April 29th, 2015
The Nut Tree
Our early childhood memories are a kind of map. It’s an imperfect one to be sure, the landmarks marooned in a patchwork landscape, the signposts lettered by unlettered scribe. What’s more, the mapmaker is — for all intents and purposes — dead, so what we are left with is a guide to places and artifacts whose only reality is that they, once, meant something.
Sometimes, you can’t begin to imagine why. But sometimes it’s obvious. Like the memory I have to a glowing sign looming through a windshield in a landscape of complete darkness and bearing words all the stranger for being so prosaic: “Nut Tree.”
Decades later, I began to wonder if I’d imagined it, but no, it was real and it actually stood there, on the outskirts of a rural California town called Vacaville, for decades. The Nut Tree was a quintessential California rural highway stop. Originally a fruit stand amid Central Valley orchards (hence, the name) it rose in the right place — the empty highway connecting San Francisco and Sacramento — at the right time, the dawn of California’s Automobile Age in the 1920s.
The fruit stand turned to rest stop, sprouting a restaurant, then a gift shop, then a bakery, then a toy shop, and finally an airport? Yes, and the airport was connected to the Nut Tree compound by means of a 1.5 mile railroad that was either an undersized train or an oversized toy you could ride on. Regardless, it ferried pilots to and from the airport. By the time I arrived on the scene, children could ride across a trestle bridge and through a tunnel to the airport, which had gained various aircraft-oriented playthings and a collection of warbirds.
It was, in a word, surreal. For someone below the age of ten, it was pretty much the best thing that could possibly happen while you were trapped in the can of a car for what seemed an eternity. They’d even write your name on the oversized sugar cookies at the bakery. I’m not sure what the appeal would have been for an adult, but it must have had something since the Nut Tree hung on for three quarters of a century before they finally turned out the lights and rolled the little train into the tunnel and sealed it inside.
The Nut Tree (despite various attempts) never really returned to life, but the orchards remained, and while they didn’t have much glitz, they were really what it was about. The Sierra Nevada hills may have had the gold nuggets, but the real money was down here in the Valley’s black dirt. An ideal combination of soil, rainfall, sun and just barely enough winter chill courtesy the valley’s Tule Fog produced a bounty of first class fruit and nuts. The early fruit tree ranches flowered in the Valley even while the last die-hard Forty-Niners were still searching for their hearts of gold. Down in the Valley, the land produced a slower wealth, money that accreted year after year and harvest after harvest.
A child of one of Vacaville’s first “Fruit Barons,” Frank H. Buck, Jr. was four years old when his family moved into a magnificent Queen Anne Victorian mansion paid for by the cash coming in from the Buck Fruit Company. But as central as the orchards were to the life he grew into, other things captured Frank’s attention and he ventured down to Los Angeles to get in on the oil boom. Frank was young and his partners were heavy hitters, but all that fruit money seems to have opened the door to him.
He joined an outfit called the Amalgamated Oil Company, which bought the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains and drilled for oil. They spent years punching holes, but all they ever came up with was water. Perhaps they should have been alerted by the ranch’s name, which translates as “ranch of the gathering waters.”
So Buck and his associates retooled their venture into the Rodeo Land and Water Company and started laying out home sites in the bean fields. They named the central street in honor of their company: Rodeo Drive. The rest, as they say, is history and a pretty damn ironic one. That’s because in 2015, the city that Buck helped found with his fruity fortune slid directly into its spotlight of entitlement as one of the most profligate users of water in the drought-stricken state, setting up competition between cities and farms for increasingly scarce water.
This is the fourth year of California’s drought, and the wet season just ending has been a hydrological calamity. California’s water bank is the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains and every year a measurement of snow depth is taken to determine how far above or below average the water supply will be. This year? The measuring station had no snow at all.
It was enough to move the political system to action, and Governor Jerry Brown used his emergency powers to implement mandatory reductions in water use. There’s an across the board 25% cut required of all municipalities and some, like Beverly Hills, will have to cut more — 36% to be exact.
How to respond to the drought is a thorny question and there’s been controversy because the new restrictions didn’t target agriculture, which uses 80% of the water that goes to human uses in California. To be sure, agriculture has cuts coming, but they have already been cut since the drought began, some of them very hard. I suspect that some industrial users also have it coming, such as Nestlé, continuingly tone-deaf as they bottle water from public lands under the aegis of permits that expired two to three decades ago.
