I’d like to dream
My troubles all away
On a bed
of California Stars
Disaster always has a backstory. It's karma-like, or at least movie-like, in that way. Of course, what inevitably happens when you combine wind, drought, and forest, shake and bake – when the fire starts – is that it will appear to us as something unexpected, something that jumped out at us, the wolf’s hairy paw coming out of grandma’s sleeve and grabbing us by the throat. But this cycle is going a little faster, and now we are getting used to it. The 2003 fires burned up 740,000 acres and 2,000 buildings. Stephen Pyne, the fire historian, has pointed to the quiltwork of fire: in 1987, and in Northern California in 1996, and in 1999, and the worst ever recorded in Arizona in 2002, and the same year, the Biscuit fire in Oregon, another worst. Pyne calls the recent fires those of the Long Drought.
The water in the Los Angeles region that will be used to douse the flames will come, some of it, from Owens Lake, and some of it from the Los Angeles River, which the city laid claim to in the 1890s due to a quirk in its founding – L.A. claimed that the Spanish law under which the city was originally chartered superceded the California law of capture, which was being used by San Fernando business men in an attempt to claim the water of the Los Angeles river. L.A. won that court suit. William Mulholland, an Irish born engineer, came to L.A. in 1878 and saw the river and “it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven, I loved it so much.” Indeed.
Chinatown, which is about the way L.A.’s oligarchs set about capturing Owens Lake, was originally entitled Water and Power. But L.A.’s Water and Power company scotched that – as it has successfully scotched most things that get in its way. For instance, much of the land that Hollywood studios like to do shoots on around L.A. are owned by the L.A. Water and Power department, which rather discourages any dramas that question the Water and Power’s own version of history. They also happen to have their own little army that guards the LA aqueduct, a structure that has attracted attempts to blow it up since it was built.
All of these facts are culled from a fascinating book by Karen Piper, who was raised near the toxic dust pit that is now Owens Lake. The book, Left in the Dust, is an attempt to show how the politics of race and class penetrate the politics of water in Southern California all the way down to the molecular level – literally. High quality Owens River’s water is the least polluted in the L.A. region, and is distributed to householders in Western L.A. and San Fernando Valley. The Central and Eastern districts, including Koreatown and Watts, get the back of the bus water – that is, a mix of polluted groundwater plus the aqueduct water. It is all in being close to the source.
As Piper shows, the aftereffects of the drying up of Owens Lake have fallen disproportionately on Indians and Hispanics. Because the lake was dried out suddenly and recently, the lake bottom has not become hardened yet (as it will in a couple of hundred years), and so is liable to lift up in the breezes, the many many breezes, and waft around, carrying with it things like toxic heavy metals: arsenic, nickel cadmiun, selenium. And it leaves a little bathtub ring of cardiac and pulmonary diseases, of deposits in the kidney and autoimmune disorders, in the populations closest to it. Thoughtfully, when the U.S. was interning the Japanese, they interned some of them in Mazanar, a camp near Owens Lake.
In a way, the template of U.S. history has always been settlers and Indians. As any child knows, anybody can play an Indian – or have that position thrust upon one. Once the Indian nations were displaced, the Indianization of other populations commenced. Piper quotes a masterful memo from the California Waste Management Board from 1984 – oh, year of the Magic of the Marketplace! Year of Ronnie, and of the glorious L.A. Olympics! The memo recommends criteria for communities to be on the receiving end of waste disposal, which include – that they have fewer than 25,000 inhabitants; that they have low incomes; that they have demonstrated ‘lack of concern with issues'; and that there is an elevated portion of the population that has lived there for twenty five years or more. Sometimes the truth just busts out of bureaucracies, and we can see their vision plain. In that vision, the world is divided between those who deserve everything – the successful, the experts the oligarchs – and human products. Or, as the AEC said long ago about the downwinders it was sprinkling with radiation, nurturing a world of cancers and misbirths – the low use population.
So much for the rough and tumble of Southern California history. And yet, all of its apocalypses seem somehow tranquilized. I admire that, the bland dismissal of the very idea that there won't be a future here. One can bash the region for one shortsided policy after another, but out of those policies has arisen something … new and strange. I was reading Edmund Wilson’s famous essay about California writers, the Boys in the Backroom, yesterday, and it ended on the cliché note that California seems unreal, and the literature is ultimately thin. But Wilson couldn’t even see how glorious the movies were back then. He’d been blinded by a certain kind of modernism. And so he missed the tough lilt that was being introduced to literature by Chandler and Hammett and Cain. He missed the traces of scarface in the vernacular, tracking into everybody's house.
Myself, I rather wish I was in L.A. right now.