California has always been too big for its breeches. The people, first Spaniard, then white American, took from the Indians a land mass near 1,000 miles long and then called it one state. Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley, riparian forest, Redwood forest, wetland, grassland, inland sea — each was its own state of nature.
When the lines of latitude cover 10 degrees, and the rain falls 125 inches on one end and seven inches on the other, and the people choose to live where the water isn’t, what is a state to do? And so began the infinite tinkering to even out the differences.
One of the most extreme alterations of the earth’s surface in human history took place in the Central Valley, where I live. The hog wallows, home to the Yokut Indians, were flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. By dam, levee, canal and ditch, the Sierra rivers were sent to places rivers never went. The farmer grabbed the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. Cotton barons, chased out of Georgia and Virginia by the boll weevil, drained Tulare Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, and transplanted the plantation — its mint juleps, its African-American farmhands — onto the dirt of California.
Alterations no less grand transformed Southern and Northern California. When the first taking proved insufficient to the conceit of our remaking, farmers and housing developers installed pumps that reached hundreds of feet into the aquifer. They dug out ancient water as the Forty Niners had dug out gold. The orchards, vineyards and vegetable fields sprawled from good soil to bad soil. Suburbia crossed into the desert and then into the forest. It hardly registered that we were pumping so much water out of the earth that the earth itself was sinking; the aqueduct, canals and roads were sinking right along with it.
This was the price to realize our dream: a world-class city in the south, a world-class city in the north, the world’s most industrialized farm belt in the middle and a second valley on the other side of the hill given over to its own mad pursuit of a chip.
You can look at the magnitude of this ambition and conclude that California is fated for apocalypse. That may be true. But it’s also true that the scale of our invention, our genius and our tragedy, requires us to keep reinventing, and these reinventions become not just our future but America’s future. It was in California where Luther Burbank, a horticulturalist known as The Wizard, bred the Santa Rosa plum, the Elberta peach and the Russet Burbank potato. It was here, in a bedroom and a couple of garages, where Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Google were hatched.