Escaping the “White Noise” for Wild California

After a brief hiatus – a vacation up to Humboldt County in Northern California with my family – your humble narrator is back and writing. This was the first trip I had made through much of California in some time (driving on US 101 all the way from the San Fernando Valley, through the Central Coast region and the Salinas Valley, through the Bay Area, and up to the North Coast area); it was also one to regions and parts of the state that I suspect that transplantee friends to the Bay Area or the LA Metro rarely have the chance to see. True, there are plenty of sights within a day’s drive outside of LA or San Francisco to keep the adventurous at bay for some time, but I was delighted to re-discover the cute streets of San Luis Obispo, a college town just a few miles inland. It’s even been dubbed the “USA’s happiest town” by guru Dan Buettner, but for sensible reasons: the town has some of the lowest rates of depression in the entire country. It’s easily bikeable, and safe to get around that way, too, with plenty of bikelanes. The real estate seemed in parts dilapidated enough to support students and entry-level workers in a service economy, with plenty of posh neighborhoods close to a dense core around a university. And local regulations (bans on drive-thru restaurants) and support for the arts helped keep the town dense, supportive of independent small business, and a local hub for the creative arts. The fact that it’s gorgeous and perhaps home to wealthy retirees doesn’t hurt, of course, but there you have it.

Still, we spent most of our time up in the Humboldt County area, one of the few densely populated areas of Northern California. The population is centered around the second-biggest bay in the state, Humboldt Bay, and while there is some residual industry in the area (fishing industries out of the Northern California waters, logging – the area is home to some of the biggest redwood trees in the world), overall the economy of the region remains depressed, save for the economy around Humboldt State University, a Cal State affiliate in Arcata. Still, what keeps us and others coming back – other than low home prices in a depressed housing market attracting Southern California and Bay Area retirees – is the spectacular landscape and … the blackberries. Eureka, where we were based, and Arcata are just to the south of some of the most striking California coastline I’ve seen: towns like Trinidad look out onto jagged rock formations in blue waters, and the landscape of Patrick’s Point and the Redwood National Forest looks like fit tramping ground for hobbits (many parts evocative of New Zealand) and tyrannosaurs alike (parts of Jurassic Park were filmed in the Redwood National Forest). On top of it, the region, or at least the sunnier parts of it, are blanketed in thickets of blackberries, which have either so overwhelmed or long jaded the locals that visitors like us felt compelled to stop by productive sites several times to pick several pounds of the fruit. Many jars of jam, fresh pies, and blackberry muffins ensued.

Along the way, we learned a little about how towns in this part of California are seeking to re-invent themselves, as well as what academics in fields more distant than the ones I normally diatribe about – primarily the humanities – are working on. Arcata Marsh turned out to be one of our favorite spots for picking blackberries: between the mist coming off the bay and the bouts of sunlight in between overcast spells, we could return to the same patches only days after picking plump dark blackberries clean from the site, to return to find a new batch that had ripened up. But the area wasn’t always like this. Throughout much of the late 19th century, when the area was a bustling Victorian logging industry center, local businessman reclaimed much of the marsh ecosystem into industrial and commercial space. They built a wharf extending two miles out into Humboldt Bay. With time and the decline of the logging industry in northern California, this infrastructure and the transportation (rail lines) underlying it were built back, but much of the same area was used as small-scale industrial space. In 1965, a landfill was built on the site, but it was discovered within years to be leaking leachate into the Bay and into the local groundwater. In short, even for a small community like Arcata, with a population of no more than 20,000 people, toxins being secreted from the local landfill posed a problem for both public health as well as the local environment. Scale up those numbers for landfills serving larger urban areas, as well as the geographic dispersion of groundwater networks 21st-century cities are likely to tap into, and you can grasp how this might be relevant even for bigger cities. To make a long story short, scientists at Humboldt State University (the forementioned state university in town) began to reconstruct parts of the Arcata Marsh in the early 1980s. What’s more, they released into the newly-constituted ecosystem bacteria that would consume the leachate, before the system naturally saw the water evaporate or flow out into the Bay or the groundwater. Instead of constructing a multimillion dollar waste treatment plant, Arcata was able to get away with constructing a much cheaper “waste treatment marsh,” one that serves double duty as a place for local joggers, blackberry pickers, collegiate trysts, geese migrating from the Aleutian Islands to northern California for winter, and others. It’s a great example of how American towns and cities can find ways to regard nature not just as an empty space or an economically unproductive space in their urban area, but one that fulfills vital functions in harmony with mass suburban living and, for some towns, still, an industrial economy. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a place of mental refuge: sure, Arcata is hardly a big town, and given the proliferation of marijuana growers across northern California, mental refuge may not be in short supply. But there’s almost nothing I find more relaxing than taking several hours away from my gadgets and books to pick blackberries, hopefully not be eaten myself by the bears that occasionally frequent the area and eat all the berries, and brood while still accomplishing something with my hands.

