QUEEN CALAFIA’S ISLAND
Place and First People
First described in a bestseller, California entered history as a myth. In 1510 the Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo issued a sequel to his 1508 prose romance Amadis de Gaula, which Montalvo had in turn based upon a late thirteenth- to early fourteenth-century Portuguese narrative derived from French sources. Published in Seville, Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Deeds of Esplandián) chronicled the exploits of Esplandián, son of the hero Amadis of Gaul, at the siege of Constantinople. Among Esplandián’s allies at the siege were the Californians, a race of black Amazons under the command of Queen Calafia. California itself, according to Montalvo, was “an island on the right hand of the Indies . . . very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise,” abounding in gold and precious stones. The Californians rode griffins into battle and fought with golden weapons. Queen Calafia herself was “very large in person, the most beautiful of all of them, of blooming years, and in her thoughts desirous of achieving great things, strong of limb and of great courage.”
Equipping a fleet, Calafia had sailed to Constantinople to join the other great captains of the world in the siege against the Turks. By the end of the story, Queen Calafia and the Californians have become Christians (which involved, one surmises, giving up their promiscuous ways and the feeding of their male offspring to their griffins), and Calafia herself marries one of Esplandián’s trusted lieutenants, with whom she goes on to further adventures.
In 1863 the Boston antiquarian Edward Everett Hale, author of the well-known short story “The Man Without a Country,” sent a paper to the American Antiquarian Society in which he provided translations of key passages of Las Sergas de Esplandián and cited the prose romance as the source of the name “California.” Hale’s report was in turn reported on by The Atlantic Monthly in March 1864. Montalvo’s two tales, Hale noted, were instant bestsellers and remained so for the rest of the sixteenth century. Not until the publication of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in two parts in 1605 and 1615 were Montalvo’s romances superseded in popularity. Don Quixote, furthermore, was not the only one to take these stories as literal fact. The Spanish in general had a tendency to conflate fact with fiction when it came to these prose romances.
In 1533 a party of Spanish explorers, sailing west from Mexico across an unnamed sea at the command of Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, landed on what they believed to be an island in the recently discovered Pacific. After 1539 they began to call the place after the mythic island of California, half believing and more than fully hoping they would find there as well the gold and precious stones described in Montalvo’s romance, and perhaps even an Amazon or two. Not until 1539–40 did the Spanish discover their geographical mistake. California was a peninsula, not an island, and north of this peninsula—eventually called Antigua or Old California—was a vast northern region that the Spaniards, for one reason or another, would be unable to settle for another 230 years.
The American state of California faces the Pacific Ocean between latitude 42 degrees north (at the border of the American state of Oregon) and latitude 32 degrees north (at the border of the Mexican state of Baja California Norte). On a clear day, photographed from a satellite, California appears as a serene palette of blue, green, brown, white, and red. This apparent serenity, however, masks a titanic drama occurring beneath the surface, in the clash of the two tectonic plates upon which California rests. California itself resulted from a collision of the North American and Pacific plates. Across a hundred million years, the grinding and regrinding of these plates against each other, their sudden detachments, their thrusts above or below each other—together with the lava flow of volcanoes, the bulldozing action of glaciers, and, later, the flow of water and the depositing of alluvial soil—created a region almost abstract in its distinct arrangements of mountain, valley, canyon, coastline, plain, and desert. As the California-born philosopher and historian Josiah Royce observed, there is nothing subtle about the landforms and landscapes of California. Everything is scaled in bold and heroic arrangements that are easily understood.
Fronting more than half the shoreline of the western continental United States, California—all 158,693 square miles of it—offers clear-cut and confrontational topographies. First of all, there is the 1,264-mile Pacific shoreline itself. Thirty million years ago, tectonic action formed this shoreline by detaching a great land mass from the southern edge of the Baja California peninsula, moving it northward, and attaching it back onto the continent. At four strategic intervals—the bay of San Diego in the south, Monterey and San Francisco bays in the midregion, and Humboldt Bay in the north—this appended land mass opened itself to the sea and created four harbors. Formed as recently as thirty thousand years ago when mountains on the shoreline collapsed and the sea rushed in, San Francisco Bay is among the two or three finest natural harbors on the planet.
