Let’s cut the funds for beauty

by Gautam Raja

California is blooming. It’s spring after a series of winter storms that pulled us out of drought, and there are flowers everywhere. In gardens, riverbeds, the desert, on the mountains, on freeway embankments. Plants that looked dead when we moved into our house two months ago, now look like bouquets. For an all-too-short two weeks, the bare plum tree outside sprung blossoms along its coppery branches, before they fell to make way for green fruit.

Earlier this week, I drove to Point Mugu State Park on the western-most section of the Santa Monica mountains, past popular sections of California’s coast along Santa Monica and Malibu. This is where, the way the land curves, the beaches face due south, regularly confounding tourists looking for a sunset over the waters.

The Santa Monica range ends (or begins?) as rolling green hills adjoined by farmland. The Pacific Coast Highway runs along a rugged coastline here, and the parking lot for the Ray Miller Trailhead isn’t too far into the mountains.

I was here to experience some of the “superbloom” of California’s wildflowers, and the short hike up the ocean-facing hillsides did not disappoint. My favourite is the California poppy, the delicate petalled orange flowers said to have been the source of the name The Golden State.

Later that afternoon, I met my uncle who was in town on business, and we sat at a restaurant in downtown LA. Our server, Sabrina, had given us a cheery, authentically friendly greeting, and my gregarious uncle was soon chatting with her. He makes it a point, he later told me, to engage with people in these troubling political times, and remind them that there’s support and hope.

Sabrina is a filmmaker and is black. She nodded vigorously in recognition of a border crossing story my uncle told, and shared some of her own experiences. I was fascinated by this conscious construction of an interaction that, though engineered, was warm and authentic. As someone still more shy than not, it had never occurred to me to drive these fleeting social situations. I usually just let them take the path of least resistance.

That evening though, at a local Thai restaurant, the attempted connection fell flat. The Thai server mentioned that she couldn’t handle too much spice these days, and my uncle joked that it was the fault of the administration who were dealing in too much spice themselves. The server semi-sarcastically said, “Oh yeah, they’ve got in and changed our DNA” at which the matter was dropped, and we skated on safe waiter-diner superficialities.

It seemed that the young, fashionable, second-generation (at my guess) Thais, who are running a surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall restaurant out in an unfashionable arm of LA’s galaxy are Trump supporters. Or at very least, pointedly neutral.

As California’s blooms welcome the end of years of drought, there are threats from the center to punish the state financially for its political leanings, whether it’s removal of support for sanctuary cities, or changing tax laws. Most of the Trump voters I know, supported him in the belief that their bank accounts would be fatter under his administration.

I thought about this as I walked among the wildflowers in a state park that sits on hillsides worth millions of dollars in real estate. It will be just another couple of weeks before the flowers are gone, and soon after, the heat of summer will turn the hills brown again. I try to imagine looking at the world through the lens of my bank account, and it scares me that this way, beauty is as transient and fragile as a field of petals.

First published in Gulf News, April 11, 2017