Sunday, March 13, 2016


The Loop Trail above the San Joaquin River Gorge, March 8, 2016
      I took a detour on my way to The San Joaquin River Gorge, driving down Blossom Trail on the east side of Fresno, passing orchard after orchard of the dominant crop in the San Joaquin Valley: almonds. White blossoms clouded the air, with a snow of 
San Joaquin River Gorge Trailhead
melting blossoms in the furrows beneath the trees, each almond, as just about everyone in California knows by now, taking over a gallon of water to produce, row after row of blossoming trees perpetuating the illusion that we can grow anything in the San Joaquin Valley. To satiate the thirst of almond orchards and grapes and other water-guzzling crops, influential farmers are fighting hard for a new dam at Temperance Flat, a dam that would drown public land above Millerton Lake known as The San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Management Area. Judging by comments in the media, the farmers seem pretty sure they're going to get their dam.
Fiddleneck in San Joaquin River Gorge Campground

      Just north of Auberry, Smalley Road winds about a thousand feet down into the river canyon to a small parking lot. Often in early spring, fiddleneck and popcorn bloom profusely near the trail head, with redmaids and stork's beaks closer to the ground. About a
hundred feet from the parking lot, baby blue eyes, like pieces of sky, often blanket the earth. After crossing a rivulet, one often encounters blue dick, poppies and goldfields. After passing through a gate, one finds more fiddleneck and baby blue eyes and gets a whiff of pungent deer brush. Shooting stars grow at the next rivulet, with fennel close to the trail, and popcorn, like luminescent snow, dominates the slopes, crowned by blue dick, and then one reaches the gorge. Bush lupine hovers over the trail, with goldfields and owl's clover beneath. With a few variations now and then, these flowers bloom every year within their niche. As spring progresses, other flowers such as bird's eye gilia and purple vetch and fiesta flowers join or supplant the others.
Owl's Clover and Blue Dick by Trail, West Side of River

      As one continues down the trail, one encounters more blue and gold and white on the slope. For untold millennia, these species have blossomed, long before people of European descent settled in
California, long before humans even migrated to North America. This is one of the few places where the public still has access to the San Joaquin River in an almost pristine state. These flowers and oaks and gray pines and red buds will no doubt soon be buried under hundreds of feet of water, but even with this knowledge as I hike into the gorge, I can't help but immerse myself in my surroundings. Simply breathing establishes a connection with these trees and plants, which are woven together in a web that extends throughout the world, and I can't help but feel a sense of oneness with all things, a feeling that I never experience in Fresno.
Lupine on Both Sides of Trail

     Driving through the San Joaquin Valley, one encounters one small town after another where typically one finds a street or two with large mansions near a few streets with middle-class houses surrounded by small, run-down houses and shacks, representing the closest thing to a feudal system still in existence, except that money has divine rights and the wealthy landowners do not honor a tradition of providing safety and security for their laborers. Instead, the laborers in the capitalistic version of the feudal system remain dependent on slave wages. If water is not available, labor is expendable. Laborers and their families suffer. Profits go down and farmers start demanding more water to "keep the Valley" from suffering. We hear “People, not fish” as farmers scramble to grab more water from rivers and the delta. We see signs with “Dams, not Trains” all over the Valley. We see op-ed pieces in the newspaper where powerful people accuse activists, who are simply challenging an unsustainable system, of threatening our very way of life. Make no mistake, this type of intimidating language is for the activists' employers as much as for the general public, which apparently doesn't bother the local newspaper, The Fresno Bee, one little bit.
Fiesta Flowers and Fiddleneck by Trail

      On average, about ninety-five percent of the water from the San Joaquin River is diverted at Friant Dam, about eighty percent of which goes to agri-business. The San Joaquin River, which used to
Mountain Jewel Flower by Trail
flood periodically and refresh aquifers and wetlands and the delta, died bout seventy years ago thirty miles below Friant Dam. Wetlands are down to about four percent of their historical levels. Before the dam, from time immemorial, the San Joaquin River flowed into the Delta, but now the Delta ecosystem is collapsing due to water diversions and pollution. In a recent survey, the state Fish and Wildlife scientists found only one delta smelt in the wild, revealing that farmers have essentially won the “People vs. Fish” PR war. Land in the Valley is subsiding due to over-pumping of aquifers. Farmers continue to grow unsustainable crops in a semi-arid region—while demanding that the public pay for more dams on public land, at places such as Temperance Flat and Roger's Crossing. And farmers will have to continue asking the public for more subsidies to make the water affordable.

Fiesta Flowers and Bush Lupine by Loop Trail

      As long as I can remember, farmers in the Valley have used one of the strategies of “disaster capitalism,” claiming that the economy will suffer severely and perhaps not even survive unless the public continues to give up land and resources for private use with the
San Joaquin River, from Bridge
implied promise that corporations and wealthy landowners will keep laborers from suffering and associated businesses from going belly up. Politicians and taxpayers continue to oblige farmers with a bizarre form of socialism for the wealthy in a region that otherwise maintains the rawest form of capitalism. The public continues to give agri-business what it wants even though as private citizens we would never allow anyone to take our property without compensation. Yet here we are once again, about to provide billions of dollars to build a dam for the farmer's private use, a dam that will destroy public land containing priceless natural and historical resources—without anything even close to adequate compensation. With numerous dams on the San Joaquin River already, very little land not already submerged by a reservoir is even available to replace the public park in the Gorge, not that the corporations and wealthy farmers are even considering that possibility. The public is, in other words, on the verge of giving a small group of people billions of dollars to take public land and water resources, instead of using the money for education or job creation or any of a hundred other worthy causes.
San Joaquin River Gorge, from the Loop Trail

      The longer I follow the path, the more I recognize the sentience within moss and ferns and grass and flowers and trees. The more I see the various species coexisting in different communities, and the more I experience their splendor, the more I sense that the physical is a dense aspect of the spiritual, and that I am connected spiritually to all things in nature. And the more I see humanity's place in nature, the more I realize that a small group of people, no matter how powerful, does not have the right to destroy these communities for their own private gain.