Tag Archives: Central Valley

I soak up homey and farmy vibes.

gl3 NL hat weddingMy travels over a long weekend were for the purpose of attending my nephew’s wedding, held very near my old high school and home in the agricultural middle of California, the Central Valley. If the event had begun any earlier than 4:00 in the afternoon, much sunburning would have occurred; as it was, the two sunhats I retrieved from my car were traded around for a few hours among several of our family group, of both sexes.

At the reception, descendants of my parents, with their spouses, were seated all together at one of the long tables on the grass, and my own clan took up two-thirds of those chairs. No seat assignments had been made beyond assigning us a table, and as I was the oldest — the matriarch? — I sat at one end, what might have been the head of the table. But truly I didn’t sit there very much. The three-year-olds Liam and Ivy kept me busy, fetching drinks or wedding cake, or taking them up front to dance in a circle with me. Do the books on how introverts can survive parties ever talk about the strategy of hanging out with the preschoolers?

It was fun to introduce those two to the aunts and uncles and cousins they hadn’t met since they were old enough to be introduced. “Ivy, this is your Aunt Cairenn. She is my sister; we used to be little girls like you….”  The children were all happy to shake hands and be cordial, though reserved. And my heart filled and was satisfied to see all the love shared among the younger generationsgl3 wedding trees and across generations, even though many of them rarely see each other.

Over the two layover days I spent time at three houses, each situated in the middle of a different citrus grove. Two belonged to my siblings and one was the home of a man I grew up with in a bygone era that seems a short while ago; we used to ride our bicycles between the rows of orange trees and slide down the golden hills on pieces of cardboard. While I wasn’t paying attention, my brother and sister and my friend Dick were learning the art of farming, so that now they can carry on in their parents’  tradition and even in some of their groves.

I had the chance to play among the trees again, this time with Liam and Ivy and Scout, who in the absence of store-bought toys were making do with old oranges that had fallen off the trees, with snails among the dead leaves, and with a trowel in the dirt. The smell of the trees and of the Bermuda grass lawn, and of the soil, and the air that stayed warm into the evening when we watched the Black Phoebes swooping and scooping up insects… All of these sensations and moments added up to create in me a dreamily contented mood.

2016 wedding Soldier corn hole DL

mt view-by K crp

My nephew the groom partly grew up in the same house that I mostly grew up in, that his grandfather built. I stayed three nights with my sister who is another of his aunts; she and her husband farm mandarins and oranges for his mother and for themselves, and live in a house they designed to have a view of the Sierra Nevada much like this one from her neighborhood (taken by someone else).

It was fun to be with country people who are daily involved with plants and animals different from my usual. In addition to the snails and phoebes mentioned above, I learned about or interacted with:

A frog that I met in the bathroom. It was at midnight and I didn’t want to frog in bucket at nancy's cropbother with him right then, so I went back to bed and he disappeared for two days, during which time everyone teased me about my tall tale. Then he was found in a different bathroom, and I was judged to be sane after all. Here he is in a bucket.

A house finch who flew down the chimney into the ashes; I helped Nancy use an old towel to surround and collect the tiny bird and carry him outdoors.

Gophers come down from the foothills in droves to feast on the roots of all the watered orange trees and vegetables, etc. that my friend Dick grows on 50 acres, and their tunnels contribute to the erosion of the sloping orchard land. His son explained all this to me and showed me the traps they put into the tunnels, trying to keep the population of pillagers at bay. It’s a constant and fairly hopeless battle that must be fought nonetheless.

More snails: Did you know that some snails are carnivorous and eat other species of snails? Yep. The brown snail is a pest in the orange groves, but the Decollate snail ignores the trees and goes after the brown snails. My brother is in the field of citrus research and one nephew is a farm advisor on such matters. I lured them into the grove with my questions and we scratched around under the trees trying to find some Decollate snails so I could remember how they look different. Later I did find an empty shell at my sister’s. You can see one on Wikipedia’s page about them.cara cara vs blood

Pink oranges. Have you heard of Cara Cara oranges? I hadn’t; I must not have been spending enough time with all the citrus growers, because already Sunkist is selling lots of Cara Caras — they are mainstream. Friend Dick is growing them, as well as…

Berries: I had brought with me boxes of blueberries from Costco for a family breakfast, fruit that seems to have been grown in Salinas, California, not far from the coast. But even in the hot Central Valley they are growing blueberries now, more of them than are produced in any other area of the U.S. I learned about this from Dick as we stood on a patio overlooking his garden, and I could well imagine how the earlier spring might sweeten up the fruit. His son ran down and brought back some blackberries bigger than my thumb and mm-mm….yes. The flavor lingered on my tongue as I drove away.

