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A Scary Abundance of Water 

Part 2

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
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Page 3 of 8

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 ranchos designed 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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IT IS A LONG WAY, OF COURSE, FROM THE POLICIES OF abuse that extinguished the cultural life of the Gabrielino to the assumptions William Mulholland made about what might be bought and sold with impunity. But the policies and assumptions are rooted in a similar indifference to the sanctity of complex life. As much as the Gabrielino selected the Valley as a comfortable abode, the Valley itself exerted a selective pressure on the Gabrielino and their culture. And Mulholland ã construed water not as life but as a commodity, a market lever.

To effectively address the ordinary difficulties of human existence, each generation must relocate and protect the ground that will not give way, the ground that will sustain the dreams of its ancestors in the face of waywardness. An American writer today can hardly miss, anywhere in the country, the emergence of a culture increasingly mestizo in its ways, and yet he or she knows that many Americans still cling silently to the hope of a rule by one race, and continue to believe in a land that will produce no end of water, timber, coal, gasoline and the other fuels of culture. When the lessons come -- infernos in the chaparral, the Watts riots, rolling blackouts -- they are met with new technologies and new infrastructures which often prove only weirdly cosmetic.

Some fundamental shift in cultural awareness now seems called for. The economic assessment of a stretch of land, it might be argued, can be made more accurate now by taking into account what comes out of the earth that cannot be bought.

When I read the journals of 18th-century travelers to the San Fernando Valley, I can grasp that they were mesmerized by the same things I was as a boy. These essences, it seems to me, no kind of development can truly erase: the heartbreaking light clear as grain alcohol, then "weathered like aluminum," in the phrase of contemporary California poet Robert Vasquez. Spring winds bursting along the river through bosques of native walnut and oak, those complexly graceful limbs riding the buffet. And the all-or-nothing of the streams -- Tujunga Wash running one day like the upper Missouri, another day standing as sleepy as a bajada at noon.

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