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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Literary Accounts Offer Different Perspectives on Malibu

• Persistent Myths Can Be Perpetuated Even in Works Purported to Be Non-Fiction

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN


Malibu’s history can be hard to divine. While the seaside community’s fictional glamour is a popular element of movies and fiction, one sometimes has to search hard for realistic-and authentic-depictions of Malibu not only in films and fiction but sometimes even in the realms of supposed non-fiction.
Author Peter Theroux, who wrote an acclaimed 1995 account of the cultures and communities that make up the greater Los Angeles area called “Translating LA,” apparently didn’t spend much time in Malibu. He dismisses Point Dume as “a small prominence of land sheltering a Marine station” during a surfing excursion with a friend.
Theroux seems to have been under the impression that the Point was still a U.S. Army outpost as it was during War War II, or he may have mistaken the Los Angeles County Lifeguard headquarters at Zuma Beach for a “marine station,” either way, the area doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.
Mike Davis has much more to say about Malibu, although little of it kind, in his 1998 book “The Ecology of Fear,” which includes a section titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.”
Davis, infamous for what has often been described as inflammatory hyperbole and for a tendency to stretch the truth (a well-known critic once described the author as “right about what the forest looks like, but not consistently reliable in describing the trees”) gleefully promulgates the all-Malibu-residents-are-rich-and-irresponsible stereotype.
Readers willing to look past the incendiary rhetoric will find that Davis provides a succinct and entertaining, if questionably accurate, history of Malibu and a wealth of fire-related statistics, including a list of Malibu wildfires from 1930-96, a discussion of the mechanics that drive local wildfires, and an acerbic denouncement of irresponsible development in the urban-wildland interface of the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Stand at the mouth of Malibu Canyon...for any length of time and you will eventually face the flames,” writes Davis. “It’s a statistical certainty...From the time of the Tapias, the owners of Rancho Malibu have recognized that the region’s extraordinary fire hazard was shaped in large part, by the uncanny alignment of the coastal canyons with the annual ‘fire winds’ from the north; the notorious Santa Anas.”
Davis originates one of the most pervasive Malibu fire myths, the claim that in “Two Years Before the Mast,” Richard Henry Dana describes seeing Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit engulfed in “a vast blaze” as his ship sails from San Pedro to Santa Barbara in 1826.
What Dana actually wrote concerning wildfire is not an eyewitness account and pertains to Santa Barbara, not Malibu: “The fire was described to me by an inhabitant as having been a very terrible and magnificent sight,” Dana wrote, describing Santa Barbara’s fire-scoured hills. “The air of the whole valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach.”
Davis repeatedly quotes an author named John Russell McCarthy in “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” describing him as a “real estate clairvoyant” who predicted overdevelopment in Malibu.
“These Waiting Hills,” McCarthy’s 1925 book detailing his predictions for Malibu's future, turns out to be surprisingly whimsical and poetic, written by an author who finds “a lasting delight [in the Santa Monica Mountains] and would like to share that delight with others so minded.”
McCarthy does predict that “Homes, of course, will rise here in the thousands. Many a peak, perhaps, will have its castle. Far back from every road, on crest, slope and canyon rim, homes will rise on green estates...Lawns will displace toyon and sumac...”
McCarthy also makes a plea for preservation. “These changes the hand of man will effect in the Santa Monicas, but the essentials-height, outlook, sun and sea will remain,” wrote McCarthy. “Wide slopes of chaparral will remain...gardens of sage will still invite bees. Deer will still feed... squirrel and coyote and hare will follow their ancient custom by day and night. Here in the midst of beauty old and new, people from all over the world will come to live, bringing with them the best thought and custom that their old communities provided. Is it altogether vain to think that, given such people and such a place, a new and better kind of community will arise?”
At that point, however, McCarthy’s prognostication goes slightly astray:
“The airplane will soon become common; may easily predominate within a few years,” he writes, envisioning a time when “green landing fields will checker the summits. Hangers will hide under green vines and trees. Sedate businessmen will ride in five minutes from their hilltop homes to their city offices. Mother will take the kids for a spin before breakfast, out over Russell Valley and down by the sea at Malibu. The family blimp, even, will not be a stranger to these hills.”
Malibuites may not be blessed with personal dirigibles, and “every old tree, sycamore, or oak, or walnut” has not been preserved as McCarthy hoped they would be, but the mountains don’t have the “miles of wide roads” with signs telling of ‘Punk’s Garters’ or ‘Silly Corsets’” that he feared.
And while Davis was correct when he wrote in 1998 that fire would again burn Malibu, the community “where hyperbole meets the sea,” continues to “bask” under blue skies, taking a break from“the relentless staccato rhythm of fire, syncopated by landslides and floods.” At least, for now.

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