top of page

Novel Preface

from The Riverbed

by Stefan Mattessich

We were pleased to discover recently that a So Cal novelist and teacher, lately embarking on a publishing project, had himself written a novel which features Santiago Creek as locale, through-line, even a sort of character. Here, the preface to Stefan Mattessich's 2023 novel The Riverbed from Atopon Books. --- eds.

The headwaters of the Santiago Creek form high on the tallest mountain of the range stretching from the San Bernardino Pass southeast to the San Diego County line. In its upper reaches it falls through rugged gorges, cascading over rock shelves and scouring alcoves into cliffsides. Eventually it evens out in flats of alders and sycamores, threading the main canyon as far as the broad central basin of present-day Orange County, where it meets the Santa Ana River on its way to the sea. Braided rather than meandering, the creek finds its equilibrium in a constant instability, deforming and splitting flow, widening and deepening channels, crossing, uncrossing, and recrossing its ancient beds. Also ephemeral, it tends to flood in rainy seasons, percolate into groundwater forebays, and disappear in times of drought. Never settled in itself, it runs its fitful course less like a single creek than many creeks superimposed on one another, caught in cycles of perpetual revision. An errant design or simply an error in design, it testifies to nothing so much as God’s unaccountably awkward hand in His Creation.

Early settlers called the mountain Old Saddleback because of the curved sandstone ridge that joined its two peaks into one metamorphic mass, but it’s had other names as well. The native peoples of the Santiago, the Tongva and Acjachemen, associated it with a cave where the star-chief Chinigchinic made his abode. He was a favorite deity but not the first. In their origin story, the two creators of the world were in fact not gods but imaginary phantoms, and they messed up not only places and things but people, too. The son they begot in particular left a lot to be desired. He failed to give good advice on harvests, to provide rain, and to protect from disease, and he became a feckless tyrant who had everyone eating clay. When he died, Chinigchinic descended from heaven and promised to do everything over. He reformed the people into proper human beings, gave them laws and rituals, and taught them how to maintain themselves on the acorns, berries, fish, and game he added to the landscape. His handiwork wasn’t perfect either; he was more an improver than an innovator; but at least people were able to live in greater harmony with their sketchy creek than they had before. His cave, located fittingly enough between the two peaks not far from the sandstone ridge, they called Kalapwa, which was how they also referred to the mountain itself.

In 1769 a soldier in the service of Gaspar de Portola, who first expropriated the land from the Tongva and Acjachemen for Spain, mislaid his blunderbuss, or trabuco, somewhere in the main canyon. As it was a matter of honor, like Greek heroes with their shields, to keep the weapon within reach at all times, he conducted an exhaustive search that proved as futile as his pride was unshakable. The trabuco would not be found. In the end its loss enslaved him. He deserted his post to wander through the watershed looking around boulders, behind fern brakes, or in riparian grasses, bemoaning that thorn of accident on which his mind had caught. He would spend the rest of his life on the mountain in a state so distracted the early Californios commemorated his obsession by calling it Sierra del Trabuco.

In 1888 Madame Helen Modjeska, one of the most famous tragediennes in Europe, built a summer home by the banks of the Santiago. She attracted a host of actors, poets, divas, histrions, conjurors, mimes, and saltimbanques to festivities that were notorious for their outlandishness. Guests in exotic costume roamed the grounds she christened the Forest of Arden, mistook each other’s identities, picked wild grapes, or climbed naked onto outcroppings of serpentine and pretended they were Adam and Eve. Masques were performed in glades strung with Chinese lanterns while Bohemians sat sipping green absinthe at metal cafe tables. Lovers consummated their trysts under rustic arbors of pungent wisteria, adventurous mortals pursued their pagan gods into caves and pools. Her scandalized neighbors, too conventional to join in, were nonetheless appeased by the air of glamor she conferred upon their workaday lives, and they named the mountain Modjeska’s Peak in her honor. 

