“What compelled you to write a book that weighs 2.2 pounds?” the radio interviewer asks me before we go live.
“Madness,” I reply, with a chuckle. “My own madness and the madness of California.”
Her show was beamed out of Boston and reached across the nation, and so I began to tell the story, the invention of California, first as myth and then as a real place. I explained how that invention necessitated the invention of the grandest water-moving system in the history of man. It was a system magnificently built, and it allowed us to erect two if not three world-class cities and the most intensive farming region in the world.
But the system was now cracking, and it surely would not see us into a future of more houses, and more nuts and the havocs of climate change teaming up with the havocs of our own nature: drought and flood, wildfire and mudslides.
We had grabbed nothing less than the edge of a continent, 1,000 miles in length. Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley, riparian forest, redwood forest, wetland, grassland and inland sea. The rain fell 125 inches a year in one place and 7 inches a year in the other place.
When the lines of latitude cover 10 degrees, and the topographical regions number 11, what are a people to do? They can honor the distinctions and allow each state to exist within its own plentitude and limit. Or they can draw a line around the whole, count it as one state and begin their infinite tinkering to even out the differences. And so we had chosen the latter.
Each taking that followed – the body of the native, river, mineral, element, soil – allowed for the next taking. In the continuum of reinvention, if I dug down, I could spot my own family’s story: the ranch as a rebirth out of the Armenian genocide, the lopping off of farm to embrace suburbia, the premature end of a rural life, for which my grandfather Arax never forgave America because it took the life of my father, and so on.
This is the way it always begins, at least for me: the searching out of one’s own story in the larger story, the personal as a means to find the communal, and vice versa, so that each might have a chance to keep honest the other, though who knows where it might go after that. My assumptions at the outset were few. Water binds us and pulls us apart. A land this crazy makes people crazy. One hundred million acres takes a while to screw up.
I converted my den into an office with two large picnic tables piled high with archival documents and books. One stack belonged to H. H. Bancroft and Josiah Royce from the late 1800s; another stack to Bernard DeVoto and Carey McWilliams from the mid 1900s; a third stack to Kevin Starr and Joan Didion from my own past.
There is “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner, of course, and Donald Worster’s impeccable “Rivers of Empire”, and “Fool’s Gold: A Biography of John Sutter,” by Richard Dillon. I was looking for the archetypes – the Saint, the Captain, the Miner, the Wheat King, the Cattle King, the Raisin King – that might explain the delirious manner in which we were carrying on.
Among the stacks sat a thin volume bound in a thick green cover that my father had left me years ago. “The Central Valley Project,” it is titled, written by the California Writers of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in 1942.
He had lifted it from the library at Pasadena City College on his way to a football scholarship at the University of Southern California before he came back to the family farm along the river. On the first blank page, jotted in pencil, was the phone number of my mother, Flora Mekhitarian, the priest’s daughter, along with the numbers of a Florence and Betty Mae.
In my later readings, I could see that the writers of the WPA had struggled to fashion a narrative that wasn’t too subservient to the postwar promotions of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. They didn’t always succeed, but the story was nonetheless full of supernatural details witnessed in real time.
They captured the subduing of the Sacramento River and the building of Shasta Dam right down to its 40 million bags of cement, 15 million tons of aggregates and a man working one pneumatic drill.
“What are you doing?” he was asked. He looked up from his drill and answered, “Mister, I’m moving the rain.”
We’ve been moving it ever since.