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  • Nature Meets Culture in California's Central Valley
  • Jan Goggans (bio)

In the spring of 2011 the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) put out a call for proposals on "changing conceptions of work." Several colleagues and I crafted a proposal to display examples of expressive culture by the Central Valley's working class. We created exhibits on music and poetry, two of the most recognizable forms of aesthetic production, both of which have a fascinating history in the Central Valley and which encouraged us to see working class culture as a whole. Photographs of highways and trucks led our exhibit up and down the Central Valley and helped us explore the ways those who live and work in that location make sense of their lives.

Workers in California's Central Valley create and sustain an identity that is simultaneously individual and, in its ability to reach across boundaries of race and gender, communal. The Central Valley's working class is, by its very definition, rooted in place. The McDonald's worker in San Diego experiences her or his social position in very different ways than the worker in Modesto and Fresno, and even in different ways in Denair and Madera, smaller towns goaded by the impetus of Highway 99. Each experiences and makes sense of a place in regional ways. In the Central Valley, the experience of place usually does more than affect labor and the cultural production of laborers: it determines it. While there are certainly McDonald's, Starbucks, and Burger Kings across California, in the Central Valley the chances are still high, after generations, that their employees are the children or grandchildren of farm workers.

Immigration, emigration, forced exodus and repatriation, all mark the working class of the Central Valley. Migrant workers in [End Page 297] the "fruit basket" of California are a prominent political, social—and thanks to the work of writers since the 1930s—literary, and musical subject. In short, the Central Valley is dependent on its culture around nature, particularly water, and the fertile soil brought into existence by the collision of tectonic plates that produced the rich alluvial sediment that can grow nearly anything, as long as it has water. So important is water to the culture built here in the Central Valley that explorations into its existence and establishment have always dominated writing about the terrain. There is, for example, Joan Didion's "Holy Water," (The White Album, 1979) in which she explores the power dynamics water possesses, a dynamic that affects the lives of all Californians but does so in a particular and unified way in the Central Valley.

In the Central Valley water is indeed holy. Like all areas of California, the Central Valley does not replenish its water supply easily. Nearly one hundred years ago the lack of water was already creating tensions. Eric Stene explains the source of that tension:

The Sacramento River watershed receives two-thirds to three-quarters of northern California's precipitation though it only has one-third to one-quarter of the land. The San Joaquin River watershed occupies two-thirds to three-quarters of northern California's land, but only collects one-third to one-quarter of the precipitation.


The need and desire for development and the reality of water scarcity coincided with the Great Depression to produce the gargantuan employment and development opportunity named the Central Valley Project (CVP). In 1937 the Rivers and Harbors Act authorized $12 million for the project, listing improvement of navigation, regulation, and flood control of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers as the first priorities. Supplying water for irrigation and domestic use followed these priorities. Despite the listed priorities, the reality of California's agricultural economy and its need for water led to a long standing dispute between regulation by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Enmeshed in that dispute was the Central Valley's desire for free, federally subsidized water. Employment depended on crops that depended on water. [End Page 298] Nature could not be disentangled from cultural realities. Other water projects followed, including dams and weirs and the State Water Project—a cement corridor that takes water from...


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pp. 297-305
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