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We answer the call

Gidget was a wave-riding cowgirl, enjoying California's wild freedoms.

September 30, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

WE are different. Almost 70 years ago, a writer named Farnsworth Crowder concluded that Southern Californians had branched off, taken an evolutionary step on their own. They had discovered the pleasure of the outdoors, not as a pastime but as a pursuit; not as a privilege of the wealthy but the birthright of us all.

"Your Californian," Crowder wrote, "seeks snowbanks, beach sands, channel islands, pine forests, desert inns, in preference to museums, theaters, birthplaces, tombs, and historic landmarks. He feels that there is a distinct appropriateness about a concert under the stars, a graduation out-of-doors, a supper in a patio, in preference to anything under a roof."

Eventually, this approach became Southern California's contribution to progress, the idea of "lifestyle" as living larger than one's labors, closer to one's joys.

Kevin Starr, the state librarian, quoted Crowder's observations at length to open the fifth volume in his esteemed ongoing series of histories of the California dream.

"It is the paradox. And the unavoidable conclusion," Starr reflected in an interview. "The most highly engineered state in the union, the most highly urbanized state in the union, also takes nature and the outdoors as its primary symbol of identity."

Our communities and our peoples and our absorptions are said to resemble hodgepodge. Those doing the saying should consider the backdrop. Sprawl? Our neighborhoods were bulldozed out of the belief that you couldn't get enough of Southern California on weekend outings. But you could stake a piece of it for yourself to hold you over. Accordingly, a whole school of freethinking California architecture threw itself at the challenge of reducing the barrier between indoors and out. Backyard barbecues became our stand-in campfires; swimming pools our lakes. Similar threads are woven through California's art, literature, our music, as well as the fashions of our clothing, our cuisines, our attitudes about work -- all patterned by culture's devotion to outdoor play.

The nature of the nature around us is our distinction.

Familiarity need not dull the extraordinary facts: The world's greatest wilderness, the Pacific, exists on the doorstep of one of its largest megalopolises. Within only miles of Los Angeles, the largest creatures in earthly history, the blue whales, can be seen swimming free. Those who say there is no ground left to discover on the planet overlook the fact that most of the ocean bottom just offshore has never been seen by human eyes.

The outdoors is our inspiration. "Nature, it's where we are. It's the way we live. It's the way we've organized our lives," said art historian Wesley Jessup, executive director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Our self-image rose from the cradle of the outdoors.

As Life magazine's Roger Butterfield wrote in 1943: "The city reached out from the mountains to the sea, like a gigantic wallowing amoeba, swallowing up some towns, surrounding others, squirming through bottlenecks and draping itself over deserts and canyons." And so what if there wasn't water for all this civilization? With a little urging and a massive amount of concrete, nature could be coaxed to provide that too.

California does not have an endless summer, but of course the idea of "Endless Summer" arose here

As Gidget said, in the 1957 novel by Frederick Kohner, a teenage girl might want to spend her afternoons at a movie theater. But here, mom had other ideas.

"She always made me go to the beach on those sunny weekends. She was adamant that the beach would be more fun and entertaining, and much healthier for me. How right she was. Of course, at the time, I thought she was mean."

Thanks in no small part to Gidget, and to Hollywood and to nature's sweet, feathery point break at Malibu, the surfer became the symbol of Southern California outdoors. Recently, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, an institution chiefly concerned with the cowboy and the West, hosted an exhibition of surfing art and artifacts (the show has moved to the Laguna Art Museum, where it runs through Sunday). It was no curiosity to place surfer alongside cowboy.

"They are alike -- the man riding off into the distance," explained the Autry's senior curator Michael Duchemin. "The cowboy as a mythical character for the factory worker in the East, the surfer becomes the same kind of symbol of the free spirit."

Actually, the first surfer appeared in Southern California early in the 1900s. Within a few decades, surfers had become improbable moguls. They sold wax for surfboards and transformed swimming trunks into "board shorts" and stamped their logos on sunglasses -- and they created a fashion culture that remains inescapable anywhere in the nation.

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