Today is the birthday of an icon in California, Cesar Chavez.
Eight years ago, I posted a link to an article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanigan reviewing Miriam Pawel’s exhaustive and thorough biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. Pawel’s effort to tell the full story of Chavez’s life and work was rigorous, clear-eyed, and ultimately iconoclastic. The portrait that emerges challenges three generations of hagiography so utterly as to serve as a much more fundamental warning. Making idols of men threatens to cast the burden of their flaws upon the legitimacy of the causes for which they fought.
So let us no longer carve Chavez into an idol, but let us instead honor the cause for which he fought, however imperfectly. Rather than celebrate the life of Chavez, I will instead spend time on this day of global sequestration reflecting upon the nature of his cause, which to me is this:
No civilization can long stand that treats as a commodity any people, but especially those who harvest its food, teach its children, or heal its wounds.
Building a pantheon of white-washed heroes does not advance that or any cause worthy of our better instincts. Truly supporting our farmworkers, our teachers, and our medical professionals demands more thought, more care, and some degree of sacrifice to make it meaningful. Let us resolve not to shirk from that responsibility.
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The water problem is part of a larger demographic problem: too many people have moved to California, a place that, given its resource constraints, its seismic instability, and its tendency toward massive brush fires, should have never been settled so densely.
Saval was writing about this five years ago, and it is tempting to buy his argument. Who among us longtime denizens of this state do not occasionally look out the window and wonder “from whence came these masses who cover our natural beauty with concrete and stucco?”
But laying the water problem at the feet of California’s outsized population does not lead us to a solution: if a quarter, or even a third of the state’s current headcount decamped for greener pastures, we would still have crippling droughts.
The water problem is one of global proportions, and the fact that a confluence of climactic conditions is foisting the drought on a fairly wet state should be seen as a wake up call. For a large and growing cohort of the world’s population – even in the developed world – water is no longer a virtually-free and unlimited resource.
The answer is not to line up the Greyhounds and the U-Hauls and depopulating Suburbia Californicus. It is, rather, to put our imagination and our capital to work finding ways to cut waste and to make water use more efficient in every sector.
If we can do that, the water problem becomes an opportunity for our innovative, optimistic state to make the world a better place and get rich in the process. If the great minds of Silicon Valley and the moneyed mandarins of Sand Hill Road want to find a place to bet on the next boom, maybe our drought is the G-d or the Universe or whoever sending us a not-too-subtle signal on where to look.
Forget biotech. Forget social media. Let’s focus on WaterTech.
Bryan Walsh at TIME is probably getting as tired as we are of all of the finger-pointing taking place around California about water wasting. Enough of the mutually vilifying PR battles between almond growers, city water districts, and the oil industry. Finger pointing and calls for draconian measures (uprooting the state’s avocado trees, shutting down hydrofracking, and rationing drinking water) will not solve the water shortage.
Walsh suggests five sensible, intelligent, and sustainable ways to cut back water without turning the state into a lousy place for people to live. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize xeriscaping as a step very dear to the hearts of GWR editors.
SoCal’s wettest July on record and rumors of a Monster El Niño notwithstanding, we’re going to be in a drought for a while to come, and when we’re out, we need to give the State’s water resources a chance to recover. Each of these steps should be on your radar.
I grew up enamored with the idea of being a firefighter, inspired by the January 1972 premiere of NBC’sEmergency! I was pretty open about my ambitions for a few years, even attempting to organize my own grade-school version of a volunteer fire department. My parents fretted about my obsession, though, and the fact that it took away from my concentration at school. Worse, perhaps, was that my interest became decidely uncool before I was ten, and given my persistent geeky social awkwardness I needed as few factors as possible working against me. I remained an avid fire buff throughout my teens, but I kept it under wraps.
Then, at seventeen, my firefighter fantasies seemed poised to come true. Working for the summer of 1982 on the rural west end of Catalina Island, I was sitting down for lunch on July 3rd when the fire siren wailed. Looking up to see a growing pall of smoke from the dry hillsides next to Catalina Harbor a scant two miles away. I rushed back to work only to be hurriedly herded with a handful of other locals into the back of the sheriff deputy’s Bronco, then deposited alone, clueless and tool-less minutes later along a road between the fire and the tiny community at the Isthmus.
At that moment, alone on a hillside, a hundred yards from the next nearest person, without a shovel, protective gear, leadership, or training, with a wind-blown fire a mile away and moving in my direction, I engaged in the kind of struggle experienced only by teenaged boys. Hero Complex urged me to “hold the line” against the fire, using my shirt to fight it if I had to. Hero Complex was quickly overruled, however, by the power-team of Common Sense and Fear: “what can I do by myself with no tools?” asked Common Sense. “Let’s get the f*** out of here before we burn and die,” urged Fear.
Down the hill I went, alone as I came up, hating myself every step of the way, even after I saw that the fire chief had decided to set up a perimeter around the structures in the direct path of the fire, leaving to burn the brush I was sent to defend. I spent the rest of the night as spectator and support, never quite forgiving myself for not making the stand, but knowing (hoping?) that somehow I had done the right thing.
