Hotel California

To love the land is to know the land. I was born here. Second generation Southern Californian. I have the salt, the surf, and the sage in my soul.

This land has been badly damaged by the overpopulation and buildup that has come with its perfect weather. Southern California is not built to support the amount of human life that it now does, and we are hearing the groaning of the land with fire and with drought. Both were forces always at play, but when once they spoke seasonally, as a warning, now they come with shouting. We don’t listen. Shouts will have to turn to screams before we listen… and then we will be screaming too. It’s the way of things, when everything is just too easy, just too perfect.

Welcome to the Hotel California… you can enter, but you can never leave… that’s what the song says. Many of us are leaving, and weeping as we walk away.

I love this land. I’m a Californian, which makes me a Westerner. We like the rough edges, the aching quiet, the challenge. We aren’t too into rules, and we love the land. We love to be outside, and we shape our self-image around the ways in which we interact with the land. Our forefathers came across a whole lot of desert to have new frontiers, new beginnings – and space. We tend to be a bit crunchy.

Historically, this land hasn’t supported much life, because there’s not much water. There’s some – and there were some native tribes. The yucca tree can be used for fiber and needles (pointy ends!), the prickly pear cactus is edible in fruit and leaf, and there is a variety of wildlife (deer, big cats, coyotes, rabbits, birds of prey, etc). The live oak trees provided acorns, which were a staple food of the tribal people, who would range to the mountains and back to the coasts along the river beds. And… there’s a lot of sage. Chaparral, they call it. Large bushes, no trees except along the water. When the Spanish came, they brought mustard, and now our hillsides are covered with it in the springtime. If you’ve watched old episodes of M.A.S.H. you know what our hillsides look like left to themselves.

The landscape from my childhood had room for the desolate spaces. The inhospitable. Here, all creatures hide. Hide under rocks, in the canyons, under brush. They hide from the implacable beating sun. Now? Now we clear the spaces and there is no where to hide. The weather really is nearly perfect. For much of the year, at least along the coast, the temperature remains in the 70s. Of course, along the coast is not the richest place in natural resources. That’s our mountains and valleys. Those get hotter, but not so much so that people can’t live there comfortably. That said, the sun beats down and bleaches man, beast, plants and stone. Bright colors are for springtime.

It doesn’t rain much here. It used to rain more, but less and less. I wonder, knowing what I do about permaculture and trapping water in the ground, if the reverse can’t be true too. We get most of our water from the Colorado river – and from the snowpack in the mountains and up to the North. There is a small aquifer under my town. We are not a desert, but close enough.

The soil here is not rich, not old with centuries of humus, like soil that lived in a forest. It is not aerated with generations of roots, like soil that once was prairie. My soil has memories of fire. It’s alkaline – enough so that putting “the very best” soil amendments recommended in books from other places made a patch of my soil inhospitable to life. There is to be no thought of adding wood ash to this soil – that is the one thing it has in abundance. Herbs grow well. Tough bushes. Weeds. Oh, they say many things grow well here… but cut off the artificial water and they stop. We have sand or we have clay. My yard is clay, adobe ready to make bricks. In the summer, the heat cracks the soil apart, as if we’ve had ant-sized earthquakes. This is not a place hospitable to agriculture… except for the perfect, perfect weather.

So, we have perfect weather and agriculture. Adding water, bringing in compost and manure and work, very nearly anything that doesn’t require a hard freeze will grow. They just developed a coffee plant that will grow here!

That’s the thing… bring in artificial supports, and you can force the growth past what the land was meant to cherish. We’ve done that through the whole state, except the rainforests up north and the deserts to the east. The quakes protect the rainforests, and while I ache to live in the shelter of trees, I cannot mourn Mother Nature’s defense of her wild spaces. The desert protects itself with burning heat – there are few who care to dance in Death Valley. And those who do? Those True Westerners belong to that land, as I did to this.

As I did. The landscape of my childhood is much built up. Covered over. Commercialized. Bastardized. The sea still calls my name, invites me to slide up the underside of a perfect curl, catch a wave, come home encrusted in salt, exhausted, reddened, and ravenous. But to visit her when I can swim, now I have to battle crowds. Not on a weekend, on weekdays. I was born within walking distance of the sea, to be pulled away is painful. Memories of walking to the beach, barefoot in a towel sarong, picking my way carefully around thorns and over the train tracks… now there are fences. Rules. And so, so many people. Dangerous people, sometimes.

I spent my youth camping, hiking and living in the outdoor spaces. Like a true Californian. Like a true Westerner. And now, now I am crowded out. Invited to make myself part of a crowd, to take in a predigested ‘experience’ instead of touching the wild. You could say we did this to the indigenous peoples (although to be fair, here that was the Spanish) and you would be right – but that makes my pain no smaller.

The spirit of the wild has been replaced. And I? I ache to find somewhere to be where she still reigns.

If you’d like to talk about the social realities here, you might like this video:

4 Comments Add yours

  1. elspeth says:

    This is beautiful, Hearth,

    1. hearthie says:

      Thank you!!!

  2. nellperkins says:

    One of the hardest things to do as a writer is take your personal experience and make it universal, but that’s exactly what you’ve done here.

    1. hearthie says:

      Thank you!

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