The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History
Following publication of the Colorado River book, I wrote two books that dealt with the interior West, Sagebrush Country and Fallout. I then focused my attention on my home state of California where I had been living since 1960. Like most Californians, I came from elsewhere and was a transient within the state, having moved fourteen times in thirty years. I have lived in northern, southern, and central California. Since 1977, my home has been adjacent to the San Andreas Fault. This book initiated my enquiry into how landscape determines human behavior. I posed questions and supplied answers in the text:
What is California?
"Volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, earth slides, droughts, wildfires, glaciers, and earthquakes have periodically shifted, or scoured the land throughout geologic time. These wild displacements punctuated and shaped the human history of California. Transient peoples with different skin colors, languages, and customs constantly warred with one another from the time, some thousands of years ago, when the second tribe of ancient Indians displaced the first grouping from a watered valley. This legacy of violence and conflict has filtered down through the years to the most recent Los Angeles riot and earthquake.
"There are other common attributes that cross provincial lines and bind the state together. California was conceived of as an island myth, and according to geologists, it will end as an island. Separateness has always been one of its basic characteristics. Geologically and historically the state is young. Ever since it was first represented accurately on a map, in 1846, California has been a known center of incessant activity. The land and people are still in constant motion."
"Finally, it is a richly textured land of great extremes and extreme changes: the highest mountains, the lowest valley, the oldest life-forms, the youngest population, great wealth, grinding poverty, the tallest trees, dwarf forests, abundant water, widespread aridity, startling fecundity, great beauty, and violent death. The landscape is deceptive. Great pleasure and pain ripple across its surface. This region of moderate climate and gentle, flower-dappled hills can beguile or, alternatively, burst into deadly flames. Long, long after the end, the fossil remains of this once-great civilization will consist of a thin layer of ashes embedded in the floor of a desert playa."
What is the best way to deal with the extreme disasters that are so prevalent in this state?
"I came to the conclusion that there were only three options: depart California, take up religion, or learn to live and enjoy one day at a time. For various reasons, I ruled out the first two alternatives. I am working on the last. We are criticized by outsiders for living this way, but I see it as environmental adaptation."
With this book, as you can see, my writing became more personal and I was more aware of the fragility of life, perhaps because I had witnessed so much violence as a journalist and my home had burned to the ground in 1988. It was time to investigate my immediate surroundings. I have found that I need a sense of place and knowledge of that place's history in order to locate myself. I had found my place in the wider West, now it was time to shrink the geographical and cultural limits to my home base. The fact that natural and human history should be written as one whole, and not separated, occurred to me in the early 1990s when I read the following quote from Emerson's essay on nature: "All the facts of natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life." I had tired of the traditional environmental or conservationist approach of documenting the ills wrought upon nature by humans. I wanted to probe how nature impacted humans. Nature will take care of itself and survive, albeit in different forms; but humans, like all species, will fade away and be supplanted by other species. This fact had been impressed upon me when I had watched, from the world's most powerful telescope, the Shoemaker-Levy comet explode on Jupiter in 1994. That could be our future. I had, in short, become more attuned to people.