George Hart is a Professor in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach. We sat on George’s deck with drinks and a Zoom H2 digital recorder, but I made the rookie mistake that I lecture my students not to make: I armed the recorder but did not activate the record button a second time to begin recording. I didn’t notice my mistake until about eight minutes into our talk. (Recorded July 19, 2014, backyard deck, Fucking Spaulding House, Cambodia Town, Long Beach, California)
Hart: I lived in Reno for two years, and Susan lived there for seven years. The University of Nevada, Reno…they had the Literature and the Environment Ph.D there, it was one of the first programs to do ecocriticism. It was that place where you thought, “This is the perfect place for it.” It’s in a city, but Reno is nothing like Vegas. It’s smaller, it’s quainter, it’s like the old Nevada. You think, “This is a great town, I could stay here forever.” It’s forty minutes from Tahoe. Forty minutes from the Sierra. You can get to the desert, you can get to the mountains. It’s a great location for people who love the outdoors: skiing, hiking, all that stuff. So, moving to California, I thought, “Wow…” [laughs]
Bach: Yeah, I can imagine.
Hart: But, I love it. And moving to a densely populated urban area is a good thing for an ecocritic. Because it reorients you from that wilderness aesthetic, which was so dominant in early ecocriticism. It was very dominant in the program at Reno for a long time. It was all about wilderness, and preserving wilderness, and that we have this ideal form of nature that we love and protect, and then everything else is secondary, or lesser. Here, it’s getting a sense of an urban nature and an urban place, and Long Beach is a great place for that. It changes you, and you reorient from that wilderness aesthetic so strongly, and you realize urban nature exists and that nature is available to a diverse group of people in terms of ethnicity and age and interest. The restoration work that goes on here, the L.A. River being restored, the Colorado Lagoon being restored, the Los Cerritos Wetlands, there is so much environmental stuff going on here that I think would be ruled out if we were just talking about wilderness. For me, that was the biggest shift after moving to Southern California. You realize that you can still be about nature, about place, about environment, but you’re dealing with this totally different type of environment.
Bach: It gets away from the binary opposition that nature is where you go to, or go out in, and urban development is over here, or that nature is something that requires a certain socioeconomic standing and the resources and the time to get to it and enjoy it. It gets away from that false division, because nature is everything. Just because you’ve put down concrete over a site doesn’t mean that it’s not in nature. The Southern California landscape has been shaped over the years by developers and city planners, and then City Beautiful in the thirties before the Olympics with this massive effort to plant all of these shade trees and ornamental trees, introducing these non-native species, but for our generation these trees have been here for fifty, sixty, eighty years…
Hart: They’re part of the place.
Bach: They’re part of the landscape now. So, it’s a false dichotomy to separate the two. We know that, and growing up in Southern California, I know that. But I can imagine that in the scholarship and the field of ecocriticism, or even in broader literature, with this favoritism of pastoral writing or writing about the landscape, that if it’s someone writing about urban stuff it’s Frank O’Hara, he’s an urban poet, whereas Gary Snyder is a wilderness poet. The division seems artificial.
Hart: It is, and you’re exactly right. It forces you to get rid of that dichotomy. The nature/culture dichotomy when you live in Southern California, or in an urban place, has to go away. You have to realize that nature and culture are completely interconnected. I do believe that wilderness lets you think that there is this essential nature that is out there that, like you were saying, you have to get out of the city to get to. And it’s the pure nature, it’s the real nature, it’s the actual, authentic nature, and that’s bullshit. This is widespread now, ever since William Cronon, a historian from Wisconsin, wrote an article that became a book, The Trouble with Wilderness, and his theory that the trouble with wilderness is that wilderness advocates get invested in this sense that here is this pure, perfect nature that’s always been this way and we need to preserve it. No, we created that.
Bach: It was shaped.
Hart: It’s a National Park, and there used to be people living in it. There used to be people moving plants and animals around in it. We displaced them and pushed them out, and then said, “Now it’s pure.” And when you’re in an urban environment, that is gone. There are native species and exotic species, but you begin to realize all this stuff is moving around and we’ve been part of it the whole time.
Bach: Human agency has been shaping the landscape since we’ve been a part of it.
Hart: I don’t know how you can separate it.
Bach: Whose definition of “purity” are we talking about?
