On the ground, it’s hard to get a fix on the Central Valley; it flashes by as dun-colored monotony — a sun-stunned void beyond the freeway berms. The view from the air is clarifying, then. Aloft, the landscape resolves itself into a semblance of order: sterile and abstract — a frieze of clean lines, hard angles, swatches of green and brown, and pane-like water features. For many Angelenos, it’s just that: flyover territory. But in “The Dreamt Land,” 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.
The wide-angle view is of a land transfigured by the human hand — its waterways dammed, diverted, even reversed to quench thousands of otherwise-arid acres, themselves scoured and graded. “The valley in its natural state resembled a rolling savanna not unlike the Serengeti,” writes Arax. Today, it stands primped for agricultural production — a project unparalleled globally. But if it’s no less man-made than the concrete canyons of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s also revealed here to be as much a crucible of mammon — the playground of outsize personalities as hard-bitten as the hardpan they pinned their fortunes on, and locus for epic feuds and dastardly schemes.
As rich as the farmer might be, his workers can still bring him to his knees if they realize their power.
It’s as a specimen of the mind-set that built California and drives it to this day that the valley fascinates in these pages. Though the Gold Rush looms large in state lore, it was short-lived. Its acquisitive mentality endured, however, finding an outlet in the late-19th century grab for farmland in California’s interior. The San Francisco plutocrats behind it conceived of their spree in the same vein as resource extraction: nature objectified, instrumentalized, monetized. It’s striking that a hallmark of valley agriculture was present from its inception: domination by wealthy absentee “farmers” (today living in places such as Pebble Beach, Fresno’s Fig Gardens and other bijou locales) abetted by investor syndicates — able to withstand the risks that go with its boom-bust rewards, overheads of tapping aquifers to irrigate drought-prone land, and imperative in commodified markets of planting at scale.
A corollary of this is a remorseless quest for growth to generate investment returns. Lubricating this addiction to growth: water — “liquid gold.” Arax cites a rapturous 1890s U.S. government survey, “… California could harvest all the cultivated products of New England and Florida at once.” But there was an asterisk against this prospective fecundity: just add water. Much of the land was parched.
Federal and state governments embarked on massive public works projects to give nature a nudge, requisitioning water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers for the valley’s bone-dry south, completed in 1949 and 1968, respectively. Such ventures did growers’ bidding, but by “[n]ot letting a drop of water go unused by farms and cities,” they squared with contemporary conservation tenets, Arax writes. They were also sold as a lifeline for beleaguered farms. Instead, they created “a water-guzzling monster,” as “junk land,” hitherto considered untenable for cultivation, was pressed into production enticed by “cheap federal water.” An influx of growers drove insatiable demand for water that amid years-long drought outstripped supply from the north and fueled rampant drilling for groundwater. Ransacking the water table — among other man-made causes — led to subsidence that constitutes “the most dramatic alteration of the earth’s surface in human history,” writes Arax. The ground is buckling.
For all its depiction of despoliation, however, “The Dreamt Land” is imbued with deep attachment to place. Arax is a native son descended from Armenian immigrants to the valley; he’s spent most of his working life there, much of it as The Times’ Fresno reporter . This is a deeply reported work keenly alive to local subcultures — often conditioned by soil and access to water — that debunks notions of the valley as monolithic, like the single crops in its fields.
Arax is affronted by drive-by journalism proclaiming it a “new Dust Bowl” and tropes peddling farmers as hung out to dry by bureaucrats in thrall to environmentalists. But he avoids simple vilification of growers, and such prescriptions as he offers — for instance, de-commissioning junk land — are incremental. Besides impoverished settlements that are glorified “labor camps” and venal double-dealing over water, he encounters growers trying to wean off pesticides and legacy raisin farmers picking up their forebears’ mantle. He also traipses through the gilt-edged Beverly Hills home of “the richest farmer in the country,” Stewart Resnick, whose Wonderful Co. has recast “big ag” as a gauzy, aspirational brand.
Arax is especially insightful on the political currents roiling this Trumpy enclave. Recalling his efforts to comprehend how a 1994 ballot measure to defund education for immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas could command support among growers whose workers would be hurt by it, he recounts one explanation:
“…The farmer and the Mexican are engaged in a centuries-long game. As rich as the farmer might be, his workers can still bring him to his knees if they realize their power. The farmer doesn’t like feeling vulnerable. He supported [it] because he knew that even if it went into effect, nothing would change… the Mexicans would keep coming to his fields. And as long as they kept coming, he wanted them to always feel a little ‘iffy.’”
Elsewhere, he writes of meeting Bruce Springsteen after a concert he gave in Fresno to tour an album featuring a song inspired by Arax’s reporting. Springsteen had alerted audience members to a box for contributions to “the hardworking men and women in the fields.” The take: naught. “What kind of place is this?” the Boss wanted to know.
A place wreathed in the “fog” of convenient “amnesia,” the memories of years-long drought rinsed clean by the rains when they come, Arax writes.
On one of his peregrinations, he visits Fairmead, a remote outpost of African Americans’ Great Migration from the rural South. Annie and Lawyer Cooper’s faucets ran dry when an almond-growing operation began quaffing the aquifer beneath their well. And then there’s the dust. Annie tries to seal the house but, “…it just blows right on through these little cracks.”
“The Dreamt Land” will similarly infiltrate your city-centric view of California.
Knopf: 576 pp., $30
Phillips’ writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic (online), Smithsonian, Washington Monthly, the Irish Times and other publications.