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A State Apart : In Many Ways, California Is An Island

November 17, 1985|JoAnne Van Tilburg | Archeologist JoAnne Van Tilburg lives in Malibu and does field work on Easter Island. James Heaton III aided in research for this essay. and Left, a 1652 map

California is a product of the imagination; writing in 1510, Spaniard Garci Ordonez de Montalvo created a fantastic island he called California, which lay in the vicinity of the newly discovered Indies. He peopled the island with a beautiful Amazonian race of women, rich in gold and precious stones and ruled by the stunning Queen Califia.

In the intervening centuries, myth has layered upon myth, and the perception of California as a land apart--with its own culture and ideas and identity--has grown. The truth is, in many ways California is an island. As an archeologist, I've run across geologic and historic realities that support that perception.

The actual discovery of California was left to Hernando Cortes on his second expedition, in 1533. He gave Montalvo's romantic name California to the Baja peninsula and the adjoining islands. The scorched, dry Baja coastline thus was named after a land of lush and sensuous beauty. The scholarly consensus seems to be that it was Cortes' idea of an ironic joke.

As part of the record of discovery, someone on the expedition produced a map showing California as a vague kind of peninsula, its relationship to the mainland unclear. For nearly 100 years--and even after it was known that California was attached to the mainland--cartographers illustrated California as a peninsula or an island. This historic perception of California as an island has some basis in geological reality.

As far as geologists can tell, the earth is made up of at least 20 segments called plates. The boundaries of these plates run a complicated patchwork around and through continents and deep beneath the oceans. The plates are rigid and constantly moving, driven by heat from within the planet. Some plates are almost entirely land; others have virtually no land associated with their surfaces. Continents are the highest parts of plates, and some continents and subcontinents--such as Australia and India--are separated by water but are on the same plate, moving with each other at the same rate of speed.

In other cases, two land masses move on a collision course and close off the seas that separate them. They come together with a driving force that folds their edges up and together into a raised welt, a scar binding the masses together as one.

California was formed when at least three such "islands" bound themselves to the North American continent. The first island moved against the coast, closing off the sea about 320 million years ago. The second island rode in on its wave about 125 million years after the first, and the third a short million years later.

The geological connections between California and other areas of the Pacific are clear; tiny Easter Island is 1,500 miles from the Pacific coast of South America, yet it moves with California on the same plate. Fossils common to the mid-Pacific are found in California, as are limestones from a thousand miles south of the Equator.

In 1786, Captain Jean Francois Galaup de la Perouse anchored in Monterey Bay, and his writings record his impressions of California's natural beauty and wealth of resources--reactions a good deal different from those of Cortes.

La Perouse later stopped at Easter Island. There he saw what he believed to be an impoverished society. Magnificent stonework was in ruins and the environment decimated. Before he was lost two years later in a typhoon, he wrote of the natural beauty he had seen and of his fears that the hand of man would destroy it.

Archeologists are sure this verdant image of the Pacific island world is not the way things always were, and the movement of people toward California today is not so very different from the movement over large parts of the Pacific in the past. Warfare and competition often forced large migrations. Life on even the best of the islands was harsh. In some cases, man's destruction of the vegetation and pollution of water was so total, the only recourse for large numbers of people was to leave.

In the past 20 years or so, economic turmoil and warfare in Southeast Asia have set the populations of those countries on the move again, and enormous numbers of people have found their way to our shores. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesians, Vietnamese and Thais, among others, have brought with them their business acumen, ambitions, family ties, music, food, conflicts and language. As the new mixes with the old, a sort of cultural island forms, with characteristics found nowhere else in the world.

Whether a map maker's mistake, a geological accident or a state of mind, the notion of California's separateness--of its isolation and insularity--is not easily discarded. During a stay on Easter Island, I was asked by one of the infrequent but well-traveled visitors where I was from. "California," I replied. He laughed and said, "Californians are the only people who respond to that question with the name of a state rather than a country."

Meanwhile, the plates that caused three islands to bump into the North American coast, creating California, are still moving. In some future era, millions of years from now, the ocean will likely rush into the Salton Sea or Death Valley and violently again separate these brown hills from the continent.

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