At 8:15 pm on May 18, 2016, the sky was darkening over Joshua Tree. I was driving across La Contenta Road heading eastbound on Route 62, doing about five under the limit.
And then I died.
At least I think it was me. I do lose track of these things.
You need to understand this: in my entire life, spanning more than half a century spent in the company of a staggeringly diverse cast of people, I have, as far as I am aware, had precisely one nickname: Coyote. Except, pronounced the correct way, the Mexican way: “Coyóte.” The name was bestowed on me by my co-workers in the Berkeley café where I worked in 1983. I asked my boss Beto why he started calling me that. “Because, Coyóte, you shut up about them never.”
“Oh,” I said. “Never,” said Beto. “I see,” I said. “Jamas Nunca,” said Beto.
I couldn’t argue. Still can’t. I am not always happy with this human skin I wear. Coyóte has long seemed a salubrious alternative.
Where I live there are always at least three or four coyotes within a quarter mile, drifting though the creosote and yucca as silent as they wish to be. On occasion they allow me a moment or two of their time. They stand a ways off, eyeing me as though I am preposterous and likely to do something dangerous and stupid at any time, and then once they have had their fill of me they look sidelong at one another and vanish as if due to some prearranged signal.
This is precisely the relationship I have with my birth family, and so it makes me feel right at home.
Though it also makes me less certain of the precise boundary between Homo sapiens and Canis latrans. I hear coyote song and I strain to make out the words. Disoriented in the desert a decade ago I found a fresh set of coyote tracks and cursed, certain that they were mine and I had been walking in circles.
You get the picture. When my species dysphoria kicks in, when the manyfold flaws of the human race begin to rankle, there is a deep part of me that longs to run out into the desert, to chase down cottontails and sleep curled up beneath the cholla. I see one of my coyote neighbors and for a moment, a part of me becomes him. Or at least it wants to. I want to fit into the land as seamlessly as they do, to drift through the creosote and yucca with them as heedless of bank accounts or Twitter handles. There is a part of me that longs to be that grizzled fur coat camouflaged against the varnished rock and alluvium, that longs to be just a pair of wild eyes surveying the Mojave, the desert grown conscious of itself.
I long to be in the landscape, not on it.
And certainly not driving across it, dog and bags of groceries shifting in the back seat, the panel truck to my left seeming to have trouble deciding which lane it wants to occupy. I decide to slow and give him room. When we get to the east side of La Contenta he’s pulled about halfway past me, his front bumper about ten feet farther east than mine.
darts out from in front of the truck, avoiding it by a hair’s breadth. He is making for the Joshua tree forest across the way. His eyes are bright with glee. And then his expression changes. He didn’t expect me there in the right hand lane.
Sometimes I think that in order to really belong to a place you have to have your heart broken there, to have your smug certainty stripped away and your sentiments shattered, brought to that state where every detail of the moment in that place is seared into you, each roadside can and broken Joshua tree branded on your soul forever.
The look of surprise and terror in those wild eyes stakes your heart to the ground.
The knowing that you cannot stop in time.
The knowing that you cannot stop time.
I will grant you the kindness Fortune denied me, and spare you most of the details. But here is the worst of them: it was… subtle. Imagine the Roman soldiers’ nails sliding through Christ’s wrists as if He was made of seafoam.
Coyote dies all the time in the stories, I know, and his friends roll their eyes and set to reviving him. Or he jumps over his body three times to bring himself back from the dead. Death is a momentary inconvenience for a demigod.
I have tried to imagine this since as a comfort. It hasn’t worked.
Because in that endlessly extended second, Coyote’s eyes riveted on me in surprise and terror, I recognized that look wholeheartedly.
My eyes were the same on him.
Our hearts broke the same in that place, just ten feet from the Joshua trees and safety.
My grandfather comes to me in pieces; The angle of a plywood sign nailed to a tree, my worn work boots on my porch in Richmond. I never call him up deliberately. This week marked 50 years since I saw him last.
