Chapter 7: A Student In Berkeley

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

The University of California had colleges in several different cities (there are still more today), but Berkeley was the most important. It had about 16,000 students in 1937, three times as many as Cambridge and about 25 times as many as Bangor. However, the number of post-graduate students was quite manageable and I did not feel at all overwhelmed by the scale.

Berkeley itself is one of a string of towns on the east side of the Bay of San Francisco, along with Oakland, Albany, Alameda and others besides. If you pronounce it Barkeley, in English style, you will soon be corrected! Down by the bay shore it had an industrial look about it, with warehouses, factory yards and other useful but not very glamorous enterprises. The main Southern Pacific railroad station was there too, so this was my first view of the town.

From these lower reaches there was a steady but slight upward grade to Telegraph Avenue, which was wide and had railroad tracks running up the middle. Freight trains used to pass by, making the harmonious wailing noise of the whistle and the continuous clanging of the bell which such urban intruders were expected to make in America. Freight cars would be left for loading or unloading. Further up was the residential area, getting steadily more exclusive as the hills were approached. These hills sprang up right behind the town, part of the Coast Range, and were attractive, being studded with the evergreen California ‘live’ oaks which are so often seen on the cinema screen in the westerns.

In the middle of this residential area was the great rectangle of the university campus, belonging to the State of California. It backed on to the hills, and was spacious and attractive, with wide, green lawns and groves of trees here and there. It looked fertile and lush and the classical stone-built buildings looked as if they had been there for much longer than was indeed the case. In the middle, at a crossing of paths, was a campanile rather like the one in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, again built of stone. Tunes were played on a carillon at the quarter hours. The wide walks of this central area, where the main lecture rooms were located, were usually pretty full of undergraduates. Blue jeans had already taken over as regulation student dress, though at that time they were hardly known in England. At first I wondered what the numerous circular white patches on the tarmac drives were, but I eventually realised that they were not a new-style decoration but discarded chewing gum. There had to be some differences from Cambridge!

At the top of the campus, nestling against the foot of the hills, was the stadium. Berkeley was on a geological fault, a kind of branch of the infamous San Andreas fault, and I was told, tongue in cheek, that there would be no more earthquakes because the massive stadium had pinned the two sides of the fault together. Maybe they were right, for there was not a single tremor during the months that I was there.

Close to the stadium was International House, where I was to stay. It was only a few years old and was one of four such Houses built with funds from the Rockefeller Trust. The others were in Chicago, New York and Paris. There were public rooms for gatherings and for relaxation and also a restaurant. Dormitory rooms were in a block nine storeys high, men and women on separate floors with separate elevators; no hanky-panky here! The most desirable rooms were high up, overlooking the Bay and I managed to get one of them. The Bay is one of the world’s finest natural harbours, and it was good to look across it at any time of day, but particularly at sunset. There was the Golden Gate Bridge straight across and the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge a little to one side. As the sky faded, rows of twinkling lights came on, on the bridges and all around, on the ships in the Bay and on Alcatraz Island, still a federal prison.

The research departments, at least in the biological field, were down near the lower end of the campus. There, the arrangement was especially spacious and pleasant. Going back years later, many of the open spaces had been filled up with new buildings and the campus looked congested and had lost much of its charm. There are no days like the old days!

Up behind International House was the charming Strawberry Canyon, wooded and unspoilt, though there was an unobtrusive botanical garden at the top end. The canyon was a favourite place for walks, marred only by a slight anxiety in that it did have both poison ivy and snakes. I never heard of an actual case of snakebite there, but the university hospital would usually have a few patients who had reacted violently to contact with poison ivy. Officially called Rhus toxicodendron, a relative of the sumach tree, it was also called poison oak. The fact was that the leaf shape and general form of the plant were very variable, which added to the difficulty of keeping clear of it. Again, going back years later was a disillusionment, for by then there was a wide road going up the canyon and a huge Radiation Physics Department near the end. That’s progress!

