After making a name for herself with a local history book that stands head and shoulders above the norm, Altadena: Between Wilderness and City, Michele Zack is back with a new book: Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre. A career journalist and former resident of Thailand, Zack and her husband have called Altadena home for more than two decades, and she’s well known in the community for her involvement, including serving three terms on the Altadena Town Council, as well as on the Watershed Committee and the Altadena Foothills Conservancy.
When she’s not researching and writing books, Zack works with Pasadena Unified to integrate local and California history into teaching American history. She’s also a heck of a gardener who makes the most of her Altadena back yard.
Zack will be discussing and signing Southern California Story at Vroman’s on Wednesday, December 2 at 7 p.m.; get details by going to vromansbookstore.com.
You were trained as a journalist, not an historian. How did you become fascinated with local history?
“The local is the only universal. On that all art builds.” Philosopher John Dewey said it, and in taking up a book-writing assignment from the Altadena Historical Society, I began exploring that idea until it developed into a kind of obsession: understanding the big picture through examining hints provided at ground level. Another factor is that I was a journalist for a very long time, but became interested in following a more scholarly muse. I learned classical Tibetan and studied with lamas when I was much younger, and routinely did research in projects like writing the ethnography of a wandering hill tribe in Southeast Asia. I discovered I really like long projects — like writing books.
I began reading American and California history extensively, and I’ve been fortunate to learn from many academic scholars. I started applying writing tools I already had to my new passion, local history, and as I researched, I was astonished at how much fascinating material there is, and sort of angry that it isn’t more widely used. Local stories relate directly to larger historical narratives, make them understandable and more interesting. It is troubling that so many consider history boring when it is, after all, who we are. When I was in school, we studied the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary and Civil wars over and over — it was more like brainwashing than looking critically at our past to learn anything useful about the human condition or our culture. Now I’m completely taken up by learning more and turning that knowledge into books that are a good read, that challenge what people think they know — and that increase discussions about American history.
How long have you lived in Altadena, and what keeps you there?
My husband Mark and I bought our house in 1986. We love it here, and are major homebodies. It is a great place to be a writer. We left for eight years in the 1990s and had a pretty exciting time in Thailand, but I used to dream about the mountains. Bangkok is very flat. I love my current work with the Huntington-USC Institute for California and the West and with the teachers in the Pasadena Unified School District. We integrate local and California history into United States history through a federal Teaching American History grant. Very satisfying to know that history teaching is improving, and that I get to be part of it.
Did your involvement in local politics, as an Altadena Town Council member, affect your work as a writer at all? Do you have a different sort of appreciation for hyper-local politics?
In Thailand, I was always an outsider — even though I was a journalist and I wrote speeches for a few prime ministers. Mark and I told ourselves that if we came back to America, we’d become better citizens. I learned a lot in three terms on the Town Council: about the way the world works, about how people relate to government and, mostly, that I am an activist at heart and that life is frustrating wherever you live. I love the idea of direct democracy and making a positive impact where I live. The Pocket Park at Marengo and Woodbury, push-starting and working on the hillside ordinance, and getting 72 oak trees planted along Fair Oaks are examples.
But, some great individuals aside, as a body the Altadena Town Council never seemed a true reflection of the Altadena I know. Its chairman once waggled his finger at me, saying, “Michele, you just don’t get it that the watershed is not an issue in Altadena.” I tried to alter that culture but wasn’t very successful. I decided I could be more effective elsewhere. In terms of my writing, I’d say the Town Council intensified my desire to use as few words as possible to communicate clearly — I guess as a reaction to listening to too many words being said about nothing.
Why Sierra Madre? What drew you to write that book?
Well, I was hired to write it, but then I got completely wrapped up in trying to write a history as interesting and illuminating as possible. Because of the Altadena book’s success, I had a free hand — no one was looking over my shoulder, saying “Don’t say Rodney King was from Altadena, don’t say Eldridge Cleaver is buried here!” The research in this book is much deeper, the context broader. The focus is one town, and a smaller one than Altadena, but it is a regional story integrated into Pasadena, Altadena and Los Angeles, as well as to the history of ideas.
The beauty of writing about one place is that you can use it as a lens to focus on everything else that interests you. People experience history in a locale, and yet national history always seems to happen somewhere else, and to other people. Examples: Illness was a huge driver of immigration until around 1900, and Sierra Madre was among the most tubercular spots on earth. Maybe a quarter of all people moving to the American West in that period were sick (including lots from Europe). Having the example of one town allowed me to make it personal, while at the same time examine the overall importance of the illness legacy to California’s identity. And, what better place to look at the counterculture of the 1960s, and the early environmental movement, than Sierra Madre Canyon?
Tell us one fun story about Sierra Madre that most people don’t know.
Anais Nin, the erotic diarist, lived there with the forest ranger Rupert Pole for a decade and helped the Forest Service during the wildfires of 1953. When handling calls about the fire, she started answering with: “Forest Service, Paris Branch,” and some people got distracted by her accent and wanted to know who was on the other end of the line. Pole and Nin married in 1955, but she continued commuting between Sierra Madre and New York City, where she was also married to Hugo Guiler, a filmmaker who was editing her diaries. When these were about to be published, she annulled her marriage to Pole because she was afraid of getting her guys in trouble; both had been claiming her as a spouse and a tax deduction! So a major voice in changing sexual mores in the 1960s was quietly living as a bigamist in this pretty conservative San Gabriel Valley town.
Altadena or Sierra Madre — which has more trees?
Altadena has three times the area and four times the population, so the total number of trees must be greater here. But Sierra Madre probably wins “trees per square mile” because it is a city with an actual tree policy and a downtown plan that encourages oaks and other drought tolerants in public right of ways. Altadena is part of the county; historically fewer trees were planted overall, and those on the west side are not maintained as well as trees on the east side, where I live.