When Lola was just a spark in my eye, when I was living on the North Coast of California, back in the days when I was directing the MFA program at the late New College of California, I wrote this germ of a piece in response to a request by editor David Rothenberg (see previous post), also of the late journal Terra Nova (and where do all these late beloved institutions go with their histories and pleasures and infighting? There is a Japanese word for dead web sites, something like "lost pebbles"; what word would be useful in speaking of late, beloved institutions?)to write toward the element of air, I wrote this -- I do not edit it now, I just offer it up to your eyes
What happens in Northern California is that people get pushed north with their desire for cleaner air. There are huge hulking iron beasts, old logging machines rotting in the hills up here, but the cars which pull off the tortuous curl of Highway One up the coast flash bits of silver upon one another, light refracted off the ocean refracting off their sides. All of this serves as an appropriately spangled metaphor for how people desire their own light and air up here, so proficient at passing one another here without engaging.
Here, on the so-called Redwood Coast, you’ll find small-town America writ large upon the apocalyptic consciousness of California: here you will not find all too many concrete dividers separating your car from your destiny, whether it be to careen into oncoming traffic or off the highway and into the ocean.
Any such dividers you do happen to find are recent afterthoughts. More often, on Highway One, you find plenty of sites where one waits for sleek cows, themselves oddly individualistic. The cows, like the people, amble oceanward; in the bovines’ case, across the highway from one spit of land, leaving one spot for better air, better grazing on a more perilous cliff. We happen to share with the cows this instinct for ingenuous destruction.
Construction foremen will boast with a certain happy hubris of a house which they are building on a rapidly eroding section of coastal land. It’s the county’s responsibility, they’ll tell you, to keep the land solid fifty feet oceanward from a house’s outermost perimeter. A complicated system of metal braces helps, part of the house’s foundation. This turns out to be ironically similar in form to that invoked by the old jokes about the cockroach architecture, what will be left of New York in the event of a nuclear holocaust.
The metal braces here are not afterthought but West-Coast-style insurance, a certain fatalism to them: they do help to moor these devil-may-care houses, so that, allegedly, when the cliffs erode (which they will all do, give or take ten or twenty or fifty years) the house will stay propped up on its metal buckle, bound to more steady ground, if you don’t count the earthquakes.
Where in a prior age some of our greatest designing minds were drawn to shipbuilding, men who longed for the full wind in their faces, manning shipyards in Oakland or Brooklyn or Penzance, now those same souls are constructing houses on cliffside dwellings in California.
But mostly up here engineering is left to nature. Consider those cows again: their hooves on those cliffs are more confident than any Detroit or Tokyo could dream of when it comes to sheer tread factor. A few centimeters before total hurl-down-the-mountains-at-your-own-leisure death, these cows do what we do: ruminate, if not on mortality and hubris; their digestion remains unimpaired by thinking of which species of catastrophe might await in the next moment.
Perhaps it is the imminence of catastrophe that buffers the human dwellers more tightly in their mantle of self-absorption. For every young promising student who gets killed by a driver-under-the-influence, there are twenty other drivers speeding by, blissful when their tailgating in their monster vehicles succeeds and they can force drivers into ditches off the road. What is self-absorption, after all? Could we say it entails a lack of the friction usually made up of, in equal parts, conscience and curiosity?
In the few markets, the post office, people do pass one another quite easily, friction-free, their bodies smooth or rough but able to glide by.
What mostly gets exchanged are molecules, transfering silently from one host to another. The lack of engagement is not a mobile air purifier here, as it might be, say, during cold season within a crowded New York subway compartment, when one passenger turns away, slightly, from another. It is rather a willful act of moral hygiene; failing to interact with a stranger helps one hold more closely to one’s own plot of land, near the promised land of the ocean, the one to which we will all one day subside and return.
This is why California has a partial monopoly on the apocalypse. It believes in the promised land and it has the front-row seat on the promised land; not land at all but the great primordial Pacific, named by Balboa on what must have been a deceptive calm-water day for the wild Pacific.
