Re-Membering the Llano: California’s Multiple Histories as an Island

Erstwhile blogger Julia Frankenbach reflects on historical and contemporary notions of California as an exotic place.

Erwin Raisz, Landforms of California and Nevada, c. 1967. Graphic courtesy Raisz Maps.

Erwin Raisz, Landforms of California and Nevada, c. 1967. Graphic courtesy Raisz Maps.

California has come together more than once. In multiple histories—in matter and in mind—the massive swath of land on the western cusp of North America assembled and assumed a place on the continent. My efforts to assemble memories of California—my original home—grow from the layers of these histories.

California grips the imagination. Its various monikers—Eden, Arcadia, the Land of Milk and Honey—express the hopes of those who dreamed it. Its symbols—rugged granite-lands, perfumed orange orchards, the glittering Hollywood metropolis—reveal the fixations of those who lived it. Even for me, a long youth spent familiarizing myself with the landscape’s many banalities belies a lasting intrigue. California dreams rekindle in my Colorado outpost. They grow brighter each month I remain away from home. While away, I forget my disillusionment with the Sacramento Valley’s dusty expanses, crushing heat, and the indolent wrinkle of foothill on its western horizon. I forget my anger about the steady anonymization of township as endless conurbation folds once-distinct communities into homogeneous grids that cover the plains. California constantly renews. Its Great Valley sits perched above sharp coastal edges that are dynamic processes. They rise jagged and salted from the ever-churning active edge of the North American continental shelf. Things happen at this tectonic seam. Pillow basalts cut into consciousness. The lands that roll away from it develop sequentially, like waves: coastal foothills empty onto the farmed plains of the Central Valley. Still further east, the valley’s edges rise to wooded slopes, which crest in the aerial granite of the Sierra Nevada. California regenerates tectonically and perceptually. As its beaches churn and build, so does its memory. Hindsight hones its contours. I always find myself wishing to return.

For me, California’s successive terrains are the landscape of home. Yet, however familiar, they remain evocative. This home is tantalizing. There is something about the variety of the landscape—the ease with which one travels from coastal cliffs to redwood inlets, from orchard to mountainside to the pinnacles of the Range of Light. Each locale feels exotic to every other. A sense of un-relation fragments the landscape. Over time, after many traverses through the wild palette of its surfaces, one begins to intuit a process of accretion—of lithic buildup, terrain after terrain. One senses a melding of distinct territories into a whole.

California also stirred colonial imaginations over three hundred years ago. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spanish officials in present-day Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico believed that El Dorado and various other paradisal places lay in “the Californias,” the unexplored lands to the northwest. But despite their supposedly suitable position for exploration, by the early 1700s Spanish geographers remained largely ignorant of the territory known today as California.[1] In its inscrutability, California was seductive. Speculation proliferated. Fantasies of a luxuriant coastal island proved especially winsome, and many eighteenth-century Spanish, English, and French maps depict California as a massive island separated from the west coast by an elongate gulf.[2] Perhaps here, in geographic obscurity, California enjoyed its most exotic moment.

Herman Moll, Map of North America According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations. c. 1715. Graphic courtesy Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

Herman Moll, Map of North America According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations. c. 1715. Graphic courtesy Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

But this figment of the European cartographic imagination is, in fact, surprisingly apt. Quite literally, California is an accretion of islands. It was—indeed still is—composed of “exotic terranes,” a geological term for relatively small foreign landmasses that accrete to an ever-expanding continental seaboard. Creative nonfiction writer John McPhee explains this phenomenon in Assembling California (1993), the fourth installation in his five-volume masterwork Annals of the Formal World (1998). McPhee reveals an assembled, cumulative California amassed over millions of years. In essence, the tectonic motions of ocean plates entrained island chains and microcontinents and swept them together onto the western North American continental margin to form present-day California. In McPhee’s words, these terranes became “the outermost laminations of new landscapes.”[3]

The first of these Californian laminations welded itself to present-day Nevada in early Triassic time (250-200 million years ago). Known today as Sonomia, it extends from central Nevada to the western Sierra foothills, its mountainous contents “an atticful of objects from around the Pacific world”[4]. In its time, Sonomia’s western coast developed a string of stratovolcanoes.  “Their rock was in peaks above us,” writes McPhee. “[…] a coastal region of exceptional beauty had lain at the base of the volcanoes. Stratovolcanoes. Kilimanjaros and Fujis.”[5] McPhee writes exoticism into the landscape. By inserting faraway place names into a story of the Sierra Nevada, he creates an imaginative setting in which the differentness of Triassic California is palpable. Kilimanjaro and Fuji in western North America? This kind of metaphor harnesses one’s association of faraway place names with the glamor of the unfamiliar. With this device, McPhee manages not only to invoke concrete pictures of landscapes millions of years old; he also detonates concepts of foreignness and distance as one knows them. On a time scale in which Kilimanjaros slide from one side of the planet to the other and Japans slam into North America, sweeping up whole Hawaiis with them, no terrane is exotic in the word’s literary sense. McPhee defeats the geological terminology—think: “exotic terrane”—by invalidating ideas of separation, differentness, and isolation. Everything is a part of everything else at some point in the continuum of movement and change. Geography becomes fleeting. Continents no longer lay claim to their terrains. The exotic becomes nothing more than a consequence of the immediate nature of human perception.

