What is California?

California Districts

An enumeration of the elements of California might proceed as follows:

  1. The San Andreas Fault
  2. The California Current
  3. The Sierra Nevada
  4. The Central Valley
  5. Redwood Forests

The San Andreas Fault

The Pacific and North American Plates, two of the world’s largest, collide from the Gulf of California to Shelter Cove, just south of Cape Mendocino, California. This collision, roughly delineated by the San Andreas Fault, is what put the place we call California on the map.

The California Current

California is probably best known for its climate, a phenomenon which owes no small sum to the fact that California is a collision between continental and oceanic plates, with two particular circumstances:

  1. The collision has a north-south orientation, with cool ocean currents flowing from the north.
  2. The collision occurs across a broad spectrum of tropical, subtropical, and temperate latitudes, from 23 to 40 degrees north.

All this adds up to a mild, sunny climate. Add to that an occasional quake to keep everybody on their toes, and you have the California of the Padres.

The Sierra Nevada

Another California was born in 1848, not of sunshine and mild weather, but of greed. That rebirth was initiated and sustained by four gifts of the Sierra Nevada:

  1. gold
  2. water
  3. soil
  4. beauty and recreation

The massive Sierra Nevada traps large volumes of atmospheric moisture, leaving the lands to the east dry. It being a large mountain block, much of that moisture is stored as snow and ice, meaning that the moisture is released when it is needed most, during the warm, dry springs and summers. As that moisture is released, it carries with it the sediments that become the soils of the great Central Valley.

As lady luck would have it, a smattering of that sediment is gold. It was the glitter of gold in Sierra streams that set the tone for the future of California and America, just as that glitter brought the world to California before her greatest riches were discovered. Beyond the extravagance of gold and the practical benefit of water and soil, we must not forget the beauty and recreational value of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the High Sierra, and the Giant Sequoia (more on that to come).

The Central Valley

Without Sierra Nevada sediments, much of the Central Valley might be known today as the Central Sea, like the Sea of Cortes (the Gulf of California) to the south, but the Sierra Nevada does not entirely account for the Central land form of California, be it land or sea, and there are other mountains that feed the Central Valley. The Sacramento River is proof of that. The Sacramento River is fed by the southern end of the Cascade Range on east, and the Trinity Mountains and other ranges on the west.

Redwood Forests

“From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.” — Woodie Guthrie

Another natural resource that plays a central role in the California myth is the California redwood tree, which lives along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Coast, from Big Sur the far southern Oregon.

Where is California?

Having taken all these elements of California into account, a natural eastern boundary of California can be seen to proceed along the following features:

  1. The east coast of Baja California.
  2. The Colorado River.
  3. The crest of the Chocolate Mountains (just east of the San Andreas Fault).
  4. The crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
  5. The crest of the San Bernardino Mountains.
  6. The crest of the San Gabriel Mountains.
  7. The crest of the Tehachapi Mountains.
  8. The eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.
  9. The eastern edge of the Cascade Range. The boundary continues northward here to include the watershed of the Sacramento Valley.
  10. The crest of the Siskiyou Mountains.
  11. The northern boundary of the Smith River watershed. This is the approximate northern boundary of the region called “the Redwood Empire”.

Fire Temple

This posting is a continuation of the Citadel of Glory discussion.

Having now read much of A. J. Carnoy’s Paradise of the East — Paradise of the West, which I received due to the graciousness of Dr. Josef Chytry at the University of California, I can now speak a little more confidently about Carnoy’s Kár-i-farn conjecture.

One interesting point that Carnoy makes is that the place name “Califerne” in the Song of Roland may have been a hybridization of the construct Kár-i-farn and the theocratic title Caliph. What Carnoy does not discuss is the possibility that the word Kár as spoken by an Arab may have sounded much like “Kál” to an early Frenchman, whose deep ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds were perhaps quite unlike the sharp, shallow ‘r’ and ‘l’ of an Arab or a Persian. Carnoy’s Kár-i-farn could have very easily been modified by the French without any hybridization whatsoever.

