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California: the Beauty of Disaster

August 16th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  6 Comments


Staging on the Russian River

Last week–the same one in which Theodore was nearly abandoned on this blog, left to do all the important widget-making without us other writers–I was in Northern California.

I have lived there for eleven years, on and off and on again, from adolescence into my 20’s. If I often feel like I’m in forced exile from the Florida Keys, my first home, the emotions are a little more complicated with California.

First, let me say that it is an astoundingly beautiful state, still and always. We went to a wedding up on the border of Yosemite, hiked to tiered waterfalls, did yoga in a meadow (like good Californians), ate delicious meat-burgers at the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, sat with my grandparents along the fog-wrapped western shore of San Francisco, worked for several days in the red-brick-and-blue-sky refuge of Stanford University, and ended it all with a day of lolling down the Russian River with the kids and their Japanese cousins, eating karaage and M&Ms during stops on the gravelly banks.

Given these many gifts of the state, it’s hard to accept that California is also a constant calamity. Disasters of God and governance, all the time. It deserves much of what it gets: how much sympathy can there be for a race of man who not only elect a literally plastic action figure to be their leader, but whose legislature may actually be worse than the one in Washington, DC? These good voters also passed Proposition 13, which ensured financial bankruptcy in perpetuity, and more recently supported Proposition 8, which was merely a sign of moral bankruptcy.

It is also tempting to blame these people for their many natural disasters, given that they love to build their homes on the sides of slidey hills and in tinder-dry woodlands. But after a week like we had, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to get closer to the land of California (and perhaps farther from the Prop 8-voting people of California). So I’ll leave you with a poem from the Central Coast poet Robinson Jeffers about the beauty of disaster, which to me gets to the heart of the beauty of California.

Fire on the Hills, by Robinson Jeffers

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than men.


  1. Jason says:

    August 16th, 2010at 12:54 pm(#)

    It’s hard to deal with the contradictions – I can drive from my north San Diego county surfer’s paradise beach house to the Cormac McCarthy-esque nightmare of the Salton Sea in the span of a couple of hours. California’s a hot mess, as they say.

  2. Nathan says:

    August 16th, 2010at 1:04 pm(#)

    Yeah, I was feeling the same way on the drive back from Russian River: Saturday evening, shouldn’t be a big deal, and the 101 through Petaluma had traffic that would drive a New York cabbie insane. We’re talking Petaluma, not the Long Island Expressway. Sigh.

  3. Matt says:

    August 16th, 2010at 1:16 pm(#)

    How do you say 1010WINS in California? 1010KINS?

  4. Nathan says:

    August 16th, 2010at 1:18 pm(#)

    They have nothing like 1010WINS out there. Partially because there’s no alternate routes. You can’t game the traffic. It’s 101 or 80 or 280, and they’re all coming from different directions.

  5. eeo says:

    August 28th, 2010at 2:26 am(#)

    As someone who has now lived in California for almost 10 years, I have to say we get a bad rap. In reality, we are just a microcosm of the rest of the country. The coast is covered in cities, inland is rural. Almost every single national issue is playing itself out in California. We have extreme wealth and extreme poverty. We have almost every nationality. Gated suburbs? yup. Ethnic slums? yup. Gangs? Mansions? Cul de Sacs? High Rises? Yup. I don’t think there’s anything that can be said of California that couldn’t be said about the country at large. We lack cohesion as a state in the same way that we lack cohesion as a nation-and that makes us impossible to govern. Because, the truth of the matter is, one-size-fits-all laws just don’t really work. We are too diverse to make any sense as a whole.


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