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Creek Running North

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October 21, 2005


Westley, CA The soil in the San Joaquin Valley is thousands of feet deep. Dig a hole there and you will likely find a hard layer of caliche a few feet down, separating the rich topsoil from the subsoil below. Beneath the subsoil lie impossibly deep mineral sediments, relics of a few million years of erosion from the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges. Flakes of rock from off the high Sierra, ground by glaciers or spring freshets, lie beneath the sterile rows of cotton and the burgeoning, anonymous suburbs. Some of the sediments are marine in nature: The valley has filled with seawater a number of times since it took something approaching its current shape. There is a hill near Bakersfield where the cast-off teeth of 13-million-year-old sharks litter the ground, sometimes still wedged into the bones of Miocene sea lions.

That layer of caliche calcified by percolating ground water is the only sharp boundary the San Joaquin soil has, including the one between it and the atmosphere. The valley has the worst dust pollution problem in the country, in part because it has been plowed so relentlessly, in part because there is little moisture to lock it in place. This was not always the case. A hundred years ago there was a lake near Corcoran, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. It is gone now. Its feeder rivers diverted, its groundwater pumped to slake the cotton fields, Tulare Lake exists now only in flood years and the fading memories of old gray fishermen.

Migrating birds still seek the lake by instinct. They find only the toxic discharge ponds from the cotton-growers’ irrigation drainage works. The water is full of pesticides and selenium. I have published stolen photos from those ponds, of avocets and stilts missing eyes, legs, or wings.

On the old lakebed I watch a pair of dust devils, each perhaps two feet across where it touches the ground. They are near-motionless, stationary tempests — bits drilling into J. G. Boswell’s cotton fields. They are across a high-speed road and on corporate private property, so I do not pull over and walk into the nearest one. But I want to. Would it dissipate on encountering me? Or move to one side like a bird around a lamppost? Or – an image I entertain briefly – would it lift me into the smoggy, sodden sky?

I drive through Pumpkin Center, a poverty-ridden suburb of Bakersfield as seedy as its name suggests. At roadside, a depression-era bungalow has been given over to hens. At least I think it has been given over to them: it is disheveled and the chickens run in and out the gaping front door. Then again, a light shows through the front window, which has curtains in it. Down the road, a dusty blue taqueria looks beguiling. Near it, a pink nightclub: La Tormenta. I have been listening to an AM radio station out of Fresno for the last hour. The disk jockey is a young, coy woman, sounding perhaps 18. She speaks a mixture of English and Hmoob, and introduces song after song for her young Hmong listeners – and for me.

I have taken a new route past Bakersfield, and I get lost in the deceptively straight roads of western Kern County. Or I try to. The tule fog has set in, and neither the sun nor the hills will orient me. But I find my way along the rutted high-speed, Euclidean straight-arrow two-lanes without more than a half-block’s detour. The roads here promise to deliver me, in the most efficient possible manner, to the vanishing point on the horizon. And then they do.

And once I’m there, what do I do then?

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 21, 2005 09:12 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Very nice, Chris.

Also, those are some damn cute squirrel pix in your photostream. Everybody click now! :)

Posted by: Sara at October 22, 2005 07:59 AM
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Up here in the Sacramento end of the great valley, the problem is exacerbated by those damn burning rice fields. Come October, I come home every day from work hacking like a pack-a-day smoker...

Posted by: teh l4m3 at October 22, 2005 09:58 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

And once I’m there, what do I do then?

Keep writing, of course.

Posted by: nina at October 22, 2005 01:42 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs