The Unbearable Flatness of Being

If You Live In A Horizontal World, Does It Enter Your Soul?

Archived Story from August, 1999

Someone else should be writing this story. Someone with deep feeling for the subtleties of landscape. Someone who resonates with the rhythms of nature. Someone who easily engages the voluptuousness of the visual environment.

This story should be told by some Thoreau of the riverbank. An Isak Dinesen of the delta. A Willa Cather of the floodplain. For what I want to explore is what it means to live in such a flat place as the Sacramento Valley.

In most respects, I am the last person who should attempt such a tale since I am no native son of the golden West. I have lived here for nearly a decade and a half now, and yet still can’t distinguish a camellia from other flowers, still verbally stumble when I come upon the word “slough,” and don’t really believe that anyone was ever named Effie Yeaw.

I will even confess to more than a few mornings when I wake up, look out the window, and notice a small voice rising within me, sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming, always hysterical: “No! No! This can’t be where I live. Some terrible, horrible, wretched mistake has been made.” Any mention of delta breezes or the proximity of mountains only worsens my mood.

I take no pride in any of this. But even someone as environmentally challenged as myself can recognize that this valley is very, very flat. And that flatness has something to do with my life. I wanted to know exactly what. Perhaps what I wanted most to know was this: If you live in a flat place for a long time, does the flatness enter your soul? I do not feel impartial about the answer.

I turned first to the writers who had lived here. Joan Didion, of course. She includes it in her first memory, “running a boxer dog of my brother’s over the same flat fields that our great-great-grandfather had found virgin and planted.” But after that, nothing on flatness.

Next to Richard Rodriguez: “We arrived late on a summer afternoon in an old black car. The streets were arcades of elm trees. The houses were white. The horizon was flat.” And then, again, nothing.

Onto Diane Johnson: “California. August. The flat, hot Sacramento Valley.” Once more, the subject of flatness disappears, as if dropping off the edge of the earth.

Could there really be nothing more to say about flatness? Was there only the single teutonic syllable itself, starting with the front teeth on the lower lip, tongue moving to the upper palate, and ending with teeth clenched? Flat, and nothing but?

I wasn’t convinced. First, I had to discover what this flat ground beneath me really was, as just pure, simple flattened earth. That could mean only one thing: a visit to Eldridge Moores.

The Gospel Of Geology

On a sunny April morning, after everyone has gone to work but the noon hour still seems a long way off, Eldridge and Judy Moores’ backyard can seem like a little paradise, a parcel of California Eden still intact. The black walnut tree-lined roadways are blocked by the house and high bushes. The enclosed yard is dotted with flowers of such varied colors as to both excite and mesmerize the eye. Looking out toward the east there is only a long stretch of green agricultural field stations. To the west the coastal range sits happily within view.

Eldridge and Judy Moores are so graciously interested in the topic at hand as to put me immediately at ease. Eldridge is a professor of geology at UC Davis. He was one of the scientists who in the 1960s formed the theory known as plate tectonics, which revolutionized our understanding of the earth’s development.

More than that, Eldridge Moores is now a publicly famous man. You see, Moores was the central figure profiled in naturalist-writer John McPhee’s 1993 book describing the geological formation of California, entitled Assembling California. McPhee’s book immortalized Moores and his work. Too bad Moores doesn’t believe in immortality. Before too many sips of coffee, Moores, with Judy’s encouragement, is delivering a sermon. “The gospel of geology,” he begins, “is that the land, the earth, is the product of a long complicated history, which has gone on for 4 1/2 billion years. And it was not made for us. We happen to inhabit it at this present time. And it will continue to have this long complex history after Homo sapiens is extinct, as it almost certainly will be, like any other species.”

Compared to extinction, a flat place to live is suddenly starting to seem pretty good. Moores continues: “The geologic processes of the earth are still going on today, at time scales much longer than human lifetimes. So we don’t think about them very much. But you can read the landscape. You can understand how it got there. And I think it adds immeasurably to your quality of life.”

He finishes with an unexpectedly emphatic spiritual viewpoint: “In fact, I think there’s an innate need for humans to have a connection to the earth. And I would argue that in western society we’ve lost that connection and we need to get it back.”

