Celts and Californians: Invaders of the World

Article excerpt

Historically, one of the things our species has feared most, short of death itself, is invasion. For millennia, that meant the prospect of being overrun by hordes of other humans bent on pillage, abduction, and confiscation of land. That fear hasn't gone away, but it has become secondary to other kinds of cross-border threats. One of the main accomplishments of the environmental movement has been to broaden our awareness of what "invasion" really means in a world of high-volume, high-speed travel and trade.

The millennia of military invasion may be nearly over. Most wars today are internal, "civil" wars. Occasions on which one nation invades another nation are increasingly rare, for a range of reasons--not the least of which is the huge profitability of international commerce, which is jeopardized by any tolerance of military adventurism.

Meanwhile, however, other kinds of invasion have escalated. Salt water invades coastal wetlands or aquifers, and salt residue creeps into irrigated land; storm surges invade coastal cities; alien species such as the Leidy's comb jelly or brown tree snake invade foreign ecosystems; dangerous human pathogens, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis or ebola infect human bloodstreams; pollutants flow across boundaries on wind or water currents; and garbage is trucked or barged from affluent places to poor ones. Our fresh water, farm land, food, and air--and bodies--are subject to invasions of a sort people never much worried about when the enemy was the Mongols, Nazis, or Reds.

I thought about this when that angry farmer, Jose Bove, drove his tractor into a McDonald's in France. He was objecting to yet another kind of invasion--the disruption of traditional French culinary traditions by a fast food empire. "Culinary imperialism," he called it. Around the same time, in another part of France (the Valcrose Valley), traditional wine-makers were alarmed by the arrival of the American company Robert Mondavi, which promises to revitalize the town's economy by bringing mass production to the wine-making industry. I wondered how long it will take for the Mondavis and Gallos to drive the French out of the wine-making business. What's happening there parallels the phenomenon we reported in an editorial in the last issue, about the attempts of mass-producers of pasteurized-process cheese products like Cheez Whiz and Velveeta to put traditional cheese varieties, which are made without pasteurization, out of business. The invading army doesn't arrive in black helicopters or stealth bombers, thes e days--it arrives in jugs of mass-produced wine and jars of "cheese-food."

Some years ago, I moved to a house on a high ridge east of Los Angeles. The house overlooked a valley of rolling olive-green chaparral-covered hills. In the evenings, my wife Sharon and I would sometimes sit with glasses of Napa Valley wine and watch the sun set over the Tehachapi Mountains in the distance. We'd see California quail walking among the wildflowers--purple sage, blue larkspur, Panamint daisy, and fiddleneck--and occasionally we'd hear a coyote cry.

One day, a convoy of about 40 earthmoving machines--ponderous, green behemoths much larger than bulldozers--arrived and began removing the hills. It took several months, and when the hills were completely gone, surveyors and cement trucks arrived and put in miles of curbs for yet-to-be-built streets. Utility trucks followed, installing sewers, pipes, and wires.

The trucks disappeared, and there the landscape sat--a dusty flat grid of empty lots awaiting the construction of 10,000 new houses. I walked down to the place where the olive hills had once been. While the invasion of earthmovers had not yet been followed by the big houses and SUVs full of kids gobbling cokes and fries, I found that on closer examination, the lots weren't completely empty, either. The ground was littered with trash. I tried to imagine what some future anthropologist might infer about our civilization from the stuff left here, and on impulse I decided I'd help out the future analyst by taking an inventory of what I found on just one small lot. …