LARB Channels larb blog past california

Futures Past

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Today’s post was originally published on LARB Channel Boom, which describes it as “exploring California landscapes with the San Francisco Estuary Institute.”

By Erin Beller, Ruth Askevold, and Robin Grossinger

Heading home from a successful duck hunting trip near the Sacramento River one rainy winter evening around 1850, William Wright got hopelessly lost in a muddy maze of ice-covered tules. Navigating in the pitch dark only by the direction of the wind and sleet, he trudged through a series of cold, waist-deep lakes, falling into beaver holes full of icy water. Disoriented, soaked, cold, and hungry—and lugging dozens of duck and goose carcasses—he and his companion gave up for the evening. They set up camp, making a dinner of raw goose meat and a bed of tules and goose wings—”the worst camp I ever made in my life,” Wright wrote.

At the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Center for Resilient Landscapes, we use accounts like Wright’s to discover California as it was before the rapid and often profound transformations of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our ecological detective work synthesizes clues found in naturalists’ field notebooks and surveyors’ sketches; diary entries by Spanish explorers, Forty-Niners, and farmers’ wives; and photographs of camping trips and family picnics, to name a few of the colorful and idiosyncratic sources left behind by previous generations of writers and artists, scientists and surveyors, residents, and travelers. These early observations allow us to reconstruct past ecological patterns and create detailed maps of long-gone landscapes across the state. They let us visualize change through time, providing a spatially explicit view of how prior generations of Californians shaped their landscapes into the ones we have inherited and continue to reshape today. Continue reading


Reviews larb blog caldwell

A Wellness Memoir: Suzanne Koven on Gail Caldwell’s New Life, No Instructions

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By Suzanne Koven

In 2005, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History mounted an exhibit titled “Whatever Happened to Polio?” The Salk vaccine, first available in 1955, all but eradicated the virus which killed thousands of Americans and paralyzed many more — most famously, Franklin D. Roosevelt — during the first half of the 20th century. “All but” is significant, though, as the exhibit highlighted. Despite the introduction in 1963 of the Sabin oral vaccine, making it easy and cheap to immunize large populations, there are still a few hundred cases of the disease each year, primarily in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, most recently, Syria. Global health experts fear that war, mass movement of refugees across borders, and prohibition of vaccination by extremist regimes could cause a renewed spread of polio in the twenty-first century. Continue reading


Essays larb blog santa barbara 2

Literary Santa Barbara: A Travel Piece

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By Jerry Griswold

While the movie “Sideways” presented Santa Barbara as the regional capitol of mid-life wine tasting, it has also been a place where writers have come and set up shop for over 150 years. These have included Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Wallace Stegner, Kenneth Rexroth, Randall Jarrell, T.C. Boyle, John Sayles, Gretel Erlich, and many others.

Writers have also written about the place. One of the first was Kate Douglas Wiggin (best known for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) who found Santa Barbara a “tropical revelation” after moving from snowy Maine. Among the more recent is Pico Iyer, travel writer and sometime resident of the city, who described Santa Barbara as “softer than L.A. but harder than Santa Cruz.” Continue reading


LARB Channels larb blog mulholland drive

Grief, Investigation, and Mulholland Dr.

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Today’s post was originally published on LARB Channel Avidly.

By Lisa Beskin

month or so after my mother’s death in 2001, I found myself in an awkward situation involving David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. I had just seen it in the theater, loved it, and desperately wanted to talk about it with a certain friend. But I hadn’t yet told him my terrible news, and because my mother had committed suicide, it couldn’t be told quickly or summarily. Every time I told someone what had happened, I flinched for both of us. It just wouldn’t do to call him up and chip, “There’s been a tragedy, but guess what? I went to the movies and saw Mulholland Dr.!” This little dilemma was the love-child of survivor guilt and Miss Manners. Eventually I settled on emailing my friend about my mom and telephoning a couple of days later. I was learning that this new, strange life had room for grief and pleasure both—and ways to live with that excruciating truth. Continue reading


The China Blog larb blog china ally

China’s Forgotten World War II: A Q&A with Rana Mitter

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As my last China Blog column was on China’s forgotten World War I, I decided that an examination of the country’s involvement in World War II would make for a logical follow-up post. There’s no one better to discuss this topic than Oxford historian Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945, newly out in paperback. In this sweeping but highly readable history, Mitter traces the story of China’s eight-year battle against the Japanese—a conflict that continues to resonate in Sino-Japanese relations today, yet which has been largely forgotten on the global stage. I sent a few questions to Mitter, who responded by email. Continue reading


LARB Channels larb blog muir

John Muir, A Century On

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Today’s post is from LARB Channel Boom.

Photo: Tree in Field, 2006, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

By Glen M. MacDonald

John Muir, the grand old man of the Sierra Nevada, died 100 years ago in a Los Angeles hospital bed with only an unfinished book manuscript for company.¹ He was seventy-six years old. In the final year of his life he had been stung by betrayal, losing the fight of his life: his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite would soon be dammed to serve the water and power demands of a booming San Francisco.² Yet, here he was, still proselytizing—from his deathbed—on the wonders of nature.

A century later, is anyone still listening? Continue reading


LARB Channels larb blog learning to read at 17

Learning to Read at Seventeen

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Today’s post was originally published earlier this week by LARB Channel Avidly.

By James McWilliams

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed that people don’t strive to be what they already are. It’s an elegantly obvious point, but it’s also terrifying in its implications. After all, for the “aspiring self,” the ambition to be something else—someone else—reveals that life is marked by a yawning void. That is: life hurts. I suspect nobody intuitively grasps this reality better than an adolescent. It makes you wonder: how do these tender creatures ever survive? Continue reading

LARB Channels larb blog wu-wei

The Paradox of Wu-Wei

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Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel Marginalia

By Andrew B. Irvine

Almost all the arts of life are enhanced when performed with unselfconscious spontaneity — think shooting hoops, playing a complicated musical passage, dining with friends. The moment we try not to try is often the moment performance collapses in a counterproductive muddle. This “paradox of wu-wei,” as Edward Slingerland calls it, can be explained as the goal of trying not to try. This ambitious book reprises much of the author’s previous work on classical Chinese philosophical cultivation of wu-wei (see his 2003 book, Effortless action) and broadens the scope of his previous engagement with cognitive science, particularly notions of embodied mind. Slingerland seeks to address a popular audience that is both fascinated and frustrated by the paradox of wu-wei, and thus far the book has received good press herehere, and here. Continue reading


The China Blog larb blog chinese nostalgia

Blasts from the Past: Chinese Nostalgia for the 1980s in the Era of Xi Jinping

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Photo: Scene from American Dreams in China

By Austin Dean

In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, a linguist and Academic Director of Beijing’s CET study abroad program who is one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conversation with a friend. He asked his Chinese classmate which word best summed up the 1980s in Beijing. The classmate, without hesitation, responded: romantic. As Moser reflected on his days exploring Beijing and studying Chinese, showing pictures of his old bicycle and mounds of cabbage piled high in preparation for winter, he decided his classmate was correct. For the duration of Moser’s speech, the next speaker, Shi Yigong, who is now a professor at Tsinghua University and was a student at the institution from 1985 to 1989, smiled and nodded his head. Moser was right. Continue reading


Essays larb blog patrick mclaw

Letter to the Dorchester County Board of Education, Regarding Patrick McLaw

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Photo: Patrick McLaw

Editor’s Note: Patrick McLaw, a language arts teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Maryland, was recently placed on administrative leave from teaching after it was discovered that he had published two novels. One of the novels, “The Insurrectionist”, is about two school shootings and takes place far into the future. McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation and the police swept the school for bombs and guns, coming up empty.

We have the privilege of publishing here a letter from Nalo Hopkinson, a professor at UC Riverside and a science fiction author, to the Dorchester County Board of Education.  Continue reading