Hard physical work is still a requisite for a sound outlook on an ever more crazy world. I ride a bike; but such exercise is not quite the same, given that the achievement of doing 35 miles is therapeutic for the body and mind, but does not lead to a sense of accomplishment in the material sense — a 30-foot dead tree cut up, a shed rebuilt, a barn repainted. I never quite understood why all these joggers in Silicon Valley have immigrants from Latin America doing their landscaping. Would not seven hours a week spent raking and pruning be as healthy as jogging in spandex — aside from the idea of autonomy that one receives by taking care of one’s own spread?
On the topic of keeping attuned with the physical world: if it does not rain (and the “rainy” season is about half over with nothing yet to show for it), the Bay Area and Los Angeles will see some strange things that even Apple, Google, and the new transgendered rest room law cannot fix. We have had two-year droughts, but never in my lifetime three years of no rain or much snow — much less in a California now of 39 million people. I doubt we will hear much for a while about the past wisdom of emptying our reservoirs and letting the great rivers year-round flow to the Bay to restore mythical 19th-century salmon runs and to save the Delta three-inch bait fish. As long as it was a question of shutting down 250,000 irrigated acres in distant and dusty Mendota or Firebaugh, dumping fresh water in the sea was a good thing. When it now comes down to putting grey water or worse on the bougainvilleas in Menlo Park, or cutting back on that evening shower, I think even those of Silicon Valley will wonder, “What in the hell were we thinking?”
I do all the yard work on my three-acre home site and putter around the surrounding 40-acre vineyard. Mowing, chain-sawing, pruning, and hammering clear the head, and remind us that, even in the age of the knockout “game” and nightly TV ads for Trojan sex devices, we still live in a natural world. In the rural landscape, you are responsible for your own water. So you must know about what level resides the water table, and how deeply exactly your pump draws from, and the minutia of well depth, casing size, and type of pump. You know roughly how much sewage you’ve deposited in your cesspool and septic tank, and whether your propane tanks is half or a quarter full. There is no “they” who take care of such things, no department of this, or GS9 that to do it for you. Those who help you keep independent — the well drillers, pump mechanics, cesspool pumpers, asphalt layers, and assorted independent contractors — remind you that muscles and experience, not always degrees and techie know-how, are still important in extremis.
There are no neighbors across the backyard fence. At night there is no one out here, except the dogs that engage in howling wars with the coyotes. Nature abounds, both good and bad: squirrels that undermine the slab under your barn (I have shot them, gassed them, poisoned them for 40 years, and their burrows are larger than ever), and coyotes lingering out of range in the shadows by dusk. But also a red-tailed hawk in your redwood tree stands guard, and a great horned owl skimming across the vineyard that is strangely unafraid of humans. When I ride out in the Michigan countryside, I often stop and stare at octogenarians puttering around huge old clapboard farmhouses, determined in their final days to mow their lawns or paint their porches as if they were newlyweds — “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Still, let us not be romantic. Rural Fresno County has reverted to circa 1870, when my great-great grandparents first arrived. It is sort of anything goes after dark. I’ve had the following people show up at my house after hours: a group of caballeros in full festive regalia (with wonderful embroidered sombreros) asking to pasture their show horses on my lawn, given they still had 12 miles to go to Raisin City and feared being run over riding down the road in the dark; two young girls stopped in front, cell-phoning gang bangers that the coast was clear (it wasn’t) to go after copper wire; some lost Dutch bicyclists for some reason trying to cross the valley to get to L.A. from Big Sur, hopelessly confused and hopelessly scared (they stayed overnight intramuros on a summer night); five inebriated punks throwing rocks at the upstairs windows; and an exasperated Iranian national salesman who pulled in the driveway, two weeks after 9/11, in a pouring rainstorm, lost, and in need of direction (everything he claimed about his sad unlikely plight that brought him to the house at 11 p.. turned out to be true).
When the sun goes down, you are on your own, and in some sense are better for the challenge. At six I can remember sitting (in the very place I am sitting now) as my grandfather at 70 jumped up to “investigate” a couple of yahoos drinking by the barn. The difference in those days, aside from the absence of armed gang-bangers, was that there was some deference shown the owner, or perhaps he earned it in a way I have not. He was known as “Mr. Davis,” me nothing much at all. So he returned with a laconic, “I asked those trouble-makers to leave, and they did.” Not now necessarily.
Again, all is not so depressing. The other night I drove into the yard and a man was sitting on my driveway claiming the police had pulled his truck over for no lights and now he was stranded. Some story — and absolutely true as he showed me his fix-it ticket. He spoke no English; my Spanish is rusty. But he proved a good soul, and stayed here some hours while we phoned around looking for a relative (about ten years ago I quit driving the stranded to their homes, given that in one instance I was a bit outnumbered).
My 43 acres — what has not been sold off of the ancestral larger farm — still produce 85 tons of raisins (a nutritious, healthy food) for the nation. Mt. View Avenue lines up with Mt. Whitney and on some mornings you can make out its profile by the sunrise. The acreage is well kept, as is the 145-year-old house that I put most of my life savings into — why exactly I don’t really know, other than “I was supposed to.” Perhaps the house is in better shape than when it was first built. Rural life reminds us that we are mere custodians who don’t really own anything, given that the land endures as we turn to dust.
I like the people who reside in these environs — the 85-year-old woman who lives alone with her shotgun; my closest friend around the corner, Bus Barzagus of Fields Without Dreams, going strong at 73. None want to go to L.A. or San Francisco. Another neighbor who is a mechanical genius, and so on. One guy told me the other day, “What am I going to do, put my 150 acres on my back and pack it over to Nevada?”
Otherwise, all the farm families I grew up with but one are gone. There are no 40-acre or 100-acre autonomous farms left. Everything is rented out, small tesserae of much larger corporate mosaics. Looking out the window reminds me it didn’t have to end this way, but how and why not is well beyond my intelligence. (Count up the cost of tractors, implements, labor, chemicals, liability insurance, taxes, etc. — and anything less than 150 acres does not pencil out.)
The old farmhouses are all rented out to foremen, 100% of them first-generation immigrants from Mexico. The Punjabi farming class has become a sort of new aristocracy, if their huge three-story mansions that pop up every couple of miles are any indication.
I worry though not about the way we look or talk, but rather about the use of the land. It no longer grows people, or produces for the nation a 5% minority of self-reliant, cranky and autonomous citizens, who do not worry much about things like tanning booths, plastic surgery, Botox, male jewelry, tattoos, rap music, waxed-off body hair, or social media. I think our impoverished society reflects that fact of agrarian loss, in the sense that never have so many had so much and complained that they had so little while being so dependent on government — and yet they are so whiney and angry over their lack of independence. The entitlement state is the flame, the recipients the moths. The latter zero in on the glow and then, transfixed by the buzz, are consumed by acquiring what they were hypnotized by.
Out here is the antithesis of where I work in Silicon Valley. Each week I leave at sunbreak, and slowly enter a world of Pajama boys in BMWs and Lexuses, with $500 shades and rolling stops at intersections as they frown and speed off to the next deal. Somehow these techies assume voting for Barack Obama means that they are liberal. They are not. By proclaiming that they are progressive, they feel good about themselves and do not have to worry about why their janitorial staffs are not unionized, or why no one but they can buy a house, or why they oppose affordable housing construction along the 280 corridor, or why they fear the public schools as if they were the bubonic plague. Their businesses don’t create many jobs in the area; they don’t live among the Other; they seek to get out of paying income tax as they praise higher taxes; and they use money to ensure their own apartheid. And so they are “liberal.”
No wonder millionaires like Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer represent such a culture. How odd that the power, the water, the food, the lumber, and the minerals that fuel Silicon Valley all come from distant invisible people, the uncool who are overregulated, overtaxed, and over-blamed by those they never see.
Every six months or so I crawl under the house to check the wiring, plumbing, foundation, and assorted repair work. I did it last week. In the dirt is the weird detritus of 140 years: some square nails, a strange, ancient rusted pipe wrench, 1930s newspaper stuffed into some sort of mouse hole, penciled-in runes of weird numbers and notes scrawled on the redwood beams by some unknown carpenter, a fossilized carcass of a long dead cat, a few rat skulls and ribs. It is also sort of like archaeology, trying to sort out the layers of improvements per good farming years: the foundation raised on redwood beams after the boom of World War I, the metal conduit wiring installed in the 1940s when raisins were again high, the heating ducts put in during the brief boom of the early 1980s, and so on.
Is there a future to any of this?
To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on the meaning of future. None of my children will farm; even if they wanted to, the remnant 40 acres of the original 140 are too few to be viable. The local schools are poor, at least in statistical rankings. There are no pre-Stanford preschools out here. My great-grandparents and their parents got here before the schools; my grandfather graduated here in 1908, my mother in 1939, me in 1971, my children in the 1980s — after that comes the end, I think, of the continuity.
Most of the area’s youth under 30 have long fled to L.A. or the Bay Area. They are sort of the bookends to illegal immigrants who left Oaxaca for places like Selma that they see as heaven in comparison with Mexico. The youth left Selma for tiny apartments in Westwood or Mountain View that they see as heaven compared with what they left.
The land left behind has soared in value, not because it is a necessarily desirable place to raise a family, but due to the fact that in a California of 39 million, in a third year of abject drought, and with the world in need of our state’s fruit, nuts, and fiber, there are not too many places left with such good loam soils, a long growing season, and a water table still about 50 feet.
What keeps a person sane when writing about the Chris Christie road show; the Benghazi, AP, NSA, and IRS scandals; the vast expansion in the government and its never-ending deficits; the insanity on campus; and the world of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton?
The refuge of the rural world, and the remembrances of a wonderful world gone and now beneath our feet.
Yet I can hear them still.