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Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: They Paved Paradise

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Posted on April 19, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



It’s late afternoon, and I’m looking east through the big picture windows of my favorite café in Berkeley, California. I’m used to seeing the Green Mountains when I look east, but today I see the Berkeley Hills.

There’s no confusing the Berkeley Hills for the Green Mountains. The slopes of the Berkeley Hills are covered with more houses than trees; the electric lights in those houses are blinking on right now, and will outshine the constellations tonight. The hills’ summits are ridged with cell phone towers. And to see the Berkeley Hills I must look across a parking lot, past six lanes of traffic and the BART train tracks, and beyond a network of power lines and street lights.

A refrain runs through my head that’s been haunting me since we arrived in Berkeley for my husband’s sabbatical. It goes like this: What have we done?

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from New York City 10 years ago, I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, emerging from the grey-brown of Kansas into Technicolor Oz. I’d always considered New York a beautiful city, but it’s a manmade beauty: twinkling lights through a window, intricate stone carvings on building facades, a view of the sunset down the canyon of a street.

Berkeley’s natural beauty is constant and vibrant. The Berkeley Hills, development aside, remain verdant and rolling. There are views of the sparkling San Francisco Bay, with the city skyline and the graceful outline of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging ghostly through the fog or silhouetted against glowing sunsets. Palm trees, live oaks, and flowers bloom year-round. I thought I’d arrived in paradise.

Then I moved to Vermont, and I saw the story somewhat differently.

New York City is an example of humanity dominating nature. Almost nothing remains of the original Manhattan landscape, and people have landscaped any green that persists.

Vermont, on the other hand, is an example of nature subduing humanity: Try as we might, we can’t stop the snow from falling, the clay from being clay, the mosquitoes and ticks from existing, or the trees and rocks from popping out of the soil, so Vermonters are forced to live with some deference to the earth. Sure, there are houses and roads in Vermont, and people have altered the landscape for agriculture, but not many Vermonters would claim to be boss of the environment; that’s one thing that makes it hard to live in Vermont.

What’s fascinating about the San Francisco Bay Area is that it’s an active battleground, a place where humanity is doing its darndest to beat nature into submission – and where nature keeps fighting back. This region is home to approximately 7 million people, and it’s the infrastructure necessary to support those numbers that I see out the café window: multi-lane roads, the web of public transportation, wires and towers, houses built so close together that a person can barely stretch out between them.

There are also things I can’t see out the window, like the air. Ozone and particulate matter are closely monitored around the Bay Area. “Spare the Air” alerts are issued when unhealthy air quality is forecast; on these days, sensitive residents are advised to stay indoors, and burning wood is illegal. One in four children in Alameda County, where Berkeley is located, have been diagnosed with asthma, with the highest rates in areas closest to highways and ports.

Then there’s the water: California is in the fourth year of an extreme drought. The drought was caused by climate patterns, but it’s difficult to imagine that congestion hasn’t contributed to the crisis; the areas around Los Angeles and San Francisco have the highest population density in the nation. As University of Southern California history professor Kevin Starr told the New York Times, “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here.”

The Bay Area is subject to flooding, windstorms, wildfires, and landslides. Six major fault systems traverse the region, which sits under the sentence of an impending “Big One.” The United States Geological Survey places odds at 72% that the Bay Area will experience a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years, the results of which – given the area’s population density -- would be catastrophic.

Despite all this, the Bay Area continues to bloom. In Berkeley in late January the camellia bushes were bursting with color, every yard seemed to have a lemon tree laden with citrus, and we had to hurdle wild irises that insisted on blooming in the narrow dirt strip between the sidewalk and the curb where we park our car.

What I find intriguing is that the San Francisco Bay Area considers itself – and is considered by others – to be a pioneer in the “Green Movement.” Plastic shopping bags are banned here (bring your bag, or buy one.) Public restrooms are adorned with signs pointing out their eco-friendly fixtures and reminding us to conserve water. The Sierra Club was founded in Berkeley, and the East Bay has housed environmental luminaries like John Muir and David Brower. California Cuisine, emphasizing fresh, locally sourced ingredients, is largely attributed to Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. The tiny kitchen in our rental home contains four disposal bins: Berkeley, eco-conscious city that it is, requires trash to be sorted into compost, paper, metal and plastic, and the guilt inducing “landfill waste.”

These are all undeniably good things, but I remain troubled by the moral mathematics required to calculate the Bay Area’s environmental impact. To have 7 million recyclers crammed into a metropolitan area is certainly preferable to 7 million non-recyclers, but it seems a bit like bulldozing a forest to build a solar-powered building: Wouldn’t you rather keep the forest?

That’s impractical dreaming at this point. In any event, we all filter the facts to justify our lifestyles. One example: Down the street from our Berkeley rental home is a high-end wine store which has painted, on the side of its building, “Conserve Water. Drink Wine.”

It’s a catchy slogan, playing on the twin Berkeley loves of social consciousness and fine food and drink. It’s not meant to be taken seriously; it’s meant to sell wine. I smiled when I saw it, before pausing to consider the ethics of such a sales pitch during the fourth year of a drought, when it takes an average of 4.74 liters of water to produce one liter of wine.

Our human capacity to live in denial of potential disaster is on clear display in the Bay Area. We are flocking here in record numbers. We fill ten-lane highways with our cars. We culvert creeks around housing developments, and dump landfill into marshland to create towns. We build multi-million-dollar homes into the sides of steep hills. Whether this represents hope or hubris remains to be seen.

After all, this is the state that made the grizzly bear its state mammal 21 years after hunting the last California grizzly to extinction.

What have we done?

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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