As had been intended when it was built, International House was a stimulating community to be in. There were some 300 students, all post-graduate. One third of them were Americans and the others came from every corner of the globe. Not having been abroad before, this was a fine chance to learn about life in different parts of the world, to learn that people were people whatever their nationality, race and creed. It had to be admitted though, that the limitation to postgraduates made it pretty selective. The cosmopolitan aspect was fostered in various ways. In the restaurant, certain tables were designated for conversation in French, German, Spanish or some more exotic language and beginners were not only tolerated, but encouraged. There were talks by various members of the community and there were occasional dance festivals. Not everything was organised in this way of course, and groups of friends would go off on all sorts of trips.

A pleasant short excursion, often on a Saturday, was to San Francisco. The Bay Bridge had just been built, but the ferries still ran from Oakland and that was the best way to travel – by tramcar to the Oakland ferry terminal and then by boat to the pierhead in San Francisco. The city was unique and fascinating, and indeed still is. Its amazingly steep streets were impossible for ordinary trams, and so there were cable cars, worked by a great lever which clamped on to a cable which ran beneath the road. There were steps along each side and it was fun to hang on the outside of the tram while cars passed by within a few inches. Down near the pier was the fishing harbour, with seafood restaurants which were justly famous.

Another feature was ‘Chinatown’. Chinese labourers had come over to work in the mines and to do labouring work on the construction of the railways. They got the tough jobs which nobody else wanted to do. At the outset, the part of San Francisco where many of them settled was an almost entirely male community. Later women came over and Chinatown was established. It still exists as a city enclave, though it is by no means a ghetto. Even now, there is an archway marking the entrance to the area. Street and shop signs are bilingual and the Chinese language is commonly heard in the streets. While I was in Berkeley, many of the shops were displaying garments in beautiful silk brocades, intricate carvings in ivory and fine jewellery. I also saw and photographed some crates bearing stickers which said “All made in Japan goods are bloody”. At the time, the Japanese were invading Manchuria and were not all that popular with the Chinese. Nowadays many of the same shops sell little but Japanese manufactures cameras and electronic goods in particular! With various friends I used to visit and enjoy this part of town and eat in the Chinese restaurants. Gradually I gained a degree of skill with chopsticks.

Near the Golden Gate Bridge, was the Presidio park and just round the headland, a little out to sea, was Seal Rock, which was often just about covered with sealions. They barked like dogs and flopped in and out of the water, looking like shapeless sacks of fat. Not far away lived one of Lilian’s cousins, Margaret, whom I visited on a couple of occasions. Her father, Lilian’s uncle, had toured America several times with his Welsh Imperial Singers and had finally taken U.S. nationality. He had died, but his two daughters were still around, both married. The other one, Cecilia, was living at Placerville, which originally had the colourful name Hangtown, up in the Mother Lode country on the way to Lake Tahoe. I was to visit her too.

Before embarking entirely on what life was like for me, it is worth looking at a more general picture. Hollywood had given the impression that America was the land of milk and honey. So it was for some people, but we were still not out of the Great Depression which followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. America never had been a Utopia for everybody. I had already seen the run-down area behind the New York docks and the poor little dwellings of share-croppers in the south-eastern states. Now, in travelling south by road in California, there were pathetic little family groups to be seen, with old jalopies piled high with their few belongings. John Steinbeck in his book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ had dramatically described the lot of these people, often ‘Okies’ (from Oklahoma), driven out of their poor farms by a succession of dry seasons in the Dust Bowl and hoping for better things in the rich, irrigated soils of the Central Valley. This was the time of F.D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. There were all kinds of government schemes, with names like W.P.A., C.C.C. and P.W. A., aimed at spending public money to revive the economy, but it can take such schemes a long time to work. Meanwhile people need to live.

