Saturday, January 29, 2011

Diversity - the Contemporary Paradigm

Every era seems to have its sacred cow, and ours is certainly no different, though with the accelerated pace of modern cultural change, it seems that the in thing is changing with increasing frequency.

One such preferred cultural principle is expressed in the catch-phrases cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, political diversity, etc., the keyword in all such phrases being of course the noun diversity.

What is diversity, and how is it used in contemporary political, aesthetic and social arenas? Everyone probably thinks he/she knows what is meant by the term, but it has different associations for different people, and probably has become as lively an instigator of argument as any common word in the vulgar tongue.

I think I first began to hear the word back in the 1980's, though it didn't gain steam and traction until the '90's. In the humanities, particularly, the breakdown of the old system of knowledge, the central canon of literature and the arts, was spearheaded by concepts intended--like viral phages--to pierce the host, injecting their parasitic DNA into the host cell nuclei, and causing genetic mutations, killing the victim in the process of propagating copies of itself (the paradigm of infection). Multi-cultural diversity, textual relativity, excluded castes, deprived outsiders--these concepts were wielded as weapons to discredit and undermine the foundation of Western European and North American systems of knowledge. It's an old story by now, the battle's been waged and the winner declared, at least in the academies.

Please note how the use of the word in the context of the paragraph above confronts the word, as if the word itself stood for the meanings of those who had appropriated it for their special purposes. 40 years ago, a use of the word diversity would not have had anything like its present power and suggestiveness--inviolability. It has acquired a facility across a whole spectrum of disciplines and endeavors, including politics, biology, art & literature, sociology, philosophy, genetics, ethnography, anthropology, entertainment, sports, economics, media & communication, advertising, education, demographics, medicine, risk management, city planning, law enforcement, even diversity in meteorology (!), and so forth. It's plain that the word has been appropriated as a charged principle within vastly differing contexts and conditions. Readers and listeners have become accustomed to these applications as part of a grand cliché about presumptions of taste and function throughout our culture. Diversity has become so broad in its implications and applications, that it rivals the strongest, most long-lived buzz-words in history.

Language is many things, but it is also and simultaneously a battleground--of ideas, of striving and contention for dominance. To speak, to write, are political acts, whether in private or in public. Words, phrases, tracts can become grounds for dispute and contention. Meaning itself is never fixed, but its power, attached to or inhering in specific words, has always been a scene of argument. Historically, the rise of philology and dictionaries contributed to the objectification and the illusion of permanence of individual words and phrases, just as writing, the text and the book supported the material significance of specific meanings--the power of the word to evoke and control and channel meaning towards specific general applicability. But the battle over what words will mean, and how language (words) is interpreted, is never settled.

When individual words become too broadly applied, they may lose some of their specificity--certainly their original definitions can become compromised through elaborations and suspect appropriation. Despite this, a proliferation of shaded variational meanings (definitions) may actually increase the potential of a word (concept). And this is exactly what has occurred with diversity. What occurred when the concept of diversity was invented?

One could trace the progress of this augmented defined set of meanings through time, but that isn't what I'm concerned to do here. Since our culture moves at a faster and faster rate these days, my take on it is that we're already, in effect, in a "post-diversity" period, one in which the commonly accepted version of the word has outlived its usefulness in discourse, not because its underlying sentiment is bankrupt, or suspect--which it may well be--but that we're weary of its fuzziness vagueness, its indeterminacy.

Think about the word globalism, or globalization. These words were probably first coined to describe a trans-national relation, but they were quickly appropriated in the political and economic spheres by those wishing to promote international entrepreneurial exploitation. During the first years of the NAFTA debate, globalism was used in a determinedly positive way to convince people that open, "free" trade demanded that we encourage and facilitate unrestricted exchange, and that the benefits of this openness would far outweigh the disadvantages. When the costs of this openness began to be understood, globalism lost its luster, and began to be employed as a negative charge against its original advocates.

