I am posting this from the lovely California coast south of San Francisco. I grew up in California, moved away at age 18, came back at age 36, and moved away again at age 50. That means the Golden State has figured into about half my life, early on to imprint me and then later to contribute to financial security. As I visit here in typical balmy weather I am also reading the autobiography of William Tecumseh Sherman who was stationed here and traveled extensively in the 1840s when this was still a Mexican province. So it’s interesting to contrast Sherman’s accounts of bear hunting near Monterey and skies over San Francisco Bay almost black with waterfowl to today when ducks and geese avoid the region and bears exist only on the state flag. Sherman was at Yerba Buena – San Francisco – when a couple of guys came in from Sacramento with some shiny rocks found in the American River.
What a place this was as Sherman traveled between Los Angeles and Sonoma. As the United States undertook to transfer ownership of the province from Mexico by force (in a war contrived by slave interests) the land showed little impact from Europeans. Native Americans could still gather their livings from the mudflats of the Bay and the beaches of the coast. The Central Valley was a verdant grassland home to white tail deer and Tule Elk. And, of course, the grizzly was in the last years of his command of the quiet valleys and hillsides of the Coast Range. The Californios wanted no part of these massive beasts which feasted on their cattle. The grizzly went down hard and did not officially go extinct until 1922.
The bears and the tule elk weren’t the only species to succumb to newcomers. The Californios found themselves pushed aside by avaricious Americans who dismantled their land grants and suppressed their language. An irony is that Spanish has made a comeback. The first state constitution was bilingual. Then it was English only. Today the constitution is still in English, but just about every bit of public signage and most official forms are bilingual.
This weekend I looked at the hillsides once covered in Redwoods (which grow only on the Northern California coast) and now exist only in parks and preserves. The vast mudflats of the Bay are developed with concrete and asphalt with only a tiny percentage remaining to support the sea life that supported the natives.
I see much that is familiar from natural to man-made. The great bridges are still there and the cities. I used to be good at recognizing geographical features from an airplane. I could nod off in Burbank and wake up over Monterey Bay and immediately pick out Santa Cruz and Sunnyvale as we turned onto final approach. I could tick off the names of cities and even neighborhoods. No longer. I mistook Mount Diablo for Tamalpais. The Bay Bridge has been rebuilt. I see little that says “home” to me. Like the Californios.