Paperback, 336 pages
Californians are breezily indifferent to their own history. The narrative of the future, not the past, fuels the state’s fixation with the ephemeral — with youth, beauty, fortune, fame. California is thus a place where origins are lost or discarded, and often reinvented. It’s no coincidence that we know screen actors by the names they gifted themselves only after arriving in Hollywood.
In a sharp and thorough work of historical scholarship, Amherst College professor Edward Dallam Melillo attempts to unearth — and make sense of — one of California’s vanished origin stories: a deep-seeded ecological, commercial and spiritual link to Chile that began in the 18th century and continues today.
Strangers on Familiar Soil is at heart an environmental history, a chronicle of two places linked by compatible climates. Melillo claims that the “most durable connections between Chile and California remain etched in terra firma,” and indeed the most tangible examples of mutual influence in this book center on agricultural exchange.
Chilean wheat, for example, dominated the California marketplace in the mid-1800s, thanks to superior quality and the speed with which it could be shipped to the U.S. West Coast. “Between 1848 and 1854, nearly everyone who set foot in California tasted bread, flapjacks, pies, cakes, or biscuits baked with Chilean flour,” Melillo notes. Even after the state became self-sufficient in grain production, it was the Chile Club wheat variety that sustained much of its industry.
Chile also contributed significantly to California’s emergence as an agricultural power by supplying the alfalfa and, later, nitrate fertilizers that bolstered its crops. But the Chile-California relationship worked both ways — indeed, Melillo has divided his book in two parts, the first dealing with Chile’s influence on California and the second with the reverse. The Monterey pine, a California transplant, was brought to Chile in large numbers in the early 1900s to aid in reforestation and slow coastal erosion, and the Chilean production and export of its pulp and wood has expanded ever since — though not always with positive consequences for indigenous groups.
Melillo’s exploration of the ecological and agricultural impacts that Chile and California have had on each other is convincing, though the depth of detail on a few of the finer technical points may wear on the casual reader. It is when exploring the less concrete connections between the two that Melillo is most compelling.
Reflecting on the sense of exceptionalism shared by Chileans and Californians — the former within Latin America, the latter as a global cultural icon — Melillo offers the Pacific Ocean as a source of destiny, the “aquatic embodiment of future greatness.” Pinned between a shared mountain range and the impossible vastness of the Pacific, Chile and California are at once isolated from, and influential on, the land masses behind them.
But this relationship with the sea also contributes to the sense of impermanence — and, perhaps, aversion to history — that pervades the psyche of Chileans and Californians alike. Melillo quotes the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral:
“It starts with the desert, which is like beginning with a sterility that loves no man. It is humanized in the valleys. It creates a home for living beings in the ample fertile agricultural zone. It takes on grandiose sylvan beauty at the end of the continent, as if to finish, with dignity, and finally crumbles, offering half life, half death, into the sea…”
Mistral, who lived in California from 1946 to 1948, would surely recognize how these lines on the abundance and fragility of her native Chile could just as easily be applied to the Golden State.
In analyzing the spiritual parallels between Chile and California, Melillo excels. His writing is brisk and concise. Occasional forays into political commentary, though well-informed, sometimes feel out of place. But such excursions are few and far between, and for some readers may serve to balance the more technical, scientific discussions that are at the center of the work.
Early in the book, Melillo recounts something he heard in a taxi during his first visit to Santiago: “Chileans have a funny way of changing the world, and then vanishing,” the cab driver told him. It is testament to Melillo’s skill as a historian, and a service to Californians and Chileans alike, that he was able to uncover—and preserve—this rich history before it, too, disappeared.
Benjamin Russell is the editor of AQ books.