But diversity seems to have acquired an inviolability which trumps even negative associations and outcomes. Events and contexts described as "diverse" which fail every test of favorable outcome, seem to have no effect on the valuation of the term. People from differing backgrounds or persuasions can be at each others' throats, be killing and maiming each other, may even be practicing "ethnic cleansing," and yet we can still hold ethnic diversity or racial diversity or religious diversity as positive descriptives in the common discourse of the public arena. Clearly, there is an ideal (ethical) conception of diversity which may not be applicable analytically to actual event(s).

It's a testament to the multiplicity of its applications, that diversity has survived this long. Does genetic diversity have the same meaning as diet diversity? Does ethnic diversity have the same meaning as sexual diversity? Does diversity in aesthetics signify the same thing as diversity in biology? Are all of the applications of diversity throughout the culture necessarily constructive and favorable, or are some of them plainly problematic? Is it possible to advocate genetic and racial diversity in the same breath, or is this simply sloppy thinking (and bad science)? Is the consolidation inherent in a shrinking world, and a shrinking diversity of the gene pool actually a way to foster real diversity, or will genetic diversity actually decline in proportion to the degree of genetic consolidation?

The cognate of diversity, difference, functions in much the same way. Difference has a somewhat less precise sense, but it's become subject to the same kind of misappropriation as diversity has. To be different, for instance, in the social sciences, or in psychology, suggested a minority or excluded status. In political discussions, ethnic, racial and sexual difference were treated as kinds of exclusion. The use of diversity as a strategic admonition was obviously intended to remedy the problems of difference. Difference itself was thus re-defined as a privileged identity, to compensate for previous kinds of exclusions. Being different became special. Mixtures and hybrids thus become examples of the value and purpose of diversity. A person of mixed blood parentage is thus the personification of diversity, the mixing of genetic material--diversity as its very realization.

As an example of political correctness, diversity is probably as powerful a word as there is in our language. Diversity is beautiful. Diversity is stimulating. Diversity is the antidote to world conflict. Diversity will inoculate against disease. Diversity will allow people to live in harmony. Diversity will sell more cars. Diversity is democratic. Diversity will preserve the varied ecology of the earth. Diversity is God's plenty. Diversity is the universal buzz-word.

When a word begins to be used on this scale, it's clearly escaped its value. Advertisers will say that as a word begins to decay, its use or value as a trigger for comfort and enthusiastic agreement is dying, or has died. Diversity won the day, swept the field, but it's outlived its time, and is rapidly passing into oblivion--and not a moment too soon!

As a matter of course, I almost never use the word diversity, and certainly never in a positive sense, since its associations are so numerous--vague, negative and pointless. Diversity as a word, or as a concept, is dying, or has already died. People can talk about it the same way they talk about any obsolete artifact of the consumer culture. As something which was desirable or necessary or required. As another dead concept. Then the writers of dictionaries can bury that definition as outmoded and extinct, and we can move on to the next iteration. One thing seems clear: Our notions of ideal social harmony will have to find new handles, new definitions, new justifications. The old ones were powerful, but their time has passed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Howard Bond's Abscapes & Landstracts

The word resolution has a lovely combination of meanings: When something is resolved, it achieves a completion, a wholeness, which is at rest, peaceful, balanced, timeless. The other meaning applies to focus: an image is resolved when the lens through which it is being perceived reaches its maximum degree of clarity, so that, throughout its depth of field, every detail and edge is accurately reported. A great photograph may exhibit both of these senses of resolution, becoming aesthetically and technically resolved. A third sense, that of a deliberate assertion, as in "we resolve" to do or think something, may precede the other two senses: the photographer resolves to capture what his imagination (or eye) may be telling him.

