by Stacey Warde
We get lots of European and Asian travelers this time of year, when summer morphs into fall and rain-starved Californians look expectantly to the season’s first downpour.
The tourists cruise excruciatingly slow along winding spectacular Highway 1, the coastal route through Big Sur; hordes of them park along viewpoints, at the cliff’s edge, laughing, taking pictures, peering down into the vast sun-burnished Pacific, then hop into their rental cars and RVs to hog the road again.
If you happen to be on the road at the same time it’s an agonizing slog behind a train of tourists who have no clue about pulling over to let others pass, or how bad is our drought or the state of the union.
Invariably, they pass through Cayucos, our little hamlet by the sea. I meet a Japanese man at a coffee shop in town who stops for the sights. “What is, ‘Wingnut’?” he asks, pointing at a “we have the right to refuse service” sign behind the counter.
I spin my index finger around my ear, “Crazy.” I show him how a wingnut works, spinning an imaginary one around my finger. “They’re spun tight.”
He laughs as though he gets my drift, and nods repeatedly, “Ok, ok, ok,” he says, heading quickly for the exit, “thank you!”
“I might have given him a few more examples,” I say to the barista, thinking of a few politicians, gun kooks, mass shooters and deniers of climate change, “but I don’t know if he would appreciate them.”
I spend most of my days alone, working in the orchard, a quiet working retreat away from the flow of tourists and the brutish world of American politics and wingnuts.
A lone hawk screeches in the gray distance overhead, obscured by the canopy of avocado trees under which I labor. A large dark avocado, a late ripener, drops heavily, clunking through the leaves and branches above until it plops to the ground with a thud. I’m glad it doesn’t drop on my head. It’s plump and weighty and I know how much it hurts to get bonked by one.
The only sound besides the hawk, is the breeze sweeping dry leaves along the ground, and brushing back green leaves in the trees. I stop to listen. The harvest ended several weeks ago, only a few ripe stragglers remain, like the one that just fell, hidden from view from a flush of new growth.
The leaves tremble in succession from one tree to the next, as warm air whooshes through the orchard like a twirling, invisible dancer. More fruit falls in its path. Plop, plop, plop. The season has turned ghostly. It’s fall in California, even though most days it still feels hot, dry and summer-hardened.
An abundance of lime-green bulbs, about the shape and size of small pears, grows on the trees, the promise of a new crop, next season’s harvest, food for avocado lovers, provided all goes well, no frosts, wind storms, or pestilence, and a winter full of rain.
Another winter without rain, however, will turn this semi-arid region of extreme drought into a desert with devastating crop losses, catastrophic fires, and panic for nearly 40 million residents competing with their straws for less and less of the less-than-half-full glass that remains of the state’s water.
Days like this, without the shortening and lengthening of shadows, time stands still; it’s hard to worry about shortages, difficult people, and lumbering RVs in the bleak white blanket of a thick marine layer, harder still to imagine this place without water, the only way these trees will survive or produce more fruit.
This morning’s cloud cover, the first heavy bit of moisture we’ve had in weeks, will soon give way to blue sky and sun. Until recently, however, there’s been little to no marine layer, unusual for coastal weather, the hot dry easterlies prevail, blowing like a furnace down the mountain passes and through the valleys, raising temperatures to record levels.
“This feels really unnatural. When’s it going to finally rain?” I hear people ask.
“Soon, I hope.”
Tourists—and some residents—seem to have no clue how dire things are.
Late October, and it’s still ungodly hot. Whether it’s unnatural I can’t say but the ongoing heat and sun have sucked whatever moisture was left in this drought-stricken land a long time ago, leaving plant and animal parched for precious water. Sightings of coyotes and mountain lions have become more common as they come down from the hills to search for food and water. Dried up reservoirs give the best visual of how bad it is.
Signs posted along rural roads in Paso Robles wine country tell another story, “DRY WELL.”
In some places, we’re drawing water from the Pleistocene era. Yet, we still must contend with billionaire water smugglers buying up properties in the north county so they can suck up, bottle and ship elsewhere what little of our water is left so they can get rich. I take a long draught from the bottle of well water I carry with me in the field. Like all the other critters, I’m thirsty. I’m lucky to drink from a well that still runs. I refuse to buy FIJI Water.
The sun’s intensity frightens rather than warms with its penetrating rays. I’ve already felt the knife to remove three melanomas, a skin cancer that will kill if left untreated. And these were borne from days of exposure when the sun felt—and probably was—much less intense.
Now, the sun itself cuts, its rays slashing through fiber and filament, making it unpleasant to bear more than a few minutes of exposure, as if the sun might actually make an incision and draw blood. I’m lucky to be working in the shadows of an avocado canopy that spreads out over several acres for which, thankfully, there’s still enough water to irrigate, and cover enough to stay sheltered from the direct sun.