If I make it through the next few months, I will be older than he was when he died.
I spend the end of the year alone these days. I don’t drink; alternatives are few in the Mojave. Thoughts chase tails. My grandfather was an oak tree; a rock face. He was incomprehensibly old, wrinkles forming on his forehead, hair completely white in a stiff brush cut, work pants and calluses. He wet his thumb to turn pages. A workshop shelf; salvaged bolts and screws sorted into applesauce jars.
Winter stars struggle to be seen; a storm off the Pacific. I have his reticence and his forehead. He would recognize the impatience, the recoiling and the longing. He would think my politics insane. He would pat his lap, invite my dog to join him in the recliner. He would know how to fix the hole through which the mice get in without dismantling the water heater in front of it. New Year’s Eve rain pelts the window. I have a low table he built me out of things he had on hand. No two of its screws match.
Today the dog, off-leash, flushed the back porch rabbit from behind the washing machine. Placidly staying at my heel, she watched the rabbit regain its composure under a creosote a few yards away. Rabbit folded his left ear down to wash it with both forepaws; dog flicked her left ear in turn.
Ten years after he died, I stood at six a.m. beneath a sodden eastern hemlock. The rides had run out in Western Pennsylvania. I watched a farmhouse through the rain, shaking to the bone. A white-haired man in green work pants pried open the hood of a pickup older than me, bent over it with a trouble light. I fought the urge to go to him, certain of disappointment at a stranger’s face. How different my life might have been had I gone to hand him tools.
Not all hearts break at the end of a fist. Not all wounds bleed. Some hearts erode a bit at a time. Skin grows calluses with each insult. These hearts grow thin. These hearts weaken a bit with each minor insult, each microaggression or microinsensitivity, each unhappy parting, each conversation postponed and postponed again. Then they crumble at the smallest-seeming jolt. A bump in the road, a promise blown off, a disappointment not otherwise worth noting, and all is lost.
Hide a heart in a futile attempt to shelter it from harm, and it grows brittle. It ossifies. The calcification grows worse with time and lack of use. Eventually all hope is lost: the heart is too shot through with bony crystal. It will never throb with longing, will never beat faster at the sight of a beloved one returning.
Some hearts, broken early, are agaves; tough skin, fierce spines. These hearts open only to reveal that the protected layers inside have spines of their own, each layer in turn bearing scars from the spines that once protected it.
A healthy heart, exposed to air and sunlight and worn without armor, is the worst of all. It will break repeatedly then rage back strong to break again, its owner fated to suffer beauty without end, a Promethean cycle for those who would grace the world with fire.
In 1989 you reached Barstow by driving the two-lane past worn out alfalfa fields, rotten barbed wire seining plastic bags from the desert wind, fences of decaying schoolbuses. At 45 per in the ancient veedub it was an agonizing slog. Overnight in the Boron rest area. An eternity of Hinkley. Breakfast in a Barstow bowling alley.
The old road was all there was, curling around the north end toward the dry riverbed, the derelict train depot.
Daggett by eleven, and Ludlow, past the incongruous green of the Springs of Newberry. The old split-pane windshield topped out an inch below my eyes. No gas gauge. I had to slouch to see more than a quarter mile of road.
Truck tires on asphalt gamelan, a decade-old tape deck on the passenger side seat, a tinny recording of Canadian country-rock on endless repeat. My housemate in Berkeley had just bought the LP. An endless expanse of creosote and barrel cacti, and then gas in Needles.
This piece was first published August 27, 2015 at Beacon Reader.
“They’re goddamn invasive plants.”
Biologist Tim Shields had an odd look as he observed a mid-sized shrub in my yard in Joshua Tree, California on an evening late in March. “They’re not native. They’re from South America. They got here somehow and then they colonized the whole desert, taking over thousands of square miles and making an ecosystem that never existed before.”
And then he laughed. He was pointing at a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, likely the most common woody plant in the California deserts. You won’t find creosote on any list of desert invasive plants. Most plant species move their ranges, and none of the plants currently considered native to the desert have been living here forever. Their ancestors dispersed their seeds here from somewhere else. Or their ancestors grew here, but were of a different species, and their descendants evolved in response to changing conditions. But generally, a species is considered native to the North American deserts is if was here before the deserts were opened to global trade.
Call the cutoff date 1492; that’s close enough for government work. And the shrub Shields was regarding may have been in the desert almost that long. 300 or 400 years, easy.
Creosote clonal ring | Chris Clarke photo
It’s all about perspective. Shields was taking the long view, abandoning our usual human-scaled frame of reference for something a little slower. Or would that be faster? Rewind the record of life in the North American deserts back about 15,000 years, play it back again a couple hundred thousand times faster than it happened the first time, and Shields has a point. Though it’s thought there may have been creosotes growing in Central Mexico as early as 8 million years ago, the species probably didn’t show up in the present-day North American Deserts — the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave — until maybe 13,000 years ago or so.
Play that tape, and creosotes will seem to explode across the Chihuahuan Desert, perhaps with a few false starts as unstable Ice Age climates bring especially cold winters every 500 years or so. A reproductive fluke happened as the plants moved into the Sonoran Desert, perhaps an error in a single seed’s development: Sonoran Desert plants have two pairs of each chromosome compared to the Chihuahuan plants’ single pair. That doubling of chromosome pairs is known technically as tetraploidy, “tetra” referring to the four copies of each chromosome. Botanists who’ve looked into the creosote genome suspect that the tetraploid creosotes may have been better able to survive in the greater aridity of the Sonoran Desert. Moving from the Sonoran into the Mojave, it happened again: some creosote made a mistake in the chromosome copying and collating process. Creosotes in the Mojave have three pairs of chromosomes: they are hexaploid.
So tetraploid creosotes exploded across the Sonoran Desert, and then hexaploid creosotes rampaged across the Mojave, each covering broad swathes of new territory in a seeming eyeblink — at least on our sped-up, Shieldsian timescale. It’s not hard to imagine creosotes spreading rapidly, given the right conditions. The shrubs produce prodigious amounts of fruit, white fuzz-covered capsules with five seeds that are avidly gathered by ants, birds, and other wildlife. The fruit collects in drifts in washes and alongside the raised soil mounds beneath creosote clumps. They are so numerous that a local species of wasp known as “velvet ants” find it evolutionarily advantageous to camouflage themselves as little puffs of white fuzz the size of a creosote fruit. When the desert is awash in creosote seeds, predators specializing in velvet ants would probably prefer looking for needles in haystacks.
So, lots of seeds waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Those right conditions may not come as often as they did back in the Pleistocene. Creosote seeds germinate readily, but then succumb to desert heat unless the next three to five years are unusually cool and moist. That means that many of the creosotes in a typical desert valley full of creosote likely grew in pulses, decades when conditions were right for survival of germinated seeds.
Four months later, sweating out a July day in a broad valley north of my home, I think about Shields’ assessment of creosote’s invasive potential. Toss a fluffy creosote fruit onto the desert soil, and ensure five years of cool wet summers, and you get a seedling with bright waxy green leaves. In a mere decade that seedling may have raced toward the sky, reaching a full foot in height. In just a century or so, its single trunk will grow a shoot from its base, perhaps two or three. They will grow into mature plants and shade out, crowd out their parent stem. It will die back, leaving a hole in the creosote donut. Those stems will grow their own clonal stems, which will grow their own in turn, ripples expanding outward from the seed thrown into the ocean of desert.
The ripple I’m napping in is 45 feet across, more or less. In the late 1970s biologist Frank Vasek and his colleagues at UC Riverside calculated that it had been growing here in the Johnson Valley area for a very long time.
I once heard a joke about a family visiting Chicago’s Field Museum and marveling at a fossilized hadrosaur. “That’s 80 million and 27 years old,” said a nearby custodian. “That seems unusually precise,” said the mom. “Well, they told me when I started working here that it was 80 million years old, and I’ve been here since 1988,” said the worker.
In that spirit, I think of this creosote ring, which Vasek dubbed King Clone in 1980, as 11,735 years old. Give or take.
I’m here with my hiking buddy Monica, who is a biologist, and my dog Heart, an olfactory forensics researcher. We got here with a set of somewhat vague directions, which I improved upon using technology approximately 1/2340 as old as the creosote clonal ring: I fired up my smartphone’s mapping app and we walked until the blue dot was next to the biggest ring of creosote on the map.
Now that we’re here, Heart wastes no time providing the oldest known creosote with a bit of nitrogen, then she wisely retreats into the thin sliver of shade cast by Monica, who has found a place to sit near the edge of the ring.
Heart and Monica | Chris Clarke photo
I intend more contemplation than socializing, so I move twenty feet away to the approximate center of the clonal ring. I lie on my back. I look at the pale, sunburnt sky. I imagine a slow tide of invasive creosote wreaking dilatory havoc across the landscape in a mere geologic eyeblink.
When you start paying attention to very long-lived plants, 11,700 years becomes less impressive. King Clone probably isn’t even the oldest creosote clonal ring: it’s just the one we know about. So much of the desert remains unexplored, unexamined. In the last decade botanists decided a shrub oak about an hour’s drive from here is likely around 13,000 years old. A four-hour drive in the opposite direction, there’s a clonal forest of cottonwood trees thought to have germinated from a single seed 80,000 years ago.
Ancientness lurks everywhere you look in the desert. Vasek estimated the lateral growth rate of creosote clonal rings at about .7 millimeters per year. It’s not at all hard to find creosote clonal rings five feet across. Five feet divided by .7 millimeters is about 2,177 years and seven weeks. Give or take.
I’m something like 11,645 years younger than King Clone, and yet at the rate years seem to be speeding up as they pass me I expect these days that I will catch up in no time. My age is growing steadily and well, mulched thickly with calendar pages. I have shirts not yet threadbare that are older than some of the people I work with. There are urgent tasks I have been reminding myself to finish for 15 years, unfinished conversations fresh in my mind with loved ones long dead.
This past year took about 20 minutes to elapse. It has brought remarkable changes in that short time. A year ago I was resigned to settling for consistent but somewhat manageable unhappiness. I am now happy. A year ago I dreaded the future mildly: I now look forward to it. From hopeless disappointment to occasionally elated optimism is a remarkable change, even more so given the year’s racing past. I have been a bit breathless. Time and change have come at a staggering clip, and despite those changes’ positivity I have wanted a bit of slow.
Slow is here, in abundance. It is layered over with fast, of course: the frisking dog, the flies’ inexorable wingbeats, the plunge of the sun toward the mountains to the west. My shadow grows in length, and yet it is far more permanent to me than I can ever be to King Clone. I am a passing shade to King Clone, a flicker on the far margins of his sleeping consciousness, and if I had had children their great grandchildren might well have come here in their ninth decades of life to find King Clone essentially unchanged, not remembering the afternoon when I was a fly alighting briefly on his shoulder.
“The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming.”
— Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more. Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness.
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia.
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.
Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
”Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912)
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold.All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.” — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882
Clarkia unguiculata off Panoche Road Creative Commons photo by Eric in SF: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarkia_unguiculata#/media/File:Clarkia_unguiculata.jpg
In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big. The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet above the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”
Valley Oak in the Stanislaus County hills above the Central Valley Creative Commons photo by Allie Caulfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/wm_archiv/6546517055/
In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.
As mapped in 1873.
Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all, Tulare.
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.
Utica Avenue near Kettleman City, looking east across the northern end of Tulare Lake. Via Google Street View
California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity. But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes.
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens. I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.