The morning after arrival in Berkeley I went to see Professor Babcock, who was most welcoming in what I had now come to recognise as the typical American manner. He and a member of his staff, Dr R.E. Clausen, had written the standard textbook of the day on plant breeding and genetics, so that their names were well known. There was quite a galaxy of talent there at the time, including one eminent Jewish figure, with the name of Goldschmidt, who had with many others been forced to leave Germany during the Hitler regime. Germany’s loss was America’s gain.

Within days, Prof Babcock threw a party for me at his home, so that I could meet all and sundry, and within a little while I was awarded a junior fellowship of the university. This meant that I was able to use all the university facilities without any fees to pay. Within a short time I was given a room of my own in the department, in Hilgard Hall. Thus once more I encountered a degree of hospitality which still amazes me. It almost began to embarrass me, for there was little that I could do in return. There were sometimes chances in later life and I have seized on them whenever they arose.

Now was the time for pursuing my research, for writing up sections of thesis as the work was completed and for sending these sections to Cambridge for comments and suggestions from Watkins. It could not be fully completed, for some work remained to be done back in Cambridge on my return.

My room in Hilgard Hall was next to that of one G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr. and there was a communicating door which was always open. Stebbins was a slightly eccentric character then in his late thirties. He probably knew the flora of California better than anyone else. That is really saying something, because California is topographically the most varied state in the Union, ranging from alpine tundra to below-sea-level salt desert, from dry scrubland called chaparral to dense maritime and alpine forests and just about everything else. He used to go on field trips quite often at weekends, and I usually went with him. ln this way I visited parts of California very rarely seen by visitors and very fascinating it was. Stebbins’ prestige was such that, when the decennial International Botanical Congress was held in Edinburgh not long after the end of the war, he was appointed its President.

In the spring of 1938 we launched out on a project together. Most plants and animals have chromosomes which pair and separate in a regular fashion, but as with most things there are exceptions. One had already been discovered years before in a species of evening primrose. There the chromosomes formed a big ring instead of pairs. It caused much confusion in the early days but was eventually sorted out in terms of standard theory. It seemed that the chromosomes had been swapping bits with their neighbours. In Western America there were two wild species of peony, one in California and the other further north in the Cascade Mountains. In these, the chromosomes formed all sorts of different combinations of rings, large and small. This led us to some collecting expeditions and to a lot of peering down microscopes. It later led to the publication of a joint paper in the Journal of Genetics and to my presenting an account of the work to the Genetical Society in the wonderful rooms of the Linnean Society in Burlington House in London.

Another small aspect of work in Berkeley was that I was inevitably led into giving a talk about my wheat work at a meeting there and a little later at Davis, near Sacramento, where the University had another (and at the time very much smaller) campus.

When people ask about the weather in California it is necessary to ask just where they mean. There is a cold ocean current coming down the coast from the north, and on-shore winds approaching San Francisco are cooled by it. So in the city it is often foggy and cool. Once I was there on Midsummer’s Day and the temperature was 54°F. On the following Christmas Day in England it was one degree warmer. Across the Bay in Berkeley the cloud layer is usually higher and there are ‘high fogs’. This gives an overcast sky and pleasantly warm, but not hot, conditions. Further east the cloud burns off and the Central Valley can be unbearably hot. Not very much further east again are the high mountains, always cool, and deeply snow-covered in winter. Berkeley, however, is favoured with many beautiful sunny days throughout the year, never too hot and never too cold.

Many of the students lived in the Bay area and commuted to college, but on the edge of the campus were many examples of that peculiarly American institution, the fraternity or sorority house, all designated by a group of Greek letters, usually three of them. They were little, self-governing residential units, though I suspect that if any one of them got too much out of hand, the power of authority would come down upon them. Being a state university, there were some general measures of control, or at least of very half-hearted, attempted control. One related to alcohol, which is always subject to peculiar regulations everywhere. It could not be sold legally within a distance of 2½ miles from the campus. The result was a thriving circle of establishments just over the border line. Sixteen thousand students can absorb quite a volume of liquid and the slight feeling of infamy which arose from having to elude the regulations gave it an added zest.

