Maybe you remember Elliot Rodger. He committed a mass shooting in Santa Barbara in twenty fourteen. Before heading out the door that evening, he emailed his parents a 141-page statement about his life, all of whose pages I have read more than once. I read it when the newspeople put it online (which they did very promptly)—Rodger and I had lived in the same neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and must have visited the same shops and walked the same routes. On some day before the spring of 2014, we must have sat in the same Barnes and Noble at the same time. I lived in San Francisco in the spring of 2014 and I was very cold and tired, and I wanted to go home to the south.
I read Rodger’s statement again this November when a man committed a mass shooting near here. These days I live in the Valley. Rodger refers to places I see each week and a land I am surrounded by. Let me tell you about this land, in November, in twenty eighteen.
November has the Santa Ana winds. They are hot and dry. You’ve read about them. This year they come in the night. I am awake in Woodland Hills when they arrive. Woodland Hills and Calabasas are side-by-side in the Valley below the Santa Monica mountains. In the night the mountains are silent and black and heaving with sage and lemon sage and other wild herbs. Distant homes stand in light on the far hills like the Northern Corona (clear as a bracelet from Calabasas where you and I stand now).
Look at the soft immense curtain of the Santa Monicas. Inside it, there is a canyon called Topanga which leads to the Pacific Coast Highway and the water. At night Topanga is a cold alley. The library is black under its folkloric eaves. The cantilvered homes are black and their rubbish, their discarded kayaks, dented paper lanterns, knotted strings of Tibetan flags, red and blue and yellow but black in the dark, shape themseves around the deep feet of the houses’ stilts. Rubbish growing in shapes with the hairlike roots of the white alder and the breathing sagebrush.
The Santa Ana winds are pushing through all of this like surf.
The Top o’ Topanga Overlook is a slant into the lids of green mountain trees and, beyond, the bright system of lights of the Valley. People go here after dark to have sex or to see the stars. Raccoons climb straight up the torsos of the live oaks to emerge suddenly from the manzanita blossoms and terrify.
Some years ago I jogged each night in Calabasas, up and down the hills. The sprinklers screamed on and lit my legs. Houses expelled their dryers’ steam. On the tops of hills the whole sky doubled and touched me, closed over me like a sheet when I was a child and my parents would make the bed over me. Coyotes chanted.
Dry at night in Calabasas. The smell of rocks in the desert. The homes’ skylights glow from inside. The pine’s hot trunk at the foot of the hill—pine above me like a kind silent god, immediate father of sheep and weird knowledge. A father who births sheep and letters.
In the day in November in the Valley the Anas grab the orange trees in the gardens beside the pools. The scent of the orange trees is in your head, as far back as your sinuses. Come down my old neighborhood to the grocery and the houses on Mulholland—the foothills haired like boars or yellow horses. This is the border between Calabasas, where there is money, and Woodland Hills, where there is less. Look up there. The gigantic tarps hanging from the houses on the cliffs. Construction was stopped in 2008. Ozymandian tarps, rolling blue in the airs.
The front yards of the ranch houses of Woodland Hills—the gradiant birds-of-paradise flowers and the two billion hummingbirds and the cereus cacti standing on the high shoulder between roads. In November some bougainvillea remain on the branch and some are dry on the ground, still very pink. The dry bougainvillea jump in the Anas, and the white petals from the blooming trees too and the purple twists from the jacarandas and the toasted pink roses and the green leaves the gardeners cut.
The sidewalks are not so accessible in Southern California. The city planners did not expect you or I or Elliot Rodger to travel on foot. Some hills break off in rocks and dust, and below the sheer hillsides and jutting prickly pear there are white blocks of stone the size of legs in the center of the path, there as if they’ve never been elsewhere. Go toward Ventura, the main street of the Valley. The palm trees glitter like car-dealer bunting in the winds.
The land is calico with autumn. The gingko is green and yellow. CVS, Coffee Bean, sex shop, brow threading. Lizards teleport onto the sidewalk as you walk. Huge banks of lavender. Lantana and butterfly weed. Wind goes up the cypresses. Diamond-cut grit all the way from the Mojave sinks into the corner of your eye.
The flashing egg-shaped leaves of the olive trees. The children deep down in the field at Taft, below the road. The girl-eye of the hawk. The meat-red skins of the palms drop into traffic. The blue-gum eucalyptuses are peeling, too; their bark is sliding down amid the fennel on the angled verge beside surface streets like men on ice.
Shadows swell around the stones of the San Gabriel hills and you are surprised that the evening has come so early. In the heat you had forgotten it is November.
I read Rodger’s henlike account of his life this November and then the wildfires start. Taft fills up with fire refugees. The college in Woodland Hills shelters the horses from Topanga. Calabasas evacuates. I wipe the green matter from the windowsills and it smears black. At Starbucks a woman moves the dust mask from her mouth and tells us that road signs on the 101 are twisted and the power lines are down.
Burned trees look strange in the months post-fire. They have the shape of trees without leaves, but they are absolutely black. You can drive through them in the hundreds before you recognize what it is you are driving amongst. They look like winter trees, and it is January; even in Southern California, some trees are bare before springtime. It is only that they are so black. There is new chapparal on the ground around them, a roll of chapparal like the wave which passes over a mammal’s fur in a breeze or stretch. It rains generously this January, and the garbage cans are knocked down the flooding streets, and the winter jasmine blossoms.