Haunting poems give texture to Sonoma County history

The first bite of a tangy Gravenstein apple or a stroll through the pastoral beauty of the Laguna de Santa Rosa might never be the same after one reads Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s new book of poetry, “There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air.”

Dunkle, who lives in Sebastopol, weaves prose, history and imagination together to create a vibrant collection of poems celebrating the west county’s past and present.

“History is part of what I breathe,” Dunkle said. “It haunts me daily, in a good way.”

Many elements of Dunkle’s book are tangible in the present today: The fog still rolls in and out from the bay, the yellow jackets still devour rotting apples in the fields, and the red-tailed hawks still glide through the sky. But the people and memories that inspired these poems aren’t as evident in our daily lives.

Dunkle based her work on the history of the west county, from the first encounters between the Coast Miwok and European settlers to the abundant apple orchards and the hundred-year flood of 1986. Her writing stems from true stories researched at the West County Historical Society, the Sonoma County Museum and UC Berkeley and recounted by local historians like Gaye LeBaron, who fact-checked the book.

Dunkle said she learned much more through “primary” research, like reading a diary or talking to someone’s great-great-granddaughter, than she could have on the Internet. She took this history and transformed it into personal accounts that place the reader in a specific moment in time and bring the story to life in a way that is approachable to even the most reluctant student of history.

“It’s important to feel the ghosts of a place,” she said. “You can’t trust history. You have to dig it up.”

Dunkle lived in Sebastopol from the time she was 4 years old, and she started writing poetry in the seventh grade. After living abroad and on the East Coast, she returned to the west county with her husband and two young sons to live on the 10-acre property where she grew up.

As a child, she “devoured” the writings of Emily Dickinson and Jack London, but it was as a visiting professor at Clarion University in Pennsylvania that she discovered the importance of history to her work.

While combing through the university library’s special collections, she discovered the nearby town of Pithole, an oil boomtown that existed for only 500 days. She started learning - and writing -about the stories that most people around her had forgotten.

It was the people in these stories, like the young girls forced into prostitution to satiate a town full of men, whom Dunkle felt she had to “get out” through writing.

“As we get further and further away from history, we’ll be like Pithole,” she said, a town that came and went so quickly, its people were nearly forgotten.

Similarly, Dunkle said that many of the current residents of Sonoma County don’t know the history that influenced and shaped the land they now call home. A quotation from LeBaron at the beginning of Dunkle’s poem about the flood of 1986 describes, she said, how Americans have forgotten their pasts: “Everyone believes that the history of any place began the day they arrived.”

The importance of remembering Pithole’s past, and especially of reminding people to question what is remembered, made clear to Dunkle her purpose as a writer.

“It’s a call to action to question things,” she said. And by questioning, we can perhaps avoid some of the mistakes we made in the past.

“There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air” tells how the Gravenstein apple got to Sonoma County from the orchards of Italy, where Prince Carl of Denmark vacationed and first tasted the fruit. He brought it back to northern Germany, where it was grafted and bred to withstand ocean travel and, eventually, brought to the shores of Northern California by settlers.

It tells the history of the Laguna de Santa Rosa - once a lush, fertile series of small lakes, home to abundant wildlife and the Coast Miwok people, then clear-cut to provide food and farmland during the Gold Rush and later filled with Sebastopol’s sewage as an emergency measure during a diphtheria outbreak.

It also tells how Spud Point in Bodega Bay got its name when a barge that was overloaded with potatoes sank in that spot.

But it also describes to the reader what it might have been like for someone to carry the precious Gravenstein seedlings, wrapped in burlap, across the ocean and, eventually, step off a ship onto the rocky, salty beaches. Dunkle shows, through imagined but realistic details, how settlers transformed this new land from oak trees to orchards and, in the process, had families and lost partners.

A series of poems chronicles the life of a female homesteader who was left to raise her young son alone after her husband died in a railroad tunnel collapse in Freestone. Another tells how the name “Sebastopol” was chosen, after a daylong feud between two men resulted in a spectacle that townspeople compared to the Crimean War’s Siege of Sevastopol.

The title of the book comes from a poem about the first Irishman who attempted to settle land near Crane Creek in Cotati. One night, he was surprised by dozens of Coast Miwok men, whose land he had stolen, running down the hillside waving burning tule reeds like “fiery birds.” They forced him off the land, never to return.

“The idea is that, in the air we’re breathing, all of the ghosts remain,” Dunkle explained.

She acknowledged too that, as with all history, there are holes in this retelling. There is no way to fact-check the stories that happened before any of us were here - we can only rely on the early historians, who were usually not of the lower classes, Dunkle said. But her poems “wake up in people amazing stories.” According to Dunkle, every reading so far has attracted people who are happy to learn their history and see their place represented.

And, she said, this is a time when people could benefit from remembering the past. Perhaps this book will help expose the “truth being covered up” beneath the people drinking lattes at The Barlow or walking on the paths of the Laguna, Dunkle said. “We can’t escape from the history of a place.”

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