While on the subject of alcohol, I felt impelled to do a little research too. After all, wine is a biological product and I was a biologist! At the time there were great numbers of separate small wine producers in California, so in the pursuit of knowledge I felt I should sample and evaluate their products. I found after the war that this research, pleasant though it was at the time, had little permanent value, because nearly all the small producers had joined large cooperatives or had been bought up by huge companies. It was fun, though, and it was quite cheap in those days.

The cost of living in California at the time makes strange reading now. I take these figures from a letter I wrote home right then, so they are not the result of a faulty recollection. Delicious dessert grapes at 5c (ld) a pound, ice cream at 15c (3d) a pint. Room rental about £1 per week, food about £1 .SO a week. Petrol 7c per U.S. gallon, of which lc was federal tax and 2c state tax. Breakfast 15c. Lunch and dinner 40c to 55c each. All food about $1.30 a day, which was about 5 shillings or 25p in decimal currency. With all the other expenses and due care, my £200 a year grant held out well.

Since central California has a Mediterranean climate, there are a few wet days before Christmas. The dry, brown grassland gradually turns green and the countryside looks prettier. In this quarter of the year there are two great holiday events. The first is Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November. This commemorates the thanks given by the Pilgrim Fathers for their survival in their new land; something which they might not have achieved but for the help of the local Indians. The second was Christmas, which is much the same as in Britain. On both these occasions there were ‘events’ in International House, but I also had the pleasure of being invited into an American home as a family guest. It was, of course, my first Christmas away from home and that was rather a strange sensation. The next such occasion was to be no less than 54 years later, also in California! One of the quieter events at International House was a reading of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. I became rather heavily involved in this because of my ‘English accent’, which was considered appropriate.

After Christmas there was a period when winter rains really set in. It rained and rained and rained for about three weeks. It is still the wettest period I have ever experienced anywhere and was quite unusual. It began to appear that ‘Sunny California’ was the biggest misnomer of all time. Roads and railway lines were washed out in many places and near Los Angeles, five people standing on a bridge, watching a roaring river, were washed away, bridge and all. There were heavy snows up in the mountains and a group of us took a long weekend off to go to the Yosemite National Park. On the way, we saw some of the effects of the rains. The road went up the valley of the Merced River. On the other side we saw several places where the bank had been washed away and railroad track was hanging in mid-air. At one point, cars had to wait for a police escort. Only a rather precarious, single lane of the road remained.

The Yosemite scenery is wonderful at any time of the year and we rented log cabins in the valley, near the base of the spectacular Yosemite Falls. The Americans have masses of equipment to keep roads clear of snow in the winter, so it was possible to drive up to the ski slopes at about 8,000 feet. I was not the only one who had not skied before, but one of our group was an expert, a Norwegian named Nils Micklestad, who taught us the rudiments of the art. It was most invigorating in the dry, crisp air and bright sunshine. Performance didn’t even reach mediocre, but it was great fun.

When things had dried up a bit, Stebbins and I set forth on our peony collecting trip. We drove down south to the Salinas Valley and on to King City, from whence we took roads up into the Santa Lucia mountains, part of the Coast Range. With Stebbins’ prior knowledge, we soon found a canyon where a whole hillside was covered with lovely, dark red, wild peonies. We collected very young stamens from many plants and popped them into preserving fluid in little tubes. Then we went exploring a number of other canyons, but found no more peonies. But spring had come to the hills and, no doubt much helped by the plentiful rains, there were flowers everywhere. There were rocky hillsides thick with huge blue tree lupins, bushes covered with large, yellow poppy-like flowers and many others too. Whole areas of grassland were blanketed with a golden layer of Californian poppies and coreopsis. In the woods were big yellow violas and carpets of mauve and white dodecatheons, like little cyclamens. In a few more rainless weeks all this luxuriance would disappear, to wait for another spring.

