Sunday, March 07, 2004

Raging Desert

I have resided now in North Idaho for over ten years, and, more than anything else, the greatest difference I have seen between here and Southern California, where I once lived, is the weather. The images of Southern California which many Americans, especially those back East, might see on television or in the movies don’t convey very well the actual realities of the land and the sky of Southern California. Regardless of what one sees in that fantasy world of people’s imaginations, the truth is that beneath the thin veneer of opulence most of Southern Calfornia is a raging desert, or a semi-desert, which is at best barely different. For truely much of the year Southern California is miserably hot. I grew up there and that was my experience. It has been seared into my mind. Heat was my childhood there, my most vivid recollection. The only exception to this general rule about Southern California is the narrow strip of land along the Pacific Ocean, where the climate approaches what is called “Mediterranean” and which is more bearable—thus explaining why the real estate prices in that strip are affordable only for the very well-to-do, the principle of supply and demand being at work. Nevertheless, no one could survive in Southern California without air conditioning, at least not comfortably.

One can say that Southern California really doesn’t have seasons as most people would think of them, the seasonal cycle of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter that occur in the temperate latitudes. Instead it would be more accurate to say that Southern California has “conditions.” One condition would be the all too brief period of cooler temperatures, with some rain, usually within the months of November through January. During that brief time the Earth would become green again. And one would be amazed at the greenness, precisely because it always seemed so ephemeral, because as the year turned around, things would quickly dry out, the vegetation would wither and die and turn brown, and the air would begin to heat up. And so the other more predominate condition would be hot and smoggy, a time when the land beneath was brown, and the sky above was also brown, being only a different shade of brown in which one could barely discern that there were actually some clouds up there. Furthermore, as the years went by, a blue sky became more and more of a rarity, as more and more people crowded into Southern California, bringing their automobiles, which belched forth ever more smog. And so for me hot and smoggy was the ever present and unceasing reality of my life there. It seemed to be always hot and smoggy. It was hot and smoggy day in and day out for what seemed like days without end. It was hot and smoggy to the point of tedious dreariness. It could be Thanksgiving day in November and the temperatures would still be in the upper nineties, and the air would smell faintly of ozone—an odor somewhat like chlorine bleach for those who don’t know—and one would never know there were mountains and hills on the horizon veiled as they were by the dense and unending smog. The only hope of relief from the oppressive heat was around Xmas time, when cooler weather would finally fight its way inland from the Pacific Ocean. Yes, I remember how during those dreary days of unending Heat, when we were children, I and my siblings would sleep outdoors under the enormous mulberry tree we had in our backyard because the unbearable temperatures indoors made sleeping impossible. To this day I don’t understand why my parents never had air-conditioning in the house we grew up in, not even a swamp cooler which I saw many of my neighbors owning. Were we too poor then but didn’t know it? Truely air Conditioning is the only thing that makes life bearable in Southern California.

But North Idaho, where I live now, is so completely different from Southern California that when in 1993 I moved here from there it was like moving to a completely different universe. The greatest difference lies in the underlying and overarching facts about the land and the sky. When I first visited North Idaho back in July of 1983, the very first thing that struck me was amazement at how green everything was. The whole country seemed lush with vegetation, just briming over with life; there were trees and grass everywhere. To my astonishment the hills and mountains actually had trees on them, tall green trees, and not sparse, dead, oily brush, which is what we had in Southern California, all of which was always ready to ignite into flames at the slightest provocation of humanity. July in Southern Califoria meant that the sparse native vegetation was already withered and brown. In fact, there would be very little vegetation at all anywhere except for the happenchance that, by the ingenuity of men, great aqueducts were built to bring water from distant places elsewhere, from the Colorado River or the Sierra Nevada mountains. If those distant waters were somehow cut off, if those distant places were somehow to experience a climate change that imposed an unceasing drought which ended the water supply, then verily Southern California would descend into chaos and anarchy and barbarism. It would all perish because the land there by itself simply couldn’t support the concentration of population that currently dwells there.

Now if one were to examine a map of Southern California, one would see marked on it things called “rivers.” But to call them “rivers” is laughable because they are not really rivers but trickles. One such trickle was the Santa Ana “river,” which flowed by the city paradoxically named Riverside, where I lived for well over twenty years. But what river was Riverside on the side of? The Santa Ana nearby could hardly be called a river, for it was really nothing but a long gully, paved over with concrete in most places, which served only to flush out to the Pacific Ocean the occasional flash floods that only deserts are famous for. In fact it would be more accurate to call the Santa Ana river the “Santa Ana Wadi,” a “wadi” being a word derived from arabic for a dry stream bed in the desert. And what a wadi the Santa Ana was, being the wadi it really is: mostly quiet, uneventful, dry, dead, desolate, useless, nearly all the time. Yet on rare occasions there might come a heavy rain, or a cloud burst from the “Mexican Monsoon” during the Hot and Smoggy Condition, and Saint Ann's wadi would rage for a brief day or two, as all the water pouring from the city storm drains, water that the land desperately needed, rushed uselessly into Saint Ann's wadi and then out to the ocean which didn't need it. After all of that sound and fury, Saint Ann’s wadi would revert back to its seemingly perpetual deadness, a trickle signifying nothing much.

But in contrast, North Idaho is a land full of rivers, real rivers, rivers which one could swim in and drown in, rivers that flowed deep and alive all year round, rivers everywhere, with ever more smaller rivers and streams that flowed into them. And then there are the lakes. And what lakes! Southern California has some lakes, yes, and one could find them on the map if he sought after them diligently. There’s Lake Arrowhead up in the San Bernardino mountains, a couple of miles wide, around which aging Hollywood celebrities own lakeside property, according to a tour guide I once heard long ago. Then there’s Big Bear Lake, half of which has dried up. And there’s that that artificial Lake, not too distant from Riverside, called Lake Elsinore, which was always hovering on the brink of ecological diaster from the pond scum that grows ferociously there. But the lakes of North Idaho make the lakes of Southern California seem like pathetic parodies—mere lake travesties! North Idaho has many lakes, and they are beautiful; they are the exemplar of lakes, the kind of lakes that God must have intended for the earth to have—deep, very deep, and wide, alive with fish, into which issue rivers and from which issue rivers, real rivers, reminiscent of the Pishon and the Gihon of long ago, flowing through lands rich with gold and onyx and bdellium. (North Idaho has gold, but it is really more famous for silver.) The four greatest lakes of North Idaho are Lake Coeur d’Alene, Hayden Lake, Lake Pend Oreille, and Priest Lake. They are lakes that stretch for many miles, the sort that if a man were to drown in one, his body might never be found. And, indeed, on the Day of Judgement those Lakes would give up not a few dead. A cruise from one end of Lake Coeur d’Alene to another and back would be an all day venture since it is some sixty miles long, from North to South. Lake Pend Oreille is so wide and deep that the United States Navy maintains a sonor testing station in the town of Bayview near the southern tip. But besides these major lakes there are still more lakes, smaller ones that dot the land here and there, such as Liberty Lake, Hauser Lake, Lake Cocolalla, Twin Lakes, Spirit Lake, and Lake Fernan. And beside them there are uncounted smaller ponds and streams and marshes and wetlands that are soggy with water in the Spring from the Winter melt-off. Southern California is a land of desert heat and perpetual drought, but North Idaho is a land of abundant waters, and therefore it is a land that is green.