Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Life and Place in Southern California

I was standing on the platform at San Juan Capistrano station this morning, waiting for a Metrolink train to carry me to school. I've been feeling low on this trip, reading about the unforeseeable changes we've set into motion on our planet through our unconcern over resource consumption, and meanwhile seeing people drive alone in trucks with monster tires and four door cabs. I've pumped $51 into my mom's car's gas tank, and I've had the goods I've purchased shoved into enough bags to create my own little corner in the plastic sea. Just before the train arrived, a man rode up to the platform on a bicycle. That made me feel a little more hopeful.

View of the San Bernardino Mountains from the train.
Riding the train north from San Juan, I always take a seat on the right side because if there's not too much smog I can see the spread of the San Bernardino Mountains to the east. I think about the grape ranch my great grandparents established in the foothills of that range, where they sold under the label Our Girl and put a picture of my grandmother on the crates. That is, they did until my great grandfather Otto Meyer died in a car crash in 1929, leaving a widow and two small children to weather the Great Depression on their own.

Otto Meyer and his little girl, Kathryn Holmes, who became my grandma.
I think about the picture I've seen of my great grandmother's father, Ernest Everett, at work driving a streetcar in San Bernardino in the early 1900s. I think about my great grandmother herself, Vera Frances Cassen, who remarried and with her bricklayer husband built a brick cottage in Corona Del Mar in the 1940s. My mother has told me about the trips Grandma and Ben, as she knew them, would take her on to then-remote brickyards, which today would be easily accessible from the interstate and the suburbs that branch off of it. Great Grandma knew the names of all the plant life. She was my living link to this past, staying with us until she reached 101 years in 1996. Great Grandma kept a tidy garden and cooked delicious meals for her extensive brood late into her 90s.

My Great Grandma on the right, next to a tree her second husband Ben Cassen cultivated. Walt Disney purchased the tree and brought it to his new theme park, seen here in 1962.
I think about my mother's other grandfather, the Norwegian Lars Holm who emigrated to New York as a little boy in the nineteenth century and became the American Lawrence Holmes. He had a carob ranch in Riverside County and, as an inventor, devised a unique system of dams to irrigate his land. Later he lived in Los Angeles, after the Metropolitan Water District had seized his land and put it under a reservoir, Lake Mathews. His unsuccessful lawsuit to regain control of the land left him penniless, and the family was supported by his wife, Gertrude, a voice coach to the stars.

Even though nobody in my family continued to farm after my grandmother's brother tried and failed to revive the Our Girl grapes land, I grew up with a distinct sense that burying this land under houses and water was suffocating something. I felt sorry for the coyotes I heard yipping in anticipation of the train coming into our valley, and hoped they would feast on the cats of the wealthy people who bought the readymade mansions encroaching on their territory. When I was a kid, every time we drove out the Ortega Highway to hike in the Cleveland National Forest, we saw houses reaching further and further into the wilderness.

I've been to their churches, their jumbotronic stadia with where they worship some charismatic leader standing acres away from their nosebleed seats, who sanctions their confusion of greed with prosperity, of fear with humility. I saw a car yesterday that was the size of a small bus, and on the back were not one, not two, but three of those metal fish that people display to show their solidarity with Jesus. Secured in a cocoon made of consumer waste and held together by the self-serving scripture falling from their false idols' mouths, they rot in front of their plasma screens, watching the Real Housewives of Orange County they wish they could be.

Or not, I can't speak for others. But I see the effects of their lifestyle in the whistling emptiness of sidewalks and bike lanes next to their massive SUVs. I see the way people drive on neighborhood streets like they are on the freeway, weaving between cars that dare to obey the speed limit. Nevermind the children playing feet away from their squealing tires. There is an utter selfishness expressed in this culture of closed capsule travel, where any undesired interaction can be avoided. Being alone is somehow the prize; or being together, but only with those so like oneself that you'd think there'd been a downpour of frosted tips and status handbags.

What will happen if they don't wake up? In a place where community centers such as churches breed as much hate as the freeways where people rev their customized engines at each other, what future can there be but destruction? Will it come to the battle to the death over dwindling resources that some people seem to desire as confirmation of their belief that humans are selfish beyond all else? I wish all these intruders would leave, leave the land to the coyotes and the jackrabbits and the cougars they shoot for attacking people out of desperate hunger. I wish they would give up their overmortgaged stucco castles and return to whatever place they came from. But they're not going to do that. They have their own relationships with these places, as different from my own as they may be. And my family stole land from others who lived here before them. There are many different places struggling to occupy the same spaces. This is human history.

Just after I started thinking of myself as “carfree” in 2008, I attended the Toward Carfree Cities Conference in Portland. At one panel about some sustainable transportation issue or other, what really stuck with me was what somebody said during the Q&A. With a calm, unironic face, this person said that workers simply need to move closer to their jobs. This will reduce their commute distances and oil dependency. Ha, I thought, you're gonna make a lot of friends with a stance like that! People form ties to the places where they live, and the idea that they can just pick up and move doesn't seem to take this into account.

I have no claim to this land, besides the graves of Meyers that fill up a corner of the Mountain View Cemetery in San Bernardino, and the grave of my grandmother sitting on a hill facing the sea at Pacific View Cemetery in Corona Del Mar. Other family graves lie on land we no longer own, some of which has been developed into housing subdivisions. Who knows what those sleeping pioneers would think about their little half Mexican descendant, ranting and raving about bicycles. I wish I could just go away and ignore Southern California, and hope like so many spiteful others that it would wash away into the sea. But I can't give it up for lost, despite the drive I see throughout this basin to burn through all resources with no concern for tomorrow. Every time I return it smells like home, it feels like home. This enormous basin between the mountains and the sea causes some chamber within me to resonate with joy, critical as I am of the region's dominant lifestyle that sees no contradiction between a temperate climate and constant entombment in cars.

When I was biking to the Tustin train station on Monday, I had to leave the wide bike lane on Harvard Avenue in Irvine because a landscaping truck was parked in it. Up ahead, I could see a Latino worker, walking slowly down the bike lane. As I got closer, I realized he was spraying weed killer onto small plants that had sprouted in the crack between the roadway and the gutter. I wondered if those plants would be there without the sprinklers used to keep the lawn next to the road green. All of these efforts to create places where life is totally controlled. To what end?