Ahh, northern California. I love your sunshine, your moderate temperatures, your coastal scenery, your redwoods, your year-round produce. But like most ersatz Californians, even as I am reveling in your glories, I have to work to forget the fault lines running below me and the wildfires that regularly blaze across the countryside, and I try not to let the massive depletion of underground aquifers by agricultural irrigation operations stop me from enjoying my wine, peaches, apples, almonds, tomatoes and, well… need I go on?
On a related note, Brian and I made a Friday afternoon foray to the recently re-opened San Pablo Dam reservoir, which had been closed for some time as the East Bay Municipal Utility District (otherwise known as EBMUD) made structural upgrades to the dam (this after a 2004 study revealed that earthquake damage could lead to dam “slumping” and downstream flood damage to nearby communities). We used to see the reservoir in its drained state from our hikes in the Berkeley hills, so it was something of a pleasant surprise to witness it restored to normal capacity–a blue, sunlit gem nestled away in the dry hills behind Richmond and El Cerrito, insulated from the cold fog covering San Francisco and Berkeley by a wall of inland heat. I admit, I enjoyed the irony and the intimacy of recreation hiking in the oak scrub around an artificial body of water that contains some portion of my drinking water (most of Berkeley’s drinking water comes from the Mokelumne River, but I assume much of it gets stored in San Pablo reservoir). As I dutifully obeyed the signs prohibiting swimming or wading, took note of the suggested safe intake of reservoir-caught fish (many species contain high amounts of chemicals and are therefore unsafe for pregnant women or repeated consumption), and watched a white pelican urinate into the water as he soared past, I thought to myself: being a Californian sure is complicated.
The problem is, I’ve read the work of John McPhee (The Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid, Assembling California, etc.) and Marc Reisner (Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water and A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate), and I’m all too aware of the forced prosperity of the Golden State: how this semi-desert terrain that was never meant to support gold-hungry, real-estate hungry, sun-worshipping hordes became the major megapolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles through the relentless draining of the Sierras and the damming of waterways literally thousands of miles away.
It’s not quite enough to make the sunshine today seem sinister, but I admit that a kind of geographical blindness seems to set in after only a few years of living in this apparent paradise. I’m no Mary Austin, after all. I’m still defined by the habitats of my youth in that I can only recognize the trees, flowers, and animals common to suburban Maryland. It has taken me years to begin recognizing manzanitas, madrones, lupines, and poppies; “chaparral” has only recently entered my vocabulary. But I’m trying. I suppose I’m a bit of a cognitivist, because I’d like to see not only the beauty of dramatic coastlines, old- and new-growth forests, and the riverine, but also the geologic, meteorological, and human-driven processes that led to their (de)formation. Recognizing the imprint of a receding glacier, the tinder-box quality of a drought, the rains likely to encourage edible mushrooms… would all be welcome reminders that California will change, with or without me.