As we head into the rainy season, all the prognosticators point to a potentially record winter with wetter-than-normal rainfall, fueled by what has been billed as a “Godzilla” El Niño. The above-normal temperatures of the Pacific Ocean will pack our winter storms with a powerful punch, driving a flow of moisture and rain like a machine, dumping buckets as they go, forecasters say. We need the water and the snowpack to lessen the dire state of its lack in the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years, according to those who have studied the phenomenon. But even Noah’s flood, apparently, won’t fix the drought.
Farmers fret as water shortages threaten to destroy field crops and fruit-bearing trees, and land sinks from an overdraft of groundwater in the Central Valley, while rich celebrities sitting pretty in LA and the Bay Area pour tens of thousands of gallons of water on their estate lawns and gardens.
The rationale, presumably, is that they will pay the fines and rate hikes, no big deal, they’ve got plenty of money. But what happens when there’s no more water? What good will their money do then? It’s a mindset that never ceases to amaze me, the “la-de-fucking-da” attitude toward precious resources like water.
Before the West’s major water projects, many driven by greed, land values in California, where there wasn’t any water, were cheap, even beachfront property. But land grabbers like William Mulholland fixed that, securing millions for himself and his friends in one of the state’s most ambitious and notoriously crooked water projects to develop the San Fernando Valley and LA basin. Water wars are nothing new here.
Only the promise and supply of water can keep us alive, let alone wealthy, and from cutting one another’s throats.
For sure, as I might have informed my Japanese friend, we have our share of wingnuts in this country and, like the rest of the world, they’re either politicians or religious or angry young men intent on killing, or scientifically challenged, many with their own radio shows, unable to fathom the potential devastation—extremes in weather, for example—from climate change, and who for no other reason than lack of an educated and critical mind don’t know the difference between civil law and religious superstition.
I wonder how so many seemingly intelligent people, Americans especially, since we presumably value a good education, can be so easily fooled by the crooked and the small-minded, giving precious time, energy and money to mean and vicious people and causes.
The GOP, for example, is in disarray, hobbled by the mean and nasty, ultra-right wing rabble, mostly members of the so-called Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, attempting to hijack the government, threatening at every turn to shut it down. I don’t understand or like this kind of thinking—if you can call it that—from hijackers and so-called “freedom” fighters. Yet, I encounter them nearly every day—not only in the news but in the coffee shops, bars and workplaces here at home.
“How come you have to be such a fucking liberal?” a local farmer and freedom fighter once asked me during a political talk. Not long after that, he cut off my water supply to a field I was tending on his farm. I begged him for water as the heat of summer intensified and the plants began to wilt and fruit was forming but going bad. He refused, the ripening fruit fell off, and we lost our harvest and all of the income from our hard labor.
I’d rather be a liberal than someone who sabotages another’s labor or livelihood on the basis of politics and grudges, unless of course I want to start a revolution, or recklessly meddle in other people’s affairs, or become a hater and a fool, of whom we already have plenty. Only the wicked, as I understand, seek to destroy what another has built to provide for himself and his family. Only a fool will try usurp what is not his to own or possess.
In many ways, I live and work like a hermit, mostly alone with plenty of—maybe too much—time to think. I like being physically active. It gets my mind off things, and that’s a saving grace out here. Still, the mind will play tricks. Maybe the world isn’t all quite as bad as I imagine, not as long as the sentient and wise prevail, who nonetheless appear to have been purged from the planet.
The only reliable witnesses to truth in this era are the modern court jesters—Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, Matt and Trey and now Trevor Noah—the wise clowns and fools on network television, who aren’t afraid to mock and laugh at the pretenses and posturing of those who wish to put on a show and wear the emperor’s new clothes and get promoted by real fools.
Meanwhile, I’m feeling beat up from my labors, lower back complaints, hips, feet, neck and shoulders and try not to be too discouraged. But an even deeper hurt speaks to me: Where do I belong? Where’s my home? What happened to my country?
A lone plane passes overhead and the wind brushes through the leaves again. Two hawks soar silently above the southeastern hills, taking updrafts, diving, circling back, climbing, climbing, and circling closer and closer until they clip wings as they swing past each other in the late afternoon breeze, an aerial dance all predicated on food and water.
Through the long rows of trees, in the tunnel of green they form, I try to follow a light path but seem to carry a heavy burden. Imagine living fully present, I think, fully engaged. How would that look? What worries then? What difference would it make? It’s all I’ve got, really, to keep from falling into a pit of despair thinking of how far we’ve fallen as a “free” nation, where people will as quickly piss in their water as drink it.
I enjoy seeing my hometown through the eyes of tourists who pass through and look with wonder upon the beaches and ocean that surround us, who are curious and wonder, “What is, ‘Wingnut’?” They keep it fresh and real.
For the first time since late last winter, I hear the sound of a tree frog in the orchard. They’ve been so quiet in the dried up creek at home. Last winter they were so loud one had to raise a voice to be heard. If and when they return, the roads will be slick and wet and the road to Big Sur much less traveled, and Godzilla will be pouring down his fury upon us. §
Stacey Warde is a farmhand and publisher of TheRogueVoice.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.