Excerpt from “Navel Country”Summiting, I look down. My eyes find the straight line of Palmyrita, now flanked by warehouses and a tech park. I search the land for groves and finally spot the eight acres still being farmed by an elderly widow; the block of green is nearly lost in the sprawl of houses and the rectangular white roofs of warehouses, a new patchwork overlaying the land. I look a little farther, toward the base of Blue Mountain, where the family groves used to be. Here, there is nothing at all, just leveled dirt. The developers have razed the trees but put nothing in their place. The project was halted when the economy went sour, the developers running out of resources or vision, running out of some essential quality necessary to effect a transformation. What is here is emptiness, waiting to be overwritten, waiting for the next iteration of progress, the next conquest.
I try to think of a way to tell my daughter what this place looked like when I was a child: all those verdant nubs of trees tucked up against the hills, tidy as machine stitching, nature perfected. I want to redeem my grandfather and the land that made him. Before I can say anything, my daughter speaks. “California feels like home because we’ve moved so many times we always live somewhere different, but California always stays the same.” This is her second trip up Sugarloaf so she has a reference point, a sense of continuity. “I can see why you would feel that way,” I tell her. I don’t say the rest out loud: You have the disease of nostalgia, too, I fear. You will someday think back to your childhood when you mistook your own innocence for an innocence of the world, when you mistook the simplicity of a child’s life for universal simplicity, your own happiness for universal happiness, when you mistook the long yawn of time that makes up childhood for permanence. Or worse, you’ll believe that you just missed out on something. And you did. And so did I. And so did we all. Even Grandpa.
Because when my grandfather arrived in California in 1922, even then people said the glory days were already past. I imagine the one perfect day—sometime in 1895 or perhaps 1905, when North and Tibbets were dead but my family was not yet on the scene—and it went by completely unnoticed. There was nothing remarkable about it, just a sun-drenched day with blossoms clustering tightly to the trees, their fragrance heavy in the air, and the Riversiders going about their business, driving their wagons up and down Victoria, men irrigating their groves, women buying eggs, and no one even suspecting that they had reached the pinnacle of their glory, that tomorrow and the day after and the day after the glory would slip a little further into the past, and even though more groves would be planted and more houses would be built, forever after there would be that sense of nostalgia, that sense that something beautiful and pure had slipped away. I see those Riversiders on their one perfect day, and they don’t know it’s perfect, and they have no one to tell them: This is it. You’re living the dream. Don’t let it go by unnoticed. Put a border around it and paste it to an orange crate. Hold on to it, however you can.
And then I picture myself as a sixteen-year-old girl, painting standpipes on a summer day that feels like it stretches forever, and I want to say the same things to her. I want to put a border around her. And does some future version of myself capture me here, today, at the top of a peak flanked by my young children, looking down on a vanished landscape, and does that future self long to put a border around this moment, render it as landscape? How many layers deep can nostalgia accrue? What is this palimpsest of the self? There is no extracting the self from landscape. We are the landscape, for it is our creation.