Tuesday, September 25, 2012

California Forever: Why State Parks Matter (2)

A couple of week-ends ago I cajoled some family members into visiting the mission at Carmel, or San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission.  Looking like something plucked from a Mediterranean hillside and plopped down in California, the Mission is a reminder that California isn’t as “new” a place as we’re often tempted to think.  The labour by Native Americans which went into building and maintaining the missions under Spanish rule marked the end of an earlier era in our state’s history, one in which the pre-Contact population of the state numbered in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.
The Mission at Carmel

Visiting the mission reminded me of California Forever, a two-part film (airing on PBS) about the history of our State Parks and their place in California today (part 1 of this post).  Although not a State Park, the Mission serves analogous purposes.  People worship there.  They visit the museum to learn about their state’s history, about their religion, about Spanish California.  People come to be married.  They visit to walk in the gardens, to smell the flowers. 

Carmel Mission made me think of California Forever because one of the things that the film did very well was to show the extraordinary diversity of California’s State Parks.  Although at one time or another we’ve probably all known better, I suspect that most of us (this was the case for me, perhaps a North State bias) have an image of State Parks as wilderness areas, preserved for their scenic value.  California Forever was a salutary reminder of the multiplicity of purposes served by State Parks.  As Carolyn Finney, a Geographer at Berkeley, put it in her comments after the screening of California Forever at the College of Natural Resources, the film made the point that parks don’t simply exist, they do things, they bring communities together, they compel civic engagement, they teach, they remind, they reflect the changes occurring around us, slowing them down and setting them in stone, in weathered siding, in long-grazed pastures and well-used forests.

Shasta State Historic Park is a monument to the society that grew up around mining in Northern California, and marks the foundational years during which California was incorporated into the United States.  California Forever highlighted Colonel Allensworth State Historical Park, an historic San Joaquin Valley town where black Americans sought to break new ground and carve out a freer kind of life.  Angel Island State Park, the “Ellis Island of the Pacific”, was the first destination for immigrants after they passed through the Golden Gate (many of them during years before the landmark bridge spanned the entrance to the fabulous natural harbour).  It was also, for too many, the place where they first learned of the active discrimination and even hatred they would face.  Today these monuments serve as markers for our history, markers which, some would suggest, are instrumental if we are to find our way in the future. 

But if Parks are places where we can come together and meditate on our shared past, they generate dilemmas of their own.  In some sense, they are a microcosm of our state: growing in population, growing in complexity, posing problems that some would suggest we can only manage, never solve.  There are the ecological difficulties posed by the return of ever-larger number of Elephant Seals to beaches on the Central Coast, their strict protected status almost certainly creating a puzzle down the road for coastal communities which might see more of their coastal land closed to access when the gargantuan seals come ashore.  Snowy Plovers are smaller, posing different spatial constraints, but the Parks are doing their best to work with communities, trying to fence off individual nests the better to maintain access to beaches.  This, of course, costs money, and there are those who would say that the extinction of a small bird is irrelevant.  But many more of us would see such an occurrence as a failure of our supposedly enlightened society, a rebuke to the conceit that we can live sustainably if not harmoniously with our natural surroundings.

Sometimes the problems pit people against one another.  Ocotillo Wells is a premiere off-roading site in the deserts of southern California, but borders the spectacular Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  The “conflict” of interests is often presented as a point of division, but I’d actually see as a triumph the fact that what we’re usually told are irreconcilable interests are not just at the table, but have a fairly good framework for land use in place, one which simply needs maintenance, supervision, and some tinkering from time to time. 

California State Parks also reflect a democratic mindset.  There’s no great shortage of space to roam in northern California, and even in the Bay Area it’s not too difficult to get to some open space at least somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.  But in a city the size of Los Angeles, hemmed in by suburbs which extend literally beyond the reach of the eye, it’s a somewhat different matter, and the film documents how Angelenos are going about remaking bits of their city into spaces which serve the same physical, social and spiritual purpose as places like Mt Tam or Castle Crags.  The Los Angeles Historic Park and the LA River are being remade into green spaces in that smoggiest of cities, a testament far more to community willpower than the wasteful, soul-crushing bureaucracy that critics would have us believe characterises the interaction of state agencies with state communities.

It seems right that the State Park system should continue to grow, to reflect our communities and our history which, after all doesn’t stop happening.  Parks are a very republican ideal, restricted access to land having been a cornerstone of monarchical and aristocratic privilege, and so perhaps it makes perfect sense, given that California was—however briefly and enticingly—itself a republic, that we should, as Rolf Diamant (formerly of the National Parks Service) suggested, think of continued investment in our state parks as a “refinement of the republic”. 

In California Forever, Kevin Starr, our state’s most prolific historian, described neglect of State Parks as suggestive of something much more significant that budget retrenchment.  The hallmark of a society, he said in the film, is that it makes unshakeably long-term commitments to larger intentions, irrespective of the specific paths that different parties might wish to travel.  To fail with our state parks would be yet one more indicator that California is increasingly a society incapable of making such commitments. 

Starr is an unabashed fan of California, and sees the state as a somewhat extraordinary civilisation, comprised of an incredibly diverse array of people brought together by global forces.  Their journeys here were often difficult and frequently the product of injustice or inequality.  Their welcome in California was often equally unpleasant.  But the California State Parks, Starr suggested, are one of the things that hold our culture together, along with museums and libraries.  They tell everyone’s story.  They tell a collection of stories about where we’ve come from, and another tale about our visceral relationship to our land.  These are important things.

Starr said it very well: “If we lose our state parks it would be the equivalent of losing all the great paintings of California...all the great poems that were written about California, all the great novels, all the great films, all the great architectural monuments.  More importantly, we lose our usable past, the past that defines the present and the future.  We’ll become a people adrift.  A people not knowing who they were, where they came from, what mistakes they made and what things they did right.  We lose the essential premise of stewardship for our culture if we lose the state parks”.

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