Earth, Water Air and Fire: Southern California’s Primordial Elements

A visitor to California in the 1890s described it as the “Land which the Almighty has crystallized with a smile.”  It was a land of dreams fulfilled.  Today, while that image still persists, we are also likely to associate Southern California with fires, mudslides, earthquakes, racial tensions, and violence.  How do we make sense of these conflicting images?

Clarence Glacken, in his classic work Traces on the Rhodian Shore, describes how ancient Greek philosophers’ perceived the world as a balance among fundamental elements.  Everything has its counterpart and through this, order and balance exist. The interaction of the opposites—the coldness of air or mist and the heat of fire, the dryness of the earth and the wetness of water provide the structure out of which order in the world exists.  Empedocles identified the four essential elements at work—earth, water, air, and fire—as the substances on which love as the unifying and hate as divisive—react.  These four elements were also associated with the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) and associated temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic) of humans.  The balance among humanity was seen as but one part of larger oppositional forces in nature.

I’ve been contemplating this framework for thinking about Southern California.  After all, the ancient Greek classical elements—earth, water, air, and fire—both shape and disrupt this idealized land.  Forces are at work that create a landscape both attractive and dangerous.  Yet, in many cases, humanity acts only with an understanding of the attractiveness without the balancing force of understanding the danger.

Earth and Water.  California’s coastal landscape is shaped by tectonic forces which continue to shake the earth and gradually cause the coastal land to rise in elevation while ocean forces act to create wave-cut platforms which eventually rise above the forces of the water but whose dramatic coastal morphology reflects its geologic history.

Likewise, the tectonic forces have left California with a narrow continental shelf, sometimes less than a mile, causing ocean waves to quickly move from deep ocean to shore, creating the crashing waves that make it a great environment for surfing. These same forces unleash themselves in earthquakes where the energy of the earth’s movement leads to liquefaction where unconsolidated sediment flows like water.

Water and Air.  Glacken is not surprised that the Greeks developed a sense of balance around these particular elements.  Greece and Southern California both have a Mediterranean climate where hot is associated with dry and cold is associated with moist.  Mediterranean climate regions are found globally at approximately 35-40 degrees of latitude, on continental west coasts.  This unique climate is characterized by summers with the high air pressure associated with desert climates—hot and dry. Winters bring westerly winds off the oceans and a rainy season—cool and moist.

Air and Fire.  The summer landscape in Southern California is dry and parched.  Santa Ana winds, strong winds that blow from the dry inland deserts from the east during this dry season, adding to the drying out of the landscape.  At the end of the summer, fires break out and move through the hills, fueled by the dry vegetation and intensified in the presence of Santa Ana winds.

Fire and Earth.  Fires, having burned off much of the vegetation, leave little to hold the soil in place when the rains arrive.  The rains of the winter become the force that leads to mudslides and the slumping of hillsides.  Dry river beds are transformed into massive streams laden with debris. John McPhee, in his book, The Control of Nature, describes the massive structures in the hills around Los Angeles that are built to capture this debris in attempts to avert disasters.

Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Elements that create beauty as they act together, and danger when humans fail to balance their optimistic temperament with humility.