This essay also appears in The Pinch issue 35.1, Spring 2015
The shepherd has sold his ewes. Ninety of them, black and white, herded off of Flying Mule Farm and taken I don’t know where—to slaughter, to different pastures. The ewes that remain, the ones Dan can still afford to feed, mill around his legs. Their eyes are yellow. Their coats are short, recently shorn. A white ewe scratches her backside on the low branch of an oak.
It’s mid-June in California, and the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada spread for miles under a pelt of yellow grass. Bristly invasive weeds fill the stomachs of the sheep but provide little nutrition. This summer there is drought, the most extreme in one hundred and fifty years, perhaps longer. The weeds that cover these hills are all that remain for the shepherd to feed his flock after a dry winter, when the germinating rains came late and meager and not much new grass grew.
A mutual acquaintance introduced me to Dan over email. I have never met him before this morning, but I know him the moment he walks through the doors of the Starbucks he chose as our meeting spot. He looks the way a farmer ought to look: red plaid shirt, oiled boots, broad sun hat. Before he arrived I waited in a vinyl booth, holding a paper cup of green tea. I was dingy in my camping clothes, and I hoped he would not want to linger. When he appeared, I knew we would spend our time talking outside in the June morning.
Dan has lived his whole life among the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the same yellow swells I have driven up and down for weeks, pitching my tent each night on beds of pine needles. Here in the town of Auburn, Dan raises his sheep alongside his family. His two daughters tend their own small flocks; his wife is a vet for large animals. Dan’s mustache is hardly gray and his skin is tanned, not weathered. In ten years I imagine he will look a little more like my own father, whose face is creased from decades of dry air and persistent sun.
I have spent most of my life in California, but for the past eighteen months I’ve lived in Minneapolis, a city so verdant for half the year it feels like some sort of trick—the green so intense it seems artificial, fluorescent. The sun hits the canopy of elm and mulberry branches that shadow my street and I am bathed in green light. When people ask me what I plan to do when I finish graduate school at the University I tell them I’ll return to the place I was born, a brown valley of sage and mesas and gnarled pinyon pines, where the air is so dry it cracks the skin on your lips. This valley lies at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, in the rain shadow, just across the range from the foothills where Dan tends his flock. In the Eastern Sierra almost no rain falls, even in good years. Most of the snowmelt that seeps down from the peaks is piped south through a massive aqueduct and delivered to Los Angeles. The economy stumbles at the mercy of the tourists who come to fish and ski and climb granite boulders, and yet, without moisture to blur the horizon or buildings taller than a couple of stories you can look in any direction and see forty miles to the mountains.
In this high desert valley, my father spent the past winter drilling through two hundred feet of sand and volcanic tuff, after the aquifer beneath his house dropped below the reach of the old well. He called me, half a country away, and told me about the missing rains, the vanishing snowpack, the stink of the backyards as fish died on the dry bottoms of the ponds.
I listened, while rain pattered my window and grass grew unbidden from every unpaved patch of ground, and I felt wild with homesickness. At my kitchen table, I filled notebooks with the ideas of scholars and historians and the great western writers: Wallace Stegner on the beauty of dry country and bare rock; earth scientists on the violence of climate.
In Minnesota, while thunderstorms broke over humid afternoons and leafy mulberry branches scraped my screen door, I bought a plane ticket to California. I picked the places I would visit, the agricultural towns devastated by drought. I packed my camping gear. I wanted to see California in its crisis, to learn something about water and the way we live in a place where its absence presides over life like a deity. I wanted to draw some wisdom or healing metaphor from all this dryness, and from two thousand miles away I thought this would be possible.
We leave Auburn in Dan’s red pickup and follow a road that rises and falls with the hills. Dry grass stretches for acres, which is normal here in mid-June regardless of drought. Five or six major storms visit California in an average year, moving off the Pacific to shower rain on the western foothills of the Sierra and snow on the peaks. Enough precipitation must fall between late autumn and early spring to sustain thirty-eight million people and ten million acres of irrigated farmland through the warm, arid months, when this country dries up and blows as dust.
West of the Sierra all the way to the coast, California’s climate is Mediterranean, its soil rich. In a good winter the western, windward foothills of the mountains are transformed by water. I have visited these hills before, years ago in December—I remember dripping redwoods, fog in the oaks, grass like green silk. This year, Dan tells me, the hills in January were as parched as if it were August.
At the steering wheel, Dan describes the ewes he was forced to sell, almost forty percent of his flock, when the cost of hay rose too high to feed them. Most of his sheep have been born on the Flying Mule Farm, products of more than a decade of selective breeding, and raised by mothers who know what to eat and how to live in this terrain. The sheep he has sold are irreplaceable because of the grazing patterns each inherits: Ninety ewes tied by blood to these hills. They have their own systems of knowledge, Dan says. In their sheep brains, they carry a catalogue passed down through generations. They know which plants are edible and which are poison. It seems, for all my homesickness, they understand this country better than I do.
