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keerthik sasidharan

An Ocean Inland

An Ocean Inland

California is a beached whale on the American mainland.  Wondrous, gigantic, and decaying at its edges. Natural life grows on much of its voluptuous body with little effort, even as the body politic fattens itself on a daily diet of ambition and technocracy, all the while as parts of this state are incinerated by the licks of forest fire.  It is almost a secular miracle that any government can presume to govern, far less steward, lives so deeply enmeshed with a variety of geographies.  For, to govern implies the ability to understand cause and effect, to map out linkages that are both obscure and self-evident, to recognize the limits of one's own knowledge.  The size of California's expanse belies any vanity to study it entirely in a single life time.  Few can know all the facts that make this land, fewer still can know the truth of its intercorrelated being beyond a constellation of facts.  This land that stretches over ten latitude and longitude points, in essence, is many geographies in search of a name.  A different set of historical contingencies and cartographic imaginations might have drawn the state's boundaries differently.  For now, at its simplest, any effort to map out the contours of the political entity called California must make note of its extremes:  from the dusty, heat bowl of the Mojave desert in the south west to the snow peaks of Mount Shasta in the north, containing along the way, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous 48 state regions of the United States.  In an effort to impose order on the diversity of its earthy shroud, in 1997, the California State Legislature declared the San Joaquin soil as its "official soil", which in turn was described as "reddish brown, gritty sandy loam".

Even as this land is chock-a-block with basins, depressions, plateaus, mountains, snow caked tips, for the human eye California is an empire of trees.  They are widely studied and understandably are an object of fascination, experimentation, and veneration.  Not just the giants but even smaller ones too: those with thistles, pinnate leaves, languorously splayed branches. Shrubs, pines, conifers, evergreens, riparian, desert trees, grass, succulents - over 4,500 to 7,000 native plants grow in California.  Arguably, much like in Macbeth, trees here are on the move as well, as average temperatures continue to rise and nutrient transport mechanisms change.  Most famous of these trees are the spectacular giants that rise and swoop out of its alluvial grounds, as easily as moss feeding off a decaying whale's secretions, and reach for the skies.  To call these rising giants as mere trees however is to mistake form for content, to think that the diversities contained in these organic complexities can be reduced to a linguistic catch-all formulae called 'tree'. Like the phrase 'California', 'tree' is a genuflection to human intuition which, when face to face with a familiar form of bark, stem, branches, and leaves, chooses to revert to a familiar expression.  We prefer 'tree'  even if it hides as much it presumes to describe.  But, in reality - whose reality is a legitimate question; a human reality or the biosphere's reality - an almond tree has little in common with the Californian Redwood tree, except perhaps for the similarity of physiological structure of transport and distribution.  In groves so dense and tall - taller than I had ever imagined - the crown of the Redwoods has little to do with the atmospheres and ecologies in which their roots live.  When face to face with these giants, one can only ask wherein does the 'tree-ness' of a tree inhabit if the two ends of the same physical structure live in different worlds.  Perhaps this question is no different than asking wherein does the truth of a marriage reside, if the husband and wife straddle their mutually exclusive archipelagoes of obligations and expectations.

Amidst all these real and imagined dramas, in the distance, the Pacific hums its oceanic song.  Its froth from the deep interiors washes the coast's body relentlessly, diligently.  On sun baked days and on the darkest of nights, like some aging devotee at an impoverished village temple offering herself to some mute God, the splash and surf follows no logic but its own. It is not hard to construe the Pacific's relentlessness as both a devotion and a threat.  As I watched the long boardwalk at Santa Cruz, it was not hard to intuit the pitiless mercy of the waters that lay ahead.  A few moments after watching this unending slurp and swallow of the waves that rose out of some great anterior cave on the earth's surface, a dread rose to the fore.  Land suddenly seemed like an afterthought, marked by its own tenuousness.  It seemed like an encrustation that had somehow managed, against improbable odds, to not just push outwards but also to burnish its wetness with the promise of life forms.  From throwaway mussels, lazy sea lions, to the redwoods that live over 1200 years, this Californian land seemed like an interloper who had taken to singing a new song on a planet where watery silence is the anthem.  For now, on this yellowing wintry summer day, this world by the beach seemed like a battle between an unmoved landmass and relentless waters, with both sides - for now - acquiescing to this equilibrium, this line of control drawn on sand, which in turn is a particulate mixture of mica, quartz, granite, and volcanic remains.

Amidst this quadrilateral of natural phenomenon - oceans, mountains, forests, and deserts - that describes California, human life has thrived and penetrated its remote ends.  An elaborate network of interstate highways and side roads facilitate this human instinct to spread out.  On these roads that transport the frenzied symmetries of cars, trucks, and the human urge to connect, to reach out to families, to escape the tedium of work, the oceans seem far and forgotten.  Few bother - when cooped up in their Chevrolets and Prius, eager to escape its metallic claustrophobias - to think about the land on which these fascinating, serpentine, industrial, concrete splayed highways stretch and twirl, no different than dough in the hands of an expert pretzel maker.  Yet, for all of one's unwillingly induced amnesias, the oceans are not a distant phenomena.  The remains of the oceans surround the traveler on those interstate highways in the form of boulders, shaved rock faces, and crystalline dust.  But to see them as part of a contiguous whole, one needs to learn to see it.  This is not easy, nor is the vocabulary to understand this relationship adequate to grasp the reality of it all.  Much of California, or at least its coastal regions, emerged only in the last half of the age of the dinosaurs thanks to eruptions in the sea floor.  These instances of underwater explosions - waters pregnant with fires inside - led to the creation of "island arcs" that careened into the North American land mass, thus creating the western ends of the land we now call as California.  A consequence of these eruptions was a gargantuan spewing and accumulation of deep ocean rocks - called, ophiolites - onto the extruding land mass. The language used by writers, like the great John McPhee, to explain this process of accretion and accumulation is approximate, borrowed, and has a flavor of the engineering literature - "sea floor spreading, crustal plate subduction, continental suturing".  These words convey a sense of preciseness and knowledge,  but I find myself often grasping to make sense of it all.  Often, after reading this literature, I am vexed and unclear.  The geological events seem so awesome in its consequence and intricate in its working that I can only vaguely sketch out the inchoate shadows of that reality, rather than describing the real thing itself.  Perhaps, the original geological catastrophes permanently lie beyond the limits of our imagination, despite innumerable simulations and models, beyond the quotidian constraints of our language that seek to describe the commonplace.  Meanwhile across California - particularly in Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges - these ophiolites offer up a glimpse of an oceanic past on either ends as highways cut through landscapes putting us right in the middle of an ancient geological wonder. To describe what our eyes see and our minds sense in an opiate daze, we continue to borrow words to describe this magnificent land and its deep waters, whose hardened rocks and gentle froth we willfully learn to misread so that we may live without the every day anxiety of living in the shadow of a beautiful death.  

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