California’s Central Valley

Thomas Curwen in a 2003 review of Joan Didion’s book Where I Was From in the L.A. Times writes: “Some writers see Californians as brilliant dreamers; others see failures, seeking a second start.

In the early 1970s, I was one of those dreamers, a would-be-writer who came to California, heading for every beatnik poet’s north star— San Francisco and Ferlinghetti’s famous bookstore City Lights. I spent hours in the basement of that lopsided building on Columbus Avenue reading small chapbooks of young poets like me, all of us following Ferlinghetti’s words to ‘create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times’.

My novel Del Rio is an attempt to answer the challenge of apocalyptic times and could only have been written because I lived for over a decade near California’s Central Valley.

The book started fitfully, like an old car with a faulty clutch, stalling out and starting up again. Some of the stalls came from family challenges like a beloved, difficult, dying father, and others came when I changed plot directions in the middle of the road, circled back and began again.

In 2002 my husband and I bought fifty acres of land and a cabin in the central Sierras. Thus, began weekly trips down into the valley. On these trips, I would pass acres of orange trees, which eventually were replanted with more drought tolerant pistachios as climate change raised the temperatures and water became scarce.

One spring night, I was diving past one of the orange groves, listening to a Spanish language radio talk show. A man had called in, a bit drunk and very homesick. As he talked about his work in the fields, he began to weep. “They treat us like animals,” he sobbed.

I can never smell orange blossoms again without hearing his broken voice.

Curwen in his review goes on to tell us that the most successful Californians, men who wanted to turn “dirt into dollars”, did not rely on “wits and work”, but rather “leveraged subsidies from the federal government, from railroads, water projects, oil operations and finally through military contacts. California remains unaware of the real sources of its prosperity. Such ignorance comes at a price.”

I would add that these entrepreneurs, which are increasingly not entrepreneurs but large agribusiness corporations, leverage the misery of workers, as well. This ignorance extracts a moral price from all of us.

While the trees changed over the years from oranges to pistachios, the one constant was the army of undocumented agricultural laborers, sweltering in the triple digit heat, breathing in the bad air of the valley.

I hope in Del Rio to honor them.