California beauty is a (natural) disaster

by Joe Mathews |
January 31, 2023

At the beginning of the movie Chinatown, a Southern California coroner named Morty chuckles after examining the dead body of the head of the city’s water department.

“Isn’t that something?” Morty says. “In the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in LA”

Not just in Los Angeles, of course. All of California has a talent for the catastrophic paradox, as this winter reminds us.

Even as we endure dangerous drought and severe water restrictions, atmospheric rivers flood our communities, force neighborhoods to evacuate, and contribute to dozens of deaths.

We are a state with superior wealth and one of the highest poverty rates in the country. We are packed with people, nearly 40 million, and yet we are fighting an epidemic of loneliness. We pretty much invented the suburban ideal of the American home, and yet we can’t house our people.

Our beautiful, sunny weather makes us feel alive, but ultimately creates darkness. It overheats and burns, and with our winds, it destroys our precious landscapes, our homes, and our dreams.

The biggest paradox of all, in fact, lies in the beauty of California. One of the most impressive places in the world also produces extreme ugliness.

Recent storms and flooding have affected our most impressive sites. Overflowing rivers turned the Monterey Peninsula into an island. Lightning struck the Golden Gate Bridge. Santa Barbara County ordered Harry, Meg, Oprah and all the beautiful people of Montecito to evacuate, before their beautiful magazine homes could slide into the sea.

The logic of this place is hard to accept. But here it is:

There is nothing as dangerous as beauty.

And there is nothing as beautiful as California.

This could be the most dangerous place on earth.

Because beauty attracts us to dangers, and also distracts us from them, makes us lose big problems.

Show me something beautiful in California and I’ll show you a killer. Those coastal waves where you can surf for hours? They will swallow you whole. The cliffs from where you watch the waves? They are collapsing. The forest-covered mountains we love to explore? So much fuel for the next fire storm.

Southern Californians love to brag that they can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon. That’s true, but they can also flee morning tidal flooding in Newport Beach for breakfast and escape fires on the San Bernardino Mountains hiking trails for lunch.

The reality is that the beauty that makes it wonderful to live here also makes it difficult to live here. And this is a human condition, not just California. “Life can be magnificent and overwhelming, that is the whole tragedy,” Albert Camus observed. “Without beauty, love or danger it would be almost easy to live.”

The greatest wisdom that Californians can acquire is distrust of beauty. The wisest among us do not marry actors. They don’t buy houses on hillsides.

And they learn not to trust their eyes. Because beauty attracts us to dangers, and also distracts us from them, makes us lose big problems. In my reporting in California, I have developed a trick when I am in an interesting place, which (most likely) is also beautiful. I close my eyes and try to listen: nature or what people say. You end up learning more that way.

At a time of deadly tragedy in California—and when isn’t such a time?—it may be considered insensitive to think about all the risks we take by living here. It may sound like you’re forgetting, or even blaming, the human victims of our floods, our fires, our earthquakes, and yes, our beauty.

But those offended by such words are at just as much risk as the rest of us and need a warning. Maybe there should be some kind of release form that you sign upon entering California. “I hereby acknowledge,” the form might say, “that I am living in a film noir. I will not trust the glorious mountain peak I want to climb, the waves crashing on the beach, or the seductive blonde.”

Of course, recognizing the dangers cannot protect us from all of them. And behind the carnage of our catastrophes is a real and enduring California question: Should we be here?

It’s worth remembering that Robinson Jeffers, perhaps California’s iconic poet of the 20th century, lived amid the splendor of Carmel and concluded that the presence of humans here (and across the planet) was the real problem. He advised all of us, including his fellow Californians, “not to fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.”

“The beauty of things was born before the eyes and is self-sufficient,” Jeffers also wrote. “Heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”

You may love California and all its rocks, valleys, waterways, and beauty. But beauty will not love you back, much less offer you sympathy.

Not even over your dead body.