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Works and Days

Five Days of Hope and Despair

March 19th, 2013 - 12:04 am

Here is a brief travel log of five days amid 21st century California.

Day One. A Virtual Library

Reader, I am returning today to the rather new, multimillion-dollar CSU Fresno Library. We’ve been there before, but I thought I would see whether things have changed from my last visit. It is easier to use than Stanford’s far larger holdings. Few students seem to check out books on history and literature, so recall is rare. (Few students inside know that it has over a million volumes and that its real creator, Henry Madden, was an eccentric genius.)

The glass and metal addition was underwritten by a local tribal casino corporation. It is far more lavish than the old library I used for a quarter-century: Starbucks inside, Wi-Fi, and plenty of lounging nooks. To get into the stacks, you go downstairs and push red and green buttons to move the huge tracked bookcases that are otherwise crammed together. I think the idea was to save space. But the inconvenience of waiting on slow-moving book cases does not seem to be warranted by opening up space for those who do not use books.

I studied ten random students as I walked about looking for six books. Four were engaged, eating and laughing, a sort of student-union experience surrounded by a backdrop of books — reminding me of talking heads that do interviews with faux tomes in the background.

Two were on cellphones (loudly so). Two were video-gaming on their laptops (from a few glimpses, they seemed glued to some sort of road race game and a military-style assassination exercise). One was reading, at a table marked “Physics,” and one was typing. Twenty percent at work confirms my earlier visits — given that the library has very little to do with students searching out books and articles in a repository, deferentially quiet in respect for other scholars, careful to eat and drink only in assigned places, and wide awake. Out with the old, in with the new.

Instead, the campus library that I saw is still not quite a library, at least by any definition that we used to employ. Most there had little visible interest in reading or writing. The stacks were for the most part not being used. It is part student union, part a movable Starbucks meet-and-greet over coffee and cookies, part a nice place to text, net surf, and play around with video games.

Better yet, the fact that it says “library” and not “student union” or “arcade” or “playhouse” makes it even more desirable. Today’s virtual student goes to a virtual library and does virtual research. That way you can be successful in that you are in “college” and you say you are “at the library” as you entertain yourself. Who cares whether someone knows the difference between the Parthenon and Pantheon or that e.g. is not quite i.e.? Get over it.

The popular culture changed the library; the library did not change the popular culture.

I have not researched the topic, but I expect that there is an entire literature on “reinventing the campus library” that goes way beyond e-books and the Internet, and talks grandly instead about democratizing “knowledge” and turning the library experience into something more relevant culturally to today’s students. Again, virtual libraries, virtual students, virtual degrees — I just hope that one of the students I saw texting and video-gaming is not the unionized public employee of the near future, guiding the lead car on the soon-to-be high-speed rail to Corcoran.

If the new library is now designed as a valuable cultural nexus, to throw together all sorts of young people of different classes, religions, and races, and at least expose them to the idea of sitting in a comfortable and humane learning place, overseen by courteous and professional staff, where reading is theoretically possible, then it is a smashing success.

If, on the other hand, it is supposed to be a place where disciplined young people individually pursue real knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, through self-motivated and faculty-guided research, then it appears an utter failure. Does playing a video game next to the Iliad and Prometheus Bound mean that it is more likely that the video game is educational?

Day Two. An Agricultural Miracle

A day later, I am now driving westward on Manning Avenue, for about 60 miles to I-5 through the towns of Raisin City and San Joaquin, dissecting the corporate farms of the West Side. A few things are striking in a way not true even a decade ago. Agriculture has never seemed more productive or lucrative. New orchards and vineyards are going in everywhere. Sky-high prices for alfalfa, row crops, nuts, fruits, and wheat show in the face of the land. Water is scarcer and more likely to be cut off — and yet even more brilliantly squeezed out and metered by sophisticated computerized drip-irrigation regimes.

