The Emperor vines were a hundred years old
when I was a teen learning to irrigate
granddad’s thirsty vineyard, whole pump
down five furrows—hope and wait.
You had to fill the deep sand up
before it carried water down the vine row.
In the old days, Coffelts spread the pump out,
then went fishing in the pines for two weeks.
Much has changed the way we think
about water—wells deeper, trees on drip.
The earth sinks with the weight of farming
until nothing’s left to keep it up.
Robert’s shadow, I followed my father
from vineyard to orchard behind tractor
and disk, stomped clods in the fresh-tilled
ground, inhaled the damp earth turned,
blackbirds like sea gulls diving behind us.
I dreamed of driving the once-red Cornbinder,
leaky muffler loud with each explosion,
each spark to gas vapor, its lean cowling
layered white with years of Parathion
in the 50s, before making perfect furrows.
That well-kept look of cultivation turning
the nitrogen of weeds and nettles under
with tankage and manure for California gold
when farmers worked the earth and added
more to the soil than chemicals and drip
irrigation. To this day I make the sound
of tractors in my throat, remember
the Case 300 disking steep orchard rows—
and just before it stalled out, front wheels
lifting off the ground—the dependable lurch
to the left to make another round.
We had water enough for play in furrows
with scraps of wood, leaves for sails,
regattas on rivers pumped from underground.
All the magic that children take for granted
swirled to the hum of electricity, twenty-horse
pumps like Buddhas squat in orchard rows
my father farmed for wagonloads of fruit
ripe for the rail, packed by women’s hands
for the road on diesel trucks to distant places.
His silhouette crosses deep within vineyard rows,
early morning, late afternoon, hoe in hand—
his pirate’s cutlass, swashbuckling open-topped
overshoes—checking water, irrigating grapes
at seventy, or so I think at sixty-eight, knowing
now what drew him to the earth he farmed.
We are farming just beyond
your city’s limits to sustain growth
by building houses, irrigating fields
to feed you. We are drilling deeper
wells all around your sufficient
neighborhood mapped on asphalt.
Either side of the fuzzy border,
we get old, get tired of adapting
to mistakes—unlike bugs, we live
too long to develop genetics
our children’s children will need
in an unimaginable future.
History will say our families farmed
the San Joaquin for 200 years
before running out of water
fifty years from now—our thin dust
upon dry layers of earth stacked above
a depleting Pleistocene sea.
My head spins
about the old days,
the old ways
we found comfort
with a job done.
The harvest of Emperors,
of purple grapes
picked and swamped
from field to shed
before the rains came.
The many hands
wearing a day’s work
beneath September’s sun
well into dark
for a dollar an hour—
with a small part
of another accomplishment
that dared God’s
to escape with the crop.
we all shared
meant for the moment—
when we failed.
The wells run deeper now
past the Pleistocene and into salt
at half a million bucks a pop
for the last of the water
as the Valley collapses
under the weight
of farming investors
for the moment
leaving Mom and Pop
and forty acres
high and dry
with one last roll
one last extraction
from a thirsty future.
No dirt farmers left
to turn the earth,
make sweet love
and pruning sheers
for a crop to harvest,
wobbly wagon loads
to railroad towns
grown bright and urban
in a couple of lifetimes
farming the future.
Posted in Photographs, Poems 2014
Tagged agribusiness, birds, Drought, farming, groundwater, photographs, poetry, Red Tail Hawk, San Joaquin Valley, water, weather, wells, wildlife