Monday, April 11, 2011

The Bear Flag and the Delta Breeze

The language of Southern California is the dialect of an obscenely populous coastal desert, preoccupied with palm and gull, marine layer and sand and stucco and soft Spanish vowels. Los Angeles and San Diego sprawl side by side on the coast, eyeing each other, cohabiting but not codependent. L.A. harbors the bustling entertainment industry, San Diego the U.S. Navy, and surf culture roils in between. Throughout the desert suburbs, into the steep eucalyptus canyons dividing residential rashes both glitzy and grim, ghettos, barrios, strip malls, golf courses, amusement parks, campuses, and all the concrete capillaries buzz with the charge of economic and cultural interests at complete odds with the seat of State government an entire workday's drive north on Interstate 5. (And there's still several hours' worth of state north of that.)

I lived in California nine years and never heard the term "Bear Flag."

I never thought about Sacramento sharing California realty with San Diego and L.A., much less as the capital. I never thought about Sacramento at all. I was a teenager, and uninterested in politics or geography unless people I loved were located in a place, and I knew nobody north of Barstow. I was aware when I moved here last year that politics might be inescapable. As it turns out, I didn't have time to give it much thought until budget woes and water issues began to directly impact my job. (The water issues I anticipated. They're why I moved here in the first place.)

As I traveled around California this year, I began to encounter the living legacies of things I learned in elementary school, before I even knew I would one day consider myself largely a product of this state and therefore entitled to call its history my own. I was the only person in my 8th grade history class, my first month in California, who already knew who Junipero Serra was and what John Sutter discovered and how the Donner Party died that terrible winter of 1846. Most of the children who were born in southern California did not know their own history. But it's one thing to read history in a book, and another altogether to see the places where it was made.

I remember becoming aware of the bear on the California State flag back then and, looking around at the palm trees and stucco, wondering what it had to do with California. I thought Yosemite Sam was from Texas. The Redwood Forest was only a recurring lyric in the Woodie Guthrie folk song and redwood itself was just the splintered, bleached boards of backyard fences in Kemmerer, Wyoming. I didn't know about Napa's famous wine or the State Water Project or the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, or all the parts of California that really are still wilderness, Mt. Shasta and the northern counties. Not yet.

Driving up I-5 last week my coworker and I noticed a sign, and a light went on in my head. There are bears in California. Elk and deer, too, and jack rabbits the size of Rottweilers.

You hear it all over Northern California, especially here around the capital, "Bear Flag" this and "Bear Flag" that. Celebrations, businesses, brews, brands. In Yreka last week we learned how the U.S.A. almost got a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, made up of several Northern California and Southern Oregon counties that feel at odds with the economic and cultural and political interests of the rest of their respective states. The movement is still very much alive, at least in Siskiyou County, California.


There are other differences between North and South, and the big one is the one and only thing I was conscious of as a resident of the South: water. Specifically, its scarcity. In San Diego in the 90's you didn't flush the toilet unless it was... necessary. You didn't run the water while brushing your teeth. You didn't hose down the driveway or water the lawn daily, or waste water in any other way. Not to mention water was prohibitively expensive (and now I know why). But as someone in Yreka put it the other day, up here "we've got more water than we know what to do with." Which is why the State has been shipping it south since 1935.

The California State Water Project is as extensive as the American railroad system and as divisive as the Civil War. (I won't go into the politics now; that's another post entirely. But believe me, there's blood.) The SWP is comprised of 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes, 20 pumping plants, 4 pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and over 700 miles of pipelines and open canals. It uses over 20% of the electricity consumed in the state. It supplies water to two-thirds of the residents of California from the Bay Area to the Mexican border, and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland. In other words, it almost singlehandedly allowed the State of California to become the 7th largest economy in the world. It also provides recreation, water quality management, and flood control. Which brings me to the next thing that so fascinates me about what I consider "northern" California. (The people in Yreka think Northern California begins in Dunsmuir. They think of Redding as the South. Redding is 13 hours from San Diego.)

1928 saw the release of a Buster Keaton film called Steamboat Bill, Jr. You've seen a piece of this film whether you know it or not; the universally recognizable scene where the front facade of a house keels over on Keaton, who remains standing in the open window of the downed wall, scratching his head. Set in Mississippi, it was filmed on the Sacramento River, which, especially during the rainy season (November through April), could certainly pass for the Mississippi if you're only looking at one bank. And the romance of that movie river isn't just movie magic.

Like the Mississippi, the Sacramento River (joined near downtown by the American River) is a commercial conveyance, transporting goods down the delta to San Francisco. The grain towers near my corporate office in West Sacramento proudly say, "Port of Sacramento - Serving the Rice Industry." Having never lived near a large river before I'm amazed by the way people use rivers, and having never lived near a large river that runs into a major delta, I'm amazed by the way rivers shape people.

I remember flying in and out of Sacramento weekly a year ago and seeing from above the irrigated cropland, water standing in silver squares from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the sea. I remember a connecting flight in Portland that took me north over the rivers I would later come to know and bridge: the Feather, the Russian, the Eel, the American and Sacramento; and connecting flights in L.A. that took me over the delta, the Merced and San Joaquin.

I've had to learn a whole new language, living in this new California, in this wet place. It's the language of levees and rivers used, controlled, elevated, blocked, bled and rerouted: bypass and floodgate, dam, wetland, watershed, confluence, the language of raging watery nature barely contained. (Mom watched a History Channel show about degrading American infrastructure that featured a 15-minute segment on the Sacramento levees and how they're sure to fail if tested.)

But there's one thing I'll remember even long after I've moved on, when the North, this foggy, soggy green growing place, this wilderness, is nothing more than my history. That one thing is the side effect of powerful, unstoppable rivers combining, their evaporating ions wrangling the coastal barometer as they widen and writhe and slide into the San Francisco Bay (when we let them): the Delta Breeze. On baking, stifling Sacramento city nights, the oppressive stillness is often relieved by that wonder of wonders, referred to in tones of reverence and hope by everyone I met when I first arrived, before summer started in earnest. You can always count on the Delta Breeze.

But not on rivers.


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