Will Californians Become the New Okies?


Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl

Today, although a major ice storm has hit the East Coast, I thought I’d write about another weather catastrophe underway. I have in mind the great drought in California, which is prompting references to The Grapes of Wrath.

Reporting on the area around Fresno, which grows a third of America’s fruits and vegetables and is sometimes referred to as “America’s fruit basket,” a recent New York Times article noted,

Some farms in the western Valley — crippled by cuts in water allocations, salt buildup in the soil and depleted aquifers — now resemble the dust bowl that drove so many Tom Joads here in the 1930s.

The article goes on spell out the seriousness of the situation:

Experts offer dire warnings. The current drought has already eclipsed previous water crises, like the one in 1977, which a meteorologist friend, translating into language we understand as historians, likened to the “Great Depression” of droughts. Most Californians depend on the Sierra Nevada for their water supply, but the snowpack there was just 15 percent of normal in early February. And the dry conditions are likely to make the polluted air in the Central Valley — which contributes to high rates of asthma and the spread of Valley Fever, a potentially fatal airborne fungus — even worse.


Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. 

The drought is further exacerbated by the failure of various constituencies to regulate their water use. If there were ever a time when Americans needed to abandon their libertarian tendencies and come together for the greater good, this is it.

They might learn something from Steinbeck’s novel, in which the Joads learn that only collaborating with people they don’t know will save them. For a few images of the threat that forces the Okies into this realization, just look Steinbeck’s description of the Oklahoma’s drought, which opens Grapes:

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

We are facing a terrible reckoning. Are we up to it?

This entry was posted in Steinbeck (John) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Most of the years I’ve lived in the west have been plagued by drought. Simply, water issues define life not only in California, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and here in Idaho where we have the endangered Snake River Aquifer.

    One reality that complicates western water issues is the geographic and intellectual disconnect. Those who live in water-soaked states typically don’t understand desert life. So instead of hearing reports about the diminishing almond crop and other farmland in California that can’t be planted because there is no water, we hear nonstop news about how residents of Atlanta can’t drive in snow.

    The entire country needs to be concerned w/ California’s water problems, as well as the drought conditions in Nevada that threaten Lake Mead, the water levels of Lake Powell, and especially the Colorado River on which so much of our food supply depends.

    So thank you for helping raise awareness with this post about the potential for a 21st Century Dust Bowl.

  • Robin Bates

    What breaks one’s heart when rereading Grapes of Wrath, Glenda, is those gorgeous descriptions of California crops. I went back and found the following passage–which is from the famous chapter 25, which describes how “excess” produce is destroyed to keep prices high while the people go hungry. No talk here about water shortages–these problems are all human-created.But there’s a lot about how we all need to work together for the social welfare of all:

    THE SPRING IS BEAUTIFUL in California. Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants.

    And then the leaves break out on the trees, and the petals drop from the fruit trees and carpet the earth with pink and white. The centers of the blossoms swell and grow and color: cherries and apples, peaches and pears, figs which close the flower in the fruit. All California quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy, and the limbs bend gradually under the fruit so that little crutches must be placed under them to support the weight…

    Along the rows, the cultivators move, tearing the spring grass and turning it under to make a fertile earth, breaking the ground to hold the water up near the surface, ridging the ground in little pools for the irrigation, destroying the weed roots that may drink the water away from the trees.

    And all the time the fruit swells and the flowers break out in long clusters on the vines. And in the growing year the warmth grows and the leaves turn dark green. The prunes lengthen like little green bird’s eggs, and the limbs sag down against the crutches under the weight. And the hard little pears take shape, and the beginning of the fuzz comes out on the peaches. Grape blossoms shed their tiny petals and the hard little beads become green buttons, and the buttons grow heavy. The men who work in the fields, the owners of the little orchards, watch and calculate. The year is heavy with produce. And the men are proud, for of their knowledge they can make the year heavy. They have transformed the world with their knowledge. The short, lean wheat has been made big and productive. Little sour apples have grown large and sweet, and that old grape that grew among the trees and fed the birds its tiny fruit has mothered a thousand varieties, red and black, green and pale pink, purple and yellow; and each variety with its own flavor.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete