[Southern California Permaculture] NEW BOOK/The Dreamt Land CHASING WATER AND DUST ACROSS CALIFORNIA By MARK ARAX
wesley roe Santa Barbara Permaculture Network
lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Sep 18 03:12:39 PDT 2019
NEW BOOK/The Dreamt Land
CHASING WATER AND DUST ACROSS CALIFORNIA
By MARK ARAX
ABOUT THE DREAMT LAND
“[An] exhaustive, deeply reported account… Few other journalists could have written a book as personal and authoritative… As Arax makes plain in this important book, it’s been the same story in California for almost two centuries now: When it comes to water, ‘the resource is finite. The greed isn’t.'”–Gary Krist, The New York Times Book Review
A vivid, searching journey into California’s capture of water and soil–the epic story of a people’s defiance of nature and the wonders, and ruin, it has wrought
Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, that is straining to keep up with California’s relentless growth.
This is a heartfelt, beautifully written book about the land and the people who have worked it–from gold miners to wheat ranchers to small fruit farmers and today’s Big Ag. Since the beginning, Californians have redirected rivers, drilled ever-deeper wells and built higher dams, pushing the water supply past its limit.
The Dreamt Land weaves reportage, history and memoir to confront the “Golden State” myth in riveting fashion. No other chronicler of the West has so deeply delved into the empires of agriculture that drink so much of the water. The nation’s biggest farmers–the nut king, grape king and citrus queen–tell their story here for the first time.
This is a tale of politics and hubris in the arid West, of imported workers left behind in the sun and the fatigued earth that is made to give more even while it keeps sinking. But when drought turns to flood once again, all is forgotten as the farmers plant more nuts and the developers build more houses.
Arax, the native son, is persistent and tough as he treks from desert to delta, mountain to valley. What he finds is hard earned, awe-inspiring, tragic and revelatory. In the end, his compassion for the land becomes an elegy to the dream that created California and now threatens to undo it.
MARK ARAX is an author and journalist whose writings on California and the West have received numerous awards for literary nonfiction. A former staffer at the Los Angeles Times, his work has appeared in The New York Times and the California Sunday Magazine. His books include a memoir of his father’s murder, a collection of essays about the West, and the best-selling The King of California, which won a California Book Award, the William Saroyan Prize from Stanford University, and was named a top book of 2004 by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in Fresno, California
On a summer day in the San Joaquin Valley, 101 in the shade, I merge onto Highway 99 past downtown Fresno and steer through the vibrations of heat. I’m headed to the valley’s deep south, to a little farmworker town in a far corner of Kern County called Lost Hills. This is where the biggest farmer in America—the one whose mad plantings of almonds and pistachios have triggered California’s nut rush—keeps on growing, no matter drought or flood. He doesn’t live in Lost Hills. He lives in Beverly Hills. How has he managed to outwit nature for so long?
The GPS tells me to take Interstate 5, the fastest route through the belly of the state, but I’m partial to Highway 99, the old road that brought the Okies and Mexicans to the fields and deposited a twang on my Armenian tongue. Ninety-nine runs two lanes here, three lanes there, through miles of agriculture broken every twenty minutes by fast food, gas station and cheap motel. Tracts of houses, California’s last affordable dream, civilize three or four exits, and then it’s back to the open road splattered with the guts and feathers of chickens that jumped ship on the slaughterhouse drive. Pink and white oleanders divide the highway, and every third vehicle that whooshes by is a big rig. More often than not, it is hauling away some piece of the valley’s unbroken bounty. The harvest begins in January with one type of mandarin and ends in December with another type of mandarin, and in between comes everything in your supermarket produce and dairy aisles except for bananas and mangoes, though the farmers here are working on the tropical, too.
I stick to the left lane and stay ahead of the pack. The big-rig drivers are cranky two ways, and the farmworkers in their last-leg vans are half asleep. Ninety-nine is the deadliest highway in America. Deadly in the rush of harvest, deadly in the quiet of fog, deadly in the blur of Saturday nights when the fieldwork is done and the beer drinking becomes a second humiliation. Twenty miles outside Fresno, I cross the Kings, the river that irrigates more farmland than any other river here. The Kings is bone-dry as usual. To find its flow, I’d have to go looking in a thousand irrigation ditches in the fields beyond.
There’s a mountain range to my left and a mountain range to my right and in between a plain flatter than Kansas where crop and sky meet. One of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history took place here. The hillocks that existed back in Yokut Indian days were flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. Every river busting out of the Sierra was bent sideways, if not backward, by a bulwark of ditches, levees, canals and dams. The farmer corralled the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. He leveled its hog wallows, denuded its salt brush and killed the last of its mustang, antelope and tule elk. He emptied the sky of tens of millions of geese and drained the eight hundred square miles of Tulare Lake dry.
He did this first in the name of wheat, then beef, milk, raisins, cotton and nuts. Once he finished grabbing the flow of the five rivers that ran across the plain, he used his turbine pumps to seize the water beneath the ground. As he bled the aquifer dry, he called on the government to bring him an even mightier river from afar. Down the great aqueduct, by freight of politics and gravity, came the excess waters of the Sacramento River. The farmer commanded the distant flow. The more water he took, the more crops he planted, and the more crops he planted, the more water he needed to plant more crops, and on and on. One million acres of the valley floor, greater than the size of Rhode Island, are now covered in almond trees.
I pity the outsider trying to make sense of it. My grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, traveled seven thousand miles by ship and train in 1920 to find out if his uncle’s exhortation—“The grapes here are the size of jade eggs”—was true. My father, born in a vineyard outside Fresno, was a raisin grower before he became a bar owner. I grew up in the suburbs where our playgrounds were named after the pioneers of fruit and irrigation canals shot through our neighborhoods to farms we did not know. For half my life, I never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder?
I’m going to Kern County, just shy of the Tehachapi Mountains, to figure out how the big farmers, led by the biggest one of them all, are not only keeping alive their orchards and vineyards during the worst drought in California’s recorded history but planting more almonds (79,000 acres), more pistachios (73,000 acres), more grapes (35,000 acres) and more mandarin oranges (13,000 acres). It’s a July day in 2016, five years into the dry spell, and the delirium that has gripped the growers, by far the biggest users of water in the state, shows no sign of letting go. Even as the supplies of federal and state water have dropped to zero one year and near zero the next year, agriculture in Kern County keeps chugging along, growing more intensive. The new plantings aren’t cotton, alfalfa or carrots, the crops a farmer can decide not to seed when water becomes scarce. These are trees and vines cultivated in nurseries and put into the ground at a cost of ten thousand dollars an acre to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for nuts and fruits.
Agriculture in the south valley has extended so far beyond the provisions of its one river, the Kern, that local farmers are raising nearly one million acres of crops. Fewer than half these acres are irrigated with flows from the Kern. The river is nothing if not fickle. One year, it delivers 900,000 acre-feet of snowmelt; the next year, it delivers 300,000 acre-feet. To grow, Big Ag needed a larger and more dependable supply. So beginning in the 1940s, Kern farmers went out and grabbed a share of not one distant river but two: the San Joaquin to the north and the Sacramento to the north of that. The imported flow arrives by way of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the one-of-a-kind hydraulic system built by the feds and the state to remedy God’s uneven design of California. The water sent to Kern County—1.4 million acre-feet a year—has doubled the acres of cropland. But not even the two projects working in perfect tandem can defy drought. When nature bites down hard, and the outside flow gets reduced to a trickle, growers in Kern turn on their pumps and reach deeper into the earth.
The aquifer, a sea of water beneath the clay, isn’t bottomless. It can be squeezed only so much. As the growers punch more holes into the ground chasing a vanishing resource, the earth is sinking. The choices for the Kern farmer now come down to two: He can reach into his pocket and purchase high-priced water from an irrigation district with surplus supplies. Or he can devise a scheme to steal water from a neighbor up the road. I now hear whispers of water belonging to farmers two counties away being pumped out of the ground and hijacked in the dead of night to irrigate the nuts of Lost Hills.
I roll past Tulare, where every February they stage the biggest tractor show in the world, even bigger than the one in Paris, France. Past Delano and the first vineyards that Cesar Chavez marched against. Past McFarland and the Mexican boy runners who won five state championships in a row in the 1990s. Past Oildale and the boxcar where Merle Haggard grew up. Past Bakersfield and the high school football stadium where Frank Gifford and Les Richter, two future NFL Hall of Famers, squared off in the Valley Championship in 1947 in the driving rain. And then it hits me when I reach the road to Weedpatch, where my grandfather’s story in America—a poet on his hands and knees picking potatoes—began. I’ve gone too far. The wide-open middle of California did its lullaby on me again.
I turn back around and find Route 46, the road that killed James Dean. I steer past Wasco to the dust-blowing orchards and vineyards that rise out of the desert in Kern County, the densest planting of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and grapes on earth. Down this road are the baronies of Marko Zaninovich, who once was and may still be the nation’s largest table grape grower, and the Assemi brothers, Farid and Farshid and Darius, who plant cherries and nuts when they’re not planting houses, and Freddy Franzia, who grows and bottles more wine grapes than anyone except the Gallos. His most popular brand, 450 million bottles and counting, is Charles Shaw, “Two-Buck Chuck,” which sells for $1.99 at Trader Joe’s. Up ahead is the kingdom of Stewart Resnick, the richest farmer in the country and maybe the most peculiar one, too, whose 120,000-acre empire of fruits and nuts is called Wonderful. His story is the one I’ve been carting around in my notebook for the past few decades, sure I was ready to write it after five years or ten years, only to learn of another twist that would lead me down another road.
I park the car and start walking. The sun’s brutal beat reminds me of my grandfather pouring salt on his watermelon, an old farmworker trick to ward off sunstroke. I keep walking until I find myself straddling one of those divides that happen in the West, and maybe only in the West. Behind me, the hard line of agriculture ends. In front of me, the hard line of desert begins. In between wends the concrete vein that funnels the snowmelt from one end of California to the other. I have found Lost Hills, it would seem, but like so many other optical illusions I’ve followed along the thousand-mile path of bent water and reborn dust, the hills are not hills.
“There’s a new history of water use in California that’s fantastic. It’s called The Dreamt Land. It’s like John McPhee-level writing. It’s really worth it for the writing alone.”
“A mesmerizing new book that examines the nation’s most populous state through the prism of its most valuable resource: water. Call author Mark Arax, an award-winning journalist, historian and native son of the Central Valley, a Steinbeck for the 21st century.”
—Andy Kroll, Rolling Stone
“Arax narrates this tumultuous history skillfully… Water, land and the conjunction of the two have inspired some of California’s most powerful writing: Didion, Mary Austin’s lyrical The Land of Little Rain, Norris Hundley’s authoritative The Great Thirst, William Kahrl’s gorgeous, shamefully out-of-print The California Water Atlas, and, jumping genres, Chinatown, with its water-crazed Mephistopheles, Noah Cross. The Dreamt Land earns its place alongside them.”
—Peter Fish, The San Francisco Chronicle
“In his sprawling, provocative book The Dreamt Land, journalist Mark Arax examines California’s long-building water crisis with the keen, loving, troubled eye of a native son… The Dreamt Land assumes an urgent, personal tone and incorporates history, memoir and the lives of larger-than-life personalities. Taken together, it is a story biblical in scope and cautionary in tenor.”
—Gerard Helferich, The Wall Street Journal
“Former L.A. Times reporter Mark Arax makes a riveting case that this expanse — 450 miles lengthwise from Shasta to Tehachapi; 60 miles across from the Sierra Nevada to the Coastal Range — as much as the world cities on its coast, holds the key to understanding California … a deeply reported work keenly alive to local subcultures.”
—Stephen Phillips, Los Angeles Times
“Mark Arax’s monumental new book on California’s water system underscores the madness that makes the Golden State an agricultural powerhouse. [The Dreamt Land] is a compelling and powerful history of how power and greed shape the land, and Arax has achieved a masterful distillation of how California got here, warts and all.”
“The Dreamt Land weaves reportage, history and memoir to confront the “Golden State” myth in riveting fashion. No other chronicler of the West has so deeply delved into the empires of agriculture that drink so much of the water. The nation’s biggest farmers–the nut king, grape king and citrus queen–tell their story here for the first time.”
—Chicago Review of Books
“You can’t understand California without understanding water, and no one is better at doing that than Mark Arax, whose depth of knowledge about the Central Valley is organic and unparalleled. Plus, he writes like a dream.”
—Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters
“The Dreamt Land is the book Mark Arax was born to write. Nuanced, deeply researched, and profoundly personal, it offers, through its history of agriculture in California, a deep dive into the soul of the state. Arax knows the territory; he has written about rural California for many years. This is his crowning achievement, a work of reportage that is also a work of literature. It belongs on the short list of great books about the state.”—David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, and editor of the Library of America’s Collected Didion
“This is a stunning book. Biblical drama played against the harsh sun and earth of California’s Central Valley. Exodus, diaspora, parting the waters, sowing and reaping, Godlike dominion: it’s all in here. The Dreamt Land calls up Steinbeck and Didion, but it rests squarely on its own words, memories, and stories beyond mere comparison.”—William Francis Deverell, Director of Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
“California’s relationship to water is defined by such contradictions and complexities, as evidenced by this brilliant work from Arax… Arax’s combination of research with memoir gives it the necessary lift and motion to make it compelling, brutal, and consistently hard to put down. “We have run out of tricks, or at least the easy ones,” writes Arax at one point of the problem. It is a painful honesty for us to confront, which makes the issue all the more important for readers everywhere to consider. VERDICT: A stunning and uncompromising look at California’s man-made water crisis in the context of its complex history of agricultural growth. Highly recommended for those interested in environmental issues and journalistic nonfiction.”
—Library Journal (starred)
“A sweeping, engrossing history of his native California focused on the state’s use, overuse, and shocking mismanagement of water….Arax reveals the consequences to land and wildlife of generations of landowners who have defiantly dug, dammed, and diverted California’s waters.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Arax brings a reporter’s precision of language, a researcher’s depth of perception, and a born storyteller’s voice to this empathetic but unsentimental look at the history, present, and uncertain future of a once-arid region restructured into one of the country’s most productive.”
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