Hart: Yeah. And that’s what I like about being in Southern California, because you get rid of those ideas of purity and essentialism and those things associated with wilderness, but it doesn’t devalue that. I still love to go backpacking and get out where you can feel that nobody is around, where you’re all on your own and the landscape is like it’s been for thousands and thousands of years, and that’s great, but the nature that I’ve become more invested in and concerned with is all this stuff that has concrete in it, and cars and people, and everything else that’s part of the community.
Bach: The two environments that you mentioned, the lagoon and the wetlands, are still vital ecosystems that have been threatened over the years and are slowly coming back from the brink of being wiped out. I know the Colorado Lagoon is in much better shape than it was five years ago.
Hart: It gets ‘A’ ratings now. And you would never have gone in that water. It had eleven storm drains going into it. As you were saying, back in the thirties, it was the diving area for the Olympics, so it was already this area that was culturally constructed out of the wetlands. All of that part of Long Beach was wetlands, and the lagoon was created for the Olympics, and they put in night lighting for the events there. They have a great display of that in the educational shack at the lagoon. And you realize it’s not a ‘natural’ place in that way, but it’s a place where people come to get the experience of a beach, where kids can swim with no surf, but then you had the logic of, “Oh, we have this place where we can put all of the storm drains, and the runoff will end up there, and it will go out to the ocean and everything will be fine.”
Hart: And then they cut off the tidal flow to the ocean. And what happened? It became a sewer. But, now it’s been restored. Taylor Parker and Eric Zahn, some friends of mine who managed the restoration [as Tidal Influence], have done amazing work. They removed I don’t know how many tons of toxic sludge from the bottom of the lagoon. And now there are no storm drains going in there directly; runoff now goes through filters and catches to capture all of the debris, and now they get ‘A’ ratings from Heal the Bay.
Bach: Wow. That is an amazing accomplishment.
Hart: Astounding. They used to get Fs and Ds all the time. Kids from North Long Beach will go there to swim. They live four or five miles from the ocean, and maybe have never seen the ocean, and they can go down to this neighborhood [Alamitos Heights], which is all rich white people, and encounter native species and this body of water that they can swim in, play in, have fun in. They learn about the fish and about the stuff that’s there. To me, that’s the important environmental work that’s being done.
Hart: Rather than saying we’re preserving this one little area for just the exclusive groups that can get out there and who are able-bodied and have the free time and the money to do it.
Bach: Whose experience of the natural landscape is more authentic or more worthy? Going out to 10,000 feet on a ridge somewhere where you haven’t seen anyone all day, that’s a great experience.
Hart: That’s real.
Bach: Or, these kids who are growing up in these urban neighborhoods, who don’t have easy access to the ocean, they come to this beautiful place and have this outdoor experience which is just as worthy, and inspiring, because hopefully it will spark in them the sense that they are connected to the earth, that there is this larger world…
Hart: That there is nature in their neighborhoods, their world. I think it’s common that for a lot of people, like my friends from Reno, or a lot of the hardcore wilderness advocates, they get older and get jobs in places like this, they start having kids, and start reorienting themselves. A guy I know, a good ecocritic and environmental activist, Corey Lewis, he was in the same program as Susan at Reno, got his Ph.D., got a job at Humboldt [State University]. He was all about wilderness and Gary Snyder when he was at Reno. When I saw him at a conference, he had been living in Humboldt, has a couple of kids, and he says, “Now I’m all about community and restoration and healthy food for people in urban areas.” He totally reoriented and realized that there is so much more to be done when you have this different sense of nature. It’s something I think even Snyder went through himself. When I read the poems and the essays and see him saying, “Back in the day when I was a trail crew worker, when I was a fire lookout, nature to me was wilderness. And that was it.” That’s a Eurocentric, masculinist, privileged view of what nature is. As he got more involved in community and had kids, he realized that nature is everywhere. He has a great poem, “Night Song of the L.A. Basin,” part of Mountains and Rivers Without End, where he reads the highway system and the river as ecosystems, and he has this integrated view of the city, cars, freeways, and nature and all the stuff that’s there underneath the concrete that’s still identifiable.
