Reading Among the Ruins

This is a beautiful, but also increasingly creepy, state. We are now fighting over whether to allow out-of-work salvage loggers to harvest a billion board feet of burned timber from this summer’s two vast forest fires in the central Sierra. (Some environmentalists argue that the wood should rot to ensure larger populations of bark beetles to help improve the woodpecker population -- so much for the human population of unemployed loggers.) Our green elites don’t seem to worry why there was so much fuel in the mostly unlogged Sierra in the first place, and of course consider massive forest fires, rotting logs, and epidemics of beetles part of nature’s process of death and renewal. It is certainly that. Yet why is such a natural cycle somehow interrupted in Hillsborough, the Berkeley Hills, and Pacific Heights, which, in terms of how their food, power, water, fuel, and shelter apparently appear almost by magic, are most unnatural places? Could they not be left alone to revert to the wild modes of growth and decay?

Never mind. I pressed on to reread (I am writing a book on how wars end) W.H Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico, a beautifully researched and written, harrowing 19th century classic of narrative history. It is difficult when reading Prescott to fathom which side was more savage. The conquistador class of Hernan Cortés and his hidalgos were unleashed, from a successful 700-year effort of the Reconquista (completed the same year as the discovery of the New World), upon the Mexican peninsula. The New World’s natural wealth offered influence, riches, and saved Christian souls for the impoverished expatriate half-aristocrats of Castile. Or were the Mexica the more vicious? There were over a million subjects of the Triple Alliance headed by Azteca, under whose leadership tens of thousands of sacrificial victims each year were paraded up the great pyramid, hearts torn out and while beating sacrificed to the unending appetites of the gods, most notoriously Huitzilopochtli, with heads on display in the skull rack consisting of some 100,000 specimens and more.

Prescott’s 1843 narrative of the brutal conquest sometimes reads like a 19th century Gothic novel -- eerie and often surreal. What were Cortés and 600 conquistadors thinking when they marched into Tenochtitlan in late 1519, as if their Christian faith, long expertise in battle, or superior Western technology might be force multipliers of some sort against a city of 250,000 inhabitants? Two years later, without mercy they leveled the city -- thanks in large part to the tens of thousands of indigenous allies who hated the bloodthirsty Aztecs more than they did the bloodthirsty Spanish.

I took a break from that depressing thought and wished to visit a farmer around the corner. But the entire adjacent rural avenue to my own was unexpectedly blocked off. Apparently, yet another drunk or incompetent driver this week (and in broad daylight, no less) had gone off the road and sheared off a power pole (no wonder our power rates are the highest in the nation and our roads are rated among the very lowest of the states).

vdh_article_photo_two_10-13-13-1 Photo by Victor Davis Hanson. Click to enlarge.

Fire trucks were blocking the intersection to prevent access as the power company sought to deal with the wreckage. The same lunacy, a mile away, happened on my own rural street earlier this summer, when a drunk driver veered off the road and took out another power pole, replete with transformer. There are literally thousands of drivers in this most regulated of states who with impunity operate outside of the law, in a cosmos in which DUI or public dumping are abstractions for others more neurotic to worry about. (The odd thing is that where the power crew worked, there were also discarded sofas and mattresses along that avenue, too. I suppose because the refuse is not electrified, it is my neighbor’s, not the state’s, responsibility to clean up those almost daily cast-off furnishings.)