Asked whether that connection need be scientifically grounded, Moores says yes, but it also includes a need for nonquantifiable links such as ethics or feelings of beauty and awe. Earth is the basis of our life, he says. “There’s a saying: If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it. Everything is dependent on soil.”

Coming to the piece of soil that concerns this visit, Moores pulls out a digital relief map of California topography. “You can see the Valley’s almost as flat as the sea itself. This is much flatter than the Great Plains. The Valley was created by the uplifting of the coastal ranges and the Sierras millions of years ago.”

With one hand pushing in from the coast and the other pushing in toward the valley from the Sierras, Moores says, “This coastal area is a where the hills are coming up very rapidly, moving eastward and rumpling up the west edge of the Valley. At the same time faults in the Sierra are tilting westward.”

I ask Moores how quickly the coastal ranges are doing this “rumpling.” “Oh, on about an average of two millimeters a year.” Starting to feel claustrophobic, I inquire, “Does that mean the Valley will one day disappear?” Very possibly, he confirms. How soon? Moores makes a quick calculation: “Oh, in about 50 million years.”

When I ask whether something can’t be done to stop this, Moores and his wife laugh heartily. I’m starting to miss the Valley already.

“Still,” Moores proceeds, “the question is, why is the Valley like that? Why is it so low while everything around it is coming up?” This was a question I didn’t even think could be asked.

As it turns out, Nicola Godfrey, a young Englishwoman doing her dissertation at Stanford, had just this past December published what appears to be the definitive answer to that very question. Underlying the Valley is a “basement,” half of which is an extension of the Sierra, half of which is called the Franciscan melange, coming in from the west. For decades this “basement” has exuded a “magnetic anomaly"—that is, a magnetic force which is typical of ocean floor rock, but not the continental shelf rock under the Valley.

Through a series of experiments, which included placing plastic explosives in the ground and measuring their force with seismic meters, Godfrey showed that a large slab of ocean rock material—called ophiolite—sits on top of the continental shelf, from Redding to Bakersfield. Since this ocean rock slab is heavier than the other, it prevents disturbance of the valley floor from below.

“For the first time, we understand why the Valley is here,” Moores says. Without that ocean slab intersecting between the valley floor and the continental shelf, the Valley would probably have a lot more irregular features, like hills and dales, throughout.

A couple of weeks after this visit, Moores was to guide me on a trip to Lake Berryessa, where the ocean rock material can be seen, uplifted by the coastal ranges and sitting vertically to the Valley.

But before I left Eldrige and Judy Moores, I had to ask how they personally had responded to coming to the Valley in 1966 from Princeton, N.J., and New York. Eldridge, who grew up in the Arizona desert, found it oppressive at first, “the flatness, the lack of a place to get up and look out.” Judy says that she went through a period of “bereavement. The feelings of missing the autumnal colors, the change of seasons, were that strong. I was in a state of mourning.”

Both agreed that they had come to love the Sacramento Valley. But it was a matter of adjusting to the subtleties of the changes.

I left the Mooreses thankful to know why the Valley was here and awestruck by the prospect that one day it would not be. Already, I was seeing the the flatness differently. As Moores had told me during our field trip, “If you know how to read the landscape, it tells you its story.”

But how to read such profound personal reactions to the landscape as oppression and mourning? I was to hear similar expressions repeatedly—most powerfully, perhaps, when visiting with Sacramento artists Robert and Georgiana Else. When I asked Georgiana, who came from the Massachusetts countryside, how she had adjusted to the Valley’s flatness, she replied, “I’m not sure that I have yet.” She’s been here since 1950. It was time to go see Bob Sommers.

Space-Time Highway

As one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology, Bob Sommers has spent a good part of his life exploring how environments affect people. Notions like “personal space” and arranging chairs in a circle to facilitate communication are some of the more recognizable products of the field Sommers helped launch 40 years ago. Not only has Sommers studied the environmental effects on institutionalized populations like prisoners and mental health patients, he has done so within the setting of prairie geography, such as Kansas and Saskatchewan. This led him to also study the effects of flatlands.