Another nephew is marrying in October, so I will have a good reason to visit again and soak up the vibes of my childhood stomping grounds, and chat with farmers about their crops and the weather and the birds. I know that time will be here before I know it; I should read this post again about a week before my departure, to remind me of the joy I am likely to have once again.

They rise against their rootedness.

February is one of my favorite months for driving up and down the center of our very agricultural state. I won’t have that pleasure this year, but a few Februarys when I managed to visit family and the land where I grew up, the expanses of almond orchards were to be seen out my window for at least as many miles as it took me to drive one of the hours through what is called the West Side of the Central Valley. They are especially pretty on stormy days when the clouds are also playing their melodrama in the skies above.

The landscape along Highway 5 is never static, and not just because the seasons change. Our drought, and the loss of aquifer, mean that some farms will have to change what they grow, or downsize, or go out of business. One grower recently announced that they will be taking 10,000 acres of almonds out of production this year.

So I will enjoy the orchards I see, and not presume on their future. Richard Wilbur in this poem helps me to see aspects of fruit trees that I might not consider on my own, such as lifespans. Is it old orchards that are being “taken out,” or young trees that will never have the chance to be fully grown? What are the West Side bees meditating about this year?

gl w-side alm nurs closer


These trees came to stay. w-side alm med close
Planted at intervals of
Thirty feet each way,

Each one stands alone
Where it is to live and die.
Still, when they are grown

To full size, these trees
Will blend their crowns, and hum with
Meditating bees.almond-tree-flower

Meanwhile, see how they
Rise against their rootedness
On a gusty day,

Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,

Swept by flutterings
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.

~ Richard Wilbur

gl w-side alm orch clouds

Anthropology of water and radio.

One Friday I set off for the mountains to our family’s cabin in the southern Sierra Nevada. P1000688 sf close w roadThe homesickness that always comes on in advance seems to be even worse these days. I did not want to leave what feels like my soul’s safe place,  and it took me all the next morning to drag myself away. The sun was high in the sky before I got on the road, but from then on I was the Happy Wanderer. And I didn’t get lost, at least not very soon.

It’s dry out there, folks! Even so, crops are growing, and canals are full of water. This view of Highway 5, the interstate that runs right down the middle of the state, shows the most barren looking stretch. I took the picture looking south, and you can see the California Aqueduct running along in the same general direction and to the west of the highway here.

P1000662 5 & aqueduct

I was listening to the radio and thinking about the anthropology of radio stations. Close to home I had tuned into my favorite jazz or classical stations, but after a while there were more Christian, Spanish, and talk radio options. I landed on a gospel station as a rich woman’s voice began to sing meaningfully, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, oh-oh-oh my soul….” and I wept with joy. I think it was joy. I weep so much lately, I probably don’t know all the reasons.

Soon I turned east toward the mountains and drove through miles and miles of farmland as I crossed the Central Valley. Huge plantings of tomatoes and cotton and alfalfa, and what I think were safflower plants maturing all coppery gold. Around here farmers are rightly worried about the future, and they put up billboards asking, “IS GROWING FOOD A WASTE OF WATER?” and “DAMS or TRAINS – BUILD WATER STORAGE NOW.” Over a farm machinery dealership yard, surrounded by fields of corn, the largest American flag I’ve ever seen billowed in the wind.

I kept stopping to take pictures, assuring myself that I had time, because the summer sun wouldn’t set too early. I didn’t really want to arrive by myself in the dark at the cabin. My sister would not join me until the next day.P1000703

After years of knowing alfalfa only by its summery sweetness in the air, I parked near a freshly mown field and bent down to see its lavender flowers and clovery leaves.

The temperature outside had reached 102° by this time, so when I stopped for gas it seemed the right thing to do, to buy myself a Snapple Kiwi Strawberry drink, hearkening a long ways back to a time when that was the “special” drink that many in our family favored. That disappeared fast.



And then I came upon the pistachio trees, which I didn’t recognize until I walked through the pale plowed dirt and got close to them, too. I noticed that the orchards were not flooded as nut trees sometimes are, but were irrigated by means of very localized misters.

A sign read: “50% of THE FRUITS, VEGETABLES and NUTS of THE NATION ARE GROWN in CALIFORNIA.” But often, directly across the highway from the orchards, would be land like this:



…..and these gray-green weeds and tumbleweeds were common wild plants, showing what the natural state of affairs is in these parts.




