I’m falling apart at the seams – literally. The left shoulder seams of my work shirts are fraying. At first, one or two shirts showed rough patches in the middle of the top seam. Then, the holes started appearing. “Cheap shirt,” I thought when the first hole made its presence known. But other shirts followed. Paranoia set in. Why the left shoulder? I began to check myself for strange deformities. Had I developed some Cardassian-like bone spur? I would run my hand over the top of my shoulder, peering into the steamy post-shower mirror. No scales. No wings. I had lost some weight, but surely I hadn’t possessed that much padding. And why was it only the left shoulder? Why only my work shirts? The next question brought reason. Okay, my job is pretty physical. I must be doing something that presses or rubs on that shoulder. I searched my mind – blank.
Heading down I-5 in the pastel light of morning, the answer hit me. I shifted away from the seatbelt that pestered my neck. Aha! My seatbelt is wearing holes in my shirts. I took this as an indication of something I’ve suspected for quite a while. I spend way too much time behind the wheel. One hour each way to work, plus an average of 15 minutes out of every hour seeing appointments – on a given work day, I spend approximately 4 hours driving. Wear and tear on my shirts, wear and tear on my joints, time away from my family – where’s the good?
The light clued me in. During my adolescence, I became convinced that someone could blindfold me and set me down at any spot in the Central Valley, and I would know the general region into which I had been dropped. Unlike most of my adolescent theories, this one seems to be supported by the experience of adulthood. To most outsiders, this Valley appears as an endless stretch of monotony. “Flat.” “Hot.” “Brown.” “Foggy.” “Muddy.” “Boring.” I’ve heard the epithets most of my life – uttered many of them at various points of disgust and discontent.
However, this Valley of mine is deceptive. Like a plain or strong featured woman who becomes unexpectedly beautiful in moments of animation, the Central Valley shows her glory in the subtle shifts and minute scenes. Hers is not a flashy beauty; no showy grandeur of cascading water or dramatic mountains. Her loveliness appears in the quiet moments. A lone and ancient oak presides over a field lit gold by a rising sun. Wild blackberries creep in a tangle of green and purple over a wire fence into a fan of wild oat. The diamond white head of an egret peeks above the stand of cattails rimming a small pond. A Swainson's Hawk shrieks her shrill cry as she is pursued by a cluster of tiny blackbirds – prey turning upon the predator. The ubiquitous summer dust softens into a taupe pillow as the sun blazes into the horizon in an incomparable blanket of tangerine and crimson.
We have done our best to destroy this beauty, to force her to conform. We have given her ill-considered makeovers, thrusting upon her a style that is not her own. We pave over her wrinkles and imperfections with the Botox of sprawling concrete subdivisions. We poison her fertile ground with generations of chemicals and diversions of her water that we are certain will enable her to be more productive. We apologize to others in hushed tones for her plainness – sorry that she is not as spectacular as her sister the Sierras, regretful that she will never have the vibrancy of her cousin the Bay Area, sad that she does not play as well as her Southern California friends.
Yet, she continues to feed, clothe, and house us. Rows of crops blanket her flesh and feed the world. Fields of cotton dot her southern regions. She feeds and houses the livestock that give us meat and milk. Into the endless subdivisions we have tattooed upon her flesh, she has welcomed all those seeking a better, easier, safer life – refugees from war, from poverty, from the Bay Area. She shelters us from a myriad of disasters common to her more spectacular siblings – we are largely protected from disastrous storms, she muffles the shocks of earthquakes, through her landscape shelters us from the worst of fires. Even those disasters which escape her watch are often brought through our own neglect. Levees erode, ranges are poorly managed, soils in the west lie dead from years of toxic runoff. We are poor tenants.
Perhaps our oblivion is not entirely our own fault. How can a society accustomed to virtual explosions, digital sound, a constant barrage of entertainment see the value in a landscape whose variations are slow and subtle? A few have managed. Artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and Deladier Almeida capture the unique light and shifting curves of the Sacramento and Delta regions. Authors such as William Saroyan have caught the specific culture of the southern San Joaquin. In isolated pockets, groups essay to preserve the heritage of the region through festivals, rodeos, historical societies, and museums. Yet, it takes a careful and perceptive eye to appreciate the beauty that spans the heart of California.
Will enough of those eyes reach out before it is too late? Unless we stop apologizing for and attempting to reinvent our Central Valley, she is lost. We have permitted outsiders to pillage her land with the promises of jobs and have gained empty buildings and abject poverty. We fight among ourselves over land use, water use, smelt, and shrimp. Instead of sewing the wonderful patchwork of cultures and languages of her inhabitants into a bright and warm quilt, we have allowed our fears and prejudices to bring our youth to violence.
Go outside in the early morning light. Watch the gold of a wheat field reach into the periwinkle sky. Walk through a downtown and listen to the music of different accents. Eat from a mobile food cart or in an unfamiliar “mom and pop” restaurant. Read a book by a valley author. Visit an art gallery, take in the glorious swirling color of the California plein air painters. Quit apologizing to out of town visitors for the weather or that “there’s nothing to do.” Rejoice that there still exist towns with main-street parades and asparagus or crawdad festivals. Stop at a fruit stand. Look beyond the frayed seams.