Ep. 1. The Dreamt Land with Mark Arax

Episode one of the Borrowed Time podcast series. Mill Valley Public Library interviews Mark Arax

One day while at work I was passing through the office and saw our graphic designer working on a poster with the front cover of The Dreamt Land and I did a double take because some weeks prior I had written to the author and asked about his availability to make a public presentation at our library next summer. I never heard back. It turns out that Mark Arax, author not only of The Dreamt Land but also The King of California, In My Father’s Name & West of the West had already agreed to speak at a Mill Valley Historical Society presentation at our library so I quickly wrote to him a second time and asked if he would be willing to be our first interview for the Borrowed Time series. 

We hoped to include Arax in our series because we selected The Dreamt Land as our featured book recommendation in August to examine water resources in California. As Arax notes at the end of our interview, his intended audience for the book was not just Californians or people interested in water rights but a general audience interested in the ‘manipulation’ – to use his word – of our land and resources. The state and federal laws on California water are as complicated as its history and all of it is intertwined together like tributary, river and lake but convoluted by dam and aqueduct. Arax does an amazing job by presenting all of the information in not only an accessible way but also in a very poetic manner. I confess my prior impressions of the Central Valley were tainted by Bay Area elitism and only based on what I could see (and smell!) from the highways as I yearned to reach my destinations beyond the valley. But from the get-go in the preface, Arax twisted my perception of the Central Valley by painting the same views from Highway 99 through a brighter lens of someone expressing their love of their hometown. I’m certain the oleander in the median will catch my eye the next time I make the drive. 

Reviews have compared Arax, and specifically so this book, to Steinbeck and I’ll wholeheartedly reinforce that thought. Arax captured something special in this book – the essence of California. In our interview, when discussing what it’s like to write about your neighbors, Arax comments he sometimes has to be the ‘persona non grata’ but my hope is that this book will help shape how other Californians along the coast in big cities view, and better appreciate, our neighbors on the other side of the mountains. It pleased me that Arax also quoted Steinbeck in our interview, ‘No one forgets a drought faster than Californians’ (Steinbeck really said, ‘And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way’ – I am a librarian after all). 

The Dreamt Land begins with a story about apricots blossoming in January and then producing no fruit by spring despite the promise of the many buds. Arax calls his neighbor Brad for insight and is then shown the pistachio orchard on his neighbor’s farm, which also failed to produce. Brad explains that for both the apricot and pistachio, the trees never hibernated through winter because it didn’t get cold enough and says a few words Arax describes as rarely spoken by farmers in the Central Valley: global climate change. The epilogue returns to climate change but the 500+ words in between don’t directly discuss it. For that reason, I approached the first interview for the series with caution. I was surprised later that night at the Historical Society presentation when Arax went a bit darker than our interview and discussed climate change with more focus and made the threat of wildfire uncomfortably real. Audience members asked what could, or should, be done and I saw more than one face squirm when we discussed recycling water from wastewater. 

But I held back a bit in the interview. I had hoped to discuss the Tulare Lake more in depth but like the words climate change, the lake is mentioned but not prominent in Arax’s book. I first learned of the lake in a different book, The State of Water by Obi Kaufmann. The Tulare Lake was once the second largest lake west of the Mississippi. Today, very few people know of it because there is no water in the basin. Arax, in our interview, notes he didn’t know of it until a flood in the late 90s when his editor at the Los Angeles Times sent him to report on it. But John Muir and Mark Twain wrote about the lake a hundred years ago. And for hundreds of years before that, the rich habitat provided for thousands of Native Americans. Salmon once swam up the San Joaquin River into the lake. The lake disappeared after dams were built upstream and the water diverted for agriculture. 

Like the Tulare Lake, grizzly bears, elk, wild mustangs and antelope all once called the Central Valley home only a few generations ago. Today the delta smelt is at the center of a water resource debate. Farmers in the Central Valley want more water diverted from the delta for farming but the flow doesn’t meet the desired amount to protect the delta smelt, an endangered species. With weakened protections to the Endangered Species Act, the farmers might get what they want – more water and more profit and all for the short term. In our interview, Arax notes the delta smelt could be the new canary in the coal mine in California. If the delta smelt isn’t protected, which species will be the next to go? 

Although I felt like I held back in the interview, and the words ‘climate change’ are not overstated in The Dreamt Land, Arax does more than once use the words ‘massive manipulation’ to talk about human influence on California landscapes and what is climate change if not a massive manipulation to our world? In the book, interview and presentation at our library, Arax addressed the sinking of the land in some parts of the Central Valley. The ‘massive manipulation’ by removal of groundwater has sunk the land in some places by 30 feet and has taken all of the infrastructure with it. The Steinbeck quote about California drought amnesia should apply beyond flood and drought. We have forgotten the Tulare Lake and that grizzlies roamed the Central Valley. We acknowledge and then overlook what it means that thousands of Native Americans, as Arax notes, were the victim of California’s first exploitation. If we lose the delta smelt, we may forget them just as we have with the former salmon and steelhead runs in the Russian and Eel Rivers. 

If you have listened to the podcast, I hope this writing is of further interest. If you have not listened to the podcast, please do!