Jack London Was a Square

Photograph from Jack London State Historic Park

Dereck knows I still hold a perverse sort of affection for Oakland. So he texted from Jack London Square one day to say he was having lunch there.

I was riveted to Jack London’s books as a kid. They were an introduction to adulthood and the possible brutality of life. They softened the blow of the evening news because London’s books exposed a more personal level of barbarity than say, a B-52.

The hills around Oakland were a park covered in eucalyptus and redwood trees. I was told that Jack London planted the eucalyptus in those hills, but I discovered later, it was a real estate developer.

But London did plant 100,000 eucalyptus tress on his own land, using his and willing investors’ money. He believed that the oily wood would resist the Limnorea and Teredo worms that were devastating the wharves of Oakland Harbor. This belief was confirmed by “Eucalypts Cultivated in the United States,” a 1902 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the bulletin was full of misinformation and lies, even depicting piers on the California coast that had obviously failed, as examples of success.

All along the California Coast the worms were such a scourge, they became a convenient villain to cite as reason to fall for the eucalyptus scam. Jack London would go to his grave not realizing that he had wasted a fortune on those trees which eventually became a fire hazard and crowded out native species.

London was a celebrity in his own time and had plenty of money to spend, and a lot of dreams on which to spend it. He thought that a cactus could be bred to be spineless and furnish forage to cattle in the desert. That scheme failed too, as future generations of cactus grew spines anyway.

As a correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War, London witnessed terraces on agricultural land in Japan and that inspired him to build terraces on his Beauty Ranch in Sonoma County. They worked to stop erosion and served as an example for future American farmers.

Jack London’s “Pig Palace” (named by a newspaper reporter because of its high price tag) was a circular affair with 17 individual farrowing pens and a two-story feed bin in the middle, built in 1915. A lever could be pulled to deliver the feed. Inside each cubicle there were iron pipes around the walls to protect the piglets when the sow lays down.

These were tremendous innovations at the time. Some are still in use today and some, a dismal failure.

Outside of his fiction, Jack London was an avowed socialist and unionist. Having seen much misery in his early working life, he saw redistribution as the best solution to inequality. He wrote and gave speeches advocating socialism.

He was an old fashioned socialist/entrepreneur, however. He wouldn’t measure up to those of today. He took the risks of investment himself. His eucalyptus and cactus projects cost only him.

Today’s so-called innovators who are glorified by the press, have the costs borne by the public and take the profits for themselves.

I don’t think Elon Musk, who pockets $7,500 of federal money for every Tesla he sells to the super-rich, or Warren Buffett, who diverts energy research capital through his subsidized windmills could be compared to Jack London. He took responsibility. He was not a thief.

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