When Land Is History

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This winter I watched a new owner of the farm parcel next to mine bring in enormous Caterpillar equipment and land-levelers. He ripped out every living tree and bush. He changed the very contours of the land, flattening even the once rolling hills. Within days, arose a postmodern almond orchard of some 40 acres.


I say postmodern because the new creation is beyond modern. High-density-planted new trees are genetically designed to grow on these sandy soils. The drip system is computerized and injects precise amounts of fertilizers, while not wasting a drop of precious well water. An ancestral pond and its overflow basin have now shrunk to about an acre. The result is that the almond trees — not more than six months old — are growing so rapidly that they appear as if they were supernatural and in their second or third leaf. It is agribusiness development such as this that explains why California farmland is the most productive in the world.

I characterized this land as “adjacent,” but that is a euphemism for “once mine.”  To make a proverbially long story short, I once owned the parcel, along with my own present 40 acres. It was the corner of a larger 135-acre surrounding family farm of about 140-years continual duration. The parcel in question was lost during the last decade in a convoluted inter-family sale/dispute/misunderstanding that led to a series of outside speculators buying, selling, and losing the land, as the economy boomed and busted. Finally, the parcel ended up in bankruptcy court this January–hence the new buyer and the new orchard.

If one believes that no one really owns the enduring land, then perhaps it is best that after a near decade of neglect the ground is now a productive farm again. Under new auspices, it will help feed the hungry of China and India as California’s current export boom continues.

Yet as I watched the machines eat up the earth, I thought that I might offer a fast-forwarded 140-year history of that piece of ground. The admittedly trivial story is known to almost no other living person (other than my twin brother), but adduced through autopsy of some 58 years of my life and augmented by remembrances of near-constant editorializing from my grandfather (1890-1976) and mother (1922-1989).

Both lived in my present house and told me about the original settler, Lucy Anna Davis, my great-great grandmother, who bought the pristine land from the railroad in or near 1870. In other words, what follows is the history of this land from its first contact with so-called civilization to the present — a memory that spans well over half the life of the United States. Here it goes:



From natural histories of central California, we read that such open ground for millennia before the arrival of settlers and the railroad in California was uninhabited and dry — crisscrossed only occasionally by native Americans on their way to Tulare Lake, and later a few early explorers. Now and then one still finds in the vicinity an odd, tiny piece of ground never farmed that lies awkwardly between two vineyards. From such feral examples, one can fathom what these forty acres were like before the Europeans arrived — squirrels, hawks, coyotes, tumble weeds, puncture vines, thistle, sand burr, etc.


I was told that my ancestors — who came to California on the newly completed transcontinental railroad — picked out such sandy ground because the pond on it was artesian. The water table was less than 20 feet — making hand-powered pumps of the age feasible. Before the advent of electrical turbines, a high-water table meant easy access to water and the possibility of farming some gardens and thus survival — before even the gravity-fed canals from the Sierra were built by the local farmers (ca. the 1880s-1890s).

Until 1981, the original homestead and temporary shack of my great-great-grandmother rested on a hill above the pond. They built it from local cottonwood and camped out for the first decade in it: about 400 square feet, the walls hewn from rough planks, dirt floor, hand-cut bark shingles, tin-can lids nailed over knot-holes, the inside wallpapered by 19th-century newspapers, a rusted hand pump in the kitchen. Those who huddled in it apparently suffered things like malaria and typhus; at least I gathered that by stories of relief when such diseases disappeared in the early twentieth century in these parts.

I regret that we did not restore the shack. In 1982, it sort of finally collapsed on its own after 110 years. We salvaged some of the wood. My great-grandfather planted the first crop on the ground in its history — apricots and some Muscat vines. His mother brought a walnut seedling from Missouri that grew to enormous proportions before collapsing in 1985 after a century. In these stories of the early family, the Civil War loomed large: the Davises were Missouri Unionists and strong Northern pro-Lincoln Democrats escaping postwar score-settling — a point of contention when my grandfather married my grandmother, a Johnston whose family were Southern cattlemen that had fled postwar Alabama to New Mexico and to California — and were looked upon by the Davises with suspicion.