Tractors are both even bigger and look right off the lot. There is a feeling of neatness — no junk piles, no burn piles, no paper and trash blowing over the road. One can smell money, as in billions of dollars in export cash pouring in from India, China, Japan, and South Korea. Of course, few live out here in the land of corporate latifundia. But these vast agribusiness conglomerates, to the eye almost on autopilot, are earning billions of dollars for their owners, and a good life for their fewer and fewer employees, as machines make the old hard work rarer.

I pull over for a bit to watch a skilled driver in a huge John Deere with a mega-ripper, prepping a field for planting. In the 1980s I drove what I thought was a large 100 hp Allis-Chalmers, with a four-foot ripping blade to develop a new, small vineyard. In comparison, this tractor is a colossus — enclosed temperature-controlled cab, and the expert driver on a cell phone. In one swath, he covers the same ground I did in four, but straighter, deeper, and just better all around. My Allis smoked, his John Deere seems to have no exhaust.

When I wrote Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, I compared a land of agrarian communities that once grew families and cultures with a Mendota and San Joaquin out here, pyramidal societies, more Egyptian than Hellenic, in which a tiny top lorded over a large bottom, with very little middle in between. That’s truer than ever. But it is also accurate to confess that never have so few produced so much food so cheaply for so many throughout the world.

In other words, the world gone by of my youth and early middle age — small 40-acre and 80-acre orchards and vineyards, farmhouses with real owners living in them, three or four children working with a dad in the fields, a mother overseeing the books and taking her turn on the tractor in the hectic season — is dead. That agrarian culture is gone, vanished, kaput. Central California’s once agrarian east side now operates like out here on the West Side.

Yet with agrarian demise, food production soared with economies of scale and decisions that were entirely market-based and not culturally predicated on tradition and morality. Is this good or bad news, both or neither — you decide; I cannot any longer. I know a nice guy who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars speculating and merchandising land to pension funds, EU expatriates, and celebrity investors. He does not know a spring-tooth from a flat furrower, and is richer for the ignorance. And I know a cranky, obnoxious old-timer holdout who still farms his small acreage and snaps at his workers. I want to believe that the latter is superior to the former, but I have seen too much in the last thirty years to be able to tell any more. Does someone in Africa who eats cheap U.S. wheat or rice say, “Thank God for mass food production?”

Day Three. Ground Zero

On day three I am eating alone on University Avenue, a mile from the heart of the Stanford campus. Downtown Palo Alto is ground zero of the eBay, Facebook, Apple, Google, Adobe, Oracle, and Hewlett-Packard revolution. The culture is international, and part Stanford, part Silicon Valley — or is there a difference anymore? Everyone looks like they are either a student or were a student. There are lots of Europeans and Asians, all young. I can detect four different languages from my corner table. From the conservations I eavesdrop on, these guys are confident and upwardly mobile, if not already rich technicians. Men are dressed better than women. Metrosexual heaven I guess.

On the street, few seem over 40. America is supposed to be in decline, but the best and the brightest flock here on the assumption that unlike the Arab world, India, China, or Africa, where your name, your race, your gender, your caste, your class, your age, your religion — or your first cousin — propels or hinders your trajectory, in Silicon Valley it is more often merit: as in, how much money can your skills make for us? University Avenue is a sort of electronic version of turn-of-the-century Nome, Alaska, or Sutter’s Fort.

It would be easy, as I often do, to caricature this superficial world — $2 million, 1,500 square-foot cottages that would be worth $70,000 two hours away in uninviting Modesto; BMWs and Mercedes sports cars using 30% of their horsepower to rev 100 yards until the next stoplight.

Yet all that said, like the corporate agriculture I saw yesterday, one should not discount the smell of success in the air. Again, come here and you can see why China did not invent Google, or even why Germany did not invent Apple or Japan didn’t invent Facebook. There are no prerequisites other than smarts, aggressiveness, a good degree that one earned, and lots of confidence that blind merit — and some luck — should prevail.

