One doesn’t visit the historic ranch house of cowboy-turned-actor Will Rogers to gawk at Hollywood extravagance. The cozy home sits nestled above Sunset Boulevard, in a leafy Pacific Palisades canyon. All of the old stuff in it—Rogers’s furniture, his cowboy boots, his western-themed knickknacks and art—are said to be exactly as he left them, down to their placement over fireplace and atop table. So, to a ten-year-old wandering around the house, it can make for a different sort of awe—the feeling of physically standing in the reality of another person from another time.
For me, the Will Rogers house was the seed of what would become a long running (and, until recently, mysterious) fascination with tours that touch the past. From the Palisades, it wasn’t too far a leap to the ghost towns of Southern California, where I’d road trip out to discover cultural remains of the desert. I never considered these trips critically; they were a hobby, and viscerally enjoying them without thought was its own reward. But I learned recently that physically experiencing local sites—touring—is an interest I share with other Southern Californians. The strangeness of that coincidence makes the question unavoidable: Where does our collective local, physical-aesthetic obsession come from? The centrality of landscape in Wonder Valley provided a clue.
The Wormus Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead
I took a summer trip out to the desert near Joshua Tree to experience a prime example of the touring impulse in Southern Californians—artist Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead. Speeding down a glimmering, black, two-lane highway in a Jeep with Stringfellow, windows down, hot air blasting in, speakers blasting out, we were hearing the piece—and experiencing it at the same time. Jackrabbit Homestead does not exist without somebody driving around in the desert. For it to work, you have to download a bunch of MP3s and play them as you drive a prescribed route. Historians and local residents talk about the one-room homes that dot the landscape, relics of the federal government’s 1938 Jackrabbit Homestead Act, which enticed brave souls to colonize the desert, offering cheap land prices. Stringfellow and I would stop to park near the tiny houses—most of them crumbling and abandoned—get out of the car and walk toward them in the brilliant, baking sun, as meanings and interpretations from the history we’d learned buzzed in our minds.
One clue as to why Kim Stringfellow and so many others, including the LA Urban Rangers, Esotouric tours, and the EATLACMA project, feel compelled to take people to places is the visual transparency of landscape here. Like the desert, scenery in Los Angeles is unobstructed. The presence of mountains makes for a constant awareness of geographic features (in LA, the ocean lives in the backs of our minds). The Southern California landscape is horizontal, compared to New York’s vertical one. We can see vistas in Los Angeles in a way that residents of other major cities cannot, and not only because the city is laid out flatly—it’s a relatively treeless landscape. To drive a New England thruway is to be inside a tunnel of trees. Driving through Southern California, landscape is laid bare.
The relationship to land, given the centrality of the car, is key. The map of the city is ingrained in the minds of drivers in a way that it might not be for people who travel smaller geographic areas on a day-to-day basis. Yet just as cars connect us with broad landscape in an important way, they also disconnect us from it. The heat in Wonder Valley, as we walked through the landscape, was an intense and all too real experience in itself. But many Angelenos rarely walk for more than a block on a regular basis and fail to experience land as a physical thing, a point for those who argue that LA is an unreal, fake, and disconnected sort of place.
The Kenney Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead
More and more artists and organizations are offering tour invitations, and Southern Californians accept. The people who took off work early one Thursday morning for a tour of the Grapevine may have been seeking a corrective to that feeling of falseness and disconnection. Once, the Grapevine was the major thoroughfare connecting Southern and Northern California. Now, if you make your way up the 5 from Los Angeles, you eventually get to an exit called Grapevine, but the old road exists in pieces. Our tour, the organizer promised, would give the place meaning in a whole new way.
The organizer was the Center for Land Use Interpretation. In the growing world of Southern California tours, the CLUI occupies a special place. It is an uncategorizable entity that exists somewhere between educational, academic and artistic. The Center mounts art exhibits at its Culver City headquarters and a couple of times per year takes a group of people to Southern California oil field sites, landfills or, in the case of the Grapevine tour, “a place meant to be passed through.”
Nick Bourland sat near me on the bus. Home on a break from his east coast college, he took the tour at the urging of an art student friend. A native Angeleno, he had never been on a tour bus in his own city. “Normally, I see people here getting on tour buses, looking for obvious things, like celebrities’ homes,” he told me. Making our way through the developed landscape, we learned about the history of sites surrounding the old Grapevine—a water pumping plant, CalTrans, an Ikea fulfillment center. This, we concluded, was an unusual experience in celebrity-centric LA.
Interior of the Gray Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead
The inherent bond between history and place—could there be a better antidote to the cliché of LA as being all about surface? Matthew Coolidge, director of CLUI, has probably thought more about the connection between LA and tours than any other person. Of the mushrooming innovative tours in the city, he says, “Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, and there will be more over time, that put the city in a mirror that’s more than where it can fix its hair and trim its moustache. It’s a mirror that’s not just narcissistic, but turns us around to see where we’ve come from and what brought us to this point.” These tours can be seen as efforts to wring every bit of meaning out of a place that is so often said to have none.
Interior of the Guerre/Beckman Homestead from Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead
4. The Answer
Land and history are antidotes to the increasingly virtual nature of our current existence. Rather than being told or shown, when we touch a thing or experience a place, it becomes part of us, in a way that tertiary media that presents it to us cannot. In this way, Los Angeles and its mediated surface may be the perfect paradigm for our misty, nebulous era—and the tours that combat it a telling illustration of physical human yearning.
I was worried that our changeable times may have gotten to the Will Rogers house, or that my mental remove from the emotional tour experience might blunt the place for me. But when I visited recently for the first time in two decades, the docent presented the house as being just as it once was, saying that as we walked around we’d get a feeling for “Will Rogers, the man” and how people lived in his day. Indeed, the old Indian blanket is still draped over the couch, the ink stains on his desk remain, and the metal countertop in the kitchen is as cold now as it was when Will Rogers’s family touched it a century ago—and when I did as a ten-year-old. I felt a little shiver of meaning. I had touched the past—my past, the past of this place, and, now, our combined histories. The feeling stayed for a while as I drove down the hill, and disappeared as I turned onto Sunset, reentering LA’s fast moving traffic of now.
I drive Interstate 10 east, following the curving concrete line out of downtown Los Angeles. I clear the Inland Empire, pass Banning and Beaumont, and when I see the T. Rex and the Brontosaurus, those fading plaster emblems of lost worlds, I know it’s coming, that feeling I won’t be able to control. I switch the radio dial to KWXY as the freeway bows south and then crests in a sea of towering, spinning white windmills. The car fills with the sound of lush strings, gentle voices, and tickled piano—Jackie Gleason visiting “Shangri-La,” the Norman Luboff Choir cooing “Tenderly,” Ray Conniff watching the fall of “Autumn Leaves,” and all I can see is what suddenly surrounds me: the vast, caked brown expanse of the desert. My eyes water, my heart aches, and I have to pull over. It’s as if, to borrow the words of one of the Sublime’s great advocates, Friedrich Nietzsche, I have put my ear to the “heart-chamber of the world-Will and felt the roaring desire for existence gushing forth into all the veins of the world, as a thundering current or as the gentlest brook, dissolving into a mist.” How could I not fail, as he put it, “to break suddenly”? It might not be a Wagner opera or a recital of eighteenth-century instrumental music and might just be the purring vanilla swing of The Ray Charles Singers, but this is my sublime, my desert sublime. This is where I break suddenly, where I put my ear to the world.
The whispery-voiced golf announcer DJs of KWXY still call the station’s format “Beautiful Music,” a post-WWII FM radio format that stations like KWXY employed to characterize their “soft” and “unobtrusive” music. It was mood music for the imaginary quiet villages of post-war suburbia, its formulaic, nearly commercial-free hush meant to heal the ears of a country made tired by war, social unrest, and rock ‘n’ roll. “Isn’t the rattle of your neighbor’s garbage can lids enough without having to listen to freaked-out music?” one Beautiful Music station asked. “Pull yourself out of your old radio routine and get into something nice and sweet. They say many young people today will be deaf by the time they’re 30. Their own music is doing them in. Life has gotten louder for the rest of us, too. The song bird, the cricket, the soft crunch of snow underfoot are all becoming lost in the roar of the Seventies. … Fortunately, there’s still one place where you can hear something beautiful.”
Yet as Wagner himself once argued, even the beautiful, when stripped of its appearances and order, when its Apollonian nature is taken over by Dionysian impulses, can become the sublime—the beautiful can be where the sublime begins. For me, KWXY’s music is not only beautiful, not only a hush or a calm or a lull, but sublime, a soft roar that shakes me. Not topiary and manicured English gardens, but the swoon and sweep of awe, melancholy, and mystery.
I have spent most of my life coming to the desert. My maternal grandparents lived there for almost thirty years, at first as weekend golfers and bridge hounds, and eventually as full-time residents—two former North Dakota farm kids, with Russian and Swedish family trees, reborn as retired Palm Springs desert rats with impressively low handicaps, the greens and sand traps of the eighth hole as their backyard. My grandfather was a volunteer police aviator. He flew over the Mojave weekly in his wire-rim sunglasses with chocolate brown lenses, looking down over its subdivisions, soaring above its vast aridity.
