American Genesis

Here, on the Urban Wildland frontier, we play at Civilization versus the Wild. Daily, we recreate the circumstances of the birth of America - for it happened at the fringe of a feral continent, the first cabin a European statement of urbanity, a reproof to the unfettered fecundity of the natural world. Inside, the human frailties of the pilgrims were contained in the flimsy trappings of European civilization and religious conviction.

The Urban Wildland represents the collision of this continent's aboriginal state of grace with European industrial capitalism and religious expansionism. This is not Hotel California. This is American Genesis. Urban Wildland is its simulacrum. Here is its precinct, and in it we have created a minimalist barn in which we conduct our twenty-first century, secular lives - but when we look out of capacious windows we see the wild where was birthed America.

These are the kinds of paragraphs you write after you read Beaudrillard. It's a disease. A bad case of the sideration blues. Star-blasted America; planet-struck California. For Jean Beaudrillard was, as Geoff Dyer writes in his introduction to  'America', New York, 2010 (originally published in Paris, 1986), "a superstar of the simulacrum, a shaman of the virtual, an evangelist of the hyperreal". Beaudrillard's take on chaparral? Well, he's a visitor, so in California he only sees urban sprawl, the desert and the sea. The interstitial wildland eludes him. California's signature eco-system passes him by. Los Angeles, he sees as a mobile desert - like Death Valley, where, he writes, "Fire, heat, light: all the elements of sacrifice are here". In Los Angeles he sees "no monuments and no history", only a kind of ritual death.

The single most stunning statement ever made about Los Angeles is contained, I believe, in its aboriginal name which translates as Valley of Smoke - variously attributed to either the Gabrielino Shoshone or the Malibu Chumash. When I first read it - in the lobby of the Transamerica building in an exhibition of Los Angeles Pre-history in the mid-nineteen eighties - I immediately beheld a vision of camp fires across the basin as a kind of pre-echo of the twinkling lights one experiences when flying in at night to this most crepuscular city; and rising from those fires the resinous smoke of burning chaparral - for such was the available firewood.

Here was evidence of the continuity of a human presence - and the inversion layer - backwards in time, stretching back far enough to link up with the ravening mega fauna now closeted in the La Brea tar pits, that other pre-historical factoid that made up a part of my Los Angeles amulet (the rune stones that connected me to the deep aquifers of humanity and nature that run through this strangest of cities). Only one human skull was ever recovered from the tar-pits amidst the bobcats, sloths and sabre-toothed tigers; but there was an existential human connection - in that primeval smog of a thousand camp fires was the smoke from some very large barbecue.

For those attuned to these layered complexities of the State, the crashing presence of its nodality is overwhelming. But for Beaudillard, "The mythical power of California consists of extreme disconnection and vertiginous mobility captured in the setting, the hyperreal scenario of deserts, freeways, ocean and sun. Nowhere else does there exist such a stunning fusion of radical lack of culture and natural beauty...." Jean Beaudrillard (and earlier, Gertrude Stein) fail to find the facticity of California, the thereness of it all - or as D.H. Lawrence writes of Taos, N.M., "When you get there you feel something final. There is an arrival."

There is a sense that the spirit has long dwelled here; but to experience that you have to kick a few rocks, get tangled in some chaparral and watch the waters of a stream, flush with snow melt, bubble over rocks and catch in the low hanging branches of bay, willow, cottonwood, sycamore and oak. Or, even more directly, perhaps, see the petroglyphs and pictograms on rocks strewn along the littoral, where the Kern river forsakes its usual gorge and flattens and spreads over a flood plain, slows to a meander, and afforded the native Kaweah people an opportunity to live with its placid waters (Song of Life).

Locked in his rented, convertible Mustang - Beaudrillard recreated on his windshield the California he understood from the movies - framed in hard plastic and edged at the top with pressed painted metal, this was his filmic simulacrum of America.

De Tocqueville never got much further west than Detroit, but in 'Two weeks in the Wilderness', 1831, he 'gets it' in a way that completely eludes Beaudrillard.

"A majestic order reigns above us, when the midday sun bathes the forest in its light, one often hears from its depths a long moan, a plaintive cry that carries a long way. This is the last gasp of the dying wind. Everything around you then subsides into a silence so deep, a stillness so complete, that the soul is gripped by a sort of religious terror. The traveler stops; he looks around. The trees, pressed one against the other, their branches intertwined, seem to form but a single mass, an immense and indestructible edifice, under whose vaults reigns an eternal darkness."

De Tocqueville has the advantage of actually meeting with native peoples and is acutely aware of their imminent demise. he writes,

"An ancient people, the first and legitimate master of the American continent, is melting away with each passing day like snow in the sun, vanishing from the face of the earth. In the same location, taking its place, another race is growing with even more astonishing rapidity. Through its handiwork, forests fall and swamps are drained while lakes as big as oceans and immense rivers vainly oppose its triumphant march. Wildernesses turn into villages and villages into cities. Americans, who witness these miracles daily, are not surprised by any of them. To them, this incredible destruction and still more surprising growth seems as if it were the immutable order of nature."

One hundred and fifty years before Beaudrillard drove his rental car across California, De Tocqueville broached the Urban Wildland at the frontier of America. We are now that frontier. Heirs to that home-grown expansionism, that 'immutable order of nature' that we have taken so to heart: wreakers of destruction by the simple fact of our being here.

In this one hundredth posting at Urban Wildland, I continue to play at Civilization versus the Wild. This Valley of the Moon is my sanctuary: the reification of a dialog; the blog an exploration of the conflation that is its masthead.

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