CALIFORNIA: It Is Still America's Promised Land --

A place of heartstopping beauty, spectacular energy and stunning diversity. But faced with drought, mindless growth and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?

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California has always functioned in the American imagination as a sort of floating state of mind, a golden land unanchored in tradition or guilt. A fresh start: no corpse of the past, no tragedy. Gravity feels different in California -- life there sometimes has the weightlessness of a dream. What feels morally heavy Back East may dissolve into inconsequence in the delicious sunshine off Monterey. A State Department analyst may move to Huntington Beach and with intense focus take up competitive Frisbee. Recreation has the significance in California of a big idea.

Other states have identities. California has a metaphysic. Americans do not refer to the Pennsylvania Dream or the Missouri Dream. California has always been an immaterial, shimmering thing in the imagination, the golden exception, the California Dream. California is where the Europeans' westward trajectory ended. Americans become metaphysical about the place because when they run out of continent, they start to review the entire national experience and try to add up its meaning.

The world may come to California thinking it is a magnificent playground, which it is. "Eureka," says the state's motto: "I have found it." Gold is the color of the Forty-Niners' wealth and of white skin set to glowing in the California sun. But nature may object to the uses to which it is put. The hills may go off like a fire bomb, as they did in Oakland a few weeks ago. Or the solid earth may abruptly rumble and break in devastating earthquakes.

A few weeks ago, the environmental artist Christo, wrapper of seacoasts, had 1,760 giant umbrellas implanted and opened in the bald, dun landscape of the Tejon Pass in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles (1,340 more were simultaneously opened in Japan). The art seemed very California, surreal, whimsical, harmlessly airheaded, vaguely haunting -- the umbrellas disconnected from practical function and somehow mocking the grand scenery: a conceptual joke. But then high winds rose. By a kind of sinister telekinesis, one of the giant umbrellas lifted out of the earth, flew across the landscape and crushed a woman to death.

There are many Californias. Northern and Southern California, split from each other by the mountains east of Santa Barbara, are the notorious yin and yang, Hatfields and McCoys, of California geography and culture. But the state is dividing and subdividing now along a thousand new fault lines of language and identity. Perhaps anticipating a pattern elsewhere in the world (the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, possibly fracturing Canada?), the cultures of California seem to fragment into their constituent parts.

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