By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It is hard to grasp completely the change wrought in the Valley by water. A hundred years after de Portolá crossed Sepulveda Pass in 1769, only a handful of immigrants, few of whom spoke English, were occupying the Valley floor. It remained a place of casual property bounds, a dry steppe landscape without fences, a flatness relieved only by a few hills. At one point, around 1876, some 48 square miles of the Valley was standing in wheat, "league upon league of grain," wrote a traveler, "waving ready for harvest" in a "landscape flickering under an ardent sun." A hundred years further on, irrigation agriculture having passed like a migrating bird, the Valley's population stood at more than 1 million. Its sprawling and vigorous economy was fueled almost entirely by newly developed technologies -- television and movie production, automobile assembly, and the aerospace and electronics industries.
It is tempting to say that what was once grand and beautiful about the Valley, a place of Steinbeckian dignity, undercurrent and innocence, had all but vanished by the time we came over the mountains that night, guided by the beam of the flashlight, but the truth is the river still flowed down there in the dark, however restricted and burdened its channel; in scattered single fields, food crops still matured in the indigenous light and wind and rain; and my pigeons, the aerial component of my fertile imagination, still circled the last of the Valley's rural districts -- Platt Ranch, Porter Ranch, Shadow Ranch -- before coming home.
In July 1952, I ran out of the house during an earthquake, which made the trembling ground seem willful and aware. One winter night in 1953, Caballero Creek backed up Calvert Street to lap at the stone tiles of our porch, and that primal communion I felt with water, the visceral disturbance that completely silenced me whenever I went to the Cascades, told me that something essential was around and before me, something older than the Gabrielino, more essential to human life than economic solvency: The white coin of an August sun in Santa Ana skies, the fault-riven ground, this El Niño climate could not be paved over. It could never be lost, never destroyed.
Insofar as I was able as a child, I put my faith in that.
I LIVE IN A DIFFERENT SORT OF LANDSCAPE NOW, A TEMperate rain forest on the west slope of the Cascade Range in Oregon. It is lightly settled country, a place with no street lamps, no curbs or sidewalks. I'm 29 miles from a stoplight, and there's only one road to town. In some ways I still live in the borderland of my Reseda youth. Driving into Eugene, I will stop for fresh vegetables, for honey, berries and eggs at roadside stands. In the few broad bottomlands where hazelnut orchards grow, I can picture the walnut groves I once knew around Van Nuys, and on a hot day I can smell the sweet air rising off a sugar-beet field.
Like everyone else, I've no simple way to measure where I've been between these episodes of childhood and middle age. I've traveled through 35 countries, ended a 30-year marriage and written 14 books. I believe that I could as easily have become an orchardist as a writer. I simply found a different shape to the passion I felt as a child, watching things grow and wanting to participate in the cultivation and harvest.
Like my neighbors, then and now, I've broken down alone or with others in tears of adult despair, and known a joy so transporting, so serene, I've believed I was within the realm of the Divine. I've come to assume that these emotional extremes are a part of every human life, that they were known to the braceros whose daughters my mother taught and also to the movie-star fathers of some of my classmates at Our Lady of Grace.
I have also come to assume that one of a writer's obligations to society is to make this equality clear. As I see it, in a democracy such as ours the writer is called on especially to expose the notion of entitlement, which posits that some of us should receive more, solely on the basis of skin color, education, gender, ethnicity, supposed gifts or accumulated wealth. Such a writer, growing up like me, white in a white man's valley, must look back at the social and economic customs, the real estate covenants, the prejudicial legislation and ethical oblivion that made it so.
The peculiar task of many American writers today -- though, again, only as I see it -- is to address what lies beyond racism, class structure and violence in American life by first recognizing these failings as real, and then by helping with the invention of what will work in such circumstances to ensure each life endures less cruelty, that each life is less painful.
I cannot recall the agricultural richness of the San Fernando Valley in my youth without remembering that the Valley I grew up in was brought to life through schemes of injustice, at several crucial junctures. The early settlers used up the Gabrielino as a kind of grout and mortar, first to build the mission at San Fernando and make it economically viable, and then to work the ranchosdesigned to augment the wealth of a dozen or so men. Chinese laborers were brought in to build the railroad over San Fernando Pass, and then handed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to read. After the turn of the century, those who could most easily direct the fate of the Valley imposed on it, for profit, a regime of imported water. They created an Eden of fruit and vegetables, of jasmine and bougainvillea, and put it up for sale in a seller's market. They seemed, to some observers, intoxicated with their own grandeur. Mulholland stood there like a god at the Cascades on November 5, 1913. "There it is," he said. "Take it."
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