Letter From California

Burn & Shake
(Plinthpics / Alamy Stock Photo)

My parents got married in 1962. My father was a Californian, the child of Californians. My mother was born to Californian parents, but in icy, flat Montana, where her father had been temporarily posted in his work as an FBI agent. Sometimes I imagine what my two grandmothers might have talked about at the wedding. My paternal grandmother, born to immigrants and raised in a rough neighborhood in Oakland, never finished high school, but my mother’s mother was the first woman in her family to go to college. She’d been born on a ranch in the remote mountains of northern California, the last of fourteen children. What that escape cost her, I do not know.

Last fall, in the latest round of wildfires, the land that had surrounded that ranch was incinerated. The ranch itself was razed years ago. Its remnants lie beneath the waters of Whiskeytown Lake, a lake created by a dam, because California is starved for water. All the people in the previous paragraph, except my mother, are dead. The stories of the California they knew, the ranch and the lake and the people, are becoming ghostly.

In 1978, Joan Didion and her husband sold their house in Malibu and departed for the East Coast. But Didion, ever the reporter, followed the stories of the fires that seared Southern California in the wake of her departure. “Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach.” As the fires reached 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, “birds exploded in the air.” She wrote that burning houses did not explode; they imploded, “as in a nuclear strike.”

Today we might think of Didion as a New Yorker. After all, she has lived in the Big Apple, growing bonier and smaller as she moves into very old age, longer than she ever lived in California. But her familial roots plunge into the delta soil of Sacramento, five generations deep. In The White Album, her chronicle of California’s nightmarish cycle of disasters in the 1970s, she summed up California’s notion of destiny in a single sentence: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

When I walk to my office in Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley, I walk beneath Joan Didion. This past year, in an attempt to convey the significance of the university’s one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary to our anxious, hustling students, the administration placed banners around campus imprinted with images of famous alumni and faculty: our gene splicers and atom slicers, our poets and politicians hover above us as we huff up and down the campus’s hills, human engines cranking to keep the institution moving forward. Wheeler Hall looks like a wedding cake and is home to English on its upper floors and writing in the basement, the root toiling to feed the crown, and the image of a slender, youthful Didion hangs just in front of its easternmost doors. Sometimes I’ll ask my nonfiction students if any of them are from Sacramento. A few will usually say yes. And I have them read Didion, and Richard Rodriguez, the self-described “scholarship boy,” another alum from Sacramento, and another beneficiary of the California Master Plan for Public Education, which guaranteed a college education for every qualified Californian.

Interviewed by the magazine Boom: A Journal of California in 2014, Rodriguez was asked if he felt like a Californian writer. He spoke about the Mexican California and the Asian California, the Russian California and the Black California. And he spoke about the muscular, beautiful body of a man he’d admired when he was young. The man’s shoulders were marked with spots, which would darken in the summer. Years later, the man died of skin cancer. Rodriguez said that was the moment he understood that “California would take its toll. And California would not forgive. And California would remember everything you did in the sun, as it reminds me. There is nothing you did that day, carefree you in the California sun, that California doesn’t remember.”

The fertile delta in Sacramento that fed the imaginations of a young Didion and a young Rodriguez is now overcrowded with sprawling developments built for people fleeing the Bay Area’s staggeringly expensive housing. The new units are all beige and tan, like the land around them. My classrooms are still full of scholarship kids like Rodriguez, like my grandmother, and myself, but they come in a greater variety of hues. Many are the first in their families to attend college, many the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. Many are undocumented. Many are transfers from community colleges. All of them are still attempting to carve out a new narrative in California, where self-creation is still a thing. The trick is managing to survive in a place that does its best to self-destruct with unnerving frequency.

 

Californians know what to do in a disaster. Stop, drop, and do your best to hold on.

Two fall semesters in a row, as fires have torched the state, Berkeley administrators have debated the same question: How much smoke is too much smoke? This past November, it poured into the Bay Area from Paradise, a couple of hours northeast, and was trapped by the topography, pooling and stagnating against the Golden Gate. The air quality was so bad the alerts went from red (hazardous) to purple (don’t go outside unless you have to, and you’ll regret it if you do). The administration stalled and stalled and finally gave in, late in the afternoon on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Pack up and go home, they told the students, maybe you’ll find better air there. Many of our students are from Southern California, which welcomed them home with a mass shooting in a bar and even more wildfires.

In 1991, Oakland and Berkeley also burned. The fire began in the hills, home to the wealthy, and raced toward the flats where the poor and middle class live. (Just two years before that, the Loma Prieta earthquake had crushed whole neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland, sparking its own set of fires, ripping chunks out of the Bay Bridge, and compressing freeway overpasses from three dimensions to two.) I woke on the morning of the 1991 Oakland firestorm, looked out the window, and saw the plume rising over my mother’s neighborhood. I drove at top speed to find her sitting on the porch, defying evacuation orders. She’d leave, she said, when the fire reached the end of her block. It never got that close, but many of her neighbors lost everything. Fastest to burn were the eucalyptus trees, an invasive species, which go up like tiki torches as soon as a flame touches them. Thirty years later, a herd of goats is regularly deployed throughout the East Bay hills to chew away at every bit of underbrush that might throw a spark.

A young Dorothy Day was awoken one Oakland morning in 1906. She used to lie in bed at night, as she writes in The Long Loneliness, thinking of God, knowing “I believed and yet was afraid of nothingness.” While her family survived the earthquake that leveled San Francisco that day, “the house was a shambles, dishes broken all over the floor, books out of their bookcases, chandeliers down, chimneys fallen, the house cracked from the roof to ground.” But it was what the child Dorothy saw in the quake’s aftermath that shifted her life’s trajectory. The next day, she says, refugees began pouring into Oakland, and she watched as her mother and others in the neighborhood leapt into action, feeding, clothing, and housing those who’d lost everything to the quake and the fires in its aftermath. “While the crisis lasted,” she tells us, “people loved one another.”

Californians display their capacity to snap into rescue mode with reliable, necessary frequency. A friend recently told me about driving to Chico in the aftermath of the wildfires with a car full of supplies and a box of donated burritos, only to find every supply center for refugees overstocked, every relief worker already fed. After the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that claimed the lives of thirty-six young artists and musicians two years ago, I brought fire extinguishers and smoke alarms to donate to the artists still hanging on in the remaining warehouses they could occupy, but was turned away: more had been given than they could use. When AIDS was killing so many people in the early 1990s, the gay men dying in the Castro turned to the Irish grandmothers at Most Holy Redeemer church to care for them when their own mothers would not. The parish had been aging and shrinking. On Sundays now, it is filled with people and alive with music.

Today, an earthquake woke me at 4 a.m., a “baby quake,” as we say in our cutesy way to stave off fears about The Big One. Just a nudge to remind us not to relax. A few hours later, it’s raining. The atmospheric rivers of winter coming down from Alaska bring their own set of concerns. A burn scar anywhere in the state will destabilize with too much water running across it, which means mudslides, rock slides, and the closure of the I5 freeway linking Northern California to Southern. Just two weeks ago, our new governor stood up in Sacramento and spoke about the challenges we face: our enormous economy is rickety, our poverty staggering, our housing maddening, our social divisions fathoms deep. His speech was as slick as his signature combed-back hair, but with a jagged edge worthy of the place he’ll lead: Gavin Newsom is open about his struggles with dyslexia, which means he has to deliver every address from memory.

You wouldn’t have known it watching him, tall and tanned, his blond toddler son ambling onstage and climbing into his arms. Charisma counts here, whether it’s the cranky, no-bullshit charisma of his predecessor Jerry Brown, the hard-charging charisma of Oakland-born senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris, or the innate charisma already on view in many first-year students at Berkeley: top of their high-school classes in everything, athletic, politically astute before they’ve cast their first vote. But by the time they’re seniors, they’ve frayed around the edges and sunk into a snarky cynicism. In semesters when I teach freshmen and seniors back-to-back, I get essays depicting two kinds of California narratives: one of promise and ambition, the other of life on the edge of collapse. But what happens after graduation is a rewiring that is also very Californian. Jerry Brown, after all, failed three times in his runs for president but still reinvented himself, first as the tracksuit-sporting mayor of Oakland who played basketball at the local YMCA, and then successfully maneuvering his way back into the same governor’s seat he’d held decades before. My students collapse, and then arise as doctors, lawyers, startup founders, authors, and politicians themselves. When a road crumbles from quakes, floods, or heavy traffic, it’s rebuilt within months by the efficient orange-vested engineers of CalTrans, an investment in a future we’re still somehow traveling toward.

I spend most vacations in the remote coastal community of Gualala, population 2,093, three hours of winding, cliffside driving north of San Francisco. This past Christmas Eve, we went to the community arts center for a Lessons and Carols service. Clergy from the local religious communities (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Catholic—they all share the same tiny church on a rotating schedule) alternated with lay readers, including members of the local Native American community, the Manchester band of the Pomo tribe. A bearded guy in flannels played a tinkling synthesizer to accompany the warbled hymns. There were mostly elderly people in attendance. On Christmas Day, every store, every restaurant, and even the gas stations were closed. We walked on empty trails to an empty beach, where redwood groves tumble down toward rock formations carved over centuries by the moon-driven force of the tides, the land jutting out into a Pacific so endless it was not hard to be convinced that this was, indeed, evidence of God’s mighty hand at work. Perhaps it’s because California is so gloriously beautiful that it has, for centuries, been trying its hardest to burn and shake us off so that it might be at peace. But Californians have adapted. We know what to do in a disaster. Stop, drop, and do your best to hold on.

Published in the March 8, 2019 issue: 

Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of four books.

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