Strange Land

With just a few weeks to the winter solstice, the fiddlenecks, goosefoot and peonies are in full leaf: I am tireless (and some might say tiresome) in my heralding of gwanwyn, of spring in the chaparral after summer's deathly heat (The Winter's Tale).

This topsy-turvydom is familiar territory to me having lived for over a decade in the antipodes where the strangeness of the fauna and flora, and the seasonal mirroring of the northern hemisphere, was much commented on during the colonial founding of Australia. In my day, many would-be British immigrants, (whingeing poms) never did get used to Christmas on the beach and would return after a few years, in whimpering confusion, back to the poor grey island of their birth. Here in California, despite the overwhelming presence of chaparral in the wildlands, it is quite possible and indeed probable that one's life be lived out in ignorance of the unique characteristics of this eco-system's adaptation to the extreme Mediterranean-type climate which predominates in the southern part of the state. We have arranged, through the artifice of irrigation, to surround ourselves in our cities and suburbs with old-world, exotic flora that faithfully conforms in its habits to the traditional seasonal calendar.

Other evidence of the apparent strangeness of the State has long been recognized. Charles Nordhoff writes, in the opening pages of California for Health Pleasure and Residence, that pean to this Pacific state that did so much to brand it (Hotel California), "California is to most Eastern people still a land of big beets (Muwu) and pumpkins, of rough miners, of pistols, bowie-knives, abundant fruit, queer wines, high prices - full of discomforts, and abounding in dangers to the peaceful traveler". He goes on to suggest that so little known is California that for Easterners it might as well be the flying island of Laputa that floats somewhere above the Pacific in Swift's early 18th century satire, Gulliver's Travels.

I have written of California's history of being identified as (and here compared with) an island (An Island on the Land, Independence Day). While often believed literally over several centuries, this connection has, of course, proven to be mythical. One of the first expressions of this fantasy is contained in Garci Ordonez de Montalvo's  Las Sergas de Esplandian, Seville, 1510, where he locates California "on the right hand of the Indies...very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise", and where the Californian black Amazons rode into battle on griffins led by their mighty Queen Calafia.

Swift knew of California, in the highly approximate way of the geographers of the 1700's, for he locates the Island of Glubbdubdrib, "somewhere east of Japan and west of California", as a place of sorcerers and magicians. In the skies above, the King of Laputa cruises over his dominions punishing rebellious behavior by his subjects through the simple expedient of parking his island, held aloft by a giant loadstone magnet, over the insurrectionist state, thus denying it rain and sunshine. Swift explains, "the island is made to rise and fall, and move from one place to another. For, with respect to that part of the earth over which the monarch presides, the stone is endued at one of its sides with an attractive power, and at the other with a repulsive." Thus we have transportation by magnetic levitation foretold, as used now in the high speed Maglev rail system.

Glubbdubdrib, we are informed, "is about one third as large as the Isle of Wight, and extremely fruitful: it is governed by the head of a certain tribe, who are all magicians. This tribe marries only among each other, and the eldest in succession is prince or governor". Swift then, by placing this phatasmogoric floating island and the lands beneath it somewhere between Japan and the Californian coast, establishes the region as a never-never land, unknowable and thus infinitely malleable in his literary imagination. Nordhoff references Laputa as a synecdoche for this same frontier of the strange and fantastic - qualities many believe California continues to uphold.

The gold rush miners, immigrants from Europe and the east coast, refugees from the dustbowl and emigrees from all over have, over the last one hundred and fifty years, attempted to make their new home on the west coast out of the vocabularies of the old. Their continued failure to achieve any plausible replication of their homelands and native customs is a tribute to the fun-house mirror that is provincialism. Papering over the local eco-system with exotics has resulted in such bizarre west coast landscapes as Lotusland in Santa Barbara, and, more locally, Taft Gardens (Return to Bear Canyon). These are extremes of a spectrum (and possessed of very different aesthetic impulses) that extends to the planting of eucalypts and beyond to generic palm trees and petunias that is supposed to anchor us in the known but all the while confirms the enduring strangeness of our fantastic land.

Abbot Kinney pioneered the growing of eucalypts in California and was also responsible for the failed attempt to evoke the ancient trading city of Venice by digging ditches through a homely stretch of partially drained coastal wetland in Los Angeles. On both counts, he was transplanting icons from alien cultures, and while his adventures in canal building were merely a folly, his contribution to the introduction of Australian gum trees has caused massive disruption to the state's emblematic eco-systems.

The gum tree was long considered strange by Europeans, for how could such a stately tree offer almost no shade, shed its bark instead of its pendulous leaves and they, in turn, be more blue-gray than green? E. and R. Littel note in the The Living Age, 1884, that for Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavor on Cook's round-the-world voyage of exploration, discovering the flora and fauna in Botany Bay (now a part of Sydney) in 1770, "must have been like finding one's self for the first time on the surface of a new planet".

No such overt strangeness greeted the first Europeans to explore California. The Spanish monte bajo is very similar to our chaparral (Suquet). Lynx, wolves, bears, foxes, boars, antelope, deer and elk still roamed Europe in the sixteenth century. The only animal in California capable of surprising the Spanish was the mountain lion, but that too was well known by repute for it was a familiar heraldic animal. Cabrillo first came ashore in San Diego on September 28, 1542. Venturing further north, the San Salvador and Victoria put in at the Island of San Miguel. Here indeed was a civilization of magicians and sorcerers (for who can doubt the profoundly astrological and animistic basis of Chumash culture?). On this weird, Glubbdubdribian island Cabrillo broke his leg and later returned to die after storms and heavy seas turned his ships back from Point Reyes. It would not be until 1910, when John Harrington began his study of the local native American culture, that the profound strangeness of Chumashian esotericism was slowly revealed to the modern world.

Sir Francis Drake floated the storm-damaged Golden Hinde into a harbor at Point Reyes (Drake's Bay) in 1579 and was so reminded of the south coast of England that he named the region Nova Albion (Albion). Like Cabrillo, he remained blind to the exotic weirdness close-by. Not so far away, the stange and wonderful giant redwoods would eventually be discovered by Europeans in the 1850's, establishing a kind of botanical freak show that would totally eclipse the mild arboreal eccentricities of the eucalypt (The Democratic Republic of Chaparral).