KWXY was my grandfather’s station of choice. Back on the ground, he would listen as he drove, singing and humming along in his gentle voice to the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. When he was in the hospital, not long before he died, I asked him what it was that he liked so much about the station. The music, he told me, is “olden but golden,” a comforting sentiment for a man realizing that his own life was nearing its end. These were songs and artists, sounds and recording techniques, that were outdated and archaic, forgotten by most; surely all of them were, as my grandmother liked to say, “dead you know.” Yet the dead lived, the ghosts sang, the olden became golden, the dinosaurs never really left. The end was not the end. Through music, the past outlived itself.
Tune in to KWXY and, especially if former RCA Victor archivist Don Wardell is at the boards, you’ll hear something like this: the sound of the station’s trademark strumming harps, Henry Mancini performing “Latin Snowfall” from Charade, a station I.D. that is more like a poem or a prayer (across the blue of the sky, jet trails remind us of journeys long ago, and the sounds of the desert), Erroll Garner playing “And My Heart Stood Still,” Percy Faith and His Orchestra doing “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’,” a weather report registering a 108-degree summer afternoon, Doris Day singing “Our Day Will Come,” and then an in-house choir released from an old open reel analog tape that reminds you what you’re hearing, a musical rainbow, K-W-X-YYYYYY.
Yet the music I most associate with KWXY, which after decades of airing on 98.5 FM has now retired to its new AM home, is its endless parade of stereo-surround strings—a lushness that seems to float above the speakers, like aural clouds or angels made of sound—and the voices, all of those whispering and sighing choirs, exalting love lost and found, days rainy or sunny, nights in Old Monterey, or days of wine and roses. Though it’s also home to classic film scores and songbook standards, KWXY’s lingua franca is the “beautiful and familiar” instrumental cocktail music and singing choirs that blossomed in 1950s recording studios— a sonic balm usually mentioned right alongside the postwar, GI Bill birth of suburbia, the rise of the supermarket, and the sale of the first home air-conditioning unit. Closed-in environments needed piped-in music, and studio arrangers like Ray Conniff were happy to oblige.
As muzak historian Joseph Lanza has written, “Conniff’s music connotes the mystically metallic clanking of shopping carts trailing down aisles, the rustle of cash registers, the tinkle of loose change, and the grunt of chromium doors automatically opening for the next phalanx of shoppers.” It was Conniff, a former regular with the Harry James band, who is credited with first pairing the studio choir (four men, four women) with the delicate swing of orchestrated, symphonic brass played by over eighteen musicians. There was something always spectral about the Conniff choir and the choir craze he started. The voices were human but sounded disembodied, like ghostly echoes serenading from the grave, mystical shadows back to haunt the present.
Even though he did his time in Hollywood and was certainly out West long enough to shop at my grandfather’s clothing store and leave with him a signed autograph copy of his Somewhere My Love LP, Conniff is not usually thought of as a Westerner. But the music he made in the ’50s was quintessentially Western. It was music that cut right into the closed-in spaces of the developed West—the planned communities and shopping malls, the parking lots, the supermarkets and country clubs and tract homes and mobile trailer parks—and piped in some open space, some vastness, some ooh and some ahh, some sublime. It was also Western in its ghostliness, in its desire to use music and the technologies of recorded sound to speak with the past and not let the past go silent. “That’s the game The West invites,” Marianne Wiggins writes, “the game everybody plays out West: pretending we can see the past, here, in the present. Pretending we can call down the impossible, invalidate the present, and convince ourselves we’re in another time, another century. The West—true West—attaches to you like a shadow.” Conniff’s choir gave those shadows sound.
When I am in my car, facing the burning desert through the windshield and immersed in his angel choirs, I am pulled out of time and into place, into the aurality of space where my grandfather still lives, invisible but present, olden but golden, another dinosaur still hanging around the desert shadows. If the desert is what the theologian David Jasper calls “a theater of memory,” a stage for a cyclical return to the past as a means of returning to the present, then out on the side of the highway, breathless and teary-eyed and sublime-sacked, I am center stage, my grandparents in the wings, Ray Conniff filling the packed house with angel voices, and I face the desert with my ears open wide, swarmed by noisy shadows.
Kiene Wurth, The Musically Sublime: Infinity, Indeterminacy, Irresolvability. Dissertation, University of Groningen, 2002. 172.
Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy- Listening, and Other Moodsong (New York: Picador, 1994), 173.
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 13.
David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 44.
*A KWXY SAMPLER
Percy Faith Orchestra, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place'”
Ray Conniff Singers, “Autumn Leaves”
Tony Bennett, “When Joanna Loved Me”
Paul Weston, “Time After Time”Norman Luboff, “Laura”
Henry Mancini, “Latin Snowfall”
Doris Day, “Our Day Will Come”
Jackie Gleason, “Shangri-La”
Gordon McRae, “Carousel Waltz”
Anita Kerr Quarter, “La Mirada”
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management
of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
Ira Jacknis, Food in California Indian Culture (Berkeley: Phoebe Hearst Museum
Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parrish, California Indians and Their Environment: An
Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
The road from Sacramento to Yosemite takes you up into the mountains and back into the history of human subsistence in California. South of the capital city, Highway 99 roars with semis carrying agricultural equipment and produce—the inputs and outputs of laser-leveled fields and industrial food factories. The junction with 120 East is in Manteca, whose name (“lard”) recalls Spanish California’s tallow-and-hide operations as well as the modern region’s association with feedlots and dairies. In the eastern part of the valley lie fruit and nut orchards that have been part of the landscape since Yankee and Japanese settlement. As the road begins to rise into the foothills, ranchettes give way to large private cattle ranches. Closer to the park, scraggly state and national forests bear the scars of timber and mineral extraction. To the north is Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir and hydropower station for the city of San Francisco. When you finally cross the boundary between Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park at Crane Flat, however, most outward signs of the economic exploitation of California’s material abundance cease and the recreational and spiritual aspects of the backcountry come to the fore.
This break from the trammeled landscape is a major part of the appeal of national parks and other wildlands, of course. The problem is that our dependence on produce, meat, lumber, ore, water, and energy does not really disappear at the park gate: the need for food and shelter in fact remains as strong as ever, even as we distance ourselves from the messy circumstances of their procurement. The fruits of our domination of the natural world outside the wilderness boundaries must be trucked into the Yosemite Valley and the high meadows, where their presence often registers as an affront to the principles of “leave no trace.” A Snickers wrapper dropped by an eager backpacker in the parking lot near Tenaya Lake or the cappuccino served at the Lodge cafeteria in the valley can seem like both a sacrilege and an acknowledgment of our fundamental distance from the natural world we are attempting to enjoy.
For just these reasons, environmental ethicists have long recognized wilderness preservation as a problematic approach to the relationship between modern civilization and the nonhuman world. Taking large swaths of land out of economic use and designating them for limited recreation, they remind us, is a complex cultural and political act, and one filled with questionable presumptions. In making certain landscapes sacred, for example, don’t we implicitly make all the rest into an environmental sacrifice zone, as in those photographs of intact forests on protected lands that abruptly give way at their edges to vast clearcuts and tree farms? In basing our decisions about what to protect on aesthetic grounds, don’t we miss biologically more significant lands, such as the lowland marshes that have all but disappeared from the state? And in removing wilderness from human history, don’t we both exacerbate the alienation of the modern citizen from the natural world and disrespect the long and deep aboriginal connection to particular environments? For several decades now, the consensus among those who contemplate such problems is that yes, we do.
And yet, for all the problems with wilderness, few are willing to follow through on the logic of this argument and repudiate the system of wilderness preservation we have in this country, sensing that backing away from wilderness absolutism, however intellectually shaky its foundations, will open the door to aggressive elements of the mining, grazing, and timber industries already pushing up to the borders of protected parklands. When I introduce the wilderness paradox to my undergraduate students, asking them to consider the pros and cons of doing away with the wilderness designation for all public lands, the invariable result (after several productive hours of debate) is a stalemate: we come to recognize both the deep problems of the wilderness model and the pronounced lack of any satisfactory alternative to it. Is there any way out of Californians’ warring conception of our land as either untouchable wilderness or ecological free-fire zone, where the most profound kinds of violence to natural systems are the norm?
This question was on my mind recently as I visited the Yosemite Museum in the heart of the Yosemite Valley, one of the few places that showcases the connection of the park to specific human histories. There I gravitated towards an empty room filled with local native art carefully preserved inside Plexiglas cubes. I stood alone for a full five minutes contemplating the skill and labor that went into the centerpiece of the collection—an enormous woven basket, 60 gallons or more in volume—and quietly bemoaning the loss of a world that was capable of making so much out of so little. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight movement from the corner of the room. Seated on a very small stool, leaning slightly against the wall, was a tiny, deeply wrinkled old woman patiently winding a length of deergrass around the ribs of a newly begun basket. Startled by her unexpected presence and a bit baffled by her obsolete project, I stood for a moment pretending to read a curatorial label and trying to think of an appropriate thing to say. It is one thing to recognize Yosemite as a place of historical human settlement, represented by black-and-white photographs and archaeological specimens, and quite another to find that the original occupants are still in some form of possession. I was soon rescued from my fluster by a large class of fourth graders herding into the room to listen to the woman talk. Her name, it turned out, was Julia Parker. She is a Kashia Pomo and Coast Miwok who has taken up the basketweaving tradition of the Mono Lake Paiute, the people of her husband, and a former apprentice of Lucy Telles, the legendary basketmaker responsible for the immense and beautiful basket I had just been admiring. Now in her early eighties, Julia is herself a living legend of sorts, having spent nearly her entire life in the Yosemite Valley preserving native traditions and interpreting them for the park’s millions of yearly visitors. I listened as she began patiently to explain the techniques of basketweaving to the children, delving into the materials she collected from the wild lands in the park at specific seasons with her daughter and granddaughter, now weavers in their own right.
As the children began to ask more and more questions, the relevance of Julia Parker’s answers to the problem of wilderness began slowly to sink in. The baskets on display, which I had thought of as anthropological relics, art objects, or “crafts” in the contemporary American sense of the word, are in fact evidence of a long and continuing reciprocity between human beings and the montane ecosystems around them. The baskets were and are made of willow shoots, deergrass stalks, redbud twigs, and other materials carefully collected from areas that Indian women manage— through careful weeding, transplanting, and burning—in order to encourage the right kind of growth of the right kind of plants. The native makers of these baskets constructed them as tools to support their own subsistence, in particular for the processing of acorns. The acorn, a nutritious major staple of native California, owes its ubiquity in part to the natives’ deliberately timed fires, which suppressed both insect pests and the natural succession of oak woodlands by shrubs and conifer forests. There were baskets for collecting acorns, baskets for storing them, baskets for holding the crushed meal, baskets for leeching out the bitter tannins, and baskets for cooking the final product, acorn mush. A well-equipped native household might have thirty or more different woven vessels for a variety of domestic tasks. As I walked out of the museum with Julia Parker’s words ringing in my ears, the baskets, the people responsible for them, and the landscape itself seemed changed in fundamental ways. No longer trapped within an archaic wilderness ethic—take no specimens, leave no trace—that is continuously belied by the alien material culture (popcorn, chocolate bars, Gore-Tex) trucked in and out daily for the benefit of tourists, it could be again what it still was for a few members of the native tribes, an active garden that both reflected and sustained their claims on the land.
Reintroducing such native Californian knowledge and practices into the management of public lands on a broader scale is the express goal of M. Kat Anderson, an ethno-ecologist who argues in Tending the Wild that the wild landscapes for which California is famed come primarily from the labor and accumulated experience of native occupants who took charge of their home ecosystems to produce the materials they needed to survive. If heeded, Anderson’s claim would have major significance for both the philosophy and the practice of environmental preservation and restoration, not to mention the status of native peoples in directing public environmental projects. No longer simple hunter-gatherers passively dependent on the bounty of wild nature, historical native Californians would have to be seen as manipulators of their environment no less ecologically significant than the large, centralized agrarian societies found elsewhere in native North America (though quite different in the specific techniques they applied and the effects they produced).
By the same token, wilderness would no longer be understood as a place defined by its indifference to the hand of man and instead would have to be viewed as a tended agroecological zone that historically has required the intervention of humankind to help it retain its pre-contact biodiversity and fertility. More concretely, the state of California’s environmental laws, policies, programs, and practices would need to be shaped by the memories and experiences of native peoples as much as by the farming, industrial, and scientific research communities that now dominate such discussions. To back up her claims, Anderson draws upon a huge repository of texts, oral interviews, and field research, demonstrating how nearly every component of a given ecosystem played a key role in the material economy of the local tribes, providing ample documentation of native practices—like irrigating, pruning, coppicing, tilling, sowing, transplanting, and especially burning—that contributed to sustaining the resource and creating places like Yosemite that we now try to preserve, ironically, through questionably low-impact policies.
Anderson’s book represents one of the high points in a marked scholarly reappraisal of native Californians and the worlds they lived in prior to and after colonization. Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish’s new collaboration, California Indians and Their Environment, appears as a commissioned volume in the California Natural History Guides series, but it has an ambition grander than the typical guidebook: to synthesize new research on native California tribes that takes seriously their capacity to help resolve some of the state’s seemingly intractable environmental problems. The scope of this task is daunting in part because of the notorious diversity and complexity of native California. Yet despite the challenges posed by the eighty or ninety different linguistic groups in the state at contact and by the decimation of native communities thereafter, a lot of information about native environmental practices has survived into the present. Perhaps the greater stumbling block has been a conceptual one: the models developed by American anthropologists in the study of other regions of North America are often quite misleading when applied to the aboriginal societies of the West Coast. In particular, the standard division between “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies and larger, more “advanced” agricultural societies (like the Cherokee or Hopi nations) does not fit California facts. Although primarily made up of very small “tribelets” (as Alfred Kroeber called them), native Californians displayed highly advanced forms of material and social culture as well as sophisticated trading networks. Of particular interest is native California’s oblique relationship to traditional agriculture. The “three sisters” so commonplace elsewhere in North America— corn, squash, and beans—were not cultivated outside of a small sliver of what is now the southeasternmost part of the state, nor were any similar agricultural staples. Calling native Californians hunter-gatherers, however, obscures the wide range of deliberate interventions they made in their environments. Lightfoot and Parrish make clear the need for a new category of subsistence in the extensive introductory portions of the book, which are highly recommended for Californians who want to begin their study of native peoples with the most up-to-date synthesis available. The remainder of the guide is given over to six sections—one for each of California’s major geomorphic provinces—detailing the specific animal, plant, and mineral materials used by various tribes in the region. The Central Valley/Sierra Nevada section, for example, describes the use of Mariposa Lily bulbs for food, of jimson weed as an analgesic poultice, and of soapstone for dishes. Walking through an uncultivated portion of my home turf in the Sacramento Valley, I began to see the land anew as a granary, medicine chest, and outfitter.
Bringing this kind of change in perspective out of academia and into the broader popular culture of California will likely require something more than either Anderson or Lightfoot and Parrish can supply, for after they had inspired me to a new awareness of the useful materials around me, I still lacked detailed knowledge about how to actually go about using them. What we need, in order to act on the lessons Anderson and others are teaching us, are instructions that will help connect their insights into native food cultures developed in California over millennia with the widespread interest in local, ecologically appropriate food, medicine, and clothing.
The work of Ira Jacknis, an anthropologist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum, may become the founding text of any such future movement. Bringing together for the first time dozens of obscure anthropological and Indian texts on native foodways, Jacknis’s book offers a systematic culinary and gastronomic consideration of early food practices after generations of studies that focused primarily on either the nutritional or the social dimensions of subsistence and exchange. Not a cookbook in any traditional sense, Jacknis’s work nevertheless provides an extraordinarily fine degree of detail about various native California food practices. Modern Californians searching for an engaged, sustainable, and historically aware relationship with the California landscape through their own kitchen-table practices should start here.
To move toward a new vision of public land, one in which human intervention (guided by the experience of native Californians) is not regarded as a defeat of preservationist principles but as an affirmation of our necessary bond with our environment, requires a careful transition away from the ideological legacy of wilderness. The demise of that outdated vision, however, need entail no diminishment in our attachments to our state’s famous natural landscapes. According to Jacknis, the sugar pine we now appreciate for its beauty can also yield a resinous native candy that would perhaps be an even more durable connection between the coming generation and the natural world they are partly responsible for. And perhaps someday the injunction to eat what is fresh and local will extend beyond introduced cultivars grown in the stripped fields of the Salinas Valley even to roasted armyworms, a favorite Pomo dish consumed in celebration every few years when the population of these caterpillars spikes in the ash groves of the northern Bay Area. The continuing process of reinhabiting California in a sustainable and responsible way will have to proceed through our foraging grounds, gardens, palates, and stomachs. Thanks to the natives and scholars working to reveal the agriculture and foodways of the first peoples of California, such a goal no longer looks like sheer fantasy.
No doubt modern Californians will long continue to car-camp in Yosemite Valley, making s’mores over the fire pit. But I wonder whether one of our California mallows (perhaps the appropriately named Malva neglecta) might take the place of the gelatinous corn-syrup puffs we are used to, whether we could make a graham cracker out of carefully leeched, pressed, and baked acorn meal, and how much coaxing it would take to get our children or grandchildren to replace a square of chocolate with the roasted pith of a green pine cone.
It’s the other point of entry, this eastern spine of downtown Los Angeles, along the Alameda corridor where Union Station thrums with passengers departing, arriving, connecting. And drifters, who hover somewhere in between coming and going. This is the juncture, the elusive middle space, that writer/photographer Kevin McCollister loses himself in. He has become eloquent in visually evoking the poetic hang-time of the destinationless.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, amid the flow of flip-flopped and sun-hatted weekend travelers, McCollister looks like he, too, could be coming or going. With quick, hard-to-read eyes and a taut, reserved energy, he blends into the ambience of anticipation, looking for something that’s not a train or taxi or a “score”—but something. He has arranged himself at one of the concourse’s small tables at the edge of the flow with an iced coffee and his two cameras, a Panasonic Lumix and his Canon D40, still zipped away in their soft black cases. His face relaxes in a greeting, not quite a smile, but welcoming and forthright.
He’s already working, scanning possibilities: the resigned mother with the hysterical six-year-old; the bent woman on a walker fed up with panhandler sob stories; the timid security guard she’s buttonholed who nods between his “yes ma’am”s. McCollister’s eyes finally pause on a man with a dramatic flounce of dyed blue-black hair and a wool scarf flung not-so-nonchalantly about his neck despite the eighty-degree heat. He’s holding court at a table with three other men—all of whom look like they’ve walked out of another era or circumstance. McCollister risks another surreptitious glance, but doesn’t make a move for either camera. Something’s missing, not quite right—the moment. “That one has a story,” he says. “If I wait long enough I’ll find him again.”
What is a train station if not a point of departure? A gateway into stories. But you can’t buy a ticket to the places McCollister takes you. His Los Angeles is not the high-gloss of turquoise pools, movie stars, and mile-high, listing palm trees. Rather, it’s the city’s broken seekers, its mix-and-match architecture, its abandoned asphalt roads—the beauty in its lonelier, hidden contours.
While he is certainty documenting LA, his images evoke something chambered and contemplative, startling in their quietude.
His book and the blog that inspired it, East of West LA, elicit a Los Angeles that feels personal, like memory and fantasy fused, a Los Angeles that is private but not at all exclusive. “Kevin is seeing what’s not seen about LA,” says Brooks Roddan, who found the images compelling enough to publish in book form. “He’s seeing, I think, the differences between the perceptions of LA and the realities. The story is: there’s more here than you imagined, and what you imagined is not here at all.”
The blog, which McCollister launched five years ago, has built a small but loyal following (well over 100,000 visitors, and a steady hundred views a day). It wasn’t conceived as one of those photo-a-day exercises. And he has some rules: “No Rolls Royce convertibles. No swimming pools. They seem to be covered adequately. But,” he elaborates, “I don’t want to get too lofty about what I understand or don’t understand about LA. It’s much more of a model or muse to me than an object I’ve studied to enlighten anyone. If you’re an artist and you’re able to sketch somebody’s thumb, that doesn’t mean you understand their childhood.”
That thumb, in McCollister’s work, is an apt metaphor, full of clues. The fine particulars—an empty farmácia bathed in aqua fluorescence, a Hollywood Boulevard James Brown impersonator, wig slightly askew, flashing a set of ruined teeth—sketch a far more complex LA story of struggle, blind faith, and persistence. By isolating an object—a single, soft-lit doorway, late-night street musicians serenading empty sidewalks, a transient’s forlorn tent—McCollister “finds” LA by holding onto something we might gun past in a rage on the 110, or something we linger beside every day but see past. We observe Los Angeles through his prism, an LA edited down to an oblique gesture, to a wry, visual non sequitur. It’s an LA only seen in stop-motion, an LA that uncharacteristically can only be navigated, McCollister knows, with patience and by foot.
A case in point: This stretch of the Alameda corridor just outside the station doors is a complex nexus. In the amber light, compositionally, it’s loose, messy, and full of possibilities. Downtown’s chessboard of skyscrapers gather to the west; the central jail looms northeast; and the old Pueblo de los Angeles, from whence this all sprang, is only a crosswalk away. This is one of those locations where the city’s standard operating definitions, east of the world’s imagination of Los Angeles, don’t quite work. “From here,” McCollister says, “I can walk to Boyle Heights or Lincoln Heights. Or maybe I’ll just walk up to Broadway, it just depends.”
When you step off into one of his images, you realize it isn’t that Los Angeles is mysterious; it’s been misread, its elegance and edginess elided from our imagination. The images, particularly those emptied out of humans, force a new reading. He knows he’s channeling ghosts—Fitzgerald, Chandler, even Bukowksi—a certain sort of discontent which writers have for so long attempted to express.
He cordons off Saturdays and Sundays for shooting, mornings before 10 a.m., evenings after 4 p.m., the off time from his full-time job as an administrative coordinator at the Writer’s Guild. “LA is tricky for photography because it’s so much sunlight, so much glare,” he says. He rarely photographs late at night, yet his images of an emptied-out LA convey a sort of nighthawk quality. What makes McCollister pause is not just the image, but what’s tethered to it: “Definitely a mood. Not adulterated too much. It’s just whatever emotional content [is there].” He admits that what speaks to him is often “pretty melancholy, pretty singular.”
We reach Olvera Street, usually an explosion of tourist-geared sound and color. Today it’s overrun by television vans, heavy cables, and sun canopies—all quite contrary to what he’s after.
The quiet, unembellished city he seeks doesn’t always make itself known. “I may come back with nothing,” he warns me. “I can spend hours and hours and think I have something . . .” he says, letting the thought trail off. He makes a quick survey and the camera comes out, the small Lumix, bumping against his chest, ready.
He crosses another narrow street and into the busy courtyard at the old church—Nuestra Señora de Reina de Los Angeles—la Placita. People trade pleasantries with him, the regulars he’s come to know: men and women selling bottled water, wooden bracelets decorated with religious figures, simple rosaries. Still others, crouched on the sidewalk, ask for change. He pauses near a fountain at an altar crowded with votive candles, scattered prayers, and mementoes—a child’s shoe, a hazy sonogram, silver milagros. A woman, her black hair slated with gray, stands near the fountain. He sees a possibility, something in her face, the incline of her head. He raises the camera, then stops. “There’s this feeling,” he explains later, “that photographing someone praying might be just a little too distracting or intrusive.”
He presses on.
If you’d asked him twenty years ago, McCollister would have defined himself as a writer—a poet, primarily. He had come from elsewhere, winding from Cleveland to New Orleans, where he worked on a river boat, Delta Queen, then Boston, where he studied film and screenwriting at Harvard Extension. Photography hadn’t been on his radar. Neither was Los Angeles, which upon an early visit in the ’80s he had dismissed as crowded and unlivable.
Just six years ago, when he set out on this endeavor, this little side project (“call it creative practicality”) was pure hobby, not vocation. His brother had married a woman from Taiwan and relocated. “She had a blog and I didn’t know what a blog was,” McCollister recalls. “I just wanted to have a dialogue with her and perhaps a half-dozen other people—just pictures of LA.” It was a simple plan. “I thought it was going to be [a] ‘This American Life’ thing where I would . . . talk with people, but it’s not that way at all. It just sort of mushroomed.”
He bought himself a hundred-dollar camera and set up his blog, christening it, with a wink, The Jimson Weed Gazette. He started posting, sometimes just text—lists, observations; or a combination of image and reflection. Over time, as he learned more about his camera and its potential, McCollister says, “[It] took on a life of its own without me even making a conscious decision.” He was writing less and less, he says. “The photos were just doing all the work.”
The poetry is still evident. The power of a single object, the oblique framing, the ratio of dark to light, and the elliptical situations in his photographs reveal his emotional awareness. Los Angeles isn’t just sunshine and excess. He has put his stamp on the place. The name-shift—East of West LA—was part of the project’s evolution, as was the blog’s initial brazen claim, now its tagline: I’m photographing LA—All of it.
That vow caught Brooks Roddan’s eye. Roddan was already familiar with McCollister’s writing through a mutual friend, the poet Micahel Lally, and had asked for some poems for a possible book. “The poems I’d responded to, the best poems, were all walking poems; a man walking through neighborhoods as if he was seeing LA for the first time,” Roddan says, “seeing things only a poet both aware and innocent could see.”
Time passed, and Roddan learned that McCollister had stopped writing poems and had refocused his energies. He began visiting the blog, stowing away the images in his head. Once they reconnected, Roddan had a different plan. “‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘I think your poems are now photographs and your photographs are now poems. Let’s do a book of your photographs.’”
Precisely what Roddan saw in the poems filtered directly into the images: an open-ended seeking. McCollister says, “I don’t usually have a plan, I just walk with the traffic lights—whichever one is green.” We wind over the hard, hot concrete through Mei Ling Way, past crowded souvenir shops, restaurants smelling of hot oil and scallions, gentrified art galleries side by side with retro furniture stores, and finally onto an empty courtyard on Chung King Road, canopied by hanging cherry-red paper lanterns.
The only business open at this in-between hour is a shop with a pulsing red neon sign announcing FONG’S ORIENTAL WORK OF ART. But what has enraptured McCollister isn’t the retro neon, or the curiously tangled name, or the gathered men playing cards near its front doors, or anything at all telegraphing Chinatown. Instead, he has installed himself before the shuttered doors of what looks to be a recently vacated business. Its cloudy window reveals nothing but scattered newspaper, trampled cardboard flats, and a chair and table shoved against a blank wall. The sight stops him cold.
He raises the Lumix, snaps once and then again. He keeps going. Finally, he shows me the image on the camera’s screen, and I see what he sees: not simply an abandoned table and chair, but something painterly, something out of the realm of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth—a silvery hint of sunlight, a ghost trailing on the wall. There’s sadness there. The frame is full of questions. What do all these remnants mean? Was this the end of someone’s story?
It feels like something in that frame, and he’s relieved. “There are some nights where the sky is the limit, where I’ve taken four hundred or as little as ten. But of those four hundred there can be zero,” he says. In other words, he knows to be cautiously optimistic. It’s the waiting that’s nerve-racking—that drive home hovering between anticipation and result—the hope that he has captured what was conveyed. There’s a piece of mood that has to go with the image, some essence of LA escaping.
What the work seems to most skillfully convey about LA is that it can’t be both destination and dream—though we all struggle to make it so. These images, procured through patience, through slowing the city down, reveal that conundrum.
“LA has this real end-of-the-road feel to it,” McCollister reflects. “It’s such an undeniable destination point for so many types of people—rich, poor, talented, untalented. You come because you need something. And sometimes you have to wait a very long time. And sometimes the waiting can drive you crazy.”
Around 130 years ago, a man visited Lake Tahoe looking for a bargain.
The Comstock Lode, that sublimely rich vein of silver near Virginia City, had made Elias “Lucky” Baldwin a man of wealth and property. The old-growth forests of the Tahoe Basin had provided wood for his mines. Much of the forest was gone, and he bore responsibility for its destruction. Now he turned his sights to the south shore. He walked among trees so big they were like monuments to a passing era. Something inside of him moved.
Speeding across the lake on a chilly day, June 1958. photograph courtesy of Jim French.
He bought a south shore hotel, and later built his own resort here, named Tallac for a nearby peak. Over the next years he bought land, far more than he needed—eight thousand acres in all. He issued a statement that hardly makes sense for a Comstock millionaire: “My land acquisition will save this vast forest from the beauty-destroying ax of the woodsman so that the magnificent pines and cedars may be admired by generations to come.” He seems not to have understood the irony, but he was not the first man to experience a conversion once his fortune was made.
Baldwin wasn’t lying, and he cared nothing for public relations. In future years he would suffer severe financial reversals, but he never logged his eight thousand acres. Scarcely educated, Lucky Baldwin was a frontier rogue, a product of the pre-railroad West, and a great lover of opulent display. Yet the magnificence of the south shore tamed him. The resort he built at Tallac was a model of elegance, decorum, and restraint. His private residence was a one-story cottage with two pines growing through the roof, literally; he had his builders work around the trees, a gesture that perfectly symbolizes his attitude toward “his” forest.
Recently, I found myself on the south shore often, because a publisher I was working with thought a book about Tahoe might be worth printing. The book would explain why controversies about the lake are so harsh. During my research, I came to believe that the landscape itself has a say.
Nature, even in this century, controls us more than we think. At Tahoe, nature allows us to live only within its own margins, which limit how we think about the place. Take Baldwin’s resort. The location made his design choices for him, led him to build a low-key resort in classic rustic architecture: steep shingle roofs, walls of unpainted wood, nearly all materials of local origin. Yes, he was copying earlier styles—but why those styles, out of all the others available? Why not something more garish? Baldwin could have built a comic opera nightmare, a castle like Mad King Ludwig’s in Bavaria. Yet the forest led him in another direction.
To understand Tahoe is to understand that it was, early in its history, deemed a work of art. Along with Yellowstone, Yosemite and other masterworks, it was placed at the top of an aesthetic scale and made the subject of comparison. John Muir commented that “its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any.” Joseph LeConte, stopping by the lake while returning from Yosemite—and so having seen a few natural wonders lately—said that the lake created in him “a never-ceasing and ever-increasing sense of joy, which naturally grows into love.”
Lake Tahoe around 1908. photograph by Geo. R. Lawrence Co., courtesy of Library of Congress.
Compare another deep blue lake not far away. The lake is not famous, but its name is: Donner, named for the emigrant party that spent the winter of 1846 trapped there. The Donner Party was short of food from the start, and eventually, as one of them recalled, they were “without anything to eat but the dead.”
If only they could have eaten the irony their story represents. The town of Truckee has grown to reach out and lasso the lake with vacation homes. Most of the lakeshore is somebody’s backyard, with docks for jet skis or boats engineered for maximum speed, noise, and pollution. Donner Lake is totally given over to human consumption, overwhelmed by recreation. “Keep Tahoe Blue” is a common sticker on California Jeeps and Volvos, yet rarely will you hear of environmentalists targeting Donner Lake, or see a bumper sticker that says “Don’t Cannibalize Donner.” Tahoe is special, and not just because of its size. It is more esteemed, nearer the sacred, even though the two lakes are not radically different. But here, expectation is crucial.
“I measure all lakes by Tahoe,” Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. He compares Tahoe to Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee, and finds both wanting. He visited the Tahoe basin in the early 1860s, and honors the lake, in Roughing It, as a magnum opus: “The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing.” He elsewhere called Tahoe the “masterpiece of the universe.” The lake does what landscape paintings did, in his era at least. It teaches, enriches, relaxes, and inspires.
It is easy to look at Tahoe today and wonder what all the fuss (“Keep Tahoe Blue”) is about. Given that most of the shore was logged flat long ago, and given its present heavy development, the slogan makes as much sense as a bumper sticker that demands we “Keep Vegas Wholesome.” The shore of Tahoe, crowded with gambling joints, mostly looks about as wild and pure as Disney World.
The Tahoe that Twain and other pioneers saw was as pure as a North American landscape could be, and their way of seeing it has never died. Parts of the basin still resemble what they saw, but some people have higher ambitions for Tahoe. The political brawls that happen here arise when those ambitions are frustrated.
Relaxing on the shore with a beer, 1960. photograph courtesy of Olivia Warnecke.
Recreation managers sometimes talk about “purist” versus “social” visitors. Purists go to the outdoors as to a museum, to relax, to learn, to be inspired and enriched. The social camper is there for fun, and may see nothing special in the setting. The landscapes of North America can be set on a scale, depending on whether they appeal to the purist or the social visitor. Among the remote national parks, Denali and the backcountry of Yosemite and Yellowstone weigh in at the purist end. National Recreation Areas like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, heavy on the houseboat parties, are wholly social. Every wild landscape finds its spot on the continuum. We instinctively place artwork on this same kind of scale: difficult, expensive, quality art for the purist; “low,” easy-to-comprehend art for everyone else.
Tahoe started at the top, along with the art of Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt, or to go farther afield, Rembrandt and Shakespeare, and is now near the level of the airport thriller and Dogs Playing Poker. For most visitors, contemplation is not on the agenda. Tahoe is a place of adrenaline-soaked thrills, gambling, skiing, parasailing. The purist objects to the heavy development of places like South Lake Tahoe, but objects all the more to its recreational purposes. Bad enough that there are high-rises here; worse that they are casinos.
The factional battles would look mythic if they didn’t rage so often in everyday reality. The border between Nevada and California, running down the center of the lake, marks the no-man’s-land between two characteristic American philosophies. Nevada is the purest bastion of frontier libertarianism, a place of legalized everything, swinging uneasily between admirable self-rule and wretched excess. California is the national center of tree-hugging progressivism. On one side, there’s not enough government; on the other, too much. The two sides shake hands over Tahoe and come out fighting.
Let’s take opening a business as one example. In California, the new business operator needs a squad of lawyers and a reinforced platoon of tax accountants. In Nevada—to borrow from a Tahoe realtor’s website—there is “No Sharing of Information with IRS. No Corporate Income Tax. No Gross Receipts Tax. No Franchise Tax. No Inventory Tax.” The general attitude in Nevada is, Have at it.
But Tahoe is not a postmodern construct. It is a real place, and it has a say in these matters. The life in these glacial mountains is as seasonal as it ever was. Humans have had to adapt. And thinking back to Lucky Baldwin, we know that Tahoe can change people so deeply that their behavior completely departs from anything they’ve done before.
On a June day, just before my Tahoe research project blew apart for lack of funding, I stood on the beach at Camp Richardson, near the town of South Lake Tahoe. A local garage band, hired to play there, burst upon the scene. The music must have been audible ten miles out to sea. Halfway through the set, the band slammed into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” giving the lyrics a local spin: “On we sweep with threshing oar / Our only goal will be the Tahoe shore!”
At that moment, I no longer cared if Tahoe stayed blue. This region was, I decided, a quarantine zone, my private term for those places in the wild parts of our country where all the tourists go. Old Faithful is a quarantine zone; so is Niagara Falls; so is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. There, people and cars and “visitor facilities” are held together like atoms in a molecule, because, in fact, people enjoy being jammed together. In the California Sierra, Tahoe is the greatest quarantine zone, rivaled only by Yosemite Valley.
The garage band drove me down shore, toward old, less-developed Tahoe. The remains of Baldwin’s Tallac Resort, removed by his daughter Anita in the 1920s when it became a financial drain, lie near Camp Richardson. The Forest Service maintains that the resort’s ecological impact disturbed her; Anita had, perhaps, inherited her father’s unusual priorities. The demolition crew did a thorough job, but traces remain. I kicked around like a tourist at a Greco-Roman dump, trying to piece it together. I ignored the forest until an odor crossed my path. Butterscotch, or vanilla—always hard to say. That meant Jeffrey pines. The Jeffrey is common in the Sierra, and identifying one is easy: bury your nose deep in the bark and inhale. If it smells like butterscotch or vanilla, it’s a Jeffrey. I always check over my shoulder to see if anyone’s watching when I make this test, because it must look odd.
I entered a stand of the trees. They got bigger as I walked away from the shore. I thought there must be some other species involved, but each individual proved to be a Jeffrey, until I found myself within a stand of giants. The trees were three or four hundred years old. They looked like sequoias, but they were all Jeffreys. I walked on, disbelieving, as if I had found a temple in that Greco-Roman dump. Quarantine areas are often beautiful, in places—frustrating for purists.
They are the only old-growth Jeffrey pines I have ever seen. They are here because of Lucky Baldwin. He bought this tract in 1880, when forest nearly everywhere else around the lake was going or gone. Because of his foresight, parts of the Tallac Historic Site look like Redwood National Park. Baldwin’s jaundiced eye was an unlikely place to have found anything but dollar signs, and standing there, I could only imagine what spoke to him, what made him see this place differently. I suspect it was the place itself. It had power once. It still does. Tahoe is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a museum, playground, business, or church, depending on who you are.
In Tahoe, the environment shapes humanity, not just vice versa. Think of it as a conversation. We tell the place that it will have to change, but the place tells us where and how to build our houses. When we ignore its demands, we pay the price. During one of my research trips, I drove up Fallen Leaf Lake and over the high ground to the east, where I seethed again at the sheer sprawl of greater South Lake Tahoe, and the perfect sameness of its vacation homes, done in a style I think of as Total Wood. And one week later, all those homes were swept away in the Angora Fire, a terrifyingly intense blaze that destroyed over 300 structures. Total Wood burns, and the only way to stop it from doing so is to cut down all the trees around the houses. Or not build in the forest in the first place.
Let us also consider the habit Tahoe people have of building into the sides of slopes. It is a source of grim mirth among geologists, for an undercut slope always collapses eventually. No matter what Rube Goldberg bulwark you have constructed to protect your house, the mountain is coming inside. If the bulwark has held for twenty years, check back in another twenty.
Up here, ice and gravity and fire call all the shots. It can be rough, yes. But some people find that roughness beautiful.
I started by calling Tahoe art, and ended by making it sound like a plague-ward. While the most gaudy works of art that nature produces usually turn into quarantine zones, it’s also true that the tacky tourist trap can keep the backcountry—starting twenty feet past the last dumpster—as unpopulated as that grove of Jeffrey pines. So I would simply like to say a word in favor of those relatively small, compact nuthouses: they serve to keep the rest of the landscape relatively sane—and as unshaved as it was when Lucky Baldwin strolled through it, checkbook in hand.
Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.
The empty houses I see everywhere—foreclosures that happened to my friends and neighbors and family—left me for many mornings bereft. That is the word. Reverse mortgages gone wrong, refusals to renegotiate bad loans given to people who kept getting turned down for regular loans, and again and again, people who lost their jobs—teachers, air conditioning salespeople, pest control men, custodians, contractors, landscapers, day laborers. My neighbors and relatives—gone.
Five on my own block, twelve more on my way to work. Yes, I counted them, because I was so shocked at the boarded-over windows, like blank eyes, and the milkweed and foxtails standing in the front yards, tall as purposefully grown crops. And then the countless others I saw while driving around southern California—all those homes that were no longer home broke my heart.
I became obsessed with looking at them. In my inland community, as in Lucy Puls’s haunting, elegiac farewells to rooms once lived in, the houses range from contemporary mansions to old wood-frame bungalows. Foreclosure, toxic loans, bundled mortgages, underwater, short sale, repo—such clinical, bloodless words, an entire language now familiar to Americans, and it doesn’t matter whether wealthy or not. Abandoned is the word. The empty shell.
Rich, poor, in the middle—wholesale blind-eyed windows for everyone because of “robo-signed” foreclosure papers, because banks so often lent inattention and indifference. Recently, a couple trashed their sumptuous custom-built home in a brand-new tract northeast of San Diego; they had been foreclosed on, and they stripped the house of fixtures, bashed holes in the walls, destroyed the rock façades, filled the pool with uprooted trees and bushes, and even took off the garage door. The house had resembled a castle, the drawbridge gone now.
But down my street, no one had bought beyond their means. The longtime owners lost their jobs. These were two-bedroom homes built in the 1920s and ’30s and’40s, and my neighborhood looked like every other older community in a California city—narrow streets lined with bungalows and stucco cottages, gravel or cement driveways, fruit trees and porches and palm trees wearing shaggy girdles of ivy.
I peeked inside the house next door to me, and it looked exactly like some of Puls’s photos. Hard living had made the carpet into earth, and the haunting of pictures left clean rectangles on the dirty walls. Curtains like gauze shrouds.
All over southern California, people left behind black plastic bags in driveways and rooms, like slugs piled upon themselves. Inside had to be clothing, pots, toys—things I’d seen held, worn, and loved. Choices made to leave them behind.
I felt a feral conquering was just at hand. In the dead brown yards, where sprinklers were turned off and the lawns and tended shrubs withered, the neo-native, invasive plants of California began to assert themselves in the winter rains. Filaree with tiny purple flowers and corkscrew seeds; wild oats like shivery spangles of green and then gold in the wind; tumbleweeds big as Volkswagens that were no longer parked there.
Then an entire shadow corps began to descend upon the homes—mattresses on the porches (pillows stolen over and over off my own porch furniture) and homeless men sleeping on back steps. Wild cats inside the crawl spaces. New industry—the caretakers of the discarded—came in trucks with men who hauled off dead trees, cut man-high weeds and drained black-water pools. On the next block, a squatter sold off a rock wall, stone by stone. Who bought them?
Next door, the century-old avocado tree lived because I watered it over the fence; the foxtails were so lush they sent thousands of sharp gold spurs over the sidewalks, a few always attaching to my dog’s paws. Sometimes, I took the dog up a cement walkway, past the filaree gone to seed, saying the word in my head—filaree! My favorite wildflower in the vacant lots of my 1970s childhood, when no houses around me were ever empty, when California was building mile after mile of modest ranch houses like mine and all were filled with children. My dog and I walked around the porch so I could see into a side window, see the inside of the house where my neighbor lived for thirty years, a woman who bought Girl Scout cookies from my daughter, just so that I could remember the built-in china hutch from the 1930s, from the last Depression, from a different time.
In June 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to the United States with two big priorities in mind: meeting with President Obama and touring Silicon Valley. Earlier in the spring, Medvedev’s government unveiled plans to build its own version of California’s high-tech capital in a woodsy area outside Moscow. The announcement made a splash, with slick presentations of buildings designed by celebrity architects and an appearance by Hollywood actor and prolific Twitter user Ashton Kutcher. For a Russia whose economy remained heavily dependent on oil-and-gas extraction, and who had lost its brainiest engineers to the more entrepreneur-friendly tech regions of the US and Europe, coming to Silicon Valley to learn its secrets became a first, essential step towards economic transformation.
Fifty years before, another foreign leader made the same kind of Silicon Valley pilgrimage. Visiting the United States in 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle asked to tour the research parks emerging amid the farms and orchards south of San Francisco. As his motorcade rolled through the California sunshine, de Gaulle noted the area’s distinctive combination of science-based industry, university research activity, and quiet suburban neighborhoods that formed a self-contained innovation ecosystem. By the last year of de Gaulle’s presidency, France had established its own high-tech city, Sophia Antipolis, along the Côte d’Azur.
From de Gaulle to Medvedev, California’s Silicon Valley has been a place to which the world has looked for inspiration. The runaway economic success of a region that venture capitalist John Doerr once called “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet” has spawned countless imitators. Many have tried to reproduce the look and feel of the low-rise, lushly landscaped world of Silicon Valley in unlikely places. The globe has become dotted with nouveau Silicon Valleys, Forests, Hills, Orchards, Seaboards, and Fens. In the process, the Valley joined Hollywood as a powerfully alluring symbol of California, becoming global shorthand for innovation, entrepreneurship, and striking it rich.
Some of these overseas efforts to recreate a little piece of the Golden State became successful, although success came slowly. Many others did not. And despite a half century of attempts to build the next Silicon Valley, no other region has managed to dislodge the original Valley from its place atop the high-tech food chain.
Silicon Valley’s preeminence springs from its origins in a very particular time (the early Cold War) and place (northern California), where a combination of national military spending and suburban infrastructure investment brought huge new flows of money and people to what had been a sleepy landscape of orchards and commuter towns. Add into this mix the presence of powerful research institutions—most notably Stanford University—and an unusually risk-tolerant business culture that welcomed and nurtured iconoclasts and dreamers, and a high-tech capital was born.
Others, not fully recognizing the importance of these cultural and historical frameworks, have assumed at their starting point that all they had to do was “build a research park, and they will come.” Yet no government or individual consciously set out to build a science city in Silicon Valley; it was the result of national economic transformations, local capacities, and a few lucky accidents. It’s little wonder that its magic has been so difficult to replicate.
What the quixotic global quest to build the next Silicon Valley has managed to do, however, is to export a distinctive architectural aesthetic and business culture to other parts of the world. In doing so, the process has underscored the degree to which the Valley’s success was not only an American phenomenon, but a Californian one—rooted in this state’s history, its politics, and its culture.
Take all those research parks, for example. The reflexive first step in building any would-be high-tech capital has been to develop self-contained and verdant industrial real estate, preferably adjacent to or affiliated with a research university. Research parks are not a California creation, but the idea of creating a university-connected park certainly is. It sprang from the minds of Stanford University administrators in the early 1950s, who concocted the idea in large part because the university owned a ranchero-size parcel of adjacent land that it was unable to sell.
