I have always been lucky enough to have access to potable water: clean drinking water, enough to shower with, clean with, maintain landscaping with, even to fill a swimming pool in the backyard when I was a kid. I don’t believe I’m alone when I say that throughout my childhood in Northern California water was just there—when I turned the tap, falling from the sky every winter, pooling in oil-patterned puddles on the asphalt, trickling down the mountainsides as spring began melting snow-pack.
Today water feels dangerously close to becoming a non-renewable resource. Weather patterns are changing. Areas of increasingly high atmospheric pressure in the Pacific Ocean redirect jet streams (and storms) away from North America’s West Coast. Additionally, a region of high-temperature water in the northern Pacific Ocean means the storms that do reach the coast are warmer and therefore result in less snowfall, snow-pack, and stored water.*
The decreased influx of water means California relies more heavily on groundwater, banking on withdrawals from the earth that cannot be replenished any time soon.* Drilling deeper impacts the water table. Some folks with wells on their properties find the water table dropping below their well depth, meaning they have to contribute to drilling problems by deepening their own wells, or join the queue of others dependent on the state for water distribution. Drilling compromises the natural system of tunnels and aquifers that disperse water, causes buckling of the earth, and even land to sink.
Geological studies show that fertile land can, over time, transform into desert landscapes. Artwork, tools, and fossilized plant life uncovered in the Sahara Desert prove the existence of a “Green Sahara” as recently as 25,000 years ago.* The combination of historical geological records, of changing weather patterns, and influx of drilling in California makes the drought-blighted world of Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Gold Fame Citrus” chillingly believable.
Umbrellas are novelty toys, galoshes a joke, windshield wipers and water-resistant slickers artifacts of a decayed and distant past. Rain is a myth in this world. The West is buried:
“From space it seems a canyon. … A suturless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon.” Closer inspection reveals sand, “dunes upon dunes. A vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.” The Amargosa Dune Sea.
Ray and Luz are living above the Santa Ana winds in an a former starlet’s abandoned Hollywood mansion. Dirty, always thirsty, trading cash for a can of blueberries—sour and mealy—they are survivors, holdouts in a sand-sculpted landscape. A federally mandated migration—similar to history’s forced marches of Native Peoples, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the legislation that forced Black Americans into ghettos following their mass migration from the rural South to the industrialized North after the abolition of slavery—relocates “Mojavs” (westerners) to camps within the country’s interior.
Ray and Luz have their own reasons for wanting to avoid federally mandated evacuation, but an unexpected change in their circumstances makes staying equally untenable. They take to the road, water rations carefully stashed in the trunk of their car, knowing they must find the civilization rumored to be in the heart of the desert before they run out of gasoline, water, or both. What they find is a truth deeper than either imagined, a well inside of themselves.
Watkin’s writes with the zeal of the very young, and the wisdom of the very old. Swathes of her writing are, at their core, poetry. A few run-on sentences could use some editing and clarification, but still evoke her emotional maturity and profundity.
This is not a redemptive novel. The drought doesn’t simply represent the death of a landscape, but also the death of an American way of life—of living separately from the land, living to excess, ignoring the laws of nature. To allow much redemption requires a failure to acknowledge the enormity of the environmental, political, and sociological upheaval required to avoid, or mitigate, the unavoidable consequences of large-scale agriculture, over-drilling, and wasteful water habits.
Even as the government drills for groundwater, Californians adapt and campaign to change their lifestyles. Billboards lining freeways advocate five-minute showers. Signs in public parks, along thoroughfares, and in the front yards of homes declare “brown is the new green.” Ornamental lawns and gardens are allowed to die, in some cases replaced with artificial decorations, or water-resistant plants that will help prevent erosion without taxing the water supply.
Watkin’s fictional campaigns and attempts to restore the water supply by citizens and government fail. This does not mean that strides already made by Californians to reduce their water usage are futile, nor that Watkin’s fictional future is unavoidable. However, Watkins achieves a goal of great literature: inspiring impassioned and educated discussion.
Often, in times of great social upheaval, enigmatic leaders will rise and draw those most vulnerable to their surface ideals (which hide darker intentions). Watkin’s father, Paul Allen, fell prey to just such a man in the 1960s—Charles Manson. Paul Watkin’s left “The Family” before the infamous murders, and later provided testimony that helped put Manson behind bars.* Manson famously said:
“Your water’s dying. Your life’s in that cup. Your trees are dying. Your wildlife’s locked up in zoos. You’re in the zoo, Man. How do you feel about it?”*
One of Watkin’s characters, Lonnie, is angry about what he calls the stolen water, the government’s cages, the dying landscape. He is angry, but sees necessity of cleansing:
“There was no water crisis, he maintained. Theirs was a human crisis. What they call drought was merely the mechanism of a long overdue social contraction,” which will result in “a pure city, liberated from its toxic pecking order.”
Lonnie is a cult leader who exudes a Manson-like-pull. Despite Lonnie’s extreme views, Manson’s influence is most felt in the character Levi, the water-divining prophet leader of the nomadic survivalists living in the un-mapped Amargosa Dune Sea.
No one is immune to the pull of survival, to magnetism and manipulation, to hope in times of despair. No one is immune to the effects of drugs, to the psychological damage of sexual manipulation, the toll of malnutrition, dehydration, and poor personal hygiene. Just as no cult leader is immune to losing some of his flock—to being questioned—a betrayal that demands revenge, requires purifying fire.
What created the Amargosa Dune Sea? The lack of rainfall and changing weather patterns? Overpopulation? Aqueducts veining the Southwest? State water departments, state bureaus of land management, and the U.S. Department of the Interior redirecting water from lakes, sucking up snow-packs and groundwater reserves? Yes. The rape of our land began long ago however, as industrialization moved Americans from living in harmony with the land to working the land for our singular benefit.
The distance between man and land increased with the advent of photography, new media, and the newly enabled ability to make selections of our private lives public. Watkins makes her argument about the Grand Canyon—how the proliferation of photographs, postcards, and other media images influence the ability to see the canyon for the first time.
“For we had accepted unawares a bit of the Canyon each time we saw a photograph of it, and those pieces, filtered and diluted, had accumulated in us, so that we never saw anything for the first time. Perhaps the ugliest of our impulses, to shove the sublime through a pinhole.”
Perhaps the ugliest of all our impulses, to not just be somewhere but to need proof we were there, to not just live on this earth but to leave indelible proof that we did—even destruction. Still, with all our faults and all our strengths, Californains are still part of my people, just as the Mojavs belong to Luz.
“These were her people. Speculators and opportunists, carnival barkers and realtors, imagineers, cowards and dreamers and girls. Mojavs. Eyes peeled for the flash of ore, the flash of camera, the wet flesh of fruit. Gold, fame, citrus.”