Bach: It’s the watershed aesthetics that he talks about. Buildings and concrete and buildings are still in the watershed that drains water through the floodplain. It’s part of that environment, regardless of whether it’s been developed or not. I think that’s an interesting correlation between the freeways and the river, because they’re both tributaries, a way of flow and energy and activity. For a lot of people, the freeways are the means by which you get to and get through these places. If you start in Southern California to go hike, you go to the San Gabriel Mountains, or the Angeles National Forest or the Santa Monica Mountains…
Hart: You’re going to be on the freeway.
Bach: Going through these corridors to get to this other space. While you’re traveling through those spaces you’re traversing the watershed.
Hart: The 710 follows the L.A. River. The 605 follows the San Gabriel River. Our paths are still following the same paths, in certain ways, that animals would follow, the first people who were here would follow. And then we made the path into a road. And then a freeway. But we’re still following those watershed lines. And that’s the thing about Long Beach. Our beach sucks. The breakwater makes our beach suck. Our beach used to be called the Waikiki of California, right?
Hart: And with that breakwater, it sucks, because the L.A. River goes there. The San Gabriel River goes there. All of it stops. When it rains, all of the crap stays there. So, hopefully they’ll take down the breakwater.
Bach: So, if the Lagoon is getting ‘A’ ratings, what is the beach getting?
Hart: That’s a good question. I haven’t looked, but I think they’ve improved somewhat. Part of that is the drought.
Hart: There’s not as much shit washing down. When it rains, the ratings plummet, but when it’s dry, things improve.
Bach: I know there have been efforts to improve catch basins and storm drain management. I don’t know how much money has been devoted to that in Long Beach, but the Friends of the L.A. River have been doing some amazing things getting the political power and the funding mechanisms to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to restore sections of the river to their original condition.
Bach: To get out of the mindset of the fear of undoing the flood control efforts over the years to prevent these massive floods. A wild river plain…
Hart: That meanders.
Bach: Yes, at one time the three rivers were all connected. So, to understand that if you have a wide enough plain and it’s managed properly, you can open up the river and remove the concrete and still accommodate the overflow.
Hart: It doesn’t have to be a channelized, concrete river. That was just the most expedient way of dealing with it at the time.
Hart: Think about it. You want the river to be free, you want the river to be able to do what it does. But only if we’re nomadic.
Bach: [laughs] Right.
Hart: Only if we’re picking up our houses every once in a while and moving them around. So there has to be a middle ground. Moving to Southern California and Long Beach, you get older and you’re not as hardcore, and compromise becomes part of it. “The river can do what the river wants.” I wish it could. But we would have to live in a different way, because people’s lives would be disrupted. Our friend ShaunAnne was just visiting from North Dakota. She’s from California, so she loves to come back every summer to hang out on the beach. But their house is right on the river in Minot, and it flooded a couple of years ago, and their house was destroyed. They lived in a FEMA trailer for a year while they were rebuilding.
Hart: Every once in a while the rain pattern comes around where the river is going to flood. There are levees, and it’s very similar to New Orleans, but on a smaller scale with not as many people. The river is going to flood and there is nothing we can do about it. But at the same time she loves that place, she loves her house, loves living by the river. They went through hell for those two years to get back into their house, to get it restored and in place. Right before the flood people were telling them, “It’s only going to get this high. You’re going to be okay there.” You just never know.
Bach: I don’t know if it’s human society as a whole that has this short memory, but Southern California was established in a period of relative water abundance, this rare slice of time when they happened to come across the basin, and it was like, “This is paradise.” Without realizing that it was a blip in the normal patterns of long periods of drought.
Hart: Wet years and dry years.
Bach: Right. If it had been different, if de Portolà and his conquistadors had come when the river was dry…
Hart: “Let’s get out of here. This sucks!”
Bach: Who knows what would have happened.
Hart: In one of the essays in A Sand County Almanac, [Aldo] Leopold says, “The floodplain is the river’s.” He said the rivers are going to do what the rivers are going to do. And we can have these levees, but at a certain point the floodplain is the river’s. And I want to respect that. We have this technology, but when it happens, the river is going to flood, and we need to deal with that. Hopefully we can help people humanely and in good ways. I think New Orleans is still completely screwed. ShaunAnne and her folks up in Minot, where there are smaller communities…it was easier in general to get people back and safe in their homes, whereas in New Orleans, with the combination of poverty, race, place…it’s too unsettled, it’s too tricky from a sociological or cultural point of view to manage, and then when Nature comes in and says, “Hey, it’s time for a flood,” what are you going to do?
Bach: It’s not helped by the levee system and the way they’ve interfered with the natural way the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf and deposits silts and builds up sandbars and barrier islands…
Hart: And it has consequences. I think the lesson learned is that we can try to make stuff the way we want it, which is great, but you have to accept that there will be consequences on a higher order at some point. There are forces that are greater than us.
Bach: We come in and try to impose a humanistic, rational, linear system of order on a non-linear, non-rational, chaotic system of nature that doesn’t…
Hart: Doesn’t respect those boundaries. At all.
Bach: Going back to the lagoon. I want to talk about its relation to your work as a critic and as an educator, with your interest in service learning, so that it’s not just about these issues of environment and its appearance in the work of poets and writers, or analyzing literature from an ecocritical perspective, but also embracing an experiential, hands-on learning style to embody some of these values, and to get students to think about these connections and get them out into the world.
Hart: I didn’t know much about service learning when I moved to Long Beach, but there was already a Service Learning Center at CSULB. Pat Rozee, a professor in the Psychology department, established it about ten years before I got here. She’s been working on it for a long time. At a new faculty orientation, they came in and gave a presentation, and said “If you want to do service learning, we can help you set it up.” So, I designed this class, “Literature and Environment,” a General Education Capstone. I think there has to be an activist component to ecocriticism, a pragmatic component. We are reading literature, talking about theory, doing all these things within the walls of the ivory tower, but there are ramifications outside. And ecocriticism has always been premised on that. All the early theorists and critics who practiced it, Cheryll Glotfelty, Lawrence Buell, Scott Slovic, all those folks…you are a committed environmentalist if you are doing this kind of criticism. And I think that’s great. Where the rubber meets the road, if you want to use a cliché, is service learning or experiential learning. Pedagogy is where that stuff really interfaces and comes together. There are the ideas we’re dealing with, like wilderness or environmental justice, and we need to talk about that, and then you need to get students connecting that to where they live or what they care about. The service learning component for that was great. Again, Taylor and Eric at Tidal Influence, they’re the ones who are out there and they get it: “You don’t need to be a Biology major, you don’t need to be an Environmental Studies major; you can be an English major, a Religious Studies major, a History major. Come and do some work for us and learn something about what your discipline can contribute to understanding this. And then you can take that back as a student to the classroom or as a potential teacher down the line. Here’s how the ideas we’re talking about in class connect to what’s going on out in the environment.” Time and time again, every time I teach the service learning class, students say, “I grew up in Southern California, I grew up in Long Beach, I grew up in Orange County, I didn’t know the wetlands were there. I didn’t know that the lagoon was there.” They’re just blown away that not even two miles from campus, just down the street, there is this place that has all this significance, all this history, all this ecological importance. There used to be wetlands all up and down the coast of California. Now there are less than 5% of viable wetlands remaining. Here are people like Taylor and Eric saying, “We can make this better, improve it, give people access to it, restore it, and it’s going to do what wetlands are supposed to do: purify the water, provide habitat for species, and provide a place for people to go and connect to those things.” There’s nothing better than that. It happens in the classroom when you’re talking about it, and then it happens when students get out and start working with those community partners. To me, I’m totally convinced…the real contribution that ecocriticism can make to environmental causes is through that pedagogy. That’s the connection. Ecocriticism can do great things in terms of theory, and it’s getting even more sophisticated in terms of theory these days. People can really read things this way, but until you can get students to think, “Oh, yeah, I can go out and help somebody clear out a bunch of ice plant, and put in a bunch of native species, which is better for the birds that live there, and the insects that live there, and the fish that live there.” That’s what makes the connection. That is where ecocriticism does the good work that it can do.
Bach: It raises awareness, and they look up and see a bird, and they wonder, “Is that a migratory bird, and is it headed toward the lagoon?”
Hart: “Is it going to find what it needs there, will it find its food source there?” There are some species, like the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, that are completely indigenous and special to these environments, that if these environments go, those species go. If we can get this one little area fixed, we can help this butterfly thrive, we can help this type of bird thrive, and we can help this type of fish thrive. And students didn’t think they would ever care about that [laughs].
Hart: They’re good Southern Californians. What they know is the 405, and the 605, and the 101, and the 110.
Bach: And which beach to go to with the best parking.
Hart: They have amazing environmental awareness, but it’s all based in their cars, and where they need to go and what they want to do for fun and recreation. So, really, they’re actually good environmental thinkers, it’s just tuning them into to thinking that when you get there, they should realize that there is this salt grass that can only grow there, and birds and animals that only hang out there, and they get it. They’ve been doing it all these years, it’s been right there in front of them, in their backyards, and they just didn’t know.
Bach: So, back to Cambodia Town. We were talking about your floor plan and lot size, which is not very big when you think about Southern California residential development, and single-family homes in suburban sprawl. I definitely wouldn’t call this place suburban, since it’s a very urban residential development. But still, small lots in a dense urban neighborhood, and that seems to be typical of this part of Long Beach. Even in our neighborhood there are these bungalows that can get fairly large, but the lots are still pretty small. So, I can imagine that coming from some of these other places, Reno, Palo Alto, even Ohio, it took some getting used to.
Hart: I never lived in a place like this. Like Cambodia Town. In Palo Alto, I was a graduate student, I was poor, and I lived in a shack in the backyard of a 1.4 million dollar home. Even there, it was very suburban; I lived in the back house on someone’s property. Cambodia Town, and the 4th District that it’s in, are the most densely populated neighborhoods in Long Beach.
Bach: Wow. Okay.
Hart: Yeah. We’re in this weird dogleg of the 4th District, which is mostly Los Altos and the Traffic Circle. The Press Telegram did a series on the demographics of Long Beach last year, and we followed it as they went district by district. The 4th District is the most densely populated in Long Beach.
Bach: And probably the most diverse.
Hart: Yes, and the most diverse. Moving here into this neighborhood…we were talking earlier before we turned the recorder on…
Hart: When I lived on Mira Mar in Belmont Heights, renting that apartment, and then when Susan and I were ready to get married and wanted to buy our own place, it was the height of the bubble. The only house we could afford in Long Beach was the Fucking Spaulding House, the FSH. That was it, the only freestanding house we looked at that we could afford. We looked at condos, but we’re not condo people, so we didn’t want to live there. So, we bought the FSH. Living in this neighborhood has completely changed the way I understand what it means to live in a community, to be a neighbor, to have a sense of place. As I understand it, these little houses we live in are kit houses, with the 616 square foot floor plan. They were basically sold out of the Sears catalog.
Bach: Out of the catalog. Right.
Hart: You would order your house with whatever configuration of walls you’d want, and then they would lay down the floors. The hardwood floors in our house, which are nice and wonderful and I love them…they would just lay the floor down like a platform and drop the house on top of it. The boards run underneath the walls. And so it’s just this platform of hardwood, and the house on top of it. They were the cheap beach houses for people who lived up in Pasadena or Glendale…
Hart: And it gets freaking hot up there in the summer, before air conditioning. So you could afford to buy a cheap house, from a kit, in Long Beach, a mile from the beach and get some cool air for the summer. That’s how I think these lots in this area were developed, and most of the houses on this block were built from this same plan. Some of the corner houses were dropped in later, or were older and more established stucco houses. But for the most part, it’s this clapboard house built from a kit. Living in this kind of proximity, to this kind of diversity, to this density of population, has changed the way I think about what the good life is…
Bach: Yeah [laughs].
Hart: What having acceptable personal space is. What it means to have neighbors, and to have a community. To me, the most interesting thing about being here is not just the ethnic diversity, which is crazy, out of the box. In Cambodia Town, there are more Cambodians living here within this two-mile radius than anywhere else outside of Cambodia or Phnom Penh. There is a huge, longstanding Latino population, lots of South Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans. There is a fairly strong European, Caucasian working class population that’s always been here. There are some African Americans, but not as many as in North Long Beach. Cherry Avenue is where the 6th District starts, which is heavily African American, so we’re just one block from that. So, not just the amazing diversity, but the economic diversity. I’m a university professor…
Hart: There are not a lot of other people in this neighborhood with college degrees or even high school degrees. But, there is also this sense that everyone is in the same situation because we’re in Southern California. So, even as a university professor, I’m not this elite person who can live…on my salary we could not afford a house in Belmont Heights. When we were looking, we could not afford it. Susan was changing careers the whole time we lived here, so she didn’t have a huge income. We knew we had to live on my income, and this is where we could do it. And I love it. Because we’ve met people who are so far out of the realm of the university faculty enclave where everyone is the same. Here, everybody in this neighborhood is so different. We cannot speak Khmer, so we can’t talk to our Cambodian neighbors. I have no Spanish, Susan has a little. For all the varieties of languages spoken here, we still get along with our neighbors. And, your tolerance for…and I think about this all the time, and I think of you, Glenn Bach, sound artist…this sense of the sound in the environment here, I want to think of it as really rich, not noisy. We live in a noisy neighborhood, but it’s rich. There’s interesting stuff. You hear people cranking radios, you hear people starting up their cars, you hear people fighting and arguing, but it becomes part of the environment.
