California looms large in the imagination, always has, and based on its forty million citizens—ten million more than any other state—we can logically conclude that the Golden State lives up to its reputation. California also looms as a land mass, third only in size to Alaska and Texas, with an array of natural wonders, iconic cities, amusement parks, and other attractions that draw more tourists than any other state.
But you knew all of that.
This week, we’re here to talk about California’s lesser known interior with Aaron Gilbreath, the author of The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley. Aaron was first attracted to the region because of its beauty and agricultural importance, but he was also well aware of the valley’s many environmental challenges and complicated history. Above all, it is a place of contrasts.
In her review for the November/December issue of Foreword, Michelle Schingler writes that Aaron “places the San Joaquin Valley at the heart of the state’s tenuous future, noting that its productivity and daily challenges exemplify the state’s economy and troubles.” As a native of San Joaquin Valley herself, but long since departed, she found the book to paint an intriguing picture of this vital part of California, warts and all.
With the help of Bison Books, we put Aaron and Michelle together for a chat.
Michelle, take it from here.
I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and have romanticized it my whole life; your book was somewhat disillusioning to me because of its descriptions of the Valley as a conservative and troubled place. But your indictments of the region are also accurate! Do you find that people are often resistant to hearing about the realities of California’s interior, which are not so “Golden State,” and if so, how do you break through that resistance?
It’s always fascinating to hear Valley natives talk about my book. People everywhere from Visalia to Hanford to Bakersfield have commented. Their perspective is illuminating. I especially love to hear that you romanticized the Valley!
My book is a love letter to the Valley, which is a special place whose uniqueness is too big to ignore. I love the Valley. I dream about the place. Like any true love, I embrace it warts and all. Every place has problems. Portland, Oregon, where I live is no paradise, that’s for sure. Because the Valley feeds the country and turns California’s enormous economic engine, its troubles are America’s trouble. Instead of people resisting hearing about the area’s problems, I find people in general are less interested in hearing about the place at all. People don’t know where the Valley is. If they do, they often have unflattering impressions of it: It bored them on a drive, it smelled bad, or it seems way too country to be interested.
In a sense, my whole book is an attempt to break through that resistance and show people how fascinating a place it is. It’s not an attempt to make them love the place. They won’t want to move there. My goal is to change their perceptions by deepening them, to get them to give the place a chance, because if they’ll open themselves to the possibility that interesting things do happen in this seemingly flat, boring place, then maybe they will care more about what happens to its farm soil and water table, and see why it and its residents’ struggles matter. As a subject, the Valley is a hard sell, but hard sells are also fun, because as a storyteller it’s satisfying to surprise people. Hearing them say I didn’t know that! Or better yet: I never would have known that! That’s really gratifying. That’s what storytellers do: We seduce. We get people to overcome hesitation. We get people to listen. Subjects matter of course, but stories also use structure to break through resistance. An introductory sentence entices readers. It grabs your attention and gets you to keep reading past the first paragraph. Hell, the title is really a story’s first line. Storytellers have to hook people quickly. Once you have their attention, you try to hold them there till the end. How to do that with a place people either don’t know or don’t like?
I tried to make this book like the casual conversations I have with people about the Valley: Let people know that yeah, it’s not the iconic, dreamy Golden State. And sure, it can smell like cow crap and onions and seem bland, but check this out: There’s this interesting dude living here, there’s this beautiful wooded spot off the highway there, that place has a weird name for a good reason, and there’s this lost thing over here that history has almost completely forgotten. Close your eyes and imagine boating down a river that no longer flows. So far, the thing readers say the most is that they didn’t realize anyone could float from Bakersfield to San Francisco in a boat. That’s the first hook: This guy Frank Latta, that few people have heard of, boated from Bakersfield to San Francisco. People go: He boated from Bakersfield? Then I hit them with one cool thing after another, position the story with a person at its center, not a bunch of dates, names, and data, and before they knew it, they’ve turned page after page and are too immersed to bail out. That’s my plan anyway!
When they’re done reading, they will never see the Valley the same way again. Hopefully they will be more patient, more appreciative, more respectful, less dismissive. The bare minimum is that they’ll at least acknowledge that it’s not a completely dull place where nothing happens. To me, that’s success. I would love if that extended from the Valley to all places, especially rural ones and rural people, so that readers realize there is something interesting about every place we go—truly, every place. It’s a matter of perception. When we greet a place with openness, when we’re open to the possibility of it containing some beautiful scene or unusual piece of architecture, some neat historical fact or wonderful local figure, then we can see its true beauty. Because I really believe that there’s something interesting to discover everywhere. We just have to stop dismissing places and closing ourselves off to them. I’m not saying I want to move to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Douglas, Arizona, or Nagoya, Japan, but when I’ve visited those places, they enchanted me in their own unique way, and I like engaging our world like that. This is true of people, too, especially people with opposing views about politics and ecology, agriculture and the economy. I believe society as a whole improves when we’re more patient with each other, less dismissive, so hopefully my book can help a few people learn to find what is not only interesting, but redeeming, in different kinds of people. Because that humanity is there. We need each other, just like we need the Valley. The Valley is us.
You also capture the San Joaquin Valley’s temperamental beauty well: its Tule fog, miles of orchards, and wide spaces, and also its bygone environments, like Tulare Lake. What are your favorite Valley features now, and which do you wish you could see from Frank Latta’s time?
Even though I wish I could see a sprawling Tulare Lake and get lost in miles of reeds along its muddy shores—particularly its northern end, where it flowed over the King’s River alluvial fan—the natural feature I love most are the dense forests that grew along Valley river banks. Scientists call them riparian forests. They were dense with vines and filled with massive oaks. John Muir wrote the most enchanting descriptions of them in The Mountains of California. I’ve explored small remnants of this habit in places like Caswell Memorial State Park and The Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Preserve near Galt, but I do wish I could have experienced the miles of them and how their thick understories thinned and their oak canopies faded into grasslands. The famous landscape painter Albert Bierstadt captured their magic in a gorgeous painting called “Forest Monarchs.” It evokes the feeling of what that forest must’ve been like. I can’t find it online, but attached is a pic from a book. It’s the stuff of dreams. That’s what I wish I could see.
Just as a hook for those who have not yet had the privilege of reading your book: can you describe, in brief, the ghosts of the landscapes you traveled? Put another way: what are people who live in, or visit, the Valley now not seeing that they would have 100, 200, or even a thousand years ago?
Great question! They are not seeing rivers filled with water. And what water that still flows from the Sierra Nevada is greatly reduced when it reaches the Valley’s big rivers. Now we have canals and irrigation ditches.
They are not seeing the many sprawling sheets of water in the wetlands here—the drained marshes.
They are not seeing the squawking squadrons of ducks and geese and waterfowl that lived in those wetlands, birds so numerous that they literally blackened the sky.
And they aren’t seeing the many thriving villages where Yokuts people lived peaceful lives fishing, gathering freshwater mollusks, rabbits, and insects, which is something I never saw either, except in Edward Curtis and Frank Latta photos.
What were you most surprised to encounter or discover while tracing Latta’s trail? Any disappointments or places you’d revisit? Any stops you missed?
I didn’t miss any on my itinerary, but I didn’t get to include everything I wrote about places I visited. The almond farmers I interviewed up near Modesto and Manteca didn’t make it into the book, even though their lives and answers to my question helped round out my understanding of the Valley. My explorations of Valley literature didn’t make it in either, even though I had the best talk with a talented poet in Modesto named Dana Koster.
I met a lot of very informed, compassionate eaters in the Bay Area, and I didn’t spend days interviewing as many people as other writers would have, but I was disappointed by how many people in the Bay ate Valley food—often being very focused on foods’ origins stories and quality—while dismissing or ignoring the Valley. So many of us West Coast urbanites love to talk about food, but the people who grew it right on the other side of the Coast Range didn’t interest some of the Bay residents I spoke to. If they had vague ideas about the Valley, they were often colored by ideas of conservative politics and rural culture, and that was disappointing, though not surprising. The whole farm-to-table experience can be beautiful. Farmer’s markets are awesome and organic produce is essential to a sustainable future. But it’s a shame when urbanites anywhere, not just the Bay, ignore the farm part and focus so much on the table.
Granted, we can’t know everything. We shouldn’t be damned by my own incomplete knowledge. You can’t expect everyone to have the interest or time to learn about places, even close by places. But if you like food and think agricultural practices are important politically and ecologically, then respect the farmers and packers and truckers. Don’t dismiss them as a kind of alien from another planet whose language you can never share. No. Spend a little time reading about what they do and where they live and imagine what their lives are like—how they are a lot like your own. Otherwise caring about the food chain and supply-side economics is progressive lip service, or worse, an urban fashion accessory.
Which other history-shadowing road trips might you consider undertaking in the future, and why?
I wish I could find a historical journey as good as Latta’s boat trip! Unfortunately, those kind of stories only fall in your lap once in a lifetime, if ever, so I’m grateful, and my expectations are low. Then again, I’m always reading, so who knows what I could find. For now, I have been sketching a landscape story about a certain busy Southern California mountain pass. I can’t say where, but I can say this story sketch follows a highway rather than a historian, but as I continue slowly researching the region—it’s slow, because I’m a dad with a full-time job—I may find one historical figure whose life provides a fitting narrative line for my own story to follow. Places matter. We often miss the details of the very places we live. And we are often less intimate with our location than we should be, from the names of native plants to the stories behind place names we use every day.
I love to learn about forgotten history, about how people live their lives in different places, and I love to see how the past has shaped the stage that we lived our lives on. I can’t get enough traveling. My wife has her limits—two weeks is a long enough trip—but I don’t miss home much, and because there’s always so much to discover, I always want to keep going and going and going. For that reason, I love place-based stories, as long as they’re ultimately people stories—stories about a location with people at their center. Natural history and geology aren’t enough on their own for me. All of this is to say, I will surely write something else about some other place, though it might not be a history-shadowing road trip. California is one of my favorite places on earth, so of course I’m exploring another corner of it as a story right now. Here’s to hoping I find that historical figure to shadow!
Michelle Anne Schingler