A Desert in Which Legends Bloom

I tend to bristle when a place is reduced to caricature--when a manifold metropolis such as L.A. is seen only through the prism of Hollywood, for instance, or when the Central Valley is made out to be home to nothing but hayseeds.

Every once in a while, though, I'm guilty of doing the same dumb thing: making unfair assumptions and assertions about an area.

That's just what happened when I read Rebecca K. O'Connor's piece on the unique vantage from which she has seen development consume a good chunk of Southern California: by flying her peregrine over open fields that are vanishing fast ("Postcard From Above," page 26).

"I've been a falconer for 10 years," she writes, "and have watched the vast vineyards of Ontario . . . give birth to concrete structures from their sandy soil. The flats in Hemet and Temecula have given way to suburbia as well. And the field near my house where I trained my falcon last year is now a Wal-Mart Supercenter Store."

I liked this memoir when it was submitted because it put a new twist on an old issue. But I also liked it because we haven't run too many pieces from the Inland Empire or Coachella Valley (save for the work of Susan Straight, one of our contributing writers). "I guess it's a desert out there," I said to myself, "in more ways than one."

No sooner had this smug thought entered my head than a new book crossed my desk. The title: "Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire."

Published by Berkeley-based Heyday Books, the 400-plus-page collection is filled with great voices (including some that are readily associated with the region and others that are surprises): Joan Didion, Calvin Trillin, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.F.K. Fisher, Norman Mailer and many more.

"It really challenges the notion that this place is just a dump," says Gayle Wattawa, who edited the anthology. "There is an affirmation here."

Actually, the Inland Empire has made a lot of progress recently in shedding its image as a backwater. Consistently robust job growth does that.

Still, land of letters "isn't one of the first things that comes to mind" when you mention Riverside or San Bernardino County, says John Husing, an economic consultant in Redlands and one of the area's biggest boosters.

In this way, "Inlandia" (and O'Connor's article too) are welcome reminders that every place has its own "myths and legends and stories," as Straight puts it in the introduction. In the case of inland California, she notes, many of these yarns were spun by people who came from somewhere else "to seek their fortunes" amid the mountains and orange trees, "all golden in the sun."

"That is truly what we saw, growing up here," Straight recalls. "It was paradise, though I have since learned that the rest of the world might not recognize it."

Shame on us for that.

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