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How Paradise Lost

For more than a century, California's rich farmland has been plundered and poisoned by the heirs of the Gold Rush. Now they're mining subdivisions.

If the North American continent were suddenly to rupture along California's eastern boundary, sending the Golden State plunging into the Pacific Ocean, those to the east of Nevada's new beaches would soon feel the pain in their supermarkets. As the nation's leading farming state, California produces more than a quarter of the nation's table crops. Yet even without a seismic disaster, California's bounty may soon disappear.

I'd long heard of the outstanding achievements of California agriculture, but as Robert Dawson and I traveled around the state documenting its environment, it was the farming regions that troubled us the most. Seldom did we find anything resembling a Grant Wood landscape of small and prosperous homesteads; instead, we found the depopulated surrealism of de Chirico, and the same sad faces once captured by Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photographs. California's image of success belies its rural poverty. We realized that the key to the state's present and future predicament lies in its history, as well as in the way that humans have perceived and used its soil.

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Those who explored California in the early 19th century recounted grasses and lupines rising higher than a man on horseback and similarly gigantic valley oaks and conifers. Water tables were high then, and the valley soils of California were deep and fertile. The size of the native vegetation flourishing on the Pacific slope suggested fortunes to the men who first claimed the land and forced it to yield to the cow and the plow. For the first few years, the state's soils poured the banked solar energy of ages into monster vegetables and bonanza wheat yields; crops of up to 50 bushels of wheat per acre were not uncommon. But the strain of steady extraction quickly cut the yield to a quarter of what it had been. As early as 1901, novelist Frank Norris wrote in The Octopus that Californians worked their land like the mines that had drawn them to the Golden State. They had come not to settle, but to get rich and to move on. Soil was meant to turn a profit, and, he predicted, "When at last, the land...would refuse to yield, they would invest their money in something else; by then, they would all have made fortunes."

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