My Dark California Dream
Our parents had wide open spaces all around.
We still had nature within reach. Now what?
CALIFORNIA’S over, everything I love about this place is going to hell.That's just it. Those of us who knew an older version of California, miss it as it disappears. New people come along, not knowing how things used to be, and they think it's fabulous just the way it is.
I knew there was something familiar about this thought from the moment it occurred to me in Yosemite National Park. My sister and I started going to those mountains 40 years ago with our parents, who taught us to see the Sierra Nevada as a never-changing sanctuary in a California increasingly overrun by suburban sprawl.
Once we had our own families, we indoctrinated our kids in the same joys: suffering under backpacks, drinking snowmelt from creeks, jumping into (and quickly back out of) icy lakes, and napping in wildflower meadows. Yosemite remains my personal paradise, but the impact of drought and climate change has become overwhelming — smoky air from fires, shriveled glaciers leaving creeks dry and meadows gray, no wildflowers.
The big new forest fire didn’t help, as we hiked back to our car in mid-August. We were never in danger, but smoke from that so-called Walker fire filled the sky and turned sunlight orange. At the surprisingly good restaurant attached to the Lee Vining Mobil station just outside the park, ashes fell like apocalyptic snowflakes onto our fish tacos. We watched a DC-10 air tanker carpet bomb flames a few miles off. We had intended to stay in a nearby motel, but Highway Patrol officers told us they planned to close the road, so we joined the line of vehicles escorted past red walls of fire.
We slept at a friend’s house on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. The next morning, as we began our drive home to San Francisco, this sense of unraveling — of California coming apart at the seams — worsened by the mile. The air was more Beijing than Yosemite, and the Merced River, normally a white-water pleasure ground, was a muddy sequence of black pools below mountains covered with dead ponderosa pines, a tiny sample of the more than 12 million California trees killed by drought and the bark beetles that thrive in this now-warmer climate.
The San Joaquin Valley, still farther west, is depressing on good days, with its endemic poverty and badly polluted air and water. But driving in freeway traffic through endless housing developments on that particular weekend encouraged a fugue state of bleakness in me. Somewhere in that haze lay an industrial-agricultural plain where the unregulated pumping of groundwater has gone on for so long that corporate farms pull up moisture that rained down during the last glacial period — with two paradoxical and equally strange geological effects.
We were nearly home, inching through Sunday-afternoon traffic (rush hour is now everywhere and always), when I realized that I had become my parents. Put another way, it was finally my turn to suffer the sense of loss that made my mother weep over every strip mall obliterating every once-lovely farm during family road trips in our 1971 VW micro-bus. My father’s nostalgia was more for 1950s Los Angeles: Bing Crosby living down the street, the Four Freshmen on the radio, a T-shirt filled with oranges as he rode the bus from his family’s Westwood home through sleepy neighborhoods to a completely separate town called Santa Monica.
Confusing one’s own youth with the youth of the world is a common human affliction, but California has been changing so fast for so long that every new generation gets to experience both a fresh version of the California dream and, typically by late middle-age, its painful death.
“Eyes wide open, here,” says Terry Sawyer, co-owner of the nearby Hog Island Oyster Company, where the big issue is excess atmospheric carbon dioxide raising ocean acidity so fast that oyster larvae struggle to build shells. “The California dream of us being wet and making a living and enjoying ourselves may be threatened,” he says. “I have kids, and I want that dream intact for them, but it may not be the same dream. I may not be growing the same organism. I am hopeful, but I am extremely concerned.”
Everybody is — except, of course, those living the most obvious new California dream, the technology gold rush. Try telling successful 25-year-old entrepreneurs in San Francisco that California’s over and you’ll get blank stares as they contemplate stock options, condos going up all over the city, restaurants packed nightly and spectacular organic produce at farmers’ markets every day.
It’s not only 25-year-olds saying that. “You’re a naturalist, Duane, so of course you see it through that lens,” said Mr. Starr, later in our conversation. “But don’t lose sight of all the great new things happening, all over California. Marc Benioff just built one of the greatest pediatric hospitals on the planet a few miles from your house! And this whole tsunami of foreign investment pouring into California is really a ringing endorsement of the dream.”
I drive by Mr. Benioff’s hospital every day, and I know that Mr. Starr is right. I am also impressed, sincerely, by all these brilliant people making fortunes seemingly overnight. I recognize that prosperity is better than its absence, and I like the fact that Californians still help make the future look hopeful, by developing better solar panels and electric cars, sustainable agriculture and marine-protected areas that preserve fish populations and their habitats. I have also noticed the friendly crowds jostling my elbows at every surf break and on the shockingly long lines below Yosemite rock climbs. These people have as much fun as I ever did, loving the only version of California available to them. [...]
Perhaps this is true of life generally, not just California specifically. As we get older, we miss what was. California's transformation(s) have been many and rapid, which makes it dramatic. But I think it's happening everywhere, as the world becomes a smaller, more crowded place. And once you become old enough to have as significant amount of "past" behind you, you notice it more.
It was a good article, with lots more examples, read the whole thing for embedded links and more.