In Search Of Genius

By Anita Garner





Left: Charles Schulz in his Santa Rosa studio
Right:  Three geniuses,
Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank & Henry Ford at Luther Burbank’s Santa Rosa garden. 

When inspiration can’t find me, I go in search of it.

I don’t need to go far. In Northern California’s wine country there’s much to inspire – the roads that wind for driving or walking and bicycling past heritage hydrangeas climbing up tall barns, past wineries in all shapes and sizes. I’m on a quest.  I’ve traveled these roads many times and I know where I’m headed.

I’m headed to Sonoma County, to Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.  In the same way that reading biographies of achievers opens a window into their process, so do these field trips. It’s uplifting to walk where genius walked and talked and worked. There’s always the possibility that if I stand where they stood, something might rub off.

I visit the workplaces of two undeniably brilliant individuals.  The Charles Schulz Museum is, of course, an homage to everything Peanuts, and the Luther Burbank Cottage is Mecca for garden lovers. Both are in Santa Rosa. By necessity, guides deal mostly with the overview. They speak of awards won, of the subject’s ties to other famous people, of the work we know.

I’m looking for more. I want to see how they endured the days that were spectacularly unproductive. Moving away from tour groups, I look for the minutiae that tethered each of these famous men to earth. Was he an early riser? How many hours a day did he work? What did he eat? Did he have hobbies? Who did he love? Who loved him?

I want to know, did the realization of his goals offer even a small degree of immunity from strife? Or did he bump into his own saboteurs; the insecurities and loneliness and even the near-crippling fears encountered on the path to making something.

When we look at a creative icon who’s now departed, we’re always looking backward. We see a whole lifetime of output, an entire body of work. I want to know how he handled the chunks of time when things didn’t go right. I ask about the dry spells.

Charles Schulz used ice skating and long walks to cheer himself. He built a rink near his studio and his visits there were a vital part of his routine. Every day he sat at the same table in the snack bar, ate the same food, and watched the skaters. Merchants at the nearby mall report Schulz as a frequent visitor, not so much a shopper as an ambler. They grew accustomed to the lone figure walking around, deep in thought.

His real office/studio was in an unassuming building steps away from where the museum is today. One day I went to the empty office, found someone working around the building and asked if I could go in.

“Nothing in there.  The furniture’s in the museum now.”

I knew that, but I thought if I could just be where he worked…  It was magic and humbling to be reminded once again we’re not all created equal in terms of talent and abilities.

Luther Burbank grew himself an escape route. He took leave of his greenhouse in Santa Rosa and traveled the bumpy road to his experimental farm in Sebastopol to work and sleep in the modest cabin at the site. He walked and thought and wrote in his notebooks and on his way to bringing to life plants we now know he documented days when nothing bloomed the way he had planned.

Charles Schulz said he was driven to make cartoons because it was all he was good at. It was his form of self-expression. Charlie Brown, he said, was the manifestation of his own vulnerability.  Luther Burbank didn’t consider himself a visionary, but rather a hard-working scientist who kept experimenting until something good came of it. The museum in the carriage house adjacent to Burbank’s cottage is suitably informative, but I return to the tiny room at the rear of the greenhouse and to the desk where he kept his notes.

Both Schulz and Burbank fit the definition of genius. I feel it when I’m in the places they once were. It’s comforting to know that in the midst of lives filled with so many accomplishments, each of them put great store by the one trait they prized above all others – discipline. They kept showing up. I can do that.