Recuerdos de la anciana sabia*

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors


(* Memories of the wise old woman)

I have discovered a recording I made of my great grandmother, la anciana sabia, when she was very old and I was young. This is the one in which she described what the Central Valley of California was like before I was born.

She remembered when the two great north-south highways, one on each side of the valley, lay mostly along the valley floor. That was before flooding became so frequent that it was cheaper to move the freeways up to the foothills to carry people and freight vehicles. Off these main highways, you can still see occasional weathered signs showing the name of the town you were entering, the population, and the old elevation above sea level, before sea level rose one foot after another, and the government stopped updating the signs.

In those days, the Sierra Nevada mountains north to south were covered with trees, and there was snow every winter but less heavy rain. That was in the century when the other side of my family was carried north from Michoacán on a tide of workers to pick fruit and vegetables in the Central Valley. My Anglo and Latino ancestors ended up together near the inverted Delta formed by the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers. This land had been reclaimed for farming centuries ago, before rising seas made it cheaper and more sensible to return much of it to the birds and the fish. Now the salmon move most years through a great inland sea.

“When your grandmother was born, in Sacramento in the spring of 1986,” said my great grandmother, “the Sacramento River a mile from our house almost topped its banks. Even then I thought, ‘Why do they allow homes to be built in this flood plain?’” In those days, she said, hardly any dwellings were built on pilings—just a few along the Sacramento river north of the Capitol, where now great river walls protect the parts of the city nearest to the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.

In the Delta, too, only a few people lived in dwellings on pilings, people nearest the rivers and on the edge of basins that are used for growing now only in dry years. You can still see the remains of old Delta roads in a very dry year when locals travel along them instead of using their solar boats. The magical architecture of the floodplains, the houses on pilings, was just beginning to evolve. Winter floods would only occasionally fill the Yolo Bypass, the first great bypass for flood water.

In those days, people grew vast areas of crops on the west side of the valley to feed people in California and the rest of the country and the world. As it became too hot to grow food in the ground, except under solar panels, people everywhere in the country and the world began to relearn how to grow their own food, in fields or greenhouses or agridomes, wherever they live, as our family has done, so that food doesn’t have to be moved great distances. But even now, furthest north in the Central Valley, farmers grow rice, grapes for wine, and marijuana.

“Once upon a time,” said my great grandmother, “men thought they could move water to anyplace that people wanted to live and farm.” That was before, one by one, the big dams failed and earthquakes broke the great north-south aqueducts into useless fragments. In those days, she said, farms grew food for people and animals from one end of the valley to the other. Some farmers irrigated those fields to grow alfalfa to feed cattle, and the meat of cows was so cheap that everyone whose faith allowed it ate beef all the time.

But the southern Valley kept getting hotter, and it kept getting harder to grow many crops in the traditional ways, all one crop planted for miles in soil under the desert sun. It has taken decades for people to learn that even in the deserts, it is possible, with permaculture, to surround yourself with green growing things. But that requires growing many different things together.

When we take the hybridcopter and travel to cities in the southern deserts, we see the new dwelling enclaves where artificial intelligence manages systems that control temperature, clean waste water, capture any rainwater that comes through, and pull water out of the air. Near Tulare Lake, they grow agave for syrup and mezcal. Only on the east side of the valley do thirsty nut trees still grow, taking in carbon dioxide and giving shade.

La anciana sabia saw this Valley begin to be transformed in her lifetime. “People used to accumulate more things,” she said, “before all the fires and floods and dislocations. Gradually, we lost the illusion of permanence.”

Hija, it doesn’t do much good to warn people about calamities. We live our lives up close,” she said, drawing so near to me that our noses almost touched. “The BIG picture” spreading her arms wide and then pulling me closer “we mostly miss, the pending events, the unforeseen consequences.”

“ArtIntel takes care of those things,” I said, repeating the argument I had heard so often. “ArtIntel does an error-free job of reasoning everything through, anticipating every possible consequence of every possible choice.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “we programmed it to do that for us. But even without that, human beings would adapt to their own follies, then innovate their way out of any problem their shortsightedness created for them.”

“Every few centuries,” she said, “people all begin to tell each other that they, of all human beings forever, are living at the end of everything, as if they thought they deserved to suffer uniquely, to be punished by gods they do not even believe in.

“They are always mistaken.”


Jane Wagner-Tyack is a writer and former educator who follows water issues for the League of Women Voters of California. She lives in Lodi, California.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *