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February 08, 2008

Once By The Pacific

Because I am a professional idler and dilettante, I frittered away this morning on a long constitutional along West Cliff Drive. Weâre having a tiny pocket of beautiful weather in what has otherwise been a punishing deluge, and today the ocean was completely placid, studded with becalmed surfers hanging out next to clusters of otters. I have lived by the California coast for my entire life, and today I noticed for the first time that sea lions swim like dolphins, leaping up with their backs arched, their bodies describing nifty vertical donuts in the water.

There are no long unbroken stretches of walkable beach in Santa Cruz â actually, I canât think of any really long unbroken stretches of walkable beach between here and Mexico â but there are places where the elements are doing their best to create some. At Natural Bridges, if you stand on the beach and look back toward the cliff with the parking lot on it, you can see the remains of the staircase that has been covered over with mounds of sand and growths of hardy-rooted plants and incorporated into the cliff. Now there are no stairs, and you run pell-mell down a sandy hill to get onto the beach. On East Cliff Drive, there are about a million places where you can see the one remaining curb of the original road, most of which has long since become sand and hillside. On West Cliff, the only structure that remains on the windward side of the road â aside from the lighthouse â is a single house that sits on the one remaining outcrop of land that hasnât fallen down the cliff and turned into beach. The house has been for sale for about as long as Iâve lived here, probably much longer, and will probably be for sale until it falls down, because a potential buyer would have to be both extremely wealthy and extremely short-sighted, two conditions that do not so often coincide in a country where wealth is more often accumulated by wresting it from someone else via savvy and acumen, rather than by inheriting it from a thousand yearsâ lineage of inbreeding and congenital aristocracy.

Iâm not a huge fan of Robert Frost, but he did a pretty good job with this business of turning the precarious works of man through slow violence back into beach-blocking rubble, and finally into the beach itself:

You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.

Since Frost wrote that in 1928, thereâs been time to erect all these ill-advised structures along the coast and for them to be pried back off the continent by water, gravity, and plate tectonics.

More amazing still is this: The social and political landscape you see if you stand with your back to the water and look toward the continent has been entirely created by a desperation, born a little over 500 years ago in the minds of some misinformed Spanish dandies, to stand on this very beach. Everything that makes sense to us as a way of organizing the world, from our irrationally resolute belief that new reserves of depredated natural resources will magically appear just when we need them, to the inversely proportionate organization of labor for and access to those resources along racial lines, comes from the hidalgosâ persistence in using storybooks for maps.

The conquistadores came from a country that had been completely impoverished by its constant attempts to make war against the Moors, and, frequently, against itself. They were the remnants of the nobility in a country that no longer had the material wealth to support nobility, and they werenât trained for any other job. As the late firebrand historian Bernard DeVoto wonderfully puts it in The Course of Empire: âThey each had a horse, armor, arms, honor, courage, and an anarchic soul, and early in life most of them had little more.â They were trained for courteous existence and gentlemanly fencing, and wholly unequipped to sail long distances or do much of anything once they got here. And they were also untrained in the twin arts of poverty and earning a living; they knew only how to be wealthy, and the best way to become wealthy without earning it is literally to stumble across a pile of gold on the ground. There were, of course, no more such piles in Spain, all of them having been melted down to make the filigree around the hidalgosâ epee hilts.

This is where something that started essentially as a bedtime story transformed itself into a cultural myth and thence into hard geographical fact, and now, 500 years later, into geopolitics. Somewhere to the east of Spain lay what was variously an island, a country, and a small continent. On it were Seven Cities made entirely out of gold, because in a fairy tale, what other number could you have, and what else could they be made of? These cities were inhabited by naked people who liked strangers and showed this like by giving them gold. The strangers didnât even have to dig for it themselves; they had only to show up on horseback with enough carrying capacity to get the gold back home. So the hidalgos packed light, carrying not nearly enough provisions for sailing, because they didnât want to waste cargo space on food and water. Some of them actually made it to South America, which is itself something of a fairy-tale miracle considering that whenever they were confronted with oceanic and geographical facts that conflicted with the mythology of the Seven Cities, they tended to side with the storybook over the astrolabe.

One of the ones who managed to push across that continent was Pizarro, to whom I suppose this blog is obliquely dedicated. He wasnât actually a hidalgo; he was an illegitimate son who was never formally educated and who worked for a time as a pig herder before shoving off for the New World. Because he was illiterate, he never read the myth of the Seven Cities, and because he was poor, he was forced to develop something of a work ethic and some survival skills. It was this combination of traits â pragmatism and handiness â that made him the right bloody fucking thug to slash and crash all the way across the continent to Peru.

Many things about his arrival there are unfortunate, not the least of which is the unspeakable savagery of his campaign and his dealings with the Incas. But perhaps more unfortunate for its long-range historical consequences is the fact that, unlike most of his compatriots, he actually did stumble into a country where even the gold was lined with gold. It was a highly developed society with complicated political and physical infrastructure and massive wealth, which turned out to be pretty easy for the conquistadores to take. It was proof positive that the Seven Cities were real, and were somewhere close by.

