December 12th, 2014
The Tule Fog
There are places that you never wanted to be, places that you never even thought about, but places where you nevertheless wound up, because they were on the way to where you were going.
One of those places is the San Joaquin Valley and on that December day, years ago, I was going to a wedding. The Valley is a landscape of remarkable flatness, colored in shades of dirt and dead grass, and endlessly repeating the same themes: dusty fields, irrigation water, and distant farmhouses crouching beneath trees someone once planted to shield the roof from the sun and their eyes from the view of nothing. Roads cross the highway and stretch endless and straight to places only as real as names on the highway signs. Wasco. Shafter. Lost Hills.
The San Joaquin is the southern part of California’s mammoth Central Valley, a flat bottomed bowl of earth 400 miles long and 60 wide, ringed by mountains. Unless you work or live there, the only reason to be in the Valley is if you’re trying to get to somewhere else. That’s more common than you might imagine.
The Valley, you see, is the most direct route between Southern California and the Bay Area, and the only route between the coast and my destination that day, the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, where the Forty-Niners once toiled for gold. The extreme beauty of many places that surround the Valley seems to hint at a kind of cosmic equilibrium; you only get the redwood coasts, the Golden Gate headlands, the vertical wonder of Yosemite because you have the Valley’s deadening counterweight.
So given that, it’s startling to realize that the San Joaquin Valley is important to you, me, and everyone who lives in North America. California might produce more than nine out of ten of the country’s olives, pomegranates, kiwis, figs, plums, artichokes, asparagus and avocados and more than 80% of nectarines, grapes, dates, apricots, cauliflower and over 90% of the world’s almonds, but it only does that because most of it comes from the Valley. Oranges, peaches, nuts, tangerines, tomatoes, cotton — virtually every non-tropical crop grown in North America predominantly comes from the Valley. It adds up to nearly 10% of the US’s yearly agricultural revenue, harvested from less than 1% of the US’s farmland.
It’s a glorious anomaly that’s the result of a glorious anomaly — an immense place of perfect soil, ample sun and winters just cool enough to produce a cornucopia of crops. But you don’t perceive that, rolling through the Valley and sometimes you can’t see it even if you stop to look for it, because of the Tule Fog.
When I first made acquaintance with the Fog, (pronounced “tooley”) I was on my way to the granite cathedral of Yosemite, the high country dressed in white for the occasion of the wedding. But the same clouds that had dropped snow in the mountains had brought rain and cold to the sun-baked flats and raised the Fog. It’s a blanket, and it’s big, often times filling the entirety of the Central Valley, a pea-soup bowl the size of West Virginia.
The residents of the Valley speak of the Fog with respect and with fear. It can linger for days on end, converting the highway monotony into a lethal game of peek-a-boo. A driver on the interstates that traverse the Valley, say someone at the wheel of a truck filled with 20,000 pounds of artichokes, can suddenly find that his six second visibility is now one second. That leaves him with a choice. He can decrease speed gradually, hoping that whatever is behind him is slowing too as he tries to slow faster than whatever’s in front of him. Or he can step on the brake.
Sooner or later, someone makes the wrong choice; the Tule Fog is the state’s leading killer of motorists and it sometimes does so in spectacular fashion. One morning last decade, 108 cars and trucks collided with each other south of Fresno. It unfolded languorously; imagine the shattering bangs echoing out of the fog, about one every six seconds, for ten whole minutes. It took a day to clear the highway.
The December day I crossed the Valley, I was tucked behind a semi in the belief (or perhaps a hope) that whatever happened, it would take the truck longer to stop than it would me. But though my eyes were riveted on the space between my windshield and the semi’s tail, I found myself preoccupied with the unseen Valley. It was the absence, of course. The sight of the Valley’s sameness inspires boredom, but when you take it away, you start to wonder about what’s out there. And the farther I drove, the more I felt that there was something out there. The thing is, I was right. In fact, I’d seen that something a dozen times on fogless days, and never realized. Not because it was small, but because it had become vapor.
The missing piece, the part that made sense of the non-sensical agricultural wonderland in a dusty, landlocked valley, was called Tulare Lake. Every time I’d passed through the Valley, I’d ridden its shores or crossed its bed, oblivious.
The lake was named after a tall, reedy marsh grass that the Spanish called “tule.” It was a keystone species for the lake and people, too. The native Californian tribes used tule for baskets, hats, clothing, mats, food, boats and, in one instance, a device which allowed a six year old Pomo Indian girl to survive a US Cavalry massacre by hiding underwater and breathing through the reed.
Tulare Lake wasn’t terribly deep, but it was big. Dwarfing Tahoe, bigger than the entirety of San Francisco Bay, Tulare was the largest freshwater body west of the Great Lakes, the catchment of all the mountains that ringed the southern end of the Valley.
This is the point in the story where I tell you of Tulare Lake’s lost splendors — the winding linear forests and the thousands upon thousands of white pelicans, the fifty-foot schooner that made the rounds connecting island communities that are now just names on the off ramp signs — and you follow along with a story indistinguishable from all the “paradise lost” tales you’ve hard. So I’ll boil it down to this: if you were to find yourself standing on its shores today, taking in the riotous profusion of life amidst an unpromisingly dry landscape, you would have to believe you were in Africa, because such a sight could never exist in North America.
Tulare Lake was the center of a civilization. A people called the Tachi lived on the lake, traveling and fishing in reed boats and achieving one of the highest population densities of any Native American society, a testament to richness of Tulare Lake.
