Where we’re from

With naturalists, poets and political hippies, three new books are all about California

Between a tanking economy and a deadlocked state government, it can be hard to remember what it is about this place that commands our attention. While our state has always attracted hucksters, con men and get-rich-quick slimeballs, it helps to be reminded that the real attraction, the reason we’re California, is the land itself.

John Muir, Scots-born outdoorsman and conservationist best known as the founder of the Sierra Club, fully understood that fact. Muir was from someplace else; like the rest of us, he found a home here. In A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, biographer Donald Worster describes Muir’s reaction to California with words familiar to recent emigrants: “California was a home he did not inherit from his ancestors, and that fact made it all the more precious to him.”

Worster’s comprehensive biography of our state’s first naturalist spends as much energy on reconstructing Muir’s emotional life as in recording dates and details. Given the importance of Muir both to California and to conservation, it’s a worthy topic.

Worster makes a case for California—particularly the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite—as the only real home Muir ever had. His reasoning is quite familiar. What made California home to Muir was not simply its natural beauty (although he loved our state for it), but also for the reason we who rarely—if ever—climb a rock love this place: We can be whatever we want here. Worster writes: “He had been looking for somewhere to put down roots, but they had to be his own roots and nobody else’s.”

The roots set down to connect the natural to the spiritual world by two of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, are firmly planted in the Sierra foothills. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, edited by Ginsberg biographer Bill Morgan, reveals the inner workings of a productive and enviable friendship.

While there are a few letters of the housekeeping type (“I got your check”; “I saw so-and-so”; “When are you coming?”), for the most part, the poets wrote letters like poets. Always, as an added bonus, there is in their correspondence a delightful pleasure in the natural world’s relationship to inner peace, as in this letter from Snyder to Ginsberg: “Yesterday whetted my knife and totally sliced and divided the body of a young male deer, shot by a novice fellow up the ridge who didn’t know the cutting-up procedure—a real chöd meditation out in the cold, seeing myself cutting up myself and offering it away—cold fingers.”

It’s true. Some people just have more interesting lives.

And some places are more interesting than others. There are plenty of interesting college towns in this country, but Blake Gumprecht finds Davis so interesting that he devotes an entire chapter to it in his new book, The American College Town. Titled “All Things Right and Relevant,” the chapter explores how “The People’s Republic of Davis” went from being just another ag school to being, uh, you know, Berkeley’s sensible little sister.

Gumprecht’s paean to Davis’ forward thinking (bike lanes, recycling, sustainable food and housing), while heavily footnoted, still manages to be engaging reading. It’s no joke that Davis was able to institute bike-friendly policies in 1966, well before the rest of the country became willing to do anything about green transportation.

It must be that affinity for self-invention that comes with our territory.