Desire and love and craft and labor and luck and inspiration all play a part in the photographic process, and each step of the enterprise is required to make great imagery. Howard Bond has all these gifts, and his work is a masterful record of his success as a photographer of power and delicacy. One wants to reflect on the range of prints that Bond presents, but beyond a certain point, the only appropriate response is silence. The mind stops before a vision that is self-explanatory, we know, on some intuitive level, what is occurring, but words seem inadequate to elaborate on the constituent parts out of which the whole is made. There must be some secret beneath the circuit-board. It's too obvious, or too finished, too complete. It needs nothing, requires nothing. It is whole, balanced, resolved. But not all resolutions are static. An image may signify movement, or disharmony, and still furnish a resolution of a principle.

What Howard Bond gives us are not dead scenes, but a formal purity and clarity that allow us to see completely through to the very surface of resolution. This is what it looks like, this is what matter and the four tempers and the music of the spheres and the golden section and the ultimate formula look like.

Bond's images may be classically framed, as in this zig-zag freshet, its frothy mesh glowing at our metaphorical feet. The damp air is almost palpable through the delicately crisp edge of forest in the background.

Waves are like the ocean's cyclical respiration, the slow intake (pause), followed by the pressured exhalation, a sublimation of matter dashed against an obdurate resistance. Contrast between the the fixed immutable rock, and the tempestuous waves--forces played out in a chosen moment of impact. States in collision. And the jagged upthrust of dark shapes forms a perfect dialectic of intersecting vectors, beyond which the larger profile of the landscape resolves.

These white trees might suggest pure ice, a wintry presence devoid of life, crystalline perfection frozen into stillness, slender arterial elaborations caught, fixed.

The sense of deep space is one of photography's great qualities, especially when the framing device isn't simply the rectangular edges of the negative. Here, the arrangement of rocks is like a natural window which leads the viewer's eye out into the distance. The rocks also tend to unsettle our vantage, as if our vision, hovering like a bird on a towering outcrop, had no limits. One feels a great sense of freedom, which seems very much the point of such a picture.

Bond has traveled in the Mediterranean, particularly in Greece, and he published a whole book--White Motif*--devoted to his abstract studies of the whitewashed architecture there. My favorite is this one--these steps seem to float in insubstantiality--

The values of the original print, of course, are much more subtle and diaphanous than this reproduction is. Nevertheless, the feeling of a miraculous ascent is undeniable. The free appropriation of geometric shapes from architectural structure is one of the glories of Abstract Expressionism, and our thinking about such designs seems inherently modern.

Here, two different studies of the same structure, show how convergence and the interplay of voids with solid masses creates august, almost glowering monumentality. Diagonals and steep verticals have their own particular language--a commonplace in aesthetic discourse.

Similarly, religious iconography may inspire us in purely aesthetic ways, without regard to the meaning or underlying significance of the symbology.

It's also interesting how pictures of different phenomena may, in effect, be reports of the same thing visually:

To my eye, these images are formally similar--each is a kind of expanding fog or inflorescence of white emerging from a darker background. The properties of each kind of matter (cloud, whorl of petals) are expressed as an expansion from a distant vanishing point (stem, horizon-line). In a similar way, undulating lines may "say" the same thing in different material formations:

These striations or parallel meandering ribbons of shape express forces of nature on the one hand, and man's manipulation of matter (metal) on the other, though visually they're cognates. Here's another example of the same principle:

Are these examples of nature imitating art, or the other way around? The veins of the leaf carry the nutrients of the plant juices, but they're also reinforcing ganglia holding the leaf's shape in space. In a different way, the heavy lattice-work on the ceiling of this church is both decorative, but not strictly functional.

How light behaves under certain conditions is always fascinating, and sometimes deceptive, telling us the "same thing" about completely different objects or surfaces. The white edge-trim of these petals (or leaves?) below seems very similar to the light edges of the inert rounded shapes in the other image, those it isn't at all the same material. Translucence in once instances, hard reflectivity in the other. Light is absorbed or reflected in differing measures, which translates into our visual assumptions about density and resilience.

We may think of pictures as kinds of stages of view, and framing may imply a literal proscenium, as here--

We may be looking into something at the same time we're looking at it. The distinction becomes more important in photography than in painting, where the freedom to alter and appropriate views is not a literal issue. Cameras can't go everywhere, hence are subject to the limitation of vantage. The camera is more precisely an extension of the body (and eye) than a collection of brushstrokes on a canvas.

But Bond doesn't ask us to make these huge metaphysical leaps of apprehension. He's a traditional image-maker with an eye for total compositional accuracy, and impressive control. He hides his accidents, and lets the photograph speak for itself.

I'm very fond of this image taken in Austria. It suggests a sort of Medieval figure in chain mail, helmet pushed down over his eyes, surveying his view. Also, the "weight" of the tower clearly depresses the roof structure, ramifying our sense of its mass and presence. It's a powerful composition--and totally composed from (imposed upon) what must be a much larger structure.

Anthropomorphic assignments usually seem hokey to me, but there's almost a feeling of agency in this great trunk below. The patient, powerful, thrust of vital force is undeniable. Muscular, deliberate, insistent.

I spoke briefly with Mr. Bond yesterday on the phone; we'd spoken once, years before, when I called him to inquire about obtaining a copy of his first self-published monograph: Light Motifs [Ann Arbor, MI, Goodrich Press, 1984].* He's turning 80 this year, and is still making prints, but no longer teaches the workshops he's held for decades. He's just completed putting up his own website, here. Be among the first to visit it!


* His second published monograph, White Motif: The Cyclades Islands of Greece [Goodrich Press, 1991] is also still generally available on the market.

A La Recherche - A Very French Cocktail

Food and drink have the potential to summon up memories and sensations from previous experiences. Our sensory memories are inextricably bound up with the threads of our experience. We tend to "recall" visually, but some feel that our deepest, most profound impressions are formed through smell or taste or even touch. And the aural sense has its advocates, too. For myself, I believe that we tend to memorialize memories of memories, constructing sometimes elaborate, or simplified, versions of events that, initially, made a deep impression, but which, given the tendency of mental data to fade over time, we preserve through frequent recall, until, eventually, we're no longer remembering what we actually experienced, but an overlay or replacement template of the original.

But certain tastes and smells and sounds may have the power to penetrate down through layers of accrued memories, summoning up truly vivid embryonic instances. This is the kind of touchstone which Marcel Proust described in his classic seven part novel A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, or The Past Recaptured). Almost anything can function as the key to a specific moment or occurrence from the past. Proust's madeleine will do, but there's nothing magical about a French cookie. The important thing is that it create a vivid impression in the mind, when it occurs, causing us to be re-minded of the case whenever the trigger is pulled.

As a general rule, food doesn't inspire memories for me. Nor do alcoholic drinks. Perhaps the overpowering omnipresence of repeated eating and drinking prevents me from preserving my sensual experiences--maybe they just get buried. Is the present too present for some of us? Do we bury our memories too deeply to be retrieved? There are supposedly ways to revisit memories--hypnosis, certain drugs, the face of someone not seen for decades. It may involve the relaxation of some emotional tightness which restricts access, or provide a sort of secret door or passageway through to a previously closed precinct of forbidden experience.

In any event, one's fondest memories may bring tears or a warm smile in recollection. I can distinctly recall my first day in Paris, as we stepped over the threshold of the elegant B&B one bright Spring morning, into a narrow street on the Ile de St. Louis, I felt so liberated and free that I did a little dance, before we walked up the lane to a boulangerie for a coffee and croissant. I don't have any recollection of the taste of the croissant, but the cool air, the bright morning light, and the quiet, as we sat facing the back side of Notre Dame cathedral, watching the numerous dog-walkers parading along the quai of the Ile de la Cité, I will probably never forget.

