In Humboldt County by Jan Clausen

[T]he value which we attribute to our own civilization is due to the fact that we participate in this civilization, and that it has been controlling all our actions since the time [of] our birth.”

— Franz Boas

My father was a builder–in wood above all. Trained in forestry at the University of Minnesota and with a flare for engineering, he was a tree man whose arboreal vocation got him tangled in the usual contradictions of killing the thing you love. He basically took the unsentimental approach befitting his career in the timber industry, where forests are treated as natural factories–alive, yes, but incidentally so, their true significance reckoned in board feet and dollars. Yet his feeling for individual trees, especially the redwoods and other regal conifers of the West Coast’s temperate rain forest biome, up and down the length of which my family moved during my childhood in the Fifties and Sixties, harked back to an earlier time in his life. While growing up in a fraying Minneapolis neighborhood, he’d gotten a break from scorching, monotonous days and a string of home troubles on summer adventures with the Boy Scouts. They ventured into the wilds of northern Minnesota, where he hiked through groves of old growth pines that had escaped the local logging frenzy sentimentalized in the jolly, kitschy figures of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. Visiting Lake Itasca, source of the Mississippi River, he caught a whiff of freedom and romance.

            Lured by the idea of becoming a forest ranger, Father later saw the wisdom of adjusting his goals to align with the incentives on offer in the thoroughly commercial postwar milieu that was shaping up as he entered adulthood. He needed a job, and meant to have a good one, for he wanted a family, expected to support it–he and my mother agreed she’d stay home with the children–and didn’t intend to drift with fickle economic currents, the way he thought his own parents had done in the toils of the Great Depression. His father had driven a milk truck. He would rise.

More California homes are built of lumber than of any other material. We get lumber from the many forests of our state. The great logs that are cut down in the forests are the raw material from which lumber is made. Trees that are used for lumber are often called timber. There are fine timberlands in many parts of our state

Our California Today, 1957

            Father was his own architect, hod-carrier, master carpenter, tile-layer, roofer, and much more besides for two epic home-building projects. The first, in California’s redwood region, meant that he and my mother, just starting a family, could realize their dream of home ownership on a shoestring; the second, undertaken as he approached retirement age,  was a log house in Washington State with a mountain out the window and a glacier-fed river on the edge of the property. He built because the pleasure of making was in him–the fun of planning and research, the brio of healthy muscles in the service of self-taught craft. I still admire his ideal of self-reliance–the largely tacit conviction that we ought to control the conditions of our daily existence, even down to the basics of plumbing and wiring, the care with which tar paper is applied to exterior walls before the siding goes on. It was all there in the parlance of concrete and sheetrock: the lingo of materials and methods that men talk in the driveway while a child with her hair in braids, wearing “pedal pushers,” sits in the cab of the truck with the window down, lost in the book on her lap and yet unconsciously absorbing the vernacular evidence of what her civilization values. There, too, in his stable of mechanical work horses: the Ford pickup with its scratchy bench seat where my legs stuck out next to the gear shift; the gruff wheel barrow splashed and stained with its labors; the open-sided trailer that he used to haul supplies, having hooked it to the trailer hitch on our Chevrolet sedan, the same stubby black vehicle that ferried our family of five to Hidden Springs campground to sleep in a tent, out to a gritty beach for a windswept picnic, or into town on Sundays, where some dingy rented hall (the Odd Fellows maybe, or Native Sons of the Golden West) served as the gathering spot for the struggling Unitarian Fellowship of which we were charter members.

            I see my father in his hard hat and work overalls, hammer in hand, framing what was to be a compact, gray-sided house on the outskirts of Eureka, near Humboldt Bay. We’d moved to Humboldt County from my birthplace on the Oregon coast when he landed a job with the California Redwood Association. I was five when the house was finished enough to live in, and we moved out of the rental my mother always calls “the place over the double garage,” as if that déclassé location somehow amplified the hardship of caring for tiny children in a too-small apartment. Our new home was surrounded by a patchwork of semi-wild terrain, scraggly second growth and agricultural land slowly being divided and sold off for house lots. Although I have some blurry memories of a time before this house, it’s through being included in the pageant of its construction, then easing into the new life it offered, that I firmed up my sense of the character of the world I’d so recently come into. It was here that I learned by doing (and observing the deeds of others) what my civilization meant, how it required to be valued. And it was here that I gained a certain freedom to explore, playing alone in the woods, loosed from direct supervision on the understanding that I’d stay close to home—living, as it seems to me now, more on a level with the earth than at any other time in my life.

            When Father began to build the Eureka house, he worked in the scraps of time he had—not only weekends, but summer evenings after work, buoyed through difficult months of incremental effort by the thrill of seeing his vision take shape and the goal, so important to both him and Mother, of “having aplace of our own.” We moved in with much still unfinished, and he kept on adding things like paint and flooring for months, maybe years, after we took up residence. Nothing was slapdash or hurried; his craft was meticulous. My mother still talks about the wonderful scent of the Port Orford cedar he used for the living room ceiling, a fragrance that increased when the place was closed up for any length of time, making the return after a weekend away feel like a special occasion.

            My connection with my father, strong to begin with, grew as he worked on the house. While Mother stayed with Debby in the apartment (my other sister, Sidney, wouldn’t be born until shortly before we made the big move), I got to ride along to the house site on weekends, rewarded, as I saw it, for my status as a big girl by the privilege of being the companion of his labors. I’d play uncomplainingly by myself, squishing in rubber boots through the mud and blue clay, creating my own collapsible structures with scrap wood collected beneath his saw horses. Smelling the fragrant sawdust, I’d busy myself amid the hammering and drilling, playing with the curly wood shavings that fell from his plane as he moved it back and forth to smooth the surface of a plank. I pored over the mystery of his carpenter’s level, peering into the window where a small bubble swam like a fish in a flattened aquarium; took for granted his exertions as he fetched and dumped wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of sand or dirt or gravel. At noon we’d share the lunch my mother had packed: sandwiches in wax paper; an apple sliced with the pocket knife he always carried with him, the blade wiped clean with his ironed handkerchief; store-bought cookies, also wax paper wrapped. There are snapshots that show him shirtless and be-shoveled, digging the well that supplied our household needs. Working by hand, he couldn’t make it deep to prevent our running short in occasional dry spells. Periodically, my mother would have to boil our drinking water.

Forests of large redwood trees grow along our north coast. These trees need the fog and cool air of the lands near the ocean. Redwood timber grows in only one strip of coastland in northern California and southern Oregon. All our redwood lumber comes from these forests.

When a tree has been cut down, its branches are taken off. Then the big log that is left is dragged or is hauled by a truck to a sawmill. In the sawmill, logs are cut into many sizes of rough lumber.

Our California Today, 1957

            Well before the house was ready for us to live in, he built a sturdy swing for Debby’s and my amusement, the A frame constructed of solid timber. Looking at a black and white photo of him in his work clothes, framed by the swing’s supports and bending low to stabilize toddler Debby, who grins, delighted but unsteady on her seat–a length of board with stout ropes looped through holes at each end–I see him improvising an atmosphere of home, a way for his daughters to know this place was theirs before it offered literal shelter.

            Once we’d moved in and the finishing touches were out of the way, he tackled smaller projects: a svelte dining table of laminated wood, a well house and tool shed stained to match the house’s siding, a tidy coop to house my stupid chickens (they pecked each other bloody and didn’t know how to roost). Just for fun, he built a box kite, its frame thin strips of light-weight wood, its sides sheathed in milky polyethylene. He flew it out over the valley, and when the string broke, he mustered us into the Chevy and drove around to Lower Mitchell Road, egging us on in a competition to be the first to spot the place where the fugitive had landed. It was yet another instance of his amusing car behavior, like the time we almost ran out of gas on an empty stretch of Eastern Oregon highway; he made a game of switching off the engine to coast on the downhills, while my mother, convinced we’d be stranded in the desert, fumed in the seat beside him. His message on that occasion, as in worse predicaments, was all about the value of rational problem-solving. No need to panic, just double down on basic human ingenuity, everything will be fine. Over the years, despite empirical confirmation of the soundness of this approach—the worst had a habit of not taking place, or not for us, at any rate–I never stopped thinking (for I’m also my mother’s daughter): but what if this is the time when it doesn’t work out?

Plywood is another useful building material. It is made of several sheets of very thin wood glued together. Plywood is made in large, flat pieces. Some inside walls and doors are made from plywood. Plywood is laid under fine hardwood floors and is used in many other ways.

Our California Today

            I’ve been sketching my father the builder in his attractive private mode, but the projects he pursued when he went off “to work” also need accounting for. His professional life centered on the making of things that helped with the making of other things, from the days when he’d duck behind the stacks of drying wood in the lot at Holmes Eureka Lumber Company to change from his slacks and ironed shirt into work overalls to the year when he retired from his executive job with a manufacturer of industrial adhesives. His time in the timber business wasn’t spent on the chopping end, but in streamlining the processes required to get the raw timber to a market-ready state. “Forest products research,” it was called, improving–as he saw it, or at least rationalized it–the means of supplying on an ever-widening scale the materials required for the glorious expansion that set the tone for life in those postwar years, a boom that had got conflated with moral progress. The work involved building and fine-tuning any number of complex, temperamental machines. At last he invented a new way of bonding the layers of veneer that go to make plywood. The innovative product that this approach relied on, a linear adhesive that could be wound on huge spools and applied by a hot melt process, lent itself to a range of industrial uses, and he went into business for himself, turning the garage into his first factory before he felt able to afford the rent on a proper industrial space. But that’s a much later story and belongs to a different world: the suburban world of Bellevue, Washington, where we lived in tract housing with Boeing engineers for neighbors. By the time he got out of the timber industry, I’d spun my cocoon of teenage alienation, done my dreadful time in high school, and fled to college in Portland, bent on a life of my own.

            For years after that, I mostly ignored whatever my family might be up to, so I only heard the stories, didn’t witness up close either the impressive saga of “string” (as Father’s invention was familiarly called) or the log house phase of his construction fervor, which saw my parents shuttling from another suburban-style home–in Vancouver, Washington, just across the bridge from Portland–to the building site in Klickitat County. In any event, what interests me now is to access the flavor of those California years, before I acquired what passed for a critical handle on the order of things I’d been soaking in since birth: a civilization that washed over and through me, leaving me as powerless to tell where it left off and I began as I was to bar the air from entering my nostrils. To reconstruct that world whose creature I was—and in some sense have never stopped being.

When it is smoothed and polished, redwood lumber is very beautiful. Its rich red color makes a fine finish for the walls of a room. Redwood is often used where the lumber is to rest on the ground and may get damp. Redwood lumber does not rot easily.

Our California Today

            Eureka was raw. There was poverty and weirdness. Poor people (white, like everyone else; this monoculture seemed completely unremarkable) lived in “tarpaper shacks” tucked away in a scruff of second growth, fenced by scary tangles of blackberry vines. Father drove the pickup to a local farm, shoveled the truck-bed full of horse manure, and the smell of it lingered in the vehicle for weeks after the load had been spread on the garden. The fish market down at the waterfront stank, was full of wriggling strangeness, of death throes and corpses that still had a lively look, prompting a reluctant, queasy-making sense of kinship. In general, we lived with an inconvenient Earth–not curated or labeled, like nature preserves these days, nor indulgent to the senses like the lands further south, the ones people mean when they call up the old clichés of Golden State living. Our days were foggy, soggy, chilly, mostly sunless, slug-adorned. Though I loved to play by myself in the woods, I was always a bit on edge there because of the threat from those lurking gastropods, quite harmless yet revolting, their torpid bodies trailing silver slime. You had to keep on the lookout not to squish them, an accident to avoid at all costs not only because of the goo on your tennis shoes but the horrid thought of their helpless suffering.  Just seeing a slug was like touching it in your mind, feeling its soft, wet power to appear, creeping out from under a fern or rotting log, in the middle of your path. It seemed as though a life in these regions required the cheerful callousness of boys who chortled disgusting ditties on the playground at recess–the worms go in, the worms go out, the worms play tiptoe on your snout–or the vengeful approach of righteous gardeners who would dump a pile of salt on the back of a slug to make it shrivel up.

            The Old Growth redwoods soared; one was taken to visit shrines, instructed in the lore of an American sublime. (Just to live in the Redwood Region seemed a rare mark of favor, something like living next door to the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid, or any Wonder of the World.) But I knew them, too, in more modest second and third growth iterations—a runty stand, intermixed with other species, made up “my” woods at the top of the driveway. My life was so physical then, all intertwined with earth-life, down among the ferns, forget-me-nots. I wasn’t craning my neck to see which tree was tallest, I was facing off with a foxglove whose seed had wandered far from home, or maybe someone had planted it in their garden and the house had fallen down; at any rate, the tall spikes of purple or white flowers shot up where least expected. Trilliums, too, were purple or white, but these were ground-huggers, a treasure to find, and no one had planted them. For an hour, I was a seedling scattered among the rest, one with the messy body of generation, solid and liquid intermingled, that flourished in the fog belt.

            It’s commonly assumed that a childhood like mine, steeped in glorious earth-stuff, prepares a memory-trove, an aquifer for tapping later on, while standing “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey….” I’m sure that’s what my parents had in mind when they treated us to the slightly alarming sight of the Grand Tetons rearing over Jackson Hole Valley, almost like a mirage amid the heat and dust of a marathon road trip to a family reunion with Mother’s Minnesota relatives. The sagebrush and withered-looking grasses of the Eastern Oregon desert weren’t picturesque like the sleek Sahara dunes, gorgeously depicted in “The Near and the Middle East,” which was Volume III in the Lands and Peoples series I pored over trying to imagine what lay beyond the West and Midwest of my furthest horizons; but staring at them out the car window nevertheless induced a trance of adventure-anticipation. The raw, gravelly, sand-blown, kelp-clammy beaches tucked just south of the Oregon border were chilly at best; the huge breakers and fearsome undertow, not to mention the hypothermia-inducing water temperatures, meant no one contemplated taking a dip, but we never thought of envying surfer culture. The stones that hurt bare feet, the dripping rain–we were used to them, they suited our situation. I long for these scenes and avoid calling them up, reluctant to enter a zone of useless grief and anger, recalling a time when earth-webs seemed intact; occasions of ominous rupture could plausibly be framed as minor blemishes on a healthy body. We were drilled in the modern logic of conservation; “Nature” would be preserved while those in charge–while we ourselves!–continued to make a buck. It’s strange how time slides around in these calculations of how late was it when, what could or couldn’t have been avoided. The truth, as I now believe (and my bitterness knows no bounds, remembering cheerful lies my childhood was steeped in–and yet: who’s to blame?): calamity was there, right under our feet. In our trivial, humdrum way, we were spurring it on–yes, we, the good people. Our lives in the great outdoors were not some voyage of discovery, but already a kind of salvage naturalism.

            Under the layers of fog and social blandness, Humboldt County was a violent little kingdom, the product of its hack and grab economy. The great machines used to butcher the trees had gotten their start as instruments of warfare. If we didn’t exactly live on the killing floor, we were close enough to know all about it. The shock of slaughter and carnage became routinized, as usual, through sheer familiarity. I knew so well what the raked expanses of the clear-cut hillsides looked like, sliced with the muddy gashes called logging roads—crude tracks of bare earth packed down by the weight of logging rigs outrageously piled with their lightly secured burdens. You gulped meeting a log truck on a hairpin turn, driving flat out, huge logs looking poised to fall and crush the car, the driver pushing his luck in a mad dash to reach the lumber mill, dump his load, and head back for another before it got too dark to load. His paycheck depended on it.

How Lumbermen Got Their Lands

Lumbermen began to explore the coastlands north of San Francisco Bay. They saw the splendid forests of redwood trees. Those forests were even larger than the forests south of the bay.

“We must get this land!” said the lumbermen. “If we owned this land, we could cut down all these great trees! We could drag them down to the shore. We could saw them up and load the boards on ships. We could sell the lumber in San Francisco. We’d soon grow rich!”

In those days, most of the land in California belonged to the government…

Our California Today

            But remember, we were builders; the world was better for it. The beautiful trees were felled that walls might rise and snug shingle roofs hold off the rain. How could our actions possibly be wicked or tragic? This was the story under my father’s story, the plywood under the fine hardwood floor of the industry he rented his talents to, the craftsmanship he honed on his own time. Though critical of his bosses the timber barons, whose authoritarian ways and hidebound attitudes may have called up memories of his early unhappiness with his dogmatic Lutheran father (he wanted no part of that “German” tendency in his own fathering), he’d defend the industry’s role in fulfilling human needs. His tone on these occasions hinted at the tactful dispelling of superstitious fears by rational argument, prefiguring his stance in old age when deflecting any suggestion that Roundup, his preferred herbicide—he used it to create tidy circles of bare earth around the bases of the many trees he’d planted near the log house–might pose a safety hazard.

            My mother, as I’ve said, had a prophetic, foreboding streak and worried that things could get out of hand. She hated Humboldt County’s cut-over tracts, heaped with piles of slash and dotted with jagged stumps, an aftermath that called up disquieting pictures of the industrial vivisection involved in reducing a forest to a hellscape. She was always afraid that her view out the kitchen window would be spoiled by some crass bottom-line calculation of the lumber company that owned the hillside opposite us. When she got what Father considered carried away on that topic, or worried about related concerns like the plans for a nuclear plant on Humboldt Bay, he was quick to position himself as a rational container for the formless blob of her feminine angst. As usual, he took the position that the sky wasn’t falling. We (clever humans, engineers like himself) would put our heads together, find a fix. Damage would be contained. I’ve wondered whether he nursed private doubts. Late in life he more than once alluded to the prospect of homo sapiens turning out to have a shorter than expected shelf life. It seemed he thought we should keep our cool at the prospect. After all, we’re an animal species like any other. Take a look at the fossil record and you’ll see how that goes!