Don José Antonio Yorba and his nephew, Don Juan Peralta, petitioning the Governor of California for a grant to the entire watershed in 1809, christened both creek and mountain the Santiago, after their patron saint. They saw a good source of water and land excellent for grazing, and in the following year they drove the first herds of Spanish cattle into the foothills. They built roads in the canyon, abattoirs and vats for rendering tallow, and a resplendent adobe in what is today El Modena. The ranch centered around the making of leather goods for trade with Yankee ships that sailed around the Horn, and oxen regularly drew carreras laden with hides to the embarcadero at San Juan Capistrano. For over thirty years the ranch prospered, even though the place to which the dons had come worked mysteriously to wash out their ambitions and desiccate their sympathies. They never felt at home by that desultory creek. Things happened that could not be explained. Much-cherished family heirlooms locked in chests were found repeatedly in water troughs or cold storage sheds. A priceless first edition of Don Quixote, a book José Antonio consulted like the Bible, disappeared from its glass case only to turn up in a hayloft, transformed from the literary classic of Cervantes to a forgettable knock-off penned by someone named Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. One night during a storm Bernardo Yorba, José Antonio’s son, was seen on the zanjas cursing the Santiago for its caprices, at the same time fifty guests would swear they sat down to a dinner of steak and frijoles with the affable don.

It was again as if the world had not been properly put together along the Santiago, and from the small rift it formed all reason fled. No one bothered to survey the land, markers seemed to move and shift in men’s fickle minds, and boundaries were kept like words of honor among thieves. Livestock, ranging freely in the foothills, grew clever in their attempts to outwit the vaqueros. They would lure them into dense thickets or up steep ravines, stranding them in dead ends while they slipped away down some spur no more accommodating than the eye of a needle. Once a whole herd vanished before the very reliable eyes of Juan Peralta himself in the Cañada de Los Bueyes, only to reappear the next day calmly chewing their cud in the cordgrass fens at Newport Bay twenty miles distant, an event so miraculous it drove the venerable patriarch mad with the thought that his stock had grown wings and flown away on the fierce Santa Ana winds.

As a sense of the literal atrophied in the Yorbas and the Peraltas over the years, and they began to neglect the business of the ranch, letting brush reclaim the roads and fences fall into disrepair, unscrupulous outsiders took advantage of the situation. Bandits hid in the branch canyons and raided wayfarers on the nearby El Camino Real. Squatters laid claim to vast stretches of territory that, according to the official property registers of New Spain, did not exist at all. Horsethieves also took refuge there, and gypsies rolled their caravans into apocryphal meadows. In the days leading up to the Mexican War the Santiago came to be known far and wide as a veritable no man’s land.

After the war, American homesteaders poured into the Santa Ana River basin. They were sheepherders and beekeepers from Mormon settlements in Utah, or flinty Scotch Presbyterian farmers who had set off across the Great Plains in search of New Jerusalem. An optimistic, iron-willed people who would never succumb to the fatalism of desert streams, they came with the authority of the U.S. Land Office behind them, subdivided what remained of the ranch after James Irvine finagled the bulk of it away from its Yorba and Peralta heirs, and built their miniature ranchos with wishing wells and tidy English gardens. They began at once to transform their surroundings. Small dry-grain farms were started. Roads were squared and straightened. Miners sunk shafts into veins of coal and hauled it down in six-horse teams to feed the engines of the Southern Pacific Railroad. When Hank Smith and William Curry found a piece of blue quartz that looked like silver in 1879, five hundred prospectors appeared almost overnight to stake claims on or around the Santiago. They pierced the hillsides with tunnels and drifts. They blasted rock walls under powerful hydraulic head in the hope of uncovering whole ledges of silver ore. Then placer gold was allegedly discovered in Mustang Canyon, triggering an exodus not seen since the Gold Rush. For a while the Santiago was famous throughout the United States, and the camps set up on its shores grew into bustling towns with wide-awake saloons and post offices. Only oldtimers from before the war, men like Aramente Hernandez, a retired vaquero who had been raised in a mission settlement, predicted the creek would never cease its dissembling. As he said to a reporter for The Santa Ana Sentinel on March 7, 1880, “There is nothing to the Santiago, I tell you, nothing but sand. The Santiago is a creek like the devil is an angel—that is, not really.”