The architecture in the Stanford research park echoed both the Mission Revival campus buildings and the sun-drenched, Eichler-style modernism of adjacent residential neighborhoods. The manicured grounds and their ample parking channeled the automotive golden age of mid-century California. The park’s success as an early incubator of technology firms led other regions and nations to adapt this particular design aesthetic, often with few alterations. Red- tile roofs and palm trees dot the global technology landscape today, from Southern England to Southern China, evocative visual cues that these are places where innovation happens.
Global Silicon Valleys have encouraged the adaptation of a Californian aesthetic beyond the research park as well. Taking note of the Valley’s location amid an affluent residential suburb, many imitators of the past six decades have incorporated similarly deluxe residential developments of single-family villas and ranch houses into their plans. Today, subdivisions catering to high-tech workers, like Bangalore’s Palm Meadows and Shenzhen’s Mission Hills, not only evoke California in their nomenclature but also in the appearance of their houses, the layout of their streets, and the amenities offered their residents. Upstart Silicon Valleys are hardly the only places worldwide that feature these landscapes of wealth, but they often functioned as the leading edge of this type of development, and they reinforced the powerful cultural connection between the affluent California suburb and the technology economy.
Another California export is the laid-back, egalitarian, and highly networked business culture for which the Valley is famous. This, too, has deep roots. From the San Francisco Gold Rush on, the Bay Area has been a magnet for the brilliant and the odd. By the time commercial opportunities for technology began to open up in the late 1960s, it was home to a cohort of investors who were unusually tolerant of risk and willing to bet on untested talent. No other place in the country or the world has been able to reproduce this entrepreneurial ecosystem on the same scale. Top-down, government-fueled efforts to build silicon cities proved notoriously bad at doing so. Instead, the fluid, rapidly moving, technophile ethos of the Valley spread through the movement of people and the globalization of firms.
Again, characteristics unique to the Golden State played a role here. California’s significant Asian and South Asian populations, a large number of whom came here as foreign students, played a major role in the blossoming of the original Valley and in exporting its products and its culture elsewhere. As India and China liberalized their economies after the 1980s, immigrant entrepreneurs increasingly moved back and forth across the Pacific, playing instrumental roles in “new Silicon Valleys” from Shanghai to Chennai. Ultimately, the regions that have been among the more successful in creating high-tech clusters of their own are ones with a little bit of California—and quite a few Californians—in them.
They also are places that entered the high-tech race with a set of regional advantages much like the Bay Area’s. Take Bangalore, for example. Long before it became known as “India’s Silicon Valley,” Bangalore already had a reputation as a low-rise garden city with a pleasant climate, strong technical universities, and a concentration of public- and private-sector research activity—the result of two generations of concerted government effort to make the Bangalore region a hub of scientific activity. Bangalore isn’t alone. Other high-tech success stories have urban histories with strikingly similar characteristics. In California and beyond, new-economy triumphs usually have old-economy roots.
The bad news for those who would like to become “the next Silicon Valley” is that the Valley has proven remarkably resilient. Ultimately, the secret of Silicon Valley is that it wasn’t a consciously planned silicon city. It exists because of big things—like Cold War spending patterns, sustained GDP growth, and large-scale migration and immigration. It also exists because of unique local characteristics like risk-tolerant capital, entrepreneurial leadership, and good weather. It grew organically. It had room for happy accidents and lucky breaks.
The good news is that it is no longer the 1950s. Technologies that came out of the Valley allow global communication and collaboration on an unprecedented scale. There is no longer a lone high-tech capital where all stages of production occur. Silicon Valley is a network. It is a global supply chain in which many different cities play a critical role—from Bangalore to Bucharest, São Paulo to Stockholm.
These cities also happen to be doing some exciting things to reinvent the silicon city model. For Silicon Valley may be a unique ecosystem for technology creation, but it falls short on many fronts in terms of functioning well as an urban place. It is haphazardly planned and economically polarized. It is crowded and car-dependent to a degree that lowers its quality of life and degrades the natural beauty that lured people there in the first place. Effectively, Silicon Valley succeeded because it created a bubble of high-tech prosperity that kept other uses and other people at a safe distance. It also succeeded because it was good at disguising the less attractive and more polluting aspects of its business.
The exciting thing about the globalization of technology is that it is opening up space for new kinds of urban models—ones that are in turn shaping the original Silicon Valley’s urban future. Denser, walkable high-tech corridors in Singapore and Seoul are providing design inspiration for policymakers and planners in Palo Alto and San Jose. Architects are joining techies and CEOs in moving back and forth between California and the rest of the high-tech world, and redefining the technology workplace in the process.
So while other countries should not give up on the quest to become the next Silicon Valley, they should take its history seriously. And they might want to look to places other than the Valley for design inspiration. High-tech innovation doesn’t need a sleek suburban office building, and the knowledge worker might not want to live in a California-style subdivision. True high-tech magic comes from other things.
Et in Arcadia ego says the famous inscription on the tomb in Nicholas Poussin’s paintings of that title. Even in Paradise there am I. He painted this tomb twice, surrounded by a group of shepherds and a woman (possibly a goddess), as though he himself were wrestling with the meanings. The assertion is sometimes thought to be spoken by Death itself; or perhaps the speaker is the dead shepherd whose tomb is being inspected. Whether the text refers to death or to one dead friend, the tomb is two kinds of intrusion into the landscape.
Growing is also dying, even in Arcadia, even in springtime, when the new grass pushes through the old, when the trees and flowers feed on the soil made out of life and digested deaths, where mortality itself, of lambs and shepherds alike, gives life the poignancy that heaven lacks. Poussin’s Arcadia is a little rough and rustic—not tender shoots but lean trees, and in the distance, sharp crags. And in the middle of it all, the architectural intrusion of the big, heavy, rectilinear stone monument in the landscape—a trace of industry, of a labor far harder than herding, of something permanent in a landscape of change.
We have our own tombs throughout the coastal Bay Area, each of which could readily be inscribed et in Arcadia ego. In the paradises I have hiked so often—among the deer carcasses, squashed salamanders, the pellets of coyote and fox spoor in which the fur of mice and rabbits is compressed—there are seventy or so bunker complexes whose blunt concrete forms are an apt modern echo of that shepherd’s tomb. These bunkers commemorate the violent death of war, in thought if not in deed.
There they are, along the beaches, roads, and the trails of the superlatively beautiful Marin Headlands, to be stumbled upon by hikers and day trippers who will stop for a moment to think more somber thoughts, pause like Poussin’s shepherds to contemplate monuments and death. Outdated even as they were being built, the bunkers are monuments to a particular imagination of danger and fear. In a way, they are honorable monuments to the idea that wars involve direct confrontation, and that the US could face the same threats it has imposed on other nations. Soldiers sat in the bunkers waiting for ships to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire on those ships and to be fired upon. No ships arrived, however, and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.
“We are here because wars are now fought in outer space,” said Jennifer Dowley, Director of the Headlands Center for the Arts in the 1980s, when the center was still a fresh arrival in what was a fairly new national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not far away, the Star Wars missile defense system was being actively pursued at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The park is unusual because it’s a large amount of open space, almost 75,000 acres, in one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also unusual because its focus is neither historical nor natural, but an uneasy melding of the two. The history is rarely examined, though its evidence is everywhere in the chunks of concrete embedded throughout the landscape of the park. These are the dozens of bunkers and related structures, crumbling souvenirs of the wars that never were or that were waged elsewhere. And yet, war is here in California in a thousand ways. Even in the Headlands there is war.
Dowley spoke in Building 944, a spacious military barracks built in 1907, when the Headlands was an adjunct of the Pacific headquarters of the US Army across the Golden Gate at San Francisco’s Presidio and Fort Mason. From those headquarters US military action from the Indian Wars to the Korean and Vietnam wars was directed; during the Second World War alone, more than a million soldiers were said to have embarked from Fort Mason for the Pacific theater of war. The barracks, with the other handsome buildings arrayed in a horseshoe that fits into the hillside, were used for training soldiers who’d be deployed across the Pacific. The Bay Area has always been militarized, always involved with wars, though most of the actual wars were fought elsewhere.
If you walk down Building 944’s worn, handsome, wooden staircase, out the big doors, and head west past the old bowling alley and chapel, the eucalyptuses and the Monterey cypresses, you come to a Nike missile launch site tucked into a depression that the road curves around. It was designed to fire nuclear-tipped weapons at incoming missiles launched from overseas. In the 1950s the threat was thought to be Russia, but by the late 1960s the nuclear war fantasies that generated the preventative architecture and weapons included China. By then, the idea that a missile could take out a missile was itself something of a fantasy. There was no particular reason to situate missile depots directly on the coast. The Marin County Planning Department put together a staff report (probably written by my father) in 1969 that questioned “whether the probable risk of accident isn’t greater than the probable risk from the kind of attack these missiles are supposed to defend against.” Fortunately, neither accident nor attack ever came before the warheads were taken away. What remains are busily unaesthetic structures surrounded by cyclone fencing.
So ignore the Nike facility and keep walking. You can choose the narrow, uneven trail that takes you through tall green banks of willows, coyote bush, brambles, and poison oak, on past the lagoon that pelicans, ducks, seagulls and other birds frequent, to the sand of Rodeo Beach, the cove beyond the lagoon and between two high shoulders of coastline. If you go left, or south, you’ll come to the bunkers. If you go north, you’ll pass the many buildings of Fort Cronkhite and arrive at the old road that leads to more bunkers. They are embedded in the landscape like shrapnel or buckshot in a body, the ruins of old fears and old versions of war, the architecture of a violence that was first of all a violence against the earth, with concrete poured dozens of feet deep into slopes that were also home to rare species and prone to erosion when disrupted.
