration. “But why pitch the stink at my door? It surely wasn’t my bloody idea to blow down the damn tree. It had nothing to do with irreverence or anything like it. And if I hadn’t discovered those stones, someone else was sure to. And it seems some of the village elders have taken on a different view of the situation. Those old men should be harping at the county supervisors, not at me. I’ve heard they’re complaining that a vile desecration has taken place.” O’Flynn shrugged with an air of resignation. “To be sure, I suspect my usefulness among those people is fast coming to an end.” He mustered a slight grin. “My sterling reputation is under something of a cloud at present, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they have someone watching me.”
I asked O’Flynn if any of the Chinese suspected that he had discovered something important buried under the tree. He shook his head and said that not even his wife knew about it. Then again, he affirmed that no one could ever fathom what the Chinese really knew about anything one way or another. But in that vein, O’Flynn did acknowledge that if, in fact, it had once been a local tradition to bury important people in such a manner, then yes, the elders might have every reason to suspect that something other than a root ball was removed from that hole by the road.
I thought for a few moments and then pointed out that the situation could be easily amended to his benefit, his profit, and even his standing among the Chinese. All he had to do was make their community a gift of what he’d accidentally discovered as a result of an act of God.
O’Flynn shot me a look of surprise. “That won’t do at all, Professor. No, no. You can’t just hand some Chinese elder a couple of ancient treasures and expect him to share with the others.” O’Flynn smiled indulgently, as though addressing a rank freshman. “God bless you, sir, but it won’t work that way; any old burgher you choose will just keep the stones to enhance his own clan’s prestige. And you can’t pass them over to just any old tong or the fraternal corporation, because they’ll do just the same. No. If I might make so bold, Professor, until we know what all this means, I intend to stand on the side of prudence and caution. Once you’ve recorded the objects with your camera, I intend to hide these petards where discovery will be all but impossible.”
Mr. O’Flynn obviously intended to leave the whole question of propriety and ownership till some later date, but I got the settled impression that he intended to profit from the circumstances one way or another, if only to compensate himself for everything he’d been through so far.
Now, it must be said that Mr. O’Flynn never struck me as a man easily given to fits of philanthropy, nor was he, on the other hand, perceptibly materialistic or acquisitive. To his credit, he has a fine head for balancing funds owing against labor spent and the going price of such services. Thus he appears to modestly balance his accounts in the black, more or less. And I never heard him mutter an envious sentiment toward those who possessed more wealth or property than he did, or ever voice an ambition based on serendipitous wealth. For all intents, O’Flynn seems to have accepted his station in life, and appears to have all he needs, if not all he desires. And though there are no scales to judge unspoken aspirations, I’m persuaded that his decidedly circumspect and suspicious nature would not allow him the luxury of indulging daydreams of instant wealth based on what little we had in hand.
Perhaps this instinct was buttressed when I informed him that the only true value of the plaque, and what I perceived to be an official seal, was the importance and context of the inscriptions carved upon them. It seemed to be a case of the message outweighing the value of the gilt-edged parchment upon which it’s written. Once these elements had been properly cataloged and recorded, the objects themselves, regardless of all commercial considerations, would ultimately take their place in some well-endowed state institution where they would most likely be displayed as the historical curiosities they are. I reminded Mr. O’Flynn that he was not the only one who had something to gain or lose. My time spent on research could easily still prove little more than a study in academic frustration. With that, I encouraged the man to forgo his suspicions for a few hours and assist in the evening’s labors.
With Mr. O’Flynn’s help I lit all the reflector lamps, adjusted the mirrors, and prepared to photograph the jade giraffe seal. In consultation we agreed to take six plates of the jade figure, and six of the stone plaque. As this was the first time I had laid eyes on the latter, I spent quite a while studying the stone, examining the engraving, and matching the charcoal rubbing with the plaque for accuracy. I can testify that the stone was a beautifully executed piece of work. The inscriptions were set out in three distinct languages and scripts, with slight hints of gold foil inlaid here and there to highlight certain characters. It appeared, from remaining traces, that similar foil had also been used to highlight details of the border decorations.
The uppermost text was comprised of thirty-six vertical lines inscribed in what I assumed was Chinese. The second segment, though I couldn’t be sure, looked to be of equal length in text, and marginally akin to a medieval form of Persian. But the lowest and most cryptic segment was set out in an alphabet I was totally unfamiliar with, and subsequently unable to identify with any reference available from my meager library at home.
With Mr. O’Flynn’s assistance, I readjusted the lamps and mirrors to accommodate the photographs of the plaque. But even with our best efforts, and all the light available, viewing the inscriptions through the lens was difficult. Mr. O’Flynn solved the difficulty by suggesting that we brush wheat flour over the stone and then wipe off the surface so that the engraved characters would appear white in contrast to the dark surface, and this we did with some success.
By half past midnight, Mr. O’Flynn and I had finished our task. Without further ceremony, he carefully gathered up his treasures and went off into the night to hide them somewhere new. I never asked where he intended to deposit the artifacts, which I believe added further confidence to our informal association. I had all I needed for the present. The photographs, if they proved legible and credible, stood as solid testimony to the existence of the originals. I’m not sure O’Flynn quite understood that th
In the Shadow of the Cypress
In 1906, the Chinese in California lived in the shadows. Their alien customs, traditions, and language hid what they valued from their neighbors . . . and left them open to scorn and prejudice. Their communities were ruled—and divided—by the necessity of survival among the many would-be masters surrounding them, by struggles between powerful tongs, and by duty to their ancestors.
Then, in the wake of natural disaster, fate brought to light artifacts of incredible value along the Monterey coast: an ancient Chinese jade seal and a plaque inscribed in a trio of languages lost to all but scholars of antiquity. At first, chance placed control of those treasures in the hands of outsiders—the wayward Irishman who’d discovered them and a marine scholar who was determined to explore their secrets. The path to the truth, however, would prove to be as tangled as the roots of the ancient cypress that had guarded these treasures for so long, for there are some secrets the Chinese were not ready to share. Whether by fate, by subtle design, or by some intricate combination of the two, the artifacts disappeared again . . . before it could be proved that they must have come there ages before Europeans ever touched the wild and beautiful California coast.
Nearly a century would pass before an unconventional young American scientist unearths evidence of this great discovery and its mysterious disappearance. Taking up the challenge, he begins to assemble a new generation of explorers to resume theperilous search into the ocean’s depth . . . and theshadows of history. Armed with cutting-edge, moderntechnology, and drawing on connections to powerful families at home and abroad, this time Americans and Chinese will follow together the path of secrets that have long proved as elusive as the ancient treasures that held them.
This striking debut novel by a masterful writer weaves together two fascinating eras into one remarkable tale. In the Shadow of the Cypress is an evocative, dramatic story that depicts California in all its multicultural variety, with a suspense that draws the reader inexorably on until the very last page.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
The mysterious discovery of ancient jade artifacts on California’s Monterey Peninsula indicates an Asian presence in the New World much earlier than previously thought. The idea is breathtaking, and dangerous, as three disparate people find when attempting to bring this information to light across the course of a century.
Beginning with the 1906 journals of a Stanford professor of Marine Biology and ending with the high-tech, deep sea search of a brilliant and determined student in present time, Steinbeck vividly depicts the tense confrontation of science and tradition against a vibrant backdrop of Chinese-American life throughout the twentieth century.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Which narrative style did you feel was most effective in relaying the mystery of the jade artifacts: Doctor Gilbert’s first person journal entries or the third person Dr. Lao-Hung and Luke’s stories are tol see more