Regardless of how the specifics play out, these are remarkable times and it’s astonishing to see the political establishment taking bold action. Consider this — the state legislature just made it illegal for local communities and home owners associations to fine people who do not water their lawns. If you were ever looking for a sign of the Californian Apocalypse, this nail in the coffin of conformist suburbanism is it.
But the question hanging over the Golden State is whether this is, in fact, a drought, or something else.
Researchers from Woods Hole have been digging in the paleoclimatic record of California and what they find is that “the current event is the most severe drought in the last 1200 years.” Believe it or not, the “1200” isn’t a typo. California’s had droughts before, and big ones. In fact, we have written records of California enduring bouts of equally scarce rain. But those dry spells happened in colder years. The past three years have been both the hottest and driest in the written record and as you can easily imagine, those two form a vicious circle.
What’s more, farmers and municipalities have been tapping their reserves, hard. Many of the Central Valley’s farmers have had their surface water allocation cut by 80 to 100 percent. So they drill, because California’s outdated groundwater laws say that if you can find it under your land, you can pump it, no limits. But of course, there is a limit, because the California’s aquifers, best thought of as fossil water that’s not going to recharge anytime you or I will ever see, are plunging fast. Right now, they’re supplying 60% of agricultural water in California and it’s showing — the Central Valley lost 20 cubic kilometers of groundwater in the first two years of this drought.
Jay Ferlinghetti, NASA’s senior water scientist at JPL, says the state has a year of water left in its reservoirs, and that the state has been depleting the groundwater reserve since at least 2002. Pumping rates are so high that ground level at places in the Central Vally is sinking one foot per year. There are plans to manage California’s groundwater, but the timetables calls for defining a roadmap by 2022 and achieving “sustainability” twenty years later. It’s a mindset that belongs to a gone era.
The reality of California and its water is terra incognita. The state is too central to our entire food system for this to be a hiccough, and the evidence just keeps piling up that this is not an aberration, but a thousand-yard stare at the new reality. In a way, it’s in character — after all, California has consistently inaugurated national trends, and now California is forging ahead to demonstrate what happens when the old, more user-friendly reality tries to hang on in the face of a new reality that doesn’t give a damn.
As the agribusinesses drill deeper and the little towns dry up, as South Central drains its swimming pools and Beverly Hills keeps the fountains flowing, I pause to wonder just how this will play out.
For a long, long time, this was a landscape where imagination was all you needed and outlandish daydreams sprouted into reality. Mountains studded with the biggest trees on earth, growing from earth full of gold. Endless beaches drowsing under unchangingly perfect skies. Factories pumping out dreams to fill screens, whether behind the marquee or in your pocket. And through it all, the food, the cornucopia that the Greeks had imagined finally become real, right here.
When the Conquistadores found this landscape, they reached into the popular literature of their day to find a name. The book that delivered it was the fifth of a series of what we would now call fantasy-adventure novels, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). It related an island of riches “to the right” of the East Indies, ruled over by a warrior queen, Califia and peopled exclusively by women. A place apart, wealthy, tempting and dangerous.
Fantasy was integral to the European/American concept of California from the first instant and it never left. The Nut Tree was part of all that, the roadside fruit stand that imagined it could be so famous that it would grow forever, become a portal to sky, and without ever changing its homely name. The child version of me bought into that whole-heartedly, never stopping to wonder how it could be that so many of the best things in life somehow crammed together in a way that they never were anywhere else, regardless of whether or not it made sense. If I could have moved in, I would.
But then, I was a kid, stuck in the back seat and dreaming of escaping by airplane and train, with my supplies consisting entirely of cookies as big as my hand. I wasn’t worried about the front seat, or the foot on the pedal, hurtling a machine weighing tons through a twilight landscape at 100 feet per second. That was the responsibility of the adults, after all. Their map was complete and made sense, they knew where we were going and why the journey had begun. I was just along for the ride because I had no choice.
Now the Nut Tree is history and the nut trees themselves are heading that way in the drying and dying orchards. It’s increasingly rare that I find myself in a car these days, but when I do, I’m the front seat. I’ve got maps, and experience, and a GPS-enabled smart phone that will give me turn by turn directions for the 12 1/2 hour journey to the mall that has risen on the grave of the Nut Tree, but I don’t think I’ll be going any time soon. Not that that matters, really, because all of us are just along for the ride.