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Changing the Changer

Two things are remarkable about the last 3,500 years of human history: that things have remained so stable, and that so much has changed. If, as Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked, we have learned nothing, based on his assessment of the cave paintings of Lascaux, we have managed quite a lot by way of adaptation and creative thinking. As a Californian, I take change for granted. The very landscape is a journal of upheaval. The Sacramento valley occupies the site of an ancient sea, and is surrounded by lands uplifted through vulcanism and tectonic drift. Earthquakes, geysers, old piles of lava and basalt flows all remind us that nothing is as it was. Yet to stand on the sea coast and examine the march of hills, rising wave over wave into hazy distance, or to rest under a valley live oak on a summer afternoon, suggests timelessness, permanence and order. Only a few Californians can claim as many as seven generations' ancestry in the state, yet the native people, descendants of a multitude of nations, trace their presence here to the original act of creation. The waves of immigration that began with Spanish missions three hundred years ago have brought people from every continent and island in the world, blending languages, foods, music and passions to create a place that literally vibrates with change. Growing up in the state, I was drawn backward through learning the history of my family's struggle to survive and prosper, and pushed forward by the explicit understanding that I would have to learn new skills in order to live in a world entirely unlike the one that had created me. At times I actively feared this future, but it eventually became clear that one is obliged to act with optimism, trusting that, by engagement with and commitment to change itself, it is possible to construct a manner and means of living that don't just cope with, but make the best of, changing circumstances.

I was part of an industry that ultimately destroyed itself, partly because it resisted change from within and from without. It existed in a century of growth, fueled by a series of technical innovations that were part of a transforming world. My grandfather's generation lived on ground broken by their immigrant parents, who had sailed from Finland in the midst of famine. They worked the woods with "misery whips," their name for the saws they used to bring down the worlds' tallest trees. The timber was driven downhill by ox-teams and hauled to mills on steam-trains. The lumber was exported in the holds of wind-driven schooners famous for daring ventures along rocky shores. In my father's time the machinery was gas-powered and built to a grand scale. The traditions of the logging culture demanded strict adherence to the virtues of boldness, vigor, and exaggeration. The salmon had to be split in half to fit in the smokehouse, the abalone were bigger, the deer more plentiful, the potatoes better this year. Nothing as it was was good enough, all could be improved. It seemed it would last forever.

In my time the obvious became inescapable. Adventurous and spirited young people from around the country appeared, part of a new migration driven not by famine or the politics of the Old World, but by the need to rescue what they could of the New World. Vanishing old growth reserves became a symbol of change they could not condone. They took action, and went face-to-face with both the corporate entities and the working people they found in the woods. It was a time to embrace change wholeheartedly or be left behind. Personally, I was inspired as much by the idealism of the preservationists as I was by the rugged determination of the loggers to honor tradition. Events conspired to demand compromise of all concerned. The land itself, as usual, determined the course of change.

The native people of California, who occupied every habitable prospect and lived as if they meant to continue in their accustomed ways forever, had much to fear from the changes that began with contact by Europeans. Even so, they were noted for being generous to strangers and tolerant of their customs. The removal, extermination and assimilation that was forced upon them stains the history of California. But, at reservations across the state, from the Hupa Square and the Klamath River to the Mojave Desert, they are learning to co-exist and prosper, while reinvigorating their cultures by teaching themselves traditional dances, prayers, and songs. In the midst of all that is foreign and oppressive, ancient firelights are seen dancing in the hills.

I have resisted change at times, preferring to cultivate an interest in the phenomenology of permanence. I poke along creekbottoms looking for jewels among the stones, or wander over roadsides hoping someone has forgotten something I can use. I think of my mother's parents, headed west in 1937, uncles, aunts and cousins heaped together in a Model T, looking to make a change. Theirs was a blessed but confounded optimism, not just the hope but the certainty that if they could only keep that radiator from draining entirely before they reached the ocean, things would improve. From what I can see, they never regretted taking the risk.

I find abandoned homesteads, forgotten in the overgrown woods. Their caved-in wells, decorated with self-sustaining daffodils, overhung by apples, speak eloquently of the optimism of people I'll never know, but understand clearly. They broke the ground, brought out crops, worked the timber, and planted their dooryards with roses. Someone imported a stove and a wardrobe, there was a place for a wagon out front, then later a car. The ground bears the marks of heavy labor, but also a sweet love, a tender concern.

I know there is no permanence. I visit my hometown cemetery and my relatives inform me of this with simple names and dates on brass plaques. I also know there is nothing to fear. But those plaques remind me that nobody else will do my work for me. Thus I find myself at college long after the ordinary time for education. Not that I have wasted my time. Far from it. But circumstances required that I be elsewhere, and otherwise occupied, for quite a while. Now, they require that I earn a degree, despite my reluctance to conform to academic demands. I could not avoid change any more than I could preserve youth. So, like my great-grandmother, who skied across the top of the world with a baby on her back to board a Norwegian ship and join her relatives in California, I took control of the situation. As valuable as what I have gained from professors, classmates and textbooks has been my work as a writing tutor. I spend my workdays face-to-face with immigrants from around the world who have much in common with the hardy volunteers who arranged for my existence in the first place. I'm not just teaching people how to conjugate verbs, I'm giving them the tools they'll need in order to complete the changes they've committed to.

Every day, I see the relentless optimism that must have been there when those cave-painters crawled through darkness, through the earth itself, to inscribe signs and leave graceful figures visible only to the initiated. The staggering sweep of time has indeed changed nothing: people still willingly propel themselves headlong, through ways they can only imagine, toward the decorated chambers of the interior. They don't just hope for something better, they know it's there, and they won't be left behind.