Aren’t There Any Beautiful Things in Your Own Country?

by Melissa Matthewson

after Susan Sontag

In which she answered (1977): “Yes. No. Fewer.” 1
In which I answer (2018): “Yes. No. Also, fewer.”

I want to think there are/were beautiful things in the country I grew up: in the chaparral hills of California, at the border of two countries, where a line on the map draws a curtain between the US and Mexico.
If you go, you should take foot if you can, though horses could be adventurous, cars more likely.
Is it still there?
Yes.
But not for long.
When you arrive, take off into the hills with heart and fortitude.
Were you happy there?
Sometimes.
I lived for the auburn-haired boys who played baseball and came from the east, and the mountains. Nature as it was then.
Elm trees, pools, mini-malls, SUVs, pool parties, lawns, gates, driveways, subdivisions, coyotes, parkways and parks, rose bushes, duck ponds, bougainvillea, goldenrod, ponies, tar bubbles.
This spot. Santa Ana Mountains. Hills ablaze in light and heat. There were orange groves, until there weren’t.
Omens. The swimming pool, palm trees, and bonsai, all decoration born from water pilfered from the east. I wished for my backyard to be a place of sweet intimacy, without borders, if not to follow the horse trails down into the canyons away from uncomfortable taxonomies.  
Object Lessons. Boiled acorns. The last grizzly bear, Moccasin John, killed in 1908 (“It took three shots to kill the big chap.”). Matilija poppies. Red tile roofs. Tortillas and the women who pressed them. Willows and cottonwoods. A patio with brick. The shady corridor of fichus. Iron gates. Boys with sand in their hair. The sea.
Is it irreplaceable?
No. Yes.
None of which I knew back when I’d drive my jeep into Trabuco gulch, accompanied by all the dead gurus of my youth on the radio—window down, cigarette clipped between my fingers, freedom and desire the contours of my interior map. I imagined pulling over to the corner bar with the bikers and beards and rough women to sit on steel, drink beer, shred my jeans in the bushes out back when I peed, and hail my allegiance to the highway straight on to self-determination. But that was all dream and unlikely circumstance—Jerry Garcia and Holy Jim Canyon would have to do as springboards for experience and autonomy. Would have to do in shaping my ambitions, my desire.
Do you remember your home of beautiful things?
Some.
Picture Holy Jim and the Trabuco parts of southern California as it was before settlement—rabbit brush thorning in the crevices, sumac and buckwheat—all beautiful texture on the hillsides above an ocean that might save you one day, or drown you, the jackrabbits and coyotes humbling across the sand in expectation of hunger, through fire even. Maybe running away. Maybe running toward.
What will come of this place on the edge of nowhere, or the edge of somewhere?
A slow demise of climate and ecology. As fire, heat. Smoke. The juniper will be here after the landscape burns. And maybe the pines. Or the shrubs that return after fire—foothill yucca, bush poppy, mountain mahogany, artemisia—leaf tissue and blossom I collect for bouquets to give to my daughter who will take the foliage, inhale a scent of thirst, search for some kind of literacy of place, some sense of understanding, somewhere she can belong. She’ll want to know the stories of this California and what was before, myths from the chaparral, of dusty mountains with outlaws tucked away or wild children running into the hills of bush rue and sage, themes of danger and heartbreak and murder threaded into the landscape. She’ll want to hear them all, but most of all, she’ll whisper, “Mama, first, tell me of beauty.”
I know in my own country, there are beautiful things.
Can you take me there? What did you feel?
Yes. Here—
Contrast, or Incongruent. I shot BBs at aluminum cans in the canyons with just the ghost bugs and flies buzzing about pinching my skin. I was an American girl with a BB gun and a father drinking Coors laughing at my failed shots: “Shoot, Darlin’, Shoot!” I hunted butterflies and moths in the golden air. On occasion, I could be found in the ravines of the Trabuco pushed up against the southern California sprawl, hinting at wildness, but the din of the suburbs not too far away and that river making a dangerous route we could follow to the top, where one could look out to the Pacific, and say, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? That America. She’s beautiful.”

Notes

  1. Susan Sontag, from “Unguided Tour”