From the perspective of Dust Bowl Oklahoma, California looked like Eden. Woody Guthrie bore witness.
He would describe the town of his birth, Okemah, as a “shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest” place. And he, like many Oklahomans caught in 1930s dust storms, believed California to be a paradise.
Eventually, Guthrie’s songs would reflect some of the inhospitable treatment that Dust Bowl refugees experienced in California. Granted, daily existence there would not leave airborne grit in your teeth. But the harshness of the times stood as great in one place as the other.
These days, California looks more like a vision of Dante than an idyll of dispirited plainsmen.
News footage brings scenes of flames lapping up acreage in areas around Los Angeles, in the southern reaches of the state, and much farther north, around the wine country.
Winds that have gusted above 100 mph drive the fires across dry grounds, and valiant firefighters have little chance of catching the inferno.
Taking note of previous fires, in which downed electrical wires have provided the spark for new blazes, the mammoth power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, has shut off the juice, leaving nearly 1 million homes and businesses, or roughly 2.5 million people, without electricity.
The California governor has declared a state of emergency. If there were a more severe designation, he might declare that, too.
Let me plead guilty to this. Whenever we, in St. Joseph, get a truly glorious day, sunny and in the mid-70s and low humidity, I will praise it this way: “Must be like this every day in California.”
And my thinking has all the nuance of a Depression-era Okie.
Sure, California has beautiful weather much of the time, deck-sitting days as the Midwest shivers, but it has extremes in conditions that lead to wildfires and mudslides. That doesn’t even count the fault line that runs below much of the state and threatens the “Big One” at any moment.
Our town has been abuzz with talk of the season’s first snow, or its possibility. This speculation portends an adjustment in plans and schedules, potential cancellations and slippery driving. If snow comes in October, folks wonder, what does that mean for the length of our winter?
Weather always leans in as a personal concern. When people see an immediate effect, they take an immediate interest. Snow gets attention because of the sureness of its disruption.
That said, we brace for the occasional snow, knowing it will depart in its own time. Less certain came the flooding to Northwest Missouri this year, the Missouri River rising, laying waste to levees and the ground behind them and then, unlike deluges of the past, just staying around.
The river at St. Joseph on Monday remained above flood stage, as it has been almost all of 2019. Even the summer, a usual season for lower levels, found the Missouri a bit tipsy.
If this is the new normal, no one wants a part of it.
Hereabouts, tornadoes put us on infrequent alert, as do ice storms and grass fires and flash floods. Missourians get their share, and they endure. Folks here have no hurricanes, no tsunamis, no red tides. Leave that for others.
Is anywhere safe? Lists put Michigan at the top in matters of avoiding natural disasters, a land of low risk when it comes to tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes. Minnesota, Illinois and Vermont follow.
All these states have snow, plenty of it, and they get by. California dreamin’ may be real for them, and for many, but not in the season of wind.