- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: The Impractical Art of Walking
- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: Extreme Weather – Or Not
- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: It Sure Ain’t the Boat Race
- Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: The Concrete Savanna
Scattered across the suburbs of countless cities in the American West are huge parcels of undeveloped land. Sometimes simple tracts of unkempt scrub, sometimes ploughed to keep weeds and trees from taking root, these prime pieces of real estate, sometimes stretching for many miles, unbroken except by the occasional stand of eucalyptus or ash, are literally pieces of wilderness in the middle of the city. They are surrounded by busy streets, homes and businesses, yet they have never been lived on or even farmed.
They are relics of the township and range system of land allotment which was devised to share out in a fair way the vast new territories acquired by the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, and which is the basis for the familiar grid system on which most American towns west of the Mississippi are laid out. In this they differ fundamentally from undeveloped lots in European towns, which – as densely overgrown as they may appear – almost certainly have a history of intense human activity going back many centuries. Hard as it is to fathom, these wild acres are pretty much as they were when the first white settlers crossed the mountains to try their fortunes in the promised land towards the setting sun.
Standing on such a parcel of land here in the San Joaquin Valley of central California – especially one undisturbed by the plough – one imagines wistfully the world that the naturalist John Muir encountered when he journeyed from San Francisco to Yosemite in the summer of 1868. He wrote:
…The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains. Florida is indeed a land of flowers, but for every flower creature that dwells in its most delightsome places more than a hundred are living here. Here, here is Florida. Here they are not sprinkled apart with grass between, as in our prairies, but grasses are sprinkled in the flowers; not, as in Cuba, flowers piled upon flowers heaped and gathered into deep, glowing masses, but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but not entwined, branches weaving past and past each other, but free and separate, one smooth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.
Little of Muir’s San Joaquin remains. It was quickly noted that a land which could support flora in such abundance must be fertile indeed, and today the valley is an immense patchwork of fields, providing much of America’s fruit, vegetables, nuts, wine, dairy produce and cotton and all of its raisins. So it has remained for most of the last 150 years, interspersed here and there with small towns and just the occasional larger city – Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield. For while it is an ideal place for agriculture, it is less attractive for human habitation. The San Joaquin’s climate is classified as savanna: dry, flat grassland, with stagnant air that cradles cloying fogs in the winter and extreme, stifling heat in the summer. It rains seldom, so that the air also easily traps haze and pollution, rendering the beautiful, snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains and the lower Coast Range invisible for much of the year and giving the valley an illusory resemblance to the endless featurelessness of the midwestern prairies.
Even with modern air conditioning, it is a harsh place to live. For the early farmers, toiling in layers of Victorian clothes, it must have been almost unbearable. The few older farmhouses that remain are often built on stilts to allow air to circulate underneath and provide some coolness. At four o’clock in July and August – the hottest part of the day – valley cities can seem like ghost towns. Nothing stirs on the burning sidewalks – or anywhere else except in the fields, where migrant workers from Mexico and Central America pick fruit and cotton no matter how high the mercury rises. Even driving is difficult: if you have not found some shade, your parked car will be like an oven, the seats scalding hot, the steering wheel and gearshift intolerable to touch. Opening windows does nothing to cool either buildings or vehicles: you just crank up the AC and hope it works quickly.
Yet ever-growing numbers of people call this unforgiving environment home. The transformation of the San Joaquin began in the 1930s, with the arrival of thousands of poor farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl disaster of the Midwest, seeking a still-fertile place where they could begin anew. Now the valley is seeing a fresh influx of humanity: but these new invaders are fleeing not an environmental disaster but a more modern and prosaic phenomenon. California’s tourist image of golden beaches, sun, palm trees and the emblematic grandeur of the Golden Gate have driven property prices and the cost of living off the scale in the state’s main population centres around San Francisco Bay, the Los Angeles basin and San Diego.
Suddenly the baked San Joaquin Valley, with its high unemployment, inhospitable climate and abundant land leading to relatively low property prices, is looking attractive. People from the megalopolises are selling their million-dollar townhouses and buying big new homes in the valley. Some continue to commute to their jobs in the city, but with the people comes infrastructure and the businesses seeking to serve and employ them. The new housing developments are no longer dormitories but are beginning to house new valley dwellers.
All of this needs space, and with the fields of the San Joaquin still growing much of the nation’s food that space must be reclaimed from those empty lots within the city limits. The view shrinks, the old trees fall, the wildflowers and ground squirrels that lived there must make way for the humans who would now live and work on the land that was their home. Piece by piece,as we watch, the last parcels of John Muir’s wilderness are vanishing under the concrete foundations of the future.