From their conversations, those in Palo Alto seem Obamites to the core, but their leftish politics are more like a contrived medieval penance, an Al Gore-like “offset” for the worry of caring so much about having nice things. And nice things are everywhere. Doctrinaire liberalism is predicated on new federal and California taxes stopping right now, at taking only 55-60% of their incomes. Go much over that and some in the Bay Area might well turn into Reaganites. I don’t think the twenty-something, foreign-national guy next to me who just stepped into a Porsche takes seriously “You didn’t build that.” He seems instead to assume that he earned his car and has no problem letting me see that it is worth three of mine.

Day Four. The Panorama

I am up in the eleventh floor of the stately Hoover Tower, on the Stanford campus, taking in a 180-degree view of the world that Leland and Jane Stanford built well over a century ago. I read often of Leland Stanford. Eight miles away from my farm was the 1880 Mussel Slough shootout — which spawned Frank Norris’s The Octopus (I was reading his novel a week before I too got a ruptured appendix in Libya, faring better than the 32-year-old Norris did when his burst in1 902 San Francisco).

Even the best apologist for the Southern Pacific Railroad would have a hard time defending the railroad’s land gymnastics designed to cheat those whom they enticed upon the land. (OK — I confess: I grew up in a conservative Democratic household of homesteaders whose ancestors arrived in 1870, bought 180 acres of land from the SP Railroad, and passed on to the next four generations animosity for both the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.) The Big Four, the Central Pacific Railroad quartet — Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford — built California (also intermeshed in finance, electricity, banking, development, agriculture, etc.) in the way later visionaries built Silicon Valley. But what a tough bunch they were, at least by modern standards and in comfortable hindsight.

I am now writing a book, and one chapter deals with the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, in which Collis Huntington’s gifted nephew, Henry Huntington, hired the brilliant engineer John Eastwood to plan the extravaganza. Henry soon acquired Eastwood’s visionary blueprints for dams, penstocks, lakes, and powerhouses on the north and south forks of the San Joaquin River. He won him over with stock in Huntington’s new corporation. Then almost immediately Huntington required the new “stockholders” to pony up $5 a share — ensuring that the poor Eastwood could not pay his way and was railroaded out, just as Big Creek got underway.

Huntington took the financial risk, sent the power to Los Angeles, gave us beautiful lakes, flood control, irrigation water for vast acreages — and siphoned off the work of the man who thought it all up. You figure the morality, I can’t — other than did Huntington really need $27,000 from the poor Eastwood, or need to drive him out as payment for his genius?

Leland Stanford’ millions (over a $1 billion in today’s money) created a top-notch research university that improves the lives of millions with medical breakthroughs, high-tech innovations, and state-of-the-art engineering. The beautiful world of tiled buildings below this window is an enclave of big-government liberal thinking that one might think is antithetical to Stanford’s 19th-century laissez-faire worldview. Yet on second thought, it is not so antithetical at all — given Leland Stanford’s notion of unfettered capitalism as predicated on insider deal making (he was both magnate and governor and senator). It is difficult to figure out quite how the methodology of gaining huge fortunes is atoned for by later unprecedented generosity. Might Bill Gates have been a little more honorable to rivals when 35, earning a billion or two less — or did he need every penny so that he could give most of it away at 55?

Day Five. Very Much Alive

On the fifth day, I am pulling into Selma, after a brief stop in Fowler. Say what you wish about the 17% unemployment of the San Joaquin Valley, the 48th or 49th slot in the national ranking of the public schools, the ground zero of illegal immigration, the flat landscape between the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada, but one can feel alive here in a way not quite possible on University Avenue. California has lots of rules, but they mostly don’t apply out here. Who wants to pull over a smoky truck with tree limbs flying off the bed, outside of Kerman, when the easier $300 fine is found citing the cell-phoning soccer mom in her Yukon on the 99? Does the Carmel resident really care that there are 10 unlicensed, unvaccinated dogs down the street out here on Mountain View Avenue? I don’t think any more so than those of the Gilded Age on Fifth Avenue worried whether 1884 Dodge City followed habeas corpus.

