Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

‘At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration

Aminrazavi, Mehdi and Van Brummelen, Glen, ‘Umar Khayyam‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131‘. The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Omar Khayyam‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Rizvi, Sajjad H. ‘Avicenna (Ibn Sina)‘. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam)‘. Muslim Heritage

Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Read more about Bertrand Russell:

Bertrand Russell – in Encyclopedia Britannica

Bertrand Russell – by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty….

Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Comey Firing Reminds Us of a Bigger Danger, by Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria’s analysis of Trump’s presidency is excellent.

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, May 11, 2017

I have tried to evaluate Donald Trump’s presidency fairly. I’ve praised him when he has appointed competent people to high office and expressed support for his policies when they seemed serious and sensible (even though this has drawn criticism from some quarters). But there has always been another aspect to this presidency lurking beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into full view as it did this week. President Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy.

The United States has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, one that has survived the test of time and given birth to perhaps the most successful society in human history. What sets the nation apart is not how democratic it is, but rather the opposite. U.S. democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of…

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A Politic of Forgiveness and Responsibility, by Dylan Flint

“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” Lamentations 5:7

Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage from the Bible, and others like it, we cannot deny that we do not choose the household we are born into nor can we choose our country of birth.

To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.

I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.

Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.

In many ways, China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with communism and thrown it out as no good. In America, however (pardon the metaphor) we seem rather stuck, unable to do our business or get off the pot. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times easily reminds us of something out of the Dark Ages: complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell-bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution. And while the beheadings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.(1)

While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.

Cyber-threats, terrorism, misinformation, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great firewall, and a state-run media, this is the reality.

And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.

But why is this so?

One can cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of renminbi (RMB) on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.

When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: if you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crimes.

While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.

Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.

Last year, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of who is responsible, the country is in turmoil.

Now, I would like to believe that, given enough time, Merkel’s good graces will be rewarded. However, it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see is sensible people living in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices committed against those who seek refuge.(2) This is a spotty resume for “doing the right thing”, to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.

We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put Donald Trump in office, and may put out Angela Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite what I am about to say going against everything I was taught by Hollywood, the reality is that foreigners wreak havoc on familiar social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: they take advantage of our good graces, making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.

When taking one honest, good-long-look at China, it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders that censures the media and silences civil unrest at all costs.(3) It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces (and they are immense), the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.

It pains me to admit that this sense of identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the home to pioneers of freedom, people who believed they could build the future they wanted for themselves, the shining beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.

Maybe I envision America’s past as does a child who reads a storybook, and maybe I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?

This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?

Many Christian philosophers, Pierre Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, though I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.

I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means… but, if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.

*     *     *

Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses. On the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for the system to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is, unless we take ‘belief’ to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. In any event, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard to see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.

It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would reply that profit-seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say then that the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say America is behind a lot of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a megachurch hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.

Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful, multifarious democracy was tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom: it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation because, in a democracy, the father is on equal ground with the son; when things go wrong, as they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that cohabits with democracy, the leader lacks that which it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.

But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.

While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.

*     *     *

As a heroin addict in my early 20’s, I tore through the lives of others. In my wild pursuit for pleasure and comfort, I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, have now all forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.

I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: a self-sufficient man who under his own propensities can nurture and provide for himself and others — and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives — our histories — and making right our wrongs, is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.

Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.

I was once asked as an undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: being able to implement your own ideas and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.

The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work — to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.

But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience, it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. In other words, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.

I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, deceit, and rhetoric are not signs that a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.

Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.

*     *     *

So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, this is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass on the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once our father leaves us.

And, after all has been said, what does it mean to be an American? For me, it means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.

But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.

Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.

It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.

1)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_China

2) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39096833

3) I have in mind Tiananmen Square June, 4th 1989.

*A version of this essay was originally published by Chosenmag.com in April 2017

Dylan Flint is a Seattle native with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. He has been writing continuously ever since getting sober in 2013. He has written on a wide range of topics, from spirituality and addiction to politics and poetry, but everything has always had a philosophical bent. Philosophy is not only dear to Dylan, he considers it a part of himself–an “expression of his soul” to use his own words. Dylan received his BA in philosophy from the University of Washington in 2015. Since graduating he has spent time in Germany at the University of Tubingen, and for this past year, he has been teaching English in China’s Jiangsu province. When he isn’t reading and writing, Dylan enjoys skiing, hiking, traveling and generally being outdoors. This fall he plans to return to the Pacific Northwest. He has been accepted to the philosophy masters program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. After he completes this program, he plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy and dreams of one day being a philosophy professor so he can share his love with the next generation of thinkers. To follow Dylan’s thoughts and experiences along the way, you can check out his blog at www.medium.com/@aphilosophersquarrel or on Instagram @aphilosophersquarrel

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Bertrand Russell Got Stoicism Seriously Wrong, by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m an admirer of Bertrand Russell in some ways, and not in others. For one, I, too, have discovered over time that Russell had gotten some things very wrong about some philosophers and their ideas, and had to overcome some of the prejudices his History of Philosophy had instilled in me. Thanks for the defense of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci! This essay serves as a good introduction to Stoicism as well.

How to Be a Stoic

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t…

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Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Trail and Monument at Mount Saint Helena, CA

Stevenson Memorial Trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The trailhead is about nine miles north of Calistoga, CA

My sister Therese and I hiked the lovely trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena on April 22nd, 2017. This hike was Therese’s idea, as are so many of the best ones; thanks, dear sister!

The Stevenson Memorial Trail winds five miles to the summit (one way), about 1,800 feet of climbing all told to the 4,343-foot peak. The entrance to the trail led into dreamy forest, with branches highlighted here and there with fluttering pink plastic ribbons to guide the trail runners in an organized event held here that day. There was a table set up in the parking lot off Highway 29, with drinks, treats, and cheers available for the tired athletes.

On our way up, we discovered the monument mentioned in the sign at the foot of the trail, a handsome little tribute to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife placed here exactly 94 years ago on May 7th, 1911 by the Napa Club. Stevenson and his new wife Fanny Van de Grift stayed here for an adventurous honeymoon on the cheap, living for two months in an abandoned miners’ cabin. Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses, was seeking adventure, new fodder for his writing which he feared was lagging due to his chronic poor health, and a climate in which his congested lungs could do their best. And he was here for Fanny: he had met her years earlier and fell in love. They had to wait to join their lives together until the divorce from her abusive husband came through, and when it did, he left his native Scotland to join her in her home country.

Monument at the site of the miners’-turned-honeymooners’ cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail, Mount Saint Helena, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, CA

The engraved marble tablet on the stone monument reads:

‘This tablet placed by the Club Women of Napa County
Marks the site of the cabin occupied in 1880 by Robert Lewis Stevenson
And bride, while he wrote The Silverado Squatters.

“Doomed to know not winter only spring,
A being trod the flowery April blithely for awhile,
Took his fill of music, joy of thought
And seeing and stayed and went
Nor ever ceased to smile.” – R.L.S.

It was a beautiful hike, the first mile or so lovely and shaded on the narrow switchback trail, the last four mostly fire roads, though we found a couple of steep little shortcuts. The view from the top was spectacular, though not as far as it might have been on a less cloudy day. The wildflowers were lovely too, and the pine and madrone forests (and plentiful poison oak) very much as Stevenson describes them in The Silverado Squatters. It’s the story of his travels to California and his time here in Napa County with Fanny, which is available to read in full online. It’s an amusing and charming story, though the way he describes some Jewish acquaintances is disconcerting unless you keep in mind the prejudices of the time.

Enjoy!

Engraved stone book on the monument at the site of the old cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail up Mount Saint Helena

Stream near the monument on Stevenson Memorial Trail. Stevenson describes a stream near the old bunkhouse in The Silverado Squatters

Panorama of the view from the peak of Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 by Amy Cools

The flat rocks at the peak make a perfect place for a picnic on Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 Amy Cools.jpg

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Bazzoli, Kathy. ‘The Legend of Mount St. Helena,’ The Weekly Calistogan, May 19, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)‘ – The Poetry Foundation website

Robert Louis Stevenson – Marriage‘, from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Robert Louis Stevenson / Mt St. Helena State Park,’ Sonoma Hiking Trails website

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park,’ Napa Valley State Parks Association website

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Silverado Squatters, 1883