Geometry of the Winter Desert: Field and Home

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Part three in a series. Read part one and two here.

Stretching away from the narrow road exactly where Thermal turns into Oasis is the most beautiful confluence of mathematics and mapping you might ever find along one strip of asphalt: Strawberries are glistening red atop black raised rows, and silver water runs down the furrows in the distance, where date palms provide a solid backdrop. Nearby, table grapes are pruned and dormant, the vines twisted horizontally along their wires, just a few new gold leaves unfurling.

And behind the palms, mountain ranges on both sides of the Coachella Valley: The Santa Rosa Range and the Little San Bernardino Mountains, purple and red in the fading sun of late afternoon, crenellated as fabric folded a million times into deep shadows.

That's geologic movement. There will be a big quake here, maybe in the next few minutes, maybe in the next few years, maybe in the next three decades. Doug tells me this - his father is an eminent geologist - and then he points to the faultlines and the places where trees grow in the moisture pushed up by plate slippage.

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Watermelon harvest near the Salton Sea. | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

But what is here now: grapefruit and oranges heavy on the trees as if each one were personally decorated by a citrus goddess; fields of cilantro and dill ready to harvest; seedlings of pepper and celery poking through holes in black plastic stretched tight over the sharp-edged rows; carrot-tops like tiny day-old ferns; those strawberries huge and dangling; and already, personal watermelons. This is the geometry of desire.

None of this would be in this long desert valley without two essentials brought from other places years ago, or months ago, or yesterday: water and workers.

In the canals that bisect the long flat valley, the water is sapphire. It comes via the Coachella Canal, from the Colorado River. In the fields where men crouch and cut stems, where they throw white boxes of just-picked dill up onto moving trucks, the skin is brown. The people come from wherever they left behind when they needed work.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Maybe they left rivers behind. In Mecca, during the grape harvest of late summer, when the local population swells with migrant workers, I have seen men bathing in irrigation canals and washing their clothes in the pumps where the water flows out into the furrows.

Today, the winter temperature is 82. In August, it will be 120. I have seen people sleeping on flattened cardboard in parking lots, or in the beds of their pickup trucks.

We drive down long gray highways where people are just getting home from the day in the fields, or the restaurants, or the hotels, or the golf courses. We pass immense fields of new vegetables where white ropes of water are thrown across the rows like lariats. Here is a settlement, and another one. The names are hopeful. El Rancho. La Cienega. Desert Shores.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Geometry is everywhere here, too. The mobile homes and travel trailers are long and rectangular, spaced regularly on their square plots, with spiky agave in round buckets or bursting geraniums in coffee cans or green nopales cactus in ovals held high like fingerless mittens.

Kids are everpresent, playing in the dirt roads, looking up from tire swings like huge black Cheerios, kicking balls across the paths. Dogs are everywhere, meeting in groups that look like they gather at dusk to share stories as well. A companionable group of seven dogs waits at one entryway to a settlement. Women look up from doorways, linger on two cement porch steps talking to each other.

Pedro Ponce in Duroville, Thermal, California. His personal mission is to take care of the stray dogs in that trailer park. | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Trucks and vans arrive to leave off men, and men come out into yards to start grills, to visit. I ask one man in Spanish where Oasis ends and Thermal begins, and he smiles, and gestures in long arcs. Mecca is that way. Indio that way. Coachella that way. Oasis is right here, he says.

An oasis is a place of constant water in a dry desert, whether in North Africa or in Southern California. Palms grow in their damp hallways of silver and gray-green just next door to the clusters of trailers, with their metal sheds and white stones marking the boundaries of life.

Doug and I know college students whose parents and relatives come from here. One of my best senior writers this year at UCRiverside is Jennifer Valdez, whose aunt has managed a date garden for a long time; Valdez just organized future writing and arts programs for incarcerated and foster youth. Last year, on a photography workshop in the infamous community of Duroville just down the road, which was news due to the hazardous living conditions for the 4,000 mostly Native Mexican residents, Doug met Thania Espinoza-Sandoval. Her grandfather has spent 32 years working date gardens, climbing the palms to pollinate, paperbag and then harvest huge clusters of dates sent all over the world. He was born in Puruandiro, Michoacan, Mexico, and always told Thania, born in Indio, that he did this so she could go to a university. She is now a sophomore at UCDavis.

In the geometric precision of the rows, and the spirals of the flung water, men and women move with equal linear patience, collecting box after box of fruits and vegetables to feed the winter hunger of those who live in the cold. They might not be able to count the thousands of items they gather, but they know how many children they have. And California lifts each grape in two fingers, studying the sheen, where maybe one drop of moisture has dried in a ghostly circle.

Read part one and two:
- Many Queens at the Indio Date Festival
- Big Donna and the Medjools

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

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