Near the beach in Southern California, by September I notice that the ground is parched, the vegetation bleached almost colorless. Where water is brought incredible distances to sprinkle a lawn or to deep drip trees and flowering bushes, there are prominent exceptions to what would otherwise be the effect of annual six to eight month droughts. Everything on the hillsides and empty lots is dressed in shades of brown, yellow, and gray. Grasses bow in submission . Thick-skinned sumac leaves curl upwards forming anticipatory channels for long-awaited rain. The fog, which often brought cool, thick relief in June, July, and even a few days in August, has turned into a blinding white haze by day and a stale, smoggy cloud by night. The ocean, subdued by long months without storms, still raises waves of varying heights for beginning, intermediate and veteran surfers, but warmer, more stagnant salt water may now begin to produce plankton blooms of red tide.
True, as we all approach the Equinox again, the daylight periods are shortening rapidly here, but other than this sense that everything has been on a very low oven for a very, very long time--even while a hotter oven just over the nearest mountain has been baking the desert on the highest heat--there is no hint of autumn in the air. If anything, there is an instinctive awareness that our summer weather pattern is winding down and the most likely events before the rains arrive in November, if they arrive that early, are a menacing series of Santa Ana winds from the east, turning the chaparral into kindling for potentially violent brush fires.
In another way, I realize, this summer fog along the coast has provided a false sense of perpetual insulation from the continental extremes it seems to melt into. Dry hazy sunshine is somehow relentless and imperturbable, a variation from morning to evening without much obvious variation, a security that feels repetitious, edgy, and somehow insecure. A perfect place for the contradictory life we live here. For centuries the Indians and then even the first Europeans were forced to maintain a precarious balance with such a dry landscape, but once, thanks to Mulholland and others, water was channeled from the High Sierras and the Colorado River, more could be kept alive than green vegetation, much more than may be natural to this landscape: Los Angelization could take root here, initiating phenomena reaching around the world.
What a perfect place for Western Civilization to put down tap roots and flower into a Huntington Library, a Simon, then a Getty Museum, a Frank Gehry Disney Concert Hall! What a perfect place to engage in great leaps forward in science: a Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hughes Aircraft, Macdonald Douglas! Multi-media dream making from Hearst to Rupert Murdock, Hollywood Glitz to Digital Domain.
But, to return to contradictions, I often wonder about the vivid contrasts of those who do not get irrigation. Who are the real natives of this land living closest to the old ways--not in a mythology of the past, but the living embodiment of those who have learned survival out-of-doors among the dusty brown and gray vegetation in the canyons and hills? How about the homeless, the beach bums (or what were once called "Beach Combers") wandering along, hiding where they can, pushing their shopping carts full of their last valuable possessions in plastic bags? Their skin turns brown and weathered from exposure to the sun. Yet somehow they survive the long summers and even what there is of inclement weather in the late fall, winter, and early spring months.
One thing is certain: the daily consciousness of people on the streets and in the canyons here is worlds apart from the more privileged majority speeding by in their automobiles and SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles). The homeless, for whatever personal or social reasons, have been unlinked from the spigots of water, oil, consumerism, and populism. You don't have to worry much about how they will vote in a recall election, which seems to me more about where the spigots that have been flowing so efficiently in good times will be turned off next. But the homeless are a reminder that in some ways the spigots never got turned on in some areas of society, or that most of California remains, except for these sybaritic coastal strips of land near the ocean, a vast wasteland far from anything resembling Western Civilization. Rather it remains firmly linked to the realities of the Wild West (but not necessarily the Hollywood images of "Western" heroes).
Our politicians these days seem to get all these quite discrete concepts muddled beyond recognition. As money flows like water, so flows "free speech." Public relations campaigns substitute for well-reasoned policy. Freedom is equated with "democratic institutions" but only if they can be manipulated to fit the needs of an unquenchable corporate thirst. When in doubt, offer the middle class another tax cut while making sure that the largest cuts go to the contributors who finance your campaign. To update Ralph Waldo Emerson, Greed is at the driver's wheel and steps down firmly on the gas pedal.
Unfortunately, just about everyone in southern California, and by extension, everyone else who falls under the sway of this phenomenon of Los Angelization becomes complicit insofar as they manage to hold onto whatever privileges may keep them hooked into the water lines. Yet so many are excluded in many subtle ways--not just the homeless who won't be voting anyway, but everyone from the naive (either innocent by virtue of immature years or ignorant by lack of education), the self-deceived, working people who can't take time out of their impossibly busy day to find a polling place, and the other outcasts. (I may even plead here for populations outside the United States and for unborn generations.) In fact, since California's economy represents something on the magnitude of, say, that of Japan and France, decisions made here reverberate around the world. If California, along with the rest of the United States, through the whim of a President from Texas, chooses to ignore the Kyoto protocol, the entire Earth and its future generations have been excluded from a voice against global warming. If words like terrorism and phrases like "axis of evil" are left to be defined by the same process and the United Nations' Security Council's resolutions implemented according to the same timetables and agenda, valuable and necessary dissent is not only deemed irrelevant; it is.
I don't mean this to be a political tirade. My focus is on personal survival in this particular landscape along with everyone else. Ultimately my condition is best described as frailty, the same frailty I see in the native plants this time of year, the same frailty I see in the homeless I drive past at full speed at the same time as I glance at a surfer catching a beautiful wave at the beach. In fact, you might say my effort at survival is more a matter of focusing most of my attention on keeping my eyes on the road most of the time and ignoring the homeless and resisting the temptation to stop for long periods of time to watch the surfers. I have the frailty to be disturbed by social inequities and a frailty for beautiful bodies in motion. I also have a frailty for poetry, philosophy, and the kind of stormy weather not often found in this part of the world. I guess in writing this down I am embracing my frailties.
My duties are to my parents in their nineties who need to keep the spigots on in modest but demanding ways hour by hour, and to my estranged wife and high-functioning, musically-gifted Asperger's son who absolutely need the medical benefits my former job carried with me even into disability and early retirement. Finally, but quite essentially, there is the duty to myself and to my less and less "modest" writing career which is supported at the minimum by electricity, interaction with friends and loved ones, sweet dreams at night, three square meals a day, and large stretches of solitary time between the other duties.
At least in writing about this place I am at, I can offer a prayer for early and frequent gentle rains out of the heavens. And you can bet your life I will show my appreciation when they finally fall.