2020, overall, was not conducive to serious reading. I spent much of it glued to my glowing screen, staring gape-eyed into the internet abyss, a slack-jawed fish stuck on a hook. There was so much. I couldn’t look away. Especially in the early days, when the virus was spilling across China, and Chinese cities were closing down, one after another, in an effort to contain the spread. A friend and I texted each other furiously, sharing this piece of news or that. And then the virus came here, to New York.
Most of the reading that I did in 2020 happened either in early winter, before the virus, or much, much later, August and after. By that point, the days no longer felt like a waking nightmare.
Over the next few weeks (or months, however long it takes me to write these short essays), I’ll introduce some of the books that stayed with me. I’ll mostly introduce them in chronological order, as I read them in 2020. Mark Arax’s The Dreamt Land is the first book on this list.
Mark Arax, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, 2019
I picked up The Dreamt Land because I missed California. It was early February in New York, bitterly cold, and everything was grey and flat. I began dreaming of California. Not the California everyone knows, not the California of the coasts and cities, but a different California, private and strange. Manteca, on highway 120, between highways 5 and 99, where the trucks stopped to refuel during endless runs between coast and valley. Oakdale, just east of Modesto, marked the point where the almond orchards ended and the rolling oak grasslands began. To see Oakdale in spring was to watch the orchards burst into bloom, the almond trees’ dark branches and trunks an armature holding up, first, a net of soft white lacework, and then, after the bloom, a tracery of green as soft and delicate as a billow of silk chiffon. Fresno, though I suspect few dream of Fresno. And then, the light shimmering off asphalt as the car passed towns with names like Randsburg and Barstow. In my dreams, I passed Barstow on my way into the Mojave. Or I stayed on 395, past the junction with 15 at Hesperia, a dreamscape of Joshua trees and strip malls, and went over the Cajon pass towards San Bernardino. Nevermind that I no longer drive. Nevermind that I’ve been in New York for over a decade. In February, I ache for California, and I have to remind myself that I no longer have a home in California, and that is the reason I don’t pack my bags and head home. I live here, now.
In Rolling Stone, Andy Kroll described the book as “equal parts of Grapes of Wrath and Chinatown.” In his review for the New York Times, Gary Krist described The Dreamt Land as Arax’s “exhaustive, deeply reported account” of “California’s irrigated miracle.” Both of these descriptions are valid. But I wasn’t interested in The Dreamt Land as a work of history or reportage. I was interested in the personal aspect. From the opening pages of the book, where Arax describes driving down Highway 99 in search of a Kern County farm town named Lost Hills, I knew that Arax, too, found these litanies of place names and routes incantatory. In better times, they took us home, or if not home, to touchstones of experience linked to private revelations. Now, they took us to new truths that we would rather not see. We narrate the past for each other because it is easier, much easier than conjuring a future. Meanwhile, the land sinks, the drought continues, the water disappears, the West burns.
If I were to tell you to open up The Dreamt Land and read just one portion, I might tell you to turn to page 403. Here, we are partway into a chapter called “Raisinland.” We are about to meet a farmer named Harry “Rusty” Rustigian, and another named Richard Hagopian. Like Arax, Rustigian and Hagopian are Armenian-American. These were the pages that made me go and Google Armenian oud music. And not just any Armenian oud player would do, I googled Richard Hagopian himself, and went down a rabbit hole listening to other Armenian-Americans, then finally landed on some very old recordings from the turn of the 20th century. The grape and the oud. The unlikely survival of music and culture in California’s Central Valley, followed by the unlikely survival of the independent raisin farmer. Miracle after miracle, until suddenly the story runs out of miracles. Though perhaps I should invert the narrative. Arax does. When we first meet Rusty Rustigian, he’s just finished pulling out all of his Thompson Seedless grape vines, replacing them with almonds. Nevermind that the grape vines were the Rustigians’ link to an Armenia now lost. Arax writes, “The planting of Muscat grapes by [Rusty’s] father was a transmission of culture. The Armenians had been grape people going back three thousand years.” In the halcyon days of the last century, Rusty’s Thompson seedless vines brought in good money and “water was never a problem.” Pulling out all those Thompsons, Rusty told Arax, “was hard on my heart. Because you think back to what you had to go through, what your father and mother had to go through, to keep it alive. The grape, you know, goes way back in our blood.”
We narrate the past because it is easier. It has clarity. We can see where we’ve been. We know who we were. Rusty’s parents were raisin farmers. My grandparents were the first generation off the land. I do not know what my great-grandparents farmed in Taiwan, only that we’ve gotten out of the farming business. Our relatives still farm. Some of them are tea growers in Central Taiwan, growing award-winning oolongs and other teas. And me? Who will I become? What, of that past, have I jettisoned, and what have I kept?
Mark Arax and I are not so different. Despite our urban existences–or perhaps because of our city lives–we retain romantic visions of agrarian life. “I live in the city,” he writes. “I live in my head on the farm.” The Dreamt Land is really two different books–one, a work of reportage and history, is the one noted by most reviews. The other book is a deeply personal dream of another land, an Eden rescued, or resuscitated, from the ravages of the last two centuries–another thread wends through all of the statistics and historical data and first-person interviews. In that thread, Arax wonders at how to create a future for the California he loves. In that dream, we would still have Eden.
To conjure Eden, he resorts, like me, to incantatory litanies: “Even as the earth keeps sinking, the farmers of Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, and Madera keep churning out crops of record value. The fig trees of Fig Garden may be long gone, but there are six thousand acres of them, including a new variety with tiger stripes, now growing on the other side of the San Joaquin.”
As I write this, I have a cup of Taiwanese oolong on my table, and a little dish of raisins from a farm in Tulare County, California. Sweet and bitter. Bitter and sweet. If we burn Eden, can we conjure it again? Like Arax, the future tense fails me. I know only what came before, and what I have now: sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet. Sweet where the raisin yields to the teeth, bitter at the center, where grape seeds sit embedded in the flesh.