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.