With the collecting job done, we tried to head on a mountain road for the Monterey Peninsula. As the dirt road became more difficult, with the surface washed out in many places, we encountered a succession of fords, all pretty much in spate after the rains. There was only one more to go when the car stalled and after vain attempts to push it out we trekked to a farm and were rescued by tractor. By then, though, it was beginning to go dark and Monterey had to wait for another occasion. It was a disappointment, but I have been back many times since and the Monterey Peninsula is now one of my favourite places.

The heavy rains brought a great reward. In the dry lands of the Mojave Desert millions and millions of dormant seeds lay in the ground, waiting for just such a season to spring them into life. By Easter the desert was fully in flower and again a car-load of us took off to the south and spent Easter weekend enjoying it all. It was unbelievably beautiful, with great expanses of lovely ephemeral flowers going through their short life-cycle of germinate, flower, set seed and die, leaving the seed for another year and another heavy rain. Maybe that would be next year, or maybe five years hence. The chief regret was that there were no good colour films back then, and the pictures I took in black and white gave little indication of the splendour of the scene.

From now on, writing up the wheat material and looking at peony chromosomes (and puzzling out what they were up to) occupied a great deal of time. There was a dance festival in International House and I was included in a small group dressed up in Louis XIV style, powdered wig and all, dancing the minuet. My partner was a certain Janet Hoon. Years later, at the end of the war she heard of the severe rationing we still had in England. By writing to Cambridge University she found my address and sent a food parcel! Our two families remain good friends and we have met many times since, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another event was the university ‘Commencement Exercises’, a curious American term for a degree ceremony. It was very different from the formal affair in the Senate House in Cambridge, with its Latin orations. There were 3,800 students graduating and about 30,000 spectators. There was no space problem, for it all happened in the stadium, which was designed for 87,000.

In late May, Harry Harlan and Mary Martini turned up on their way from Arizona and tried to persuade me to travel with them by car to Idaho. I was not through with my work and could not accept. Harry, in particular, really organised his life. His main work was on spring barley and he could manage to get through three generations in a year. He would sow his material in Sacaton, Arizona in January and harvest it in May. By then, southern Arizona was getting uncomfortably hot. He took his harvested grain up to Idaho and sowed it at about 5,000 feet in most pleasant conditions. Then, after harvest, he would go back to Washington DC. Seed would again be sown, this time in glasshouses, and a pathologist colleague Dr Rodenhiser (‘Rody’) would shoot all sorts of fungus spores at the seedlings and so sort out the resistant ones.

Before leaving Berkeley, all the members of the department’s staff gave me a great send-off at a lunch in the Berkeley City Club. It was the end of a very happy relationship. On June 14th I was in a steam train heading north, through the forests of northern California, past the spectacular 14,000ft cone of Mount Shasta, covered with snow and looking not unlike the traditional Japanese pictures of Fujiyama. We stopped at stations like Klamath Falls, where groups of dour-looking Indian men sat on platform seats watching the train. I stopped off for a day at Corvallis, Oregon, to visit the State Experiment Station there. Then the destination was Portland, where I had been invited to stay briefly with a fellow-student from International House.

Next day the two of us drove up the Columbia River gorge. Here there had clearly been plenty of rain, for lots of waterfalls four or five hundred feet high tumbled into the valley. There were masses of flowers in the woods, flowers which we only knew as garden plants. Bushes of ‘mock orange’ (Philadelphus) formed an undergrowth and were in full flower. There were also huge patches of columbines and Sweet Williams. Upriver was the Bonneville Dam, with its locks and salmon ladders. Tugs were moving downstream towing enormous rafts of logs, felled from the forests of the area. In those days there was no talk of conservation and the supply of timber seemed endless.

Leaving Portland and heading east on the Union Pacific Railroad seemed like the beginning of the journey home, for the train was now getting nearer with every mile travelled. California had been a great experience, and the little glimpse of Oregon too. I never expected to see them again. How wrong I was!

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