Bach: It’s a tapestry.
Hart: Normally, a white middle-class person growing up in fairly quiet suburbs, an academic who likes silence…my tolerance for ambient noise has increased, and I take that as one of the benefits rather than one of the drawbacks. It’s great.
Hart: The ice cream trucks alone are amazing in terms of the sound they produce.
Bach: The tamale carts.
Hart: There are people going past with bullhorns: “Tamales! Empanadas!” Every night. You can get dinner if you want.
Bach: I’m sure it’s changed your ideas about labor and making a living, and just your daily routine. You sold your car. You had The Mammal Patriot for many years.
Bach: And you finally…you donated it to the radio station?
Hart: KCRW. Yes.
Bach: So now you bike to work every day.
Bach: And that’s a different experience, because it’s not like you’re biking through the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto to get to campus. You’re riding through some pretty intense urban neighborhoods to get to campus, which is situated in a much more residential, much less dense parcel of land. So that has to be an adjustment, to be a commuter in a different way.
Hart: When we were looking and this was the only house we could afford, we knew we could live here because I could bike to work. At the time Susan was going to school, so she had to commute to Culver City, but now she has her acupuncture clinic in the East Village Arts District, so she can bike to work. We picked a great location. We’re equidistant…she can ride to work and be there in twenty minutes, and I can get on my bike and ride to campus and be at my work in twenty minutes. We chose right, because ultimately our goal is to not be so car-dependent.
Hart: She had her old Ford Mustang when we moved here, and I had the Mammal Patriot. She donated her car at some point, then we were down to the Mammal Patriot, then we had to switch it out for the Honda Fit. We’re a one-car family in Southern California. That’s pretty unusual. People say, “How can you live like that in Southern California?” We’re not on the freeway. Even today, we were taking our friend ShaunAnne down to the place in Newport where her family is going to stay for a week. She said, “This traffic is hell.” We only have to deal with it when we’re doing something special. We don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis, and that makes all the difference. I’m always fascinated by my ride, because I go from one of the most densely populated, diverse neighborhoods in Long Beach, through more or less the northern end of Belmont Heights, nice middle class neighborhoods and families, then I ride through Park Estates, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Long Beach.
Bach: Where the President of the University lives in a multi-million dollar house.
Hart: I ride through that, then I cut through the V.A. [Veterans Administration] and then I get to campus. So I’m seeing this amazing cross-section of Long Beach every day on my twenty-minute bike ride to school. And, I take pride in this: once I cross Redondo and start coming back into our neighborhood, I feel, “Yeah, this is my place.”
Hart: Right, because when I ride through Park Estates, there’s nobody there. In the morning, in the evening, I ride at noon, I’ll ride home sometimes between 5 and 6, and other times at 10 at night, and those neighborhoods are dead. There’s no one in them. Giant lots, with pools in the back. Giant houses and there’s nothing there. I see no one. I ride in this neighborhood, people are out, people are in Orizaba Park, they’re out on their porches, they’re walking on the street. I come into my neighborhood at 10 o’clock at night and it’s still alive, and there’s still stuff going on. A normal middle class white person would be like, “This is noisy. What are all these people doing?”
Hart: [laughing] They’re living in an apartment with ten other people, so they’re going to hang out until they have to go to bed. They’re living in apartments with no air conditioning and it sucks, so they’re going to go to the park and hang out. There’s much more sense of this public, communal space, and, to me, it’s reassuring. There’s life here, there’s people here, my neighbors are around, I know who they are, I see them out all the time, they see me. They don’t know my name, I don’t know theirs, but they think, “Oh, there’s that crazy white guy who’s always riding his bike.” You just get this sense that people are using the place where they live, whereas in Park Estates people are paying for the privilege of having this quarter acre of land and this giant house to…
Bach: To shield themselves…
Hart: “I don’t have to deal with anything.” I feel privileged to have this experience. I’m seeing how my neighbors live. I’m seeing how all these different people from all these different places in the world live. We can all pretty much get along. We’re doing okay.