They were there when the Forty-Niners ran out of gold in the Sierra Nevadas and went back to being farmers. The miners ran their fingers through the soil of the Valley bottom and eyed the waters of Tulare Lake. They’d learned a lot about control of rivers in the gold fields, where the first flake of gold was found in a mill race on the American River and the endgame consisted of immense waterworks washing away entire hillsides to get at the low-grade gold ore hidden in the gravel.
The miners turned farmers dammed and channeled the rivers and streams feeding Tulare Lake, and the arid Valley bottom erupted with crops. The Tachi asked, pleaded and finally fought, but the story wasn’t any different here than anywhere else. Fifty years after irrigation first began, Tulare Lake was gone and the surviving Indians were scattered to the open-air prisons of the reservations. One hundred years after that, the lake’s dry bed blooms with food crops and the Valley — less than one percent of all agricultural land in the US — constitutes a full one-sixth of all irrigated farmland.
Other things hide, even without the Fog. The Valley feeds the nation and parts of the world, but it has a hard time feeding itself. The residents of the Valley have the state’s highest rates of food insecurity, and six of the Valley’s counties are the most impoverished. The same mountains that captured the valley’s rich soils also trap its air, filled with agricultural sprays and the exhaust of the diesels that move all that food; farm-fresh air in the Valley means air pollution that rivals the worst in the entire country.
And then there’s the drought. It’s been three years now and even though it’s raining like hell in Northern California at the moment which I write this, the wave of precipitation won’t solve the underlying problem. The Valley farms can’t afford a dry year, so they drill and pump. Since the drought began, the aquifers beneath the Valley have shrunk by 15 cubic kilometers of water per year. To put that in context, it’s more water than is used by all the 38 million residents of the lawn- and swimming pool-enamored state. As the farms keep drilling deeper — 1,000 and 2,000 feet down — the older wells that supplied the little towns simply dry up.
The groundwater keeps the crops coming, but the water being mined is irreplaceable on a human time scale. So, in an utterly unfunny irony, the only fluid that’s recharging the groundwater is the toxic waste-water from fracking operations that has been illegally pumped and dumped into nine different aquifers in the Valley, rendering them unusable by any living thing.
• • •
After that 108-car pileup, the State of California decided something had to be done, so they installed a multi-million dollar fog detection and warning system on a particularly notorious stretch of highway. That was five years ago, but they haven’t been able to test it. The reason is that there hasn’t been enough Fog to do the tests.
It’s obvious to blame the drought. The wisdom of the Valley folk has always been that the Fog rises when the autumn rains fall on the warm fields. But a man whose father grew almonds and walnuts in the Valley, now a researcher at UC Berkeley, has found something less obvious: in the past 32 winters, the number of days of Fog has dropped nearly by half. That’s the sort of time span over which “weather” becomes “climate,” and the Tule Fog I traveled through that December day was, we now know, already a phenomenon of the past.
To the truckers and motorists, it’s good news, a silver lining to the drought’s absent clouds. But the Fog had meaning to others besides motorists. For the Valley’s fruit and nut trees — 58% of the nation’s non-citrus crop — the Fog was a lifeline. That’s because the trees need time to rest, to stand dormant, so that they can produce high quality flowers and fruit. In the sun-drenched Valley, the cold, dim blanket of the Fog was what brought that rest.
Since the 1950s, the time of “winter chill,” when the temperatures hover between freezing and 45°F, has dropped by hundreds of hours. What’s more, without the Fog’s shield, sunlight warms the flower buds beyond the surrounding air temperature. Some farmers are attempting to develop cultivars which need less chill. Others are looking for niches in the foothills. But both of these moves are just rearguard actions as the water departs and the heat keeps coming.
One hundred and fifty years ago, obsoleted Forty-Niners found an immense and perfect growing ground. They had crossed the last unfarmed continent and this was the prize at the end of the journey, the single best piece of agricultural ground in the country — and therefore the best remaining on earth.
It must have seemed am amazing redemption for so many of them, who came west with dreams of fantastic wealth and who found only hardship on their way to breaking even or worse. When their get rich fast schemes didn’t pan out, and the gold rush faded barely six years after it began, they returned to their old skills. But now they were tilling the earth in a place where those skills yielded more than they ever would have anywhere else.
It felt more sane, more respectable, more sustainable, but their new earthen paradise was mining, too, just slower, and that pace was the key. The changes could be perceived if you stopped and thought about them, or noticed that you still said “out in the tulies,” long after the tulies at the lake’s edge were gone along with the lake. But everything changed slowly enough that sense of change was missing. That speed, or rather that slowness, was what left them as blind to what was happening as though they were in a fog.
The settlers named the fog Tule because that’s where they would first see it rising, wreathing the seemingly endless acres of tule grass. It became one of those fossils in language, capturing an understanding that belonged only to the dead. I think it an apt name, because those increasingly infrequent cool days when the increasingly infrequent rain comes, the fog that appears is, inescapably, the damp ghost of the lake, risen from the ground to wander in white, haunting those that killed it.
That long-ago December that I hurtled — slower, but still too fast — through the Tule Fog, I was eager to reach the exquisite and rugged beauty of the Sierras, and my thoughts were on the wedding. Like the way the Valley appeared to those first farmers, it was unquestionably a good thing, clear and certain, something that would endure and deepen with time. But in the end, it didn’t turn out to be any more sustainable than the farms I left behind me in the Tule Fog.