Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, The Pinch, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.
Every time I read Joan Didion’s description of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds I get homesick. I’m a native Californian, but I’ve lived for many years in a village in southeastern Ohio, and we just don’t get winds like that around here.
Didion’s Los Angeles is, for many of my students, a foreign world. Yet I’ve found that her essay, “The Santa Ana,” inspires them as they describe their own Midwestern and Appalachian worlds. It’s an essay, in short, about the importance of setting, and about how the place where a story happens cannot be separated from the story itself.
“The Santa Ana,” which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967 and later was published as part of “Los Angeles Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, describes a culture of crime and freeways, forest fires and wind. It’s a landscape inextricably tied to emotion, perspective, and experience:
“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along route 66, drying the hills and nerves to the flash point.”
This low-grade anxiety serves as the beginning of Didion’s essay, and that anxiety underlies everything that is to come. It’s the setting of her story, and it’s also the story itself. She draws on history, folklore, and science to describe the Santa Ana, comparing them to the foehn winds of Austria and Switzerland, the hamsin of Israel, and other “persistent, malevolent winds.” During such winds, she argues, crime increases, depression deepens, and everything that’s bad in Los Angeles gets worse. It might or might not be the result of the wind whipping up positive ions – “what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy,” she says – but whatever the legitimacy of the science behind this claim, Didion uses the wind to get at what she sees as the heart of Los Angeles’s culture. She describes the crime waves and traffic jams, the suicides and murders, that accompany the Santa Ana, referring both to news reports and to small moments in her own life: “I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.”
Ultimately, Didion builds to a metaphorical crescendo:
“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
I remember when I first read Didion’s description of the Santa Ana winds. I was in college, and it struck me at once as an exaggeration of the emotional effects of fairly common winds and a brilliant description and analysis of a place and its people. After reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I never looked at Los Angeles the same way again. It’s not a complete portrait of the city, by any means. It’s filtered through Didion’s late 1960s perspective and her interpretation of the city’s moral and cultural character. But it’s a deep and resounding portrait, one that tells a story of a place through the physical experience of its landscape.
I like to use this essay as a starting point, part of a prompt for students to write about weather events that they’ve experienced – snow and hailstorms, lightning, hot muggy days, and the occasional derecho. It gets them thinking about the importance of setting beyond just “It was a sunny day” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” Didion makes us see setting not as peripheral but as central, almost like a character itself. And I think this is the most valuable thing about Didion’s essay: it emphasizes the primacy of place, setting, and landscape. Every story, after all, happens somewhere, and Didion makes us think about the importance of where.