Today most lumber companies follow wise rules for cutting timber in their forests. They do not get rich so quickly as the lumbermen of early days did. But their forests will last. They can cut trees year after year, and new trees will grow up to fill the places where the old trees stood.

Our California Today

            It’s surely better, at any rate, to be a maker by trade than one of the ones who swings a wrecking ball. My childhood sense of a future of sparkling promise, utterly in synch with my civilization’s values, had as its shadowy backdrop the enormity of War. I felt fortunate that Father, having been rejected for military service in World War II because of some minor problem with his eyesight, wasn’t like so many other fathers who must have killed people during their time in the service—for I knew that killing another human being is wrong; I had read this plainly stated in the Bible. In those days, I nursed a private theology, focused on my own avid reading of scripture and would-be absolute, in marked contrast to the relativistic tone of what passed for Sunday school among the Unitarians, whose adult programming typically consisted of a talk by some expert from “up at the college” (Humboldt State, not yet a university) on quantum mechanics or Samuel Beckett’s world view.

            Though I puzzled over certain problems of exegesis, there was no way to construe the relevant Commandment as permitting what I knew had taken place on a massive scale in the fight against Hitler–the mythic struggle that came before me, and, for a while in my early years, seemed almost more real than any number of events that had happened since my birth. It could almost be said that my father was a virgin of militarism, and in this as so much else, he seems exceptional–the rare Fifties dad specimen who, in that rough-hewn place so far from any cosmopolitan current, lent a hand with the washing of diapers and spent free time with his feminine family, never out with the guys. He did own a clunky-looking rifle, and I think was cajoled into shooting some hapless animal on one or two occasions, but was fond neither of hunting nor organized sports nor anything else that American men in packs commonly consider attractive recreation. He camped and hiked with his daughters, never pined for a son. Whether judged by the standard measures of the culture or the glow given off by my warm memories of the humorous, attentive, multi-talented parent of those key Eureka years, he shines as that rarest of figures, the better-than-good-enough patriarch.

            Indeed, I have to count myself so lucky in having been spared any number of hurtful things that keep on happening to children—the ones unloved or cruelly abused, the ones scarred for life by the effects of poverty, the ones who are made to feel that their inmost selves are despised, or simply get bombarded with illiberal propaganda, as Father himself had been in his blinkered Lutheran home. But more than being spared, I was given rare gifts. I had a witty daddy who made audio recordings that I listened to for hours on end, watching the shiny brown tape pay out between the guideposts on the massive reel-to-reel tape recorder. I couldn’t get enough of the pleasing hodge-podge he’d recorded–Danny Kaye singing “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,” followed by the call and response of our own familiar voices–my delighted squeal of “no, no, that isn’t right!” at his deliberate mangling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: “won’t you slide my clay tonight?”And there was his voice again, reassuring me that thunder was nothing to be scared of: “the clouds bump together and they make a little noise.” I had a father who took me for a stroll along some rural train tracks, letting me test the novelty of hopping from tie to tie, then saved the day when an approaching train caught us in the middle of a trestle, leaping handily to the ground and extending his arms for me, like a fireman plucking a damsel from a blaze. Who cheerfully taught by example all I needed to know regarding the dignity and creativity of labor before I could even read. The two possessions of his that I keep as talismans are his Sears Craftsman knife (three blades and a bottle opener) and his slide rule, slightly cracked with long use, in its scarred leather case. His talents as a builder, whatever else they signified, quite literally laid the material foundation for a start in life whose value it would be hard to overstate.

            So why does building—that honored activity, “constructive” by definition, close associate of hard work and progress and many other excellent things that my civilization touts–feel also like an aspect of the mayhem we’d escaped when Father got rejected for military service? (For surely, had he fought, we’d have lived with his war, even if he never spoke of it—the way we lived with his mother’s suicide, unknown to me till I reached middle age, though she’d died when I was two.) There on the edge, in that foggy provincial place, we seem to have been at the heart of the heart of the problem.

[T]here have been many changes beneath the California sky. Californians have built their homes on mountains and in deserts. Oil wells and mines, farms and factories dot our valleys and our hills. Some of the old forests have been cut. Some new ones have been planted….The story of the things that man has built is the story of this book.  It is a story of work and of great wonders.

