It is late July and a welcome stasis has descended on the landscape surrounding our house. The bunch grasses move in the merest breath of wind, animating the meadows with waves of bleached straw. Stiff, broom-like stands of Deerweed, mostly a dark reddish orange, punctuate the land, while the dried blossoms of California everlasting appear (to the fancifully inclined) as foam caps on the moving ocean of grasses: through August and September little will change. The weeding work of winter, spring and early summer is rewarded in these months of landscape hibernation.
It is in this pale scene, occasionally interrupted by patches of bare, ochre to reddish soil that young cream and sepia rattlesnakes sidle along, hunting western fence and western whiptail lizards; in other years (but entirely absent at the moment, reflecting the dearth of their prey – tail thumping wood rats) Red Tail hawks shadow the ground from on high, tails flashing their earthen color. More subtly, the homely Towhee reveals, on close observation, a cinnamon colored belly, echoing the tones of the dirt and leaf litter in which it digs for seeds, insects and grubs.
And so, with a few changes in the details but none in sentiment, we can, perhaps, celebrate with Browning that,
“The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d
The Lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!”
But this summer, as the grasses bleach out, I am particularly aware that there is a darkness abroad; that the chaparral is missing its California Grizzlies and the trail making, tending and fire managing of Native Americans; that all’s not right in the world; and that this country continues to pay the price for the trauma it has wreaked on the land.
As much as we pretend that we are a Nation founded in religious freedom at Plymouth Rock, in liberty won from our erstwhile colonial overlords and in justice enshrined in the words of our Constitution and its amendments, the reality remains that this a country forged in the hell-fire of violence. We are a people who created a home based not so much on political, philosophical and religious ideals as on the brutal displacement of an indigenous population and the venal consumption of their land’s natural resources. The continuing denial of our genesis calls into question everything we think we know about ourselves.
The frontier that rolled west in the nineteenth century was the final resolution of a genocidal pogrom that had begun long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which proposed a minor rearrangement in the circumstances of European hegemony over the Native peoples of much of North America). In the great sweep of history it is the bloody fact of our killing of the original, in-place, intact, highly diverse, fully sustainable, intellectually adept, and spiritually attuned peoples of this country that is a central theme of the American nightmare.
Welcome to our world.
This is not a world customarily evoked in popular culture, in political rhetoric, in our churches or in our classrooms and yet it is a world reflected every day in the rage, in the violence and in the hate that surrounds us.
Some would call it karma.
Gun control, believing that Black Lives Matter, increased policing, borders walls, extreme vetting of potential migrants, fewer prisons, more prisons, an end to poverty, more jobs, better housing, improved trade policies, peace in the Middle East; none of these things is going to change the multi-generation transmission of America’s original sin. The Nation’s violent conquest is daily played out on our streets, in our government, our homes, our schools, in public places and in foreign lands as a recurring psycho-drama: it explains our metastasizing military; the militarization of our police force, our obscene nuclear arsenal, the 9mm. Glock in your neighbor’s glove-box and the Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle at the back of her closet. It explains the true American Exceptionalism – why this is one of the most violent places on the planet. It may even explain why a man soaked in the blood of foreign wars is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is commonplace to ascribe to survivors of an historic genocide a traumatic inheritance, passed along through generations, that results in violence, substance abuse, chronic health issues such as diabetes, and mental health disturbances. While these impacts are routinely observed in American Indian communities, it is less acknowledged that these traumas impact the perpetrators of such genocides and are transmitted along similarly multi-generational lines.
The business of America is business and, in an unbroken line, (with the exception, perhaps, of FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) our Presidents have consistently privileged the powerful over the common people. Campaign promises may swing from the progressive to the conservative but once in power our leaders are gripped by the disastrous lure of Empire. It is in the conflation of Empire and Capitalism, of Territory and Treasure, that many of this country’s greatest sins have been committed. Both enterprises are built on the backs of the common man and woman and on the despoliation of the places they call home.
The history of the parts of North America which now form the United States is braided with the narrative threads of greed, conquest and subjugation. It is these stories and the trauma created in their unfolding, that are far greater determinants of our national character and disposition than American democracy – originating as a modest conflation of enlightenment philosophy, the governmental structure of the Roman Republic, and a belief in the political and social primacy of the white, land owning male.
The pernicious triangular trade in slaves, raw materials (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, indigo and rice) and manufactures that linked the continents of Africa, America and Europe for centuries, was the foundation for this country’s wealth long before the great infrastructure projects, mineral extraction and heavy industries of the nineteenth century added to the wealth of the very few. The railways were built on land taken from Native Americans, the mines of Appalachia on lands earlier purloined from its rightful inhabitants, and polluting industries established in the richest biological confluences of land and water. These projects inevitably relied on the exploitation of racially diverse, mostly impoverished, native born, migrant European, Asian, Mexican, and Central American labor.
Having subjugated its native peoples over a period of almost four centuries, and in some areas having committed a thorough-going genocide, in the late nineteenth century this country turned its attention beyond its continental borders (and their few remaining indigenous peoples) and purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. In 1893, an American led coup resulted in the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. A few years later, the Spanish American War of 1898 expanded the Nation’s Imperium to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. In 1903, the Panama Canal Zone was annexed to the United States. These were the glory days of Empire.
American military adventurism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has continued to project the country’s vast resources of troops and military technology in pursuit of American cultural, economic and political hegemony. The toll in foreign death and destruction and the wasting of American lives and treasure is beyond counting. The so-called ‘Good War’ (WWII) was, in reality, an internecine battle with the U.K. to establish global financial dominance (achieved at Bretton Woods in 1944); the D-Day bid to salvage a portion of Europe not saved by the Russian army from Nazi Germany; an attempt to establish the dominance of the U.S.A. across the Pacific and most importantly, inspired by a desire to limit the power of the Soviet Union.
Domestically, the blowback from this American Adventurism, underpinned by dreams of Empire and a Capitalist endgame whereby all the world’s resources are concentrated in the hands of the few, are psychic, psychological, and sociological. We see the resultant pathologies played out in our neighborhoods, on Twitter and Facebook. Externally, blowback is reflected in the increasing levels of terrorist violence directed against the U.S.A. and its neoliberal allies.
This summer, I have dedicated my chaparral experiences to a process of lamentation and regret. Come Thanksgiving, I may be ready for a re-naming ceremony whereby it becomes our Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.
John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland.