Friend and author, Mark Arax in his published (4/15/09) West of the West, a book featuring deeply human stories characterizing our Golden State, narrates in one, his own vacationer’s tale of encounter with the semi-shadowed agricultural economy overwhelming California’s far north coast.
Today’s bizarre “herbscape” barely existed during a late 1960’s summer when a buddy and I bummed around the then, fishing and lumber dominated Emerald Triangle region, stumbling onto some early and more conventional farm experiences. Mark’s “Highlands of Humboldt” describes the remote landscape now crawling with a small army of half-legitimate cannabis cultivators, farming a legal gray zone between California’s tolerance and federal prohibition.
Arcata’s neighborhoods are peppered, visually similar to the foreclosure eyesores in ours, with shell homes, identified by telltale “whirling dervish” electric meters, functioning as grow houses for the forty-nine permitted “medicinal” marijuana plants which yield an enterprising herbalist up to a quarter-million dollar gross income but little social respectability.
Closer to home, Mark’s “The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman”, chronicles one Oaxacan family’s fatal travails amidst Fresno County’s bountiful vineyards to which they’d illegally sojourned, gambling escape from a straight jacket of poverty and oppression in their southern Mexico homeland.
Rarely are we allowed such a nuanced glimpse into an often-desperate world of these Native American refugees living with and amongst us. Arax, likened to Saroyan or Didion by Publisher’s Weekly, deftly exposes people’s stories like contents of a tin, as if wielding a Boy Scout’s blade, spilling all the beans.
Down the road apiece at Organic Pastures Dairy, west of Fresno, “The Great Microbe Hunt” recounts raw milk apostle Mark McAffee’s knife’s edge dance between producing the best that live, pastured milk has to offer our immuno-deficient public and its nightmare worst, if serious mistakes are made.
The McAffee clan owns a rich history tilting at conventional windmills, eagerly explored by Arax. More tangentially agricultural is Mark’s stunning “The Agent” detailing the strange and ultimately ill-fated odyssey of one Lodi immigrant, erstwhile fruit packer, Hamid Hayat, ensnared in a web of post 9/11 security hysteria spun by a duplicitous fellow Pakistani émigré FBI provocateur.
Arax uncannily inhabits the skin of his subjects like few authors I’ve read. Go, grab a copy of West of the West, but be forewarned, it will grab you back. –Tom Willey