Gray Brechin

Motivations from Loss of Environment

Recorded: March 3, 2012

How sorrowful is the loss of an orchard or the character of place? Professor Gray Brechin tells of how the loss of the Santa Clara Valley orchards inspired him to study geography and the relationships between land and cultural heritage, especially the human and environmental costs of urban development.

Professor Gray Brechin is known as one of California’s great historians and authors, but his lesser known role in environmental affairs has made a lasting impact on the State. He was born and raised in the rural Santa Clara Valley of California and still laments the ravaging of agricultural land that nourished him as a child. He recalls the beautiful orchards that once filled the Santa Clara Valley and describes how the population and urban growth of the 1970’s and 1980’s developed the peninsula’s rural orchards into today’s Silicon Valley. Unwilling to witness the loss of Mono Lake, Dr. Brechin served as the first director of the Mono Lake Committee, a group that fought desperately to save Mono Lake—and succeeded.

Currently a professor of geography at U.C. Berkeley, Dr. Brechin’s close relationship with the University has spanned more than 40 years. As a project scholar of California’s Living New Deal Project, Dr. Brechin is researching New Deal public works projects. He is the author of several books published by U.C. Press including: ‘Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin,’ and ‘Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream,’ a book that chronicles California’s declining environmental and social health.

Gray Brechin: I grew up in California, I grew up down on the San Francisco Peninsula and I grew up in the town of Los Altos. And so that was…I was going to high school in the early ‘60s and of course that was the time when the Santa Clara Valley was shifting from carbon based to silicon based life forms. And so I got to watch it happen all around me. We were in a small house that at that time cost my mother 15,000 dollars on a quarter of an acre of what is now Silicon Valley and there were orchards all around. But in a few years they were all gone. So I got to watch them be mowed down and set fire to. I remember them, these big piles of apricot wood burning at night as they got rid of them, and then they were replaced with other houses like ours. And I think that contributed to my environmental interest. because there was something that disturbed me about that.

Gray Brechin: We had enough land that I had a vegetable garden in the backyard and we grew incredible vegetables there. We still had some apricot trees in the yard. But it’s one of those things like when growing up in California that you take the redwoods for granted and don’t understand why people get excited about seeing them because you take it for granted. And it was the same with the kind of vegetables that you could get and fruits from the Santa Clara Valley, because that soil and the climate were so amazing, amazingly rich.

Gray Brechin: Now to me, I can’t bear to go back to the Silicon Valley anymore.  It’s too painful for me, because paving over that valley was one of the great environmental crimes. And of course nobody ever speaks of it that way, because it’s kind of a mining town now. It’s made enormous, notoriously enormous fortunes. And that’s been so important in changing the whole world because of the technology that it’s generated. But almost nobody talks about what was lost in the process. But that was one of my formative experiences when I was young. I’m trying to make people see not only the beauty that’s around them but the pain of that beauty’s destruction that I felt for such a long time, the threat that I feel –that I think most people sort of stow away because they don’t want to feel it.

Gray Brechin: And so the first thing is, you have to make them aware, particularly now when we have nature deficit disorder, when our machines are cutting us– and especially children– off from the environment. Our electronics are so much more beguiling than nature is and it’s really a perfect drug. You know, all Aldous Huxley couldn’t have imagined a soma sedative more perfect than the kind of handheld devices that people carry around with them all the time and children do too. So rangers of course have a real concern– how do you seduce kids to come out and see nature again? You have to make people aware, not only of the beauty that we have now but of the far greater beauty that we already lost.