PALO ALTO, Calif. — Hollywood should have been in New Jersey. It was, after all, in that unglitzy state that Thomas Edison invented the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, his cost-effective motion-picture camera and its companion viewer. And it was there that moviemaking took off; until the 1910s, many of the biggest hits of the day — “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for instance, or “The Great Train Robbery” — were produced in New Jersey and New York, many by Edison’s own company.
Yet by the end of that decade, the budding film industry had packed up and moved to California. Why? Scholars cite several reasons, but most accounts include an obvious one. The earliest movie cameras required lots of light, so films were often shot outdoors or on open-air sets. Unlike the gloomy Northeast, Southern California offered filmmakers year-round sun and a diversity of striking landscapes on which to dream up celluloid worlds — oceans, deserts and mountains within easy reach, glory wherever you looked.
In other words, Hollywood is in Hollywood rather than in West Orange, N.J., for many of the same reasons that California’s Central Valley produces about a quarter of the nation’s food, and why the Beach Boys wished for all of America to be like “Californi-a.” It’s why John Muir, looking from the summit of the Pacheco Pass, described a landscape that appeared “wholly composed” of light, “the most beautiful I have ever beheld.”
And it is the same reason that a lot of Californians first came here, and the reason so many of us, despite everything, still can’t help but stay: sunshine and natural splendor. We are hooked not just on California’s weather, pleasantly temperate and accommodating to seemingly any pursuit, but also the way life here feels defined just as much by what’s outdoors as what’s in.
A state that lives by nature, though, risks dying by it, too. In the last few years, as California battled heat waves and drought and fire, intensifying as the planet warms, I have found myself wondering about my home state’s future and, in a deeper sense, its purpose.
Is California still California when our weather becomes an adversary rather than an ally? What is California for when summertime, the season in which the Golden State once found its fullest luster, turns from heaven into hell?
Because that’s how I’ve come to think of late summer and fall here nowadays. Seven of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the last three years. This fire season has already put an entry in the books. The Dixie Fire, which has been raging for nearly a month near Lassen National Forest, is already the second largest fire in the state’s history; it has consumed nearly half a million acres and destroyed hundreds of structures, and it’s only 25 percent contained.
Smoke from the Dixie Fire and other blazes this summer has blown more than a thousand miles away, choking the air in Denver and Salt Lake City. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the air has so far remained short of noxious, but nobody I know is expecting it to remain that way. As they did last year, face masks will soon likely serve a dual purpose for Californians — wear one indoors to evade the virus, and wear one outdoors to filter out smoke and raining ash.
I don’t mean to claim special hardship for my state; the weather is turning vengeful across the planet, not just in California. It is true, too, that wondrous as it often is here, California has never been exempt from bad weather and natural disasters. In an essay about the dry and dangerous Santa Ana winds that periodically blow through Southern California, Joan Didion described its climate as characterized by “infrequent but violent extremes.” Weather in Los Angeles, she wrote, “is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.”
That strikes me as correct. Growing up in Orange County, I often saw headlines about drought and mudslides, fires here and there, El Niño, the Santa Anas. It was a place where the earth could never quite be trusted — you were to never forget that at any moment the ground beneath your feet could erupt in violent tremor, and everything around you might be destroyed in an instant.
What’s different about nature in California now is not the kind of disasters we face, but rather the regularity. The violent extremes are no longer infrequent — they are commonplace, expected. The weather of catastrophe and apocalypse is not freak; it is just the weather.
People who study California sometimes talk about the “weather tax.” Life in this state can be frustrating — it’s expensive, it’s clogged with traffic, taxes are high, inequality levels are among the worst in the nation. But maybe that’s just the price you’ve got to pay for amazing weather.
In 2015, pollsters at the University of Southern California and The Los Angeles Times asked people whether they’re likely to remain in California, and if so, why. Although respondents cited a litany of problems, more than 70 percent said they’d rather live here than anywhere else. The top reason, by far, was the weather. Life here may be tough, but people seemed willing to endure a lot to live in a place where it was so nice outside.
But the importance we place on pleasant weather is exactly why an altered climate could be so devastating to this state’s identity. The Mamas & the Papas sang of California as an escapist dreamland untouched by gloom. You’d be safe and warm if you were in L.A.
Not long from now, Los Angeles and elsewhere here might be more nightmare than dream — way too warm and none too safe, all the leaves burned, the sky ash gray.
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