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Big Sur Oral History Project DIRECTOR INTERVIEW

November 24, 2015 by California Humanities

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Big Sur Oral History Project will capture and preserve an oral history of a unique community in one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world; the stretch of land comprising Big Sur. The Henry Miller Memorial Library (HMML) will collect, preserve and catalogue existing audio and film recordings (some currently on deteriorating media) in an effort to create a publicly accessible archive and in-store listening station. The project will explore how the area’s residents have adapted to challenges of living “amid magnificent unspoiled scenery” as well as the tension inherent between preserving the natural beauty of the region and maintaining public access to this national treasure.

First of all, what is the Henry Miller Memorial Library?  Can you tell us something about your history and mission?

The Henry Miller Library Mission Statement:

The Henry Miller Library is a public benefit, non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization championing the literary, artistic and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist, and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. The Library also serves as a cultural resource center, functioning as a public gallery/performance/workshop space for artists, writers, musicians and students. In addition, the Library supports education in the arts and the local environment. Finally, the Library serves as a social center for the community; we have been the premier cultural institution in Big Sur for 30 years with deep relationships with local residents and organizations.

The Library has worked diligently over the years to fulfill the above mission and much, much, more. One may not be the biggest fan of Miller’s writing, but his joie de vivre – an incandescent, intoxicating bouillabaisse of passion, art, poverty, stupidity, adventure, women, and quicksilver flashes of undeniable genius – is what we hope to marginally capture on our very best days here. We can list activities and stories to fill this page and more but suffice it to say we do theatre, music, dance, workshops (writing, songwriting, screenwriting, yoga, etc.), conversation, bookselling, lawn mowing, water colors, poetry, and…we offer the Library grounds to the community for parties, meetings, memorials and weddings.

There’s also a ‘hidden profundity’ at the Library in that we are very proud to own and care for a significant archive of Miller manuscripts, letters, art and ephemera dating from the early twenties until his death in 1980. The archives are continually expanding and deepening in its scope and accessibility through the acquisition of more material (also relating to the culture of Big Sur as a whole) as well as through improving on cataloging (OCR, transcriptions, photo ID, art essays, geographical and social keywords etc.). In 2016 we hope to finish the building of an archive facility on our property here in Big Sur.

How did you get involved with it and what are your roles within the organization?

Originally from Sweden and arriving in Big Sur after circumnavigating the earth, Magnus Toren has lived in Big Sur for 30 years. He has been a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and Executive Director of Henry Miller Memorial Library for over 20 years. His experience is uniquely attuned to a project of this nature.  For example, this year he has coordinated a listening series with some of the most accomplished audio producers in the country and in the process, has established a network of people passionate in the field to draw from. Mr. Toren will be responsible establishing contacts to interview as well as conducting the interviews. As a result of living here for over 30 years he will be able to obtain stories from those who may have left Big Sur, have spent considerable amount of time here, and currently reside here. His time here has provided him with the knowledge, wisdom, and resources to connect with the members of this community as an expert in not only the region but also the art of storytelling.

Michael Scutari joined the Henry Miller Memorial Library in 2010. He currently manages the following library related websites: www.henrymiller.org, www.bigsursoundandstory.orgwww.bigsurwriting.org, www.bigsurstories.org, 5 library related Facebook sites, and the library’s Twitter account. In his capacity as the Library’s public relations manager, he has cultivated deep relationships with local outlets including but not limited to: The Monterey County Weekly, the Monterey Herald, Carmel Pine Cone, KUSP, KQED, KZSC, New Times San Luis Obispo, San Jose Mercury News, The Californian (Salinas), and dozens of local organizations.

Can you describe the project you did with CH support?

The Big Sur Stories project is ongoing and will capture an oral history of a unique community in one of the most remarkable landscapes in California, if not the world; the stretch of land comprising Big Sur. The project will explore how the area’s residents – beginning with the homesteading families in the 40s, up to the present day – have adapted to their rugged natural surroundings and to the ever increasing number of tourists across the past 100 years. Participants include people who have spent time, both long and short, living in this landscape. Amongst individual stories given by community members, thematic elements of this lifestyle has inherently emerged. The Big Sur Stories project takes the form of recorded interviews and stories, with supplementary audio and visual materials. An in-store Big Sur Oral History listening station is being installed at the Henry Miller Memorial Library that will be made available to an audience of both residents and visitors. We also have created a website with an archive of “Big Sur Stories”. We have conducted 19 interviews so far and the ‘completion’ of this project looks more and more distant each day. The stories/interviews take on a life of their own and will not be tucked away and left alone but instead will continue to be in need of follow-up, interpretation, research, cataloging, transcribing, etc. This process will inevitably be ongoing into the future and through the various stages of this project. By encouraging Big Sur residents to submit their experiences, we will provide the community a resource for Big Sur’s oral history that is a living and continually growing and deepening endeavor.


What led you to imagine this project?  What did you hope to accomplish?

The idea that drove us initially was a curiosity about stories unique to Big Sur. Stories would, we imagined, capture the essence of a people who have chosen to spend their lives in a remote rural setting, a place that over time has become an international tourist destination, a place that is exceptionally beautiful, biologically extremely diverse and sensitive. A place with a culture of known iconoclasts, ‘rugged individualist,’ artists, back-to-the-land romantics, writers, and counter culture folks. We wondered about life within a scenic national treasure, demographic changes, how the community feel about the relative isolation, concerns about how the wild and rural character will be affected by an increase in visitors. Do the community assume a sense of responsibility for the preservation of the coast? Are there tensions within the community around these questions? How does one preserve the integrity and natural and cultural  beauty of a region while keeping it accessible to the many thousands of people that visit each month?  As we said in our grant application:

The project will explore contemporary life and how the area’s residents have adapted to their rugged natural surroundings, the conservation ethic, and to the ever increasing amount of visiting public across the past 100 years. The documentation will include participants who have spent time, whether a lifetime or a short stint, living in this landscape. Amongst individual stories given by community members, thematic elements of this lifestyle will inherently emerge.