But if Aramente Hernandez was right and by 1882 the towns had become ghost towns, with the mines abandoned and not a single gold flake found, he was wrong about the Santiago. Other profitable operations took over: limestone fired in kilns, gravel quarries, cement plants. By the last decade of the nineteenth century Orange County’s first water companies had applied for patents. Citrus groves were planted in the desert east of Yorba Linda, and the new boom of oranges commenced. The Santa Ana River and its main tributary were replete with water moving in seiches through the underground strata, enough by 1920 to support one of the largest industries in California. Artesian wells were drilled into even more underlying aquifers, pumping stations were established, and systems of pipe were built out to the burgeoning groves.

With the boom came fresh influxes of people, and population in the region soared, swelling the communities that had sprung up on the coastal plain. An old problem took on new dimension with these demographic shifts: rainy season floods that choked the riverbeds and washed into the new streets. The Army Corps of Engineers stabilized the bank lines and added catchments to contain runoff. At places where excessive scour had taken place, they filled in the bed with rip-rap. Where build-ups of silt threatened to block the watercourse, they excavated the bedload. Dams were constructed above the Santa Ana Narrows and on the Santiago at Villa Park after the worst flood in recorded history breached the levees in 1938. The Santa Ana River changed its course altogether, flowed into an abandoned channel right through the middle of Anaheim, and discharged into coastal lagoons near Seal Beach, moving the river mouth over three miles north from its present location. Once more it reverted to its old wild extremes, its old flexuous surprise, invoking a primordial right to elude itself.

After the completion of the dams, both the Santa Ana and the Santiago flowed through Orange County only insofar as it was necessary to replenish the groundwater basins or power the hydroelectric turbines. They were dispersed into storm drains, canal headworks, and spreading grounds. A naturally cyclic storage system for subsurface water was enhanced and made more efficient; runoff was routinely reused two and three times, and hardly any of it emptied into the ocean at Huntington Beach. Indeed, hydrologists determined that, due to aggressive upstream pumping, groundwater in the lower forebays of the Santa Ana flowed away from the Pacific Ocean after 1948, inland over alluvial cones, sucked back into the system of circulation from which it had just escaped. The Santiago became once again what it had always been: a creek only by implication, devious, passed over, winding behind slumpstone fences through the housing tracts, land-use districts, and low-rise mini-cities of a suburbia grown so outsized it would swallow the very orange groves that made it possible.

In the end suburbia swallowed the Santiago, too. It overwhelmed the creek’s productive capacities with its voracious sprinklers and swimming pools, forcing the purchase of more water from the Colorado River to add to the reservoirs. What water the creek could supply deteriorated in quality due to agricultural waste and brine from nearby oil fields leached into the aquifers, and the water companies were forced to abandon their wells. The creek more or less died below the Villa Park Dam after 1965, transformed into yet another no-man’s land, this time by virtue of the same forces that had civilized it. So maybe Aramente Hernandez was right after all. The Santiago was not really a creek but an angel become a devil, or a devil become an angel, a place for which there were only avatars—a place, anyway, at the empty center of all intention, where no one went but a few miscellaneous misfits and nothing happened but the things they invented.



Stefan Mattessich is the author of three novels: Point Guard, a coming-of-age story set on the Northern California coast of Mendocino; East Brother, a satire about gentrification in a fictional California beach town; and most recently A Precarious Man, about the search for love and belonging in neoliberal times.  He went to Yale College and has a PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he wrote a dissertation that became a monograph on Thomas Pynchon called Lines of Flight. He has also written a variety of literary criticism and cultural theory as well as fiction. He teaches English at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.

bottom of page