White Noise, a big hit for my summer reading 2011

Part of why I emphasize the importance of being in nature is because I recently had the opportunity, while in Omaha, to read an exceptional work of American fiction, Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Superficially a novel with episodes from the life of Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler Studies” at a small New England liberal arts college, White Noise was rewarding for me on a number of levels. To only briefly list some of the things I enjoyed about the book before transitioning to the link between it and Humboldt travels, it works well as a campus novel in its own right. Gladney founded the “field” of Hitler Studies on the suggestion of campus administrators, who wanted their college to be #1 in some field, and so encouraged Gladney to create a fake sub-discipline that he could become the world authority on – even though he doesn’t speak German. Like many of his colleagues at the liberal arts college he teaches at, his focus has drifted from literature, history, or film to classes on “Advanced Nazism,” featuring close readings of Mein Kampf and Himmler’s speeches to SS men. A younger colleague of Gladney’s struggles to create his own niche. He asks Gladney for advice on how to build out his own profile as a scholar of Elvis – not his music but his place in the popular imagination. Desperate for new approaches in other classes, he has students watch hours of violent car crash video footage hoping they will inspire him to read cultural contradictions into it. All the while, a crowd of New York emigre professors sits in the departmental lounges, chain-smoking, reading The New Yorker and The New York Times and plotting their return to the big city from the small college town.

Another reason why I found White Noise rewarding, and perhaps a way to segue into discussion of the main reason I found it so engaging, was what makes it different from what I consider some of the good-but-not-great literature in American letters today. (I say the following delicately.) Without going into full-blown research depth into the causes of this phenomenon – MFA programs, whose rankings have recently been called into question, might be one place to look – it seems to me that one could say that some of the better and more prominent literature in American fiction in the last ten years is a literature of second, sometimes first-generation American immigrants, often from (for the norms of Baby Boomer readers) unconventional places. I think of the work of an author like Jumpha Lahiri, a Bengali-American whose work has largely focused on the challenges faced by South Asian families who have immigrated to North America. Her works artfully capture the misunderstandings between generations, some of the difficulties of adjusting to a country which (as opposed to my impressions of South Asian relationship culture) prizes romantic love, and where high parental expectations for success in elite institutions have to be worked out at the same time that one adjusts to the culture. Fine writing, they are apt testaments to the South Asian-American experience. The work of Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-American author of The Kite Runner, also falls into this paradigm of works about the Asian-American immigrant experience. Hosseini’s characters must return to Afghanistan to rescue the friends they left behind unjustly under Taliban rule, but significant chunks of the novel deal with the immigrant experience in Fremont, California, where many members of the Afghan diaspora living in America reside.

Khaled Hosseini, author of "The Kite Runner"

While I would never want to criticize these works as somehow illegitimate in American letters, or unworthy of praise, compared to White Noise they fall a bit short for me, if only because they seem in some sense formulaic (next novel: the experience of Sudanese in Omaha, of which there are many, one thinks). They take place in America, and are about America in the sense that they deal with Americans living in the country, but with their focus on the immigrant experience (which merits literary treatment, I want to emphasize), they are perhaps less capable of offering a criticism of general problems in the culture or the country that a less ethnically-conscious novel, like White Noise, is capable of offering.

What do I mean? One has to say that one of the dominant themes of White Noise, and where we begin to come back around to the importance of nature, is the constant presence of distractions in America, at least in 1985, when it was written. There’s also a compelling focus on the way these distractions – advertisements and the rise of simulation in favor of authentic experience – reduces our quality of life. DeLillo finds ways throughout the text to intersperse commercials for products, that, like the television playing in the background of your next family dinner, slip in the narrative of what’s going on without ever really being an interruption. At one point in the novel, when one of Gladney’s daughters is pondering what the name is for the ring that appears around the Sun (a corona), she answers that she thinks it’s either a Corolla or a Celica.