These welts of concrete have shifted, cracked, crumbled, and in some cases slid down eroded hillsides into the surf, but the majority of them are still in place. If you imagine them as an assault on the earth, then the earth has fought back, with foliage that has half-hidden and choked some of them, with the forces of water and temperature that drove cracks in the massive structures, with erosion that has dislodged and tilted some at crazy angles. But they have a harsh beauty of their own, in the simple geometry of the domes and semicircular walls and cylindrical pits of the gun emplacements, in the steps that take you up to the roofs of some of the structures, and particularly in the long tunnels that frame views of land, sea and sky.
They have the shapes of art-school exercises in drawing cubes, spheres, cones, and cylinders with shading, and they are the color of old pencil sketches. Poussin, with his passion for simple monumental form, would have loved them, though he would have inscribed them all et in Arcadia ego lest the hasty hiker miss the point. And they have the seduction of all ruins, the seduction of the past, of lost history, of irrecoverable time, of the sense that something happened here and then ceased. (In Poussin’s landscape it’s the tomb, not the trees, that invites contemplation.) It’s only when you imagine the dreary discomfort of soldiers stationed in them, the actual big guns that pointed toward the bay, and what a war might have looked like on these shores, whether like the bombardment of Fort Sumner at the beginning of the Civil War or the Normandy Invasion toward the end of the Second World War, that the romance diminishes. Or does it?
As Jennifer Dowley put it, wars are now fought in outer space. A nation under attack is usually attacked inside its national borders. Troops may surge across a border, as they did at the outset of both of the Bush wars on Iraq—across their border, not ours—but both those were accompanied by the kind of aerial bombardment that ignores national boundaries to go far inside the country. And aerial bombardment is often directed at civilians. Thus war, from Mussolini’s bombing of North Africa and the fascist bombing of Guernica, became profoundly asymmetrical. The old idea of a confrontation between two sides is blown away; in its place is an attacker whose blows can be parried but who cannot be attacked directly.
Missiles and more monstrous new inventions, like pilotless drones, are even directed from afar, often from within the attacking nation. Afghanistan cannot fire missiles back at the headquarters of the drone operators near Las Vegas, Nevada, though in the all-out nuclear wars imagined during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR would send nuclear bombs to strategic targets, military and civilian, within the other nation’s boundaries while trying to intercept incoming missiles. The heroic idea of combat, of bodily skill and equal engagement, of Achilles or Roland, or even Wellington and Grant facing risk with physical courage, has some relevance to the ground troops in some places, but nothing to do with the death rained from the skies by men whose daily lives more resemble those of video gamers. The Headlands bunkers are, among other things, an old daydream of an enemy you would face, one who could only hurt you by confronting you, by showing up.
The bunkers were built to defend us from wars that never quite arrived on these shores. Central California has been attacked by foreigners a few times, starting with invading Spanish and Mexican attacks on the native peoples, which consisted largely of skirmishes and one-sided brutalities (the big campaigns against Native Californians were elsewhere and later, run by Yankees in events such as the Modoc War and the Bloody Island Massacre). The indigenous peoples responded with attacks on the Missions, raids on ranchos, and other acts of self-defense and survival, including an incursion on Mission San Rafael. Events resembling European war with all its pageantry and weaponry came later, when the Spanish-speaking nominal citizens of Mexico had become part of the population to be invaded and displaced.
Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones’s fleet arrived in Monterey—then the capital of the Mexican province—on October 19, 1842. He demanded surrender and got it without firing a shot. Perhaps the fearsome arsenal of the five ships with a total of 116 big guns convinced the small population that resistance would be unpleasant. The next day, 150 Marines marched up the hill to the fort while the bands played “Yankee Doodle.” The invasion was premature and based on rumors of British competition for the northernmost portion of Mexico. A couple of days later, Jones withdrew his proclamation and acknowledged Mexican sovereignty before the soldiers dispatched from Los Angeles could make much progress up the coast.
Less than four years later, the Bear Flag Revolt began inland with the attack on Sonoma and the raising of a primitive version of what would become the California state flag. A few weeks into skirmishes by invading Yankees against resident Mexicans, Army Captain John C. Frémont—one of the few government men involved in the revolt—took twelve men with him on an American ship, the Moscow, that sailed south in the bay to the Presidio of San Francisco. The fort had been abandoned and there was no conflict, though there were some squabbles when they marched onward to the hamlet of Yerba Buena and took a few captives. There were larger battles further south as the revolt merged with the war on Mexico, but the Bay Area remained unscathed by major conflict. The newly American region was prepared for defense against coastal attack in the 1850s and 1860s, but the Civil War led to no violence—beyond duels such as the Broderick-Terry duel of 1859—in the locale. The fortifications then and a century later were built for conflicts that never arrived. They are the architecture of grim anticipation, of imagination of things to come.
During the Second World War, there were grounds to fear Japanese attack; in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seven enemy submarines patrolled the Pacific Coast. But Japan decided against a mainland attack for fear of reprisals. A false alert the following May caused the USS Colorado and the USS Maryland to sail out from the Golden Gate to defend the bay from attacks that never came. Late in the war, a Japanese fire balloon—a kind of incendiary device that floated across the Pacific—was shot down by a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane near Santa Rosa with no major damage reported. (Others landed in various places in the American West, and a few inflicted actual damage and a total of six deaths—a pregnant woman with her five children, out on a picnic: et in Arcadia ego). War was in the skies, and coastal fortifications were anachronistic.
The P-38 Lightning fighter was made by Lockheed when it was based in Burbank on the fringes of Los Angeles, back when Los Angeles was producing the airplanes to fight the war and the Bay Area was turning out a warship a day in its furiously productive shipyards. If we think of war as combat and casualties, then it has, with small exceptions such as the Ohlone and Miwok resistance to the Missions and the land grabs, been fought elsewhere. But if we think of it as a mindset, an economy, a way of life— a lot of things that add up to a system—then two things become as evident as a thirty-foot-thick chunk of concrete embedded amid the sticky monkeyflower and fragrant coast sage of the Headlands.
One is that the Bay Area is entrenched in and crucial to this system, with the University of California, Berkeley running the nation’s nuclear weapons programs since their inception, with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin (makers, once upon a time, of the Nike missile) clustered in Silicon Valley, and with the ring of old bases around the bay—Mare Island, Hunter’s Point, Alameda, Treasure Island, Hamilton, and the Presidio.
The other is that this system is mad. Its madness was perhaps most perfectly manifested in the soldiers or National Guardsmen in camouflage who patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge at one phase of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, a war that in its very name declared hostility not to a group or a nation but to an emotion, while seeking—with heavily armed men in civilian spaces such as Pennsylvania Station or the Golden Gate Bridge—to induce that very emotion in the public. That their desert camouflage only made them stand out, and that the threats to the bridge were sketchy and remote, while the men with semi-automatic weapons were evident and unnerving, articulates something about war as a state of being. The enemy may be remote, invisible, or even conceptual, but we, as a society devoted to war, see ourselves in a thousand mirrors, of which the bunkers are one.
The bunkers were both prophylactics against physical damage by an alien military and part of the damage that is the mindset of war—the mindset that induces fear and suspicion, that countenances sacrifices, destructions, and the willingness to engage in acts of violence, that damages a society before the enemy ever touches it. The military left radioactive waste behind at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards; rusting, leaking warships in the Mothball Fleet near Benicia; PCBs at 100,000 times the acceptable level, along with dioxins and other chemicals, on Treasure Island; and more. The Headlands and much of the rest of the GGNRA got off lightly, larded only with cement and rust, not with chemicals and radiation.
What all these areas have in common is their status as monuments to public expenditure by those in charge of protecting us. There is, for example, the Sea Shadow, a stealth ship built at extraordinary expense in the 1980s and then abandoned without ever being used or being useful. The upkeep of the Mothball Fleet, the prototype, is a corollary to the lack of money for libraries and schools in towns like Richmond, whose African-American population mostly arrived during the Second World War for shipyard jobs and stayed even when the economy withered. It remains a depressed area, despite the growth of the Chevron refineries there that have been refining Iraqi crude since early in the current war. Chevron, whose board member Condoleezza Rice became our Secretary of State and led us into that war, Condoleezza who is back at Stanford, Stanford that helped generate Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley which has done so much to develop the new technologies of war. War is everywhere for those who have eyes to see, but in some places it’s hard to miss.
It is good that the bunkers are in the beautiful open space of the coast, and good that one of the region’s native sons, Alex Fradkin, has photographed them so eloquently. They should be there. We should pause amid the myriad pleasures that this Mediterranean climate and protected landscape afford to contemplate the presence of death and our own implication in the business. Until something profound changes in the United States, war will never be far away, and even on the most paradisiacal meander we do well to stop to remember this.
Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95
William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55
The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.
That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.
It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.
For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”
Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.
They had to shower / They had to eat i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state dams the
You drink gallons of it you know you do
There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:
Future of poetry there’s a stream between a & b as i write
this a dream
of a west that would outlast us
To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.
Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.
These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B