The Last Valley

All roads that lead to California are long roads. They are journeys, migrations, myths. My grandfather’s road in the spring of 1920 covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There was no turning back. Everything he encountered in the new world seemed so farfetched. The Statue of Liberty, the nation’s capital, the budding factories of Detroit. Not until the tracks reached the middle of California and crossed over the San Joaquin River did America come true. Outside his window, beneath the snowy caps of the Sierra, vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row, shimmered in the late afternoon sun. As the train chugged into Fresno, he kept muttering the same words in Armenian. “Just like the old land.”

The old land was a lazy village beneath the mountain of mist in Bursa, Turkey. For centuries, his people had fished the waters of the Sea of Marmara and harvested the silk from the mulberry trees, and then one day in 1915 they were gone. More than one million Armenians had been killed by the Ottoman Turks in the 20th century’s first genocide. My grandfather hid in an attic in Istanbul, outlasting the death marches and mass executions by reading the poems of Baudelaire and the short stories of Maupassant. When the massacres were over, he came down from his nest to announce a bold plan to his widowed mother. He would attend the Sorbonne University, study French literature and become a writer. And so he began to write poems in the pen name of Arax, the mother river of Armenia, and caught the eye of a railroad magnate who was willing to pay his tuition and board. That’s when the letters from his uncle Ervant in Fresno, California arrived. “Watermelons as big as small boats. Grapes that hang like jade eggs.” My grandfather was 19 when he took the bait.

This is how it came to be that my father, Ara, was born on a raisin vineyard along Highway 99 and when I was eight years old, he bought a bar along Highway 99 where one Sunday evening in 1972 he was shot dead. This is how it came to be that more than thirty years later I live and write in an old fig orchard almost a perfect equidistance from that farm and bar, so that the sound that puts me to sleep at night is the train that rides the tracks along Highway 99 that brought my grandfather to this spot eighty-six years ago.

He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when Uncle Ervant drove up to the depot that day in a gleaming Model T Ford. For three days, he let my grandfather believe that all was sweet in this land of pomegranate and peach. Then on the fourth day, they headed 140 miles south on a country road and stepped off in a place called Weed Patch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck arrived, my grandfather did what all young poets do when they land here. He dug his knees into the ground and started picking. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest. Potatoes, watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. It took him four seasons working alongside his mother, sister and brother to go from fruit tramp to farmer.

My grandfather loved the idea of farming. Tilling, irrigating, harvesting, pruning–he came to each one as a romantic. But a farmer he was not, at least not the kind who could feed three children and cover his losses at the pinochle table. That poets made poor farmers should have been clear to him early on. Yet he kept growing crops again and again in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Vine hoppers devoured one raisin harvest. Mildew ate another. If the weather was good and the pests light, his own sloth would do him in. Relatives had a one-word explanation for his failure: Politics. He was too busy reading the New Masses, the Marxist monthly, when he should have been walking the rows.

Every family lugs around a story of lost gold. That last farm along the San Joaquin River became ours. A patient man would have found a way to keep it, Grandma said. A patient man would have been around to see it subdivided into big fancy houses. By the time I was growing up, the only vineyard in the family was the one in a painting that hung from our adobe fireplace. My grandparents had moved into a house in the center of Fresno, where their distance from the farm was made plain everyday. Right outside the front door, a huge irrigation canal sliced through the neighborhood and shot Sierra snowmelt to faraway fields. I’d watch my grandfather light his pipe and walk the canal bank in the dead heat of afternoon. Sometimes he’d disappear on the other side of the oleanders and not come back for an hour. He believed until the day he died that the end of our farming life, this severing from the soil, is what led to my father’s murder.

Grandpa got even by planting vegetables in every nook and cranny in his backyard. He belonged to a legion of failed Armenian, Italian, Japanese, Swede, Slav, Volga German, Mexican and Okie farmers who were making last stands in suburbia. I was the oldest grandchild and on weekends he’d take me to visit one or another of his old country friends. Walking into their houses felt like walking into a vault. The mothballed air was hard to breathe, and the crushed velvet couches lined with doilies were too perfect to sit on. Gnarled Armenian men in slippers would bend down and look me in the eye but instead of taking my hand for a shake, they’d grab my ear and pull. For the unbearable pain of nearly getting it yanked off my head, they’d reach into their pockets and hand me a nickel or dime or quarter, depending on whether they came from Van or Bitlis or Moosh. They’d ask me who I loved better, my mother or my father, a riddle I took to mean that life itself was made up of impossible choices. Then we’d have to go in their backyards and marvel at the size of their Ace tomatoes or stare in wonder at the deep purple of their Black Beauty eggplants. After a cup of Turkish coffee, Grandpa would say goodbye and we’d climb back in the car. “Can you believe the state of that garden?” he’d ask me. “He thinks water can make up for every sin. What the esh (jackass) needs is a good hoe to break up the soil. When the soil breathes, the plants breathe.”

