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21st Century California Reverts Back to the Wild West

Mussel Slough is about 15 miles from my house, and my grandfather often related the anger of early farmers at jacked-up freight charges, land confiscations, and double-dealing, in the agrarian and populist sense that there was no law other than what the “railroad men” said there was. His grandmother had bought our farm in the 1870s for $4 an acre, with the understanding that after a set number of years the railroad could buy it back if it were not (arbitrarily) judged to be developed. (I wondered, given the dislike of the railroad, why my grandfather mortgaged his farm in the 1930s and 1940s and sent his daughters to Stanford University for undergraduate and graduate degrees, given Leland Stanford’s rail riches. He later told me that “education” is a “life raft” for women.)

He talked fondly of the advancing civilization of the region, through landmark developments such as mosquito abatement districts, the systematic licensing of dogs and rabies vaccinations, the use of the Fresno scraper and concrete pipe to facilitate surface irrigation, and the formation of common irrigation districts run by the rule of law. He pointed to non-irrigated wild areas that were never farmed, to remind me what the land would look like without water and agrarians.

The law was in his view holy, and it was supported by an array of local community clubs and organizations—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Masons, the Grange, the Farm Bureau, the Sun-Maid growers cooperative—that sought to encourage civic pride and progress through self-improvement. Government employees—the postman, the county librarian, the dog control officer, and the local constable—were few and revered as public stewards who sought out public service.

(Another aside: The once beautiful Temperance Union fountain at the edge of our city park was long ago torn down; in its place now rests a totem statue of the Aztec moon/fertility/agricultural goddess, Coatlicue [mother of Huitzilopochtli], with the inscription “Viva La Raza”  [“Long live the Race”]. No comment on the comparative symbolism.)

All of these milestones of progress were juxtaposed in his recollections with commensurate improvements on the farm and in the house: the indoor toilet that stopped the use of privies and cut down on contagion; the introduction of electric pumps and pressure systems that allowed deeper wells and cleaner water, and ended reliance on windmills and stale taste of water stored up in the metal tanks in towers. Culture fought nature to a draw.