Advertising, in other words, is ubiquitous, and it finds ways to seep into our language even when we’re unaware of it. Many of the characters in White Noise, moreover, are superficially satisfied with their lot in life -plenty of material wealth, a comfortable setup in a suburban American house – but there remains something unsated by the cravings that commercial products are able to provide. A son’s friend becomes so obsessed with fame and celebrity culture that he intends to gain the Guinness World Record for sitting in a box with poisonous snakes for several hours; when Gladney attempts to explain to him that he could die, he seems dimly aware that the snakes would interfere with his plan, but resolves to go ahead with the plan anyway, for the sake of fame. More fundamentally, Gladney and his wife remain terrified of death, the one thing that consumer goods won’t provide them a solution for. (For a more ambitious reading crowd, the late David Foster Wallace went into some analysis of White Noise as a key text in postwar American fiction’s relationship with television.) In short, everyone remains superficially content in Gladney’s world, but at the same time gradually robbed of their language and spiritually unsatisfied.

This is where a work like White Noise transcends the immigrant fiction genre insofar as Lahiri and Hosseini are representative of it, or insofar as it exists as a genre overall. Something like White Noise isn’t only an interesting send-up of academic life, or family life in suburban America; it itself presents meditations on how television and advertising are affecting American speech and writing. It’s able to be self-reflexive about itself than the other mentioned works. It’s a work of fiction that stands on its own merits, but it was perhaps the first work of fiction that I had read that made me realize that it presented a problem for writers to write in a television-saturated culture. Hence, while I continue to find works by authors like, say, Zadie Smith, who has written on the immigrant experience in the UK, compelling, insofar as they teach me and lead me to reflect on what might constitute a frontier, or the biggest challenges, for young English-language authors today, less than DeLillo’s work did, I find them less satisfying.

What’s the connection back to the nature content that we began this post with? Walking through Fern Canyon, a long but tight canyon whose walls are covered with centuries of fern growth, located in Redwood National Park, I was moved by how contemplative and chapel-like the setting felt. Hopping over the makeshift bridges in the stream that ran through the canyon demanded focus, but between the physical challenge of keeping my feet dry, and engaging my fellow hikers in conversation, I found myself engaged both physically and intellectually. One feels focused, in the moment, and locked-in to the task at hand.

It made me think of an almost opposite moment from almost a year ago that would not be out of place in White Noise. While visiting a major American city, my host took me and another friend visiting her from out of town on a tour of the downtown area of the city. (N.B.: while I use a smartphone in the UK, I do not have one that works in the USA, and am hence reliant on a humble RAZR phone; as such, it’s hard for me to access the Internet from just my cell phone while in America). We started walking around the core of the city, taking in sites I hadn’t seen before: public libraries, chapels, gardens, etc. The more we walked, though, the more I noticed my hosts drifting in conversation, and often only giving half-answers to one another. I did a double-take, and for striking stretches of time – 20 to 30 minutes at a time – they were engaged in half-conversation with one another, all the time texting other friends in other cities, surfing the Internet, reviewing Facebook, and so on. At several points, they almost bumped into other pedestrians doing the same thing. I became upset by the apparent lack of mindfulness around me, but did not want to offend anyone, and so I kept my mouth shut. Still, I remained disturbed by the extent to which significant portions of the populace in a large American metropolitan area could seem so disconnected from conversation, even with someone they were hosting as a friend – all in favor of simulated experience on the Internet.

Return to Fern Canyon. One of the people I was hiking with, who has spent much time in the LA metro area, remarked that he couldn’t believe that he was actually in the canyon; he honestly felt that it had to be a fiberglass simulation, that there had to be an exit nearby, or a water fountain for his convenience if he was thirsty. Growing up in LA, and spending so much time in a place built on image, without much chance for escape into a world without the background hum of “white noise” – television, radio, advertising, etc. – his ability to distinguish unmediated experience from the fake was only half-working. He found the experience of trekking up and down Fern Canyon refreshing: nature didn’t exist for his convenience. It was as if basic cognitive functions distinguishing fact from fiction, out of whack due to living in an urban environment out of touch with a more primal nature, had temporarily to be recalibrated. Unfortunately, too few Californians or Los Angelenos have the chance to explore these more wild parts of the state. And with extensive park closures planned for the state as part of budget-trimming measures — at the same time that the UC Chancellor is paid a corporate salary and tuition for “public” higher education rises closer to the bills for places like Princeton — fewer Californians will have the chance to explore places like Fort Humboldt and other California parks and sites that form parts of the state’s legacy: part of a underreported trend of “turning the lights off in America”: defunding education, parks, and infrastructure, as part of a political road to nowhere.

Still, for now, I will resist from entering into more polemic on California state politics. Back from my hiatus, I should have plenty of time to post this week, so look forward to more frequent updates.



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