Thirty years ago he published a small study called “Space-Time on Prairie Highways.” His conclusion was that “the more homogenous the environment … the greater the use will be made of temporal cues to location and distance.” That is, when land becomes monotonous, we begin to measure ourselves by time instead of spatial landmarks. The obvious example for Valley dwellers is the most common expression for describing life here: “You’re only an hour and a half from the city or the mountains.”

Sommers, who is currently working on the uses and effects of urban forestry, told me that powerful reactions to strange environments is a well-studied phenomenon. “Where you grow up has a lot to do with your preferred habitat,” he says. “Because it’s there, on your own turf, that you develop your own sense of survival skills.” Even the quality of light is subliminally used as a signal of being “on turf” or “off turf.”

He used the example of pygmies living in the rainforest. “Going into open areas for them represents danger, while for Westerners going into the dark forest was frightening.”

But I pressed him on the causes of the more precise emotions that people seemed to talk about in coming to the Valley: oppression, mourning. Sommers says that the apparent visual monotony can elicit those kinds of reactions. You begin to not look out and about so much, but adjust to looking closer around you. This pretty much mapped the shift that the Mooreses mentioned, over time coming to notice more subtle changes.

I pressed Sommers further about why visual changes would have such a powerful effect. And, although stating emphatically that it was not sensory deprivation, he seemed to be saying that it was somewhere along that spectrum.

Despite Sommers’ disclaimers, I became hooked on sensory deprivation as a theme if not a fact. Sensory deprivation was a thriving field of psychological investigation from the early 1950s to the 1970s. The interest in it was stimulated by cold war “brainwashing” techniques, but later ranged to the possibilities of altered states of consciousness.

Digging out some of the research, I found that sensory deprivation was found to affect aspects of perception, such as impaired visual reaction time and visual vigilance, while things like visual acuity and depth perception were unaffected. I knew I was stretching. But it also seemed to me that there must be some corresponding changes to our physiological systems that are demanded by a predominantly flat environment, with such demands being felt at first as oppressive.

Could we be sensory deprived as a result of living in a flat environment?

Even as I wondered about the possibility that thousands of people in the Valley were in various states of mourning or oppression, gradually undergoing brain changes of which they were unaware, I felt I needed to know more. Eldridge Moores had educated me about what lies under the valley floor. But now I wanted to know about the floor itself, where we live each day.

By chance, I came across a new anthology of articles about California before the Gold Rush. Included was a piece by Dr. Michael Barbour, professor of plant ecology at Davis, on the Valley before colonization.

Essence Of Flatness

Dr. Barbour’s offices sits amid the campus greenhouses, looking very much like the bunkhouses of a summer camp. While waiting to meet with him, I made acquaintance with a colleague of his, a woman working on her Ph.D. by studying the role of fungus in tree growth.

Barbour himself has devoted much time to such questions of how and why natural systems work, while attempts at artificial re-creation or substitution do not. He has studied and written extensively on native plants, and is part of the team now attempting to save the Tahoe National Forest.

Barbour sees the experience of flatness in the Valley as directly related to the human changes that have been both accidentally and intentionally inflicted upon the land by settlers. He cites “the homogenization of the vegetation.” He paints a vivid picture of the Valley prior to this:

“If we were here 150 years ago, we would have seen a gently sloping grassland coming down from the coast range and the Sierras, leading into a flooded area that we call Tule Marsh. The edge of the grassland and the beginning of Tule Marsh was about where Davis is today. The green 8-foot-tall tule plants would be standing in water about six months a year.

“Then you would begin to climb again after five miles, onto a natural levee that was three miles across. On top of this levee would be forest. The marsh area and grassland would repeat itself, leading to the Sierra foothills. So the area might very well look flatter or more boring than it did 150 years ago.”

In other words, for all the natural flatness of the Valley, it wasn’t this flat just seven generations ago. Part of the price that has been paid for settling the Valley has been not only the flattening of the levees, according to Barbour, but the disappearance of much of the forest, the virtual extinction of the bunchy grasses that thrived here, and the absence of new growth Valley oak trees.

It seems that the annual flooding used to kill burrowing rodents in the Valley. This would protect the new growth oak seedlings. “Now,” says Barbour, “they don’t survive into the second or third year because gophers and other animals graze on the plants.”

