When people think of California, most picture Southern California and the Bay Area. The “Other California,” our vast Central Valley, gets little attention, maybe because of its relatively sparse population, and, to many, it’s bland landscape. Fresno native Mark Arax’s sprawling new book The Dreamt Land aims to remedy this neglect. He draws on his years of intimate knowledge of our valley that began when, as a child, he wondered where all the water in the canals surrounding his grandfather’s farm was going. Arax, with his intimate, first-hand knowledge of the Valley, borne of decades of exposure, was destined to write this book and is, perhaps, the only person who could do the subject justice. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the subject matter might remain a dry compilation of facts devoid of the many nuances and the many little-known human stories buried within. Arax’s many contacts along with his mastery of language, including his ability to compose colorful word pictures of seemingly mundane subjects, spins chaff into gold, weaving facts and associated anecdotes into an entertaining tapestry easily accessible to everyone.
As an agricultural consultant in the valley, based in Bakersfield, I often make the trek to Fresno, 100 miles north and also to farms 60 miles west, using the radio and books on tape to break the monotony. Here’s Arax covering the same ground: “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….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.” And continuing west, he writes, “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.” That last sentence highlights the recurring main theme of the book: Water — its scarcity during periodic droughts and where to store it during wet years, with underground aquifers being the preferred method of storage. Arax, along with others, concludes that the current situation is unsustainable, that a significant acreage of farmland will have to be retired in order to allow everyone to get their fair share of water.
Arax divides our huge valley into manageable parts: the citrus belt on the east side, the always water-short west side, the area near Fairmead, northwest of Fresno, where an undependable aquifer forces residents to haul in bottled water. he introduces us to a host of interesting characters along the way including two east side citrus growers with ties to notable Southern families: Loren Booth, daughter of Otis Booth (cousin to former Los Angeles times publisher Otis Chandler) and Tom Mulholland, great grandson of William Mulholland, who was famous (or notorious) for diverting Owens Valley water to the L.A. basin, which is the subject of "Chinatown," the classic movie that cemented Jack Nicholson’s reputation as an actor. Among others, we also meet Jack Pandol Sr. and Jr., Kern County grape growers, and Jack Woolf, who farms thousands of acres on the west side. Arax’s grandfather, Aram Arax, makes cameo appearances throughout the book.
Some Valley residents suffer from an inferiority complex, partly because their supposedly more sophisticated, and generally more liberal relatives and friends in coastal enclaves express sympathy for them for having to survive 100-degree summer days as well as enduring what some believe to be a redneck culture — not necessarily a pejorative term, as many so-called rednecks are more honest and harder-working than your average liberal. Where are your intellectual liberals in this cultural desert, your friends may inquire, as if the term requires respect, when in fact, there are no written guidelines to define an intellectual liberal and no criteria to show that your average liberal is a superior human being to your average redneck. Although he might deny it (or respond, “I’ve been called worse”), Mark Arax is both an intellectual and a liberal, a characterization amply supported by his writing. And yes, he may have picked up a touch of redneck, as some Valley liberals have, via years of exposure.
Our valley is sometimes disparaged for its drab landscape — mile after mile of trees, vines and row crops — beautiful vistas for farmers, not so much for cityfolk. There is one time of year, however, when there is no more beautiful place in the world than the Valley: almond bloom in late February. Fall foliage displays in New England deservedly attract huge crowds; Valley almond blooms, not so much. A million acres of almonds in full bloom, is, arguably, far more spectacular than any fall foliage display. Fall foliage does enjoy a significant advantage over almond bloom: it can last up to 2 months, making it easy to schedule a visit at a convenient time. Peak almond bloom, on the other hand, rarely lasts more than 10 days, and much less if temperatures reach 80 degrees, which can happen. To catch peak almond bloom, aim for February 24th and drive north on Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton. Get out of the car and (with permission) walk through an almond orchard breathing in the blossom fragrance as you listen to the happy sound of multitudes of industrious, happy honey bees that the grower has rented to pollinate his trees. Don’t worry about getting stung — bees working flowers won’t sting — but don’t go near their hives since bees get defensive close to their homes.
Any book on the central valley written after 1980 would be incomplete without covering mega-farmer Stewart Resnick. Arax does not disappoint. Because Resnick was familiar with his past work (and perhaps because he wanted to control the narrative), Resnick granted Arax a rare interview, possibly the only one given by the media-averse mogul. "The Dreamt Land" devotes an entire 42-page chapter to Resnick, his wife, partner and marketing genius, Lynda, and their Wonderful Company that markets their almonds, pistachios, citrus (including seedless mandarins, sold as Halos), grapes and pomegranates (including POM Wonderful pomegranate juice). Resnick is “the single biggest grower of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus in the world. Last time he checked, he owned 180,000 acres in California. That’s 281 square miles, almost the size of the five boroughs that make up New York City. He is irrigating 121,000 of these acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, four million human beings, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.” (1 acre foot of water = 326,000 gallons). Resnick has been involved in many water transactions over the years, making deals to ensure that his trees get enough water to continue to produce bountiful crops. Most of these deals are probably legal; some may be questionable from an ethical standpoint.
Resnick’s empire started in the late 1970s when he purchased thousands of acres of prime ag land in Kern County at bargain-basement prices from oil companies that wanted out of farming. He added to this base in subsequent years with timely purchases of distressed properties in Kern County and in adjacent counties. Resnick is a complicated character. Unlike most famers, he has a liberal bent and has provided the deserving children of his farm workers with college scholarships. He has invested millions of dollars in and around the small farming town of Lost Hills (including a state-of-the-art soccer park) where many of his farm workers live. The Resnicks are also building an 80 million dollar charter school complex in Delano. If Resnick had been a large grape grower in Delano in the 1960s, we would never have heard of Cesar Chavez (or Dolores Huerta).
The Dreamt Land places Arax alongside three other iconic and revered Valley authors: Joan Didion (of the Sacramento Valley), William Saroyan (also a Fresno native and a fellow Armenian) and John Steinbeck. While these three icons of literature have made valuable contributions on a number of subjects, Arax took on the gargantuan task of making sense out of an entire valley in one massive undertaking. At 528 pages, the book may intimidate some but those that open it and start reading will be amply rewarded for the effort. The book is broken down into 21 easily digestible chapters, many of them stand-alone mini-books. Arax was born to write this book and readers should take advantage of his gift.
With the wealth of material provided by Arax, "The Dreamt Land" would make a good movie, arguably as good as, or better than, Chinatown. And, in Ken Burns’ skilled hands, it would also make a worthwhile and entertaining documentary. Should either (a movie or documentary) happen, readers could brag: “I read the book!”