It's dangerous to love a piece of land, particularly one that's located in Southern California. I can't say when the full fierceness of my feelings for the valley behind my house actually hit me, the process of falling in love was day by day, flower by flower, violation by violation. Anyone who has a real hunk of nature near them would laugh at this pitiable piece of land, would find it unworthy as an object of love. Even the environmental impact reports refers to it as disturbed land. But there have been springs when I have parted the heavy fringe of the aged pepper trees and stepped out of arid Southern California and into Oz, into a dazzling display of emerald stems, wild yellow daisies, sunflowers, and the synesthesia of air scented yellow by distant lemon eucalyptus trees.
My first glimpse of the lower Sweetwater Valley, the northern border of Chula Vista, was through the second story, rain-flecked windows of an old clapboard house. The house was a fixer-upper and the price was low, even for 1978. The only heating source was a grated floor heater between the living room and the dining room on the bottom floor. The elderly couple who lived in the house hung curtains around the floor heater to contain the heat. One room served to store car parts; the whole of the house, though potentially beautiful, was glued together with whatever materials were available. Still, my husband and I consented to buy the place that day. Partly because the woman had baked bread (the cynic in me wonders if her realtor suggested it), and the perfume of domestic contentment wove itself through the other ancient smells. But the other reason we bought the house was the glimpse of the Lower Sweetwater Valley from the second story. Through the window in the room -- which would ultimately become our bedroom -- we could see a dirt road, some wild-looking, heavy-hanging trees, and a dozen or so cattle grazing on acres of wide-open land. "Like paperweights, cows hold down the horizon," wrote the poet Anne Michaels, and in truth, I mistook the cows' solid bodies, ancient allusions, and slow movement for permanence.
When you fall in love with someone, your life becomes enmeshed with theirs: ribbon and hair, sinew and bone, sickness and health. This valley, this visual gateway to the city of Chula Vista, is a piece of crap now. Plastic water bottles, spraypaint cans, dissolving paint balls, CO2 cartridges, graffiti, dog shit, trash from litterers, trash from illicit dumping are the field's decor. Because the city has failed to enforce the No Unauthorized Vehicles sign, the ground is packed increasingly harder by trucks, motorcycles, four-wheelers, and cars. More than a third of the valley has been sold off to KOA (Campgrounds of America), which has turned much of its newly acquired property into a parking lot. From highways 805 and 54, noise and toxins, which no doubt exceed the city's threshold, spew down on the area. Under the giant pepper trees where my grandson used to act out his wilderness fantasies are shallow pits of human feces from the unfortunate homeless, camouflaged dugouts from the paintball wars, and the surprised eyes of naked women ripped from glossy magazines. Even nature has turned her back on the field. Refused to rain. Refused to soften the soil so the flowers can reinvent themselves. There is less forage so there are fewer animals. Sickness and health? I begin to unlove this soiled, sere, shrunken tract of land.
It makes me sick to think of the potential this valley once had. In 1989, when Greg Cox was mayor of Chula Vista, the city adopted into the general plan a lovely "greenbelt" concept -- essentially a contiguous, open park-like greenbelt that was to encircle the city of Chula Vista. The Lower Sweetwater Valley property was recognized as "potentially a portion of, or a visual element adjacent to, the Chula Vista Greenbelt." As late as 1994, this property still contained 38 available acres; 14 were already owned by the city of Chula Vista, and all of it was designated "Open Space/Special Study area." The potential of the area was enhanced by the fact that it ran parallel to the Sweetwater River flood-control channel. The stream of water was useful to the animals living in the valley and an attraction for riparian birds. Though not pristine in terms of nature, the valley contained a nice slice of wildlife. A partial list of the birds and other animals that have lived in the valley includes California quail, loggerhead shrikes, California gnat catchers, Bell's vireos, Wilson's warblers, killdeer, red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, kestrels, great horned owls, Costa's hummingbirds, cliff swallows, ravens, towhees, sparrows, brown-headed cowbirds, black phoebes, hooded orioles, finches, mourning doves, mockingbirds, coyotes, possums, skunks, foxes, squirrels, desert cottontails, wood rats, mice, lizards, true toads, and snakes.
Many of these fauna have gone the way of the frogs we used to hear when we first moved to this area. Summer nights were filled with their thrum. Now there is only the chirrup of the tiny tree frogs. For the last two years, the clapper rail and the red-winged blackbirds also have gone missing from the Sweetwater River, perhaps as a result of the groundwater demineralization plant that was built on the other side of the river, or perhaps as a result of the drought.
In Southern California, land and water, to state the obvious, are deeply political. All through the '90s the undeveloped valley burned holes in people's pockets. Proposals for the area included a residential development, a relocation for displaced mobile homes, a senior care center, a veteran's home, and a water demineralization plant, and always lurking around the edge was the KOA, hungry to expand. When Greg Cox was mayor of Chula Vista, he was a proponent of the Greenbelt. In his next incarnation, Cox, wearing his "private sector" suit, tried to convince a stunned and hostile group of residents at Rosebank Elementary School that we should fill up that little pocket of nature with a "Fun Park," replete with water slides.