Unfortunately, Carnoy does not appear to claim that he had ever read of the construct Kár-i-farn; rather, he appears to argue that the construct was probably used because it appears to be an obvious construction:

Il serait naturel que les légendes concernant les feux divins, les paradis sur les montagnes, les oiseaux merveilleux qui les gardaient ou les transportaient se soient localisées sur la montagne de Kár ou de Kár-í-farn (“Kár du farnah”) comme on a dû l’appeler.

Here’s my rough translation:

It would be natural that the legends concerning divine fires, the paradises on the mountains, and the marvellous birds which kept them or transported them were located on the mountain of Kár or Kár-i-farn (”Kár of the farnah”) as one had to call it.

Carnoy does not appear to provide any evidence that anyone ever actually used the construct, so we must continue to wait for it to appear. Let’s not hold our breath.

That said, I happen to believe that the construct Kár-i-farn is even more likely than Carnoy contends. In my town, there is something called a fire temple. To be precise, it is called a “Dar-e-Mehr” (or Dar-i-Mihr), from the Farsi for “House of Fire” or “House of Light” (I say “Farsi” rather than “Persian” because the term has obvious Arabic influence). I find it quite noteworthy that Dar-i-Mihr can easily be translated to Kár-i-farn. Mihr and farn(ah), do, after all, carry quite compatible meanings. The actual fire in the district of Kár was even called Farnbag, roughly meaning “Light of God”. As for Dar and Kár, the former is an Arabic word for “house”, and the latter appears to be a Persian root that derives from the Sumerian word for “fort”, and appears to have evolved into a more general meaning akin to “edifice”.

Carnoy appears to think that the construct Kár-i-farn would derive from the name of the district Kár, but it seems to me that the inverse would be more likely: could Kár-i-farn have once been used as a term for “fire temple”?

… And regardless of etymology, wouldn’t Karefarnah be an appropriate name for the Golden State? “Land of Sun Worshippers?” “Temple of Fire”?

Citadel of Glory

The name “California” appears to go back far beyond Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian. This should not surprise us, for Montalvo’s novel implied that the name was well-known when it was published ca. 1510. The word apparently occurred in the 11th Century epic poem the Song of Roland, at a point in the poem where a Christian army had just been defeated by a Muslim army. In the poem, California was spelled “Califerne”, but that spelling may reflect poetic license, as it occurs at the end of a rhyming stanza. The following citation is provided to illustrate the rhyme:

Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere
Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,
E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,
Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne
E cil d’Affrike e cil de Califerne.

Lynn Townsend White Jr., a California historian, made the following observation about the legendary country of Califerne:

To them [the Spanish conquistadores] California was a land of Orient with fantastic attributes which have been somewhat clarified by a learned authority on Iranian mythology, A. J. Carnoy. Califerne, he asserts, is the Persian Kar-i-farn, “Mountain of Paradise.” On this mountain dwelt enormous birds, half eagle and half lion, in the West generally called griffins.

I have not read Carnoy, nor have I ever heard of Kar-i-farn in any other connection, so I must remain skeptical, but I can put its constituent words together. For me, Kar-i-farn does not translate to “mountain of paradise,” but rather something like “citadel of glory”. Perhaps that’s close enough.

To be more specific …

The word “kar” means something akin to “edifice” in Persian. The same word in Sumerian and Assyrian meant “fortification” or perhaps “citadel”. One may wonder how “kar” could morph to “kal”, and one would be justified, but consider that the Arabic word for fortress or citadel is “qal`ah”.

The word “farn” or “farnah” is an old form of the Persian word “farr” or “farrah”, which means “glory”, as in the glory of God, or the divine splendor of the sun.

It is no surprise to hear griffins spoken of in connection with ancient Persia. The guardians of the Persian Empire were great statues of griffins called “Homa”, sometimes referred to as the “Guardians of the Light”. It would make sense for these “Guardians of Light” to inhabit a “Citadel of Glory”, but I have not yet been able to corroborate Carnoy’s account.

Was California named after a heavenly paradise out of an ancient Persian myth? Is the California condor thus related to the Homa of ancient Persia through legend and myth? The jury is still out, and may remain out for some time.

California As Collision

Along the northeastern shore of the Great Ocean, a long, thin strip of land stretches 1500 miles, in about as straight a line as Nature will allow Herself to draw. The strip is born of the grinding of the great oceanic plate against the continental plate.

From Cabo San Lucas to Cape Mendocino, California is characterized by a system of strike-slip faults between the Pacific and North American plates, but California is more than a mere side-swipe; it is a collision, and this intercontinental collision involves—like so many others—one continent wedging under the other. In this head-on component of the collision vector is born the Sierra Nevada.

The uplift of the Sierra Nevada has not been gentle. It was associated with one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history, the Great Lone Pine Earthquake. It has also been associated with one of the most fantastic volcanic events known to science: the Long Valley supervolcano.

Sierra California

The boundary between Southern and Northern California ignores the compass points, wrapping around the San Joaquin Valley from Tejon to Tehachapi and northward along the Sierra Crest to Tioga and around the northern limit of the Mono Basin. This is made necessary by the Sierra Nevada. The Los Angeles Aqueduct is perhaps the strongest argument for this suggestion, but there is further evidence. If you live in San Francisco, you probably don’t ski at Mammoth, because you’d usually have to drive 220 miles over the Sierra Nevada to Gardnerville, Nevada and drive 120 miles down US-395—over three mountain ranges—to get there. If you live in downtown Los Angeles, it’s 310 easy miles to Mammoth, and Mono Basin is 20 miles farther.

Besides being the highest and perhaps the most monolithic mountain range in the contiguous 48 states, the Sierra Nevada is essential to California in terms of physiography, history, economy, culture, and conscience. But this preeminent position is not merely a matter of gold, pioneers, mammoth cliffs, sky-high waterfalls, giant trees, and alpenglow. The physiography, history, economy, culture, and conscience are as much a matter of water as anything else.

Though the first image of California may be that of a sunny beach, it’s hard to imagine California without the Sierra Nevada and the valleys at her feet. About three quarters of the readily available surface water originating in California flows off Sierra Nevada slopes, and nearly all of the remainder flows along the foot of the Sierra Nevada in the Sacramento River. Though sunshine is what has drawn the millions to California, it is water that has allowed them to remain, and to grow a multitude of sun-loving crops, many of which have become synonymous with the state.

The fact that the Sierra Nevada provides so much water to California is not merely due to the fact that it’s the biggest mountain range around. The range looks as though it were designed to be a great dam to capture the moisture of the great westerly stream pouring off the Pacific Ocean. The dam extends four hundred miles from North to South, capturing over 20 million acre-feet a year. Like the reservoirs and diversions of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Sierra Nevada greedily hoards the waters of life for California, leaving the lands downstream barren and uninhabited.

As with any dam, the effectiveness of the Sierra Nevada is a direct product of its location, its shape, its orientation, and its height. Beyond its utility, its grandeur is not any more a product of its height than of its shape and its mass. Nowhere is this more pronounced than along its most massive segment, the great crest between the Tulare Basin and Owens Valley. Beginning in the flat expanse of cotton fields where once a great lake lived, one can travel across what is perhaps the most productive land on earth, and ascend to over 14,000 feet to the crest of the Sierra, following the streams that feed the crops, and passing great redwood forests, cliffs, and lakes along the way. There are few gentle slopes along this great ascent, but on the other side, the 10,000 foot descent is breathtaking. Though the air has been wrung dry on the east side, the Sierra provides enough water to support a thriving economy at its eastern foot.

Beyond Owens Lake, the lifeless monument to the thirst of California, lay the truly barren monument to the greed of the Sierra: Death Valley, which is, in terms of extremes, the second hottest spot on the planet. Death Valley lay directly east of Owens Lake, over Towne Pass.

A less direct route to Death Valley can be found by following the ice age spillway of Owens Lake, down the Rose Valley to China Lake and Searles Lake, from there through Pilot Knob Valley and over Wingate Pass into Death Valley. This low road between Death Valley and the foot of the Sierra would have provided the “Death Valley 49ers” a direct route from the old Spanish Trail to the Central Valley and the gold of the Sierra, had they been able to follow it. Indeed, had they used this route across Death Valley, it is likely they wouldn’t have named it Death Valley as they did. Given the time that they passed through, they might have named it Christmas Valley, or maybe Sun Valley, if they thought enough of it to name it at all.

The Twilight of the Gods

Under a low umbrella of stars, he had stealthily walked with only his walking stick, up the Grand Canal, a linear, u-shaped glacial canyon that slices through the mountains as though a great, dull axe had hewn the range from North to South. This was before forests had moved down the cliffs and into the canyon bottom. It all remained naked as the Titan that ambled up along the glacial torrent that crashed down toward the sink west of the range. His lips moved occasionally, but whether he was speaking even he could not know, for nothing could be heard but the thunderous roar of the stream.

When he reached the junction at the head of the canyon, he turned east up a ridge between two tributaries, and ascended the bald slopes to the barren, boreal plateaus. The icy flank of the Great Divide towered above him, and blocked out his view of the eastern heavens. When he at last saw the sleeping hump of the granite fire tower, he straightaway turned east again and began his ascent, watching the heavens to gauge the passing of time.

His exhalations steamed out into the frozen air and crystallized. He felt the continuing sting of the alpine cold. Thin laces of ice highlighted his eyebrows and locks in the starlight, but the hot, immortal blood of the Titan admitted no frostbite. His breathing grew more and more labored as he ascended the back of Damavand. Though he could not see eastward, he could sense the daybreak, so he pressed onward and upward.

Once he mounted the tower, he lifted his walking stick and stumbled hurriedly across the stony platform, racing against the oncoming sunrise. Suddenly he felt a rush of warm air, and found himself perched over the East, just as Phoebus with Helios broke the horizon. The hot light of the sun cast a wave of steam across the plateau as it melted the nocturnal icing. The Titan held up his walking stick to Helios, as he and the stick began to warm. He turned his gaze back to the west, and saw the heavens of Zeus boiling up and approaching from the Great Western Divide. He looked up at the oiled staff, now hot with sunlight. In an instant the staff was ablaze, and thunder pounded down upon the granite from heaven. The Titan, turning to see Zeus over his shoulder heaved the staff into the abyss. Zeus, outraged, hurled bolts down upon the mountain, throwing the Titan into a frenzied, writhing dance of electrocution, utterly without self-control or even will, until he fell lifeless onto the stone.

The immortal awoke prostrate, far beneath Helios, and enclosed by mountain daemons binding each of his wrists to a chain. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the great vulture soaring and circling, and at that he passed into sleep. But he awoke just as suddenly to a stabbing pain in his torso. He looked down to see the raptor’s bald head buried in his abdomen. It raised its head, oblivious to the Titan’s startled gaze, and tossed a piece of liver down into its gullet.

Prometheus lunged up, and swung his thigh at the immortal beast. The raptor flapped its broad wings, and hovered up above the Titan, who desperately rolled in an attempt to flee the raptor. On his second turn, he felt the rocky ground give out from under him, as he slipped into a free fall down the face of the mountain, and just as instantly, he felt the ropes jolt against his limbs as he stopped suspended between two towers of the eastern face of the mountain. Overcome by the trauma, he lost consciousness once more, only to awake to that same cutting tugging sensation in his gut. He opened his eyes heavenward, but did not venture to face the raptor at its grizzly task. He winced, and tried not to blink. At last, he would fall asleep again. His immortal liver would then regenerate while he slept. It would seem like an instant to him until the return of the eagle would jolt him back into consciousness.

Far below him, smoke rose from a distant patch of nascent woodland, where the burning staff had at last found rest. Shouts of primitive men echoed against the mountain, as they circled around the wood in wonderment and excitement. The fire made its way from village to village and from nation to nation over the millennia, while their loyal Creator hung in unremitting agony betwixt two spires of the mountain, and on Olympus, the name of the Titan who released its fire to his mortal children.

Every so often, the tortured Creator might smell the smoke and hear the shouts of a ceremony far below. Perhaps a dance or a sacrifice intended to summon another bolt of fire from heaven. They would search the mountains, and on rare occasions they would find a fire burning, ignited by an ember from that first fire. On occasion, a stray bolt from Zeus himself might even provide the gift of fire, but there was to be no mercy for the rebellious Titan, and no immortal would dare attempt to free him for fear of the wrath of the Almighty.

But a mortal would not have quite so much to lose.