Mark Arax, of Fresno, worked for a long time as an investigative reporter for the L.A. Times, until he had a falling out over his story about the Armenian Genocide (his father’s family is Armenian). He’s punctuated his career with a series of books that explore different aspects of California.
A compendium of some Arax’s stories on his website illuminates parts of his writing life: “My Father’s Murder: An Epilogue.” “The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl.” “The Ghost of Tulare Lake.”
The books expound on his passion for California history and lore: The King of California: JG Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire (co-authored with Rick Wartzman) is about a cotton farmer magnate’s machinations in the state. West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, And Killers In The Golden State is a collection of essays.
He’s coming to The Lab in Carmel on July 10 to talk about his latest book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, in support of the nonprofit news website Voices of Monterey Bay. He spoke with the Weekly earlier this week.
Weekly: Where do you live, and how long have you lived there?
Marc Arax: Fresno. Right in the middle of the state. I grew up there. I went away to school back East, started my career at the Baltimore Evening Sun, came back to California, [worked at the] L.A. Times. I’ve lived here since 1990. My father’s assault murder brought me back. That was [the subject of] my first book, In My Father’s Name.
Who influenced you in your journalism and in your writing?
My first was William Saroyan. He was probably the most talked about writer in America in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. He and my grandfather were friends. Carey McWilliams, John Steinbeck and Joan Didion. Also, Wallace Stegner. Those are the giants of the West.
Does The Dreamt Land tell a story that might inspire indignation or anger? And should it?
I didn’t set out to write a polemic. I wanted to write literature. I wanted to tell a story. Really, California is the greatest story that could ever be told. Can you think of an act of hubris more grand than California’s? We don’t call it hubris, we call it a dream. I’m imagining the reader there with me as I go and try to puzzle out this invention called California.
Are the ag industry and big farms the bad guys in the story about water in California?
That’s way too simple. I try not to demonize anybody in the book. It’s too easy to demonize, to paint evil with a broad brush. I’m trying to get at the ambiguity and complexity of the people using the water, the water wars themselves. That doesn’t mean I don’t come at it with passion and anger. I don’t pull any punches in the book.
You blend journalism with personal experience. What does that do for a story?
I think it makes the story compelling. I’m not someone who’s parachuted in from afar trying to figure out California. My own family story is in this dirt. Our sweat and our blood is in the soil. I couldn’t write this book without telling our story. This is not a book written for water wonks. This is a book that, even if you know nothing about water, you’ll find yourself fascinated by the journey I take, and the journey of California.
How is the ag industry in California different from ag in other states?
We developed the most industrialized farm belt the world has ever known. That’s a magnificent story and it’s also a sobering story. Look what that has required. The bending of rivers, the bending of soil, the bending of land. We adopted a culture of importation. We bring in the water across county lines, we bring in our labor across country lines, and our bees to pollinate our almonds across state lines.
How is Salinas Valley agriculture different from that of the rest of California?
Salinas Valley is its own microclimate. It can grow crops that can’t grow anywhere else. Or at least can’t grow in the fecundity, the abundance, that they grow there. It’s its own place, distinct from San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley and Imperial Valley. It’s got its own rivers running through it. And it’s got the ocean nearby that provides that microclimate, but also raises the issue of saltwater intruding the groundwater. It shares with those other valleys the issues of groundwater depletion, contamination and labor.
Were you informed by Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner?
A giant of a book. But it’s not my book. My book focuses solely on California. I’m on the land. Reisner didn’t do that. And thank goodness. He left ground for me to write about.
What do you think has to happen reach a tipping point toward a more sustainable and equitable management of water in California?
Let’s expand it out beyond ag. The challenge confronting California now is we have too many people and not enough resources. In the 60 years since we built the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, the state has grown from 11 million to 40 million people. The system of water that we built is a magnificent system that grew two, if not three, world-class cities, and a farm belt without comparison. But it’s cracking because of so many demands. Something has to give.
What do you think will give?
The first thing is agriculture. We have a new groundwater extraction law and when it goes fully into effect, you’re going to see a million-and-a-half to 2 million acres of farmland go out of production. Both farmland and suburbia have followed a pattern of sprawl. If you look at farmland, we went from prime land in the alluvial plains, to more marginal land beyond the river’s flow, to now we’re farming a couple million acres of land polluted by salts, or that is uphill on rocky earth.
Will tech get us out of this problem?
I think tech can help us use water more wisely. But at some point we’re gong to have to confront that overarching question: How big can we get?
Mark Arax speaks 7:30-9pm Wednesday, July 10, at The Lab, 3728 The Barnyard, Suite G-23, Carmel. Free; donations accepted.