Rising from this coastline, from north to south, various mountain ranges run boldly into the Pacific. At latitude 35 degrees 30 minutes north, in the county of San Luis Obispo, these coastal mountains bifurcate into two ranges: the Transverse Ranges, veering in a southeasterly direction into southern Kern County in the interior, and the Peninsula Ranges, continuing southward down the coast. In the far north, the Klamath Mountains and the southern tip of the Cascades move in an easterly direction toward the Modoc Plateau on the northeastern corner. Running south from the Modoc Plateau is another, even more formidable mountain range, the Sierra Nevada—John Muir’s “Range of Light,” four hundred miles long, eighty miles wide—sealing off the eastern edge of California from the Great Basin until these mighty mountains yield to the Mojave Desert in
the southeastern corner. Forty-one California mountains rise to more than ten thousand feet. The highest—Mount Whitney—is, at 14,496 feet, the second highest mountain in the continental United States. Mount Shasta in the north—rising from its plain to a height of 14,162 feet, its crowning glaciers still grinding against each other—was once an active volcano. Nearby Mount Lassen, also a volcano, was active as recently as 1921.
Thus in eons past did mountains set the stage for the essential drama of the California landscape: an interplay of heights, flatland, and coast. Coastal plains adjoin the bays of San Francisco and Monterey, and a great basin, the Los Angeles Plain, flanks the coast south of the Transverse Ranges. Four hundred and thirty miles in length, the Central Valley runs through the center of the state in two sequences, the San Joaquin Valley to the south, the Sacramento Valley to the north. Open and sweeping as well are the moonlike Modoc Plateau in the northeastern corner of the state, the high desert Great Basin on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert in the southeast, and the Salton Trough thrusting itself up from Baja.
Here it is, then: a landscape of stark contrasts, vibrant and volatile with the geological forces that shaped the western edge of the continent. Numerous fault lines—the San Andreas, the Hayward, the Garlock, the San Jacinto, the Nacimiento—crisscross the western edge from San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border, keeping the region alive with tectonic action. Within human memory—in 1857 at the Tejon Pass in Southern California, in 1872 in the Owens Valley, in San Francisco in 1906, in Long Beach in 1933, in the San Fernando Valley in 1971, again in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, and again in the San Fernando Valley in 1994—great earthquakes shook the land, destroying lives and property. At magnitude 8.3 on the Richter scale, the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, like the Lisbon earthquake of 1775, precipitated the destruction of an entire city.
Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator. Fortunately for California as a place for human settlement, however, two factors—the California Current coming down from the northwestern Pacific, and the Pacific High, a high-pressure zone a thousand miles off the coast—help moderate the heat of the interior. From the point of view of human preferences, coastal California—where settlement began and maintains its greatest density—sustains a mosaic of salubrious climates. Few climates in North America, if any, can equal that of coastal California from the point of view of human use. Like the Mediterranean, the southern littoral is warm and dry. This Mediterranean climate continues up the coast and veers inland until it meets the forested regions of the north. From Monterey Bay to the Marin headlands north of San Francisco, however, this Mediterranean climate is moistened and softened by morning sea fogs and the other mitigating influences of maritime weather. In general, coastal California rarely gets below 40 degrees in January or above 72 degrees in July, in dramatic contrast to the inland heat.
There are two seasons in California, wet and dry. Rain (and, in the mountains, snow) falls typically from October to March, mostly between December and February. The rest of the year is generally sunny. Two thirds of the total precipitation falls in the northern third of the state, where some locations average as much as eighty inches of rain (or its equivalent in snow) in a year. This rainfall and the melting snowpacks of the Sierra Nevada and other ranges water the state through a series of streams that feed into the Sacramento River running north to south and the San Joaquin River running south to north, the two converging in Suisun Bay in the Delta country on the northeastern edge of San Francisco Bay. The interior Central Valley was once an extensive inland sea, hence its rich fossil deposits. Other river systems drain the Coast, Transverse, and Peninsula ranges north and south. In comparison to the arid Far West, then, California has more than its share of water, although it is not always where it is most needed.
