The Big Sur Poet in the English Pork Pie Hat

Some of you may remember Eric Barker, the poet who was once the caretaker for the El Sur Ranch. Others will want to know about him. A reader of my blog sent me this essay he wrote on the poet and it is exquisite. I think you will enjoy this.

When Pico Blanco wears sunset like a lion skin
On his granite shoulders
I have followed her down to the sea
Where gulls and cormorants burn like phoenixes,
The great ocean is possessed by light and sound.

From “Little Sur River” by Eric Barker

Story and photos by David A. Laws

Half an hour’s drive south of my home on the Monterey Peninsula, cliff-hugging California Highway One dips down into a shallow valley carved by the Little Sur River on its twenty-five-mile dash to the ocean from the shoulders of Pico Blanco. Every time I take the wide U-turn across a low concrete bridge that spans the creek, my mind conjures up images of the stocky, gnome-like poet Eric Barker with a halo of white hair protruding from under his battered pork-pie hat.

In his poem “Little Sur River,” Barker captured the essence of her journey from stands of pine and redwood “where smoky sunlight lies tangled in brambles and ferns” through dense riparian groves of alder, cottonwood, and willow to the coast. He knew this spot well, having lived within sound of the surf for more than two years as a caretaker on the El Sur Ranch in the early 1950s.

His line “Sun is not all. Here we drink fog like rain” from the poem “Fog Over Big Sur” acknowledged Barker’s stolid acceptance of damp, foggy, wind-blasted Central California coastal summers in exchange for the freedom and solitude of his simple Big Sur lifestyle.

Eric, 1955. Image Copyright © 2021 Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved.

Barker was well known in the Big Sur art and literary community that included novelist Henry Miller, sculptors Harry Dick Ross and Gordon Newall, and artists Emile Norman and Emil White. He collaborated with Wynn Bullock on projects that matched the photographer’s expressive black and white images with the poet’s verse. Bullock’s portrait Eric, 1955 depicts him peering through the broken window of a tumble-down shack. Another features him playing chess with the photographer’s daughter. Both pictures appeared in many books and exhibits.

I think you will enjoy reading the rest of this essay and discovering both Eric Barker and David A. Laws.