Some animals, also, have been lost: tule elk, black tail deer, prong horn antelope. These animals used to graze along the marsh during the winters, and then move up the coast range during the summers where it was cooler and plants stayed greener longer.

I asked Barbour if Native Americans followed the same pattern of life. “Exactly,” he replied. “In the wintertime they would live in a forest or grassland, and in spring or summer move uphill, where the oaks would be coming into fruit. They would harvest that in the fall, and come back down in the winter, when there would be plenty of fish, fowl, wild game and plants.”

So Valley residents have been going to the mountains for some time, as part of the cycle of life here.

The flattening of the Valley that Barbour described, of course, had its benefits for human habitation. Areas were more agriculturally productive. And human health was improved from the drainage of the marshes.

But the continued expansion of the Valley’s urbanization is now taking us into unknown terrain. “We’re losing acreage every year from agriculture and wild land to urban encroachment,” Barbour says. “For the growth of population in the foothills east of Sacramento, the projections are another million or so people by the year 2010. It sounds incredible, but nevertheless it’s going to happen.”

I wondered about Barbour’s own reaction to coming to the Valley in 1967, which drew a kind of laugh that I’m beginning to recognize. “The search committee must have just driven me back and forth along College and Oak streets, because when I got home to North Carolina, I told my wife what a wonderful, lush green town Davis was.”

Part of what came into focus from my conversation with Barbour is the extent to which the Valley’s flatness, including its visual flatness, is human-made. We did it. Perhaps for good reasons, perhaps in ignorance of consequences, but we did it. We flattened the place—topographically and vegetatively.

Barbour mentions his “fascination with human interactions with the landscape. How our culture, including science, might bias the way we look at nature.” This has precisely been the focus of a landscape architectural colleague of his, Heath Shenker.

Shenker is preparing an exhibit for the Hagen Gallery in Stockton in October 1999, entitled, Picturing California’s Other Landscape: The Great Central Valley. The exhibit will show the various ways in which the Central Valley has been depicted, from paintings to photographs to early promotional real estate brochures.

It is Shenker’s contention that the Valley has either been ignored by artists for the more romantic vistas offered by mountains and coast, or else misrepresented for commercial purposes. And these images come back to dominate Valley residents’ own perceptions of themselves and their place.

According to Shenker, only with the establishment of the colleges and universities immediately following World War II, did we begin to generate a different aesthetic perception of the Valley. She mentions the painter Robert Else at Sacramento State; the Royal Chicano Art Front including Jose Montoya, emerging from Sac State and Sac City College; and, of course, Wayne Thiebaud and associated artists at Davis.

She’s tentative about the Valley developing its own self-perceptions. “I think we’re still feeling our way towards our own aesthetic. Also,” she cautions, “the valley is changing, so it will look different and be different for any emerging aesthetic.”

For Shenker herself, the wide open spaces of the Valley are expansive. New England, where she went to school, was too confined for her. She mentions that while she grew up in Long Beach, her family were “desert rats,” always going out camping in the Mojave. My next stop was with one of the artists Shenker mentioned.

The Soul Of Flat

Everyone should have the opportunity to meet Robert Else. That would do more to restore faith in humanity than anything. His rare combination of humility, dignity and talent are evident from the first moments in his studio.

Else’s history is too interesting and too emblematic of the changes in Sacramento after World War II not to mention. Both of his parents were German immigrants who met on the boat coming over. His father was a trained servant who worked on a large Pennsylvania estate of a railroad executive.

Else went to an experimental college connected to Columbia University during the era of progressive education in the 1930s. But, as he puts it, his real education occurred in the galleries and museums of New York.

After obtaining his masters in art education, he was recruited by the president of Sacramento State to take a position here. So he and his wife Georgiana loaded up their Ford station wagon and headed west, hoping his first paycheck would be cut before their freight arrived.

It was 1950. California was beginning to boom, and the state colleges were bulging with students on the GI Bill. Bob Else was teaching painting in the shared studio space with Sacramento City College—at the time, a barn off Freeport Boulevard.

While he started out as an abstract painter who achieved some notice in New York, by the early 1960s he turned toward realism and landscape. The Sacramento landscape.

