Friday, April 22, 2005

Esoteric Essay

Friday morning I drove down to visit Alex Henderson near Auburn, to imagine some cabinets which might be built in his kitchen, and then to use his table saw to cut strips of red and white Philippine mahogany to make Penrose rhombs, of thirty-six and seventy-two degrees.

Around noon, tho, it came time to take Alex's nimble little Beamer convertible for a test drive.

"Let's go to Boole Road," said I, "there is some kind of old religious commune or cooperative out there, near the North Fork canyon."

For so I had heard from Ron Gould, who joined Placer Legacy's Loren Clark and others for a tour of the site, some months ago. It seems there was something historic about the place, which had some kind of printing and binding equipment. And the land itself governed access to roads running along the canyon rim.

At the Applegate exit on I-80 we turned south and took a right on Boole Road. Almost at once a sign proclaimed the entrance to the "Esoteric Publishing Company," and Ron had mentioned that name. So we turned onto the paved driveway, and saw a group of buildings sheltering in an oak grove, above left.

Up we went. A woman was receiving a delivery on a loading dock at the rear of an odd concrete building. We drove near and I asked if we might take a look around Esoteric. I mentioned the Placer Legacy, Loren Clark, and Ron Gould, and confessed my interest in securing public access to the North Fork canyon.

There was some confusion while it developed that we had stumbled upon a Jesuit retreat, built on property which had once belonged to Esoteric, and when this was finally sorted out we were asked to wait while she telephoned up to headquarters.

Before we knew it, we were in Lindsay's SUV, trundling up Esoteric Road, gathering tidbits of the history, which went back to the 1890s, and admiring the millions of buttercups blooming in the lush meadows to either side.

Lindsay explained that near everybody in Placer County had heard tell of the Esoteric Society, and that local legend insisted each and every building on the grounds was haunted, through and through. Strangers wandered in at any time, looking for ghosts. If the strangers had their way, they'd tear the buildings down until they found those ghosts.

Well. Public access to ghosts is not of vital importance, not in my world.

The Meadow Vista Trails Association obtained permission to use Esoteric lands, and we saw some of their trails marked, here and there.

Also, large numbers of E Clampus Vitus were arriving to camp in a meadow, an annual event it seems. They too have an arrangement with Esoteric.

Esoteric Publishing still exists in some rudimentary form; an internet search revealed that it had published a title as recently as 1962. Lindsay told us that a certain old brick building along the road had to do with the Society (for it was more than a mere publishing house), and that a man named Fred Peterson awaited us, and would tell us more.

The road climbed to a gap on a ridge, and suddenly the North Fork was below us, and snow peaks glinted in the distance, above the flat volcanic uplands of the Foresthill Divide. A short climb west led us to another old brick building, or rather, half brick and half frame construction, ramshackle in appearance, and with enough in the way of trees around, to mask its potential impact upon the canyon viewshed. A variety of outbuildings, and Lindsay's humble cottage, stood nearby. And a tall, thin, ancient man, his faced etched into a thousand deep creases and cracks, his hair rarely long for his age and quite white, stood on the entrance steps, at the west end of the building. A battered old grey metal toolbox rested on the steps beside him, and he gripped a ring of many dozen keys.

This was Fred.

Not far away was a California Styrax bush in full bloom, evidently planted long ago by some member of the Society. The first place I ever saw this species was a short distance to the east, down in Codfish Canyon. They have quite showy white flowers.

Lindsay indicated we should get out, and I approached Fred, introduced myself, and mentioned that I had heard of Placer Legacy's interest in the property, and appreciated the chance to take a look around. I expressed admiration for the view, and interest in the building, and in the history of the Society. Once again I dropped the names of Loren Clark and Ron Gould.

"Ron Gould, you say," Fred began, "I remember him: a quiet man, didn't have much to say. Seemed interested and all that, tho."

I rushed unnecessarily to Ron's defense.

"He may be quiet," said I, "but he knows how to listen; Ron doesn't miss much."

"I know he doesn't," Fred cackled genially, "because, when they left, after the Tour and all that, he told me, 'Nice to meet you, Fred'. He got my name right, anyway."

When Alex joined us, Fred grabbed his grey metal box and instantly led us away on the Grand Tour. So many facts and subjects were spilling out constantly, one getting in the way of another, that it was a bit difficult to hold the thread of any one fact or subject. We garnered some time for all that at the foot of a long outdoor staircase, and again on the platform up at the third story entrance, while Fred turned his mass of keys, keys of so many shapes and sizes and colors and metals, over and over and over, searching for that one key we now needed.

Around 1891, a man named Hiram Erastus Butler came to Applegate from Boston, where he had run afoul of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. Fred made it seem as tho Butler had fled for his life, or perhaps I only imagined that secret agents of the Society had been set upon poor Butler, like so many transcendental pit bulls.

For in the late 1880s, Butler had dared to raise a rivalry against Blavatsky's popular sect; he had named his new organization the Esoteric Society, and had published a book entitled "Solar Biology [Bible History of Solar Biology, Involution and Evolution, Man's True Nature, The Selection of Partners and Hints Regarding Marriage, The Twelve Signs or Functions of the Zodiac, The Power and Importance of Breath, The Polarities of the Signs, Order and Harmony of the Seven Vital Signs, The Positions of the Planets, Attributes of Character, Critical Periods of Life, Sexual Excesses, Etc.]"

And Butler left Boston for Applegate, and he and the members of his Esoteric Society built the buildings, and began publishing this new Gospel According to Butler.

Fred told us that the very bricks of the building were made on the property, using manzanita to fire the kilns.

Finally the key was found, and the old door swung open. We entered a room almost demonically musty in smell and appearance, with a mixture of new and old furniture, odd paintings, and custom signs inscribed with Sayings of the Master, which Fred had made long ago.

Fred is a kind of curator of the history of Esoteric Publishing and Hiram E. Butler. He wants Placer County to preserve this history, and make a museum in the decrepit structure. If the County doesn't act, Fred fears that some rival religious organization or cult might step in, purchase the property outright, and rapidly and malignantly subsume the true history of Butler and his Society, beneath their own dogma, their own history, their own people.

So this rather large building is already a museum of sorts, which Fred maintains as best he can, while unable to afford to fix the leaking roof. Every room smells dank and moldy, and every window is covered from top to bottom. So it is dark and smelly and, as it turns out, full of all kinds of strange and mystic memorabilia, some of which dates back fully a century to the days when Hiram Butler gave lectures, and needed to show his audiences the Seven-Pointed Star of Vital Planetary Vibrations, circumscribing the Six-Pointed Star of the Masculine and Feminine, and labeled with the word "Logos" in both Greek and Hebrew, along with astrological symbols and the good and old Snake Eating His Own Tail, representing, Fred instructed us, Eternity.

We wandered from room to room and from attic to basement and again and again the keys were revolved into every kind of geometry while The One was sought. Eventually, The One was always found, and we would enter yet another musty, dusty, mouse-poopy dark chamber, and some new magical and mystical painting or prescription was met.

Moses hurried the Israelites across the (parted) Red Sea, in one huge painting all of eight feet long. Another painting sported a very wise and loving and friendly-looking lion on the upper left, a bunch of mystical symbols elsewhere, and, below right, where one would expect to find the painter's signature, the combined astrological symbols for Leo and Sagittarius.

"Those are the symbols for Leo and Sagittarius," I remarked, "look how they are combined."

"That's because Hiram Butler had his Sun in Leo and his Moon in Sagittarius," Fred explained. "Butler is the Lion." And he rambled into an explanation about how Butler was revered by his disciples and liked to be called The Lion, which was only right because his Sun was in Leo, and Esoteric Astrology, as opposed to Exoteric Astrology, was concerned only with the Sun and Moon signs of an individual.

All of which I followed perfectly, for, from studies in the 1960s, I knew all too much about the Theosophical Society and such-like cults and cabals. I had read a biography of Blavatsky, and also of her successor, Annie Besant, and knew, for instance, that her second-in-command, second, yes, yet equally capable of receiving Divine Guidance from Ascended Masters, Avatars, and every kind of good and decent Spirit Guide--her second-in-command had lost favor, when it emerged he had sexually molested the children of many Society members, in Australia.

I did not mention this to Fred. Maybe it would have pleased him to learn of this stain upon the honor of the larger, more-powerful cult, that noble Theosophy which had hounded Hiram Erastus Butler right out of Boston, so long ago.

During all this slow and stately Tour we were accompanied by Lindsay's daughter Hanna, an eager and happy sprite of ten years' age, who knew every nook and cranny in the place, and managed to be both enthusiastic and very polite. She was a joy, a ray of pure light in these dark halls and steep narrow stairs and mildewed rooms.

I believe the old structure could be whipped into fairly decent shape. It needs a good roof first, better drainage away from its foundation second, a concrete basement subfloor third, and then, with a thorough cleaning it might well be opened as a museum.

In one attic room Alex found a very old photo album containing photos of Yosemite, among other subjects. When Alex exclaimed his appreciation, Fred offered to let him have it. Alex refused, of course. Fred's willingness to give away the album does not bode at all well for preserving the integrity of this very unusual collection of historical materials.

I do believe Esoteric is worth preserving. But the true worth of the Esoteric Society property goes beyond its importance in the history of minor cults, or its role in the history of Placer County; the true worth has to do with protecting a goodly portion of the canyon rim, upon which who knows how many houses might be built, and also with enhancing public access to a certain system of dirt roads along the canyon rim.

