When Land Is History

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.