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  • Fifteen Takes on California
  • David L. Ulin (bio)

California, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Haight-Ashbury, Bay Area, Beats, poetry, counterculture, Gary Synder, James Dean, Joan Didion, Wayne Thiebaud, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Mary Austin, Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, John Muir, Upton Sinclair, William Butler Yeats, Kenneth Rexroth, Deep Ecology

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Wayne Thiebuad, San Francisco West Side Ridge, 2001. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36”.



I moved to California to become a poet. Or maybe it was an accident, which is, of course, the same thing. “The discipline of poetry requires that you keep yourself available,” Gary Snyder told the Nevada County Union in 2007. “The muse ‘hits’ unpredictably, almost like an accident. An artist keeps herself/himself ‘accident-prone.’” Yes, yes, I want to say, and where better to explore this side of one’s self than in a state that is itself something of an ongoing experiment? What Snyder’s on about is imagination, the idea of inhabiting an imaginative [End Page 28] landscape, which California has ever been. How else do we define a place that owes its name to a piece of literature, the 1510 Spanish romance The Adventures of Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo? “Know ye,” he writes, “that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks.” Is it any wonder, then, that when Fortún Ximénez landed on the southern tip of Baja in 1533, he and his men chose to believe they had reached the Island of California, their own paradise on Earth?


And yet, if this makes me out as something of a booster, how can it be so? Ximénez was a mutineer who killed Diego de Becerra, his captain on the ship Concepción, which had been sent in search of California by none other than Hernán Cortés. We all know what happened when he came dancing across the water, how in 1519, he massacred thousands in Cholula, in central Mexico, before marching on Moctezuma’s capital, Tenochtitlán. Nonetheless, I am not immune to California’s paradisal promise either, have found myself moved nearly to rapture by a drive along the Grapevine, through the redwoods of Mendocino County, the San Timoteo Badlands east of Moreno Valley, across Big Sur’s Bixby Creek Bridge. All those lines, diverging and intersecting and diverging again. Once, a decade and a half ago, I spent an afternoon on the Carrizo Plain, in San Luis Obispo County, north of the town of Frazier Park, south of Cholame. Cholame is where James Dean died, at the intersection of California Highways 41 and 46, late on a September afternoon in 1955. Almost half a century later, I found myself alone in a car—no cell phone, no source of contact—driving south on the Petroleum Highway, bound for Wallace Creek, where over the last four millennia, the San Andreas Fault has put a four-hundred-plus-foot dogleg into a formerly continuous streambed. This, I’ve come to believe, must be California’s first improvisation, the improvisation of a living planet as it changes, an organic process that exists independently of us. Deep ecology, or, as Robinson Jeffers once insisted: “a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of transhuman magnificence.” Nowhere have I encountered this more strongly than on the Carrizo Plain. It’s impossible to stand there and not be reminded of your insignificance, a feeling heightened by the stone and wind and emptiness, the silence and the sky. Not only that, but the human detritus; the day I visited, there were fire traces, broken bottles...


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