Op-ed: California’s greatest paradox? It’s dangerous beauty

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Joe Mathews asks: Amid California catastrophes like drought, fires, and atmospheric rivers, should we be here at all? Photo by Shutterstock.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

In the film “Chinatown,” a coroner, Morty, chuckles over the dead body of the city’s water department chief.

“Isn’t that something?” he says. “Middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in LA.”

Not just in LA, of course. All of California has a talent for catastrophic paradox — as this winter is reminding us. Even as we suffer under a dangerous drought, atmospheric rivers flood communities, force evacuations, and cause dozens of deaths.

This paradox is part of the greatest of all California paradoxes: its beauty. The world’s most breathtaking place produces extreme ugliness.

The latest storms targeted our most stunning sites. Overflowing rivers turned the Monterey peninsula into an island. Lightning struck the Golden Gate Bridge. Harry and Meg and Oprah and all the beautiful people in Montecito had to evacuate.

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

There is nothing so dangerous as beauty.

There is nothing so beautiful as California.

So, this might be the most dangerous place on earth.

Show me something beautiful in California, and I’ll show you a killer. Those coastal waves you can surf for hours? They’ll swallow you whole. The cliffs from which you watch the waves? They are collapsing. The forest-carpeted mountains we love to explore? Just so much fuel for the next firestorm.

Southern Californians love to brag that they can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon. That’s true, but they also can flee the floods of the morning tide in Newport Beach at breakfast and escape fires on the hiking trails of the San Bernardino mountains by lunch.

The reality is that the beauty that makes it great to live here also makes it hard to live here. So, wisest Californians acquire a distrust of beauty. They don’t drive that dangerous sports car. They don’t 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. It makes us miss big problems. In my reporting across California, I’ve developed a trick when I’m in an interesting place, which (more likely than not) is also beautiful. I close my eyes, and just try to listen — to nature or to what people are saying. You end up learning more that way.

In a time of deadly tragedy in California, and when is it not such a time, it can seem insensitive to mention all the risks we take by living here. It can sound as though you are forgetting, or even blaming, the human victims of our floods, our fires, our beauty.

But those offended by such talk are as much at risk as the rest of us, and we all need the warning.

Of course, acknowledging dangers can’t protect us from all of them. And behind all the carnage of our catastrophes is an enduring California question: Should we be here at all?

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

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

You may love California and all its rocks and valleys and waterways and gorgeousness. But the beauty won’t love you back, much less offer you any sympathies.

Not even over your dead body.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman