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An Island Is Anything Surrounded By Difference

November 15, 2013

Buffalo Doug

To me an island is anything surrounded by difference, which is why we also talk about heat islands or cultural islands, and California—a densely populated landscape of great biological diversity and richness surrounded by ocean, desert and mountains, beyond which lie starker realms—is all kinds of island, or archipelago.

To call it an island is to get beyond the old idea of islands as inherently isolated; some are; many are instead particularly rich places of coming and going, of migratory birds, of goods and products and people and ideas. California is that kind of island, a place Europeans and then European-Americans mostly approached by boat from Cortez’s expeditions to the legions of argonauts in 1849, until Stanford and his cronies completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

So observes Rebecca Solnit, a California historian who has been spending time at Stanford studying maps up to 1860 which depict California as an…

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