I offer another chronicle, a 14-hour tour of the skeleton I once knew as California.
I finally got around to retrieving the car seat that someone threw out in front of the vineyard near my mailbox. (Don’t try waiting dumpers out — as if it is not your responsibility to clean up California roadsides.)
An acquaintance had also emailed and reminded me that not far away there was a mound of used drip hose on the roadside. That mess proved to be quite large, maybe 1,000 feet of corroded and ripped up plastic hose. I suppose no scavenger thinks it can be recycled. I promise to haul it away this week. One must be prompt: even a small pile attracts dumpers like honey to bees. They are an ingenious and industrious lot (sort of like the cunning and work ethic of those who planted IEDs during the Iraq War). My cousin’s pile across the road has grown to Mt. Rushmore proportions. Do freelance dumpers make good money promising to take away their neighborhood’s mattresses and trash without paying the $20 or so county dumping fee? And does their success depend on fools like me, who are expected to keep roadsides tidy by cleaning up past trash to make room for future refuse?
My relative has sold her 20 acres to a successful almond grower; that was the last parcel other than my own left of my great great grandmother’s farm. All that remains is the original house I live in and 40 acres. Almost all the small farming neighbors I grew up with — of Armenian, Punjabi, German, or Japanese descent — are long gone. Goodbye, diversity. And their children either sold the parcels and moved away (the poorer seem to head to the foothills, the middle class go out of state, the better off flee to the coast) or rent them out. Most of the surrounding countryside, piece-by-piece, is being reconstituted into vast almond groves. I plan to rent out mine next year for such conversion.
Almonds can net far more per acre than raisins and do not require much more water and require almost no labor. Tree fruit, given its expenses and risks, can lose your farm. The last vestiges of small, agrarian farming in these parts died sometime in the 1990s. Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the land to the naked eye looks better in the sense that the power of corporate capital and savvy scientific expertise has resulted in picture-perfect orchards. The old agrarian idea that 40 acres also grows a unique family, not just food, is — how do we say it? No longer operative?
I drive on the 99 freeway past Kingsburg on the way to Visalia. It is a road-warrior maze of construction and detours. The construction hazards are of the sort that would earn any private contractor a lawsuit. (How do you sue Caltrans — and why is it that four or five men always seem to be standing around one who is working?) Only recently has the state decided to upgrade the fossilized two-lane 99 into an interstate freeway of three lanes. But the construction is slow and seemingly endless. Could we not have a simple state rule: “no high-speed rail corridors until the 101, 99, and I-5 are three-lane freeways, and the neglected Amtrak line achieves profitable ridership?” It is almost as if California answers back: “I am too bewildered by your premodern challenges, so I will take psychological refuge in my postmodern fantasies.”
I try to drive by the Reedley DMV on the way home to switch a car registration. Appointments take a long waiting period, but the line of the show-ups is still far out the door and well into the parking lot. I pass. The state announced that it was surprised that “unexpectedly” (the catch adverb of the Obama era) nearly 500,000 illegal aliens have already been processed with new driver’s licenses. The lines at the office suggest that many DMVs simply have transmogrified into illegal alien license-processing centers.
The last time I had visited the office, I noticed the customers were also dealing with fines, tickets, or fix-it citations as part of the process. I thought, how will they pay for all that, given that “living in the shadows” and ignoring summonses and threats is far easier than paying what the state wants? And then, presto, the governor just announced a wish that the poor should be given “ticket amnesty.” So much for Sacramento’s idea of fining California drivers into becoming a reliable revenue source for a broke state, given that it has affected far more drivers than the shrinking and hated middle class that could supposedly afford the new sky-high tickets.
It reminds me of Obamacare: after my accident last May, I had lots of procedures and hours in waiting rooms. I discovered something listening to the desk people deal with Obamacare signups: a vast number apparently have not regularly paid the monthly or quarterly premiums. An even larger group has no idea what a deductible is, or that it actually applies to themselves. And some had no notion of a copayment. The reality of all three sends many into a near frenzy, reminiscent of the idea that a driver’s license means keeping up with registration, smog rules, and paying outstanding warrants — until the state provides the expected amnesties.
I’m at the local supermarket two miles away. Three observations: many of the shoppers seem to be here for the air conditioning (the forecast is for 105 degrees by 5 PM). No one in the Bay Area, whose green agenda has led to the highest power rates in the country, seems to have thought that all of California does not enjoy 65-75 degree coastal corridor weather. My latest PG&E bill reminds me to apply for income-adjusted reduced rates — if I qualify. I don’t, so keep the air conditioner off all day.
Obesity among the shoppers seems epidemic and no one is talking about it. It is striking how young the overweight are! Almost all our small towns now have new state/federal dialysis clinics. Is this not a state emergency? Cannot the state at least offer public health warnings to the immigrant community that while diabetes is alarming among the population at large, it is becoming epidemic among new arrivals from Latin America and Mexico?
Stories that 25 percent of all state hospital admittances suffer from high blood sugar levels circulate. I argue in a friendly way with a customer in line about the new “green” Coke. He claims it is diet, but tastes like regular Coke. I remind him that it is so only because the artificial sweetener has been energized by some cane sugar and it is not so diet after all. (He is buying eight six-packs in fear of shortages.)
I don’t understand the EBT system. How is it that customers ahead of me pull out not one, but often go through three or four cards before they cobble together enough plastic credit for the full tab? Where does one acquire multiple cards?
I am talking ag pumps at home with some farmers. The water table here has gone from 40 feet in 2011 to 82 feet now — the result of four years of constant pumping combined with below-average rain and snow runoff, and the complete cut-off of contracted surface water from the Kings River watershed (don’t ask why). I lowered one 15-hp submersible to 100 feet (the well is only 160, which used to be called “deep” when the water table was 40 feet). “Lowering” means less water pumped, more energy costs, a waiting list for the pump people, and sky-high service charges. The renter promises to lower the other one, whose pump is pumping air, now well above the sinking water table. My house well is only 140 feet deep. I just lowered the pump to a 110-foot draw, and decided to get on the “waiting list” for a new domestic well. (Prices for drilling by the foot have increased fivefold, and are said to go up monthly).
If the drought continues, one will see two unimaginable things by next spring: thousands of abandoned older homes out in the countryside from Merced to Bakersfield, and tens of thousands of acres on the West Side (water table ca. 1,000 feet and dropping) will go fallow if they are row-crops. And if orchards and vineyards, a mass die-off will follow of trees and vines. (Note that Silicon Valley’s Crystal Springs reservoir on freeway 280 is “full.” No Bay Area green activist is arguing either that the deliveries through massive conduits should be stopped at the San Joaquin River to be diverted for fish restoration, or that the entire project is unnatural and a scar on Yosemite Park, warranting shutting down the huge transfer system in favor of recycling waste water for showers and gardens.)
I’m on a PG&E off-peak rate schedule, so I’m waiting until evening to turn on the air conditioner. It is 104 degrees outside and 96 degrees inside the house. As a youth, we used a tiny window, inefficient air conditioner far more in the 1960s and 1970s than I ever do now with central air. Given power rates, the idea of a cool home in the valley is so 1970s.
I take another walk around the farm. Good — no one has yet shot the majestic pair of red tail hawks yet, who greet me on their accustomed pole. But I do notice someone has forced open the cyclone fence around the neighbor’s vacant house. It was put up to stop the serial vandalizing. (What do you do after stealing copper wire? Go for the sheet rock? Pipes? Windows? Shingles?)
A friend calls and mentions that local JCs had a spate of car vandalizations. This time targets are catalytic converters (for precious metal salvage?). I get the impression that today’s Gothic looter and Vandal is more ingenious than the state’s work force. Note the new California: the citizen is responsible for picking up trash or keeping a car running clean with a converter. The idea that a bankrupt state would create a task force to go after such thievery is absurd. I appreciate California logic: don’t dare suggest that massive new commitments to ensure social parity for millions of new arrivals through increased state legal, medical, criminal justice, and educational programs ever come at the expense of investments in roads, bridges, reservoirs, airports, or public facilities — or even the accustomed state services that one took for granted in 1970. To do so is nativist, racist, and xenophobic. What an illiberal state we’ve become.
I’m on the upstairs balcony looking out over miles of lush countryside. It’s quite scenic, something in between verdant Tuscany and the aridness of Sicily. I can hear the ag pumps of the surrounding farms everywhere churning 24/7. In a normal year they would never be turned on, as river water irrigated the fields and recharged the water table.
Then come two sirens. Will the power go off? Quite often, someone after too much to drink goes airborne and hits a power pole on these rural roads. I got back inside in case things go dark to review the mail. The local irrigation district has not delivered water in four years (what do ditch tenders do when canals and ditches are empty?) and now wants a tax hike to keep up with increased expenses. In fact, half the mail seems to be drought information from various agencies. What was so awful about building just two or three one million acre-foot reservoirs, or raising Shasta Dam? We could begin today. When the taps at Facebook or the Google toilets go dry, will the state again invest in water storage?
I turn on the local news and channel surf for 10 minutes. How well we take refuge in the absurd. This litany blares out: Bruce Jenner’s new sexual identity, the latest racial controversy, this time over the crashing of a private pool party and the police reaction, the Obama’s new stretch Air Force One jumbo jet, Marco Rubio’s one ticket every four years, Miley Cyrus’s bisexuality. I suppose if one cannot grasp, much less deal with, $19 trillion in debt, a foreign policy in shambles, the largest state in the union on the cusp of a disastrous drought, a Potemkin health care system, zero interest on passbook savings, and the end of all federal immigration law, then the trivial must become existential.
Goodnight, once great state…