The well fixer and I were standing at the edge of an almond orchard in the exhausted middle of California. It was late July, and so many wells on the farms of Madera County were coming up dry that he was running out of parts to fix them. In this latest round of western drought, desperate voices were calling him at six in the morning and again at midnight. They were puzzled why their pumps were coughing up sand, the water’s flow to their orchards now a trickle.
It occurred to him that these same farmers had endured at least five droughts since the mid-1970s and that drought, like the sun, was an eternal condition of California. But he also understood that their ability to shrug off nature—no one forgot the last drought faster than the farmer, Steinbeck wrote—was part of their genius. Their collective amnesia had allowed them to forge the most industrialized farm belt in the world. Whenever a new drought set down, they believed it was a force that could be conquered. Build More Dams , their signs along Highway 99 read, even though the dams on the San Joaquin River already numbered half a dozen. The well fixer understood their hidebound ways. He understood their stubbornness, and maybe even their delusion. Here at continent’s edge, nothing westward but the sea, we were all deluded.
Besides, he couldn’t turn them away. His company, Madera Pumps, was his livelihood; the city of Madera was his home. He farmed his own acres of almonds near the center of town. The voices on the line weren’t simply customers. Many were lifelong friends who were true family farmers. So he was patching up their irrigation systems the best he could to get them through a last drink before the nut harvest began in mid-August. At the same time, he knew that something fundamental had changed. If he was going to keep on planting wells, pursuing a culture of extraction that had defined California since the Gold Rush, he could no longer remain silent about its peril.