Every December for the past two decades, I make a pilgrimage. I journey into the Great Central Valley of California to witness one of the most extraordinary natural spectacles in North America – the over wintering of millions of birds. Most of the waterfowl of western North America and many from Siberia come to this temperate area to escape the harsh winters of the north. And while the modern spectacle is but a shadow of the past, it is one hell of a shadow and the best we have going.
For thousands of years elk, antelope, grizzly bear, beavers, deer, otters, tens of millions of birds, oaks, tules, and wild grains thrived in the Central Valley and supported the densest concentration of human beings north of Mexico. There were 55,000 native people living on the flanks of the Sutter Buttes in the northern Sacramento Valley.
The first Spaniard to venture into this area was Luis Arguello in 1821. He saw a river totally covered from bank to bank with the feathers from roosting waterfowl. He named it the Rio de las Plumas, the Feather River. Other early visitors reported that the sky often darkened at midday from all the geese. But as the European settlers rushed in, full scale farming began. The natives were soon wiped out by disease and warfare; levees were built and wetlands diked and drained. Rice, wheat, millet, and corn soon surpassed the value of all the gold in California’s rapidly growing economy. By 1870 virtually all the large mammals were gone and the Valley was transformed into the richest agricultural area in the world.
The Central Valley is now the most altered landscape in California, 97% of it has been changed. But some of the waterfowl still manage to eke out an existence in a few intensively managed refuges and private hunting clubs. When twenty thousand snow geese erupt from a nearby tule marsh, you can actually feel the beating of their wings against your face. The distant cry of a Sandhill Crane is like an echo from the past. We have lost so much.
While the birds attract me, it is the character of the Valley that fascinates me. I have little patience for people who say they are bored by the Central Valley…. “I just put a CD on and drive through it as fast as I can to get to the Sierra.” To those folks I say the problem is not with the Valley, it is with you. The freeway is designed for rapid travel, uniformity and thoughtlessness, but if you want to see anything of value you must exit off the fast lane. Get onto the old roads — Highway 99, State Rt. 113, Almond-Orchard Rd. — or follow the train tracks through Zamora, Meridan, Yolo, or Willows. Then you may begin to understand the Valley.
Everything is big here. Ranchers aren’t ranchers, they’re operators. Plowed fields go on forever. Huge electric transmission towers criss-cross the Valley; they look like colossal monsters marching to the horizon with spider webs stretching between them.
The Central Valley is most ethically diverse non-urban area in the world. People from all over the planet have migrated here to live and work in this rich area. I was once sitting in a bar in downtown Williams. At the table next to me were five people whose parents or great-grandparents came from Mexico, India, Taiwan, Ireland, and Cambodia. These people were enjoying a beer and each other while listening to a country music band. They looked like a poster for the United Nations. It may well be that in the next century the densest concentration of human beings in California will once again reside in this Great Valley.
An excellent reference book with superb photographs is The Great Central Valley, California’s Heartland by Johnson, Haslam and Dawson. UC Press. 1993.