Bach: As a scholar of ecocriticsm and environmental literature and 20th Century American Literature, it’s almost the perfect place for you. It’s where you should be.
Hart: That’s what I feel.
Bach: If we’re talking about service learning and community, you’re walking the talk.
Hart: That’s the way I feel. It wasn’t anything I did intentionally. This was just where we could afford to live. That’s why we call it the Fucking Spaulding House; every time we came back looking for a place to live, “There’s that fucking Spaulding house.” It was a wreck when we saw it; it was just trashed. But, here we are. That’s why we stenciled the phrase from the Ray Davies, Kinks song, “This is where I belong.” We realized that, no matter what, we ended up where we belong. From that I’ve learned so much about culture and about living in Southern California and what that means.
Bach: There’s humility in accepting the path that’s been laid out for you. There are multiple pathways, and you can make a decision and decide to do one thing, but there’s a satisfaction that happens when you have an array of options in front of you, and you open up yourself up to the possibility of letting the meaningful direction be highlighted or…
Hart: It’s revealed to you.
Bach: Yes, it’s uncovered.
Hart: If you let go of some of those prejudices or attitudes or expectations, everything is okay. This is how the majority of people live. The majority of people don’t live in Park Estates. The majority of people aren’t even living in Cambodia Town. You have it pretty good in Cambodia Town. So, if you let those things happen, I’ve always felt that my appreciation and gratitude for living in Cambodia Town has been how much I’ve learned about tolerance, about how you just don’t sweat that stuff. These middle class attitudes. I see people throw garbage in the street all the time in this neighborhood. My initial environmental reaction is, “That’s wrong to do, don’t do that, stop that, blah blah blah.” And then you realize, this is just the culture of this place, and you can do some small things here and there, but you just have to accept it.
Bach: We were talking about the watering. Your first reaction when you first moved here was, “We’re in a drought. You can only water on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays before 9 AM and after 7,” but…
Hart: “Okay, but my driveway is dirty and I’m going to hose it down.”
Bach: “There’s no drought. I have water coming through the pipes. There’s plenty of water.” It’s not your job to sit down with them and give them the long explanation of…
Hart: Or try to convert them, “You’ve got to be an environmentalist, you got to understand this.” My thing is, when I became an environmentalist and discovered ecocriticism, it’s all about this personal morality, this personal responsibility, and you’re a bad person if you do these things or waste these things. The moralistic element of environmentalism. But, you get a little bit older and you see more of the world, you realize that only goes so far. And it makes no sense to try to convince someone who came up from Mexico, or somebody who’s grown up in this neighborhood where this is the way it’s always been. It’s really about a systematic decision about how we can get people to understand the value of water. The way we deal with water here is insane. You shouldn’t be able to open up your hose and do whatever you want with it. We should value every gallon of water as much as every gallon of gas or every gallon of milk. And everybody in this neighborhood knows exactly what the cost of a gallon of gas is, knows what a gallon of milk is, because they live hand-to-mouth and they know. But the water, they can turn it on, and nothing is going to happen if they hose down their whole driveway every day. And that’s not their fault.
Hart: It’s not their fault. There needs to be a bigger culture of saying “You need to monitor every gallon of water just as if it was gas, just as if it was milk.” I think there’s a way of doing it that’s more humane and let’s figure this out.
Bach: And it’s not your job alone to…
Hart: I was the Water Nazi and I tried it, and it was a failure and I gave up, I was like, “The hell with it. I’m just not going to be the Water Nazi.”
Bach: That’s just one aspect of being an environmentalist. There’s also this personal ethics of living in balance with your environment and with your life and having a small footprint, that’s still something that we all try to do, and continue to do. But we also have to understand that we exist in this community of other people, and we need to have this cultural and social intelligence on how to interact with the world at large, our neighbors, the person at the grocery store, our students. All of that is a negotiation where you have to position yourself at different stations on this continuum of ethics. So, I’m wondering, being in Southern California for a decade and a half, as an educator, that has to have made an impact…it’s a feedback loop, the stuff you’re doing in your research, wrapping up your [Robinson] Jeffers era, and now being free to focus on [Larry] Eigner, and other stuff, which feeds back into your teaching, and your teaching feeds back into your research, and that’s all informed by where you are and where you live and how you get to work. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter where you lived. “I’m going to teach electrical engineering, it’s the same lecture I’ve been doing for twenty years, and I never have to change my PowerPoint, and I give the same test every time…”
Hart: If you don’t accommodate that change or make yourself integrate into that change, then you just become more and more irrelevant at a certain point. Students get it. When you are living in the same place they are and you see who they are and where they’re coming from, and you meet them part way. They get it. For me, ending up at Long Beach State has been fantastic, the students here are great, because they have this vast diversity of experience. Most of them come from here. Most of our students are from Long Beach, Orange County, southern L.A. County. Most of our students are locals. And that’s an advantage, I think. We’re a commuter school, which makes things a little more diffuse, a little more spread out, but I think the students are so interesting, because they’re from all walks of life, and all different backgrounds. And some of them are ready for college and some aren’t ready for college at all. Once you get that and start adjusting your approach. I can hit them with Snyder all the time and keep hitting them with this wilderness stuff, but after a while they’ll say “This is irrelevant to my life.” “I’ll give you a little bit of that, you’ll get a taste of that and maybe that will turn some of you on, otherwise we’re going to look for another way to engage with this and find a novel or a story that’s closer to your experience, and closer to the way you see the world,” to see if it clicks with them…and that’s a good challenge for you as an educator, you’re learning and keeping up with them in a certain way, and you’re giving them the challenge and the raising the bar, “Shoot for this. Think about it this way.” And it makes it more collaborative, that there’s more of a communal back and forth going on. I don’t know if I would have that in other places. I’ve taught in small private liberal arts colleges, and those populations of students, at least the ones I’ve taught, they just become so homogenous. Even the students who’ve come in from diversity, they’re still coming from wealthy families or from more established families or families with college education in their background. A lot of our students are first-time college students. A lot of our students are the first in their family to go to college. How do I connect with that student who has no sense of “Oh, you’re a professor, you’re going to show me these great things”? They don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing in college. You can begin to guide them and take them through it. It’s a great thing.
Bach: You’re still getting a slightly different student population because you’re mostly teaching English majors, so you’re not necessarily like the composition instructors who are teaching all majors from every corner of the campus. You’re teaching those students who’ve elected to pursue English literature, but even with that I can imagine that it’s a pretty diverse group. English literature as a passion, and if not their passion then maybe some of them are thinking, “Let me try it, I’ve always liked reading novels, and maybe this is something I want to do.” So I’m sure you have a lot of students who are on the fence about it, and some students who know that’s who they are, they’ve always been interested in literature and poems and they can only imagine doing this as a career to teach or research or whatever. So the pool of possible students has been narrowed down, it’s a smaller subset.
Hart: Right. That’s why I would never complain about my job, right? [laughs] Because I can primarily teach a lot of upper-division or just English major classes, so, yeah, it’s a pre-selected group. But even within that, it’s an astoundingly diverse group. It’s because we’re in Southern California. There’s no way around it. They’re going to be a diverse group of students whether they’re English majors or not. The Literature and Environment class…when I discovered service learning, I wanted to make it a G.E. class.
Bach: A G.E. class open to everyone.
Hart: I don’t want English majors in there.
Bach: They have plenty of opportunities…
Hart: I still get English majors, but I want it to be for Marketing majors, Art majors, Environmental Science and Policy majors, Nursing majors, whoever has to take this G.E. category. I want those students, because I want them to see that literature can somehow connect to what they are interested in or do something you would never expect literature to do. The times I’ve taught it when it’s been great…there have been a handful of English majors, so I can rely on them to trot out the English major stuff when I need it. “I can analyze that metaphor.” A business major who can look at the way we use money or the way the economy works, or an art major who says, “Oh, I can see this being a different thing if I look at it in terms of photography or painting or weaving,” and that, to me, is the power of environmental literature and ecocriticism. You don’t have to be an English major, you don’t just have to be someone who wants to read books and novels to get something out of this and make a contribution to a social issue. That’s the blend that I want.
Bach: I think that goes back to Leopold and [Wendell] Berry. They weren’t trying to carve out this niche…it was about citizens, human citizens in the world of beings.
Hart: Everyone needs to understand this.