Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Browning of SoCal

All of my liquid amber trees are dying. Beset by drought and beetles, they are literally falling apart from the tops down. Just yesterday, another shed its upper branches all over the cactus in my driveway, the few desultory pinpoints of green I have left. An ambitious tree surgeon, a sort of arbor ambulance chaser, appeared at my door to ask if I needed any work done. When I pointed out the carcass of the grey-trunked maple in front of my garage, he nodded sagely and said "$200." For what? To take it down, to rub it out as if it had never been.  It was as if he were making a bid on a funeral service. But when I showed him the trees in my back yard, his eyes glowed darkly. Thousands of dollars in removal fees glimmered in them, as if this drought were a personal boon to his otherwise seasonal service.

The fact is that we in Southern California are in the throes of one of the worst droughts in our history. I have already suffered the governor, that octogenarian hipster, instructing me on how many times I can flush my toilet and how long a shower I can take. The fact is that, having lived in this metropolitan brush-land for thirty-some years, I already knew all that, and I was saving water as assiduously as anybody. Anybody, that is, except for the "civil rights activist" who lives up the street from me in a gated mansion, by far the most valuable real estate in the neighborhood, and who consumes water as if nothing has happened. His lawns, unlike everyone else's, are liberally sprinkled night and day, in keeping with steadfast and time-honored left-wing hypocrisy. "The rules are for the rest of you; not for righteous folks like me."

But all of that pales in the face of the growing crisis of dehydration in which we find ourselves. For the first few years it was a warning, which became requests, and then regulations, which are becoming strictures. Though I run only full loads of laundry in my washing machine, and that only after dark, and though I am down to watering my lawns and plants twice a week (as per), take five-minute showers, flush in a timely fashion (as my son says: If it's yellow let it mellow; if it's brown flush it down), not letting the tap run while brushing teeth, and waiting till the dishwasher is brimming before I use it, I expect that any day there will be a knock at my door. Then a uniformed representative of the DWP (if not the police) will put me on formal notice that, if I do not curb my usage, I will incur a $500 fine, or worse.

Meanwhile, I could not help but notice that, earlier this year, the City of Pasadena, in its bureaucratic wisdom, decided to re-sod the medians on Sierra Madre Boulevard, near my house, and then allowed the new grass, so carefully and expensively installed, to die when they shut off the municipal sprinkler system. If you wonder why I distrust, even despise, government bureaucracy, the answer is in those dung brown medians. Apparently no one in the city government asked: Is it a good idea to re-sod the medians in the middle of a historic drought? No, they just went ahead as planned and spent other people's money, and the result is a stretch of wasteland that would have made Okie Dustbowlers feel at home.

The other day, my son asked me how much longer this drought would last. I reminded him that the drought which destroyed the Anasazi (ancient Navajo) civilization is thought to have lasted over 100 years. Then, the dearth of rainfall virtually wiped out one of the most advanced and ingenious societies that ever existed on the North American continent; a culture that invented the flying buttress 300 years before the French, devised a far-flung and almost instantaneous communication system, and had a water conservation scheme which, it was thought, could defeat the scourge of drought. It did not, and all that remains of that sophisticated culture is the breathtaking ruins of the Four Corners.

How long we can survive this episode remains to be seen. For my own part, I feel guilty every time I wash clothes or do the dishes, and I find myself more often scanning the sky for rain clouds, which never seem to appear over the parchment shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains above my house. Mark Twain said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. That has never been truer than of we who live in this artificial urban sprawl which was destined to be a desert. All we can do, I am afraid, is ask the rest of you to pray for rain for us who, as T. S. Eliot said, are dry brains in a dry season.