The Black Ouroboros: An essay on the land-spirit of Bakersfield, California
Wikipedia says this in its opening paragraphs about the town of Bakersfield, California:
“Bakersfield is a significant hub for both agriculture and energy production. Kern County is the most productive oil-producing county in California and the fourth-most productive agricultural county (by value) in the United States. Industries in and around Bakersfield include natural gas and other energy extraction, mining, petroleum refining, distribution, food processing, and corporate regional offices. The city is also the birthplace of the country music genre known as the Bakersfield sound.”
This description is a sterile one. It is commodified and corporated. It states facts without allowing you to understand them; it lets you repeat them without parsing them. It is a Plato’s Cave of hubris, speaking truths without acknowledging their horror.
Bakersfield is a city that should not be. It is surrounded by miles around of arid desert until it reaches three different mountain ranges to its East, South, and West. It is geographically placed as the dregs of the San Joaquin Valley, and it should geologically be buried under several feet of water. Bakersfield is a metrocide that has not happened yet.
The Kern River once spilled from the Sierra Nevadas into the San Joaquin basin where Bakersfield now lurks. Its fertile soils became the boon to travelling founders along the California Trail just as they had been for the various Natives living before, settling as Baker’s Field. Eventually, the United States government built a dam up in the mountains, at the Lake Isabella, and the Kern River’s mountain run became less a river and more a drool of what water was permitted down its rocky hills.
The Kern River hates this, and it drowns fools each year as the blood price we pay for soaking its anger into concrete and electricity. One day soon, the Lake Isabella Dam will break, and Bakersfield will drown in over thirty feet of water in less than an hour. It is not more profitable to fix the dam than it is to kill over a million human lives. This is the price it will be paid, in time, and so it waits and feeds on appetizers, dormant like a snake in winter.
Where once Bakersfield’s money was in its almonds and oranges and cotton, water has become more and more expensive as climate change forced decade-long droughts. Now it is a safer investment to purchase farmland and sell the water rations given by shining Los Angeles to the poor farmers. I spoke to a man a few months ago who said that he could water his fields with the sweat and tears he’s shed over his lands if it wouldn’t salt the crops.
Many cultures across the world have believed in the idea of the land as a being. A great tortoise or a fertile mother, Creation myths abound of such tales. Oceans are wept by grieving eagles; mountains are formed by the sleeping bones of giantesses. Bakersfield’s land spirit has always been intrinsically connected to its lifegiver, the Palagewanap, the “place of the big river”. But how does a land change when its waters are killed? How does a spirit evolve when those that live within it are trapped, as so many Bakersfieldians colloquially talk of it? How does a place’s esoteric ecology adapt to miles upon miles of oil barrens and cracked dry earth where there once was water?
The answer is that it changes badly.
The land spirit of Bakersfield is a great black snake as wide as a rushing river. Its scales are sharp, like cacti thorns, and glimmer with the sickly rainbow of soap-bubbles. Its mouth is endless and in it are machineries—pipes, pistons, hydraulic and pneumatic jointed jaws and jagged crushing garbage disposal compactors. It slithers around the oil barrens and it runs its belly along the river when the humans allow its waters to flow, and it swallows anyone caught in its currents.
The philosophy of a haunted house is one of corruption. Of rot. The haunting is not the house, the haunting is the people within the house, which hate it, which makes it hate itself, which makes it hates the people within the house. The haunted house is an abusive relationship; the haunted house is a vicious cycle; the haunted house feeds itself its own trauma; the haunted house is an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail.
Bakersfield, the city, is a haunted house. It is hated by its citizens, and it has learned to hate them back. The Black River Ouroboros of oil encircles its boundaries and swallows itself whole, and with it, everyone inside of it stagnates, in a half-life of petroleum and gentrification. One day the Black Snake’s source shall overflow and drown everything downriver of it, and millions will die. The United States government will call it a tragedy. But the United States government will also have been its killer, as it left the dam to die, and everyone beneath it as well. Hundreds of thousands of corpses floating in water that is sinking into the ground once more as the Kern River, the Palagewanap, sinks its bones back into its homeland to rest once more. Borrowed time finally, finally, having paid its dues.
There is a species of endangered blackbird native to California. It is called the Tricolored Blackbird, scientific name Agelaius tricolor. It faces habitat loss of its native environment: wetlands and swamps. Perhaps in the future the blackbirds—if they are still alive—will settle upon the fields and peck at the flesh of the humans. Perhaps cottonwoods and cattails will grow where Ming Avenue once ran. Perhaps bullfrogs will sing hymns to the dragonfly-laden night sky like they have not in centuries. Perhaps the land spirit will be changed by this as well, and have six wings of black capped with crimson and wheat-yellow, and instead of a starving maw it will have a beak to sing glories to halcyon paradises. Perhaps those wings will spread across the valley to shelter it once more, its black iridescent scales becoming matte. Fallen logs are often hothouses of life, their decaying wood home to dozens of species of fungus, moss, mold, and insect. Perhaps Bakersfield, too, will become such an environment when it dies.
The corpse of a city decomposing back into wetlands and swamp like it was once, long ago. Cycles of nature existing long before and long after we will be gone. There is a comfort to that, in the same way there is a comfort in seeing the final girl of the horror film standing strong, cold, bloodied, with her ax. Alive, in some ways. Dead, in many more. A divine transmutation of being, combining two opposing forces to a harmonious rebis.
The Great Work of Bakersfield: to, one day, allow itself to die.
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