California Elegy

Our future happened in the golden state

o
u
t
b
u
r
s
t
s

This year much of California was ablaze, the skies in San Francisco a warm, fire-and-brimstone orange. More than four million acres burned, in fires that included five of the six largest conflagrations in the state’s recorded history. One of them, the August Complex, stretched across seven northern counties and earned the neologism “gigafire” for razing more than a million acres. There will almost certainly be more of those. We are already in the midst of a megadrought that ranks among the most severe the region has experienced since 800 A.D. Scientists are forecasting a near future of “climate whiplash”—extremely dry spells punctuated by the occasional very wet year in a pattern that will continue to create ideal conditions for wildfires as the century smolders on.

In September, Los Angeles County recorded its highest temperature ever: an eyeball-crisping 121 degrees, registered not in the county’s desert fringe but in suburban San Fernando Valley. By the end of this century, when my daughter is my parents’ age, climate scientists predict temperatures in LA will exceed 95 degrees for an additional sixty to ninety days each year, effectively adding a new ultra-summer—winning us a strange revenge on dullard Easterners who complain that Southern California lacks seasons just because we don’t have the same ones they do. We have long lived in anticipation of “The Big One,” a 7.8 magnitude or greater earthquake that could cause casualties in the tens of thousands. When the pendulum swings toward rain, there will be floods, and scientists now worry about the so-called Other Big One: a deluge of almost biblical proportions that could produce a temporary inland sea three hundred miles long. Like the governor put it during his last campaign: “California is where the future happens first.”

As the climate inexorably worsens, California’s cities have become, for anyone not blessed with unconscionable wealth, agonizing places to live—which is what some of us still like to do in cities. Over the last decade, rents rose by 65 percent in LA and 70 percent in San Francisco, 69 percent in Sacramento, 57 percent in Long Beach, 108 percent in Oakland—whitening the urban centers as they disproportionately pushed Black and brown residents into the suburbs, the exurbs, and across state lines. The ranks of those who cannot afford to live indoors have swelled dramatically. In LA, the tent communities that were once concentrated in downtown’s Skid Row, where police and city bureaucrats had corralled the homeless for a generation, now sprawl over sidewalks and parks all over town, even in affluent neighborhoods, forming a ragged city of their own, a mirror-world of want that haunts the fantasy image of sun-soaked consumer pleasure that official LA still makes every effort to project. Urban rents are finally tumbling, at the high end at least, as the wealthy flee the plague-bitten metropolises, but housing is not yet anything close to affordable for ordinary humans. As of this writing, a quarter of America’s homeless live in California.

But what is killing the state is not overdevelopment or lousy public planning or even climate change. It is the persistence of certain ghosts. If California-in-flames is at the forefront of the Anthropocene, which by one scholarly definition is the age in which “humans in their attempt to conquer nature have inadvertently become a major force in its destruction,” then the key word is not humans—because not all of us were involved in the attempt—but conquer. California is where Anglo-European settlement of the Americas came up against the hard edge of the continent. This is where the conquest ended, and where it bounces back.

Land of Milk and Honey

The first time I visited California I must have been about nine. I remember riding in the backseat of someone’s un-air-conditioned car from San Francisco up to Chico, the windows down and those rounded, rolling hillsides more beautiful and expansive than anything I could have thought to dream. Each time the highway crested a peak and dropped down the other side, I could see water on the asphalt ahead of us, a sparkling pool that disappeared just as we got close. The journalist Edwin Bryant, writing of his overland journey from Kentucky to California in 1846—he traveled for a while alongside the Donner Party before they took their fateful shortcut—recalled more formidable mirages: “a wide cascade or cataract of glittering, foaming, and tumbling waters,” and later, “a limpid lake, so calm and mirror-like that it reflected with all the distinctness of reality, the tall, inverted shapes of the mountains and all the scenery beyond its tempting but illusory surface.”

Five years earlier, when organized groups of Anglo settlers first began to trickle in over the Sierra Nevada mountains, scholars estimate that fewer than four hundred “foreigners” were living in what was still the Mexican state of Alta California. The newcomers, who in the eyes of the Mexican authorities were illegal immigrants with no valid claims on the land, made their homes in a vast territory already inhabited by about eight thousand Californios, as the state’s Mexican citizens were known, and more than a hundred thousand Indians. They were not content to share it. In June 1846, unaware that President James K. Polk had already declared war on Mexico, a small band of settlers, supported by the dashing Army captain and genocidaire John C. Frémont, took up arms against the Mexican government. On arriving, Bryant promptly organized a company of volunteers and joined Frémont’s troop.

