The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax (Alfred A. Knopf 545 pp.)

A review by Don A. Wright

When I was a boy growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley county history was the curriculum of the fourth grade. I grew up in Fresno County, I’ve spent the majority of my life living in Fresno County but for reasons not germane to this story my family kept changing members and moving often. I attended six different grammar schools before matriculating to junior high. The fourth grade was split between two schools in Bakersfield. So, Kern County was the only county history I’ve studied in a formal setting.

Perhaps it was my unfamiliarity of the location, the disruption of lesson plans or the distraction of constantly making and leaving new friends – but I honestly don’t remember much about Kern County history. I recall a Frenchman, perhaps a fir trapper, perhaps named LeBec was killed by “X” bear near LeBec just north of Gorman and the county line. I think the only reason I remembered this historical tidbit was the frustration of trying to understand what an X bear was. Was it a grizzly, a black bear, a brown? The first fourth grade teacher was kind and sweet, the second one was coarse and surly – so in my memory the second teacher was the one who wouldn’t or couldn’t convey to me the idea that “X” was a place holder for an unknown bear, like a variable in algebra. As I look back why it was important to include the fact the bear was unknown seems trivial to the point of ridiculous. The historians could have just as easily stated “. . . a large mammal of the ursine family, of indeterminate gender, birthdate and address unknown, turn on’s French food, turn offs coon skin caps and mirrored sunglasses.”

Now I wish I’d learned more about Kern County history. When and why was the Kern River dammed? What caused Buena Vista Lake to dry up? Who was Ben Ali Hagen and what role did he play in water? In the spirit of stating the obvious X bear style, the study of history is an important link to the past. It is very helpful in understanding where we are if we know how we got here.

I’ve learned a lot of the history of this great area we call home, the San Joaquin Valley, from reading books authored by Fresno native Mark Arax. In My Father’s Name taught me the history of the Armenian people in Fresno, how to display personal tragedy and loss with dignity. It answered some long asked questions like who was Armond Bletcher? It’s a slice of Fresno’s history. The King of California was an amazing piece of reporting and storytelling. Arax told me the research was extensive, who knows? It might be used as a textbook someday. I’ve tried for years to get quotes and statements from the Boswell organization and despite what I consider my zeal to tell ag’s story in a fair manner and the fact my grandfather moved from Georgia and worked for the Colonel I’ve never received even one on the record remark. Meanwhile Arax is riding around the ranch in a truck with J.G. I’ve written a lot about the water used by the Wonderful Company and have pretty good relations with its employees but Steward Resnick doesn’t return my calls. How’s Arax do it? I don’t know but I’m glad he does.

Water in California is a never ending story. Water was, is and will continue to be the single greatest force shaping this state. In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California Arax covers the history of water and its relationship to ag, or perhaps more accurately agriculture’s relation to water. The thesis in this book is ag has always used more water than is available. Since the Spanish first arrived California’s climate and soil have created the desire to push the envelop on how much can be grown. Water has always been the limiting factor.

Arax is a good writer. He provides the details and colors that bring the stories to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. This is a history book that tells the stories of Fr. Junipero Serra, John Sutter and Henry Miller through water. There are contemporary names we know; Jack Pandol Jr.’s tale of how he developed the finest table grapes in the world is as exciting as the battles with the United Farm Workers. John Kirkpatrick and Dana Munn, men I see at meetings every month are mentioned as part of history. The stories throughout this book show how citrus came to be such an important crop to the Valley’s east side. How cotton came to be such an important crop to the Valley’s west side. Raisins? Arax is an Armenian American. If anything the contribution of this abused and battered people to the raisin industry has gone beyond anything mentioned in this book.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is a big place; larger than some eastern states and European countries and the movement of water is on a gigantic scale – both naturally and with the help of human engineering. These stories too are told. How the largest water district in the nation, Westlands, came to be is covered. The stories of Wonderful Orchards and Steward Resnick, John Vidovich, the changes of the communities of Cantua Creek and Lost Hills are stories just now maturing to the point of telling. Like good fruit some stories need time to ripen.