But I think the most common roadside plants are probably not considered weeds at all, because they are wild sunflowers that brighten up long stretches of highway and wave at the traffic whizzing past.

The singer on the country station was asking, “Mama, should I run for President? Mama, should I trust the government?”

When I lost that station I came upon more Christian radio with the blessing, “God be with you till we meet again….,” and you can imagine who was on my mind right then.

I was just starting to climb into the foothills, where there were oak trees, but no crops. The temperature had dropped to 99°, and I kept the AC on. This area slightly above the hottest parts of the valley like Fresno or Bakersfield is where a lot of people have liked to retreat at 2,000 feet or so above the valley floor. Over the years I many times heard my father wonder at the foolishness (and he used stronger descriptors) of building houses where there is no groundwater in all but the wettest years. I saw houses on hilltops and wondered myself if the occupants were still living there, or if they have to bring all their water in by truck nowadays.

Maybe cattle are grazed here in greener seasons, but all I saw were a few beehives. As the road climbed up toward my destination, pines began to appear. And in this transition zone of the foothills I will break my story in two. The next installment will be: Mountains!P1000739


After World War II my father took a two-year agricultural course at the Northern Branch of the College of Agriculture, later to become the University of California at Davis. My sister-in-law was a UC Davis professor for a long time and still lives in the town, and our daughter lived there for six years while getting an advanced degree from the school. So it’s a place with which our family has a long history.P1000561 sunflowers crp 2

Now my son-in-law Nate is employed by the university and that branch of the family is the latest to settle in. After living in Maryland for eleven years, just last week Pearl and the children completed their cross-country camping trip along with dog Jack, and returned to California where they had all been born (the humans, that is).


We’ve been anticipating this event for most of a year, and when school was out and they had set out on their journey, I followed their progress on paper maps with occasional text-message updates from the travelers. As soon as I got the message, “We’re here!” I began to calculate how soon I might make the drive over; I hadn’t seen most of the children for almost a year, since Kate’s wedding.

They arrived Thursday afternoon, and everyone seemed to be welcoming me to come, so two days later I pulled up in front of the house that previously I’d seen only in pictures, and as I got out of the car I caught the smells familiar to my childhood, which are always so comforting to me. Davis is in the Central Valley, where I also grew up, albeit 200+ miles to the south, and the warm air and the earth and fields of fast-growing corn or alfalfa or tomatoes all combine to make for a distinctive environment. P1000533crp

Even though I am back home now where we have that marine influence that makes for a very different climate, it seems I can almost get a whiff of the Valley air by seeing this picture taken from the balcony, looking east toward Sacramento over a plantation of sunflowers. A loaded lemon tree on the right and wisteria encroaching give a hint of how eager the plant life is.

I think I started on that first evening, to help Pearl unpack boxes that the movers had stacked all over the house. In any case, we spent hours on that task during my stay, and certainly didn’t finish it. Often I would unroll a sheaf of large papers that had encased some item, and I’d set the bowl or whatever on the kitchen counter for her to put away; then I would smooth out the paper and eventually add it to the growing stack in the entry. I brought home some of these papers, hoping to reuse them myself for starting fires or to place inDavis June IMG_0078 Maggie front of young children with crayons.

It was amusing to see what was in some of the packages. We took to guessing what was inside, by the shape and the weight. Often the contents of one bundle were more haphazard than could be accounted for, as with a barbeque fork packed with two pencils and a pen; some unbreakables were heavily protected with multiple layers. The most surprising find for me was wrapped up all by itself; a cereal bowl containing two dry Weetabix, covered in plastic wrap.

Their new house has a swimming pool, and the children were swimming every day. A screened patio is right off the pool, where we ate some meals in the style of Sunset Magazine. Monday afternoon I took pictures of Maggie doing water stunts for a while, and was pleased when I got warm enough that my desire to cool off overcame my usual inertia in regard to swimming. I was glad I’d brought my suit.

The pool is kept clean by a saltwater system, so there is not the destructive chlorine to rot one’s swimsuit or destroy hair. Several redwood trees shade one end of the pool and so far this keeps the water cool enough to be refreshing even on 100+° days such as occurred while I was there.

The last evening oIMG_0115moon lg dusk Davisf my stay, Pearl and I took a walk with a longtime friend and former roommate of Pippin, who still lives in the area. She introduced us to one of her favorite routes on the west side of town and we walked and talked for an hour. The light wasn’t good enough for most of my pictures to turn out well; on my next visit I’d like to do that walk in the morning. As it’s less than two hours away, I should be able to accomplish a visit another time or two while it’s still summer.