The barriers of mountain and desert, together with its patterns of water and climate, render California a distinct bioregion. Even before it was depicted as an island in early Spanish maps, California was a kind of island on the land, sealed off by the Pacific, the Sierra Nevada, the Klamath and Cascade ranges in the north, and the Mojave Desert in the southeast. Off Monterey looms an undersea chasm as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon, and the effects of such depths—aside from the sapphire blue of the Bay—can be seen in the forests of kelp hugging the shore and the biotic exuberance of innumerable tide pools. Offshore, gray whales make their annual migrations north and south to feeding and breeding grounds. Salmon, sardines, halibut, tuna, bonito, crab, and abalone abound. Dolphins, sea elephants, sea lions, seals, and sea otters find abundant feeding in the fish-rich coastal seas. Sharks, barracudas, and samurai swordfish prowl, hunt, and feed through these waters.
Then there is the seacoast—a world unto itself, more than twelve hundred miles in extent. In certain regions—the North Coast, for example, or Big Sur south of Monterey—the land plunges precipitously into the sea. At other points, such as the Delta region on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay or the south central coastal regions, a rich complexity of estuaries, tidelands, and marshes intercedes between land and sea. This littoral is in many ways its own life zone, with grunion running ashore, sandpipers skirting the dunes in carpets of low-flying silver, pelicans and herons rooting for frogs and small fish in the wetlands, and everywhere, overhead, the white light and bright cries of seagulls, egrets, and other seabirds.
Just inland, extending from San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border, there once commenced a primeval forest of redwoods, which also stretched across the upper portions of Monterey Bay on the Santa Cruz peninsula. These trees (Sequoia sempervirens) and their first cousins (Sequoiandendron giganteum), flourishing in some thirty-five groves in the Sierra foothills, were the most ancient living entities on the planet, some of them four thousand years old. Equally distinct to California were great oak trees, millions of them. A vast woodland, a river of oak nearly four hundred miles in length, circled the interior of the region, with a stately procession of great trees moving up along the eastern flank of the Coast Range, then sweeping eastward across the top of the Central Valley before flowing southward through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Found here as well, in the coastal mountainous regions, was the madrone: a thick hard red tree, clinging close to the earth, that also bespoke California as a distinctive region, as did the Monterey pine and the Monterey cypress: trees evocative of the classical past, standing in Virgilian dignity along the shorelines of the Central Coast.
Above this coastal region and its adjacent interior—above, that is, the mountains of Big Sur, the oak-dotted rolling hills of the south Central Coast, the sagebrush and chaparral of the southern region—glided the mighty condor, ancient survivor of the Pleistocene, borne aloft on its nine-foot wingspan by updrafts from the Pacific. Eagles, ospreys, hawks, and the lowly buzzard, alert for carrion below, shared these skies as well. Looking down from great heights, these soaring birds caught sight of the multitudinous herds of tule elk which, by the hundreds of thousands, roamed the Coast Ranges and the marshes of the Central Valley: the western wetlands that were all that was left of the ancient sea that once filled the interior.
Because California was mountain country, it was bear country as well: the black bear, the brown bear, and the great grizzly that could rise to full height, master of all it surveyed. Shambling through the state, primeval demigods in an unwritten epic, grizzlies stood at the apex of the food chain, the omnivorous predator of elk and deer on the plain, salmon and trout in the northern rivers, the fat-tailed beaver plying their ancient craft in the rivers of the interior. Even mountain lions gave way when grizzlies drew near. Native Americans considered the grizzly another kind of human being, a creature from the mythic past, a survivor from the dawn of creation.
Because California was an island on the land, its bird life was distinct, especially in the mountain forests that dominated the region.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from California by Kevin Starr. Copyright © 2005 by Kevin Starr. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.