This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for.
A giant eye in an inky mass rose up of the water and beheld me. It was a humpback whale calf surfacing unexpectedly close to the prow of the boat where I stood. It was just a moment before it plunged again; but long enough for me to gasp out loud. A hundred years ago such an expedition from the California whaling port of Monterey, would have been armed with harpoons and saws to extract their monetary worth in oil, bone and blubber. But in 2014 it’s whale watching that brings in the crowds, and a marine biologist not a whale-hunter calling out the tell-tale spouts of a surfacing cetacean so tourists can marvel at their beauty.
If California is the ultimate American state, then Monterey and the surrounding coast embody the nation’s often contradictory environmental history; its ability to simultaneously celebrate and squander its natural resources. Electric cars in cities which destroyed most public transport; running energy guzzling driers when the sun shines almost every day because hanging washing up on lines is considered tacky.
80 years ago after whaling declines, Monterey was centre of a fishing industry. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row immortalized in fiction the real stinking street, lined with canning factories where the plentiful shoals of anchovies and especially sardines were recklessly overfished – beyond human demand. Just in 1939 460,000 tons of sardines were caught. By the 1940s more than half the catch was being dried and powdered as fertilizer just to find some use for it. As Steinbeck wrote in the prologue to Cannery Row in 1945: “The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats, and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty.” And then by the early 50s the fish stocks suddenly collapsed close to zero and the whole industry just closed down.
For years the canneries – rough corrugated metal sheds – stood rusting, a testament to American greed. But visit it now and it’s a tourist destination anew and an eco-tourist one at that. The whale watching feeds off the crowds drawn to the Monterey Bay aquarium since 1984. Steve Packard – one of the founders of the computer giant Hewlett-Packard – spent millions to build one of the greatest marine research institutes in the world. In giant tanks sunfish, shark and turtles cruise by. Clouds of jellyfish as exotic as aliens, with names to match, egg-yolk, flower-hat and moon are framed in tanks with dramatic lighting like the celebrity attractions they are.
Further down the coast, past Big Sur, Hearst castle looms on a hilltop over the small town of San Simeon – an enduring symbol from the same age of a different kind of environmental arrogance. Its billionaire builder, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, inspired the film Citizen Kane. The mansion built to house his binge purchases of Gothic church pews, medieval ceilings and tapestries is a charmless though fascinating folly. In 1957 only 6 years after his death his family handed it over to the state to be run as a California Monument museum in lieu, one assumes of massive tax liabilities. Now as California struggles with a third successful year of severe drought, I was among the visitors rather cynical at having to pay 25 dollars to use stinking portable toilets while the luxury rose gardens in this symbol of arrogance were lovingly watered.
On a visit to John Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas, just 12 miles inland from Monterey, was ample chance to ponder these strange environmental contraditions further. Steinbeck was fascinated by the relationship between humans and the environment in this magical corner of California. The Salinas valley is still America’s salad bowl. But I saw fields of kale and lettuce, being watered all day in the sapping heat by giant sprinklers and tended by hunched over Latino labourers.
By the time I got to Los Angeles that there were shiny Tesla all-electric cars to try out in the fancy Santa Monica showroom. LA and the car. Don’t start me. But I kept thinking of Cannery Row. Inside the aquarium they’ve kept the giant cannery machines that boiled and steamed and sealed the sardines in tins. It’s a bit macabre in a way. All those living fish in a place that used to slice and dice them. But it’s a more honest reminder too, of the power of humans to learn to respect what it used to destroy.