A vivid, searching journey into California's capture of water and soil—an epic story of a people's defiance of nature and the wonders, and ruin, it has wrought
Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, that is straining to keep up with California's relentless growth.
This is a heartfelt, beautifully written book about the land and the people who have worked it--from gold miners to wheat ranchers to small fruit farmers and today's Big Ag. Since the beginning, Californians have redirected rivers, drilled ever-deeper wells and built higher dams, pushing the water supply past its limit.
The Dreamt Land weaves reportage, history and memoir to confront the "Golden State" myth in riveting fashion. No other chronicler of the West has so deeply delved into the empires of agriculture that drink so much of the water. The nation's biggest farmers—the nut king, grape king and citrus queen—tell their story here for the first time.
This is a tale of politics and hubris in the arid West, of imported workers left behind in the sun and the fatigued earth that is made to give more even while it keeps sinking. But when drought turns to flood once again, all is forgotten as the farmers plant more nuts and the developers build more houses.
Arax, the native son, is persistent and tough as he treks from desert to delta, mountain to valley. What he finds is hard earned, awe-inspiring, tragic and revelatory. In the end, his compassion for the land becomes an elegy to the dream that created California and now threatens to undo it.
“You can’t understand California without understanding water, and no one is better at doing that than Mark Arax, whose depth of knowledge about the Central Valley is organic and unparalleled. Plus, he writes like a dream.” —Mark Bittman
“The Dreamt Land is the book Mark Arax was born to write. Nuanced, deeply researched, and profoundly personal, it offers, through its history of agriculture in California, a deep dive into the soul of the state. Arax knows the territory; he has written about rural California for many years. This is his crowning achievement, a work of reportage that is also a work of literature. It belongs on the short list of great books about the state.” —David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, and editor of the Library of America’s Collected Didion
“Anyone can write about water in California, but no one can do it like Mark Arax. He comes at the story from the inside: bypassing the simple tropes and instead heading down back roads in search of complexity, contradiction, and outright scandal. The result is a stunningly energetic epic of vision and folly, ambition and greed.” —Lisa M. Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness
“This is a stunning book. Biblical drama played against the harsh sun and earth of California’s Central Valley. Exodus, diaspora, parting the waters, sowing and reaping, Godlike dominion: it’s all in here. The Dreamt Land calls up Steinbeck and Didion, but it rests squarely on its own words, memories, and stories beyond mere comparison.” —William Francis Deverell, Director of Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
“Arax offers a sweeping, engrossing history of his native California focused on the state's use, overuse, and shocking mismanagement of water. . . . Arax reveals the consequences to land and wildlife of generations of landowners who have defiantly dug, dammed, and diverted California's waters.” —Kirkus (starred review)