I have no object to summon this moment in my life, though the memory of it remains as clear and pure as the experience itself. Or perhaps it is, as I have said, a recreated version of the moment, selected and polished like an old agate in the tumbler of time, improved and hardened into a poetic keepsake.

Such is memory. Here is a delightfully delicate and enticing cocktail mix which I have christened A La Recherche, not because the drink brings back any memories, but because it has a French quality. I'm not a Francophile, though I took several years of French in high school and college, and can barely make my way through a commercial transaction in it; but I can be as romantic as the next person about the City of Light, except perhaps when it sizzles, or when its cold grey dampness penetrates to your bones. Like anything else, familiarity tends to dampen or suppress our sense of novelty, and if I were to reside there for any length of time, it would surely lose much of its charm. But imagination often functions vicariously, and the sweetest inventions may be made from excelsior, or the delicate scintillation of a perfect cocktail.

Here's to Paris, and fine Spring mornings.

The recipe, by proportion:

1/2 Part limoncello
3/4 Part freshly squeezed "sweet" yellow lime

--gently shaken (or swirled), served up in a chilled cocktail glass.

One could certainly substitute any regular gin, or use rose water in place of the St.-Germain, or an ordinary lime for the sweeter variety, but a little subtlety would be lost. The best delicate gin concoctions--as with finer vodkas--must depend to a greater degree upon the quality of the goods, than upon any exotic additions.

Perhaps we may deliberately choose to create inspiring moments. They mayn't be accidental, after all. One wants certain moments to be memorable. Thoreau's advice was to live deliberately, by intention. As if that were ever possible!


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The National Geographic Style

The excellent photographic monograph Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2003], naturally emphasizes images from over the last 20 years or so. In its early years, the National Geographic magazine was more documentary, with a quasi scientific bent, but it has evolved into more of a pretty picture magazine, picking up where Life and Look magazines left off. It now seems to concentrate on animal stories, and third world venues--it's become kind of a PBS documentarian.

As a kid, I was given subscriptions to it for several years in a row, but something about it put me off over time, its tendency to take middle-of-the-road positions weakened whatever advocacy it might appear to be favoring. Its writing was not very inspiring, and the photos, though often effective, usually weren't great examples of photographic art.

But that's changed too, over the years. National Geographic now is one of the few organs where unique, quality photographs can still be published and viewed. Though its mandate now is "inspiring people to care about the planet" instead of documenting the exotic or scientifically research-worthy phenomenon, it keeps a high standard of taste in the mostly journalistic color shots it selects. Many professional photographers build their entire careers around National Geographic imagery.

The image above is one of the best of its kind, certainly from a purely pictorial point of view. Ordinarily, professional colorists will unashamedly alter the color balance in making a print from emulsion exposures or with Photoshop@ software techniques. But the above print would work even with significant variations of color balance. (Click on the image to see it in larger format.)

What makes it so astounding is the purely gratuitous color combinations caused by the random variable pastel clothing of the workers, whose brilliant panchromatic variety is vividly and pungently contrasted with the rough muddy surface of the wall they're clinging to. The reinforcing timbers which protrude from the vertical surface of the wall, are like punctuations of the total compositional matrix. It's a tapestry of labor and activity, spread out like a canvas to illustrate a cooperative building effort, a community project, presumably. We don't know what the building is (without looking at the caption), but it's a big, important structure, one the whole social fabric invests in. You would get nothing like this in the Western World, where labor is much more specialized, and technologically advanced. Too, no building group would be allowed to work this dangerously, without any safety measures whatever to protect those laboring at many tens of feet from the ground. Those ladders are just medium-sized branches lashed together with twine or bark. This is a resurfacing job they're doing, not a constructive build.

