Category: Reviews

Reviews

California from a Different Angle

Mike Miller

 A review of Fred B. Glass, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

In this comprehensive look at California workers—their job experiences and living conditions, antagonisms among them and with the powers that be, their leaders and the rank and file, politicians who claimed to speak for them and some who actually did, their unions and allies, and much more—Fred Glass does for this history what Taylor Branch did in his trilogy account of major portions of the civil rights movement, The King Years. From Mission to Microchip is filled with stories, analysis, history and data. It is a good and important story, well told.

In Glass’s telling, the Franciscan Fathers, often portrayed by others as benign protectors of California’s Native Americans, are anything but. Shepherded into the string of California Missions along the state’s coast, Indians were exposed to diseases to which they were not immune, removed from their villages, forced to work long days at tasks foreign to them and their way of life, denied the right to practice their beliefs, and exploited in many other ways. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a shadow of their pre-colonization presence. When the Fathers were not directly the exploiters, they provided the direct abusers with the rationalization for treating “heathens” as less than human.

The Gold Rush is a similar tale of woe for many. Contrary to the myths, most of those who rushed to the mountains to pan its streams and rivers for riches ended up working for others, and receiving a pittance for their labors.

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Glass takes us through other major moments in the state’s labor history: the struggle for the 8-hour day; the Workingmen’s Party, which briefly governed San Francisco and then rapidly declined in corruption; the growth of the Los Angeles labor movement, and its demise as a result of the bombing of The Los Angeles Times building by labor union activist James B. McNamara who confessed to the event that killed two dozen people; the 1930s farm labor organizing history; the growth of the Hollywood unions, and the anti-Communist campaign that dramatically weakened them; the San Francisco and Oakland general strikes; the growth of public employee unions; the revolt of women workers, the development of “equal pay for equal work” campaigns, and the formulation of “comparable worth” as a strategic idea for organizing women at work; the decline of industrial work and unions in the state; the dramatic SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign… and more.

Throughout most of this history, ethnic and racial antagonism divided California’s working class and made it easy for employers to play one group against another. Among the contending groups: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Irish, “Okies,” African-Americans, Filipinos. Glass emphasizes how destructive these divisions were for organizing.

There are moments when racial and ethnic rivalry and hostility are overcome, largely as a result of visionary labor organizers and leaders who persuade workers that they will not win justice without solidarity. Among the examples: the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Glass provides rich stories and analysis on how these moments of unity, sometimes stretching into years, were achieved.

Like the Taylor Branch trilogy, this book has its weaknesses. No book attempting to cover such a span of history can do so without omissions, exaggerations, errors and other problems. I found some of these particularly in the areas where I have the greatest expertise and direct experience. A significant bibliography directs those wanting to delve more deeply into particular pieces of this history.

Although Glass does mention the religious factor, the book exhibits a strange tone-deafness to the role religion plays and played in California (and other) labor history.

For example, during World War II, it was Catholic leadership in ILWU Local 10 that led efforts to maintain earlier won and contractually agreed upon workplace rule gains. There is no mention of Fr. Andrew Boss and the Jesuit University of San Francisco’s Labor-Management School. Ditto for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists’ ILWU member James Kearney who won ten single year terms as president of Local 10 (by constitutional rule, elected officials can hold full-time office for only two consecutive years before returning to waterfront work). The ironically named Boss challenged Harry Bridges and other leadership close to the Communist Party, and kept that leadership on its toes in the protection of workplace gains by offering a rival center of leadership training.

Missing in Glass’s ILWU account is the fact that the International supported urban renewal (known as “Negro removal”) in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and that a rank-and-file Local 10 vote overcame Bridges post-World War II recommendation against accepting temporary African-American workers into “A-Book” (first class) union membership. (Bridges feared major post-war layoffs.)

In the case of the United Farm Workers, the problem is greater. There is no mention of the Protestant California Migrant Ministry, and the roles played in UFW by Reverends Chris Hartmire, Jim Drake (who led the union’s boycott division), Gene Boutillier (who was, for a period, the union’s legislative lobbyist) and other of its staff members who were important full-time workers for the union. Nor is there mention of Marshall Ganz as UFW’s director of organizing and his rootedness in the Jewish social justice tradition and faith.

César Chávez National Moument (NPS) Flags

Flags at César Chávez National Monument: U.S, California, UFW, and a César Chávez banner. Jim Galvin via Flickr.

The controversy caused within UFW by Chavez accepting an award from Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is acknowledged, but its devastating impact on church support for UFW is not. (It also alienated Chavez from key Filipino leaders and other rank-and-file union members, as well as from many of the student volunteers.)

The meaning for Chavez of “the march” from Delano to Sacramento is also misunderstood in its portrayal by Glass. It was an important factor in the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for farm workers. However, “Peregrinación” (pilgrimage) and “Penitencia” (penitence for sins) were intended for exactly what the words mean. It was secular people who called it a “march.”

Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is central to understanding the union. Bardacke explains why: “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice…were not publicity gimmicks, they were essential Chavez.”

Chavez emerged from the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he started as a rank-and-file member and became Executive Director. CSO, Glass tells us, “was supported by the Catholic Church….”  The conservative Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose Archbishop was characterized by Saul Alinsky as a “pre-historic muttonhead,” was anything but supportive. However, local priests, religious women and lay leaders were. That distinction is central to understanding Chavez’s training.

Alinsky’s central role in all this history is only tangentially mentioned by Glass. In addition to hiring Fred Ross and funding CSO, Alinsky’s training was the underpinning of the Migrant Ministry’s support for the union. And other bishops did support Chavez. Unfortunately, Bardacke’s book doesn’t help much in clarifying Alinsky’s role either.

Recognizing the impossibility of gaining official church sanction for CSO, and having had an earlier negative experience with a “coalition” organization, Alinsky-staffer Fred Ross developed an “individual membership” organization, rather than Alinsky’s usual “organization of organizations.” It was the discipline of one-to-one conversations, followed by house meetings, then a large membership meeting that taught Chavez how to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—predecessor to the UFW.

Glass is in good company. There are small, and some large, errors in the aforementioned King years trilogy by Taylor Branch. No single writer of broad histories like this can master all the facts. No matter. Both Glass and Branch make major contributions. And from these rich resources, those interested in particular aspects of the histories can dig more deeply into various periods, organizations, campaigns, and histories.

Thank you, Fred Glass, for this important book.

Note

Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC). His organizing background includes almost five years as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and directing a Saul Alinsky organizing project. In 1972, he started OTC. He has taught organizing within the University of California, at Stanford, San Francisco State University, Lone Mountain, Notre Dame, and University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). He writes and lectures in the field. His books include, The People Fight Back: Building a Tenant Union, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, and the co-edited People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky.

Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesReviews

The Great Thirst

by Jon Christensen

A critical appreciation of Norris Hundley, Jr.

In the 2009 preface to the new edition of his book Water and the West, Norris Hundley, Jr. wrote: “Water is today, as it was when the first edition of this book appeared thirty-five years ago, among mankind’s greatest concerns, a problem that remains a crisis of worldwide importance. Scientists, statesmen, environmental groups, and people everywhere recognize that water is a resource not to be taken for granted. Even those areas with considerable water are struggling with pollution and problems of management that worsen yearly as population grows and industry and agriculture expand.”

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“No area of the world is more aware of the current water crisis than western America,” he asserted, “a vast arid and semiarid region embracing nearly half the continent of North America. Except for a strip along the north Pacific coast and isolated areas in the high mountains, the West is a region of sparse rainfall and few rivers. The implications of these facts of geography have been enormous. From the time of the first settlers to the present, few westerners have failed to comprehend that control of the West’s water means control of the West itself—its industry, agriculture, population distribution, and, withal, the direction of the future. Because the West has always had a water problem, its experiences provide valuable insights into the crises faced by other water-shy areas; and they also offer a preview of the even more serious problems that must involve the entire nation and the rest of the world as population grows.”

A Dutch photojournalist recently visited my office to talk about “disputed waters.” That’s actually the title of a project he is working on with colleagues—journalists, photographers, and videographers—around the world. They’re exploring stories about transboundary rivers—the Nile, the Mekong, the Jordan, the Danube and Rhine, and the Colorado—rivers that are a source of conflict because of climate change and increasing populations of people dependent on their waters. They’re working on a multimedia website, a book, and a traveling exhibition.

I’ve written about water in the American West for going on thirty years, and I did my best to help him, knowing all along that the person he really should have been talking to is no longer with us. But his books are.

If you’re like me, you probably have people you feel like you know through their work, although you’ve never gotten to know them in person. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know Norris Hundley in person before he died in 2013. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had not just the opportunity, but the necessity of getting to know him through his work. Because you cannot claim to care about understanding water in California and the broader American West—and, I daresay, understanding the state and region as a whole—without knowing the work of Norris Hundley, Jr. And there is, I believe, no way to read and know his work without getting to know a great deal about the man.

So I’d like to share with you what it is like to know a great historian through his great work.

Let’s start with the boundary waters the Dutch journalist was interested in, since that is where Norris started. (Because I feel as though I have come to know him through his work, I’d like to call him Norris here.)

dividingNorris’s first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico, came out of his dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it was published by UC Press in 1966. We historians treasure objects that give us a feeling for a particular time and place. I have an inscribed copy that looks and feels and, I like to think, even has the smell of a small, personal, scholarly library of someone, I imagine, who loved Southern California and the West, but also wanted to understand it critically, to be a part of it. It is a book I like to think I might have found in my grandfather’s home in Pasadena when we came to visit when I was just a kid in the sixties. He owned and ran Vroman’s bookstore with his cousins. I’d sit on the floor there and pull books off the shelf and read. But what I remember more is my grandfather’s personal library stuffed with books about California and the West.

Looking back, I realize I’m letting time slip. Norris’s book would have been brand new then, not the copy I now hold in my hands nearly fifty years later. Although this book is burnished by time, it still speaks to me now of our history, of this moment even, and of the man who wrote it.

“This has been a difficult book to write,” Norris states in the preface, “not only because the subject matter is often technical, but also because it deals with events that were—and still are—highly controversial.”

Note that “still are” remains true today.

He continued: “The great need for water in the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico understandably prompted sharp conflicts between the countries as well as among the citizens within each country. For this reason, objectivity on the part of participants in the story has been almost impossible to find, and, obviously, it has not been easy—and sometimes has been impossible—to determine which side had the stronger case on a particular domestic or international issue. Nevertheless, judgments have been rendered where it was thought possible, and I candidly admit that some of them will not please everyone.”

There it is: the clear voice of the historian, aware that his sources come with strong points of view, to say the least, and aware that while he has done his best to practice objectivity—be faithful to his sources and present their arguments fairly, even as a debate of vital importance to his own region continued to rage around him—the historian has a point of view too, and will render judgment, openly inviting continuing debate.

Norris concluded Dividing the Waters with these words: “The United States and Mexico have made significant headway in the nearly century-long battle over their border streams, and, hopefully, their record of successes and failures will benefit other nations faced with similar problems. But any benefits that have been achieved should not be marred by neglecting to solve newer points of controversy.”

Here we have, in his first book, what I think of as the Norris Hundley point of view: broad-minded—he’s thinking about other places in the world facing similar challenges that might benefit from his history; fair about the progress, that “significant headway,” that had been made in the face of all kinds of problems; and aware of the challenges ahead—in the sentence before this conclusion he pointed to two of them: water quality and the vagueness of treaty provisions regarding the meaning of “extraordinary drought”—words that have an eerie resonance today.

Water and the Westwaterwest

Dividing the Waters examined the history of three rivers shared by Mexico and the United States: the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the much smaller, but still very complicated Tijuana River. In his next book, Water and the West: The Colorado River and the Politics of Water in the American West, Norris took hold of the most vexing river’s history and wrestled it to the ground, mostly. I say “mostly,” because he would return to this history again and again.

“This book is about the greatest conflict over water in the American West,” he wrote. “To be more precise, it is primarily a book about an alleged peace treaty, the Colorado River Compact. But like most books about peace, it is really an account of war. No bullets were fired in this war, yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake. The Colorado River drains the entire left-hand corner of the continental United States. It is not a particularly heavy-flowing stream (ranking about sixth among the nation’s major rivers), but it is virtually the sole dependable water supply for an area of 244,000 square miles, including parts of seven western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California—and Mexico. Its influence is also felt far beyond its own watershed, for its waters have been diverted hundreds of miles and used to stimulate and sustain the urban, industrial, and agricultural growth of other areas such as eastern Colorado, western Utah, and the coastal plain of Southern California, a vast megalopolis stretching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.”

I’ve come to wonder what Norris really thought about Los Angeles, which he called “the West’s most notorious water hustler.” I would have liked to talk with him about what seems, from his writing, to have become something of a love-hate relationship with this city and the role it has played in shaping California and the American West.

Norris was born in Texas, but California became his home from a young age. He met his wife Carol at San Gabriel Mission High; they fell in love and were married a year before Norris graduated from Whittier College in 1958. After receiving his Ph.D. in History in 1963 from UCLA, he taught at the University of Houston for a year before returning to UCLA, where he would spend his entire, enormously productive career, a career that helped shape not just the history of water in the West, but several other fields, as an advisor, mentor, colleague, and editor of the Pacific Historical Review for three decades.

In Water and the West, Norris worked several important veins in Western history. First, he put the Colorado River Compact in the context of federalism: “the attempt,” as he wrote, “of the Colorado River Basin states to work out their shared destiny in concert with the government in Washington. The attempt has been dogged almost from the start by conflicting notions of sovereignty, as each side has sought to assert its supremacy in areas jealously coveted by the other.”

In Western history, we sometimes say that the modern American West is a child of the federal government. You know the trope: the college student revels in the freedom, but still emails the parents to “send money.” As Norris wrote of his own work, “a prominent theme is the western desire to tap into federal largesse without incurring federal control.” But, as he noted, “the attempt to get the purse without the purse strings proved an impossible task” in the creation of the compact, as well as in a host of other projects that required the federal government to help build the American West.

The second vein that Norris continued to work in Water and the West was international. “Mexico is present in the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote, “though denied participation in the compact negotiations. Another international dimension,” though beyond the scope of his book, he continued, “emerges from a realization that other countries (most notably Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Jordan) have looked to the compact for insights into the handling of their own water problems.”

Norris was well aware of what we now like to call the “transnational” dimensions of much of our history. The compact, he wrote, was “the first and most significant treaty of its kind, and one that has inspired a host of similar pacts.” The history of the American West, as he wrote it, is not a history of exceptionalism, a history told in isolation. It is a history tied to world.

There was one more significant prospect that Norris opened up in Water and the West, which would continue to shape his work. Historians had tended to see the conflict over water from the Colorado River, and other water conflicts in the West, “in simplistic terms,” he wrote, “in which advocates of cheap public power battled with the monopolistic forces of private industry—the ‘power trust.’ There was such a battle,” he continued, “but public agencies—federal, state, local, and municipal—also battled among themselves, as revealed in the conflicts among groups such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of Arizona, the Interior Department, and powerful chartered agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.”

It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.

A reviewer in the Western Political Quarterly, called Water and the West “vivid…. A well-documented case study of how not to go about making public policy.”

We’re taught to resist the temptation of responding to reviewers, at least in print, but I like to imagine Norris, in private, saying something like “perhaps the worst way of going about making public policy on the Colorado River, except for all those other ways that were tried before the compact.”

Which is not to say that Norris was not critical of the compact. He was very critical of the compact, from its foundation on lousy data, which estimated average river flows based on a series of the wettest years on record, to the way apportionment was mandated, which guaranteed that upper-basin states would have to deliver flows to the lower-basin states even during dry years, to the lawsuits that resulted, and the ways in which the compact has limited innovation.

Norris Hundley, as far as I can tell from reading his work, resisted simplification, which is not the same as clarity, I hasten to add. His prose was clear and direct, even as he waded into some of the most complex situations imaginable—and water in the West is nothing if not complex.

In his next book, The Great Thirst, a magnum opus for those of who know and love and hope to understand California, Norris fully integrated two more complexities in this history: Native American water rights and the environment. The first, he had already begun to explore in Water and the West, as tribal rights to water figured in Arizona v. California, the key Supreme Court case that settled compact claims in the lower basin, although, as Norris showed, the decision was based on a misreading of the historical record. Moreover, while the Supreme Court could decree peace, it could not end water wars in the West.

“‘Basin of Contention’ would be an apt name for what generations have called the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote in a new epilogue to Water and the West in 2009. “A limited supply of water in a vast arid and semiarid region is hardly a recipe for tranquility among those who covet that water. The drafters of the compact were clearly aware of that truism, but they nonetheless failed to determine with reasonable accuracy the long-term annual flow of the Colorado River…. They had a glaring need for sound information, but no concerted effort was made to call on the scientific community for help. The drafters were mesmerized by their desire for haste and their political and personal goals. Without authoritative information, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties—and that is what they did. The situation would not change significantly until others recognized and studied the importance of tree-ring data—data that revealed a distinct pattern, going back centuries, of severe and lengthy droughts, and the probability that this pattern will continue in the future. The consequences of the compact remain with us.”

In that epilogue, Norris pointed to other issues that would continue to complicate water in the West: the threat of global warming, endangered species, a resurgence of Native American water rights claims, and here in California, the fate of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the proposal formerly known as the peripheral canal. “As I write this, no one knows when the current imbroglio—which involves much more than a peripheral canal—will end,” Norris concluded in 2009. “But if the past is any clue to the future, there are years of arguing and grumbling ahead.”

The Great Thirst

thirstThe Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History would have been the achievement of a lifetime for any historian. But Norris wrote it not just once but twice. The first version was published in 1992 and instantly became the definitive history of water in California. In 2001, Norris significantly revised the book.

“Even this edition cannot pretend to have the last word on such a complex topic characterized by both fast-breaking and ponderously slow developments,” he wrote. “Such is the fate of any attempt foolish enough to try to keep abreast of history as it is being made. An impossible task, of course, and it is further complicated because water issues are so closely intertwined with the core elements of California’s (and the American West’s) political, economic, legal, and cultural evolution.”

The Great Thirst is a great book, the kind of book that can be written only by a someone in the full confidence of his powers as a historian and a writer, knowing his subject backward and forward, and guided by a vision informed by a lifetime of research, enriched by arguments with his sources, other scholars, and even himself, and based on a foundation of caring, dare I say, love.

Because it’s clear to this reader that Norris Hundley loved California, even as he kept a sharp, critical eye on “the nation’s preeminent water seeker,” or as he modified that in The Great Thirst, “collection of water seekers.” Norris was nothing if not precise in his prose and in his arguments and ideas.

The Great Thirst is guided, much more than his earlier books, by a concern with what he called “the dynamic interplay between human values and what human beings do to the waterscape.” This is no longer a kind of political and diplomatic history brought to the realm of water wars along the United States-Mexico border and on the Colorado River. To be sure, it still has that solid, detailed grounding in politics, economics, and the law, but The Great Thirst is also about a cultural collective. It is, as the subtitle says, a history of “Californians and water.”

This story runs from California before Europeans arrived right up to the twenty-first century. It chronicles the appearance of what Norris called “a new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs. At the same time,” he wrote, “this is a story of extraordinary feats of fulfilling basic social needs, in which communities mobilized and focused their political energies on providing abundant clear water to multitudes of people who expressly wanted it done.”

Here Norris took precise aim in an internecine skirmish among historians in these larger western water wars. You know the saying: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Well, there is another great book, by a friend of mine, a great historian too, Donald Worster, called Rivers of Empire, which argues that our western American hydraulic societies created, as Norris wrote, “a powerful, highly centralized, and despotic ruling elite like that found in the irrigation society of Karl Wittfogel’s classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”

“The evidence presented here does not reveal” that, Norris argued. And here, I think, as much as I love Don Worster, Norris Hundley does not miss:

“Rather, the California record discloses a wide and often confused and crosscutting range of interest groups and bureaucrats, both public and private, who accomplish what they do as a result of shifting alliances and despite frequent disputes among themselves. Because of their multiplicity of interests, different combinations of them at different times and for different reasons worked vigorously on behalf of particular projects, but each success brought more growth, which intensified hostility and the competition for supplies always perceived as inadequate. Thus, conflict, rivalry, and localism have permeated the development process, exacerbating the human and environmental costs, with the public, until recently, cheerleading with ballots and in other ways the aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs. There is, of course, some system and order to what has been accomplished, but it is found in attitudes toward the environment, in local and regional considerations (especially California’s traditional north-south rivalry), in interest-group pressures, in the give-and-take of political battle, and it is understood within the larger context of American political culture and policy-making and in the ways in which the national culture resonates in California.”

In the view that Norris gives us, we can no longer blame our predicament on despotic elites. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Or as Norris writes: “When viewed from both local and national perspectives, California’s water achievements have resulted ultimately from the support and encouragement of the people, who have considered themselves participants in a booming economy made possible by great hydraulic projects. These projects have included the ambitious flood control, reclamation, and irrigation programs of the late nineteenth century; the twentieth-century urban aqueducts to the Owens Valley, Mono Basin, and Hetch Hetchy; the massive federal multipurpose ventures pioneered nationally in the Boulder Canyon Project and replicated in the Central Valley Project; and California’s own State Water Project, the largest public enterprise ever undertaken by a state.”

But, but, and here is the key, turning in the lock:

“Just as the electorate has sanctioned these ventures,” Norris writes, “so too have the people of California begun to register second thoughts, especially over the last several decades. Spiraling costs, runaway urbanization, gridlocked streets and highways, environmental damage, a decline in the quality of life, heavy public expense in the exorbitant subsidies to agriculture, inefficient and wasteful water practices, the persistence of poor working conditions for those laboring in California’s fields—all have contributed to mounting demands for reform.”

Norris knew these reforms were “piecemeal, fitful, and frequently more symbolic than real,” but he believed in reform. He also believed, after years of studying the successes and failures on the border, on the Colorado, and in California, that “the lack of informed and consistent leadership in Sacramento and Washington” did not augur well for the state he loved. In a move that mystified Don Worster, who thought that centralization of power was the root of all evil in water, Norris even argued that we need to centralize more control of water at the state level in order to get better management of water statewide. It was a conclusion drawn from deep knowledge about this “collection of water seekers” called California. It makes sense. We are beginning to see that happen in Sacramento, though still in fits and starts, of course. I know I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but some things never change.

“No one has ever argued that democracy is a perfect form of government,” Norris dryly observed as he brought The Great Thirst to a close. In fact, far from perfect, as his life’s work had shown, when it came to water in California and the American West.

I didn’t know Norris Hundley. I wish I had. I would have liked to talk with him about all of this, but also about something that many of us don’t talk about much outside of our profession: his theory of history. Every historian has one, even if they don’t think they do. The best, like Norris, don’t wear it on their sleeves.

I like to try to teach my students to understand and even develop their own theory of history, particularly if they are not going to go on to become historians (if they do, they’ll have plenty of time for that; but for some of my students, my class may be their only chance). I reveal to them my own theory of history as we work through a class I’ve called “Climate Change in the West: A History of the Future,” though it can also be set in California, or even Los Angeles. We work through books like Norris’s, filled with the messy particulars of nations, states, institutions, policies, laws, economy, cultures, rocks and soils, plants and animals, and groups and individuals. We think about the structures of these things, how they endure and are reproduced by all of us as we go about our daily lives, but also how they change because of contingency—things happen, the St. Francis Dam fails, Arizona wins a key decision in the Supreme Court, the Peripheral Canal is voted down, the Mono Lake Committee prevails on the public trust doctrine—and because of agency, people have power to make things happen, especially in a democracy.

That’s what I want the future engineers and lawyers, politicians and environmental advocates, scientists and teachers to take away from my class. I want them to understand the constraints that have been created by our history of transforming California’s landscape, the limitations of politics and institutions, the ways in which power reproduces itself and makes it difficult to change. I also want them to understand the ways things change, as Norris wrote, in ways that are often at the same time “ponderously slow” and “fast-breaking.”

I have a feeling, from reading his work and listening to colleagues talk about his teaching, that Norris and I might have had some good, long conversations about all of this. And I miss them.

To my ear, Norris always had a small-d democratic voice, a small-p progressive voice. A pragmatic, reformist voice. A moral voice. From the beginning to the end. As I read through his life’s work, I hear that voice growing steadily stronger through the years, gaining clarity, confidence, authority, and passion.

It is a voice that represents the very best of our profession. It is a voice that has a strong point of view but nevertheless follows the careful practices of objectivity. It is a popular voice that is accessible to all, judicious in its use of evidence, fair in its presentation of all arguments, and generous in its humanity.

This is a voice our state and our world needs. It is a voice that is missing from our public square today, but a voice that is still here in these books, for others to take up and bring into the world, to do work in the world. I am glad Norris Hundley, Jr. is still with us in his work.

Note

Image at top by Robert Couse-Baker, via Flickr.

 

Reviews

Saving a Piece of the Fair

Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Franciscos Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)

A critical appreciation

by Elizabeth Logan

SFRAcover_web800px2-200x270Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Franciscos Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.

The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.

The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.

Panorama_Jacket_JULY23_frontcoveronly-1-300x234We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?

Panorama and San Franciscos Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.

Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.

San Franciscos Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society, offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.

By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.

If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Franciscos Jewel City, and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.

 

Notes

Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

Reviews

California: Looking Forward—or Backward?

California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 400pp, $26)

A critical appreciation

by Josh Stephens

Lepucki coverThe Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex in Los Angeles is ugly enough to inspire thoughts of violence. The usual chain stores are stacked up behind a facade of ersatz sandstone, with balconies, towers, and escalators running every which way. Its Orientalist motif, replete with hieroglyphics and sculpted elephants, is supposedly drawn from Intolerance, the silent epic by D.W. Griffith, better known for the infamously racist The Birth of a Nation.

A pivotal moment in Edan Lupucki’s recent novel California takes place in the belly of this architectural grotesquerie. Micah, a young revolutionary, detonates a vest of dynamite at the height of the shopping day. Micah’s suicide marks the symbolic end of California’s existence as a state. California reverts to a mere landscape, across which anarchy and chaos are loosed. As in many post-apocalyptic tales, the reasons for the dissolution of government and the breakdown of civil society are vague. We learn of earthquakes, oil shortages, and the day the “Internet stopped working.” The citizens of the former California face three choices: fight it out in the cities; flee into the wilderness; or join fortified, corporate-run “Communities.”

As a journalist covering urban planning in the real California, I can’t help thinking that the modes of living that Lepucki imagines surviving in the state’s ashes can be seen as an extreme exaggeration of the actual choices available to present-day Californians. Even amid the anarchy of California, the central question is the same one that has confounded Californians for generations: where to raise a family?

Micah’s sister Fridah and Micah’s best friend from college, Cal, are the young couple at the center of the novel. They escape the wreckage of Los Angeles, wander northward, and take refuge in a forest. This frontier means little without civilization as its counterpoint. Cal and Frida eke out a safe, but uninspiring existence in the woods. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, beset by violence, bereft of civil society, turns into its own corpse. When Cal tells Frida how “awful” LA has become, Frida imagines all the horrors to which he is referring:

He could have meant LA’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and sagging houses. All those dead lawns…closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime. The murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying.

Lepucki’s Los Angeles suffers in the same way that many real American cities have suffered (some nearly fatally) in the past. From Detroit to Cleveland to New York City to Los Angeles itself, wealthy citizens fled center cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, leaving the poor to hunker down. Lepucki’s apocalyptic vision reads, to this urbanist, like an extreme version of suburbanization and white flight.

Unlike, Micah, who was initially inspired by the chaos, wanting “to rebuild LA, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Cal and Frida believe that the city is beyond salvation.

But the forest inspires no Thoreauvian musings or much pleasure of any kind. Cal and Frida wait out their days, entertaining themselves with a lot of careful sex. But they are not careful enough. When Frida becomes pregnant, they decide that they cannot raise a baby in an empty forest. They set out toward what they can only assume is enemy territory. After many miles, pine trees give way to spikey, threatening totems made of metal and junk. (They remind Frida of LA’s Watts Towers. I imagine them like those cars buried grille-first along Route 66.) These forms create a dense boundary that marks the territory of an unknown tribe of a few dozen refugees eking out a peaceful existence on “The Land,” part-commune, part self-imposed prison, where Cal and Frida are welcomed for one reason: Micah, Frida’s brother and antibourgeois martyr, is their patron saint.

Crescent Meadow, Sequoia National Forest

Photograph via Flickr by Jerry Ting.

Frida and Cal endear themselves to The Land through hard work, participating in daily Labor. But they still stand apart from the rest of the tribe, particularly because of the secret that Frida is hiding. Unsettlingly, the youngest inhabitants of The Land are gawky, college-age boys. There are no children here. Cal and Frida coax from their neighbors tales of raids by Pirates (capital P),kidnappings, torture, killings, vandalism, rape, and indentured servitude. With their children stolen, no one on The Land wants to bring new life into such a world. Behind their barricades, the people of The Land are simply waiting out a death sentence.

This apocalyptic lifestyle is not as far from reality as it may seem at first glance. Americans are having fewer children, and those who do have children, choose to do it later in life. Cities such as San Francisco are now playgrounds for young adults. If this trend were taken to the extreme, cities might simply slide into retirement communities without ever hearing the wail of a newborn.

Cal and Frida are eventually run off The Land when Frida’s pregnancy is discovered. They flee into an affluent Community called “The Pines.” In Lepucki’s California, forest, city, and The Land all scrape by in the enviable shadow of the Communities. By most accounts, Communities fare better than anyone else. But no one can ever leave them, lest they be gored by Pirates. Adults work; children grow up; boards and management companies see that everything runs smoothly. They have names like “Bronxville, Scottsdale, Amazon, and Walmart.”

The Communities’ dirty secret is that they grant refuge to impoverished outsiders who accept permanent second-class citizenship in exchange for security. From the truly desperate, they purchase children, who are committed to lives of indentured servitude. The late Micah hated the Communities; they made him “murderously angry.” Frida, however, is drawn to them—she “had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture.”

The best of the bad options in California looks a lot like what was considered the best of the best of California post–World War II. Lepucki writes:

Pines was supposed to remind you of a bygone world that no one living had seen firsthand: cookouts and block parties, paperboys and school recitals. Daddies who took the trolley home, mommies who had put up their own wallpaper….all the mothers stayed home to bake cakes and whatever else mothers did at Pines. Women were expected to devote everything to raising a family.

Lepucki crafts this description with obvious irony, simultaneously taking aim at her beleaguered protagonists, the naïve families of the 1950s, and present-day Californians who cling to an outdated conception of the American dream. On that last count, Lepucki is in good company with a new generation of planners, scholars, and activists. On the other hand, Cal and Frida’s choice to join The Pines could be read as a refutation of mountains of literature decrying the shortcomings—aesthetic, environmental, and psychological—of suburbia. Then again, Lepucki suggests that the suburbs may yet be the last, best place to survive the apocalypse. Even so, the ultimate cost of fleeing to suburbia in California, as in California, looms large.

So, do we understand and perhaps forgive Cal and Frida’s retreat to the gated suburbs because they’re in post-apocalyptic survival mode? Or are we all always in survival mode?

James Howard Kunstler, the author of a series of polemical nonfiction books decrying suburban sprawl and the ugliness of the American landscape, offers a contrast in his post-apocalyptic novel World Made by Hand, set on the other side of the continent. In it, Kunstler imagines an upstate New York town that turns into a near-utopia after the nation suffers an enormous but unexplained catastrophe similar to the one that undid California. It’s easy to imagine that the two stories take place simultaneously, with each part of the fractured country reinventing itself in different ways. Unlike Lepucki, Kunstler uses his apocalypse as a meditation on the lost pleasures of small-town life. He suggests that a reversion to old-fashioned ways is so desirable as to almost—almost—compensate for the loss of civil society.

Photograph via Flickr by radcliffe dacanay.

Photograph via Flickr by radcliffe dacanay.

California and World Made by Hand both offer impassioned thought experiments for urban planners, policy makers, and developers who design real cities and shape, to some extent, how they operate. Both novels take current and past planning rhetoric to hyperbolic, though ultimately logical extremes. There is something appealing and useful, especially for an urban planner, in imagining revolutions that reveal, and to some extent are caused by, the tragic flaws in our own urban planning and, particularly, in our enduring penchant for segregation of land uses, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.

Ironically, these books appear in the midst of what can only be called an urban renaissance. Planners have been crying out for means to promote diversity, density, and urban vitality for a half-generation. They’re finally making progress, with new general plans, new means of analyzing and controlling traffic, greater demand for urbane living, and, in California, landmark antisprawl laws such as 2008’s Senate Bill 375 and 2013’s Senate Bill 743. The critiques evoked by Lepucki and Kunstler have become orthodoxy, and in many ways we are moving beyond them on the ground.

The question is whether these science fictions are looking forward or backward.

Notes

Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report, independent newsletters covering land use in, respectively, California and Los Angeles County.

Photograph at top via Flickr by Doc Searls.

Photography/ArtReviews

California Coast

by Tom Killion

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: It is no surprise that printmaker Tom Killion’s four decades of work on the wild edge of California were inspired by poetry. As he explains in the introduction to his new book, California’s Wild Edge, it was the “revelatory beauty” that he saw in a Lime Kiln Press edition of Robinson Jeffers’s coastal poetry handset in metal type that drew him to what he now calls the “poets’ coast.” The continent’s end has inspired poets, artists, and travelers for centuries, but the jagged lines of the central coast, its stormy skies, and dynamic seas seem particularly well-suited to the lines Killion cuts in linoleum and wood. Where the collision of land and sea is less dramatic, south of Point Conception, light and color bring his scenes to life.

Killion writes of Gary Snyder, his collaborator in the new book, that his poetry “is the touchstone of what poetry and art can be: grounded in the real world, accessible, thought-provoking and entertaining, and above-all beautiful in its apparently effortless ‘inevitability’ of phrasing, rhythm and purpose.”

We think the same goes for Tom Killion’s prints. It’s a pleasure and an honor to publish some of his new prints for the first time in Boom. California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Prints, Poetry, and History will be published by Heyday in the summer of 2015.

Seaweed (1979) by Tom Killion.

Santa Monica Mountains from Palisades Park (1985) by Tom Killion.

Santa Barbara Coast (1983) by Tom Killion.

Timber Top, Big Sur (2005) by Tom Killion.

Purse Seine (1984) by Tom Killion.

Photography/ArtReviews

Native Eye

by Dugan Aguilar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: Dugan Aguilar has made a life’s work of photographing California Indians. Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday and a Boom editorial board member, writes of Aguilar, in his preface to the photographer’s new book She Sang Me a Good Luck Song:

“He’s generous in his judgment of people. He approaches his subject not as a conqueror, not as a hunter out to capture an image, but as a shy, diffident admirer. He treats everyone and everything with deep and genuine respect. He seems more than willing to step out of the way. Watching him work, one has the feeling that he is not ‘taking’ pictures—‘taking’ is such an aggressive word. He seems to set things up in such a way as to allow a picture to happen.

“Yet make no mistake. In his quiet and persistent way, Dugan is a fighter, for some forty years now battling an enemy that has done everything it can to destroy Indian people: silence. Silence has erased Indian names from the landscape, has all but written Indians out of the history of California, has expunged Indian presence from the our daily consciousness. In the face of this pervasive silence, the tendency is to turn the dial up and make loud noises—photos that scream at you, overloaded with drama and intensity. Dugan has chosen another way. Rather than overdramatize, his photos whisper. They whisper to us with quiet intimacy, revealing not only people’s physical presence but hinting at their daydreams, suggesting something of the richness of their inner lives.”

She Sang Me a Good Luck Song, edited by Theresa Harlan, will be published by Heyday in June 2015.

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982.

Franklin Mullens, veterans’ gathering, Susanville, 2000.

Mimi Mullen (Maidu), grand marshal, 1997 Greenville Gold Digger Days parade.

Feathers with Flair, Susanville Parade, ca. 1987.

Jennifer Bates, Oakland Big Time, 1996.

Isabella, Spring Flower Dance, ca. 2004.

Reviews

The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.

Reviews

Dances with California

Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 144pp, $22.95)

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Logan

What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?

What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.

Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites.  She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.

If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.

Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.

Image at top by Chris.

Reviews

Man with a Mission

serra_misionsangabriel

By Sara V. Torres

Three hundred years ago in the Mediterranean isle of Majorca, the man who would become known as the father of the California missions was born.  “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library  commemorates the tricentennial of his birth with a visually stunning exhibition that weaves together the intertwined stories of Serra’s career as a missionary to Spanish America and the complex Indian responses to mission life through rich artifacts of material culture drawn from both Spain and early California. It is open through January 6.

On display are important documentary records of Serra’s own life and the founding of early California missions, along with maps, paintings, reliquaries, and early Indian artifacts, comprising nearly 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and sixty lending institutions in the US, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition gives voice to the wide range of Native American experiences in California missions and captures, through documents, artifacts, and oral histories, their spirit of cultural resilience in the face of pandemic illness and the incursion of new cultures. Audiovisual features help convey the rich cultural diversity of the nearly 350,000 Native Americans who lived in California at time of Serra’s arrival, and the survival of indigenous traditions through centuries of upheaval.

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Conveying the full arc of the missions’ history, the exhibition moves forward in time to explore the secularization of the missions and the subsequent displacement and social marginalization of Indians during the annexation of Alta California into the US. Displays focusing on romanticized “myths of the missions,” including The Mission Play and the popular Ramona stories, stand in stark counterpoint to the documentary records and photographs of real-life missions, challenging visitors to think critically about the place of missions within state history and legend.

Co-curator Steven Hackel’s new biography, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (352pp, $27), complements the exhibition by painting a full and nuanced portrait of the famous Franciscan missionary in great scholarly detail, with a particular emphasis on the cultural, intellectual, and theological contexts of Serra’s upbringing and early career in Mallorca and how these experiences informed his mission work in Baja and Alta California. Together, the exhibition and biography tell a fascinating history of a man whose memory is lined with an aura of saintliness and whose legacy is imbued with controversy.

Reviews

Growing the California Dream

Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.

Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.

California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.

Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.

Photograph at top by Gregory Wass.