Reading Among the Ruins

Tomorrow is always another day for catch-up reading, and so it was. I returned from the interruption to an advanced copy of Robert O’Connell’s forthcoming Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. The engaging and fair-minded biography reconciles the majesty of Sherman’s character with his occasional shortcomings and pettiness as a husband, father, and volatile friend. Outspoken, petulant, prone to wide swings of exuberance and melancholy, blunt if not cruel in some of his assessments, Sherman was an authentic strategic genius. Without his talents, the Civil War might not have ended as it did. I wrote about Sherman off and on over the past twenty years in The Soul of Battle, Ripples of Battle, and The Savior Generals, and I share O’Connell’s tolerance for Sherman’s eccentricities and occasional pettiness, if not meaningless, given that he helped to end that awful war with far fewer casualties on both sides than the ongoing bloodbath in northern Virginia.

After finishing with Sherman, I took another break to deal with the state of California. My irrigation taxes were due for the local ditch district that draws on water from the Kings River. But I wonder why, given that we have had no water for over a year in the canals due to drought, and little the year earlier. Indeed, there has been almost not a drop for the last two seasons, as the failed backup wells and burned-out pumps in these parts attest. I also just received various assessment fees for some sort of irrigation district work done, and for water association memberships, but again, little if any water for over the last 24 months. Do water-tending public employees work the same hours when there is no water to tend?

It is worse on the neighboring San Joaquin River, whose irrigation flows have been diverted for fish restoration. In California, there is always the irony: the great early- and mid-20th century dams were built for flood prevention, power generation, irrigation, and recreation, brilliantly offering all sorts of solutions to a once-confident and ascendant California. Now? Thanks to our grandparents’ dams, there is still water in the drought-stricken Sierra to feed and allow the rivers to flow to the sea and thus to offer a laboratory for environmentalism; in the rivers’ natural, pre-human, pre-dam state, they would have long ago dried up by late summer during these droughts, and the fish perished.

We are a state rich in timber that imports 80% of the wood we use. We are richer still in gas and oil, but must rely on imported fuel for most of our daily transportation. If I understand the California legislature, all of us need not irrigate more farmland, harvest our own timber, or produce our gas and oil -- given that we can pump Facebook, eat Google, and hammer Apple. Whenever I see  “franchise tax board” on any mail, I assume inside is a shake-down: we just thought up a new idea for a fee of $160 for theoretical extra fire protection for your house; we think you might have been using the Internet and so suggest a compensatory sales tax contribution, and so on.

The week was not done. Another truck (quite new for someone not employed at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday) drove in my barnyard, slowly circling before stopping. He thought no one was home.