Five Days of Hope and Despair
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…