A Year in the Cuyamacas
By Leland Fetzer. San Diego: Tecolote Publications, 1998. Illustrations by Donald Covington. v + 231 pp.
Reviewed by Wendy L. Smith, freelance writer and Professor of English, San Diego Miramar College.
“Lay aside all conceit. Learn to read the book of nature for yourself. Those who have succeeded best have followed for some years some slim thread which has once in a while broadened out and disclosed some treasure worth a lifelong search.” … Louis Agassiz
Southern Californians are often mocked by people from more flamboyant climes who claim that we have no weather, and that our local land is boring, not to mention badly dressed. Leland Fetzer, in A Year in the Cuyamacas, makes it his mission to remind us of the beauty and drama of the Cuyamaca region, returning a knowledge of the land and seasons to us like lost memories.
This book of essays is divided into sections, each containing 3 essays, beginning with “November,” and ending with “October.” We read an appreciation of every season, every “fragmented auriferous Julian schist,” every live-oak, every wood rat, and every western pine beetle. “November” meditates upon rain in the southland and people’s lack of appreciation for nature’s rare ration of water. “Mountain Quail” presents a quail’s-eye view of life, emphasizing the quail’s fragility and tenuous hold as a species in a world of predators, animal and human. “Engineers Road, How It Grew” recounts the efforts of developer Ed Fletcher to preserve a large extension of what is now Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in 1910. Fetzer’s essays often contain interesting, little known facts, like the house that was built on and around a “Hippie Bus.”
“My idea,” writes Fetzer, “was to compose an introduction to the natural history of the region…. At the same time, my goal of informing the reader about the facts of plants and animals on the mountain increasingly became an exploration of my own experiences and emotions about what I saw around me in the woods. Imperceptibly, the lessons in natural history had become personal essays, although I never allowed myself to forget that I was not writing about myself, but the land, above all.”
It is true that Fetzer does not overpersonalize his essays, but few personal essays stop either at the self or at a landscape; instead, the masterfully written ones link the writer with issues, voices, or ideas beyond the writer’s day-to-day world. Fetzer does not always make this link; he tends not to go beyond his immediate experience or the landscape. As a result, the pieces in A Year in the Cuyamacas are less personal essays and more personalized natural histories. The intersection of natural landscape and human experience is obviously important to Fetzer, yet his essays only sometimes have the broad, deep, rich, and varied character of personal essays. For example, “Community Spirit,” a detailed, fascinating essay in which Fetzer might have used diverse natural communities as a metaphor for diverse human communities, or mused about the complexity that is denied us in a world driven by black and white issues, concludes only by commenting that he resides in the best of three local “natural communities.”
Fetzer writes that he would be happy “if this book encourages others to write about a tract of western land they prize; the West needs its known places.” Readers who want to know more about the region’s climate, geography, geology, history, plant and animal life, and some obscure local history would enjoy this book. So would students who want a more personal approach to these studies. A Year in the Cuyamacas is better than a textbook.
Encouraging others to write about their land is a good idea, for the land connects us to who we are; unfortunately, Fetzer does not always make this vital connection. Furthermore, Fetzer’s perspective lacks breadth and information when he laments San Diego’s lack of history in “Battle in View,” citing only the Battle of San Pasqual. Of course, San Diego has plenty of history both in terms of local events, and in its numerous sites of Native American culture and ingenuity, which, to his credit, Fetzer touches on in “Uninhabited and Uninhabitable,” which looks at the lamentable history of the never-populated Cosmit Reservation.
Fetzer speaks most clearly to those emotionally attached to the region, those who already know it and appreciate his loving observations and commentary. For those readers, A Year in the Cuyamacas is like being given a photo of a loved one.