My father came to California in the 's for a job and I, at age 13, to turn adolescence into a life style. But along came the hole in the ozone layer and the scourge of skin cancer, not to mention the accumulation of years, and today the dream of life on a California beach is no longer so appealing. In one form or another, the California dream has enticed and seduced and, all too often disappointed. What is it that has encouraged countless immigrants to imagine California as a promised land? Kevin Starr, who has constructed his multi-volume history of the state around the dream theme, sees California as "the cutting edge of the American dream" and believes that throughout its history "Americans glimpsed a California of beauty and justice, where on the land or in well-ordered cities they might enter into prosperity and peace.
Photographer Robert Dawson and writer Gray Brechin, in an eloquent and disturbing look at the mangled California environment, do not mourn the loss of the California dream so much as challenge us to awaken from what has become a nightmare and confront the social and ecological consequences of the Euro-American presence.
Unlike a call to repair the damage that covered similar terrain, California's Threatened Environment: Restoring the Dream , Dawson and Brechin do not want to restore or revive the dream but rather to indict those who have manipulated it for power and profit.
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Brechin describes California as "the world's greatest stag party" which has been trashed "as thoroughly as a saloon in a drunken brawl" p. In imagery which often goes over the top but achieves its objective to evoke and provoke, the author depicts California allegorically on its th birthday as "a badly used whore - chemically dependent and disfigured by abuse - who has seen and tried everything" p.
Farewell, Promised Land begins with a lament for all that has been lost in California since the Gold Rush opened the floodgates of immigration, from flourishing native American cultures to the grizzly bear. Then, in five chapters which counterpoise text and photographs, it catalogs a litany of woes affecting people and the land under the categories of mining, agriculture, energy, cities and pollution.
Finally, it raises the flag of hope by telling the stories of ordinary citizens who, through their collective actions, have mitigated some of the disasters and healed a few wounds.
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This concluding chapter changes the sad tenor of the work and gives it a unique power to rally readers in defense of civitas and home, two of the symbols the authors invoke for a communal response to the destructiveness of Progress in which individuals monopolize natural bounty for personal profit. In Dawson and Brechin received the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, given to honor the writer and photographer who produced an acclaimed blend of text and image, American Exodus , in They embarked on a five-year project to document environmental transformations in California, using Ray Dasmann's classic, The Destruction of California as a model.
Brechin was a co-founder of the Mono Lake Committee which won a ruling from the state Supreme Court in preventing the city of Los Angeles from continuing to destroy the lake. As a TV journalist he uncovered the story of the poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge from farm irrigation runoff containing selenium. His photographs have been published in numerous books, including studies of water in the west, the Central Valley, and the Truckee River.
In Chapter One, "The Absence of Things," Brechin writes that he, like most Californians, had come to take "the emptiness" for granted, the skies empty of birds, the missing native Americans, the lakes gone from the Central Valley. Dawson's photographs graphically illustrate Brechin's description of the emptiness that remains at Naomi Lackee, the site of a former Indian reservation "Some places have drunk so much pain that they never give it up. We call them haunted. Nomi Lackee is one such place," he writes, comparing it to another -- Dachau. He also writes about, and Dawson depicts, the end of commercial fishing in the Sacramento Delta, the last artesian well in Tulare County and the stuffed, and now extinct, grizzly bear at the California Academy of Sciences, a fitting symbol for the state's flag.
These losses, Brechin makes clear, are not accidental. All subsequent environmental destruction can be seen in terms of extraction for profit. The authors make use of historic photos, including much reprinted classics by Carleton Watkins, to illustrate the toxic legacy of mining, including the continuing contamination of streams with mercury in Santa Clara County from the long-abandoned New Almaden mines.
Perhaps because it is a familiar story, this is the shortest chapter in the book. The quest for gold and silver, however, is the addiction that made Western civilization possible. The Indians conquered by Cortez believed the Spaniards ate the gold they sought so passionately. In Chapter Three, "Coerced Cornucopia," Brechin tells how capital and water transfers made the California deserts bloom by turning the state into "the greatest food and fiber factory the world has every known.
Today the state's largest farmlands are owned by several oil companies and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Using chemicals that transform soil "from an organic matrix into a hydroponic medium with the nutritive qualities of cardboard," agribusiness today is more "a means for transforming petroleum into food" rather than the fruit or almond orchards that turn-of-the-century boosters portrayed in glossy magazines as the California ideal.
Chapter Four portrays "Energy's Luminous Net" as a stream of automobile tail-lights on one of California's many freeways, or the "river of gasoline" necessary to carry commuters from the suburbs to their work, or as the "sea of fossil fuel" that propels the Los Angeles economy and pushes its borders outwards.
Whether electrical, oil or nuclear, the energy needs of California were not a natural outcome of growth but were instead stimulated for profit. The freedom of the road had become its tyranny" p. Land was the ultimate commodity, as Mike Davis has describes so incisively in his analysis of Los Angeles.
Urbanization is the topic of Chapter Five, "Alabaster Cities. They seldom grew naturally with the purpose of providing citizens with housing and work. Brechin argues that with the "unwitting aid of taxpayers, a few determined individuals have irrigated, seeded, and grown them like cash crops in the desert" p. Here, having invoked Aldo Leopold's principle of land as a community rather than commodity, Brechin laments the lack of civitas, or civility, in California's urban environments, and quotes approvingly Frederick Law Olmsted's observation that Californians show little interest "in the fixed qualities of the place.
In Chapter Six, Brechin contrasts "The Image of Health" as a component of the California dream with the reality of toxic pollution and cancer clusters that plague the state. Despite the persistent image of California as "one immense spa," Brechin finds that "the denial of mortality and of the ills to which flesh is heir forms a continuum of malarkey from the heroic Gold Rush miners to the blond and buffed surfers of today's Malibu" p.
Here he tells stories of the poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, the dumping of chemicals into Santa Monica Bay and disposal of nuclear waste by the federal government at the Farallones Islands. While Rachel Carson is cited as the founding mother of environmentalism, Brechin disagrees with her assessment that chemical pollution was something the people had done to themselves.
No, he writes, the workers in California had it done to them. The story uncovered by Gray Brechin is one of greed and ambition on an epic scale.
Imperial San Francisco, urban power, earthly ruin | Gray Brechin
Brechin arrives at a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the connections between environment, economy, and technology and discovers links that led, ultimately, to the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race. He received his Ph. Berkeley Department of Geography in The Pyramid of Mining 2. Toward Limitless Energy 7.