The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California
By Mark Arax
576 pp., Knopf
For two summers in a row, I had the privilege of acting as an interpreter for a team of auditors of an international development organization which was involved in a reservoir and irrigation project in Armenia. My two big memories from that experience were the adage, “Water is life” and how rural individuals and groups in Armenia had it in them to get organized and advocate for themselves in the face of a rather rigid government and a major global donor. It was moving and impressive.
The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax has numerous such tales to share in the continuing saga of “Water is life” across a territory about 15 times the size of Armenia with a history of pipelines, wells, irrigations, dams and claims and counter-claims on land and land use that date back two centuries. The book is in part a history of California told through its management of water and other natural resources and a compilation of investigative reporting pieces, alongside profiles of notable figures past and present. There’s also plenty of social commentary, as well as autobiographical elements. It is a lengthy piece of writing – sometimes disjointed, often very much detailed – but always revolving around the same key question: Who gets to decide what to do with the land and the water in California, how and why?
Along the way, the reader gets to meet a rich and memorable cast of characters across a number of staggered episodes. Among them are Joe Poland the geologist; Richard Hagopian, oud virtuoso; mega-farmers Jack Woolf, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, John Vidovich; Samuel Brannan, Gold Rush profiteer; John Kirkpatrick, a grower of citrons, a fruit used in Orthodox Jewish worship – carefully grown, highly prized, hardly eaten; Friar Junípero Serra; raisin advocate Sox Setrakian; lawyer and investor James Ben Ali Haggin; the eccentric refugee Albert Britz; Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahnechee; James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Jr., long-time mayor of San Francisco, briefly governor of California; Isaac Friedlander, the wheat king; Henry Miller, the cattle king; B. F. Sisk; Harry “Rusty” Rustigian, grape and raisin farmer; Charles Hatfield, part-time sewing machine salesman, part-time rainmaker – and many more.
Each lengthy profile or brief vignette offer a glimpse into the various aspects of this remarkable study of California as a whole. Overarching those stories and the many long and detailed bits about legislation on acreage limits and dams – public battles and behind-the-scenes accounts in Sacramento, Washington and elsewhere – the narrative sticks to the theme of the relationship of individuals and communities with the land—and also with one another. Among the more poignant take-aways from The Dreamt Land are insights into the Mexicans of California, both historically and at present, and how that particular community is perceived and treated, as opposed to so many other migrant groups from more distant lands who have filled their successful niches in the fields and cities of the Golden State.
As such, Arax presents California as a kind of American Dream of the American Dream. That is, the land – with all of its vastness and richness – became a space for renewal and prosperity for Americans themselves, whether it was Okies or Arkies during the Dust Bowl, or individuals and communities from elsewhere in the South or in the country, alongside the Portuguese, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Filipinos and others who forged their paths as west as possible or east across an immense ocean over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.
And what about the role played by that state in the fortune and imagination of the Armenian people? Yettem. Fresno. Glendale. Saroyan. Deukmejian. Yes, even Kardashian. No denying it. As Onnik Dinkjian sang: “New York, Boston, California – inch aghvor, inch siroun, inch aghvor, aman!” The first Armenian family in Fresno, Arax informs us, renamed themselves Normart (“New Man”) and the first newspaper was called Nor Giank (“New Life”). Armenians planted pomegranate trees in their front garden as “a metaphor for our rebirth,” Arax says, adding, “As a kid, I could ride my bicycle through the streets of south Fresno and tell you every house that belonged to an Armenian just by spotting the tree.”
One of the many episodes in the book is the touching story of a young man fresh out of hiding in Constantinople who had to choose between an education in Paris or joining family in Fresno, where “a ‘new Armenia’ was being created.” Jonig Housepian survived the Armenian Genocide and was befriended and guided by Hagop Oshagan and Yervant Odian on his literary path. Odian suggested the pen name Aram Arax for him. That young man’s grandson still carries that surname – Arax, which, of all things for the author of such a book, is the name of a river in the old country, “the mother river, that flowed down from Mount Ararat across a nation that hadn’t existed for more than a thousand years.” The Armenian elements of California as such and part of Mark Arax’s personal and family history are weaved into the history of California – pertinent and, in all likelihood, equally applicable across a number of communities in that diverse state.
The Dreamt Land takes a long, hard look back. At the same time, it invites the reader to struggle with phenomena that are all-too-present. California’s water issues continue to show up on the headlines. And the broader, universal questions of environmental stewardship remain uncomfortably current and close to home. What Mark Arax writes and asks about Mount Shasta north of California resonates strongly with the ongoing debates about Amulsar in central-southern Armenia. Are the expensive and expansive systems of dams and canals marvels of engineering, a testament to human ingenuity – so-called “moving the rain” or “the theft of a distant river”? Or is it all too much playing God, spreading resources too thin, ultimately endangering the precious balance that nature took millennia to form? “In California, drought isn’t nature,” Arax proposes, “Drought is man”.