Our California Today

            The depraved violence to people and Earth on the flip side of “great wonders” was hiding in plain sight. I have already said that the harrowing impact of logging, so plainly visible throughout Humboldt County, seemed unremarkable thanks to its very ubiquity, but what also helped to normalize the wreckage was having it constantly framed as the price of betterment–and, relatively speaking, a minute injury, a slight surface nick that couldn’t mar the magnificence everyone agreed was our regional heritage. As for what had been done (and was still being done) to the people who had had such a different idea of how to live at the level of this land–here was a topic successfully avoided. “The Indians” weren’t an issue; this was blindingly obvious from the few things that were ever said about them, even more so from the things that weren’t said. They belonged to the past, they remained tucked away. On one occasion the Humboldt Unitarians, always big on social action, came up with a scheme to volunteer their labor on the Hoopah Reservation, helping build a health clinic. A handful of families drove up there and camped out for the weekend, the kids swimming in a local river while the fathers did some work, but I don’t remember meeting any Hoopahs.

People in some towns and cities in California have fiestas or other community festivals… A fiesta may help us to remember the arts of the California Indians or of the Spanish Californians….[S]tories are told of the first American settlers who came to California. From these stories, we learn about the dangers and the troubles of those early days. We learn about the men and women who settled our state and made it a happy and beautiful place in which to live.

Our California Today

            I search and search for clues I should have picked up on. Mightn’t I have noticed how peculiar it was, the tenuousness of my civilization’s foothold? Wasn’t there something fishy about the fact that we had, so to speak, so little cultural furniture? But I myself was new, being a child–which helped the whole setup feel completely ordinary. The dearth of buildings more than a few decades old, the lack of historic markers–nothing the least peculiar in all that. It was just the way of things. In Humboldt County, Nature was what we got instead of Culture.  A mare’s nest of incoherent impressions, notions that ought to have cancelled each other out, seamlessly coexisted in the thereness of my world. The redwoods were special; it was special to live among them. There were monumental trees, and sepia photographs of rough-hewn little men clutching axes, bunched together in petty and uneasy triumph on the vast stump of some giant they’d felled. It was fitting—edifying–for children taken on field trips to be ushered into the presence of a standing specimen of Sequoia sempervirens that had allegedly been a seedling “at the birth of Christ.” The experience might elicit a shiver of awe, introducing us to duration on a scale that almost seemed to exceed a human framework. No reason to picture people quite dissimilar to ourselves who had lived here at the date of that sprouting, their descendants coexisting with a thriving ancient forest until they were driven off–and a great many murdered in cold blood–by the pioneers of old Humboldt County. All of this had happened less than a century before, but we hadn’t heard the word “genocide,” much less were we informed that our humble provincial outpost had pioneered techniques of ethnic cleansing that smoothed the way for resource extraction throughout the Golden State. An old symbiosis of humans and earth-weave simply wasn’t on our radar, and we went about our lives in profoundest ignorance of our actual heritage.  We were the builders, aka settlers, though we would have rejected that label, not out of defensiveness but simply because it  wouldn’t have computed; settlement, we knew, belonged to the long-ago time full of “dangers and troubles” we’d luckily avoided. Relying on circular logic, we could point to our structures as proof that our coming had been a benison. Prior to our arrival, there’d been nothing here to speak of.


Quotations from Our California Today are from a textbook written by Irmagarde Richards. Our California Today appeared under the imprint of the California State Department of Education, 1957.

“The great machines used to butcher the trees had gotten their start as instruments of warfare.” See The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz (Verso, 2015): “Military machines, by their particular power applied to destructive capacity, constitute archetypes of what Paul R. Josephson proposes to call ‘brute force technologies’. Tanks, for example, provided a developmental model for a range of tracked vehicles used in forestry (clear-cutters, harvesters, forwarders) or civil engineering (bulldozers).” (131)

“All of this had happened less than a century before, but we hadn’t heard the word ‘genocide,’ much less were we informed that our humble provincial outpost had pioneered techniques of ethnic cleansing that smoothed the way for resource extraction throughout the Golden State.” See An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley (Yale University Press, 2016).

Jan Clausen is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose books include the novels Sinking, Stealing and The Prosperine Papers, the poetry collections From a Glass House and If You Like Difficulty, and a hybrid text, Veiled Spill: A Sequence. Her memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity was recently reissued by Seven Stories Press. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New York City since the 1970s. Formerly on the faculty of the Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program, she currently teaches at NYU.