Dreams & Ashes
“I am building my dream-house on my dream-ranch. My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years.” – Jack London
Perhaps you’ve visited the ruins of Jack London’s “Wolf House” — now a state park and museum, and one of many hidden treasures of Sonoma, California. Here, amid the Redwoods of the so-called Valley of the Moon, the iconic American author once dreamed of establishing his enduring estate.
Like the owners of the Titanic, who failed to provision the vessel with life rafts, London was so confident in his forest castle that he didn’t take a fire insurance policy. In 1913, just one year after the sinking of the unsinkable, and just before its completion, the unshakeable Wolf House went up in flames. London lay catatonic for days after — just staring at the ceiling — his dream-house in ashes. Thus, the man who once exclaimed, “I would rather be ashes than dust,” became the prophet of his own demise.
For some, London is both literary inspiration and a role model of a life lived in full. To others he is a cautionary tale. There can be no disagreement, however, about his quintessential Californiality – that mixture of vitality, dynamism, and borderline degeneracy that makes every Californian both famous and infamous everywhere we go. The Dionysian spirit that launched London’s death spiral still animates much of California’s energetic march toward the future. We lead the nation (perhaps the world) in technology, entertainment, and tourism, but also forest fires, drought, and homelessness.
The tragedy of London’s life and death was not in the grandeur of his dreams, but the failure to live up to them. The real tragedy of Wolf House was what came before the fire. London horsed around, LARPing as a padron by paying his ranchhands in gold from a pouch on his saddle. When sailing to the South Pacific, London brought a cook and other staff to do the dirty work, while he drank himself into a stupor. His mental acuity brought him wealth and literary fame, but the flesh-and-blood writer did not stack up well against his vicarious characters.
In his semi-autobiographical novel, The Little Lady of the Big House, London projected himself onto his protagonist, Dick Forrest, who implemented a modern, scientific system of farming and ranching the lush Sonoma soil. The late great state librarian Kevin Starr contrasted the fictional Dick — tall, blond and muscular — with the real-life Jack: “Overweight, tortured with cramps, dropsy, and dyspepsia.”
Upon returning prematurely from his sailing adventure due to ‘South Seas Sickness,’ London was eager to restore his health through vigorous labor in the country – wine country, to be specific. But in the end, the grapes got the best of him, and his inability to honestly confront his vices led to his slow, painful, death from alcoholism.
This tragic story (missing from London’s modern hagiographies) ought to cause Californians to reflect on how our collective dreams might still be realized by future generations when our darker impulses seem so bent on burning them to the ground. Though our natural landscape is unparalleled, our political institutions have been weighed and found wanting. Some have even posited that our quality of governance might sink to the minimum tolerable level, to negatively compensate for the weather and nature’s splendor. The only factor stopping overpopulation in California is the dysfunction of our leadership. From trains to nowhere and crony carbon credits to punitive taxes and micromanagement of industry, our state lacks bold yet practical ideas for burnishing its tarnished red-brown star. We can still clean up our act and lead the country in genuine acts of progress, but not without a shift in mindset borne of a rediscovery of California’s founding ideals.
When the westward push toward the frontier was abruptly stopped on the Pacific shores, something of America’s pioneering energy was bottled up. Our state is a pressure cooker of creativity, but the release valves have been steadily clogging up. Compressed for decades, that energy has congealed. Only part of the problem lies in red tape, regulation, and government dysfunction, however. Perhaps Californians have become spoiled — too jaded and laid back to realize that we, like Jacob’s brother Esau, have squandered our patrimony for a bowl of tofu and organic lentils.
Few Californians today learn the story of Jedediah Smith – the first pioneer to make the overland trip to California – who braved on horseback, before dying alone at the hands of violent Comanche.
Richard Henry Dana, the Harvard Man who renounced his comfortable New England life to spend “Two Years Before the Mast,” sailing twice around the horn, is a mere footnote in most school curriculums. Nor do children learn of the real John Muir – the rugged nature mystic whose first summer in the Sierras was spent shepherding wooly, unwieldy beasts through mountain passes filled with bears and insects.
The left-coast environmental movement is one prominent manifestation of congealed dynamism, which results from an absence of frontier. Modern environmentalism takes sensible goals of preservation, regeneration, and expansion of natural bounty and shunts them into the small-minded notions of sustainable development, central planning, and wasteful greenwashing.
Silicon Valley is another prime example of a frontier mindset gone sour. Once a movement of garage-tinkerers, builders, and radical individualists, today’s tech world has morphed. The computer and its once-wild internet ecosystem have been squeezed into a walled garden, overseen by industrial monoliths that are enslaved to the dictates of the woke mob. The dreams of a truly Global Village and Free Web have been incinerated, and now lay in the ash heap of Twitter and Google’s Stasi-like censorship practices.
Once known for our surfing and skateboarding countercultures, California went as far as completely closing off the last westward frontier – locking down beaches during COVID — and using earth-moving machines to fill skate parks with sand. As if this wasn’t enough of a bummer, most of today’s skater dudes would probably insist that wearing face coverings at the park is, in fact, Punk Rock™.
Finally, our public education system, once the envy of the rest of the country, has become a hub of indoctrination, which only occasionally deigns to offer its heavy-handed instruction to students in person. When they do come to work, unionized teachers are not burdened with the same vaccine and mask mandates imposed on their students. Meanwhile, we have the lowest literacy rates in the nation, and childhood obesity is skyrocketing as schools cut P.E. requirements and cancel recess.
Are we destined to become a state of fat, stupid adults? Where can we look for some sign of hope? Certainly not to an uninspired environmental movement, a stagnant political monoculture, a tech industry captured by globalist elites, or a counterculture that has become safely ensconced within a controlling corporate media narrative.
For many months, I’ve pondered committing a dreadful sin: starting a podcast. And not just any podcast, but another damned political podcast.
However, the better Angels of my nature have prevailed, and shown me a 10-point outline for an Audiotorial Exhortation to the people of California – to be syndicated through the usual feeds (YouTube, Apple Podcasts, etc.) – which will leave politics and partisanship alone, in favor of spoken-word blueprints for tackling California’s most pressing problems. The hypothesis I will be exploring is that our problem was never the California Dream itself, but rather the inability, or more accurately the unwillingness, to follow through on those glimmering hopes with a robust plan of action.
I’m still deciding on a title, but the themes will include:
- Dreaming bigger – reviving the California Dream.
- Water — managing the states’ most precious resource.
- Fire/Land management — novel strategies for mitigating man-made disaster.
- Ecology/Decentralized Green New Deal — utilizing cost-effective renewables in a distributed grid.
- The Unhoused — alleviating misery and cleaning up our streets.
- Health — identifying the best (and worst) of California’s health craze.
- Self-governance — charter schools and charter cities are just the tip of the iceberg for the future of reclaiming basic governing functions.
- Immigration — Could California benefit from “naturalizing” state residents?
- Watersports — how sailing, surfing, kayaking, and windsurfing can make California’s physical culture great again.
- Coastal Development — Can near-shore seasteading bring back a large-scale manufacturing base to California?
It’s time for California to begin building its dream-house on its dream-ranch. We have all the resources we need to usher in an era of prosperity, which God willing, will last for a millenium.
“I would rather be ashes than dust.
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.” – Jack London