As Anglo settlers poured into the future California, the scamming started before the theft was made official.

For his initiative, Bryant would find himself appointed the second Anglo alcalde—the office would soon be anglicized to mayor—of San Francisco. In that post, he would hasten to parcel off the city’s land, selling lots to friends who quietly sold them right back to him. Before the war was even concluded, Bryant ordered the city’s waterfront, which under Mexican rule had been publicly held, subdivided and sold at auction. Similar sell-offs occurred in American-occupied territories from Monterey down to San Diego, with most of the land snatched up by well-connected speculators. Bryant would end up buying fourteen lots, some for as little as $12.50. Two years after he purchased them, they were valued at $100,000, a minor fortune at the time. It wasn’t enough. Twenty years later, back in Louisville, he leapt out the window of his hotel room.

So it would go. The scamming started before the theft was made official. Despair lingered just out of sight. Almost overnight, land became something abstract and fungible, to be mined or harvested or sold and sold again at ever-increasing profit. Vast tracts ended up in the hands of a few particularly voracious speculators, some of whose corporate heirs are still profiting from their holdings today.

In 1848, the war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, with Mexico ceding more than half of its territory to the United States. The state constitution drafted the following year reserved citizenship rights for white males, excluding Mexicans of mixed birth as well as all Black and Indigenous residents. Via strategies both legal and not, the new settlers would dissolve most titles held by Mexicans. In 1851, in open violation of the treaty, Congress required all Californian landowners with Spanish or Mexican land grants to prove their ownership in U.S. courts. Cases dragged on for years, often at such expense that the land was forfeited.

Land speculation, tamed into what we unironically call “real estate”—for what could be less real than an earth emptied of all but monetary value?—would remain one of the state’s dominant economic motors. It is not hard to draw a straight line from the settler hustles of early statehood to the inequities that map California today. James Irvine arrived in 1849 and figured out he could make more money selling goods to miners than by mining himself. He funneled his profits into San Francisco real estate and Mexican land grants in southern California, ultimately holding title to about one hundred thousand acres. In the late twentieth century much of that land, still owned by the Irvine Company, would be subdivided into “master-planned communities” throughout what had by then become suburban Orange County. The Irvine Company now owns sixty-five thousand apartments and forty shopping centers and has been a major financial supporter of groups organized to defend California’s Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that froze property taxes, hobbling the state’s ability to fund education, health care, and public housing. Legitimated by a century and a half of dedicated lawyers, legislators, and lobbyists, the grifts are subtler these days, but the results are the same: vast wealth remains in a few, very powerful hands.

Fracked and Extracted

In January of 1848, just before the formal end of the war, a carpenter spotted flakes of gold in the American River near what is now the tourist town of Coloma. The military commander of California wrote to his superiors in Washington that “no capital is required to obtain this gold, as the labouring man wants nothing but his pick and shovel and tin pan . . . and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rocks with their butcher knives.” The rumor of easy wealth spread quickly. But most of the hundreds of thousands of Anglo settlers who poured into California over the next decade arrived to find that sites useful for mining had been claimed and all the easily mined ore was gone already. Getting at what remained took know-how, technology, and most of all, cash. The balance of power shifted to corporations with access to distant networks of capital—investors from as far away as New York and London—leaving miners to choose between indebtedness, wage labor, or hunger: the humiliations that had driven them west in the first place. Patricia Nelson Limerick, the great revisionist historian of the West, located the age-old Californian sentiment of “having arrived a few moments late for the party” in the circumstances of the state’s early settlement.

It wasn’t just the miners. “Wait till we get to California. You’ll see nice country then,” Pa Joad enthuses in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “Jesus Christ, Pa!” Tom replies, “This here is California.” Farmers lured west by the promise of vast agricultural riches would arrive to find the soil already divvied up among a few well-capitalized landholders. By the 1870s, the good land was all but gone. An 1872 report drawn up by the state legislature counted 122 individuals and companies that owned more than twenty thousand acres each. Some had holdings that would elsewhere count as empires. By the end of the century, the cattle baron Henry Miller owned or controlled the grazing rights to twenty-two thousand square miles of ranchland, an expanse larger than Denmark or Croatia. Ruled by the demands of the market, agriculture would become, Limerick writes, “something close to an extractive industry—another way of mining the soil.” Crops and livestock were tended and harvested not by independent freeholders but by proletarian migrant laborers, “men and women representing the exact opposite of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal.” The earth remained rich, but its bounty would not be shared.