He parks at a high point in partial shade beneath the small, dusty leaves of blue and black oaks. In the bed of the truck a border collie spots the ewes fenced nearby and quivers. The collie’s coat is black and shiny. Dan calls him Ernie.
In the paddock, two golden Anatolian shepherd dogs pace in the sun. This pair will live with the sheep until the dogs are too old to frighten off roving mountain lions. They are born in the barn with the lambs; they smell the animals before they can open their eyes. Dan steps over a low fence and the dogs lounge their big yellow heads against his legs. He carries a bucket of salt and the ewes cluster, butting one another gently, bells tinkling at their necks. Their eyelids flutter in the bright morning.
Pacific Gas & Electric pays Dan to bring his flock to this temporary paddock, where the sheep eat down dry vegetation that serves as tinder for wildfire. Risk management, PG&E calls it, and this summer there’s extra risk to be managed, because in drought years fires spark easily and burn fast. On signs all along Highway 49, tiny cartoon houses are engulfed in a prairie of flames. The signs ask: are you prepared?
In early June, two weeks before I followed Dan into the foothills and watched the ewes snuff at a bucket of salt, I flew over the Great Plains and then across the bare, wrinkled earth of Four Corners. I passed over Phoenix and peered down at grids of homes and freeways that swirled around the red rock of Camelback Mountain, and the cars and jungle gyms and every single person with a need for food and water and shelter from the heat.
I landed in a small airport in San Luis Obispo, a farming city on the central coast of California where my grandparents live in a flat ranch style house ringed by fig and pomegranate trees. Since January San Luis has received five inches of rain, a quarter of its annual average. As the plane lowered, I saw that the hills were dry, the fields fallowed, a few wet by sprinklers and speckled with green sprouts.
Days before, my father had driven to San Luis Obispo, bringing with him three chainsaws of different sizes. He met my plane on a warm morning. We followed a country road, parked beside twin oaks that border the driveway, and soon I was standing between my grandparents, looking up at two Monterey pines that had shaded their pasture for forty years.
Bark beetles kill pines by boring into their trunks, planting larvae, and spreading a fungus that prevents the trees from carrying water to their branches. A healthy tree can force the beetles out with a rush of sap, but pines weakened by drought are defenseless. Once a tree is sick it spreads disease to others standing nearby.
I saw that my grandmother was staring intently at the pines, that my grandfather was looking away to the distant hills of the Sierra Madre, the coastal range. In the dead grass of the pasture, a dog munched stolen eggs. A neighbor’s rooster crowed. And then my father jerked the cord of a chainsaw, and the pines came down in a flutter of red needles.
All over the state, trees are falling—trees that have survived decades of milder drought, of wildfire. In the Central Valley, a farmer feeds the broken trunks of one thousand acres of almond trees into a wood chipper. A Douglas Fir topples onto an RV in a campground. A ponderosa pine crushes a woman in her car.
After the pines came down in my grandparents’ pasture, I left San Luis Obispo and drove five hundred miles across California. In the Central Valley I passed tumbleweeds piled over my head. Dust devils stirred empty fields; irrigation canals were washed with gravel. Eight hundred thousand acres of farmland have been left to fallow, a land mass larger than the state of Rhode Island, here in a valley called the breadbasket of the world. In a town where the field workers live, I bought chili mango lollipops at a gas station and saw paint peeling from the mini-mart walls. Growers of stunted fruit and nut trees hire a quarter of the workers usually taken on to collect a harvest, and the unemployed line up outside of churches to wait for food. Hundreds of trailer homes are without running water; their residents drink from bottles, and water tanks throw shadows across their brown lawns.
I drove. I climbed into the foothills, pitched my tent beside a sinking reservoir, and walked its shores, passing under wooden boat docks and stepping over buoys lying sideways on the sand.
In the foothill town of Mariposa, one hundred and fifty miles south of Auburn, I pulled off of Highway 49, out of a stream of rental cars crammed with coolers and bound for Yosemite. Lost, searching for a side street that would take me to my campground beside the jade-colored water of the Merced River, I stepped into the heat and dust of the afternoon and stood in front of a small gray house with a withered garden. In a window someone had posted a sign, three words on white paper: pray for rain.