Apart from earthquakes, there are probably few things that scare the hell out of your average Californian more than a wildfire. From afar, they are horrifying in an intellectual kind of way. Put yourself in the path of an advancing wall of uncontrolled flame, though, and suddenly something inside your lizard brain starts squeezing your adrenal glands until every cell in your body tries to flee of its own accord.
And well it should. Fighting fires of any kind is not for wannabees. The chemical nexus of heat, fuel, and oxygen is more than just a simple reaction. The best description I have ever heard was Robert DeNiro‘s line as fire marshal Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale in Ron Howard’s Backdraft.
“It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes ’em fight it on it’s level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”
Your average professional firefighter has the equivalent of a university education on the science of fire suppression. The National Fire Protection Association suggests a minimum of 110 hours, or three weeks, of intensive training before a physically-fit volunteer firefighter is allowed to join a department, and most departments lay heavy demands for continued on-the-job training for minimum competence.
Yet every year, the roll-call of firefighters killed in the line of duty grows. Fire, that fickle witch, claims for her own even the best trained and most experienced. And the most wicked, unpredictable, terrifying kind of fire is the wildland conflagration, when brush, bush, and entire forests play host to howling walls of burning terror.
Despite the danger, every fire season, over four thousand felons voluntarily place their bodies between those walls of flame and our homes in the state of California. Somehow these convicted felons overcome whatever character flaws they possess and step into some of the most grueling and dangerous work in America.
It is a great untold story of heroism in the Golden West, and James Pogue set out with camping gear, notebooks, and tape recorder in his pickup truck to learn more about California’s convict conservationists. What he describes is at once heartening and unsettling. Most of the convicts come from urban backgrounds, yet they live for weeks, even months, in the rough conditions of a tent camp, away from anything resembling modern conveniences. It’s a hard life: twelve- and even twenty-hour days spent hiking in rough back-country with heavy tools and wearing heavy kit, engaged in the backbreaking and fraught work of cutting fire breaks and setting backfires just ahead of the firestorm.
A sleeping bag and physically draining days clearly beat the scant attractions of life on a cell block in California’s overfull prisons. Having an extra day taken off one’s sentence for each day served on a crew doesn’t hurt, either. The price for release from the perdition of concrete, barbed wire, and brutal social Darwinism is a life facing the embers and flames of California wildfires. Better flaming Hell than seething perdition, it would seem. And on that bitter choice balances the safety of an entire state built on what firefighters call the “wildland interface.” Even a law-and-order conservative with an ounce or two of compassion is troubled by the fact that our lifestyles are ensured in part through the risks taken by men we have all but cast off.
Pogue’s story doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the devil, nor does he imply that these men have anyone but themselves to blame for their predicament. Indeed, given a full-to-bursting penal system that seems bent on cultivating recidivists, a life eating smoke and cutting fire breaks seems to be the closest thing California prisons offers to genuine rehabilitation.
But after reading the story, you will never look at a forest, a prison, a home on a hillside, or a California Department of Forestry truck the same way ever again.
And if you have ever met the orange-yellow monster of a wildfire face-to-face, with your life and your loved ones at your back, you might even be driven to whisper a quiet thanks to a weary band of convicts with shovels and hard-hats.
The New York Times continues its coverage of California’s growing movement away from English-style gardens and toward xeriscaping, the trend in landscape design toward the use of indigenous flora and ground cover, with a photo essay of the work being done by landscape designer Lisa Gimmy.
What is interesting about Gimmy’s approach is that just as she seeks to integrate the garden with its surroundings, she also takes cues from the architecture and interior design of the home. In short, she seeks to create a continuum between natural surroundings, garden, and living space.
The approach is thus an outright rejection of the traditional approach to gardens, which is to bend nature to our hand and to draw a clear distinction between the “wild” and the “civilized.” I see in xeriscaping, and in particular in Ginny’s thinking, an embodiment of a more genuinely Californian (or far-Western) ideal. We need not alter the landscape to live in it – indeed, we are discovering that the less we alter the ecology around us, the more livable we are making it.
Looking at Gimmy’s designs, both in the essay and on her website, there is an interesting dynamic at work. Rather than force her clients to give up sod and hedge completely, she seems to be leading them – and, by extension, us – through a transition process by integrating traditional gardens and xeriscapes. Purism would be easier, but Gimmy is not trying to hit us over the head with a new orthodoxy. Instead, she is going the more difficult route, designing gardens that wean us away from our customary ordered Englishness into something more natural and Californian.
While beekeeping is illegal in the City of Los Angeles, Therese McLaughlin and Adam Novicki have watched their garden “explode” after adding a single colony of honeybees. They were so moved by the experience that they have started a non-profit organization, HoneyLove (http://www.honeylove.org) to get more of us urban dwellers into the bee business, and to get city ordinances preventing the farming of bees either modified or repealed.
The story strikes a chord for several reasons. First, most people forget that California is at its core an agricultural state. Long before the arrival of oilmen, aviators, and filmmakers, the sunshine and sea breezes had already turned California into the most important agricultural state in the Union. Despite technology, urbanization, and modernization, California now supplies the world.
Second, I think Mc Laughlin and Novicki (trading as “T&A Farms”) are onto something, fostering a trend that is liable to spread across the nation, and adding another brick to the construction of the California of the 21st Century.