When I first arrived in Napa Valley in the early eighties it seemed the closest practicable approach to an ideal rural America: a place naturally endowed beyond even California’s capabilities, an overall stunningly beautiful landscape of which farming was an integral part, a population largely devoted to the unlikely dream of international renown, a sense of welcome and mutual assistance, a democratic ambience within which rich and less than rich mixed in meaningful ways, dedication to the belief that agriculture was the best and highest use of the land, and for the most part sound laws and legislators acting in the general interest.
As the legendary Jim Hickey, the Planning Director of Napa County, always said, “If Napa can’t be saved, no place can.” He meant that it had the beauty, brains, money, and seeming determination to endure as a latter-day Eden in the churn of California’s and America’s on-going political experiment.
When I left Napa last fall, after thirty-odd years and two books and a third underway about what has happened there and what has been made of the valley’s phenomenal success, the place had lost its Edenic quality and it and wine all vestiges of innocence.
Today monoculture’s marshaled ranks march from the bay to Mount St. Helena, and the gorgeous hillsides bear new scars of development that barely hints at the amount of destruction higher up, eventually to be revealed. The only thing more important than money is more money and those good laws are being changed or stealthily subverted by corrupt and spineless officials.
There is no longer a Napa community, just as there is no longer an American one. An anaerobic corporate laminate lies over the whole enterprise of wine and tourism. Sensible regulation is in retreat and nothing short of a figurative revolution can change things. It’s possible, however, and I thank the ultimate power, whatever that may be, for the example presently being set by California.
Wildlife of all sorts is the bi-catch of development, and there’s no release for it. The loss of habitat is as culpable as purposeful destruction of wildlife for food and other purposes. The ugly endgame of Manifest Destiny has in my lifetime heavily contributed to the halving of the globe’s population of wild things, and the obliteration forever of a fifth of all species.
Napa is a very good place to confront this problem, because of its notoriety and the starkness of the contrast. Today construction of vineyards in steep terrain is primarily industrial, not agricultural. From it flow permanently altered landscapes as well as houses and other so-called “improvements,” and a corporate insistence upon profit as the ultimate good.
Such a credo puts human community and happiness, manageable growth, a reasonable solution of seemingly intractable social and environmental ills, and various species in a subordinate position. It makes a mockery of the notion of equality, human and otherwise.
Napa needs help not just because of its endangered and increasingly rare hotspots, not just because of the western pond turtle’s presence and that of other species, including the fish environmentalists keep finding in places developers don’t want them found. The existential challenge in the age of global warming is no longer the individual facing dread and meaninglessness, but the need to hang onto existing species for as long as possible. It is a profound moral issue.
At the end of the nineteenth century Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the America character is defined and redefined by contending with the frontier. That frontier has run out. The once-compelling geographical boundary has been replaced by a biological and ideological one, a necessary and potent weapon in the hands of defenders being the law.
In my new book, Napa At Last Light, due out in February, in a section entitled Voices, is that of a professional lawyer having lunch outside a Mediterranean restaurant in the city of Napa, in the aftermath of the county’s refusal to put the Water, Forests, & Oak Woodlands Protection initiative on the 2016 ballot:
The attorney sits at a sidewalk table outside Tarla Mediterranean Bar & Grill in the city of Napa, tarrying with a plate of mezze and talking about the initiative. If it is eventually revised, the backers will have to get more signatures than before because there will have been many more votes cast in the upcoming 2016 presidential election. “The proponents’ll need a given percentage of those,” he says, “and it will be much higher than the last time around.” Even if they get the necessary signatures - again - time will have been gained for new hillside clearing to be undertaken, the industry having adopted a variation of the environmentalists’ credo: “Delay, delay, delay…”
The lawyer thoughtfully eats some flatbread weighted with humus. “The system’s broken,” he says at last. “Now they’re hiring outside lawyers to deny the people the right to vote and using the peoples’ money to pay them. The only answer’s to sue the county for refusing to obey the law. That means deposing the supervisors, deposing the lawyers in the county counsel’s office, deposing the district attorney.
They’re all dependent on the wine industry for a social life and a lot more. We’ll have to get a justice on the state Supreme Court to disqualify every judge in Napa County and bring in a panel from somewhere else that’s capable of ruling fairly.
”It all reminds me of the water wars in southern California a century ago. Now we have our own little Chinatown. To get Napa Valley back to something close to what it originally was will take a long, long time, but it’s possible. And at this point the courts are the only way.”
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