Wherever we went, the old grey toolbox followed. I essayed the joking remark, 'wherever goes our President, so also goes the Nuclear Football', but Fred didn't rise to my bait. His toolbox had strips of tape and paper plastered over it with labels in cursive script that I could never quite read. I don't think it contained tools.

Fred and Hanna called one room the Patriotic Room. It too was jammed with mystic insignia, but a large American flag draped one wall. The flag looked old, perhaps because everything was dusty and therefore looked old no matter what its actual age might be, so Hanna and I busied ourselves with counting the stars.

There were fifty stars.

Then Fred sprung a pop quiz on home-schooled Hanna: "Do you know what the Thirteen Stripes stand for, little girl?"

Before she could answer I jumped into the breach and answered, "They correspond to the Thirteen Dragons of the Apocalypse, of course!" He walked away, muttering about tender young minds, and the dangers of Truths all too dangerously True, for a being of her innocent years.

While walking around the south side of the building, I noticed that Little Bald Mountain and Snow Mountain were visible, and a little triangle of snow I mistook for one of the peaks near Alpine Meadows ski area, but which in retrospect I am guessing was in fact Mt. Mildred's north summit.

Fred asked if any of the peaks visible were Mt. Rose, and I answered in the negative, for the Sierra crest bars all of the Carson Range from most any point on the west slope of the Sierra. Perhaps members of the Society had evolved the idea, a century ago, that one of the snow peaks in the distance was Mt. Rose. Perhaps a special and religious significance was attached to this notion.

But it is a false notion.

Fred and Hanna saved best for last: the Library. Here a large room with a Franklin-style wood stove was lined with glass-fronted bookshelves along one long wall. The collection ranged from Swami Vivekananda to Dickens and from one generation of Huxleys to another; a somewhat remarkable and unusual collection have mainly to do with religion and mysticism, but straying widely into Greek myths and, really, many subjects. The Society had printed and bound their own indices to the Library.

Hours had passed. I had only imagined driving up to some gates, and peeking in at distant buildings. Maybe a little innocent trespassing, to get a glimpse of the great canyon. Instead we stumbled directly into the Grand Tour. I was fascinated, and would have stayed longer, but Alex had a schedule to meet, so we made our apologies and our thanks, and left.

This required we be driven back down the hill, past the swelling ranks of Clampers, to the Beamer, which we'd left to the mercies of the Jesuits. Lindsay was getting ready for work, and her husband Kent took on the task.

Kent is a slender man of middle age, with fine features and greying long hair. He is a Juilliard-trained pianist and gives lessons at the high end of expertise, as well as composing his own music; a mixture of Prokofiev and show tunes, he said. I was quite curious as to how someone, anyone, had ever landed there at Esoterica. Clearly this Kent was the very same Kent we had seen named in posters around the big old building, and the same musician Fred had alluded to at the very beginning of the Tour, who composed music for the Society in a front room, one of several rooms we'd never set foot in.

So I threw a couple questions Kent's way and we swiftly learned that the Vietnam War had chewed him up and spat him out, very much the worse for wear, so that in 1969 he became a hippy and moved to California, and within a few months his path led him to Esoteric Publishing. He stayed until 1974, returned in 1993, and has lived there ever since, composing music, and raising his family. And at long last that bad war's wounds had healed.

Then we were at the tiny Beamer and said our goodbyes, reluctantly, for Kent is quite a nice and interesting man, and we'd felt an instant rapport. Perhaps we'll meet again.

Such was an interesting few hours on the rim of the North Fork canyon. Fred and Hanna had proudly shown me how one could see the river itself, far below; I think we were looking at a point a little below Ponderosa Bridge.

This Esoteric Society, also known as Esoteric Publishing, and the Esoteric Fraternity Publishers, is of historical interest, and occupies a position on the rim of the North Fork canyon which could have great bearing upon the viewshed, and upon public access to old roads along the canyon rim. It is not the typical Placer Legacy project, but I am inspired to think it is a project worth pursuing.


Russell Towle

p.s.--I append below an excerpt from the Theosophical Society's own magazine, the PATH, from the issue of March, 1889, which sheds some dim light upon the quarrel with Hiram Erastus Butler. We learn, along the way, that Buddhist Adepts were strenuously attempting to subvert Christianity in America. Oh, those darn and dreadful Buddhists!

In one place we have a man pretending that he is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and in another, one deliberately stating that he is Gautama Buddha come again in order to correct errors in his promulgated doctrines. Again, we find astrologers and diviners, mediums and seers, opening shops wherein they dispense oracles to the willing, gullible people. One is quite as pernicious as the other, for the taint of money will corrupt anything. And those who have means are somewhat to blame, in that they imagine that their money can procure them knowledge of the deep, spiritual things of Nature.