And then I remembered. There was no confluence. The riverbeds met here, but the rivers themselves had not met in half a century. Diversions from the Friant Dam above Fresno had “dewatered” a long stretch of the San Joaquin River on the valley floor. Just upstream from where I stood, an electric fence spanned the San Joaquin to keep chinook salmon from trying to run upstream, where they would strand themselves and die.
It was the first time I realized it, and as I would prefer to forget it I have realized it again many times since. The Central Valley is a moribund landscape.
There are fragments left. A chain of wildlife refuges and preserves runs up and down the Valley floor, a rosary of tiny protected beads strung along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. A patch of upland here and a patch there holds hints as to what the Valley was, once. New ecologies emerge within the irrigated cities of the Highway 99 corridor.
But the pronghorn Muir called ubiquitous in the Valley have been gone for decades. Tule elk survive only because of a fluke, a weird moment of compassion in the heart of a 19th Century landowner not given overmuch to compassion. San Joaquin kit foxes skulk around the margins of the Endangered Species list. Tricolored blackbirds, the Central Valley’s passenger pigeon, now nest primarily in grain fields; one recalcitrant dairy farmer wanting to feed his chattel could do in the species.
And the Delta smelt, a little two-inch fish that once thrived in huge numbers at the shifting interface between saltwater and fresh, where water from the snows of Lassen and Shasta met water from the tidal Pacific, that defined better than any single organism the sensitive, beating heart of California… the Delta smelt probably went extinct this year. It is at least functionally extinct.
It would be a mistake to treat those who benefitted from this wholesale and rapacious conversion, this breaking of one of the globe’s richest environments to the wheel of commerce, it would be a mistake to treat them as monolithic. They are not. A rice grower in the Sacramento Valley might well be proud of her farm’s providing habitat for waterfowl and baby salmon. Delta farmers regard their colleagues farther south in the Tulare Basin with some suspicion. It was a single San Joaquin Valley dairy farmer who, in the spring of 2014, gladly held off on harvesting his triticale until the tricolored blackbirds had left his field. That decision came at no small financial cost.
But it is not the sympathetic farmers, the salmon- and blackbird-loving famers, who have ahold of the megaphone. It is not the farmers who are grateful to the natural world for the common bounty they have privatized who get the press attention. There are no signs along Interstate 5 saying “We farmers can coexist with the salmon and the valley elderberry longhorned beetle.”
Instead, the loudest voices coming out of the Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley, are spreading resentment and lies. Here’s Fresno’s House Representative Devin Nunes on the delta smelt and its defenders:
I don’t see any of them up here saying that they’re going to tear down this [Hetch Hetchy aqueduct] system, dump this water into the Bay to protect their stupid little fish, their little delta smelt that they care about.
The political discourse in San Joaquin Valley water politics is dominated by voices like this one, in which those of us who prefer not to see one species after another go extinct to enable another few fiscal years of ag industry profits are derided as “radical environmentalists.”
On this last visit to the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered, and not for the first time, whether maybe we shouldn’t take the Wise Use, Tea Party San Joaquin pundits at their word.
What if environmentalists’ approach to the issue of the Central Valley and its dying ecosystem was as radical as the other side claims? Ignore for the moment the fact that the biggest groups in the modern environmental movement are so tamed, so addicted to access and consensus, that if you presented them with the last tree on earth they would try to save half of it. What if we weren’t so domesticated? What could we demand?
Let’s focus on the far more injured San Joaquin Valley. Agriculture as it has been practiced there for the last century cannot continue. It’s the fate of all societies based on agriculture irrigated with imported water: the aqueducts will fall. It was true for the Hohokam and the Sumerians. It will be true for the Southwestern United States. If the rains come back, the system will silt up. If they do not, the system will fail.
The handwriting has been on the wall since the 1980s, when irrigation drainage with dissolved selenium salts from the western San Joaquin Valley began poisoning wildlife in the wildlife refuges the irrigators used as sumps. It was a shot across the bow: massive irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin would not be sustainable.