The Smartville Block docked along the Sonomia coast in the middle of the Jurassic period (200-145 million years ago), forming the present-day California Central Valley. The meeting created a suture along which a network of faults developed. When the granite magmas of the Sierra batholith squeezed into the terrane during the period between 130 and 80 million years ago, water flowing down the fault planes interacted with magma and sent dissolved gold compounds back toward the surface to precipitate in crevices. The result was the California Mother Lode.  El Dorado—at least, a version of it—did indeed await Spanish colonists in the eighteenth century. Earth processes granted the crux of colonial dreams at least eighty million years ahead of schedule.

Twenty million years later, a new terrane—the Coast Range Ophiolite—accreted to western North America, followed by the Franciscan mélange, now the core of the Coast Ranges. “The Franciscan mélange,” writes McPhee, “contains rock of such widespread provenance that it is quite literally a collection from the entire Pacific basin, or even half of the surface of the planet.”[6] Here the geologic story of California reaches into the present. From western coast to eastern range, California is composite. Each north-south swath of land holds ancient terranes. California’s is a worldly pedigree, its genealogy diverse. It is a place of many places.

Returning to the eighteenth century, we must grapple with the strange equivalence between a European cartographic “mistake”—California as island—and a remarkably analogous geological history. Of course, coincidence marks the occasion to a significant degree. Colonial European cartography most certainly did not reflect geological understanding—indeed, most European cartographers of the period had never been to the Californias. But might we learn something from uniting old colonial dreams with their contemporary object—an assembled landscape that, as it turns out, continues to intrigue?

To begin, the historical-minded might revisit the harsh ironies between Spanish desires for exotic Californian treasures, later genocidal projects to “tame” and standardize California’s indigenous social landscape, and the now-lingering conflation of Native America with the exotic. How might our understanding of these intellectual reversals sharpen when we perceive assemblages of the exotic in more places than one? Geology, if anything, teaches that perceptions of conformity are idiosyncratic and fleeting. They are subject to time and place. Diverse landforms converged and became settings for the later convergence of diverse peoples, who perceived exoticism—otherness—in the landscape and in one another. This story ought to remain whole. Pinpointing causal relationships is not the goal here. Welcoming the landscape’s history into our cultural, social, and intellectual queries and attending to the resonances, on the other hand, is.

One thing I glean from this is that geologic process is inseparable from experience. The processes that created a distinctly sequential landscape have everything to do with that landscape’s power to affect contemporary imaginations. Moreover, California’s physical irregularity prompts a startling variety of contemporary patterns of land use and dwelling that reinforce regional differentness. One distinct group, for example, perceived something special in the Yosemite territory and secured federal sanctions for its preservation and public display. An important part of this process was the “gradual” removal of the region’s native Miwok people starting in the 1930s. Today’s Yosemite National Park is dispossessed of its human inheritance, while visitation by strangers—American and otherwise—transforms it. Meanwhile, other diverse regions of the Sierra Nevada remain relatively undisturbed. In California’s rich mélange of landscapes, certain places strike Americans as exceptional, and incidental behaviors reinforce its differentness. In a separate exercise, scholars like Paul W. Mapp have argued that the Southwest’s terrestrial variability effected the politically and linguistically dispersed nature of its native communities, impairing Spanish attempts to explore the territory. One might argue from this that California’s physical patchiness preserved its obscurity and, thereby, ensured its survival in the Spanish imagination as an unknowable, exotic place. These thoughts warrant caution, especially with regard to the dangers of geographical determinism. But they form a first venture. They advocate the rich contacts between history, memory, and the North American landscape.

These reflections are trimmings from an inner project to locate home. I am from the flat plains of the northern California Central Valley. Spanish missionaries would have called my home a llano—a flat plain. With my broken Spanish I assemble the phrase llano dorado. Golden plain. It sounds exotic to me. But I want to repeat it into banality. It is a verbal expression—a code phrase—for my desire to fold histories of colonial subjugation into my knowledge of home. I want to meld histories of conflict and loss into familiar plots—recover stories subducted in my high school curriculum to assemble an historical whole that I might one day recognize as home. “Llano” describes an American landscape in the Spanish language. It contains the colonial encounter with that landscape and its first people. The llano, we now know, is part of a landscape once thought to be an island: detached, perhaps tropical, strange. The fact that California, in some sense, fulfills that promise convinces me that this kind of thinking is worthwhile. There was a strange wisdom in ignorance. A llano rolls somewhere inside me. The word holds my attention through the clamor of days.



[1] For an excellent explanation of Spanish geographic ignorance, see Paul W. Mapp, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Mapp argues that the decentralized nature of Southwestern native communities confined tribal knowledge, thwarting Spanish hopes to obtain wide-reaching geographical information from them. Southwestern decentralization contrasted with conditions in colonial Central and South America, where native empire-making had standardized language over large areas and incentivized the flow of clear information. While Spanish exploration progressed relatively easily in these areas, it stagnated in the politically and linguistically dispersed Southwest.

[2] For a full-length history of the idea of California as an island, see Dora Beale Polk, The Island of California: A History of the Myth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

[3] John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998), 449.

[4] Ibid., 442.

[5] Ibid., 450.

[6] Ibid., 547.


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