It was the land that brought them here. And it is the land that brings them still. Hmong, Mexicans, Sikhs. The valley sun is the Punjab sun.

The San Joaquin Valley (27,000 square miles from Bakersfield to Stockton) is a singular place in the American landscape. No other farm belt in the world produces such a variety of crops—more than 250 fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, fiber—in such staggering amounts. Each year, we bake more than 265,000 tons of raisins and pick more than 4 million tons of table grapes. From the orchards come 1.5 million tons of apricots, plums, nectarines and peaches and 614,000 tons of almonds, walnuts and pistachios. From the fields of row crops come 400,000 tons of cantaloupes, 515,000 tons of onions and six million tons of tomatoes. From the dairies we pull an astonishing 12 billion pounds of milk and cream. We have built something that no other tribe has built. This place is not replaceable.

Some of us may be tempted to read God’s intentions in this bounty. It is true that no other valley combines this valley’s size and flatness, a climate that presents almost no danger from frost and a sun whose fierceness bears down only when the vineyards and orchards need ripening, so that it takes just three weeks of late summer to blister a Thompson grape into a Sun Maid raisin. Yet it is also true that a valley that was one year desert and the next year marsh needed the considerable taming of Man.

Back in Yokut time, if winter hit the Sierra hard, the rivers swelled with snowmelt, and the valley became one great wetland in spring. Wet enough that it was possible to take a boat and navigate from present-day Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay, hopping nothing but lakes and river. At its height, Tulare Lake, sitting at the confluence of the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern rivers, stretched some 800 square miles. All the way through the mid 1800s, it existed as the most dominant feature on the California map, big enough to sustain four separate Yokut tribes. Yet in dry years, this same stretch yielded to a desert so forbidding that the Spanish could not conquer it. Their horses fell knee deep in the catacombs of gophers. No mission would ever come here.
For the early boomer, the trick then was to even out those wet and dry years, to capture the snowmelt and carve out an existence between drought and flood. My grandfather arrived amid what was arguably the greatest transformation of any valley in history. In thirty short years, we bridled every Sierra river and created the largest irrigation project the world has ever known. Billions of dollars in taxpayer money dammed the rivers, sucked dry the lakes and erected a lattice of canals, dikes and levees. Few rivers were tapped like the Kings. Today, it irrigates more farmland than any other river in the world except for the Nile and the Indus—more than one million acres of vineyards, orchards and cotton fields. Tulare Lake, a land of 10 million geese, is no more.

For all its bounty, the Great Central Valley doesn’t offer a kid much in the way of bragging rights. When I was growing up, I don’t remember anyone ever calling our flatland  “the Great” or thinking that we were part of some vast, shared landscape. No fine books in praise of the valley existed back then, at least not on our shelves. As for writer William Saroyan, our favorite son, he spent a whole damn novel calling Fresno ‘‘Ithaca.’’

Saroyan, as it happened, was a friend of the family, and as I began to show an interest in writing, Grandpa would take me to his house for chats. His garden, unlike the other Armenian gardens, was a waist high thicket of dandelion and mint. No doily adorned the couch in the living room where an old Royal typewriter sat high on a draftsman’s table. It was there, surrounded by the rocks and shards of glass and twine that Saroyan collected on his bicycle rides through town, that I learned that every writer, at least every writer in the West, must eventually confront a deep ambivalence about the place that nurtured him.

The writer does this one of two ways. He leaves and writes about his place from afar, hoping the distance gives him not only perspective but a rein on his anger and a check on his heart. Or he stays and tries to work it out from within, the past and the present knocking heads and confusing his feelings. Saroyan believed he could have it two ways, living half the year in Paris and half in Fresno, and writing about each as home. I have chosen the latter, digging my heels into native ground, and it can be a messy proposition, too much heat and too much passion. I’m still here, though, trying to get it right, trying to put my finger on this valley. And what an odd, paradoxical place it is.

Where else in America can you take a 20-minute drive and go from white suburbia with its brand new schools, football stadiums, 8,000-square foot houses and giant evangelical Christian compounds to the inner city with its gangs and drug-infested neighborhoods to the dead silence of a vineyard in winter’s hibernation?  No region produces more meth and more milk than this valley. If you want to look at the burgeoning political power of the exurbs, come here. If you want to examine the enduring poverty of rural America, come here. If you want to see more IV drug use and concentrated urban poverty than in any other city in the nation (New Orleans is #2) come to Fresno’s inner city.