We did not heed that warning then. What if we did now?
What if we turned off the taps to large corporate farms in the Westlands and the Tulare Basin? What if we held true to the original intent of the Central Valley Project, which was to serve family farms of 160 acres or less? We can grow all the food California needs on 500,000 acres, less than 800 square miles. That could all be in the better-watered Sacramento Valley, which leaves the San Joaquin, as they say, in play.
What if we decided not to pay for more water diversions that serve only to enrich family farmers like the Resnicks of Beverly Hills?
What if we lived up to the antienvironmentalists’ worst fears, the thought that a fish and a fox might mean more to us than a split stock? What if we started taking back some of the land we gave San Joaquin’s One Percent?
We could twist the knife: we could call it a biosphere reserve. The “Barack Hussein Obama San Joaquin Valley Biosphere Reserve and Ecosystem Services Research Center,” perhaps.
First step: raze the almond groves, let the trees die and dry out, set them afire and bury the charcoal as biochar. (If that seems draconian, perhaps we could merely biochar the 320,000 acres of almond trees planted since the drought began in 2009, almost a third of the state’s total acreage. But we’re blue-skying it here, and besides, those older almonds are toast within a decade anyway.)
Concomitant with ending the San Joaquin Valley almond industry, we let some water back into the rivers. Start with opening the taps at Friant Dam to let the San Joaquin flow year-round again. Follow up with flows in the Kings, Kern, White and Tulare rivers to fill Tulare Lake and its siblings, Buena Vista and Kern lakes. That reemergent vital stopover point on the Pacific Flyway would do a lot to make up for the impending loss of the Salton Sea, and some of the people who lose their jobs tending almond trees could get jobs as fishing guides.
Once the placid shores of Alpaugh have waves lapping at them once more, we hire more of those idled ag workers — who have formidable and relevant skill sets — and put them to work planting valley oaks. We can plant them in orchard rows if the powers that be insist: the woodpeckers and owls won’t care, and in a few decades those acorns might make an edible cash crop for the trendy food people of 2075.
Under the valley oaks, our noble and heroic oak restoration crews — los robleros — can plant bunchgrasses. Nasella pulchra, purple needlegrass, can be the backbone of this reimagined Central Valley Grassland: it’s the state grass of California, after all, and it’s a fine food source for the rodents and rabbits that will feed a growing population of the once-endangered San Joaquin kit fox. But we’ll add other species to the mix as well: Muhlenbergia rigens for its prodigious soil-forming abilities, Leymus triticoides in the boggy and alkaline wetlands of the Tulare Basin, and then there are plants other than grasses, the Clarkia and Madia and Salvia of Muir’s (at that point) two-centuries-old revery.
As temperature climbs, our strategy for the Tulare Basin might shift: instead of cottonwoods and willows, we might need to plant plants from the deserts, mesquite and palo verde and big galleta grass. We can be flexible. We can think outside the box. The point is: the valley soils right now loose carbon into the atmosphere. They could be sucking it out of the atmosphere. As the soil recovers, we could be sequestering billions of tons of carbon in a landscape that once contributed nothing but export cotton, tumbleweeds and pomegranate juice to the global economy.
That sequestration could even be happening on the San Joaquin’s remaining farms. In Upstate New York, the farms from which my family springs were farmed out, worn out, down to cracked gray soil. And then in the 1980s young Amish families started buying up those farms, working them with draft animals. Those farms are rich and productive now, and the manured soil is astoundingly fertile. Hand out parcels nationalized from the holdings of Tenneco and the Resnicks to the Oaxacan and Hmong laborers who know how to work the land, and make that grant contingent on using healthy draft animals instead of fossil fuels, and Fresnos and Visalia and Bakersfield could have food supplies the envy of elitist foodies anywhere — with a negative carbon footprint.
Wild notions of reclaiming the arid wastes, of greening the deserts, are old hat. They are nothing new. But the San Joaquin Valley is a landscape we took in the opposite direction.