Copyright 1993, San Jose Mercury News

DATE: Sunday, June 20, 1993

PAGE: 19 EDITION: Morning Final

SECTION: Arts & Books LENGTH: 38 in. Long



MEMO: BOOKS Sandy Lydon, who teaches history at Cabrillo College, is the author of ''Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region.''


THE GREAT CENTRAL VALLEY: California's Heartland By*Stephen*Johnson,*Gerald Haslam, and Robert Dawson University of California Press, 254 pp.; $50 hardcover, $30 paperback

CALIFORNIA put out an early call for ''men to match my mountains,'' and the Sierra (and later, the coastline) have gotten most of the attention ever since. The Central Valley, or ''the valley'' (even with all the contending lesser valleys in California, there is only one ''valley'') was just sort of there. It was the place where trucks filled with vegetables came from, the place on the way to most everywhere else we wanted to go (roll up the windows, put the air conditioner on high and floor it), the place where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens lived. But the valley was not a place we went to on purpose. It was a place to be from. Scratch a coastal resident, and you'll probably find a valley native who moved there.

Well, we now have a book to match California's big valley, a volume as sprawling and sweeping in scope as its subject -- a book that should forever change the way we look at not only the Central Valley, but California.

Published by the University of California Press in association with the California Academy of Sciences, ''The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland'' represents a decade of preparation, planning and affection by three valley natives. Bob Dawson (native of the San Joaquin Valley) and Steve Johnson (native of Merced) began taking photographs of the valley in 1982, and four years later an exhibit of those photos, sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences, opened in Golden Gate Park and then migrated to the valley itself. Author Gerald Haslam (native of Oildale) became involved in the project in 1985.

This book only could have been produced by home boys. Like all valley natives, the authors were seduced by its summer evenings and still have valley dirt under their fingernails. The folks who live out in California's heartland are often extremely defensive about outsiders coming in and probing their innermost secrets, but because Dawson, Johnson and Haslam carried the passports of valley natives, they were able to move easily through the coffee shops and feed stores.

The statistics on California's Great Central Valley are numbing: 430 miles long, 50 miles wide, the valley encompasses 15 million acres. Sixteen rivers drain into the valley, from the Sacramento on the north to the Kern on the south. One of the world's largest valleys, California's Great Central Valley is now the richest agricultural region in the history of the world.

More wealth pours out of the valley each year than the total value of all the gold ever mined in California. Here's a quiz question for you: What is the most valuable crop produced in the valley these days? Cotton ($1.18 billion dollars in 1990) followed closely by tomatoes ($1.08 billion), and grapes ($1.06 billion.) The valley produces virtually all the almond (rhymes with ''salmon'' to those who grow them), walnut, pistachio, prune and olive crops in the United States. But probably the fastest spreading crop is houses: The valley supports a population of 6 million people that is projected to reach 10 million by the year 2020. The rapid changes coming to the valley give this book a sense of urgency.

The battle for California's heart has now begun. More folks are moving into the valley than leaving. Fresno is the fastest growing urban area in the United States. Sixty-two percent of the commuters leaving Modesto each morning drive into the Bay Area to work. Valley real estate agents estimate that commuters trade $1,000 in housing cost for each mile they are willing to drive across the valley to the Bay Area. I have met hardy souls who are commuting every day over Pacheco Pass into San Jose from Gustine and Los Banos.

The book is organized by the valley's four distinct regions, beginning with the Delta, then moving from north to south through the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Plain and ending with the Tulare Basin. Where we might see a certain sameness from north to south, the authors sketch out some very different places, from the tree shaded liberal-conservative mix in Chico, to the hardscrabble culture surviving in Kern County.

Visually, this book is stunning, reflecting its photographic exhibit roots. Johnson, the book's designer and editor, mixes full-page side-bars, historical photographs, broadside facsimiles, aerial computer graphics and brilliant charts. The photographs of dust, fog, the Altamont wind generators and Lake Berryessa will stop your hand in mid-turn. A gallery of historic photographs of the valley's original Indian residents is marvelous.

Come for the visuals, but stay for the text. Like the rivers and slough it describes, Haslam's lyrical and looping prose winds through the valley's history, literature (Fresno now grows as many poets as it does raisins), mythology and legend combining them into a loving portrait of the valley's people.

From the original American Indians through successive waves of immigrants from China, Japan, the Azores, Italy, the Punjab, the Philippines and Armenia, Haslam fleshes out the human side of the story. Maybe it is because Haslam grew up in Bakersfield country, but the section on the Okies, Arkies, Texies and blacks who collected together into the valley's own version of the Deep South is particularly insightful and sensitive.

Haslam uses geologist William Brewer's journal as his own benchmark, returning again and again to the erudite scientist's observations made during many visits to the valley between 1860 and 1864. But, Haslam does his own prose pirouettes, compressing volumes of historical writing into concentrated historical vignettes -- espresso history, if you will. For example, in three tight paragraphs Haslam has Brewer passing the town of Rio Vista in 1863 and then describes the town's origin, destruction in the 1862 flood, subsequent rebuilding and the current plight of the town's striped bass fishery. Where Johnson and Dawson concentrated on making portraits of the land, Haslam captures this ''refuge for the determined and desperate'' with its incredible stories of success and enduring pockets of economic and social misery.

I only have one quibble with the book's design, and it is a historian's -- the book would be much more valuable with citations. Haslam quotes anyone and everyone who ever said anything about the valley and though he always gives attribution in the text, many of the authors mentioned are not in the bibliography, making it difficult for those of us in the trade to find the sources. That aside, the text is strong enough to stand alone, and in a strange way, it is a shame that it is trapped in such an expensive format. Were Haslam's text published as a less-expensive book, it could become a part of required reading for students of California history and geography.

Despite its size and format, this is not a book to buy, plop on the coffee table and dust every once in awhile. Every Californian interested in the past, present and future of this state should buy it and bring it along for that next trip across the valley. It is not a guidebook in the literal sense, but it will make those freeway off-ramp names -- Arbuckle, Turlock, Modesto, Buttonwillow, Bakersfield -- come alive. Haven't you ever wondered how Manteca got a name that means ''lard'' in Spanish? (There was a local creamery, known for its butter, or manteiga in Portuguese.)

And maybe the book will inspire you to see the valley as much more than a place to get through. It is a place to stop, tarry and ponder the history and future of California. Only when you see the state from beneath a giant California oak on a soft, warm, summer evening in the valley can you begin to understand the fierce pride which Dawson, Johnson and Haslam feel toward the place.


PHOTO: ''THE GREAT CENTRAL VALLEY: CALIFORNIA'S HEARTLAND'' ''Three Mile Slough Bridge near Rio Vista, 1986,'' by Robert Dawson



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