In the early 1980s, California embarked on what state researchers called the “largest prison building program in the history of the world.”

The voracious hungers of extractive capital would also continue apace. LA was an oil town before the film industry dusted it with glamor; oil rigs still pump away within sight of backyards in Inglewood and Long Beach, and up in Kern County, at the southern extremity of the Central Valley. The origins disappear in a collage of corporate logos, but Chevron was once Standard Oil of California, which would play as important a role in the politics—and wars—of the Middle East as any sovereign state. Lately the industry has turned to hydraulic fracking. By forcing otherwise irrecoverable oil out of the ground with enormous quantities of pressurized water and chemicals, it has caused earthquakes in regions that are otherwise seismically sedate. Now there’s fracking in the densely populated core of LA County in Inglewood and Long Beach, and in Kern County, where Chevron still plays a major role. More than half of California’s 1,553 operative fracking wastewater wells are within ten miles of an active fault.

Fires aside, the Central Valley, which runs for 450 miles between the Sierras and the coastal mountains, bears the brunt of the state’s disasters. Today, it boasts the most productive agricultural land in the country and some of the most polluted air, its land and water poisoned with pesticides and chemical waste, its collectivities by farmworker exploitation, incessant ICE raids, and the toxic proximity of a dozen state and federal prisons. Kern County recently had the highest rate of police killings in the United States. In some parts of the Valley, so much of the groundwater has been depleted that the land itself is literally collapsing, subsiding at rates as much as two feet a year, as if the surface of the state were being pulled back into the center of the earth, or fleeing in humiliation.

The Golden Gulag

As intoxicating as it is, the California myth of self-invention in a wild and beautiful new land has always been a settler’s dream. I don’t mind confessing to having been swept away by it more than once over the years, but this fantasy was constructed upon a grift of epic proportions: a theft upon a theft, as the Spanish hardly asked permission of the Chumash, the Ohlone, the Kumeyaay, or any of the populations they uprooted and enslaved. By the estimate of the historian Benjamin Madley, in the twenty-seven years between 1846 and 1873, “colonization policies, abductions, diseases, homicides, executions, battles, massacres, institutionalized neglect on federal reservations, and the willful destruction of indigenous villages and their food stores seem to have reduced California Indian numbers by at least 80 percent, from perhaps 150,000 to some 30,000.” Two months before taking up arms against the Mexican government, John C. Frémont ordered his soldiers to massacre as many as nine hundred Wintu Indians near what is now the city of Redding. There are towns, streets, and parks named for him throughout the central part of the state. California’s genocide began with the American occupation.

Exact figures vary, but over the next century, about as many people—most of them Mexicans and Native Americans—would be lynched in California as in Alabama. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the rural Central Valley, in the Orange County suburbs, and in the Inland Empire to the east of LA, but California had its own traditions of racial violence and little need to borrow from the Reconstruction South. The great Black novelist Chester Himes, who was born in Missouri and moved to Los Angeles in 1941, fled Jim Crow only to find that he had not escaped at all. “Up to the age of thirty-one,” he wrote,

I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually, and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear: I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison . . . and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and saturated with hate.

In the early 1980s, California embarked on what state researchers called the “largest prison building program in the history of the world.” The state now incarcerates more people than all but twelve countries on the planet. Its prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino, as are the people killed by police. Over the last seven years, more have lost their lives to cops here than in any other state. And it was California that pioneered the forms of militarized policing that the rest of the country has so enthusiastically adopted: the SWAT team was born in LA and first put into use in a bloody LAPD raid on the Black Panthers headquarters there. Like the governor says, the future happens here first.

The Fire Every Single Time, Forever

The stockaded dream of California’s settlers lives on. You can find it in every gated and green-lawned subdivision, in the paranoid politics of frightened whites—the sense of outraged entitlement that we now recognize as Trumpian has a long history in the West—and in the ethnically cleansed hipster neighborhoods, where gentrification is visible not only in the density of pet groomers and coffee roasters but in the shadow city of the homeless that has swelled alongside it, forced to dissolve and reconfigure itself at a rhythm determined by police sweeps and vigilante arson.