In any event, this is an amazing shot. Workers make repairs on the walls of the Great Mosque in Djénné, Mali. @2001, Esha Chiocchio, a photographer working out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The UC Executive Pay Scandal

It was reported today in the San Francisco Chronicle that the University of California had announced at a meeting of the Regents in San Diego that it was giving 4 million dollars in incentive pay and bonuses to employees of its system. In several cases, executives saw pay increases of as much as $41, 205 per annum. Most of the money was concentrated (as one would expect) at the top end of the pyramid. None of those qualifying for these benefits have anything to do with the actual business of teaching or maintaining the facilities of the UC campuses--at least insofar as I can tell.

State funding to the UC system has been falling precipitously over the last several years, as state revenues continue to decline. California has been in a severe budget crunch, borrowing heavily and cutting expenditures where it thinks it can. Increases in student tuition, cuts in curricula have become a commonplace at each annual system-wide budge cycle. In this atmosphere of restraint and scarcity of resource, you would think that the executive pay would be frozen. But nothing of the kind has been occurring. Each year, the regents authorize hefty raises and "incentive" bonuses to the highest paid executives in the UC system, insisting that in order to be competitive in the executive market, it must pay equivalent amounts to hold or attract qualified talent to important management positions.

How is it that in hard times, a university system--based upon the quality of its instruction, and its research facilities, is busily shrinking itself, while its historical mandate, to educate citizens of its jurisdiction (the state) as a public duty, is suffering--can choose to pay its non-teaching executives huge presents of pay and merit bonuses?

In private industry, governing boards are free (within the law) to pay executives obscene amounts of compensation--even during lean times--even when the corporation or company itself may be failing, or even going bankrupt. That's "private" after all and people are free to pay whom they wish, for reasons that only they (and supposedly their shareholders) may be able to justify. But a publicly run bureaucracy--particularly with respect to non-union executive employee positions--depends primarily upon public funding. The University of California is not a profit-making enterprise. There can be no rewards for management which cuts costs while revenues are falling, because the responsibility for seeing to the management of the system must share equally in the health or sickness of the system as a whole.

Historically, top-heavy bureaucracies such as the UC system are self-protective and expansive in character. They can always justify increasing their staffs and starting new departments, but they jealously guard their vital interests as parasitic dependents upon the organization. Though they take no part in the actual running of the departments and classes that constitute the institution, they think of what they do as crucial to the health of the system they inhabit.

One of the bonuses this year goes to Grace Crickette, UC's chief risk officer, who, according to a UCSF spokesperson, "has saved the university over $100 million by driving down the cost of workers' compensation," and negotiating better terms with insurance companies; and the raises "are a small price to pay for people working at the highest level." In other words, Ms. Crickette's great contribution to the University of California's function as a major educational institution, has been to cut staffing, and reduce insurance coverages. Executives will often cite their cost-cutting efficiency as a measure of their importance to an organization; after all, they save money by laying off unnecessary employees, streamlining and downsizing. I suppose you could even make a case for simply off-shoring the UC system, starting campuses in Beijing or Delhi, in order to improve profits. Since the primary beneficiaries of the UC system are now the executives who run it from the top, if they could make themselves more important by actually reducing the activity (teaching) of their "company" then we would owe them more and more, whilst fewer and fewer teachers, teaching fewer and fewer citizens of their state, were being paid less and less, each fiscal year.

The tendency to reward people for finding ways to wring economies out of quality organizations, flies in the face of every priority the public university tradition stands for. The natural tendency of a governing board to reward its chief executives with more and more unreasonable pay and benefits, is regressive and insupportable in a publicly run and funded educational institution. There is no justification whatever in thinking that the product (excellent teaching and research) depends to any significant degree upon the competitiveness of its relatively honorary executive positions. Mr. Yudof provides nothing to the university except as a figurehead who shakes hands and makes empty speeches. And that would be true for most of the other "executives" who occupy chairs underneath him, but above the actual instructional activity of the colleges.