My grandfather told me as a little boy that his father kept them going by selling dried apricots, Muscat raisins, and some white peaches. As a kid, I remember uncovering abandoned primitive iron tracks where iron carts had been pushed into the nearly collapsed drying shed. Before tractors, half the land was open pasture, to feed the horses who pulled the disc and harrow — both still rusting outside my barn — to work the other half of vineyards and orchards.

In my earliest childhood, I could still see on this corner of the farm traces of the early 20th century — a single surviving sixty-year-old apricot tree, and an even older Hale peach tree, the remnants of my great-grandfather’s efforts to turn some of the ground into orchards. After a rain, we periodically would find in the dirt alleyways dozens of square nails, and horseshoes. There was an old family dump by the pond (cleaned up by us in 1980) where you could uncover turn-of-the-century medicine bottles, ancient machines, and everything from homeopathic books to “Keep Cool With Coolidge” rusted signs.

Rees Davis, my grandfather, also told me that even in his teens (ca. 1905) the poor sandy ground was once quite rich, due to aboriginal stands of natural lupin that over the eons had fixed nitrogen in the soil. But as the 20th century wore on, the parcel became known as the “Sand Hill” — a curse to irrigate, given its sandy porousness, poor nutrients, and hilly terrain. What had originally lured in the family off the railroad was lost to memory; certainly what was once rich in 1870 by 1920 was dry and substandard soil.

My grandfather was a modernist who, in the big house nearby, put in running water, electricity, and indoor toilets; and talked about them as if the World War I era was a golden age. Prices spiked at $300 a ton and most of the sheds and buildings went up between 1917-1922. To work the parcel in 1920 was to look forward to unending prosperity. My grandfather also reminded me once that all the grand rural Victorian two-story farmhouses of the area went up during the boom times of World War I — and many of them mysteriously burned down (for the insurance) in the Depression that followed.



In the good times, my grandfather drilled a well replete with a turbine pump, put in concrete pipelines, enjoyed canal water from the local irrigation district’s new ditches, and thus was able to plant much of the 40 acres into vines (Muscats mostly, with some Currants and sultanas, and a few acres of the wondrous new creation [“Thompsons”] of the brilliant viticulturist William Thompson) and a three-acre plum orchard.

There was always about a 20-foot variance in elevation across the rolling parcel. Rees “leveled it with pipeline,” as he put it. In a sense, that investment in miles of underground concrete pipes right before the Depression was foolish — given that even prewar scrapers could have moved earth enough to level the parcel and made flood irrigation possible across the entire expanse.

But my grandfather liked the contours and the 50-year constancy of his land. I suppose he thought that with a latticework of 10-inch subterranean concrete pipes, tall standpipes and vents, and elaborate terraces, he could irrigate about 20 tiny 2-acre parcels and preserve the character of the land.   He did — but spent more time on the 40 acres than he did with his other level, rich loam 95 acres, producing for his extra work no more than half the production per acre gained elsewhere.

By 1940 the Sand Hill was sui generis — one of last few parcels that had escaped the modernization brought on by the land-leveling caterpillar. Its vineyards survived even the Depression. With pond, its terraced hills, tree-lined alleyways, cottonwood banks, and fauna, the 40 acres was not unlike what we now see in Napa Valley or, for that matter, Tuscany or in the Peloponnese.

Visitors often wondered at the beautiful corner of the farm that lost us money and thought land that was profitable elsewhere on the farm nondescript and boring. I have pictures of the Depression-era farmhouse — 27 once moved into my present house. Cousins, uncles, and lost souls would write my grandmother the dates when they would arrive at the Selma train station; she would take the truck and pick them up; and they would cram into the smokehouse, shed, barn, and various lean-tos, working for their keep. Under FDR, Thompson “worthless” raisins were bought by the government for $30 a ton, dipped in newly legal surplus cheap grape brandy, and sold off as cattle-feed.



Over the next 20 years, the vineyards were improved, often by tearing out the old vine varieties and replanting with Thompson seedless on “wild root” rootstocks, which allowed the vines to survive the scorching soil temperatures and nematodes. I remember playing almost every day on the parcel; in the 1950s it was quite safe to let 6-year olds roam on their own. The pond and lagoon still brought in all sorts of wildlife, from turtles to great-horned owls. My siblings and I built a crude baseball field (backstop, fence, benches) out of scrap lumber on the 2-acre flood plain, and the hills allowed us to hide in the vineyards. Of course, the 40 acres still remained a nightmare to farm — the north and south rows that fit the contour of the land made raisin drying almost impossible by shading the grape trays on the ground, but ensured the exposed crop while on the vine burned up in hot spells.

