Valley Fever is a nasty, sometimes incurable and even deadly fungal infection that afflicts hundreds of thousands of people , as I learned in an article in this week’s New Yorker, by Dana Goodyear. It is particularly prevalent in the American West, thrives in dry, dusty environments, and takes its name from the Central Valley of California, where it first gained notoriety and continues to be a major problem. Now I finally understand all the lyrics to Bakersfieldian Merle Haggard’s “Tulare Dust.”
Reading Goodyear’s piece, and in light of what I know of the history of this part of the country, I can’t help but feeling like Valley Fever is a kind of retribution for our torture of a rich land, a kind of fuku a la Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Or a Godzilla — a sleeping monster awakened by the hubris of man.
Of course, if you pressed me on it at all, I’d back down on this story right away. The facts are more complex, it’s unproveable, it’s a mystic theory at best if not downright superstitious, and it doesn’t do much for the thousands suffering debilitating symptoms from cocci infection to ruminate from afar on the big historical arc of Valley Fever’s emergence.
Still, if you will indulge me, here is my poetic recipe for how to summon up Valley Fever:
1. Arrive to a rich land unknown to your people. Chase its denizens into the hills and pay thugs to kill those who evade capture.
2. In the valley (now mostly vacant from humans) that John Muir described as “like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae,” decide you will make a farming empire. To this end, drain the biggest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. Tulare Lake was the terminus of the southernmost salmon run in the United States, a vast wetland of tule marshes and grizzly bears that served as a stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. By 1899, after about five decades of intensive diversion for agriculture, it was gone.
3. Don’t stop there. Dam every tributary to keep the damn thing dry.
4. Divvy up the vast fertile valley bottom — one of the most productive areas in the United States — among a handful of rich mega-farmers who use their sway to get government-subsidized water rights. These farmers’ monopoly on water and land will keep the waves of migrant laborers who come from Oklahoma, Texas, the middle South, and later Mexico and Central America, indigent and landless.
5. But then the soil becomes exhausted, the people desperate. Drought grips the land. The inland sea is now a desert. The earth has become saline. Dust storms punish the grim towns.
6. As they become untenable, convert the cotton farms and orchards to prison yards, sewage dumps from distant cities, and bleak tract developments promising a simulacrum of suburban paradise, tidy faux-bucolic neighborhoods that end abruptly at empty fields and cement walls on the edges of freeways.
7. Reap the whirlwind, quite literally. Unleashed in the dust at the bottom of the lake, stirred up by plowing, drought, and construction, are deadly fungal spores that infiltrate every nook and cranny, riding high on billowing clouds of Tulare dust.
A compelling moral narrative? I think so.
Here’s the extended reading list that brought me to this version of events:
The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire, by Mark Arax.
Cadillac Desert: The American West Its Disappearing Water, by Marc Reisner.
Ishi Rediscovered by Robert Burrill.
Indian Summer: Traditional Life Among the Choinunme Indians of California’s San Joaquin Valley, by Thomas Jefferson Mayfield.
“Showdown at Tejon Ranch,” by Edward Humes in California Lawyer Magazine, June 2007.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Help me complete my list of Central California history reading in the comments, please.