Joan Didion is a leading literary incisionist. In “Where I Was From, ” Didion dissects the psyches of some early emigrants who made their way across the United States to California amidst wretched conditions to, in time, distinguish ranching as an iconic part of the American West. Didion speaks intimately and authoritatively on the progression, quoting from the annals of her own ancestors, and having herself been raised on a California ranch. She leads us on a trajectory which exposes the contradictions between the emigrants’ dreams and reality, as well as the absurdities of some of the choices that California settlers made with regard to environmental perils. Yet, she acknowledges, it was not these which ultimately resulted in the demise of many of California’s great ranches.
“Where I Was From” documents extensively the eventual sales by prominent California ranchers of their (by then) burgeoning heritage and estates to developers. According to Didion, although regrettable, that resolution is not entirely a surprise. Her early dissections revealed that the emigrants had tendencies–seemingly passed on to future generations–to renounce what is known in the drive to push forward to what is next.
Here is an excerpt from “Where I Was From.” It seems particularly poignant in juxtaposition to this photograph of a high Sierra ranch my husband and I came across on a recent drive:
That first…ranch in Florin, enlarged after a few years from 360 to 640 acres, was into my adult life still owned by my family… Occasionally, late at night, my father and brother and I would talk about buying out the interests of our cousins in what we still called the hill ranch (there was no actual “hill” but there was on the original acreage a rise of about a foot), a move that would have pleased them since most of them wanted to sell it. I was never able to ascertain whether my father’s interest in this particular ranch was in any way sentimental; he spoke of it only as a cold property in the short run but a hot one in the long. My mother had no interest in keeping the hill ranch, or in fact any California land: California, she said, was now too regulated, too taxed, too expensive. She spoke enthusiastically, on the other hand, about moving to the Australian outback.