A couple of nights ago my book group met at the home of one of our members, abutting a huge nature reserve in the East Bay. The sun bathed the hills behind us as we discussed Peter De Vries’ 1961 novel, The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries dramatizes a real life event, the death of his young daughter from leukemia. It’s almost too raw; we all agreed he had probably written about this traumatic event too close to its actual occurrence. We all liked the book a lot. As evening descended, the gorgeous hills behind us changed color and so did the sky. We discussed whether California’s assignation as the “golden state” has to do with the hills or the precious metal that was convulsively disgorged from some of them in the mid-1800s.
I mentioned that the vegetation on the hills is full of non-native plants. This was on my mind because I had talked earlier in the week with U.C. Riverside biogeographer and fire ecologist Richard Minnich, whose seminal 2008 book, California’s Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions, completely repaints the picture of what California looked like before the Spanish “made contact” here in 1769. Ironically, it is through the eyes of the Spaniard’s themselves that Minnich is able to re-see California. Father Juan Crespi in particular kept scrupulous records of everything he saw as he accompanied Gaspar de Portola on their slow way up the coast. In sum, he saw fields and fields of wildflowers. “Oh no!” cried one of our members. “Mary Ellen is bringing up invasive plants!”
I could have insisted on a few more moments of reflection on the actual view. I could have said, hey, you want to “read” texts but refuse to read your own landscape? As Gary Snyder says in The Real Work, North America has yet to be discovered. “People live on it without knowing what it is or where they are. They live on it literally like invaders. You know whether a person knows where he is by whether or not he knows the plants.”
California’s wildflowers are mostly gone now because when the Spanish set up the Mission system they brought in plants from home that had not evolved with any predators here; these outcompeted the locals and took over. There have been waves upon waves of plant invasions both on purpose — for agricultural and ranching reasons — and by accident, as invasive seeds have hitched a ride literally on the heels of the people and animals who have subsequently made California their home.
“But the seeds are still there,” Minnich tells me. “The flowers can come back.” Fire that’s been suppressed since the Spanish got here could help control some of the invasives and activate some of the historic native plants. There is a fair amount of controversy over what kind of fire is acceptable today. Some argue that so much fuel – dead leaves, bark, debris – has piled up that fires will burn too hot and destroy, rather than regenerate, the quiescent life in the soil. A new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, argues that even those hot fires do more good than harm.
I guess my fellow book group member thought I was going to bring everybody down with tales of ecological woe. Why don’t we have an acceptable language for talking about the most pressing issue of our time? I felt a great sympathy for Peter DeVries as we all agreed that his narrative was terrific, but flawed by his insufficient emotional distance from its major event. I guess I don’t have sufficient emotional distance from what is going on right now to frame it in a way that is acceptable at a dinner table. Still we are brave literary soldiers vocally outraged regularly about the Holocaust, the historical suppression of homosexuality, we stand tall against slavery and all racial discrimination, we are valiant in support of world-wide women’s rights. Nobody would have dared close me down if I had addressed any of those subjects. Why can’t we even talk about the environment? One guess is that we feel guilty – we know we are part of the problem. It is very easy to take the side of a victim when you haven’t done the hurting yourself. The thing is, those hillsides could throng with wildflowers yet again. The view would be even more beautiful. We actually have the power to help them recuperate from the ills of the last couple hundred years. But of course we can’t do that if we won’t even take a look.