After the ruins

SF's pasts and futures -- and Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia
|
(0)

› a&eletters@sfbg.com

ESSAY In a journal entry dated Dec. 27, 1835, from his 1840 book Two Years before the Mast, student-turned-seafarer Richard Henry Dana recorded his first impressions of the area we know as the City, while his ship, The Alert, traveled through the Golden Gate:

We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built ... from whence we could see large and beautifully wooded islands and the mouths of several small rivers ... hundreds of red deer, and [a] stag, with his high branching antlers, were bounding about, looking at us for a moment and then starting off ...

Dana arrived in the Bay Area after one era had ended and before another began. Until the coming of the Spaniards a generation earlier, some 10,000 people, members of around 40 separate tribes, lived between Big Sur and San Francisco, in the densest Native American population north of Mexico. Despite the existence among them of as many as 12 different languages, the people collectively referred to now as the Ohlone lived in relative peace for some 4,500 years.

On his first visit, Dana predicted that the Bay Area would be at the center of California's prosperity. When he returned more than 30 years later in 1868, he discovered that his hotel was built on landfill that had been dumped where The Alert first landed.

Then in middle age, Dana wrote, "The past was real. The present all about me was unreal." Making his way through the crowded streets where the new city he'd predicted was being built, he remarked, "[I] seemed to myself like one who moved in 'worlds not realized.'" Thus Dana became one of the first to articulate the peculiar San Franciscan combination of nostalgia for a lost past and despair over an unrealized future.

The past and future are always alive here. On his first visit, Dana wrote in his notebook about the great city to come. But like many residents of SF today, he slept on the cold, hard ground.

In George Stewart's 1949 science fiction classic Earth Abides, a mysterious disease has killed 99 percent of the Earth's population; the main character, Ish, roams the City and East Bay until he finds a wife. Stewart's book ends in a Twilight Zone scenario, as an old, feeble Ish — now the last living pre-plague American — watches in dismay while his illiterate offspring hunt and frolic like the Ohlone, wearing animal skins and fashioning arrowheads from bottle caps.

After a wildfire, Ish notices that a library has been spared. All the information is still in there, he thinks. "But available to whom?"

Perhaps the knowledge Ish once begged his children to learn can be found in 1970's The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Its 450-plus yellowing Road Atlas–size pages contain terse recommendations of publications about plant identification, organic gardens, windmills, vegetable dyes, edible mushrooms, goat husbandry, and childbirth, while also sharing the fundamentals of yoga, rock climbing, making music with computers, space colonization, and — of course! — the teachings of Buckminster Fuller.

The initial Whole Earth Catalog sought to reconcile Americans' love of nature and technology. In Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 303 pages, $34.95), author Andrew Kirk credits its creator, Stewart Brand, with bringing a sense of optimism to environmentalism. A character in Tom Wolfe's 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Brand embodied the cultural intersection of acid and Apple at mid-1960s Stanford University. Kirk examines Brand's 1965 "America Needs Indians" festival, his three-day Trips Festival in 1966, and his time riding the bus as one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

Counterculture Green correctly suggests that Brand's utopian lifestyle has a hold on our imagination.

Also from this author