Californian frontier

Long gone are the days when we had barbarians at the gates. The Romans had taken on the tribes and pushed them beyond the limes, and fortified the frontier, but there was always that threat beyond. When they broke through the limes from the end of the third century onwards the sense of fear and threat must have been palpable. Fast forwarding one thousand years the border between Christian and Slav, in what is now modern Germany, was for centuries a battleground, with death or slavery the penalty for defeat.

Such is the nature of frontiers, and death was an ever-present reality as settlers pushed the way west beyond the Mississippi in nineteenth-century America. California was the final frontier, but untypically it was a land without threat, from sea or land. The Spanish missions had deprived the indigenous Indians of their lands, and once the Mexicans had been expelled the way was open, with the high Rockies the last barrier, the California dream beyond.


California was the ‘golden land’ in American mythology. Joan Didion refers to a Faulkner short story of that name in her memoir, Where I Was From. How did the dream progress? First came gold, then the railway, then the land was parcelled out, and bought and sold, great landholdings accumulated, which in turn were sold off. The Sacramento valley was a swamp, 150 years on it is agribusiness taken to its furthest degree, with big dams ensuring the rivers always behave. It’s only 150 years since settlers were losing wagons and lives trying to beat the winter over the passes. Most lived and told the tale, the experience seared on memory, but many didn’t.

In Didion’s words by the 1880s Californians ‘had already sold half the state to the Southern Pacific [railroad] and [were] in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government’. She continues to chart a reality that never lives up to the high promise of the California dream. Such is the dysfunction of the modern Californian state I wonder if they’d be emigrating if there was anywhere left to go to. Instead they turn in themselves and protect what they have, building new prisons, cutting taxes so the state can’t fulfil its obligations, and showing the same paranoia toward immigrants as other southern states.

Silicon valley opened up a different frontier for California, entrepreneurs creating a reality quite different from the aerospace and agribusinesses that had underpinned the California economy for many decades. But the rest of the world, first Seattle, now New York and London, India, China, Singapore, is answering back with huge hi-tech investment. So that frontier looks dodgy too.


How quickly frontiers turn from opportunities into places to defend. We talk now of liminal experience, but we’re looking for challenges from a position of comfort, we’re frightened of the old frontier mentality. We like talk of being at the edge, but we want to be safe. In earlier times that wasn’t an option.

Where will the new barbarians come from?

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