by Ann Willis
We are all sinners. At least, that’s the impression Mark Arax leaves in The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California. What’s bold, and distinguishes this book from others about California, is that Arax grapples with a history that we’re still in the midst of creating, rather than reflecting on sins long past and easily put away as the transgressions of others. In that way, he leaves us both illuminated and uncomfortable, for we must ask ourselves: Are we complicit? Or an agent of the rigged system? For there doesn’t seem to be much safe space for innocence.
The voices that resonate through this story are not so much oft-told tales of William Mulhullond and the Owen’s Valley Water Grab or dam excesses under Floyd Dominy, though those episodes are given their due in the chapters that describe the era of extraction and rerouting of California’s waterways. Rather than dwell on overtold stories, Arax introduces new voices, including his.
Part of what makes this book compelling and widely appealing is that Arax doesn’t shy away from his unwonkiness. His first awareness of California water was, like most people, tangential to some other part of everyday life. Arax’s grandmother pointed to irrigation ditches crisscrossing Fresno and urged young Arax to promise never to play near one,
“…because I would lose my balance and fall in and, like the poor sons of the Mexican farmworkers, no one would hear my screams or be able to save me. The men who ran the irrigation district wouldn’t shut off the valve and drag me out until the growing season was over, she told me. When I asked her why, she said the flow of one irrigation ditch meant more to the valley than the body of one silly little boy.” (The Dreamt Land, pg. 46)
Arax seems to rearrange fragments of childhood memories, like his grandmother’s warning or a strange tool that his grandfather kept in a drawer, as though twisting a kaleidoscope so that when they refocus, they are framed by the powers that control the flow of California’s rivers. It’s as though, with his education of California water, a secret is revealed and Arax suddenly sees his family’s history more clearly. As pieces of his heritage come into focus, Arax guides us to forces that shaped his story, showing us how his story is also ours. If we eat here, drink here, live here, we are touched by the deep state of California water. And within that deep state, there is as much indifference to us as to a silly little boy in a ditch.
Stewart and Lynda Resnick might take issue with that assessment. That’s the implication suggested in “Kingdom of Wonderful,” the chapter on a carpetbagger’s rise and success in California agriculture. While reading about growers like the Resnicks, I’m reminded of dynasties like the Rockefellers and Carnegies: families whose wealth from industrial transgressions seems distant while their philanthropic legacies endure in museums, performance centers, public land, and libraries. Woven into the Resnicks’ empire-building activities are considerable philanthropic and community programs, including an $80 million charter school serving students from the poorest towns in the West. Nevertheless, the agricultural practices underpinning such philanthropy stand in stark relief. When a billion-dollar nut harvest signals the start of inhaler season for local farmworkers who can’t drink their own tap water and reside in what neurologists call “Parkinson’s Alley,” it’s hard to accept philanthropy as proportional penance.
Arax doesn’t just level his judgement on the agricultural barons of Kern County. He dismisses any notion of bystanders’ innocence, too:
“When the rivers were content, the people were content…They had no interest in hiring engineers who could tell them at what cubic feet their rivers flowed, a science that might allow them to better prepare for the next fit of weather. In times of good nature, they cared not to be reminded of ill nature. In the desire to forget, their memories were able to play such tricks that when flood and drought returned, they were genuinely perplexed.” The Dreamt Land, pg. 171
From regulators down to the public, Arax holds a mirror up to all and shows us the reflection of those either willfully indifferent to over-consumption or too cowed to wield power to regulate it. The consequences of that indifference or impotence are playing out today, such as the on-going effort to raise of Shasta Dam. Part of the genius of Arax’s book is how it juxtaposes California’s settlement history with today’s conflicts. The Dreamt Land shows that California’s water war is a long game in which formidable players have staked their ground and simply wait for the right combination of opportunity and luck to press their advantage.
Mark Arax will speak on November 18th, 4-5:30pm at the UC Davis Student Community Center multi-purpose room. You can register at the Eventbrite link. The book lecture is free and open to the entire campus community and the public. Please feel free to forward the Eventbrite invitation to others who may be interested.
Ann Willis is a researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences and a PhD candidate in civil engineering. She holds fellowships with the National Science Foundation GFRP, John Muir Institute for the Environment, and Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.
Arax, Mark. 2019. The Dreamt Land
Reisner, Marc. 1986. Cadillac Desert
Water is for fighting over? – a review of John Fleck’s recent book. California Waterblog.