CALIFORNIA’S
DISTINCTIVENESS
CHAPTER 1

The name California brings to mind extremes and paradoxes in both geography and climate. The state’s mountains are the highest in the continental United States outside Alaska, its redwoods the oldest and tallest trees alive, its scenic shoreline vast. At the same time, its deserts are among the most forbidding in the Western Hemisphere, its rains, floods, and fires some of the most catastrophic in the nation, its droughts severe, its earthquakes the most destructive.

California offers virtually every climatic, geologic, and vegetational combination: the wettest and the driest weather; poor sandy soil in the desert regions and rich loam in the Central Valley; some of the hottest recorded temperatures on Earth as well as some of the coldest; the second-highest peak in the United States (Mount Whitney, 14,496 feet) and the lowest point in the country (Bad Water in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level). In the summertime it is possible to experience a sweltering temperature of well over 100 degrees in the Central Valley and yet, in half an hour to travel into the San Francisco Bay area—fogbound at less than 50 degrees. In midwinter, the few remaining orange groves of southern California lie in valleys framed by snowy peaks.

California’s literature expresses all this distinctive regionality. It underlies the “local color” of the short stories of Bret Harte, the wit of Mark Twain’s tall tales, the humanity of John Steinbeck’s novels, as well as the celebration of nature in the stark poetry of Robinson Jeffers. In architecture, the fusion of the New England and Spanish heritages has produced the Monterey-style

-1-

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