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The Golden Land

The California Water Atlas

edited by William L. Kahrl
State of California (out of print)

Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley, 1850–1986

by Robert Kelley
University of California Press, 395 pp., $40.00

A Companion to California

by James D. Hart
Oxford University Press (out of print)

The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland

by Stephen Johnson, by Robert Dawson, text by Gerald Haslam
University of California Press/California Academy of Sciences, 253 pp., $30.00 (paper)

California, From the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco: A Study in American Character

by Josiah Royce
AMS Press, 513 pp., $49.50

Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard (1992)

by Robert V. Hine
University of Oklahoma Press, 218 pp., $24.95

Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915

by Kevin Starr
Oxford University Press, 494 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Octopus

by Frank Norris
Penguin, 656 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Politics of Land: Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Land Use in California

Center for Study of Responsive Law, 715 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Up & Down California, 1860–1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

edited by Francis P. Farquhar
University of California Press, 583 pp., $17.00 (paper)

The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness

by G. William Domhoff
Harper and Row (out of print)

The Greatest Men’s Party on Earth: Inside the Bohemian Grove

by John van der Zee
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (out of print)

Impact of Defense Cuts on California

prepared by the Commission on State Finance
State of California, 60 pp., free (paper)


A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up. The Sacramento River, the main source of surface water in a state where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic, has its headwaters in the far northern ranges of Siskiyou Country. It picks up the waters of the McCloud and the Pit rivers above Redding, of the Feather and the Yuba and the Bear below Knight’s Landing, of the American at Sacramento, of the San Joaquin below Steamboat Slough, and empties through San Francisco Bay into the Pacific, draining the deep snow-packs of the southern Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada. “The river here is about 400 yards wide,” one of my great-grandfathers wrote in the journal of his arrival in Sacramento in August of 1850.

The tide raises the water about two ft. and steamboats and vessels are here daily. From this place to San Francisco is about 150 miles by water. All of this distance the river has low banks and is subject to inundation for several miles back.

That the land for which he had four months before left his wife and two children was “subject to inundation” seems not to have presented itself as an argument against immediate settlement. Yet this was a river regularly and predictably given, during all but the driest of those years before its flow was controlled or rearranged, to turning its valley into a shallow freshwater sea a hundred miles long and as wide as the distance between the coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada: a pattern of flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers declared in 1927, more intense and intractable than that on any other American river system including the Mississippi.

The creation of the entirely artificial environment that is now the Sacramento Valley was not achieved at one stroke, nor is it complete to this day. This remains a war, for those waging it, in which no armament can be too costly, no strategy too quixotic. There are, according to The California Water Atlas, 980 miles of levee, 438 miles of canal. There are fifty miles of collecting canals and seepage ditches. There are three drainage pumping plants, five low-water check dams, thirty-one bridges, ninety-one gauging stations, and eight automatic shortwave-radio water-stage transmitters. There are seven weirs opening onto seven bypasses covering 101,000 acres. There are not just the big headwater dams, Shasta on the Sacramento and Folsom on the American and Oroville on the Feather, but all their predecessors and collateral dams, their afterbays and forebays and diversions. The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento, which was to say the “reclamation” of the Sacramento Valley, was largely borne, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government.

The extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belie. Charles Nordhoff, the grandfather of the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, complained of California in 1874 that “a speculative spirit invades even the farm-house,” too often tempting its citizens “to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially, and to look for sudden fortunes by the chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.”

Predicated as it was on this general notion of cutting loose and striking it rich, the California settlement had tended to attract drifters of loosely entrepreneurial inclination, the hunter-gatherers of the frontier rather than its cultivators, and to reward most fully those who perceived most quickly that the richest claim of all lay not in the minefields but in Washington. It was a quartet of Sacramento shopkeepers, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, who built the railroad that both linked California with the world markets and opened the state to extensive settlement, but it was the rest of the country who paid for it, through a federal cash subsidy ($16,000 a mile in the valley and $48,000 a mile in the “mountains,” which were contractually defined as beginning six miles east of Sacramento) plus a federal land grant, ten or twenty checkerboarded square-mile sections, for each mile of track laid.

Nor did the role of the government stop with construction of the railroad: the rest of the country would also, in time, subsidize the crops the railroad carried, make possible the irrigation of millions of acres of essentially arid land, underwrite the rhythms of planting and not planting, and create, finally, a vast agricultural mechanism in a kind of market vacuum, quite remote from the normal necessity for measuring supply against demand and cost against return. Eighty-two thousand acres in California are now planted in alfalfa, a low-value crop requiring more water than is used in the households of all thirty million Californians. Almost a million and a half acres are planted in cotton, the state’s second biggest consumer of water, a crop subsidized directly by the federal government. Four hundred thousand acres are planted in rice, which involves keeping the fields under six inches of water from mid-April until the August harvest, months in which no rain falls. The 1.6 million acre-feet of water this requires (an acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons) is made available, even in drought years, for what amounts to a nominal subsidized price by the California State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, an agency of the federal government, which, through the commodity-support program of the Department of Agriculture, also subsidizes the crop itself. Ninety percent of this California rice is glutinous medium-grain Japonica, a type not popular in the United States but favored in both Japan and Korea, each of which bans the import of California rice. These are the kinds of contradictions on which Californians tend to founder when they try to think about the place they come from.


Josiah Royce, who was from 1885 until his death in 1916 a central figure in what later became known as the golden period of the Harvard philosophy department, was born in Grass Valley, not far from Sacramento, grew up there and in San Francisco, and in some sense spent the rest of his life trying to make coherent the discontinuities implicit in this inheritance. “My native town was a mining town in the Sierra Nevada—a place five or six years older than myself,” he said at a Festschrift given in his honor at the Walton Hotel in Philadelphia in 1915.

My earlier recollections include a very frequent wonder as to what my elders meant when they said that this was a new community…. The wide prospects when one looked across the Sacramento Valley were impressive, and had long interested the people of whose love for my country I heard much. What was there then in this place that ought to be called new, or for that matter, crude? I wondered, and gradually came to feel that part of my life’s business was to find out what all this wonder meant.

Here we come close to a peculiar California confusion: what Royce had actually made it his “life’s business” to do, his work, did not resolve “what all this wonder meant.” Instead, Royce invented an idealized California and made it part of an ethical system in which “loyalty” was the basic virtue, the moral law essential to the creation of “community,” which was in turn man’s only salvation. Yet the community most deeply recalled by the author of this system was what he acknowledged to have been “a community of irresponsible strangers” (or, in another reference, a “blind and stupid and homeless generation of selfish wanderers”), a community not of the “loyal” but of “men who have left homes and families, who have fled from before the word of the Lord, and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”

Such calls to dwell upon the place and its meaning (and, if the meaning proved intractable, to reinvent the place) had been general in California since the first settlement, the very remoteness of which was sufficiently extreme to raise questions about why one was there, why one had come there, what the voyage would ultimately mean. The overland crossing itself had an aspect of quest: “One was going on a pilgrimage whose every suggestion was of the familiar sacred stories,” Royce wrote.

One sought a romantic and far-off golden land of promise, and one was in the wilderness of this world, often guided only by signs from heaven…. The clear blue was almost perpetually overhead; the pure mountain winds were about one; and again, even in the hot and parched deserts, a mysterious power provided the few precious springs and streams of water.

Each arriving traveler had been, by definition, reborn in the wilderness: the decision to set forth had been a kind of death, involving the total abandonment of all previous life, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who would never again be seen. This was my great-great-great-grandfather’s farewell to his mother, as recalled by one of his children.

Just ready to go, he entered his mother’s parlor. She went out with him to his horse to say the last words and to see him depart. She told him that she would never see him again in this world, gave him her blessing, and commended him to God. He then mounted his horse and rode away, while she followed him with a last look, until he vanished from sight.

This was an odyssey, moreover, with defined moral or spiritual “tests,” or challenges, and fatal consequences for failure. Children who died of cholera got buried on the trail. Women who believed they could keep some token of their worldly goods learned to jettison memory and keep moving. Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited. Independence Rock, west of Fort Laramie on the Sweetwater River, was so named because the traveler who had not reached that point by the Fourth of July would not reach the Sierra Nevada before snow closed the passes.

The redemptive power of this crossing was, famously, the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: For what, exactly, had one been redeemed? I was born in Sacramento, and have lived in California most of my life. I learned to swim in the Sacramento and the American, before the dams. I learned to drive on the levees up and down-river from Sacramento. Yet California has remained somehow impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. We make declamatory breaks with it, as Josiah Royce did when he left Berkeley for Harvard. “There is no philosophy in California—from Siskiyou to Ft. Yuma, and from the Golden Gate to the summit of the Sierras,” he had written to William James, who eventually responded to this cri de coeur with the offer from Harvard.

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