Sunday, May 5, 2013

California's Great Central Valley: "the largest human alteration of the Earth's surface"

Verlyn Klinkenborg, author of The Rural Life, writes in today's New York Times of his trip this past week down California's San Joaquin Valley, along I-5.  The headline is "Lost in the Geometry of California's Farms," and in this essay he compares this recent journey to one he took with his family in 1966, as they contemplated a move from Iowa to California.

Klinkenborg borrows Joan Didion's phrase to describe the Great Central Valley: "the trail of an intention gone haywire." He calls California's history "a story of feverish intention, a tale of almost manic possibility and reinvention."  And he describes some consequences of that intention and reinvention.  Klinkenborg's tale is essentially that of a land abused, and paying the consequences. For example, he says orchards planted high above the irrigation line have "become firewood," and--perhaps more shocking: "The entire valley has sunk in on itself over the years as the aquifer beneath it has been siphoned off."  He notes that the U.S. Geological Survey has labeled the Valley "the largest human alteration of the Earth's surface."

He calls the Valley a "biological desert," where only a few species are allowed to thrive, a place "utterly alien" to all except a few machine operators "wearing hazmat-like suits."  Like Wendell Berry, Klinkenborg laments the separation of people from food systems.

The picture Klinkenborg paints is of agriculture on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, a scale the author implies is inappropriate and certainly unnatural.  
There is something stunning in the way the soil has been engineered into precision. Every human imperfection linked with the word “farming” has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded. The angles are more rigid, and more accurate, than the platted but unbuilt streets out where easy credit dried up during the housing crisis. This is no longer soil. It is infrastructure, like the vast concrete sluice of the California Aqueduct, like the convoluted arrays of piping that spring up everywhere at the corners of fields.
Klinkenborg acknowledges his nostalgia (with specific reference to his high school days in Sacramento), and he contrasts that nostalgia with the apparent lack thereof by most Californians, who simply "marvel at the rate of change."  Klinkenborg suggests that "the logic and illusion in so much of California, urban and rural" is to see agriculture on this scale as inevitable and necessary, whether or not that is objectively so.  

As always, Klinkenborg's prose is beautiful, and the entire essay is thought-provoking, if a somewhat depressing, read.  

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