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Black Lamb

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California dreaming

Cultures clash in the land of plenty.

May 1st, 2007

hearstcastle-copy.jpgBY TERRY ROSS

Even when you’ve made up your mind to relax and take your mind off the workaday world, when you want nothing more challenging than a nice view, good meals, and no alarm clock — in short, when you go on vacation — the world and its issues have a way of insinuating themselves.

The road trip to Los Angeles that Cervine and I made just after Christmas seemed like it would be about as weighty as an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. On our itinerary were stops at Hearst Castle, sightseeing in Santa Barbara and Ojai, meanderings in Hollywood, a visit to the Huntington complex in Pasadena with a tour of the (Procter &) Gamble house, as well as a detour south to see the Queen Mary and, finally, a ramble round J. Paul Getty’s villa in Malibu.

Cervine would like to have thrown in the architectural and archeological curiosities of San Jose (the Winchester House of Mystery and the Rosicrucian Museum), but they were closed for the holidays, so we motored through Carmel and Big Sur (now, without any literary lights in residence, merely funky) before arriving at the little coastal town of San Simeon for an afternoon tour of Hearst Castle.

Unlike other fabulously wealthy people of his time, William Randolph preferred ostentation to charity. The mountains of furniture, statuary, buildings, and paintings he bought went into his various private residences, the most grandiose of which was his San Simeon castle. His descendants, not he, turned his junk over to posterity. Everything at San Simeon seems to have been assembled so that his invited guests (stingily limited to one glass of wine with supper in deference to his alcoholic mistress, Marion Davies) would go away oohing and aahing and thereafter spread the word about the magnificence of Mr. Hearst. The sheer quality and scale of things are impressive, but one leaves convinced that W.R.H. was a sad man.

On our way south the next morning, we turned off at Lompoc for a look at what was billed as a restored mission, but the place was pretty run down. La Purisima is one of the chain of outposts that Fr. Junipero Serra established in the late eighteenth century along the California coastline. A small museum dedicated to the native Chumash Indians contains a few dusty artifacts, including a watertight woven basket and an example of the sort of boat the Chumash deployed to sail to the offshore channel islands that are easily visible from the hills. All very politically correct, one supposes, this paying respect to the ways of the indigenous people, but to me and Cervine, there remained unmentioned a glaring cultural rift.

The Chumash are said to be one of the earliest groups of residents of the west coast, among the first to make their way that far south after crossing the land bridge from Asia. The climate must have been too comfortable, because during the millennia before the Spanish showed up, the Chumash continued living as they had since their arrival — no progress to speak of, no written language, the most rudimentary of crafts, cave art that looks like doodles compared to the cave art of their European contemporaries. C and I couldn’t help reflecting that whereas the Chumash had learned to sail all the way to the nearby islands and weave baskets that held liquid, the Spaniards had arrived in ships that had sailed halfway around the world, crammed with animals, plants, herbs, and books, not to mention watertight vessels made of metal, a substance that the Chumash, pre-Iron Age people, had not contrived to imagine during their ten thousand years in California.

The following day, after a drive around Santa Monica and Venice, we made our way down to Long Beach and the Queen Mary. The huge old gal was somewhat of a disappointment — a bit shabby, although one can still make out the magnificent inlaid woods and art deco designs — until our guide started talking about her finest hours, which all occurred during World War II. The Queen Mary was not only big but fast, capable of sustained speeds of forty knots (you could water-ski behind her). Turns out she was the primary conveyance for large troop transport in the Atlantic, being able to outrun enemy submarines and even their torpedos. On one run she took 16,000 soldiers to Europe, the largest number of human beings ever conveyed by a single ship. And on her last war-time cruise she brought to America 4,000 European wives and mothers, American G.I.s’ girls. A sweet story.

The next day we drove over to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, the legacy of a tycoon very different from William Randolph Hearst. While Hearst hid his treasures, Huntington offered his to the public, not just at this beautiful compound but in the form of countless hospitals, playhouses, and libraries all over Los Angeles. In the library we saw a Gutenberg bible; outside, we marvelled at the vast, immaculate gardens.

As it turned out, Cervine and I had saved the best for last. On our final day, we drove up to the Getty Villa in Malibu (not to be confused with the Getty Center in Los Angeles). This expansive building was modelled on a specific Roman villa, and it is immaculate and gorgeous. The remarkable collection of antiquities is ideally arranged by subject, and on our visit these included specimens of beautiful mosaic floors from Tunisia. Oddly, though, when we reached the rooms of Greek and Roman statues and jewelry, it was the Chumash Indians who came to mind.

As C and I gazed at the riches of ancient western civilization, we couldn’t help remarking that just one feature from any of these figures — a hand, a wrist, an ankle — or one example of the fine jewelry from the same period — a ring, a necklace — far outshines the entire millennias-old cultural heritage of the poor Chumash, some of whose descendants we had seen earlier that day stumbling drunk on the mean streets of L.A.
So there was plenty of food for thought on our little vacation, especially in these faux-egalitarian times. Surely if it’s not improper to admire Huntington and Getty for sharing their wealth rather than hoarding it, like Hearst, it can’t be racist or insensitive to note that some cultures — some peoples — got a larger share of the goodies when the brains and talent were being handed out. •
Illustration by Heather Butler

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ross | Link to this Entry

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