Arax, M. 2020. The dreamt land: Chasing water and dust across California. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 9781101910191, 576 p., US$17.
Indiana University; firstname.lastname@example.org
To cite this Review: Blomquist, B. 2021. Review of "The dreamt land: Chasing water and dust across California. Vintage Books, 2020, by Mark Arax, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/208-dreamt
The Dreamt Land is a lamentation – above all a lamentation for the San Joaquin River which Arax refers to repeatedly as having been killed. There was a lot of collateral damage in that killing: other rivers died too, so did fish and other animals, plants and landscapes, and a dream of prosperous small-scale farming that drew Arax’s family to the California’s San Joaquin Valley. He reconstructs the crime scene through dozens of stories – profiles, vignettes, reminiscences – for the most part placed in the narrative of a journey, up and down and across California’s Central Valley, reaching back to the 1800s and running forward to the drought of 2012-2016 and its punctuation by record flooding in 2017.
It is also a different telling of the story of California’s water engineering. Here that history is shared not as a tale of triumph but as one of folly. Again and again, to the end of the book, Arax returns to what he clearly and vividly sees as the craziness of the human effort to normalize, standardize, and stabilize water and weather in a place given naturally to extremes, populated with people who appear to be given equally naturally to amnesia.
For some readers of Water Alternatives, those may be reasons enough to read this book. If it isn’t, here is another reason you should read it anyway. Many of us, especially academic researchers, know and tell and retell the story of the tragedy of the commons but we tend to tell it in rather bloodless ways. It is a story of generic “actors,” behaving rationally in response to incentives shaped by institutional arrangements. The analytical distancing allows us to apply the story to countless places, situations, and moments, but it can also alienate us from the people whose story it ultimately is.
Arax humanizes the tragedy he sees. Each person and family and farm are brought to life with real histories and motivations and blind spots, or worse. The tragic outcome of the river’s death and the valley’s fate issues from neither the grinding relentlessness of institutions nor a malevolent cabal or an evil genius, but from choices made one after another by human beings, many of whom love the place they’re hurting and most of whom believe they’re the good guys. When the investigation of the crime scene is over, the answer to “who done it” turns out to be, almost everyone.
The book isn’t perfect. I found it a bit overstuffed – like many researcher/writers, Arax wants to tell you everything. (I know this feeling. Maybe I’m projecting.) The second half of the book, where Arax shifts from the historical narrative that organized the first half to a set of profiles of interesting individuals, is occasionally disjointed. And those who have read other accounts of California history will find that, here too, Los Angeles’s draining of the Owens Valley gets several pages while San Francisco’s simultaneous damming and diversion of Hetch Hetchy gets a paragraph (no movie version for that one), and swimming pools are just as convenient a symbol of L.A. in this telling as in others.
These few flaws do not overshadow this engaging, even arresting, book. It will reward your time and, even if you feel as though you already know a lot about California and its water history, there will be multiple moments when your eyebrows, your blood pressure, or both will rise.