The End of Eden?
“California Is a Garden of Eden,” sang Woody Guthrie—in a cheerful dustbowl ballad blasted with grit and disappointment. But he and Steinbeck weren’t the first to lament the passing of paradise here. Witness The End of Eden (University of Nevada Press), in which Professor Terry Beers maps competing ideas and ideals that have shaped California. Despite the grim title, it’s a project inspired by his love for wild spaces.
Aurora Zahm ’19 and Editor Steven Boyd Saum sat down with Terry Beers to talk about where this project began—and where he still finds hope in the Golden State. Excerpts.
Santa Clara Magazine: The End of Eden: Agrarian Spaces and the Rise of the California Social Novel examines four of California’s historic social justice novels and their characters’ relations to wilderness: Joaquin Miller’s Life Amongst the Modocs, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, Frank Norris’ The Octopus, and Mary Austin’s The Ford. Why these books?
It goes back to when I was doing work on Unfolding Beauty, an anthology of California landscape writing. My motivation had more to do with response to landscape and the sort of spiritual connections one feels—though you can’t help but feel sorrow for some of the ways that native people were exploited. In California, it’s easy to think about the mission system, but Americans could be just as bad in other ways. Now that said, in some land grant disputes, I think some of the American land commissioners actually did a pretty good job. In history, they sort of take their lumps, but a lot of them were trying to work in good faith.
But you have Native American traditions that are just not embedded in property rights the way Anglo traditions and Hispanic traditions recognize property rights and water rights and other resource rights. But at the same time, those were not as carefully surveyed initially, because there was no need for it at the time. It wasn’t a difference in technology and ability so much as a difference in terms of culture and a much more vast, open landscape than when Americans began to pour into the state.
Sometimes I also react with sorrow because I see wild places going away—sometimes with exhilaration because there’s still so much left. They are a way of connecting back through time. Hiking at Castle Crags in Northern California, which Joaquin Miller writes about, I was struck at how much hadn’t changed. It’s a place that makes you feel small; California has lots of them: Mount Whitney, Point Lobos near Carmel … or when we’re in the Sierra on a trail, especially at night, and there are the stars and the moon and hoarfrost—it’s hard not to be moved by that.
We have a small place up in Truckee. We spend a lot of time camping up there with the dogs. There’s a meadow across from our lot, and every once in a while there are big flocks of sheep and a giant Pyrenees sheepdog coming by. Mount Rose is just to the west of this is—and Mount Rose is simply magnificent. The writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark—who is best known for The Ox-Bow Incident—wrote an autobiographical novel called The City of Trembling Leaves, which is set mostly in Reno, Nevada. His main character goes up to the top of Mount Rose and looks out toward the Pacific and thinks, “Boy, that’s really pretty cool.” Then he turns the other way and he looks from Mount Rose out across the Big Basin, which is also huge. And in looking out at the Big Basin, he realizes the hugeness of it and his own insignificance. In seeing that scene, he says, it’s the scene that “leads the mind out.” That’s something that you find in these places.
SCM: So, is California still Eden?
Beers: I think there’s still Eden out there, but we expect to find it less and less than we used to. Our cultures and traditions are embedded in that idea of Manifest Destiny—that land was there to be used, and to allow human beings to expand across the continent, to establish family farms and engage in husbandry. The part of the American dream that is so inescapable and still seductive is that sense of self-reliance: living on the land in a way that’s sustainable and beneficial both to human beings and to nature. The problem is we’re also a materialist, capitalist culture, and as a result of those pressures, the pressures of globalism, and the movements to the cities, et cetera, this kind of agrarian point of view is hard to sustain. We are so embedded in a kind of secure, materialist existence that that has overwhelmed this other more romantic, more salutary dream. In losing our agrarian ethos, I think we lose part of our American value systems that was actually a good thing.
SCM: How we map our state looms large in this book, which means so does land—and water.
Beers: Cultural conceptions of space frame the way we look at the landscape. This was especially important in a book that I did called Gunfight at Mussel Slough, about a conflict between settlers and speculators and agents of the Southern Pacific Railroad, in which people lost their lives. That incident also inspired The Octopus. Part of that conflict came out of homesteading laws and railroad land grants, and how this was tied to the public land survey—how the landscape was divided up.
As for water: The story in The Ford is very similar to something that most people know—the movie Chinatown. Much different settings, but it’s based on the same idea of taking water away from the Owens Valley and moving it into Los Angeles. That resonates with a lot of students.
SCM: Do you think that the Jeffersonian agrarian ethos and the agrarian ideal still play any role in our society?
Beers: When people are thinking about trying to change their carbon footprint and to pollute less, or thinking about the consequences of their material choices, in some ways they are reflecting, even if unconsciously, a kind of agrarian ethos—that sense that, “I really don’t want to use all of these resources just for comfort and security and that kind of thing, because they also get between me and the natural world.” When people go outdoors and they go to national parks, when people visit relatives or friends who are farmers or ranchers, they’re trying to recover some of that kind of agrarian ethos. It’s out there, but for those of us in the suburbs and the cities, it’s harder to see and sometimes harder to appreciate.
There’s a California writer, David Mas Masumoto, who is a third-generation, Japanese-American farmer in the Central Valley. He has 80 acres where he grows organic peaches. He writes about this, and he writes about the small family farm and the connection to nature and lizards and weeds; it’s all part of his life. He writes about this movingly, and he has quite an audience. There’s an appetite for this out there, even if people don’t necessarily know exactly how to find it.
SCM: You mentioned the suburbs. Where did you grow up?
Beers: I grew up in Ventura County, so I’m thinking of Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park. In my misspent youth, they were just starting to build housing tracts in those places. Now you drive through and it’s inseparable from the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. We lived in a housing tract surrounded by relatively rural areas at that time, but all of our focus was on playing in the housing tracts, going to school, that kind of thing. We weren’t out fishing or camping.
SCM: What do you hope people take away from The End of Eden?
Beers: A deeper appreciation for our agrarian roots and how agriculture has affected our culture—and maybe given us a way of appreciating the things we’ve lost. How complex land disputes have been, and how these cultural clashes that are often played out over abstract notions of places that are not shared—but we don’t necessarily know that they are not shared, because we project our own cultures onto other people …
A lot of our narrative is pretty grim, yet we still have stuff that’s worth saving and worth appreciating and worth doing. Protest novels that are grounded in place and in landscape maybe help us to clarify this importance. People are really concerned about land use. I’ve been to a lot of county meetings that can be contentious, and sometimes it’s people trying to defend their own little particular point of view. But a lot of times, a lot of good compromise comes out of the American process of small town meetings and small commissions.
That’s what Mary Austin was after in The Ford. She observed that sometimes people who are not in on the deal want to be in on the deal, because they kind of take for granted a bonanza ethos—even if they can’t see it through. Mary Austin’s phrase for that is “invincible rurality.” They don’t have the ability to see what it is they have that’s really worth preserving—because they’re pursuing the big deal, the big oil strike, or locking up water rights. So I would hope readers might come away with a sense of: Figure out what the issues are, try to approach them in good faith, and maybe come to some better solutions than we have.