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The Golden State has turned to brass — or so its critics say. Yet on a bright afternoon spent in the company of casually dressed techies, surrounded by ancient trees and frisky racoons, it suddenly hit me: the Californian way of life should be a model for our civilisation. No, I was not thinking of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze, curvy highways and tanned surfers. And I hadn't had too much sun either.

"Why on earth would you want to adopt the ways of a community that is almost bankrupt, struggles with illegal immigration and is governed by a man who manages to be tragic in his failures and comic in his successes?" asked a New York friend after dryly welcoming me back "from the wilderness" and remarking with a smirk that Woody Allen in Annie Hall was right: the only good thing about California is that you're allowed a right-turn on a red light. 

It was cool and grey when the plane approached San Francisco. A seven-hour trip always makes you a bit woozy (particularly when you're cooped up in economy and are forced to experience flying with an American airline — apparently the only place in this country where you feel life is not about being properly served as a customer). After crossing several time zones, I felt as if I was in a parallel reality. And so, having left the hustle and bustle of New York far behind, and slowly descended over the Rocky Mountains which give way to the green valleys of northern California and the shores of the Bay Area, I felt I had discovered what makes this state tick — and, by extension, what makes our cultural imagination of the West so special and yet so fragile: the capacity to create a life lived to its fullest at the natural, reclusive, shadowy margins of civilisation, rather than in its midst.

After a drive down an eight-lane highway (green Priuses to the left, black limos to the right), I arrived in Palo Alto. It is said that it has the highest density of PhDs per capita in the world. It is the proud heart of Silicon Valley, which spearheaded the IT-revolution some 30 years ago. Stanford University is a brief walk away, and companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo are dotted around, some hit by burst bubbles and the economic downturn yet surviving.

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May 28th, 2010
5:05 PM
Two things: 1. Thoreau eventually left Walden, of course, as you left Palo Alto—it was an experiment—but while there he did clear the land, grow his own food, collect ice in winter, etc. Do the techies do that? What has living in a house you build yourself, close to nature, to do with the 'big business' and gilded tile shops that you say now dominate Palo Alto? 2. You say too there is no 'culture' in Palo Alto, i.e. that techies don't 'do' theatre, opera, poetry, etc. (Have you noticed, by the way, that Islamicist terrorists tend to be techies with little or no knowledge of the humanities?) But is it really true? Isn't SF just a short distance away, with all its wonderful cultural activities? And while this does fit with Thoreau's bemoaning his neighbours' lack of culture, it isn't consonant with his using his own time at Walden to read as much as possible, especially the classics. I live in SoCal and hardly know NoCal at all at first hand, and I'm quite willing to believe that this area of the state is still 'golden', in some ways at least. But, in short, I don't understand how it's at all like Walden.

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