There are many things we hope to accomplish, too many to be exhaustively mentioned here.
Some of the goals are below in bullet points:

1. Help define and support ‘community.’

2. Empower individuals within the community by recording and caring about, and for, their stories.

3. Create an archive of voices for future study and inspiration.

4. Preserve, catalog and archive existing audio and video recordings.

5. Stimulate the collaboration between people and groups within the Big Sur community.

6. Reach out to the public through website and listening station at the HMML.

7. Create live events where community members participate in conversations based on the result of the  interview(s).

8. A monthly local podcast with highlights from interviews.

9. Develop trust and a willingness to collaborate within the community.

Our opening party at the Big Sur Grange on October 25 took us a long way towards accomplishing goal #9 above. Many people have expressed interest in participating both with the project as a whole and as community members wishing to be interviewed.

What have been the most rewarding outcomes to date?

Getting to know better the people who make Big Sur their home (in many cases, people who have lived here all their lives) we are developing a deeper understanding of the local culture and history; it is hard to beat that as far as a reward. The eagerness with which many community members have endorsed our efforts by participating, or sending us kudos, has also been extremely rewarding.

Did you encounter any challenges?

Are you joking? There are so many challenges that emerge in a project of this size and scope that I could probably write three pages single spaced and double sided about it! However, the good news is that all challenges are there to be worked on and we are doing it. An example of a not entirely foreseen challenge is recognizing the sheer time it takes to do this work properly! As we approach this with the long term goals in mind, the legal ramifications, the historical gravitas, the need for safe storage, public access, development of the content, etc. you realize it is a Big Job.  Just the process of interviewing one person involves hours of preparation, travel, the time of the interview itself, book keeping, legal agreements, preservation of original files, transcribing the content, publishing on website, editing for podcasts…etc.. 

Other challenges include the need for reaching out to community members with different viewpoints so as to not shape outcome in a biased way; defining relationships with other Big Sur organizations that we have reached out to such as the Big Sur Historical Society and the Ventana Wilderness Association, and the biggest one of all; defining and sticking to the scope of the project itself. Everyone’s story matters and everyone’s story is interesting if not amazing! So how do you stop? Where do you draw the line? This I believe is the Historians Dilemma. Especially now with the internet allowing you go down the rabbit hole from within the comfort of your own home (in the old days you got stuck at the Library until you got (blissfully) kicked out!

Do you plan to continue the project?  What other plans are in the works?

Definitely. More interviews and more people involved. Deepening the content quality by cataloging, transcribing, doing follow-up interviews etc.

As more events have emerged being central to the experience of living in Big Sur, follow-up interviews become more and more part of future plans. Examples of Big Sur specific events that have had significant impact on people's lives are the natural disasters of 1972, 1983, 1985, 2008, 2012. (and others). These environmental emergencies are especially associated with Big Sur because of its peculiarly vulnerable landscape. The Big Sur Stories project will not be ‘finished’ anytime soon, indeed the plan is for it to be a continuing process of recording, sharing and deepening of the content including several programs designed to reach out to both the public and our small community of residents, like we pointed out above in bullet points.

Finally, why are the humanities important?  Why do the humanities matter?

OK! Good question and one that could also occupy many pages.

Since the Renaissance, the humanities mission has been to help people feel at home on earth. This mission has two main tasks. First, it should help people to obtain information and knowledge about world history; all cultural traditions. Humanities second main task is to find out what it is that prevents people from being happy.

To be a humanist is to be pleased that politicians appoint them as "arbiters" and humanists always have to underline the fact that it requires a lot of effort to learn to read Hindi, to make qualified interpretations of medieval romances or enter into the debate on Islamic feminism. The humanities are something that is everyone's concern.

The humanities is not an exact science and it will never get away from using empathy to understand the strange and it can never cease to be an interpretive discipline.
The humanities research aims to help people to transform the house into the home and therefore there is an historic pact between the humanities, humanism as a philosophy of life and humanitarian efforts. And conversely, there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the humanities and life-denying religions and anti-humanist policies.

Humanities ultimate raison d'être is helping people to feel at home during their lives. It is with this objective that humanists follow the history and world cultures and are trying to interpret human struggle and striving, their longings and disappointments, their thoughts and frustrations.

Humanists want to make the past accessible to the modern times, making the entire human experience available and explain why the manifestations of the human at some time somewhere by someone was perceived as reasonable. So we can build on - or turn against - cultural heritage of humanity.

In the competition with the natural sciences humanists have sometimes resorted to a kind of arrogant isolationism - they assume an indignant defense attitude that says ‘we are certainly as important as you are, we are for the soul what you are to the body, without our efforts both man and society would get sick.’

Probably not. The man who must choose between human progress and science are not confronted with a very difficult choice. A world where dentists can’t administer anesthesia would be much worse than one where we do not have access to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason!

Fortunately, we need not choose. Humanities are an essential part of any society that wants to understand itself, where we come from and where we are headed. Without humanists efforts Homer and Shakespeare would soon become unintelligible to ordinary people, the story would disappear and the empty space it left behind would give clearance for confused minds to roam freely with ideas that threatens most of what we call civilization.

Thank you!

Magnus Toren
HMML, Director

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