I follow Dan as he checks the temporary fence that keeps the sheep inside their paddock and keeps predators out. It’s hip-height, a mesh of white threads looping over the ground. The fence is electric, run on batteries strong enough to burn a hole in denim. It delivers a shock to marauding coyotes, but it’s disengaged now and so we step across. As we walk Dan separates stalks from the mess beneath our feet. Medusahead, he says, handing me a straw-colored blade. Invasive. Medusahead takes over pastures, creating a monoculture where little else can survive. He passes me a wiry strand of ripgut brome, then wild carrot, whose furry burs are already thick on the ankles of my jeans. Invasives arrived on ships from Europe and Asia during the second half of the nineteenth century and took hold of the foothills during droughts when sheep and cattle overgrazed scarce native grasses. Sheep who are born here learn to chew the remaining weeds, almost all of them invasive, picking through the thatch according to some internal code. They lip around the buckeye, a dark green bush with clusters of pale pink flowers, and the tall, purple-budded stalks of lupin, both of them toxic.
In a blog called the Foothill Agrarian, Dan describes family picnics of sheep’s milk, apples, and blood oranges. He posts a picture of his youngest daughter as she stands in plaid and denim, ready to show a sheep she has raised at the Gold Country Fair. She smiles beside the ewe, one hand resting on the black bridge of the nose, the other in pearly wool. In this blog, Dan writes about oaks dropping leaves months too early and the dust that coats everything, getting into the lungs of the sheep so that they sicken with pneumonia. He posts another photo: sunset gleaming through the haze of a wildfire.
Dan says he wouldn’t mind retreating further into the mountains with his flock and family, interacting with the world maybe once a month. This would make him happy.
In the Foothill Agrarian, he writes about his hands—farmer’s hands, muscled, knicked, and reddened. He describes the callouses that come from building fences and moving irrigation piping, the kind of work that’s needed to make shelter, food.
The patterns of this country are deep within him, too, as they are in the dogs and the sheep they protect. And this is why he sold so much of his flock, took a part-time job to make up for lost profits. He could let the sheep overgraze, push the land towards erosion and strip it beyond recovery. Others have done this. Instead he’ll hope for rain next season. As we walk he explains the importance of limits, of waiting. Better to sell the rest of the sheep, if it comes to that, than to play a role in the undoing of these hills. And I understand that this is not the way most of us have lived in California.
In 1869 John Wesley Powell led the first scientific expedition down the Colorado River. When he returned to the East, he cautioned the government against settling such dry country. Many droughts will occur; many seasons in a long series will be fruitless, Powell wrote in his report. The physical conditions which exist in the arid lands, and which inexorably control the operations of men, are such that the industries of the West are necessarily unlike those of the East. In 1861 surveyor William Brewer called the region that is now Riverside and Corona and the sprawl between so barren as to be practically useless, and will ever support only a very sparse population, and this whole country will only be used for stock raising on large ranches…
Pray for rain, and yet it does not come. The tiny Delta smelt are dwindling. This summer there’s not enough water left for fish and farmers, and the great pumps that deliver water from the Sacramento Delta to the fields of the Central Valley have been stilled for the fish’s sake. Congress debates who is to blame for this near-extinction: the pumps for threshing the smelt to death, raw sewage for poisoning the fingerlings. And the farmers try to fall asleep against the panic of wells running dry in the night. Where once there was water sixty feet below the surface, they drill half a mile and pump until the ground settles lower.
When I moved into my first apartment in Los Angeles, I felt the concrete walls buzz with the flurry of elevators and feet on stairs and cars eight stories below in the garage, and was awed by the sheer scale of buildings that wrapped around me, ceaselessly, for hundreds of miles. As a child, in an empty desert, I ran up and down sand dunes at sunset, the quills of a devil’s spineflower prickling the soles of my feet, isolated, except for my parents’ car at the side of the darkening highway, from signs of human life.
Now, both of these moments arise when I think of home.
There are few roads or houses surrounding the temporary paddock where the ewes graze, just scattered clumps of oaks, widely spaced so that each casts a broad shadow. And yet, this almost-wild country belongs to the largest utility company in California. As we trace the arc of the fence, I think of the hours I spent driving past nothing but buckling ground and oaks so tall they seemed prehistoric, and how time after time I rounded a curve and suddenly the highway swooped around another reservoir—Don Pedro, New Melones, McClure—craters in red earth, each of them bigger than any natural lake I have seen, and this summer some of them less than one-third full.
We have built systems we hope will overcome the droughts and floods we know this country can deliver, and during my lifetime these systems have done their jobs: pumped water from underground and into my Los Angeles dormitory, harvested the Colorado River and piped it to my San Diego apartment. Our dams collect rain and snowmelt, and hold back the floods that once swept out of the mountains and over the Central Valley. But the reservoirs are not bottomless. They can run dry; their walls can give way. The climate we have known is mild compared to the traces left in tree rings and sediments on the ocean floor, when, over the past two thousand years, decades-long droughts collapsed the cultures that stopped moving with the seasons and let their numbers grow. In the Four Corners region, people of the Ancestral Pueblo irrigated fields, built dams, and lived by the hundreds in dwellings as tall as apartment buildings. The Ancestral Pueblo thrived for centuries, and vanished suddenly. Archeological records from the city’s final years reveal the skeletons of the starved, mass graves filled with bones bearing teeth marks, and forts carved into cliffs, reinforced to protect hoarded food.