âItâs somewhere close byâ became the catchphrase for the next several waves of gold-crazed hidalgos. They eventually ruled out South America as a location, leaving sugar ingenios and coffee plantations in their wake, and they stumbled up to North America. Everywhere they went they found evidence that the Seven Cities were just a bit further on. Someone would come back from a failed inland expedition with a tale of four encampments of teepees and no gold, and through the game of Explorerâs Telephone it would become a report of seven major cities with buildings of gold bricks. Desire rather than observation drew the maps well into the seventeenth century, and the maps showed that two things were always right around the corner: seven cities of solid gold, and a water passage to the Pacific Ocean, which was then called the South Sea. The water passage â sometimes called the Northwest Passage â was important because it would provide an easy way to get to Asia, which after all was the original point of all this westward sailing. This was the logic of desire: a water-based trade route would be much more economical and advantageous than a land-based trade route; ergo, it was inconceivable that such a thing might not exist. Just like mountains of gold would be a good thing to have; ergo, those existed too. For years, even generations, the maps of North America showed the continent in all different shapes â often most like a 200-mile-wide kidney bean â but always bisected east-west by a convenient network of waters.

No one would believe that this continent is as inconveniently large as it happens to be. They kept pushing across it, but there was little gold and no ocean. Feverish denial made every cluster of pueblos into cities of gold, and every body of water anyone hit or heard of was thought to be the South Sea. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers both briefly got that title, as did all of the Great Lakes in turn. There were more rivers, mountains, plains and deserts than anyone knew what to do with. This place was supposed to be an island a couple hundred miles off the coast of Spain. Instead it was bafflingly huge, impossible, unaccounted for in any of the stories, right in the way of the passage to India, too huge to go around, but it couldnât go on forever, right? Right? So they kept moving West. Along the way, over several centuries, other countries took an interest and then took over; we got a few wars, the triumph of hardscrabble English frontierism over effete Spanish pseudoaristocracy and halfassed Russian grabbiness, some Indian removals, the birth of the modern republic, and, here and there, some gold, which is a lot more of a dangerous pain in the ass to haul out of the ground than anyone had thought or realized when they could make the Arawaks do it on pain of having their hands chopped off.

There is a very real sense in which modern California, as the eventual end of the hidalgosâ drive Westward, is a Spanish invention. During the push to get here, other stories got recalled and layered onto the myth of the Seven Cities, including one about a land of Amazon women ruled by a queen named Califia, filled with cool animals like griffins and covered with gold. The gentlemenâs rather understandable desire to find such a place â call it âCalifia Dreamingâ â sustained them through a lot of hard disappointments with other portions of the New World, and when they got here the California coast, fertile and shining onto the ocean, looked like everything the storybooks had promised, so we got the name California, the place where Califia lives with her one-breasted babes. Weâve got any number of cities here, glinting with gold and opening onto the Pacific, which is after all a straight shot to Asia if we want to take it. California was a huge coup for the Union both in terms of material wealth and resources and also in terms of the symbolic value of pilfering the crown jewel of Hispanic New World exploration, worth every penny of an easy two-year war with Mexico and then the 1850 Compromise that pushed us several notches closer to civil war (and took us from the lip-service Free-Soilism of the slaver Zachary Taylor toward the wishy-washy and untenable presidency of the chickenshit Millard Fillmore, and via his unreelectibility to Pierce, Buchanan, and finally to Lincoln).

The beaches around here are flecked with pyrite and mica, which makes the sand look like itâs full of gold dust, and I can take a short walk from my front door and stick my feet in the enormous bowl of freezing water the desire for which created the United States, both geographically and politically.

And why not? This place is all about willing appearances to become temporary, illusory realities. I grew up in Los Angeles, a Svengali of a city that built its wealth by providing people with charismatic images of the world as theyâd rather it were, rather than how it is. I live here in Santa Cruz with imaginary student loan money thatâs going to have to be paid back someday, but isnât that California â perhaps all of the New World â in a nutshell? We build enormous houses on eroding cliffs.

I get to live here, I get a (measly, piddling, ruinous) salary from the government to go to school here, and a couple of miles away in the valley without an ocean view Hispanic migrant laborers are picking my lettuce. We got away cheap on this place, and sometimes itâs hard for me to make sense of what weâve done with it, like building a hideous boardwalk and miles of senseless, crumbling highways on the lip of the biggest prize of the Age of Exploration and the object of every single continentalist American desire. Iâm an atheist and I donât believe in the wrath of God or anything like that, but I do think itâs fairly obvious that a more subtle moral and social cost accrues over time when you build a fairy-tale city on stolen land using unremunerated or barely remunerated labor. Maybe a small sense of impending justice â a small sense that weâve got it just a little better here than weâve earned â lies behind the quips about California splintering off and falling into the ocean, or at least behind the creepy satisfaction that I sometimes get from seeing the geography reclaim the roads and staircases and houses weâve tried to stick here. Frostâs got that nailed down, too, because the actual end of the poem goes like this:

It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before Godâs last Put out the Light was spoken.

Posted by katie at 06:41 PM