By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Society’s disregard for the natural world extends to communities bordering the dark wood. The administration’s disingenuous maneuvering on forest legislation gives the bizarre impression that the people who run the country want the West to burn. And no part of the West is more vulnerable than Southern California. The region’s ubiquitous chaparral, those lion-colored hills of chamise, oak and manzanita, is an incitement to fire. When it burns naturally, chaparral drives out competitors and re-establishes itself. When fire is suppressed, the chaparral refuses to give way to forest or flower. It is climax vegetation, an evolutionary dead end of sorts; it just stays there. That is, until someone lights a match.
For thousands of years, Indians burned hell out of the chaparral and killed the rabbits that fled the fire and ate the grasses that grew back. Maybe the burning channeled a pyromania that exists in everyone but is usually dormant. Perhaps lighting fires is not aberrant behavior; humans may react almost maternally to the absence of fire in a landscape that craves it. Whatever the reason, until recently fire was everywhere in California. In a flash of lyricism now rife with echoes, the 16th-century Spanish explorer Cabrillo called the Santa Monica Bay “Bahia de los Fumos,” or “Bay of Smokes.”
Southern California’s propensity for melodrama makes it tempting to think in biblical terms. Fire, flood, locusts, mudslides, that sort of thing. But imperium is a better analogy than apocalypse, as it has been for most political events since 9/11. The U.S. has spent more than $82 billion in Iraq so far, with the eventual cost of “victory” projected at more than double that amount. The Web site www.costofwar.com estimates that the country is spending $1,000 a minute to maintain the occupation. Yet the United States balks at paying for schools and health care and parks and forests for its own people.
Although health care may seem more pressing, national parks and forests are not frills or indulgences. Landscape is the objective correlative for the fundamental idea of America: freedom. The notion that landscape has meaning, once the stuff of John Ford movies and purple-mountain grade school mythology, has begun to seem antique and irrelevant in the face of contemporary disregard for nature. It’s hard to tell how this ideal of freedom, one that is flawed and naive perhaps, but as indigenous to America as jazz and the yeoman farmer, will survive if the physical ground that gave it substance continues to be abused and neglected.
California, as always, tilts ominously on the edge of history. The upscale Joads packed their belongings for a quick escape last week. But there was a crucial difference between Steinbeck’s fictional family and its real-life descendants. Like the governor-elect, these Joads will be back. Insurance checks will be sent, fire retardant will be splashed on wood-shingled roofs, fears will be forgotten. But in the long run, it’s hard to tell what the future holds in its closed fist. You might find yourself with a tinge of the uneasiness felt by the original Mrs. Joad as her family crammed their possessions into an ancient Hudson.
She said, “Tom, I hope things is all right in California.”
He turned and looked at her. “What makes you think they ain’t?” he asked.
“Well — nothing. Seems too nice, kinda.”