No one in a position of authority in the UC system deserves to be paid more than $175,000 per year. These public relations and mid-level MBA's learn in business school that the first duty in your portfolio is in making yourself promotable, in improving your chances for promotion. In other words, their primary product is selling themselves, and what their job description consists of, so that it always appears that they--and their "product"--are absolutely crucial to the health of the business they're pursuing. It is people like this who suck the life-blood out of an organization, confiscating its value and profit--earned or produced by others (in this case, the teachers and researchers)--for their own benefit and self-aggrandizement.

If there were any decency among the UC Regents, in these times, they would cut UC executive pay by 15% across the board. Anyone who cried foul could be summarily fired. There would be many more candidates lining up to replace them. In our present depressed employment market, we can be sure of that! And many of them would be Chinese and Indian and Canadian and Japanese and Indonesian and English too!

The present crop of overpaid "executives" should also have their housing and parking and cadillac health plan subsidies eliminated too. And their retirement benefits should be cut, by at least 50%, and they should make substantial contributions to these benefits, out of their own salaries. How much more honorable would it be to see these same fat-cats taking public transportation, renting apartments near campus, and visiting the Kaiser hospital emergency rooms. How much more caring and concerned would these executive parasites be if they shared some of the burden they plan to impose on the students and professors!






















Monday, January 24, 2011

Recollections from Childhood - The Old Bale Mill

I've never been much interested in Americana--that is, the history of our culture as a discipline or record. Each State has its own demarcated field--Californiana, Western Americana. The opening and settlement of the American West is certainly an exciting story--really, thousands of stories--and to read any one of them is an adventure. Carving out a civilized life in the wilderness, far from established settlement is difficult, and those who do it must have stamina and energy and dedication.

In the early days of California, nearly everything that hadn't been carried in wagons, or on boats around the Horn, had to be made from scratch. Food was home grown. In the 1840's, Dr. Edward T. Bale, an Englishman, who had come to America the decade before, married a well-to-do Hispanic woman and obtained a tract of land in the Napa Valley from the Mexican Government (which owned much of California at that time). One of his first ideas was to build a grist mill to provide flour for the growing local population. It was completed about 1847, and was regularly in use until just after the turn of the Century, at which time it was acquired by a local fraternal organization and run as a historical tourist attraction.

In the 1950's, when I was eight, my Third Grade Class went on a field trip "up valley" from Napa, where we lived, to the Old Bale Mill. I think my parents may have taken me there before that--or, since memory is fickle, this may have happened after the field trip. In any case, while there I found a beautiful black flint Indian arrowhead--something that used to be common on the ground in historic California backwaters. The fifth photo (below) looks very much the way the unrestored Mill did when I first saw it circa 1955. It was maintained by a resident "overseer's" family who lived in a building behind the Mill itself, and I remember they complained that no "improvements" could be made because it had to look as "authentic" as possible. The old redwood timbers used to build it had settled and leaned in the years since it had been in use, and it had an especially picturesque quality.

These first two photos below were probably taken sometime between the First and Second World Wars, there's vegetation grown up around the structures, and it's clearly an "abandoned" place, no longer being kept up. The third photo--in color--though it looks a bit romanticized, probably looks most like how it was when I saw it the first time. The entrance in those days was right off the shoulder of Hiway 29, which tracks up the Western side of the Napa Valley. The Mill is located about halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga. This is heavily given over to grape growing now, as is nearly the whole of the region, though fifty years ago, the wine business hadn't yet begun to grow beyond its sleepy Prohibition Era profile.

In the fourth photo, stairs have been added, to the front wall, but I'm not sure if the restorations--which took place in the 1960's and 1970's--resulted in the stairs, or if the stairs were later removed for authenticity to the original structure.

Flour mills like this function by diverting a water course conducted up over the top of the great wheel via a flume, though it's unclear to me where the water drained to, since there was never any apparent course for it to take, unless it was sent underground and spilled into a course alongside or under the old highway.