Along the way, though, the state turned into something its founders did not envision. Just outside the gates, California became a different kind of refuge. During and after the Second World War, survivors of a foreign genocide poured in from Eastern Europe. Survivors of America’s own crimes came too: African Americans escaping the South and Japanese Americans returning home from the camps (two of which were in California). They would later be joined by Salvadorans and Vietnamese fleeing the violence we exported to their countries, by the survivors of genocides in which the United States had a hand (Guatemala, Cambodia) and of a few in which we didn’t (Bangladesh and Eritrea). Mexicans, who had been brutalized and expelled for more than a century, kept coming—and coming back. Whites now form a smaller minority of the state’s population than Latinos. They kept coming too, not just the speculators and latter-day conquistadors, but others unmoved by dreams of conquest: the ones who didn’t fit in any of the East’s established slots, and didn’t know if they would survive the sorting.

Together they created a culture of hybridity and stubborn resistance that remains unseen from within the state’s own power centers, one that thrives in the working-class suburbs and smog-choked exurbs, and that has not yet been entirely expelled from the unaffordable cities. From without, it is visible only in flashes. The Panthers were born here, and the Chicano movement, and arguably—sorry, New York—the gay rights movement. Tupac came of age in California, and Mingus grew up here, and so did the Family Stone.

All homes, of course, are just fuel to the fires. The flames make no distinctions. Neither will the floods, if they come.

But something else, quieter and stronger, has grown up in their shadows. In the concrete and asphalt flats and in the glass-strewn hills, almost every family I know of—be they of blood or the self-selecting kind—crosses ethnic and cultural boundaries in casual defiance of the segregation that rules even in most ostensibly liberal neighborhoods. This is the California I love, not only the beautiful and much-insulted land but the people, the heart-heavy survivors who have made a home out of a place that has always been hostile to them. Not a paradise or a promised land, but a home, one that through its very existence contests the suicidal settler dream of dominance and control.

All homes, of course, are just fuel to the fires. The flames make no distinctions. Neither will the floods, if they come, or the searing heat of ultra-summer. But it is worth remembering that every end is also a beginning. Many of California’s native communities told—and still tell—multiple creation stories recounting various mistakes, disasters, do-overs, rebirths. Starting fresh was not just a settler’s dream. This world was built by Ocean Woman or Sky Father or Eagle or Coyote, though it was not necessarily their first attempt, and it might not be their last. “How could it begin once only?” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in the novel Always Coming Home. “That doesn’t seem sensible.”

In that book, probably her most ambitious, Le Guin imagined a future California that might emerge after this one has consumed itself. The soil is in some quarters still poisoned with the toxic and radioactive effluents of industrial capitalism. An inland sea has filled the Central Valley. Channeling her father, the anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, who documented the cultures and beliefs of the tribes of California in the early twentieth century, Le Guin structured the novel in part as an ethnography, cataloguing the stories, rituals, and social structures of the Kesh, who inhabit what we now call Napa Valley. As I read it in October, wildfire was tearing through Napa, forcing the evacuation of whole towns, leveling wineries and spas.

In one of Le Guin’s Kesh creation tales a god, Big Man—who was so big that he filled “the entire world outside the world”—created Little Man. But he put his head on backwards, and Little Man didn’t like the world he found. He was afraid, and “he killed whatever he was afraid of.” He chopped down the trees, shot the animals, made war on everything and everyone. He was afraid of the mountains, so he flattened them. He was afraid of the valleys, so he filled them in. “He was really afraid of water,” so he dammed the rivers and drained the wells. Everything that Little Man had killed began to rot, and Big Man, disgusted by the stench, went away never to return. A few things did survive: the animals that could live off of carrion and a handful of “weak, dirty, hungry, no-account people,” who made their homes among the rubble and the bones. In time, the coyote dug canyons and “shat mountains” and forests grew beneath the buzzard’s wings. The worm dug new springs in the soil.

Little Man died, in the end, of fear. But, “things went on, people went on.”

Ben Ehrenreich lived in California for more than twenty years and still hopes to move back one day. His latest book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, was published in July by Counterpoint Press.

You Might Also Enjoy

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.