California’s central valley is a 450 mile stretch of parched land up the state’s big belly. In a normal year, the valley spends the majority of its time bone dry. Throw in the drought, and you’ve got serious thirst. The lonely roads are lined with dry grasses, dust clouds billow up from distant tractors driving the dirt divisions between fields. This is farmland, almost nothing but. And minus the almond orchards that can sway real pretty in the autumn breeze, I spend my time driving up this valley with my eyes on the strange oases in this brown terrain — the rice fields.
Rice is planted in March and harvested in September. In that time, when the valley is at its driest, the rice is green and lush and the stalks grows tall. After harvest, the carved out plots of land fill with water like tidy little bays lined up for miles. Egrets, shorebirds, geese and ducks make these basins their home, or, at this time of year, a stop along the long road south. This is my favorite time of year in these fields.
My last trip through the valley was a week ago during one of these new late afternoon sunsets that set the day ablaze before it’s ready to be over. The mountains curled purple and orange on the edge of the golden red valley, and the rice fields became slick silver ponds like mirrors laid out on a long floor. Everything became doubled — the clouds, the hills, the grasses, the birds, even the lone airplane leaving a bright white streak in the doubled sky.
Most of the time I speed through this valley, rushing to get to my destination. I admire the beauty, but I don’t stop to take it in. This time, I pulled over three times to step out of my car and be with the moment. And with the loud bird calls and frog croaks, the gentle movement of water by wind and bursting colors on every surface, my thoughts turned here:
It is rare that a manmade moment can seem so of the earth. I find beauty in manmade things, but it is a structured appeal. Nothing matches the accidental perfection of nature, the chaos of it all. But standing in this valley, even with these fields carved out perfectly straight and even, I don’t feel imposed upon by the hand of humankind. In this moment what that hand has done is reflect the natural world back at itself: thousands of birds becoming thousands more in a watery sky, and my reflection there, too, looking up at myself looking down.