“I got interested in the levees and in those configurations that happen through irrigation here. I’ve always been struck by the geometry that people put on the landscape. This imposition of geometry on a wild central plain, and then the enormous contribution of water, is profoundly interesting. I’ve done a lot of paintings with that in mind,” he explains.

Else often works from photographs he takes. His painting style has been described by some as a hyper-realism, where the effects of color and line take you into another dimension while the scene, whether of field or freeway, remains recognizable.

Since his retirement in 1979, he says he’s worked on his art every day. He doesn’t see the flatness of the Valley as an obstacle. “You know, a lot of people are just turned off by it. Or they don’t see anything in it. Or they have to exaggerate and make something else of it. But they get farther and farther from nature.

“I’ve made my life here. That’s important, you know.You’re surroundings are important. You get to know your surroundings. You see these levees coming in, these forms that are laid out. It’s compelling.”

Else takes a deep breath and you can’t help but share some of the awe he is experiencing as he recalls the scene. Then he speaks of it directly as Bob Else speaks of things, with understated power. “You feel the presence of the people, the work.”

Else’s work contains anger as well as awe at the human presence in the land. When I inquire whether the Valley comes to inhabit us, he answers straightaway. “I think the problem is that we’ve never made accommodation of the Valley. We’ve dominated it instead. The whole idea is that you put up a development somewhere and then you expect all the other resources, the water and so on, to be contributed.”

In one of his more recent works, “Freeway Fields,” a dominant car is passing by a field. “Now you see what I mean by the geometry,” he says. “And you get your nature trying to survive on the side.”

An experience of Else and his work leaves no doubt about why CSU Sacramento named its gallery after him. It also challenges the notion of the Valley’s flatness as something to be conquered.

On Spatial Infinity

Wayne Thiebaud, an artist whose “Flatland River” was recently purchased by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, also arrived in the Valley in the early ’50s. But from the first he experienced it as exotic, “the opposite exotic of the Alps.” Recently he has spoken of it as being “like the Nile, where the rivers give the rich lands the agricultural patterns that they show.”

He diagnoses discontent with the flatness as a discomfort with the sense of spatial infinity that the Valley can have. You can have trouble locating yourself in it, he says. “But that’s part of its exotic character.”

For Thiebaud, as for other painters and photographers, flatness is not an obstacle, but a destination. The painter’s canvas, upon which all the magic must be worked, is nothing but a flat surface, Thiebaud says.

To make the point, he tells a story of the French artist Edgar Degas. A friend of Degas was remarking at the beautiful landscape, its color and spatial dimension. “Yes,” Degas responded. “It will make a beautiful flat picture.”

Thiebaud uses the phrase “planmetric power.” I ask what he means. “A painting is a flat surface and everything in the painting relates to that surface. If you try to make too much of an illusion, you lose a kind of feeling of the plane. … It has to do with creating tension in the work, so the painting doesn’t die and just become a pictorial visual recording. Instead, it activates the whole sense of interrelationships in the painting.”

There’s no choice now but to go for it. I ask Thiebaud if there is a relationship between the painter’s approach to a flat canvas and understanding how to live in a flat place like the Valley. He doesn’t disappoint.

“It’s the relationship between the sense of reality, which in a way is what we’re really talking about. You don’t want a painting to become just a fiction. You want it to have some sense of life—even if it’s metaphorical.

“If we live in a sort of fantasy or fiction, or an overinflected thrill-seeking, we lose the sense of immediacy that makes us human—that is, standing on flat ground and not getting dissuaded from that kind of reality.

“It’s sad, I think, that so many of us get involved in making our lives a kind of succession of nervous thrills. And I think that’s disruptive of what living in our heart is about—in other words, cooking and eating, making gardens and making children.

“So it’s a kind of unheroic notion. But from the other standpoint, maybe it’s the most important thing we do.”

Perhaps Thiebaud’s idea of dynamically relating to the plane is more apropos than it might have seemed at first glance.

Whether flatness is a condition of the land or the soul, whether we’re up to the unheroic heroism Thiebaud speaks of, seems to remain an open question, for each of us who lives here, each and every day.