This book will most likely anger some people. Much of it does not take a kind look at the business of agriculture. One of my first thoughts when reading this book was, “Arax, you best not let the sun set on you in Bakersfield.” There is much in this book that I believe was presented with bias. But in a way it’s a bias against growth on display, not hidden. An example is the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge portion of this book. Selenium is a natural occurring chemical found in the Coast Range. When rain washes down the west side mountains it brings selenium to the Valley’s floor. Cattle on the east side of the Valley have to have selenium in their salt blocks because it is so sparse they can’t get the trace amounts they need for proper nutrition. But like anything else too much is too much. Selenium built up in irrigation run off from westside farms and accumulated in the water at Kesterson. You can look all you like and you’ll never find a farmer (or anyone else for that matter) who deliberately set out to cause genetic mutations in birds. The San Luis Drain was supposed to be moving that salty tail water to a safer place; to be ultimately discharged into the San Francisco Bay. The government had a made an agreement to build the drain but never finished it. I’ve heard had the work started at the water’s edge and moved south the project would have been completed but opposition caused the project to start at the path of least resistance. Kind of like high speed rail. When telling the tale of Kesterson one can use facts to tar and feather the farmer or the government bureaucracy. Same facts, same outcome, but how you tell it?; that’s where my negative criticism comes to play. Had the NIMBYs and enviros not halted the drain there wouldn’t have been a Kesterson story to tell.

Farmers farm, give them a chance at more water and they’ll farm more ground. Politicians legislate and if a group of constituents provides more support they are listened to. It might be farmers or it might be environmentalists or regulators. I think Arax applied human nature unevenly when writing this book. But that’s a fault we all possess to some degree. However, that didn’t bother more than 300 people who filled the Clovis Memorial Building’s auditorium on Friday night May 17th, The Dreamt Land had its official launch and book signing event that also helped benefit the Friends of the Fresno County Library. The event featured a reading of passages by Arax and a brief but entertaining talk by Joel Pickford who was the principle photographer for the book. Towards the end of the question and answer portion of the evening someone asked the almost obligatory question Quid est veritas? What is the truth about water, farming and the Valley’s future? Did Arax feel he landed on the truth. I believe Arax’s answer summed it up quite well, “When it comes to water in California you’ve got to get in the muddy middle.”

Should you read it? Absolutely; if for no other reason than you’ll get history you just won’t find anywhere else. But especially if you’re involved in ag in the San Joaquin Valley The Dreamt Land is an important book. If it upsets you, fair enough, but there is much to it. It’s a book about home; where we sleep at night and raise our families. You ought to read it just to see what it says.

 

Note: I feel I need to disclose some information about my relationship with Mark Arax. There are folks who see Mark Arax as just another mainstream reporter. While it’s true the image of the profession of journalism has degraded to the status of a used car salesman running for political office and a call from a reporter is as welcomed as answering the doorbell only to find a Jehovah’s Witness selling Amway – there are still some who tell a complete tale. I count Arax as one of those who searches for both sides of the story. Read almost any newspaper or clipping service – on a daily basis you’ll see reporters who go no further than parroting the press release. That’s not Arax’s style. You may not like or agree with his conclusions but they are informed. I can look you straight in the eye and tell you I’ve never seen Arax avoid a fact because it doesn’t fit his preferred narrative.

In 2003 I was writing for a Fresno business publication covering ag and other beats. The second time I was fired by this publication (a story for another time) Arax called me and asked if I could go up to Modesto and do some coverage for the Los Angeles Times. He wasn’t feeling well and the authorities in Washington DC had just confirmed they’d found the body of Modesto native Chandra Levy. The biggest story since 9/11 in the biggest newspaper west of the Appalachians?  Me freshly unemployed? – it was an easy yes.

Television and movies often portray reporters gathering on the courthouse steps in a scrum forming a gauntlet for some person of interest to navigate while screaming questions all at once. Maybe it happens somewhere but I’ve never seen it. What I saw in Modesto was a fleet of diesel powered satellite vans and about 50 or 60 reporters from all over the nation and the world. They were somber. A lady representing the sheriff’s office and speaking for the family brought us coffee and donuts. She thanked us on behalf of the family for keeping the story alive long enough for the family to have closure on their daughter’s whereabouts.

I did what you call stringer work. A stringer asks questions and gathers facts and sends them to the reporter to write up the story. You’ll sometimes see the stringer’s name in italics at the end of the story. The next day the Times came out with the Levy story on the front page above the fold. The byline read, “by Mark Arax and Don Wright”. That is a very big deal. For one I just happened to have a copy with me when I went to pick up my last check from the paper that’d fired me. Other benefits soon followed. I picked up a lot of work from the Times for a while. I covered the Scott Peterson murder trial as long as it was in Modesto and that ratcheted up my reputation and visibility quite a bit. Some water bank developers from Los Angeles learned about me and needed someone in the Valley to help them. I ended up working with them for 18 years which is how I ended up with WaterWrights.net. So, I can say Mark Arax has had a benevolent and lasting influence on my life.