And then there is the paradox at the core of our existence.

When I pull out the annual reports from the local farm bureaus, it appears as if nothing has changed. There’s Fresno, the number one agricultural producing county in the nation, and Tulare, number two, and Kern, number four. How then to explain that the grape fields are no longer our future? That the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the raisin farmer now wait for a knock on the door from the land man telling them their acres are ready for a new planting—houses by Kaufman & Broad and Centex and Lennar? The farm bureau might as well be called “the development bureau in waiting.” Over the past few years, the bureau president in Fresno alone has sold more than $40 million worth of orchards and vineyards for tract houses. For the act of razing his farm, the local chamber of commerce named him “Agriculturalist of the Year for 2006.”

Whether this honoring of our biggest sell out reflects some deep-seated hostility about what and who we are, a collective shame about being clodhoppers in the eyes of the outside world, or is simply a cockamamie way of congratulating one farmer who had been living on the brink of financial ruin, I cannot say. It is one of the questions that keep me here, trying to understand our mad dash toward a new identity. What happened from one generation to the next? I wonder. Did farming fail? Did the dream of farming fail? Was its bottom line too brutal to survive?

Searching for context, I head to the library and pull out the old stories from the Los Angeles Times. I am not surprised to find that they read almost word for word like the stories I read in my local newspaper today. The same cries of concern, the same endless calls for studies, the same justifications and hand wringing. The valley, I calculate, is standing right where Los Angeles stood in 1956. Back then, Los Angeles County produced more farm goods than any other county in the nation. A decade later, it didn’t even rank in the top ten. A decade after that, all but a few boutique farms had been paved over.

Admittedly, the comparison to Los Angeles is not a perfect one. Los Angeles had Hollywood and a Pacific Ocean to draw its dreamers. The San Joaquin Valley is a tougher sell. And because the valley is a far bigger piece of earth than Los Angeles and Orange counties combined, it will take decades longer for agriculture to lose its supremacy here. Already, though, the forces of sprawl seem impossible to stop. Rivers of Farms are becoming Rivers of Suburbia with almost no debate. The same federal Bureau of Reclamation that captured the rivers a century ago in the name of agriculture meets in private today with real estate developers to siphon the water for houses and big box shopping centers. As for our local elected officials, they all seem pleasantly dumb to the fact that sprawl is an economic loser. City councils and boards of supervisors controlled by white men go on endlessly about the need to “preserve the farm,” but in 20 years of attending meetings I have yet to see a vote that didn’t go the developer’s way.  At least the Mexican-Americans now getting elected don’t pretend to be nagged by guilt when they turn an orchard into a Wal-Mart. Rather, they feel a sense of liberation from the fields that brought their parents and grandparents to their knees.

The San Joaquin Valley is now fully embarked on the second great transformation in its modern history. Before the shift is over, demographers and planners say, the nation’s longest chain of cities will rise here, a 280-mile megalopolis along the spine of Highway 99. We will grow twice as fast as the rest of California and our population will double to seven million by the year 2040. More than 1.5 million acres–one-third of our best irrigated farmland–will be gone. The plans to remake the valley even take in Highway 99 itself, which the boosters want to turn into a federal freeway with a new name—“Interstate 999” perhaps—that might attract a new industry.

Whenever I sound my screed about losing Eden, I think about the old Yokut watching that iron bully known as the Fresno Scraper flatten every last one of his hog wallows. I think about the cynic who hollers “so what.” One culture built on the damming of rivers, the subsidizing of crops, the exploitation of migrants is being replaced by another culture only slightly more greedy and destructive. Those of us making a case to preserve the farm must be honest about what we are trying to save. We must be honest about its low wages and seasonal employment and economies of scale that tip the balance in favor of farm giants like Boswell and Gallo and Resnick. Old farmers attached to the soil that has given them a good life might try to hang on, but their children are softened by no such love of the land. Not when they are selling plums for the same price they sold them in 1981. Not when they are facing a farmer in China who grows garlic for half their price. Nostalgia can’t compete with a land man offering $250,000 for an acre of loam in growth’s path.

So this place, it turns out, is replaceable.

For the writer, of course, all this becomes a story, perhaps the most insane and tumultuous and exhilarating story he or she will ever tell. It will be full of crimes and tragedies and bright new opportunities best told not by the writer with nostalgia fogging his eyes but by a Hmong or Sikh or Oaxacan whose grandfather took the long road to the valley in 1980 or 1990 or 2010. May their voices be added to future editions of “Highway 99,” side by side with the voices you will find here, even if that road of oleanders that runs through our heart exists by another name.

Read more in Highway 99, available on Amazon.