ode to california

How can you love California? How can you love madness on such a grand, operatic scale? Her lovely wild rivers dammed into silent, sterile lakes, her shuddering hillsides sculpted into barren earthworks that dwarf the pyramids so the garish mansions of the rich can squat there, her incomparable wildernesses paved over and turned into smoggy theme parks… Loving such a place, the sheer overweening scale of which unleashes capitalist ambition at its most monstrous, is like the tragic love of a child for a dangerously insane parent.

And on those days of perfect spring weather, of which California has so many, and which can occur disconcertingly at almost any time of the year: the hopelessly blue skies, the golden light, it’s easy to see how California has driven us all mad. Like a gorgeous lover, it presents the illusion that perfection is attainable. And so its inhabitants drive around restlessly, obsessively, encased in metal and glass, in a state of perpetual irritation and frustration, because somehow things are not perfect, and yet they should be.

Maybe this is the right place from which to view the twilight of the American Empire, though. Because even if the technocrats and bioengineers think they’re starting a new thousand-year reich here, every day the earth trembles, and crumbles into the sea. Under the din of ever “smarter” cars and louder TVs and faster computers is the steady drumming of the ocean at the land, wearing it away, wearing away the location shots for GM commercials, the golf courses and the foundations of those mansions on the hillsides. To the west the ocean, to the east the wild fires and mudslides—every year they take hostage the power of the powerbrokers to shape reality, to buy and sell worlds at will.

What we as a people have so far failed in this crucial epoch to do is stop the “masters of mankind,” (as Adam Smith, ur-capitalist called them, whose “vile maxim” he said, is “all for ourselves, nothing for other people”) from diminishing and impoverishing our lives, from stealing pleasures and necessities that were ours by right and selling them back to us, ever less for more. But what we have not had the strength or the courage or the know-how to do, perhaps Nature is doing, in her ageless, ineluctable way. And perhaps when it is finally done there will still be some humans left who have understood her language, ignored by most for centuries, who will teach the rest how to make the gardens in which the race was meant to thrive.

And even now, today, I tell you, driving on the superhighway up the Central Valley, turning at Tracy where a house-sized American flag waves protectively over the megalithic mall, its burger joints and big-box stores—and seeing those sensuous, indestructible hills rising in the west, the hills that are the gateway to my home, and coming out from under that pitiless Western sky that never softens from the time you cross the Rockies, a sky that’s so brilliant and hard it’s beaten a century and a half of white men into vigilantes, serial killers and tycoons, with the windmills at Altamont Pass spinning madly like the rich man’s folly that they are, and the sun now setting on the enormous fog bank that hovers just beyond those darkening coastal hills, turning its frothy edges gold—well, I tell you, it still looks like the gateway to the Heavenly City, like I am coming home to Paradise.