Very few artists across history have done such an incredible job capturing the essence of California as renowned author Mark Arax has in his career. Through a thoughtful and well-informed blend of history, lived experience, and artistry, Arax shares and memorializes the story of his community, family, and self.
As a way to reach out to the community as well as promote his most recent project, “The Dreamt Land,” he spent last Saturday afternoon with Mercedians at the Multicultural Arts Center, discussing his work as well as the uncertain future of the valley.
This event was made possible because of the Friends of the Merced County Library and their mission of encouraging readership in the valley.
The event was opened with a brief introduction by Friends of the Library President Donald Barclay. He spoke about how happy he was giving Arax the spotlight in this community. For those who don’t know, Mark Arax grew up in Fresno in a family of newly arrived Armenians fleeing genocide. Eventually, he graduated from Fresno State and went on to lead an impressive career as a journalist and novelist.
Arax recalled the overall uniqueness of the valley and many of the characters that he encountered here as he grew up. He talked about the distinct cultural shift that one experiences as they travel north through the valley, primarily seen through the evident lack of industrialization and the matching industrial culture of many southern areas.
“The Dreamt Land” is a poetic look at both the landscape and people that you will encounter here. He spoke of the field workers and their families who do their best in spite of unfavorable circumstances in addition to the infamous Highway 99 and the culture it led to.
The author talked about his work with the McFarlane Championship Runners, which was later used as the basis for a major movie, as well as his discovery of a whole tribe of black Okies who made their way to California, in search of agricultural work and land. All of which did a phenomenal job immortalizing the stories of people who may have otherwise been entirely overlooked by history.
Arax spoke about how the valley, due to its origins with and relationship to the Gold Rush, location, and the state of society, is an inherently multicultural place that is unlike any other place. He showed this by asking those in the audience to raise their hands if they happen to be descendants of one of the many distinct cultures present in the valley as he listed them off, such as Mennonite, Okies, Italians, and more. One by one, people in the crowd raised their hands, demonstrating how culturally diverse just a room of people can be.
He then shifted to speak about the state of the environment, and how it is the result of many decades of extreme mismanagement. Even now, with all of the research and technology available to us, there are unfortunately those who work against the stability of the environment. And while we have made changes to try to combat climate change and conserve water, in some cases, these developments have only enabled increasingly destructive, while profitable, circumstances. One of the most extreme takeaways from this segment was that, according to SGMA (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) research, in order to achieve proper balance with California’s water system, the state may need to retire an estimated two million acres of agricultural lands, if not more. While current analysts and researchers aren’t sure how they can achieve these goals as of right now, signals point toward the retirement of more recently established projects in addition to almond orchards and dairy farms.
Once he finished sharing those highlights, he gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions and discuss other topics of their choosing. The audience was clearly quite engaged and enthusiastic as the hands and questions came up quickly, and kept coming up. The discussion session ended up running for over an hour, much longer than anticipated.
When asked about the future of SGMA and water recharging projects as a whole, Arax said he believes the state will not focus on dams, and instead create a system of underground water banks due to the deterioration of natural water beds in the valley.
Another area of discussion was on the hopeful future of his Black Okies Project. He informed the crowd that he is still sitting on countless hours of recorded interviews and volumes of notes that are still yet to be fully explored. Unfortunately, nothing major with the project is happening at the moment; however, there are talks and hopes of funding coming in to get it going.
After speaking, Arax engaged with audience members and signed books until everyone who waited had a chance.
“I felt it was a really lively crowd,” he told the Times. “For Merced to turn out so many people, on a Saturday afternoon, it is pretty extraordinary. It just speaks to this place—there is something special about Merced. When you look downtown at all the change that has taken place over the last 10-15 years, I think something is happening.”
He went on to express how impressed he was with the discussion and quality of their questions.
“I thought that all the questions were excellent. I don’t think that there was a bum question at all. The period went far longer than I thought it would.”