We made at least two wrong turns getting to the mountains last month, and they helped put me in touch with my farming roots. In the middle of August the fields are lush with the bounty that gives California’s Central Valley the name of The Greatest Garden in the World. Tomatoes, corn, cotton, walnuts, tree fruits, grapes… Wikipedia says that every non-tropical crop is grown here.
On our second meander, in the northeasterly instead of southeasterly direction, we were surprised to see fig orchards on one side and pomegranates on the other. What could be more exotic or impossible? William Saroyan describes the impossibility in his 1930’s story “The Pomegranate Trees” that Mr. Glad and I have laughed over a few times:
“My uncle Melik was just the worst farmer that ever lived. He was too imaginative and poetic for his own good. What he wanted was beauty. He wanted to plant it and see it grow. I myself planted over one hundred pomegranate trees for my uncle one year back there in the good old days of poetry and youth in the world. I drove a John Deere tractor too, and so did my uncle. It was all pure esthetics, not agriculture. My uncle just liked the idea of planting trees and watching them grow.
“Only they wouldn’t grow. It was on account of the soil. The soil was desert soil. It was dry. My uncle waved at the six hundred and eighty acres of desert he had bought and he said in the most poetic Armenian anybody ever heard, Here in this awful desolation a garden shall flower, fountains of cold water shall bubble out of the earth, and all things of beauty shall come into being.”
Melik plans to have apricots, peaches, figs and olives too, but he never gets beyond planting the pomegranates, which eventually fail, because instead of a fountain there is only a trickle of water flowing from the many wells he digs.
|Fig orchard in Madera Co.|
But since the 1930’s, state-funded irrigation projects have increased the available farmland to such a degree that in the present day about one-sixth of the irrigated land in the nation is in our Central Valley. The pomegranate trees we saw with their ripening red fruits were not far from where the fictional Uncle Melik farmed.
I do think there is nothing more lovely than a fig tree with its extravagant leaves on curvy branches, and fruits more refreshing than a cup of cold water. Though I grew up in the Valley this was my first sighting of a groveful. I didn’t notice what kind of irrigation system is used in the orchard, but no doubt there was one.
|View of Sierras from Tulare County (Pippin pic)|
By means of our state water projects we take all that melted mountain snow pack and hold it behind dams so that we can let it out bit-by-bit all through the summer. In this long agricultural center of the state, on less than one percent of the total farmland in the United States, we produce 8% of the nation’s agricultural output by value. (Wikipedia)
|Tulare Co. in Spring – still green in places|
I’ve been googling to find out how many dams are in California, but that list is too long for me to take the time to count. Maybe I’ll just stick to the ones in the Sierra Nevadas that end up feeding canals and rivers that water orange groves and almond orchards and alfalfa fields. It turns out that list above is sortable, and I can see that in Fresno County alone there are eleven dammed lakes.
When you drive across the state, from a dammed mountain lake to San Francisco Bay Area in one day, the repetition of scenes along the highway impresses on you the importance of water. There are dead almond orchards on Highway 5, on the “West Side” of the Valley, that testify to water wars still going on, and to our inability to grow very much without irrigation.
Westside tomato field in April
It was 101° as we headed home through that fertile swath. All the crops whose irrigation was current were happy. The corn was probably growing inches every day, and the almonds swelling in their shells. We were happy to look out from our car through the windows that were closed to keep in the cooled air.
A little north of the dead trees, on a slope above the freeway, a Hispanic family were systematically planting new almond trees. It dawned on me that Why, yes, it is a week day, a work day, isn’t it? Not all the farm work can be done in the cooler mornings or evenings.
I recalled my sweaty and tanned father getting off his tractor, coming into the house mid-afternoon with a watermelon and slicing it into rounds at the kitchen counter. He’d put one big slice on a plate and eat it with a fork before going back out to take care of his orange trees.
Water melon. Melons are some of those things of beauty that Uncle Melik likely envisioned as he was trying to find their necessary water. And the people who tend the earth’s gardens, who are willing to build the dams and plant the trees and irrigate them all summer long are beautiful to me, too.
|The house where my father ate watermelon.|