August 24th, 2012
Yes, I was in hot dry California all last week, a real and not, for a change, on a working vacation. I like California, especially the dry southern landscape that spawned Hollywood and a kind of surreal kingdom of vanity and eccentricity. I doubt there’s anywhere quite like it. A stroll on Venice Beach makes you feel like an extra on some tv show. You could gawk for hours at the boy skateboarder dudes dazzling the crowd in their new seaside concrete park, or just lose yourself in the array of costume and weirdness on the boardwalk. Indeed, it’s difficult not to feel as if you’re in a movie, with so many familiar, iconic features in the environment and that punishing sun throwing an even glare onto everything. At once on display as public spectacle and profoundly indifferent to the mainstream, Venice Beach is a dream.
Since I was last there a few years ago, a string of “medical marijuana” shops have opened on the strip. Young guys in apple green jumpsuits pitch the benefits of weed and encourage anyone to walk in and secure a licensee. Seems civilized to me—and mighty tempting. The sweet smell of cannabis wafts up and down the beach and partly explains why everyone looks so passionately serene. I settled for one of the best cups of chai tea I have ever had. If you are on some sort of restricted diet California is the place to be. All needs are met. All you need to do is conjure them.
Did I mention how dry it was? Temperatures hovered around 100F every day. See the great big brown patches on the hills above. Plants and animals looked parched and needy. The preciousness of water hits you right behind the throat. In contrast to the barren patches of soil in the hills and the ubiquitous dust under foot, southern California suburbs of the rich and some famous boast the greenest lawns this side of Ireland. Immaculately manicured (by Mexican gardeners), private properties look as if they had been dropped into the landscape from New England. No wonder environmentalism thrives in that State. There is something obscene about the sight of all those perfectly groomed lawns with their unreal blades of straight-standing grass. You can’t help but staring at them, because they signify so much affluence and privilege, and, of course, they are gorgeous evidence of the value of water. Rain wasn’t even remotely suggested the whole time I was there. A hike in the canyons outside Los Angeles offered shallow creeks and nearly evaporated ponds, just enough to keep the wildlife going, I suppose. You could really appreciate how quickly the whole place would go up in smoke, as it often does, should some lazy teenager/camper/drifter toss a cigarette into the woods. Sleeping in a cabin deep down in the woods I uneasily considered what would happen if we were suddenly engulfed in flames.
But you can’t afford to dwell on that or on the imminence of an earthquake when you are trying to have a vacation far far away for your home base, and I didn’t. I did, however, consider just how much we take our own ready supply of water for granted. It’s so easy it imagine a time, sooner than later, when the world will want and need to buy it.
”Thank God we’re surrounded by water,” the Joan Morrissey song goes. We have the privilege of debating what to do with Muskrat Falls, a potentially rich source of electrical energy in Labrador. When you live somewhere where there are so many drops to drink you kind of forget that most of the world is suffering from a drought and lacks a falls to argue about—or walk across.
Travel is always humbling but this time I both indulged in the very best California presented –avocados to cry for, friendly winds, ideal hiking, the rich cultural pleasures of the Hollywood Bowl, Huntington Library, Griffith Park Observatory—and was constantly reminded of the abundant benefits of home—water, water, everywhere.
I’ll tell you a tale about Newfoundland dear,
We haven’t got money or riches to spare;
But we can be thankful for one small affair…
Thank God we’re surrounded by water.
The sea, oh the sea, the wonderful sea,
Long may she roll between people and me;
And everyone here should get down on one knee,
Thank God we’re surrounded by water.