The Ancestral Pueblo were replaced by the light-footed tribes the first European explorers met in California. In the winter of 1861, one week before warm rains deluged the Sierra and sent a torrent of melted snow into the Central Valley, Nisenan and Maidu people ascended the mountains. From higher elevations, they must have watched as Sacramento was submerged beneath ten feet of water.
I knew, before I came home, that not a single California river flows freely. But I didn’t understand the sheer quantity of canyons dammed and ancient lakes drained and the lengths of pipe linking all parts of the state, letting the population spring up like Minnesota grass. On morning runs out of quiet campgrounds, as I made my way through the foothills towards Auburn, I followed fire roads past forests of cedar and fir, and came, inevitably, to artificial beaches, their waters turquoise with suspended loam. Here, signs nailed to trees told me I was out of bounds. Just beyond these beaches were walls of concrete submerging valleys. The dams I stumbled upon were protected by swirls of barbed wire and threats to passersby, and this is because the infrastructure is vulnerable. But the water was low on these beaches. The stumps of trees long since drowned were exposed on the sand and I knew that I, in my running shoes, was not the thing to fear.
Dan whistles, and the border collie bounds over the fence and into the paddock. Dan tells me Ernie is still in training, that a good sheepdog practices for years, synchronizing his movements with the clipped commands of the shepherd (Ernie, walk on; Ernie, that’ll do) before he can gather the ewes from among the oaks and return them to a trailer. Now the sheep squabble over a bowl of kibbles Dan has placed in the paddock for the dogs. Ernie runs, stops, faces the flock, crouches. The sheep back away from the bowl, turning, instead, to the grass.
In the Foothill Agrarian, Dan describes an afternoon spent outdoors with his daughters building cairns, piles of stone the Basque shepherds made all over this country one hundred years ago, passing the time while the sheep were in the fields. In a photo he stands with his family beside a column of shale and granite, a landmark on a bare hill where none existed before.
He knows of farmers in Washington and Montana who feed their flocks on grass that grows thick and green in July. For a shepherd who watches his sheep gnaw diminishing yellow weeds for many seasons, this is difficult to bear. But he could never leave the mountains, and I understand.
Dan has told me that even in a good year the winters aren’t what they were when he was a boy. Just as I remember being small, stuffed into a snowsuit, stepping outside to find the car and the garbage cans and the woodpile buried. This winter the tops of the peaks were blue, almost snowless, in January, reminding me that to understand this country I have to think in geologic time. Fish fossils found throughout these foothills have been traced to an era when the mountains were seafloor. Trilobites are unearthed on the highest peaks of the Great Basin ranges. For all their weight, the Sierra Nevada are growing taller every day.
We stand just beyond the fence, which is live with current now. The ewes are languid in the dust, their coats the same pale color as the grass. I watch them, and I think of the bare trunks of the pines in my grandparents’ pasture, after my father sawed their limbs away. I feel the loss of something that was never supposed to be mine, pines that were never meant to grow in that pasture without water pumped to their roots. Through the ancient patterns of climate, compounded by some colossal human error, I might be denied the old-womanhood I have planned in a high desert valley ringed by snowy mountains. We can’t say what the next season will bring, or where we will be able to grow our food in the decades to come. Dan cannot say how much longer his flock will graze the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The sheep gather at the watering trough, and I think of the living oaks that still stand on either side of my grandparents’ crumbling driveway.
My father planted the oaks as acorns when he was a child, and my sister and I climbed them when we were small, our shoes slipping against the cool, gray trunks. The low nooks where we put our hands and feet have since risen over my head.
Despite everything I have seen, I have begged my father to save these oaks, to keep their drip lines flowing, even if the aquifer is going down, and the ground itself is sinking. Like the ewes, I have inherited my grazing patterns. Passed down to me is a love of a land that I live in the wrong way, and I do not know how much longer I will be allowed to remain.
Kendra Atleework is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her work is forthcoming in The Best American Essays 2015 anthology, and can also be found in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Morning News, and Guernica. Her nonfiction won the AWP Intro Journals Award in 2014. She is at work on a book of nonfiction about drought and wildfire in her home state of California.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER:
Suzanne Calkins is a multi-media artist and environmental educator living in Nevada City, California.