Monday, April 07, 2003

I Know It's Snowing Back East

Yeah, six to twelve inches, on top of all the other snow, ice, and snow they've had. Whereas here, I've watched sadly over the past week or ten days as the grassy hills have developed soft brown highlights, like the bright places where the patina has worn away from a copper statue. In a month or less the hills will all be lion-colored again.

Some other random California moments:

In a vacant lot in San Jose, being cleared for building, I saw a bulldozer parked next to a heap of trash: old fencing, weeds, brush, small trees uprooted. Scattered all over the ground: ripe oranges, brighter than the bulldozer.

The faults have shaped this landscape, bringing mountains, rolling hills, flat fertile valleys. The mountains to the west are always green with conifers — grand redwoods and Douglas fir. The long steep ridge runs north and south, with narrow hairpin roads leading up and over to the rolling land just before the sea. From across the valley or across the Bay, the mountains are deep green, fading to slate blue, smoke blue. On hot days from afar they seem transparent, a faintly darker section of the sky. Sometimes surfy clouds billow and break over them; when the valley is hot in sunlight, they are cool in shadow and cloud.

East of the mountains are high bare hills with chaparral in every fold and crevice, then lower rounded hills dotted with live oak. These beautiful landscapes look like Kenya to me (though I have never beeen to Africa). This is the fault zone. You can see the fault itself, a sudden rise on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto, just by the Hewlett-Packard building.

Then comes the broad, level Santa Clara Valley, once a forty-mile stretch of orchards (cherry, peach, almond, prune), now buried under housing developments, relentless traffic jams, and industrial parks. Then the marshes that edge the Bay, and the water itself, and the vast salt pans, abandoned now I think. The East Bay rises to sculptured hills, nothing like the jagged mountains of the west. They look like starched napkins carelessly dropped, lovely drapefolds of short grass.

The difference between the East Bay hills and the mountains that run down the Peninsula to Santa Cruz and beyond is not just water, though the East Bay is much drier. (Less rain, and the slow dripping sea-fogs give the equivalent of ten inches of rain every year.) The jagged ridges and ferociously narrow roads of the mountains are alien even to the steepest of the hills.

It's not the sunshine that keeps me here, nor the warmth. Cold has never bothered me, and I love cloudy days. But the shape of the land, the great trees (pepper, eucalyptus, oak, fir, redwood), the hills, the dark paths through woods, the soft woody scent of redwood. Oh yes, they would be enough to keep me here.

But that's not why the idea of leaving is so painful. This is a place where people like me are normal. This coast is traditionally home to outlaws, outcasts, geeks, people too weird to make it in places where normality is valued. Thank God that the Bay Area values other things. We have achieved critical mass here: enough weirdos to make a home for all the rest.

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