A California essayist on American optimism and how landscape shapes our imaginations

An interview with Richard Rodriguez.

  • Richard Rodriguez.

    Timothy Archibald
 

Page 2

HCN You write, "The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise." As a Californian, is this a subject that has been important in your writing?

RR Oh, yes. In California, the sense of disappointment is very large around me, partly because the state changes so much. It's rather like Colorado in that sense. I remember when the Front Range was emptier, without suburban development. If you're past 30, you remember a completely different landscape.

There's this sense of disappointment that California was never what it advertised itself to be. In the early 20th century, when Los Angeles real estate interests began to advertise this ideal landscape and weather, people came out from New Jersey and Nebraska -- and then it became so crowded that they ended up on a freeway that wasn't moving.

But in some ways I'm optimistic about California because it's filling with people who came here from a different direction, from the South, people for whom California is not the West but El Norte. The West was always -- as defined by people from the East Coast -- an unraveling of history. You could find yourself alone in the West; you could be free of the confinements of the East by going West.

People who come to El Norte tend to go to cities, because that's where the jobs are. They tend to see the landscape between the South and the North as continuous. People, on the other hand, who come to California from Asia are seeing California as the beginning, not the end. So they are without that pessimism that has defined us in California -- people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge because there's no farther to go, we have reached the end of America. Asians say this is where America begins.

HCN How does the landscape in which a person lives affect his or her viewpoint?

RR For all of our talk about environmentalism, it's amazing how little we talk about landscape and how it informs our imagination. When you and I talk of the West, there are millions of people in California for whom this is not the West. My mother used to call California "El Norte," and I hated it because I wanted to live in California with cowboys. That was really glamorous. When she was talking about people coming to El Norte to get these jobs picking peaches, it wasn't glamorous at all to me. They didn't ride a horse, they were really poor and they spent their last bet on the ground.

Probably the most important consciousness of the West belongs to John Muir. Muir was from Scotland, and he describes California as the other side of the mountain. In some sense that's an East Coast vision of California. But in fact Muir came to California from the water as an Asian would, from the sea. He found in (the state) this beginning, but he also knew that it was limited. So he begins to sound this notion that we have to protect the land because it's finite. The environmental movement did not begin to talk about preserving America in the crowded brick cities of the East Coast. That begins in places like the forests of California, where people realize that in order to have it for another generation you need to protect it. It's the great gift of people like Muir to realize that there is a continent that comes to an end; there is a landscape of our imagination.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING IN TAOS, NEW MEXICO www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000