California is often described as two irreconcilable entities, north and south. In 1859, nine years after statehood, the legislature voted to slice the enormous, elongated state in two, somewhere around Fresno. The measure died only because the U.S. Congress back east — which would had to approve such a radical idea — was nervous about creating new states as a drumbeat for civil war was growing louder. So it ignored the “two Californias” proposal.
Today Southern California, in and around the Los Angeles Basin, is called the “Southland.” Funny, since nobody seems to refer to San Francisco and its environs the “Northland.” That might conjure up wacky images of ice-fishing off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Rambunctious California defines the New West, but it retains countless elements of the old one as well. Far-right conservative in places, wildly liberal in others, California boasts “genuine article” cowboys, lumberjacks, roustabouts, and miners. But it also has its share of what the Center for the New West once called “cow-free watering holes for weekend cowboys and coastal yuppies looking for a shake-and-bake wilderness experience.” California politicians who hold statewide office must somehow meld the interests of ranchers, fishermen, farm workers, actors and filmmakers, business executives, environmentalists, minivan-driving suburbanites, and almost every imaginable ethnic and gender interest group.
California has never stopped being a state of immigrants. Not just the highly publicized legal and illegal newcomers from Latin America and Asia, but also an influx of American arrivals — lately slowed by the long national recession — looking to “reinvent” themselves or their lives. California offers what Time magazine in 1993 called “liberation and excitement . . . as the ultimate, myth-making destination, tantalizing the daydreams of restless souls itching to pick up and move.”
San Andreas Fault — the world’s largest fracture — there are other geological battle lines along the earth’s tectonic plates beneath California, or just off its coastline. There are also dormant volcanoes in Owens Valley, whose mountain passes are now adorned with turbines to harness the ever-blowing wind, and a lush interior basin drained by occasionally raging rivers.
But Life magazine once wrote that the state’s golden sunshine is “the most valuable ingredient of the California way of life.” The golden poppy is the state flower, and the golden trout the state fish. The name “California” — “abounding in gold” — first appeared as a mythical island east of Eden in a 16th-century Spanish romance novel. The name was at first applied to the Lower (Baja) California peninsula, which that sticks down below the state in Mexico, and later extended to all of Spain’s new holding along the western Pacific Rim.
Like other western states, California is a series of what Phillip M. Burgess and Richard F. O’Donnell of the Center for the New West call “urban archipelagos and large city-states surrounded by vast empty quarters.” Paradoxically, again, California holds both America’s biggest county (San Bernardino) and the world’s most sprawling city (Los Angeles — often lampooned as “a hundred suburbs in search of a city).
Fort Ross, north of present-day San Francisco, but they were fixated on hunting sea otters, not putting down roots; when the otter supply was all but exterminated, they split.
Mexicans continued to filter north into California after their nation gained its independence in 1822. And, 27 years later, Americans of many heritages broke down the doors to fertile California in a frantic search for gold following its discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Asian migration began with the 15,000 Chinese laborers brought in to work in the mines and on the railroads soon after statehood in 1850.
Still, by 1960, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 80 percent of California’s population. Today, five decades later, the decennial census may reveal that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites will have been cut in half and that Hispanics will have caught or topped them.
California has also become a magnet for individualists, nonconformists, and eccentrics. As New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty wrote in the 1940s: “Iowa gets here and goes crazy.” “Beat” poets encamped in California coffeehouses in the 1950s, and “peaceniks” and runaways hieing to San Francisco in the ’60s were reminded to “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” In their Book of America. Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom called California of the 1970s “an unstratified society made up of communities of strangers.”
In large measure, it still is.
California politics has been marked by a passion for ballot initiatives and referenda driven by citizen outrage — including Proposition 13, the largest property-tax-cutting measure in history, in 1978. The state has had a colorful procession of dissimilar governors, from genial future president Ronald Reagan to distracted “Governor Moonbeam” Jerry Brown to the incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger — an Austrian-born former bodybuilder and, like Reagan, B-list actor.
It was left to Spanish seafarers to sail the California coastline. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed first in San Diego in 1542, and Spanish galleons called at San Diego on their long, trans-Pacific journeys.
Missionaries spurred settlement along El Camino Real — the King’s Highway — a trail that wound all the way up to San Francisco. Their missions along it, including the famous San Juan Capistrano, visited by returning swallows each spring like clockwork — are marked by roadside mission-bell signs to this day.
Westward American expansion was bound to reach California. As John Gunther wrote in the 1940s, “the United States without California would have been as ridiculous as France without Brittany or England without Kent; the impulse to fill the great bowl of the West was unavoidable and irresistible.” Defeated Mexico formally ceded California to the United States in 1848, the same year that ranch hands found gold along the banks of the American River. Legend notwithstanding, it was not one of them who shouted “Eureka! I have found it,” but the Greek mathematician Archimedes, 21 centuries earlier.
“Eureka!” is, however, the complete and official state motto today.
Much of the gold left California and helped finance the nation’s rise to superpower status. Overnight, San Francisco — which I will describe in a posting down the road — mushroomed from a sleepy fishing port of 1,000 people to a Queen City of 50,000 — at once rich, raucous, and refined.
One onion field there produces about 160,000 large sacks of onions each harvest. There are 50 or so fat onions to a sack. So that’s 8 million onions from a single field. Pass the breath mints!
Something is always being harvested or planted in this breadbasket in the sweltering desert, where, in mid-summer, daytime temperatures routinely top 40° (104° Farenheit). This agronomic paradise was made possible by an ingenious system of irrigation canals diverted from the Colorado River over in Arizona.
This did have one positive effect: the flood pushed millions kilos of good topsoil into the valley.
How many Americans could guess that Greater Rancho Cucamonga would be bigger than Denver, Colorado?
Yup, in a place where, as California crime writer Raymond Chandler once wrote, hot winds “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” millions of people have pushed out most of the cows and lemon growers.
If you’re in the construction business, even this dusty, brown patch of California has become golden.
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Covet. To long or wish for something, often enviously.
Rambunctious. Incredibly active, exuberant, full of energy.
Roustabout. An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.
Unremitting. Persistent, never-ending. To “remit” is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.