Nowadays, the Mill is accessed from a visitor area behind (to the West--not visible in these shots). The concluding two images are taken from the backside, under the over-arching flume structure, sort of like an aqueduct. I can still remember going inside to look at the great cylindrical grinding-stones, where the grain was processed into flour. Stories about that flour claim that bread made from it tasted wonderfully, perhaps due to the somewhat damp air where the grinding took place.

Original structures like these allow people to connect with their own pasts, or with the past of their ancestors, or with the lives of those who preceded them in a specific region. In my case, looking at these pictures, I feel a continuity not only with my own childhood and growing up, but with the life of a rural community which had been formed 150 years before I'd first seen it. Conditions were relatively primitive in rural California in 1850 (a century before), the year it became a State in the Union. One traveling North from San Francisco during that period would have found it hard going, riding horse or wagon over unpaved roads, hot and dusty and sparsely populated, most of the land given over to subsistence farming or ranching. A commercial enterprise like the Bale Mill was a center of activity and congregation, almost like a church. People might ride their wagons all morning from the other side of the valley to fill up a sack of freshly ground flour--which might last them for several weeks. It had to be kept dry, though, lest it get moldy and stale, and it had to be kept away from rodents.

Our parents and teachers believed in instilling in their children a sense of history, and visiting an old relic like this was the most immediate vehicle for making a real connection with stuff we only read about in books. We heard the stories--about the Indians, the Mexicans with their churches and haciendas and great estates. General Vallejo [1807-1890], who gave his name to the nearby town of Vallejo, was an important figure during the strife and turmoil which resulted in Mexico relinquishing its authority in California. Vallejo eventually threw in his lot with the American authorities, despite losing nearly his whole land and agricultural holdings in the process.

From the Wikipedia entry on Vallejo: "Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo formally protected the legal rights of Mexicans now part in the United States, a long legal challenge to Vallejo's land title cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees and finally deprived him of almost all his land and farm animals. Most Californios could not afford the legal expenses to claim their lands, which were thus lost to wealthy Americans and the flood of immigrants, beginning with the Gold Rush, which left the Californios outnumbered and unable to protect their political power."

I find this assertion very relevant to the current state of affairs in the State of California. Citizens in other parts of the country tend to regard the Hispanic diaspora moving northward as a minor social problem, which can be solved with a bit of fine-tuning of our national immigration laws; but a little historical perspective can be very useful here. If trends in illegal Mexican and Central American immigration continue, California will undoubtedly become overwhelmed with Hispanics. Just as the sparse Mexican population in California was overwhelmed politically, and through sheer numbers by the middle of the 19th Century, California may become inundated with foreign arrivals, and end up becoming, in effect, a kind of extended Mexican province, officially a part of America, but in reality controlled politically by a people and an ethnic tradition that has its roots to the south.

Life in Alta California was certainly pleasant in many ways, and the coming of the "white" population from the East (and abroad) was by no means an unalloyed blessing to the land or its original indigenous population of Indians, or to the Mexicans who'd first settled it. But the California I grew up in, a century after it became a State, was a much nicer place than it's since become. Post-War suburban in-fill is rapidly being replaced by sprawling cheap cookie-cutter tracts, and our cities have steadily ghetto-ized, with large, alien groups of Spanish-speaking living in barrios. The American culture and way of life owes some of its "riparian" culture to the Spanish and Mexicans, but few would advocate that we allow our country to be turned into another version of Mexico--an outlaw nation, burdened by corruption and poverty and overpopulation on a frightening scale.

The Old Bale Mill was a harbinger of the aggressively enterprising American commercial instinct, which built California in its first hundred years. It would be a shame to see it sold out to a vast, refugee, peasant population of immigrants. We need to secure our borders against further incursions, and to prevent a reverse "takeover" of our country, as occurred 150 years ago. If we don't preserve our heritage and our birthright, our sovereignty will be seized from us, in a "quiet" revolution of rapid foreign occupation. But it seems these days that no one's minding the store. California could eventually look and feel just like Mexico. It's not something we should look forward to. Our children deserve better.