Lissa and I are making a quick trip to California, which has me musing on my roots.
Joan Didion described those who created California as “not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.” I am anything but restless and daring (I hate moving across town), and I am no longer a Californian. But I can wax nostalgic.
On my mother’s side, I am second generation Californian, the child of a native. Her grandparents and parents helped with that strange frenetic (I was going to say “heroic” but didn’t) building of something from nothing that was the history of Southern California. I grew up in the literal shadow of old orange trees gone lemon. The oranges were grafted onto a lemon root stock, and when the grove came down and our house went up in the 1950s, the trees left as landscape architecture grew lemon branches from below. The town of my childhood was laid out as an “irrigation colony” by a Canadian born engineer named George Chaffey who laid out a grid of streets with a grand boulevard down its center and arranged for the irrigation water that brought forth citrus from the ground.
When I was young, we would visit our friends the Flemings, who still ran an orange grove, and on winter evenings everything would stop at 6 p.m. while Dick would listen to the fruit frost warnings on the radio. The Flemings lived in a grand old grove house (those beautiful grove houses were of a type). The last time I was out there, it was still standing, surrounded by tract homes, something new created from nothing where the something old (a grove) had been created from nothing still.
One could probably apply this line of thinking to any human built environment, any city, and see the something from nothingness of it, and it’s always a grand tale. But for personal reasons I am especially attached to the something from nothingness of my California ancestors. Los Angeles is a city that has no business being there. San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle all have ports. They all have a reason for being where they are. Los Angeles? It had no port, so they built one. The notion of an agricultural empire on the semi-arid coastal plain made no sense – until they brought the water. “There it is,” William Mulholland is said to have said as the first imported (stolen?) water came cascading down into the arid San Fernando Valley. “Take it.”
It’s at least of metaphorical relevance that the industry of make believe is called “Hollywood,” which is really just a made up place of only vaguely defined geographic identity – a sign on a mountainside (it originally read “HOLLYWOODLAND”) identifying a housing tract that hadn’t yet been built.
We’re going to San Francisco, which is California too, but quite different. They had a port and a gold rush and some intrinsic reasons for the place to exist. To Californians the distinctions between north and south make all the difference. If one is a Southern Californian, one still boos at the mention of Juan Marichal’s name. But from a distance I can see the chutzpah in San Francisco’s story too. There is something about the pressure of San Francisco’s geographic compactness that has created a very different version of the same story. They are Californians in ways my forebears were.