I’ve been traveling in California for the past week, on a research pilgrimage for the carbon book. To say this has been an incongruous task would be big understatement. No state in the nation burns up more carbon, in the form of fossil fuel, and I admit to contributing my share, both on this trip and during a previous life as a graduate student at UCLA. The incongruity doesn’t wait to hit you in the face either – as soon as I exited the airport in my rental car, slipping onto the Camino Real – or Royal Road – I became mired in a traffic jam.

Welcome to the Golden State.

Still, California is a leader on the carbon front, more so than any other state I can think of, except for Vermont. On the renewable energy front, of course, California – thanks to its high tech industries – has been a leader for quite a while. I’m not here, however, to explore ‘green’ energy or any important technological breakthroughs. The only green energy I seek is the million-year old, low-tech variety: photosynthesis. I wanted to see black too – as in black soil.

What I saw initially, however, was a lot of brown – as in dry country. I had been warned that California was suffering from a terrible drought and from the appearance of its lovely hills and valleys, despite a recent storm, it looked it. California gets most of its precipitation in the winter, which means it grows its grass in the spring, before going dormant, largely, for the summer. This winter’s storms had been sparse, causing a fair amount of hand-wringing throughout the state. If the drought persisted, trouble loomed. The culprit was La Nina, I was told. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation baked under record-breaking heat. The real culprit, of course, is climate change, but no one wants to acknowledge that.

Weary of the long drive, and the endless stream of SUVs on the highway, I detoured to La Purisima Mission, near Lompoc, now a state park. Built in the early 1800s, when Spain still ruled these lands, the original mission was destroyed in 1812 by a strong earthquake, which the priests told the resident Chumash Indians was a sign of God’s displeasure. So they rebuilt the mission (and designed it to withstand the next earthquake!) and carried on until the Mexican Revolution turned everything upside down in 1823.

I parked the car in the relatively empty lot, grabbed my camera, and wandered the lovely grounds for an hour or so. The park is divinely serene – a much needed respite from the helter-skelter world that surrounds it. The only evidence I could detect of the outside world was a steady stream of joggers and hikers on a nearby trail, who seemed just as oblivious to the mission’s presence as any SUV. That was alright, it meant more serenity for me.

It was a relief in other ways to wander through the mission ground. I didn’t need to think about the Big Picture for a while, for example. Back in 1820, of course, the cares of the 21st century were a million years away. Carbon was something you used to cook your food, or warm yourself by. Nothing more – and nothing more was necessary. The mission was self-sufficient, self-contained, and humble before God. We could some of that humility today….

Are these mission donkeys upset about climate change, or do they just want another carrot?

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