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October 19, 2004

Some things

At the more or less half-way point in my trips through the Central Valley from home to the Mojave stands the largest feedlot in California. It abuts the east shoulder of I-5 for a mile or so, and a careful observer can watch passenger cars swerve, their drivers hurriedly closing the fresh air vents as they pass by.

It’s the Harris feedlot, allied to the popular Harris Ranch restaurant and meat packing concern, and as gigantic feedlots go it’s not the worst possible one. The cattle are fed no rendered animal products, and grass hay is mixed in with the usual corn, producing a marginally healthier beef than one is likely to find in a random grocery.

But even if an organic ranch ran a feedlot on this scale, atrocity would be hard to avoid. The soil is dark with years of stomped manure and urine. Cattle await their fate with equanimity, heads stuck in troughs of food or staring dully at the passing 18-wheelers. The lot is less a farm or ranch than it is a factory, devoted to ending the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals to feed our endless sickly hunger. This is not Sunnybrook Farm: it is Cowschwitz.

I once watched a steer by the feedlot fence mount another steer, who stood uncomplaining: a palimpsest of futility.

On this last trip, it seemed I had scarcely passed the feedlot when it came time to veer west toward Altamont Pass. Ahead over Tracy I saw a large flock of birds flying in unison, hundreds of them swirling and swooping together. It is one of my favorite things to watch in the world: an avian mass shimmering in and out of sight as they in turn present profile and backside to the observer, like Saturn’s rings wobbling edge-on to oblique in the telescope’s mirror.

This flock showed what astronomers might call a far larger delta albedo than usual, pulsing from dark black against a tan sky to a near-blinding white, then hidden, then black again. Something clicked in my brain: the birds were suddenly much farther away than I’d first thought. They were white pelicans, two hundred at least, a good two miles away over the southern Delta. Oh, to have been directly beneath those nine-foot wingspans.

Though I appreciate Jarrett's criticism of the typical Californian attitude toward the Valley, I feel a bit left out of his definition of "Californian." Don't get me wrong: I can find a trip up I-5 as stultifying as the next guy. But get off I-5, and a whole world beckons. The Valley's role as Terra incognita for the hip coastal set only adds to its cachet for me. A list of memories scrolls past my eyes:

- In the Delavan Wildlife Refuge, Ron and Joe and Becky and Zeke and I watch otters galumphing across the dirt road toward the Sacramento River. They have not been formally reported from the refuge since its founding.

- During the floods of 1997, when January rains melt Sierra snow and inundate the Valley, Sharon and I drive past a field with perhaps three feet of standing water in it. In the field, a sign: "This land AVAILABLE Pombo Real Estate". I don't stop to take a photo, which I later bitterly regret.

- On another trip, Sharon and I negotiate the deer ticks in a thick riparian tangle along the Stanislaus. A tree has fallen and rotted: growing from the termite frass is a healthy patch of morel mushrooms, covered with a swarm of box elder bugs. We walk back past the edges of an orchard, and a crew is doing some winter pruning. I wave, say "ˇHola!" "ˇHola amigo!" comes the delighted reply.

- Craig and I drive to Los Banos Refuge to see the tule elk in rut. We meet a duck hunter at nearby Kesterson when Zeke bounds into his camp to greet his doberman. The duck hunter grills us to determine whether we are environmentalists, whom he despises, and then teaches us about the species, subspecies, life habits and cladistics of the various birds he's bagged that day.

- Dozens of trips to the Sierra, most of them crossing the valley on two-lanes. I stop in a convenience store in Escalon. I'm wearing a tshirt with trilobites on it. "What are those," asks the teenaged clerk. "Some kinda inseck?"

- In Davis, I buy a copy of Haslam's That Constant Coyote. I drive to Rio Vista, find a sandwich somewhere, and sit on the bank of the Sacramento River, eating and reading, as the river rolls past beneath my soles.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 19, 2004 12:37 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Ah, the Harris ranch feedlot. I've driven by it many a time. I agree that there is a lot more to the Central Valley than one might think, especially if you have the time to meander along the side roads and in the foothills.

You do know that you have a gift for the telling vignette, don't you? Well, you do. :)

Posted by: Rana at October 19, 2004 01:26 PM
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Um, yeah--what she said. Having that much imagistic power uncorked on me all at once is almost TOO much. (But not really.) "Cladistics"--? I'll just go look that up right now while tipping my hat to yourself, Sir. (And this while watching the Sox/Yankees with my left eye.)

Posted by: Doc Rock at October 19, 2004 06:11 PM
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Thanks for this excellent report, Chris, and I too wish I could have seen those pelicans.

Posted by: beth at October 19, 2004 06:23 PM
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What Beth said. I'd've given a lot to have shared that sandwich with you, too. You have a way with endings.

Posted by: Siona at October 20, 2004 09:07 AM
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Chris: THANKS FOR "COWSCHWITZ.." Started my day with a near-"spit-take" belly-laugh.

Glad you connected with Jarrett Walker - he and i corresponded recently. Another good portlander-- tons o' talent.

david oates

Posted by: David Oates at October 20, 2004 10:05 AM
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chris you can make the smallest thing glimmer like a gem. i love reading you!

Posted by: Anne at October 21, 2004 03:30 PM
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