Shawn Hubler

Op Images: What’s worth it, as one view gives way to the next

This blooming almond grove near Winters can change your perspective on the nut. In the years-long drought, almonds have become a source of conflict between Californians – even if that much-cited gallon-of-water-per-almond stat is a bit exaggerated.
This blooming almond grove near Winters can change your perspective on the nut. In the years-long drought, almonds have become a source of conflict between Californians – even if that much-cited gallon-of-water-per-almond stat is a bit exaggerated. shubler@sacbee.com

It’s an adjustment, to move from one California to another. Like many, when we moved north, we felt uprooted for a time. So one Sunday, we decided to soothe our Southern California souls with a drive in the country. There, outside Winters, we came upon an almond grove in full bloom. It was a breathtaking sight.

“Pull over,” I told my husband. “I need a picture.” I scrambled out of the car, clutching my iPhone, and dashed toward the forest of pale, swirling blossoms. Blocked by an irrigation ditch, I tried to hop it – and failed.

The ditch was steep, with about a foot of wet mud at the bottom. By the time my husband pulled me up, my hands were caked and my shoes were like two bricks. But, denied, we were now on a mission. When a turnoff materialized up the road, we swerved into the grove’s entrance.

Barefoot, I trespassed into the trees, tiptoeing on a carpet of silken petals. The world became black and white – dark branches, pristine flowers. I thought: Yes. This was worth it. I never looked at almonds the same way again.

Now comes year four of this long, long dry spell. Looking at dregs, California has turned on itself.

Vistas that once seemed merely lovely now seem to display invisible price tags, in gallons. Lawns are no longer just lawns; pools are no longer just pools; snow is no longer just powder; farms are no longer just cropland.

And almonds are no longer just healthy snacks that are easy to ship and that, early in life, look enchanted. Now they are demon seeds, water suckers, straws through which nut barons follow the time-honored lead of the California oil men.

Almonds are drinking our milkshake, as the oil man in “There Will Be Blood” said. Yet I can’t wholeheartedly resent them, and not just because that gallon-of-water-per-almond stat is kind of an exaggeration. Black and white though the landscape may seem, it’s all about tradeoffs.

If rural California weren’t full of almond groves, wouldn’t some other thirsty thing fill it? If the nut barons weren’t using the water, wouldn’t some other bunch of plunderers be furiously pumping? I once covered a fundraiser at the SoCal home of Paramount Farms’ Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Their guest bathroom looked like the Sistine Chapel. On the other hand, they were recycling a lot of nut money into good politics and fine museums.

Shouldn’t that factor into the invisible price tag? Would some cotton or rice or beef or development baron be as careful or generous?

These are sums we must tote up to decide, together, what’s worth it. Here’s what I know: No decision of consequence is without its adjustments, its costs and benefits. And you can’t know which matters more until you look back in the rearview mirror.

Uproot or don’t? Save or swill? Brave the mud or sit in the car and miss the flowers? Almonds or some other life form? This summer, we will make many consequential decisions. I wonder, as we all move from one California to another, whether we’ll ever look at each other the same way again.

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