Mark Arax has written a most important book about the multilayered and braided narrative of California through the manipulation of water and dust. Titled “The Dreamt Land,” the book is an odyssey across California written with literary vitality and a critical eye that captures untold stories. The book is also a testament to Arax’s gifts as a wordsmith and a native son of California who has captured the Armenian-American experience of the Golden State through a rare and illuminating looking glass.
What is the book about?
The invention of California, first as a myth and then as a real place. That invention necessitated the invention of the grandest water-moving system the world had ever seen. Whether hubris or a dream, we took the edge of a continent, a thousand miles long, and called it one state. The problem was that this state has a dozen different states of nature inside it. In one spot in the north, it rains a 140 inches a year; in another spot in the south, it rains five inches. We decided—and here’s the rub—that we were going to even out those differences. Sounds good in theory. But in reality, that “evening out” is a massive job. So we built the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, the “System,” as I call it. It was and is magnificent. It created two, if not three, world-class cities and the most extensive and intensive farm region in the world. But the system is now cracking. And what I do in this book is go inside those cracks.
When did you first get the spark of the idea, and how did that germinate?
I had written an earlier book, The King of California, that delved deeply into the movement of water and the blooming of desert. After that book was done, I vowed never to do another book of that magnitude. Then this historic drought hit California. The people of the north, the middle and the south were fighting over water again. From my perch in the middle, I could see all these journalists parachuting in from other places, and many of them had little or no understanding of the history of the land and the complexity of the system. I wanted to use water as a metaphor, like a river, to create a story full of man’s guile, vision, greed, will, defiance of gravity and even some magic.
Where does the book begin?
It begins in my backyard. I have three apricot trees that grow along the fence. Each one ripens at a different time. Each year, I am able to make this fantastic Armenian sun jam from them. So, in 2014, the trees strangely begin to blossom in January. Now, this is three if not four weeks early. We had such a mild winter that the trees thought January was spring. So the flowers bloomed and they set into tiny little nubs of fruit. And the trees were loaded. I thought I was going to have a hell of a harvest. I was already counting the Mason jars full of jam. But then, one morning in April, I go outside and hundreds of baby apricots were lying on the ground. Not a single fruit held. How to explain such a mass shedding? I call up a friend who is a farmer and we drive out to his pistachio orchards and the same thing is going on out there. The male pistachios aren’t pollinating the females. He tells me that in 35 years of farming, he has never seen his orchards so out of sync. “It’s global warming,” he tells me. “We didn’t get enough chilling hours in winter.” That’s when I recall what my grandfather Aram Arax passed on to me when I was a kid. The apricot has to know the chill of death in winter to know how to hold onto life in spring.
Fresno is near and dear to you as a birthplace. How has Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley factored into this monumental narrative of California?
Fresno is where the selling of the raisin was invented. And that invention was the inspiration of chiefly the Armenians. My grandfather Arax had survived the massacres by hiding in an attic in Constantinople. When the fever of Genocide had passed, he came down from the attic and was confronted with a choice: to study French poetry at the Sorbonne or to join his uncle, the only patriarch left in the family, in Fresno. His uncle was writing these letters from Fresno, talking about a New Armenia in the California Valley. Grapes that hung like jade eggs. So my grandfather chooses Fresno, the raisin capital of the world, over Paris. When he arrives in 1920, the land is booming, literally. The farmers are putting dynamite in the hardpan to blow open holes to plant figs. Not just any fig orchard but the biggest planting of figs in history. Just outside of Fresno, in Fowler and Selma, they were planting thousands of acres of Thompson seedless grapes and laying them in the sun to make raisins.
You tell the Armenian story through the prism of California and the manipulation of water. Why is the Armenian story and history significant to the macrohistory of California?
California is a place of reinvention. So many great migrations begin faraway and end here. These are people fleeing not only genocide but war, famine and poverty. They literally plant their dream in the fertile soil. Along with the Armenians came the Japanese, Swedes, Germans from the Volga River Valley, Filipinos, Swiss Italians, white Okies, Black Okies and Mexicans. The Armenians transformed the valley with their ingenuity and knowledge of farming and the soil. In that reinvention, they reinvented themselves. Out of that earth came William Saroyan, chronicler of the Armenian-American experience.
And so you find a raisin farmer who is an oud master or an oud master who is a raisin farmer?
That’s right, Richard Hagopian. I find him in the middle of August when he wants to be playing his oud at a picnic somewhere but instead is watching over the picking of his grapes to make raisins. He is the last of the Mohicans. In his stretch of the Valley, all the vineyards have been turned into almond orchards except his. So that chapter, which I call “Raisinland,” becomes a meditation on Armenian proverbs, curses, the trance of the oud and the trance of farming amid drought and flood, boom and bust.
When writing a book of this magnitude, did you know what you were getting into? The narrative is so sprawling, yet the structure and impact is so powerful.
I didn’t set out to write a book that weighs 2.2 pounds, if that’s what you mean (laughing). What seized me? Madness. My own madness and the madness of California. I wanted to tell the story of California in a different way – different from Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion or Carey McWilliams. So I combined years of reportage with excavations of archival history and then my own family story as a way to hold it all together.
This book is already being heralded as the ultimate narrative of California. What do you hope that the book will accomplish to the present and future generations?
I wrote the book because I wanted to make sense of my backyard, my world. When I was growing up, we had all these irrigation canals and ditches knifing through our neighborhoods. As a kid, I never thought to ask where is this water coming from, who is it going to, and by what right? I think all kids are dumb to their place, and I think one of the reasons for existence is to die a little less dumb.