The latest thing in this line is that which began in Boston soon after the starting there of a
magazine called the Esoteric. With that journal we had no concern, for its founders had a right to use it to promulgate just as much of truth as they had hold of in the same way that the PATH gives out its ideas of nature and of man. But in the beginning, the managers of that magazine let it be
understood that they were, or one of them -to wit, Mr. Hiram Butler - was a theosophist; or member of the Theosophical Society. An examination of the records just made shows that he never was a member of that body.

Not very long ago a bulky book was circulated by this prophet, in which mysterious statements were made that one Vidya Nyaka desired to found a College in the U.S. to teach the stockholders (!) and students all the mysteries, and among others, the power of acquiring vast wealth, and it was said that after the college was organized unlimited means would be at its disposal, drawn from the funds at command of adepts; but, as a preliminary merely, the faithful must disburse. And disburse they did. We grieve to say that many theosophists sent in money to this scheme which, on its very face, boldly showed that it was founded as a means of giving its stock-holders wealth.

The first note was sounded in an alleged "Letter to a Seeker" published by the Esoteric. This was a fraud which took in theosophists who do not get acquainted with what is written in out-of-the-way places. It was a hit at the Theosophical Society and at the Adepts, pretending that They were cold and dead and selfish, and that only the Solar Biologists were fitted to help Americans. It exhibited ignorance when it left the domain of plagiarism. What it plagiarized from is a book called "The Wisdom of the Adepts," by Rev. Thomas Lake Harris, in which he attempted to show that Buddhist Adepts are systematically trying to subvert Christianity in America, and this "Letter to a Seeker" took as subtitle, "The Wisdom of the Wise." Fragments are taken, word for word, from pages 8, 9, 319, 249, 371, 248, 249, of Harris's book, and used to construct this letter in the Esoteric and signed Nemo. If Rev. Harris did not write it, then it was stolen from him; or, if he did, then the Esoteric is a secret organ for a Christian sect which is anti-theosophical, while it outwardly professes theosophy. Either of these alternatives is equally damaging.

The second note was a loud one on a brass bugle heralding the founding of the Esoteric College, as the direct outcome of the efforts of the magazine, with Mr. Butler at the head of it, and Vidya Nyaka in the mysterious distance with a medley of nonsensical letters at the end of his name. The real name of Vidya N. is Ohmart, and he is known to many men in Boston who experienced his wiles before Butler joined hands with him. Before that, Ohmart was satisfied to deal with men on pure business principles, but when he combined with Butler he played upon the credulity of the mystically inclined people who sincerely desired to know the things of the spirit and foolishly thought that the great pretensions of this pair hid great knowledge and wisdom.

It all speedily ended with a frightful expose in the N. Y. World, Boston Globe and Herald, and
Philadelphia Inquirer. The worst of it was that the press mixed the Theosophical Society in it, entirely without cause but wholly because of Butler's theosophic claims, and today hundreds of people think that exposure was an exposure of humbug on our part. Such are the facts; hear now of the Karma:

Mr. Butler and all his confederates have to some slight extent injured the Theosophical Society, and the nemesis provided by the immutable law of Karma will follow him until the full consequence is felt and compensation made. We do not need sworn zealots to wreak a vengeance. That will follow, whatever it be, because behind the Theosophical Society is a mighty power that works by law and by will, and not by money. No wealth can buy its favor nor avert its care for its members and for the enemies of the Society. Already material damages and great annoyance have come to these men who dared to sell and buy in the Temple of God. And the same nemesis, but perhaps with lesser fury, will pursue all those members of the Theosophical Society who have in their hearts said, "Lo, here is one who offers at a price that which the Adepts of the Theosophical Society say can only be obtained through toil and unselfish effort; let us go buy of him." We are sorry for both, but surely lessons must be learned, and we had thought that the lesson was taught when the mysterious H. B. of L. invaded our ranks seeking recruits and getting those who would not try the right way. The end is not yet, the hour has not struck, but it will arrive. Let us then rely upon Karma and do our duty.


Anonymous said...

Hiram Erastus Butler is my great great grandfather.

Ray Longacre

Anonymous said...

hanna has an older brother. he's now 23. i'm his girlfriend and i love your discription of fred. this place is my life now. Fred is still kicken and still carrying that tool box. i'm currently trying to look into what i can do to save as much history as possible. actually searching for more info is how i found your blog. as a girl i cannot talk to fred and i finaly got a few minutes to poke around the house and found the yosemite photo album in the top room. beautiful land. i'm glad you got to enjoy it,
jessie o'neil