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Jack Smith

Northern California's higher-tech nurturers : of nature generate an anti-Southland Starr turn

October 16, 1986|JACK SMITH

I made light here the other day of a reader's thesis that Northern Californians respect and preserve nature, while Southern Californians belittle and desecrate it.

I suggested that his idea was about as true as the myth that there are whales in Lake Tahoe.

What I resented, I suppose, was his unfavorable comparison of me and my friend Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle. He said Caen's columns about Tahoe placed man in proper perspective with nature, while mine, by implication, were egotistical and solipsistic.

I admit I'm no Thoreau, but I have never thought of Caen as the literary heir of John Muir either, though he often writes poetically about Oakland and Sacramento. I suspect that Caen, like me, would rather be in a cafe than on a glacier.

Now, however, I have found the same thesis expounded by Kevin Starr, the distinguished California historian, in the October issue of California magazine.

I enjoy California magazine; it has vigor, perspective, wit and style. I admire Kevin Starr; he is erudite, perceptive and articulate.

But in a piece on Northern California style, Starr writes that its first element is nature--"the sheer physical fact of California itself, so much closer to the surface of everyday life than is the case in the densely populated Southland. . . . "

If Starr means that people in Los Angeles cannot deeply appreciate nature and integrate it into their style, I suspect he has invented a myth, like the whales in Tahoe.

He argues that Northern California is "in dialectic" with engineering and technology, that "Northern California is replete with places where nature and technology confront each other in a deeply symbolic association."

He concedes that in earlier times Northern Californians exploited the terrain with hydraulic mining, leveled San Francisco hillsides and filled in the bay, but "the Northern Californian of the '80s, by contrast, flees to nature for healing and transcendence--and brings his portable computer along to keep in touch."

That is a rather poetic apotheosis of the whiz kids of San Jose and Silicon Valley, who probably like nature no more than the young technologists of our Southern California industries, and probably own no more skis or portable computers.

"Northern Californians seem always anxious to get away," he says, "to flee to some alternative place where nature--the primary source and sustainer of value and style--is unspoiled, accessible, direct."

What about Southern Californians who flee to the beach and the mountains, in summer and winter; who adventure into the desert, who explore the primitive peninsula of Baja California?

Starr says that "Humboldt and Mendocino counties are peopled with Northern Californians past 40 who chose a deliberate rusticity as a way of keeping pure. . . . "

Are not our high deserts peopled with Southern Californians past 40 who also sought purity? What about Idyllwild? Arrowhead? Big Bear?

Is not a Yucca Valley dawn as cleansing and inspiring as a Mendocino sunset?

Starr claims that "the physical fitness rage, holistic healthfulness, the new cuisine, non-smoking and the more subtle adjustments of the human-potential movement are Northern Californian in origin and today national in significance."

If he wants to claim that psychobabble, jogging, aerobics and the new cuisine are Northern Californian in origin, I am happy to concede it; at least those will be fads that Southern California is not blamed for.

He observes that the focus of style in Marin County has switched from the more subtle adjustments of the human potential to sheer money "or credit."

He can't believe that they have more credit in Marin County than we do in Marina del Rey! Besides, in Marina del Rey we keep our sailboats--thousands of floating mortgages--in which we venture out onto the Pacific not only to experience nature but to use and contest it without depleting it.

He adds that Northern California is making an effort to democratize style--to spread the good life to the many, as well as the few.

The San Francisco few still have their houses at Lake Tahoe; the city's movers and shakers, male, of course, still retreat to the rustic Bohemian Grove, on the Russian River, to hold their macho bacchanals without women; not even waitresses. The utter isolation of the male in the wilderness--that is love of nature at its purest.

In some ways, I agree that San Franciscans are more aware of nature than we are. In Southern California the elements are so benign that we tend to enjoy them without fearing or revering them.

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