Witness to a Slow Death

California's_Central_Valley

Just this past Sunday, I drove through California’s Central Valley, likely as not the place that produces much of the food you eat. It’s a drive I’ve made often, so I recognize things are not good.

The trees, that in their good times produce nuts and stone fruit in verdant abundance, look haggard and dark. Fields that would typically be full of lush green feed crops are brown and bare, giving birth not to the fuel of countless area ranches but only to dust devils at the slightest whoosh from a passing car or truck. Livestock – cattle and sheep around these parts, mostly – look gaunt and listless.

It reminded me of a summertime drive I took across Nebraska during the late 1980s, when that state was in the midst of its own crushing drought. The corn, which in good years would have been well over my head in height, was no more than waist-high. The ears were shriveled and dusty, leaves brown. I remember thinking about the farmers, who depended on this crop for their livelihoods, and being overwhelmed with the acres of sadness my drive-by view represented.

What keeps cities and towns like California’s Manteca and Oakdale and Escalon alive is agriculture. What keeps agriculture alive is water. And, after years of unprecedented drought, water is in very short supply. Coming on the heels of an historic economic downturn, as it does, this drought hits the people of the valley especially hard.

The effect on people is plain to see by the boarded up stores on Main Streets throughout the valley, the down-at-the-heels stores that do remain in the contracting downtowns that used to bustle on weekend afternoons, the going-out-of-business sales and bone-tired idle men, who’ve now given up even looking for work.

Like the drought-ridden crops, they and the life they represent, are slowly but visibly dying.

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