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The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

4.45  ·  Rating details ·  847 ratings  ·  156 reviews
Author Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, that is straining to keep up with Cali ...more
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published May 21st 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group
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Average rating 4.45  · 
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Stuart Woolf
Jul 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Note: The second-to-last chapter of this book, titled "960-acre babies", is about my extended family. Jack Woolf, the family patriarch, is my grandfather; Stuart Woolf, his son and successor, is my father. The reception of the book within our family has been mixed: it does not present us in a positive light, and some feel it is factually inaccurate. (This latter group includes me, but the inaccuracies are minor: my brother Wiley, for example, was not named after Wylie Giffen, who led Sun Maid in ...more
Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and well-written history of the Central Valley in CA told mainly through the lens of farmers. Based on that description alone, I would agree that it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Read me!’, until you realize the skill of the author (a former LA Times reporter) to weave the foundational history (eg gold rush) with the current challenges of water, drought, law, immigration, environment, and capitalism - oh, and the ego of man to bend nature to its will. Ultimately, it’s a story of America. ...more
Jun 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you are a land owner in California this feels like a must read! An excellent history of California’s water woes punctuated with many stories of the local growers. I listened to the book and was rapt to his every word, it’s a long book, maybe 13 hours, my batteries don’t last that long so forced to make this a two day venture, I yearned to get back to it! I am an avid gardener with a deep interest in nuturing the land, was gardening the entire times I listened and enjoyed hearing all aspects. ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
”I’ve gone through three of these (boom bust agricultural) cycles [connected to drought / flood cycle] , and none of them has been crazier than this one. In my grandfather’s day, if you didn’t have your land paid off, you couldn’t add a single acre. Today, you can be carrying a debt of eight grand an acre, and they’ll let you borrow twelve grand an acre to plant more almonds and pistachios. Equity and cheap interest rates means oversupply. And oversupply means a demand for water than cannot be m
Aug 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
To get my one complaint out of the way: this book needed more maps! There's one basic one at the beginning, but the author references many different geographies than are labeled on it, and in different levels of detail. Especially as a non-Californian, I very much wanted a little more illustration of exactly what kinds of places I was dealing with in each chapter.

A fascinating read overall - natural and man-made history, California mythology and myth-busting in all its contradictions. I love the
Elizabeth Rynecki
Jun 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I’m a bit more than halfway through this book. At 530 pages it is not a light summer read. It is, however, a beautifully written book and one that lots of people ought to be required to read - particularly California politicians. It’s the story of water, the California land grab, politics, agriculture in the arid West, greed, and ingenuity.
As usual I've waited too long after finishing to write up any thoughts. My remaining impressions are equally typical: edifying but maddeningly lacking in citation, rendering what could have been a valuable history of water in California down to a hodge-podge of of errata and autobiography. An entertaining, educational hodge-podge full of great leads, but on the whole not something I would ever feel comfortable citing directly.

I will say that Arax has a nose for errata that are not trivial to loo
Julianne Burk
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant blend of investigative research, history and storytelling. There’s even poetry in these lines. A massive accomplishment by Mr. Arax!
Oct 11, 2022 rated it liked it
The soft stuff:
I found this useful for those who are not from CA or spent time in the valley to get healthy dose of materialism history. And I do look at my own meager garden differently and with deep gratitude for the waters of Hetch Hetchy and deeper understanding of the terrifying altered landscape of this state. My poor little tomatoes, accomplice to this grand water robbery… and yet they taste so sweet and save me $2 at the grocery store. I will defend them to the last.

The critical stuff:
Margaret Carmel
Jun 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
If you're thinking about writing a book about agriculture in California's Central Valley, don't. It's already been written.

The Dreamt Land tells the improbable story of how the Central Valley turned from a desert into an agricultural oasis through the taming of rivers, snowmelt, aquifers, marshes, farmworkers, government regulators and everything in between. Former LA Times journalist Mark Arax takes both a deep and wide look into the history of the area and all of its complexities, starting at
Oct 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the ultimate story about CA and water explaining more than you care. We read this for Book Club, otherwise I would have missed it. Very easy and interesting read. More than you would think.
Jul 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: did-not-finish
This is my first DNF of the year, and I'm sorry it had to end this way. I really am interested in this topic and it is clearly a massive effort of research, but the writing doesn't work for me. It's just too long, too wordy, too pretentious. I didn't quite make it halfway through and I kept getting distracted while reading. After 10 days of wondering if I'm just too basic to get into this book, I remembered I'm not (that) basic and have read a lot of challenging books, plus this being an area of ...more
Sep 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
“Of the fifty-four thousand, how many will make it back here, you think?” “If we’re lucky, maybe seven or eight,” she said. It was at that point that I fully understood what we as a people had done. A river is a highly dynamic force that possesses incredible powers to heal itself. Like the salmon, it had been coded to find its way back. But our destruction of the San Joaquin—six dams upstream, a seventh dam right here, a flow devoted to agriculture with only a trickle left over for fish—was an i ...more
Jul 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mark Arax is a great writer and story teller and here he tells an incredible tale of the monumental re-plumbing of the rivers of central California to serve the needs of (Big) agriculture and growing cities and subdivisions. The story is astounding. Arax provides great context for the California boom-bust, drought-flood culture and mentality that leads to this re-plumbing by going back to the Spanish settlement of California and the discovery of gold in the 1840's at Sutter's Mill. Throughout th ...more
A disturbing and timely book about climate change and the history of American exploitation of California. The Spanish then the Mexicans enslaved the Native Americans but Sutter and American settlers brought money and technology to a whole new level when they arrived. One of Sutter’s men did discover a small nougat of gold and was overheard trying to verify it with a mining specialist in town. The rush of miners and people searching for gold brought about the dissemination of the natives who were ...more
Aug 12, 2021 rated it liked it
a tough one to rate! i found the firsthand interviews with the brains behind big ag – such as the resnicks (pom, halos, formerly cuties) and david cain (cotton candy grapes) – utterly engrossing. i picked up the dreamt land to learn about the context of the californian water crisis and, unlike the pumps of the state and central valley projects, it delivered. history helped me see that californians (or, more broadly, settlers?) tend towards excess and extremism. it also taught me that there is no ...more
Craig Petinak
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
For anybody thinking their opinion about water in California is well-informed, read this book and you'll learn how the history of how we arrived at today's (and tomorrow's) situation is far more nuanced than you could possibly imagine. As a grandchild of a small acreage farmer in the Central Valley, this book connects me to my ancestors in so many ways that I lost track of the stream. Really wish I could have read this book with my own grandfather and my great-great grandfather, Thomas Law Reed, ...more
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If there is one book to read on water AND the history of California (which are essentially synonymous), this would be it.
Aug 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant telling of the history of California through the lens of water use. Arax's writing is superb. ...more
Ian Treat
May 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The Central Valley is the key to understanding California: A house of cards built on climactic extremes with fools for stewards.
Aug 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Oh my god I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book since I started it. I've never felt more doomed. ...more
Shannon Rivers
Apr 14, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book! But I did cringe every time “man” was used when “human” should’ve been used (eg man power, mankind, etc$.
Oct 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club
I don't know which is the greater feat - that Mark Arax wrote a comprehensive book about the manipulation of water in California or that I actually finished this book. Picked by my book club, so not a book I would normally read, it was at first a chore to read but by the end it became a need to find out what conclusions the author would come to after his rumination on this subject. Starting with John Sutter the author begins the history of agriculture in California and covers everything that's h ...more
Linda Gaines
Mar 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, anthropology
This book is way, way, way too long. It was clearly well researched, but the author either can't keep on topic or couldn't decide what the topic is. The books for the most part is about the constant drought and flood cycles in California and the users of water. For the most part, it is about farmers and just a little about city users. The history of farming and water use, where all the water is coming, and the effects of using more water than is really available is interesting. The politics of i ...more
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is both informative and entertaining, especially to those of us in California. The history and personal stories hold your interest through a well written narrative. I listened to the book and I recommend it as the storyteller is the author. The book adresses the growth of "the Valley", Sacramento, San Joaquin, Kern, Kings and others and the growth that was brought about by politicians and large land holders. But the growth of the land use has come with much controversy with increased w ...more
Dec 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 27, 2022 rated it really liked it
It would be interesting if author Arax could write a postscript. Has anything changed in California agriculture and urban growth? Did the pandemic affect water usage? Are new rules starting to take affect? One thing has changed; California lost population the last two years but who knows, maybe it will be on the upswing in 2022. The cities take 20% of the water with 80% going to agriculture. But, whose water is it and when will both the cities and farmers face up to the fact that water is limite ...more
Sep 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book took me four days shy of a full year to read. It is dense (although engagingly written) and extremely depressing. It also felt extremely necessary. Most of the book is a fairly straightforward account of the history of water in our state (which, since the moment Europeans set foot on the land, has been a criminal history). But at the end, Arax gets philosophical. While he absolutely nails the nuance and contradictions of our water crisis that so often get oversimplified (simply running ...more
Nov 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The wonderful Donna Apidone interviewed Mark for Cap Radio in SEP 2019, and it’s very much worth the listening to: https://www.capradio.org/programs/cap...

The Dreamt Land is possibly the most important and insightful book on California’s ecology, and mankind’s incessant manipulation of Nature. It is also a dark mirror to the rest of the world where greed fuels behavior and natural resources are being voraciously consumed. Potable water is not an unlimited resource, and it has become a monstrous
Apr 07, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Mark Arax' saga of how California has and hasn't dealt with water issues since the first explorers arrived here is one of the best nonfiction books I've read. California's unique drought and flood climate pattern has confounded early settlers and politicians since day one, but as Arax proves over time, the mega growers and big money have found a way to work the evolving water distribution system to their extreme advantage. Arax interviewed 250-300 farmers, farmworkers, irrigation district manage ...more
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In the world of journalism, Mark Arax stands out as a rarity. On one hand, he is a skilled investigative reporter who unearths secrets from the depths of shadow governments. On the other hand, he is a gifted writer whose feature stories and books are distinguished by the “poetry of his prose.”

His Los Angeles Times stories revealing state sanctioned murder and cover-up in California prisons were pr

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