This day, a clerk, working 12 hours at a shift in the local food market, complains to me about EBT cards and illegal aliens, and starts praising — yes, this is true — Mitt Romney, in a right-wing rant. She says she immigrated legally from Jalisco. Another guy in the heart of Obama country posts garish signs on his desolate one acre about Obama as a socialist. (Does he get it — or care — that 100% of his neighbors voted for Obama?) I talk to a guy from India who has leveraged his way into owning 500 acres and taking million-dollar gambles on rising almond prices, cooler than I was when I borrowed $10,000 to plant five acres of Shinko apple pears. What a world.

Lately, I’ve seen men in sombreros riding down the street on horses, coyotes trotting along side the road eating garbage, and a compact car pulling a huge flatbed truck with twenty feet of heavy-duty rope. I just drove by some ancient relic of a farmer with a pith helmet, who was mounted on a 1953 NAA Ford Jubilee (all 30 hp) tractor, making wide turns onto the rural avenue; and nearby five Mexican nationals were on their hands and knees, weeding a one-acre onion field they must have rented and thought was the way to riches. Behold the old and the new.

Recently I saw another guy throwing out a baby carriage on the road, but two others on bikes carefully hunting cans and plastic. I went into a stop-and-go in the local barrio, and an immigrant owner from the Punjab was discoursing on California gas taxes at a level a policy wonk might emulate. Yet on the way home, a pick-up and trailer coming in the opposite direction cut across the white line of Highway 43, and pulled into one of the many roadside taco canteens, waving and smiling as he heard me hit the brakes.

Whatever you say about some of the small towns of central California, and I’ve said a lot, they are certainly alive, a boom-and-bust Tombstone that is premodern and postmodern all at once, and so similarly a lot more exciting, a lot more dangerous, and a lot more alive than was life back in 1880s Massachusetts. There is a Doc Holliday on a corner. And a Johnny Ringo to match. Maybe a Wyatt Earp as well. And like Tombstone, you know that it can’t quite go on quite like it is, and will either get better or worse and sooner than you think. Tombstone and Dodge did not last long.

It’s been quite a five days…

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Top Rated Comments   
So we of Professor Hansen's generation know and know it deep down that the world in which we grew up no longer exists. It is nice to reflect on what the Neo America is becoming but it is nostalgic to think that it ever would return to the past. The past is gone and is never coming back. The old America with its various vices and virtues is gone down history's memory hole. The English Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh who was a consumate pessimist about his modern world was once asked how he got through each day with his attitude. He related the story that he had owned an old English country house which was in bad repair and had decided to sell it. He said that after he sold it he would walk through it and would no longer care or worry about the various leaks and needed repairs because he realized that it was no longer his house, just as the modern world was no longer his world. It is no longer myhouse, Prof Hansen, and that is the best way to look at it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Waxwing,

I spoke with God this morning. He told me to tell you that you are not listening and to double up on your Zyprexa.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (50)
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I think you may have misunderestimated the situation, Dr. Hanson. The students weren't there to read, write and learn anything; they were practicing the on-the-job skills they will need when they graduate and go to work for the government!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
At the end of Amity Schales' "Coolidge" she noted the comparison between Coolidge's 300 acres of mostly rock and wood farm in Vermont with Herbert Hoover's 1200 acres near Bakersfield.

Professor Davis seemed to have made a similar comparison today between his small holdings and the big corporate farms on the West side of the valley, 80 years later.

I wonder how much would change with the big farms if the ethanol mandate was removed?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Soon-to-be" high speed rail...
LOL!!!!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I still miss the card catalog in the library! You could easily read a paragraph about each book in the order they were on the shelves. It was so quick and easy to use.