Out here, apocalpyse takes many forms. One can almost sense the Silicon Valley former billionaires sighing their impatience in the supermarket aisles, itching for life’s video-game to move to its final conclusion, with the ultimate crash so near, the crash that goes beyond the mereness of personally borne mortality. This is why some readers skip to the last scene of a book, and why, for many people, this Redwood Coast happens to be one of their favorite rural outposts, some 100 or 200 miles north of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the cyber-bubble of success, not seen in these parts since the gold rush, may have burst, slightly; but there is that annoying fact that one must share the breathing-space of the country with others: in this way, the apocalpyse is delayed; one cannot get to one’s cozy cabin retreat because there are still people approaching. One must retreat from the retreat.
And this land unfortunately is not the tabula rasa that might have appeared on the Web screen, the immediate gratification of a seemingly uninhabited strip of ocean. Coastal getaway! as the highly oxygenated ads scream, swirling blues and whites in flashing pixels.
Yes, there are those who have come here to get away but on a permanent basis: whole tribes of people. They are stepping outside of history and occasionally off the grid -- of electricity, yes, using their solar panels and compost outhouses -- but also off the grid of the task-reward systems prevalent in cities. Here are the artist tribes; the back-to-the-landers who came circa 1970, from Maine and upstate New York and south-side Chicago and Berkeley and all spots between; there are the expatriates from Germany and England who feel themselves to have arrived at the very mule train itself, their childhood archetypes of savage America. There are the aforementioned Silicon Valley billionaires and then the pot growers who grow their booty on others’ land, to avoid having their own repossessed should the cops discover their plants, growers who in their particular breed of libertarianism-so-long-as-you-don’t-screw -with-mine, a not-so-new kind of NIMBYism, will also hide with guns to shoot those who tread too close to their treasured plants.
There are the lonely men in plaid shirts furtively buying a six-pack of domestic beer at five o’clock on a Friday in the one supermarket which is, subtly, in that subliminal discourse that is caste in California, earmarked as being Their Kind of Supermarket (corn masa flour for tortillas, jugs of water and cheap wine on sale, giant fried pig ears). Right across the highway happens to be the Fancy Supermarket, with equivalent prices but which does not advertise so openly that it takes food stamps. The fancy market sells thirty varieties of non-American cheese and also offers its clientele a tasting bin for olives.
But it is in the pig-ear supermarket, that you will find a more representative mix of the population that is scattered up here, among the redwoods and mountains: the state troopers and electrical line layers, the loggers who have bumper stickers that say Save My Sanity, Kill an Environmentalist. There are the seasonal workers and there are also the last of the Pomo or Konkow Indians holding on, trying to make a life for themselves in the towns or the all-too-depressed reservations, land lost behind the crowded trees and mountain wilderness you can still find here. There are also, to mix cultural terms, the nisei and issei Mexicans, first- and second-generation, exercising their right of return, repossessing their land while sporting various arcana from the detritus of American society, whether it be a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers coat or a Britney midriff shirt.
In the fancy supermarket, you might find those who might have been, by birth or vocation, slotted for pig ears but prefer goat cheese, and again, everywhere, those Silicon Valley weekenders, picking up their copy of the New York Times before continuing to chug north or south in their mammoth gas-guzzling tanks. Sports utility would seem to be an oxymoron, until you see how lifestyle and its conduits have here, as elsewhere, become a little mechanized.
What does get exchanged up here happens, as in other climes, mainly within tribal affinities; though perhaps such affinities are more transparent within such a linear community. Unlike life in most towns, up here, along Highway One, you do not find the serendipity native to urban life. A child born and raised here easily enumerates the places one can go to and come from, the horizon line of the possible. You drive down the fittingly named One, a declivity along the cliffs, the ocean to its west and the mountains to the east. You bear only specific destinations in mind, nothing that can catch you unawares, really, short of events on the spectrum of the apocalpse -- fires, earthquakes, hell and turbation. Otherwise: cars pass you, cars tailgate you, then you pass cars.
There is not the surprise of a face appearing around a corner, as in any of the great cities, whether Venice, Manhattan, or Paris; and the human encounter and exchange that open up by surprise. It doesn’t take a Jane Jacobs to understand what is lacking up here. Breathing room ends up meaning room for me to breathe. As Denis Johnson remarked about a town in this specific part of the world in his penultimate novel, Already Dead, Gualala, the town whose name means confluence of rivers in an almost-lost Native American tongue, is a town which ignores the sublimity of its natural surroundings in order to best underline the repetitive and linear nature of much of what people think they need. This is a different sort of confluence.
Because people come up here for their own version of Lebensraum, the idea of living room first used in such a specific sense by Hitler’s Germany, in which Austria was to be annexed in order to provide the Germans a bit of breathing space, a relaxation of the senses. This rural part of Northern California has been annexed by various names. The Chamber of Commerce likes to call it the Redwood Coast, meaning those towns that commence with Stewarts Point, lost in its sheep pastures and its tall metal cranes falling into ravines, moving up through Point Arena. But the real estate agents like to call it the Banana Belt, the area within the Redwood Coast known for grabbing the bit of California sun managing to burn through the fog: Banana Belt because it is shaped like an unrelenting smile and there is some hint of tropicalismo in the people who have come up here for all their various reasons.
What becomes clear is that if anyone is having a party, it is the treetops. The people for the most part can have a dreary despair, like the 24-year-old scion of a hardware-store-owning family around these parts, already drunk at two in the afternoon of a Friday, narrowly avoiding the cars and throwing out a swaggering thumb to get a ride just about anywhere.
What is it that, at least in the States, makes our less breathable cities great and our more recent ideas about how to scalp and carve out a livable existence in rural America so abysmal? When one goes back to Hitler -- and why always him, except that he provides such a fine example of individual points of will coalescing in a terribly singular will, when what we are looking at is man or woman exercising their will and sense of virtue in nature. You all must know some back-to-the-landers, people who live righteously, use solar panels, lug their own water from a well and compost from their outhouse. And if you don’t know them, or even know about them, that’s okay; they already have taken up squatting rights in your brain, existing in your consciousness, a fine sieve of virtue through which one can always sift oneself, find oneself wanting. Once my brother, the recently minted restoration ecologist (what is he restoring? people always inquire) asked me how many trees had gone into the making of my first novel -- and when one puts two such opposite forces on a scale, of course the human creation comes out wanting.
Outside my window, where I sit writing this, on the Redwood Coast, people have been living off the grid, in enough pockets, that the idea is as familiar to anyone as the New York subway system was familiar to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, living below the city’s structure and tapping its juice for his own personal light. But out here, we have been experiencing the euphonically named “rolling blackouts”, California’s energy consumption having reached the outer limits of possibility in a state in which the word limit is practically banned from your vocabulary the second you apply for a driver’s licence, i.e., citizenship in a state in which mobility, chewing up all that clean air, is promised you if you just as in, say, the French ideas for Algeria or any other part of its empire: s’il vous plait obey our basically republican ideals of assimilation.
And to create a Californian correlate to the term writ on the pamphlet for application to French citizenship -- francisation -- one can be well californiasé if one follows the statewide articles as bold and simple as a Sierra Club graphic: to wit, individualism, self-sufficiency, a taste for adventure. True, the north is always tugging at the south to secede, and vice versa -- mostly about water but also about air, and the pollution, the air pockets -- and yes, the north and south are split primarily along the axis of political virtue, the north being in some cosmic rotation of the dial more left, barring those loggers, and the south, barring the denizens and hangers-on of Hollywood, tending toward the kind of Ronald Reaganism that says: You seen one redwood tree, you seen them all, and defines ketchup as a vegetable.
Funny that a state which is called golden believes so much in the alchemical properties of air and wind, fire and water. But primarily air -- there is a bargain people make when they agree to live out here, and it has nothing to do with the particular angle of sun that will etch their faces more deeply, a kind of cattle branding, and it has everything to do with a greed for that Puritan virtue that a New England stalwart like Cotton Mather might have been happy to have seen extrapolated from his original plan.
Because out here one can see every inference of the Constitution played out, almost as personified adventure heroes, playing dungeons and dragons. The local paper will frequently write out how to foil police attempts regarding search and seizure -- there is an insecurity, what religious writers would call humility, about the grandeur of nature out here, and what one can do to stick one’s finger, lamely, in the wind, preventing it from blowing too hard your way.
Which, apart from all Buddhist or Hindu influenced ideas of meditation and spiritual discipline, is why so many people have reminders everywhere. Breathe, the reminders say. Just breathe.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe some more. That sometimes seems to be the limit of human aspiration, out here where the air still blows (mostly) free.
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