by Michael Ziser
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1
David Carle, Introduction to Water in California, 2nd ed., California Natural History Guides series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 292 pp. $19.95
Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95
William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55
The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.
That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.
It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.
For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”
Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.
They had to shower / They had to eat i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state dams the
You drink gallons of it you know you do
There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:
Future of poetry there’s a stream between a & b as i write
this a dream
of a west that would outlast us
To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.
Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.
These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B