There have always been people that want to be seen going to the library, or seen in the library, that aren't there to read books. The Celsus Library in Ephesus (177 AD), had shelves for 12,000 scrolls and a secret passage to the high-end house of prostitution.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How convenient, waxwing01!!!
Third world communities have a habit of accommodating this for prophets like yourself.
You can use this in your next sermon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Now THIS is the kind of column I have hoped for from VDH since I came to PJM. Historical perspective, not partisan sniping. Nicely done.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
When you wish upon a star...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The library at my old college has gone the same way. The first floor used to be the stacks with working tables here and there. Now the first floor is mostly open with wifi and rooms for watching movies. The wall that used to stand protectively between the cafeteria and the books is gone. The books themselves are on the second floor and rarely visited anymore because it is easier to look up something online, cut, paste, print, without the mind absorbing a thing.

The only books downstairs are the ones the library is selling. They are ignored by the students but you see older locals coming in to browse. I myself have saved many and added them to my own library.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is no time for nostalgia for premodern times. Life for the majority was "nasty, brutal, and short." Modernity with all its faults should be evaluated and celebrated. But it can go in different directions, as I laid out here: http://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/. I prefer Sinai, and perhaps some PJM readers and Dr. Hanson will join me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hate to be the bearer of conflicting news but....

The techie stuff aside, the atmosphere as described, could have well been from some of the smaller more rural states campus libraries I experienced in the 50s. Study groups visiting, snacking, some relaxing (snoozing) and some exploring for their next date (tutor of course). Then I remember libraries from the late 60s and early 70s especially, UCSB -- purely great entertainment, guitars and singing groups sitting on the floors, poetry groups sitting around, etc.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I appreciate what VDH says about the upside of agribusiness. At the same time, I wonder if there is not a market for very small, intensive produce farms that can supply fresh (and therefore delicious) fruits and vegetables to the Bay Area and L.A.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Anchorage has almost 11,000 heating degree days and has had measurable snowfall at the airport in every month except July, so it isn't exactly agriculture friendly. Yet, the Matanuska Valley, forty miles from downtown ANC, has a thriving small scale agriculture based solely on "fresh" and "Alaska grown." It is only a June, July, and August thing except for root crops like carrots and potatoes, but there are several thriving farmers' markets and even Safeway makes a big deal of local, especially local and organic, produce.

All that said, I don't know how much any of the farmers are really making. The Farmers' Market nearest me has a steady stream of Bimmers, Benz's, and Volvos every Saturday, but one day a week, three or four months a year doesn't seem like a great income stream to me. Here at least they have the advantage of very low taxes, unlike CA, but the short season and high costs for everything else is its own set of issues.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I vaguely recall some impressive crops in the fields near the Univ. of Fairbanks (or whatever you call it.) Those super-long summer days make for some monster veggies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hi D,

Did you get a monster cucumber at Fred Meyer's? Of was that fireworks?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Farmer's markets around here are trying to go year-round with jams, jellies, and greenhouse stuff. Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" on eating local for a year opened my eyes to some of the year-round stuff that goes on. I didn't finish the book and pay less attention to local growers than some, because I grow so much of my own, but as long as you have folks with disposable income about, some of this stuff will sell. As the climate warms, new areas should open up, like expanded potato production in Iceland.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If not for the federal regulations and taxes, there would be. I looked at doing something like that with some of my land, but there are now so many regulations with more and more coming that you would have to really be dedicated and pray not to run afoul of inspectors and taxmen. The other problem is labor. Intensively grown vegetables and fruit are labor intensive and today labor is expensive. You might be able to start up a small scale brewery since that would add value to your produce, but even there the feds slam you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How true. And then try to get a booth at a Farmer's Market. You need to know somwone... Who sent you?

The cities and counties and whatever zones are all over this activity too. Funny, how the further up the Government food chain you can reach, the less "problem" you will have. Real funny!

Treasury Sec's son opens Farmer's Market booth! Se hpe easy it can be? Buy my book...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
oh boy - see how.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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