Around 1960, my grandfather used all his profits to replace the enormous Consolidated Irrigation District open ditch laterals that passed through the 40 acres with huge 48-inch underground pipelines. The result was far greater efficiency (no more washouts and no more bridges needed to cross from one side of the parcel to the other), but also the end of perch and pollywogs that came down from the Sierra, flowing across the farm, and sometimes into the overflow gate to the pond. I remember these years as a sort of Golden Age — no locks on any of the doors, our three families as work crews picking grapes together, and communal gatherings to watch television on Saturday nights. There was no notion of saleable or non-saleable parts of the farm; it was just there, all to keep whole, improve, and pass on.

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I spent much of my later youth in the now-aged and obsolete vineyards that should have been pulled given the damage from nematodes, age, and poor soils. The canes were so scrawny that we children could prune and tie them as well as the adults who worked the bushy verdant vines on the good soil. The pond and its overflow basin had shrunk to about 4 acres, but in good wet years were always an oasis of wildlife — herons, hawks, turtles, coyotes, kit foxes, and weasels. We had an old boat and often fished for perch before the water dried up in August.


The ancient Thompson vineyards received a reprieve in the boom years of the late 1970s when even its paltry ton-and-a-half-acre production made money. My dad and us salvaged the century-old apricot shed and rebuilt it into a resin dehydrator that saved two crops in the early 1980s. (I came home at 26 with a PhD in classics from Stanford and immediately received a very different appreciation on mastering the art of Greek composition: my father met me in the driveway, with “So are you done up there?” I nodded, “I think so.” He: “Well, good, then, why not get up on that roof and put on some new shingles?” And that was that.


The parcel enjoyed a short-lived renaissance under my siblings’ and my own stewardship. In 1979, we put in ourselves a sophisticated (for that time at least) drip system that superseded surface irrigation, with its wasted water, washouts from gopher holes, and poor production. Suddenly the vines received as much water as laser-leveled flood vineyards. But that investment was short-lived: raisins crashed from $1400 a ton in 1982 to $440 in 1983 — and the ancient vineyard was through.

We replanted — but in a novel scheme. If the sand made soil temperatures rise, the smaller crop canopies allowed more sunlight and heat, and the result was that any crop planted there — if it survived — would produce smaller but far earlier crops than elsewhere. And so for 15 years, this ground became our farmers’ market salvation: tiny plots of Asian pears; quince; Calimyrna figs; Fuyu persimmons; Black Beaut plums; Santa Rosa plums; foothill pomegranates; guava; almost any variety that was tasty and could pass muster from savvy open-market shoppers. By 1984, each week we were selling the organic produce at markets in Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, Palo Alto, and San Francisco. The ancient ground that had endangered my family’s 135 operation in years past now for a brief time saved it.


In Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, I wrote about the impending end of the farm — children growing up and moving away; too little land for too many cash-strapped owners; too much romance in lieu of hard-headed reality; too many liberal arts degrees and too few agribusiness BAs; and too many huge horizontally operated corporate farms that could produce, pack, ship and market produce more cheaply.


Still, this winter, I regretted not buying back the family parcel. But I now rent out my own 40 acres, and the idea of living alone on 80 acres in the Road Warrior zone, near sixty, seemed a bit much. But mostly by 2012 I did not have the $300,000 needed or the foreclosure sale — and surely not the $200,000 or more to redevelop and to replant the ground in almonds or a canopied, machine-harvested vineyard.

I wish the new owner well — a successful farmer and entrepreneur, and hard-working second-generation Punjabi American, who farms well over 500 acres. I think, given his expertise, capital, and contemporary high technology, that he will make the tiny 40 acres far more productive than did any in my own 140-year line — and without the daily remembrances of those long gone, the burdens of hundreds of voices in your head still of those who once lived and walked that land over the last century and a half.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple Shutterstock.com images.)


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