California turns out to be so, like ... so... California

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For years, Americans have caricatured Californians as spandex-wearing New Age disciples with a proclivity for hugging trees and an aversion to anything without wheat germ. This is, after all, the state that created an official task force to promote self-esteem.

But, as it turns out, some of those quirky - or perhaps more charitably, distinct - California qualities may be true. And a marketing professor at California State University, Sacramento, has some of the evidence to prove it.

Dennis Tootelian recently announced the results of a survey that has people outside the state no doubt saying: "See, I told you." Among his findings: 63 percent of Californians have actually hugged a tree; 24 percent have surfed; and 21 percent admit to enjoying mud baths.

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"It turns out that Californians actually do a lot of the things that make up the stereotype," says Mr. Tootelian.

Granted, regional distinctions can be found in every corner of the land. Many New Englanders do exude a certain Yankee reserve and thriftiness, which is rooted in the puritanism of the past. Southerners do convey a distinctive charm, and Midwesterners, well, they're Midwesterners.

And here in California, trees do get hugged. Stretches of redwood forests and coastlines have apparently inspired those with a pioneering spirit to make bathing in mud a beautiful thing.

Tootelian admits the findings connected him with his own inner Californian. "I've never hugged a tree," he says, "but I've done most of the things the survey sampled, and so have lots of people I know."

Drawn to mine the truth out of "California Grown," an ad campaign that humorously employs state stereotypes to promote locally grown produce, the questionnaire surveyed 500 consumers in five California cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Of course, there are reasons behind Californian's proclivity just as there are reasons behind New Englander stoicism.

"I see tree-hugging as an aspect of California's greenness," says Kevin Starr, former state historian and author of a series of books on Americans and the California dream. "Moved by the state's natural diversity and grandeur, Californians have largely been protective of their state's environment."

After all, he points out, Yosemite was set aside as a national park in the 1860s under the grant that served as the legal foundation for America's state and national park system. The Sierra Club sprang to life in Berkeley, under the leadership of John Muir, widely considered the father of America's national parks. Ansel Adams, arguably the greatest landscape photographer of the 20th century, made his home here.

No surprise, then, that Californians openly express affection for their lofty, woody flora. And apparently rightly so.

"I recommend that everyone do it," says Micaela Hoskins of San Jose, Calif., who is an enthusiastic hugger of trees. Her 5-year-old daughter seems to be a chip off the old ... trunk. "Rosemary hugged every tree she saw this past weekend as we were out walking," Ms. Hoskins says. "Tree hugging grounds you, somehow. It connects you to the earth and the sky."

Surfing is another link in the sun- dappled life culture. Most residents live within 75 miles of a 1,200-mile coast that includes pristine public-run beaches. Some go as far to say the ocean is a key element in balancing the California psyche.

"Californians are closely connected to the sea and its environs. They play and unwind at the beach the way people in other parts of the country do at a neighborhood park," says Arthur Chandler, humanities department chair at San Francisco State University.

Lima Bergmann, a family therapist who recently moved to Bell Canyon from Northern California and who has surfed, acknowledges her spiritual tie with the vast expanse of blue water. "If I didn't live on the coast, I would feel trapped, confined," she says. "Even just staring at the ocean can be a near-religious experience."

Mud baths, however, are still quite remarkable in other parts of the country. New Englanders, for instance, recognize mud as that yearly annoyance between March and May. But in California earthy ablutions are a manifestation of the state's famous embrace of self-improvement, such as holistic healing, vegan/vegetarianism, the antismoking movement, the hot tub culture, and more.

Much of California's unconventional ethos is rooted in its past.

Mr. Chandler points to the observation of renowned writer H.L. Mencken, who said that the East Coast was settled by people who were bold and daring in the 17th century. The West Coast, notably San Francisco, was settled by people who were bold and daring in the mid-19th century.

"Eastern settlers tended to be running from something but California settlers were madcap dreamers filled with optimistic fantasies about personal enrichment," he says. "They were running to, not from - a perspective that continues today."

For 150 years California has drawn floods of migrants in search of a better life: gold miners, Chinese railroad-builders, dust-bowl Okies, post-World War II vets, Vietnam refugees, and millions more. In the early 20th century, California's population was less than 3 million. Today, it has exploded to 10 times that figure: 35 million. If present trends continue, Mr. Starr projects that California could become home to one-fourth of the entire country by 2040.

Think of it: America, a nation of surfing, tree-hugging mud-bathers. That would be just fine with Larry Barrows of Sacramento, a 30-year Californian who was born in New York City and has also lived in New Mexico and Arizona. He, his wife, even his father-in-law admit to relishing the thought of being scrubbed in a mix of earth and water.

"It's wonderfully relaxing," he says, "It's like getting a facial for your whole body."

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