After wandering the roads of Descanso, lost again (you would not want me navigating your lifeboat), I stopped at Perkins Market and asked an old-timer where Duncan McFetridge lived.
He told me to take the dirt road past the Catholic church, then added with a smirky little grin, “If you really want to find him.”
Hearing that, more than ever.
I found McFetridge up a twisting dirt road in a rambling cabin-type house. It’s a place where John Muir would relax and put his feet up. He appears to live mainly in one small area, sitting at a handsome wood table he made himself and alongside a wall of books that look well thumbed.
He is a backcountry artist and philosopher who can hurl withering words at the prideful concrete and glass we metropolitans have put in place, glittering at the ocean’s edge.
I’m late for our planned lunch, so he fixes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me. He’s the first to do that since my mother. Tastes the same — good.
He has an old rescue lab and seven cats that must be out somewhere dodging coyotes. In a corral are a small mule and two horses, one a huge ex-racehorse that was more accomplished at kicking than running. McFetridge rescued him from Elmer’s.
This man who would rather make art than money is 73 years old, tall and slim with a neatly groomed, short gray beard you might expect on, well, a philosopher. He looks like Howard Hughes before that recluse turned into one of MacBeth’s witches.
Have you ever been married?
“No. Too close.”
Out in the yard of his two acres is a 1943 International pickup that appears good for a giant flower pot. McFetridge claims it still runs, and I take his word for it.
I look around, and seeing no television, ask.
“I don’t have television, radio or a newspaper. I live in the 16th century. That’s when Shakespeare was moving. It was a very creative time.”
Duncan McFetridge would turn up his nose at La Jolla, and I suspect those of that gold-plated ZIP code could manage their hurt. He’s a guy who goes out each morning to get dirt under his nails. He sees the earth as a canvas, a laboratory and a mission. And if you don’t agree, step right up. He will engage you on the nature of the universe or the best wood preservative. But he’s a happy guy and he argues happy.
If you could pin him down to one particular calling, he would probably say artist. He has created excellent (to my untutored eye) wood carvings and is now working in stone. He has chiseled out of granite the likenesses of a frog and a bull, which repose in their several tons in his yard, obviously safe from theft.
Since he doesn’t seem ambitious to sell his creations, I ask how he feeds his animals, and incidentally, himself. He says he has investments, owns some property and has Social Security.
He is a graduate in philosophy from San Diego State University and spent years as a carpenter, wood carver and furniture maker, as well as working construction to build the freeways he now tries to avoid.
He finds satisfaction in the vigor of manual labor. Cutting a couple of tons off a granite boulder to shape an artistic image in the East County heat is not for the sweat-averse. Given that and his life in semi-seclusion, he and Henry David Thoreau would be a fit, finding pleasure in arguing from breakfast through supper. His is a Walden in the high desert.
“Philosophically, I moved around a little bit. I found my true home when I decided I am a believer in truth, beauty and goodness. Western civilization is actually based on those three concepts.
“I used to get into arguments with my fellow construction workers about the popular saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There’s this idea that taste decides everything, and there are no principles in beauty.
“But you can quickly refute that because, for example, (the music of) Beethoven is objective beauty, it is not in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. In the classical sense, great art measures you, you do not measure great art. So if you don’t appreciate Beethoven, Beethoven is passing judgment on you, not you on him.”
I have a hunch some of his co-workers picked up their lunch pails and hard hats and moved to the next shade tree where they could talk Chargers in peace.
So, you’re saying that beauty is the same standard for everyone. How would you judge a beauty contest?
“A beauty contest would qualify as a matter of taste, not beauty. A person’s beauty is found in the inner soul.”
OK, Beethoven is beautiful, objectively. But is Mick Jagger more beautiful to the rock fan?
“I am not familiar with him. I never listen to popular music. I don’t know.”
McFetridge is a willing combatant to make the planet a more salubrious place for nature, beginning with his own backcountry. Through the years he has joined with neighbors and environmentalists to do battle with developers, planners, politicians — he loves to fight them — and all those he considers progress hucksters. He knows they don’t give a hoot what he thinks, and for his part, he believes they don’t think at all.
We return to the large rock that he’s fashioned into a likeness of a bull peacefully at rest. McFetridge has named it Romeo. It seems there’s a biography attached to the sculpture, the explanation of which opens a window to the sensitivity of this man.
“Romeo was a free-range bull on an adjoining cattle ranch. He was old and had suffered a hip injury and was alienated from the rest of the herd. It was dangerous for him because he was not agile enough to fight the younger bulls, so he stayed as far away as he could. But one day, to my horror, the inevitable happened and the other bulls came close to killing him.
“I adopted him from the rancher and brought him home, then and there. I built a little place for him by the side of my house and he provided two years of friendship before (he died).
“I was told he was a wild and dangerous animal and that I could never let my guard down or turn my back, which of course could be true, but not of Romeo. I think he was a Buddhist monk reincarnated. He would bow down every time I approached him. He was as gentle as a lamb. He was a life teacher. I owed him a sculpture before I died.”
Are you religious?
“I would say I am, yes. I believe that life is a secret.”
Please explain what that means.
“When I say life is a secret, I mean it’s a gift. It’s a gift that we can’t explain. And the gift of life surrounds us.”
If he has the aches and pains typical for his age, he must buy Tylenol in bulk because it doesn’t show. However, two years ago he had an encounter with a southern Pacific rattler that at the moment was occupying the same space in his yard. The snake was quick to make a point of his displeasure, and left McFetridge with a stiff foot as a reminder not to step on snakes.
“Within minutes, my face and hands became numb. Venom was shutting down my entire system — blood, tissue, nerves. By the time I reached the hospital, my entire body was numb. I thought it was all over. At the hospital, my entire leg swelled to double its size and later turned deep black from internal hemorrhaging. It took months to recover.”
If he can come to an accommodation with the rattlesnakes, McFetridge will remain a happy warrior of ideas, walking his acres searching for truth among the rocks and trees. He wants to make you aware of what he thinks, but he also — and this is the man’s taproot — believes what you think is important.
If you wander through society thirsting for a deep discussion on the meaning of just about anything, Duncan McFetridge would be a cup of cool water in the Mojave.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for 2013, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He believes every life is an adventure, and invites your comments and ideas via email at [email protected]