A Connecticut Yankee In NorCal’s Drought: Photography and Cross-Continental Environmental Equivalence

From the perspective of a born-and-raised Connecticutian, the arid heat of Northern California is, admittedly, a novelty to me still.

I will always be an anachronism here, as my residential introduction to the region’s extreme summer heat can substantiate — I have demonstrated my naivete with several cases of heat stroke since moving here this time last year, a rookie mistake as the body loses water at a significantly higher and less noticeable rate in the dry heat.

The area is itself at such extreme contrast to the oppressively humid New England summers from which I sought refuge as a child in lakes, streams, and forests, that the shocking visual images from this climate — and the drought herein — which I encounter on the daily are perhaps even more noticeable and remarkable to my eyes (and lens). I recently set myself about the task of photographic documentation wherever I noticed visually-compelling evidence of drought which, while not as shocking to most locals, is demonstrative of the extreme environmental behaviors of the region and human effects upon it.

The nest of a Killdeer undisturbed on a cracking floodplain, Sacramento, California
Some still thriving: the nest of a Killdeer undisturbed on a cracking floodplain, Sacramento, California

My travels prior to settling on this Western frontier afforded my acquaintance with the native, homegrown attitude of relative calm surrounding the current extremes of the drought situation which has set numerous records over the past few years. As a result, I have borne witness to the severity of this drought at an accelerated, incremental rate due to past years travel — every three months, as my plane descended into Sacramento International Airport, I could clearly see the staunch, sun-bleached grasses stagnating in the heavy heat of motionless air, irrigation plains cracked and dried, and crop watering systems delivering mists to thousands of rows of flaccid plants.

But even after two years of traveling between opposite sides of the North American continent on this quarterly basis, and almost a calendar year of living just outside of the Sacramento River Valley, I cannot see certain evidence of improvement to the drought situation (or abatement thereof).

Beyond the annual winter and spring rainstorms which pummel the area with practically a year’s-worth of rain in under a few months’ time, little has changed in three years. The presence of these storms, for the past few years, has been not unlike an angsty teenager at holiday meal — silent and inattentive for the duration of the season, glaring from just off in the distance with occasional tumultuous outbursts before disappearing into their room for another nine months.

Cracked earth supports amber waves, Central Valley, California
Cracked earth supports amber waves, Central Valley, California

These storms pour and gust with torrential-force quantities of rain for short periods of time; gutters overflow; flat streets flash-flood; and traffic slows to a crawl. It often feels as though these storms have the capacity to fool those who expect immediate improvement by virtue of their ferocity alone, and I am met with unfailingly predictable responses, usually some variation of “thank goodness, we needed the rain” during chats about the weather with area locals.

Almost universally, it is absolutely acknowledged by native Californians that the situation is indeed extreme, and they are certainly concerned for the well-being of the region agriculturally, culturally, and ecologically. But the perspective of an outside eye affords an acquaintance with the might of mother nature unlike the undertones of passive acceptance in their conversations.

These statements garner a feeling of cultural security and even faith in the heroic, antecedent storm, as though its fervor will have certainly gone a far way toward rectifying the extremity of overall water deficit, and a sigh of relief is warranted as a celebratory milestone in comprehending the conclusion of the problem at last. The storms seem to quell the concerns of those who are and have been exposed to the area on a daily basis for the entirety of their lives, and by nature of this potential social desensitisation and of their extremity, it can seem to an outsider as though residents have missed the sky for the thunderheads.

Water fowl cruise the shrinking perimeter of the lake, Lake Berryessa, California
Water fowl cruise the shrinking perimeter of the lake, Lake Berryessa, California

Since drought has been an important and ever-present element of California’s climatology for centuries, not many residents of this University town seem intimately familiar with its cultural and environmental significance beyond the frequently-heard “it’s so hot” coming from corner tables at the local coffee shop.

Apart from these vehement expressions of dislike for the heat, and from the occasional soapboxing out-of-state University student panicked by the extreme differences they are seeing for the first time, I have not made the acquaintance of many individuals who can comment on the cultural effects of the worsening situation in a non-academic context. Outside of the town of Davis (the demographic of which is, in truth, quite varied if academic overall), attitudes are largely the same with varying fluctuations within different social circles.

I believe this to be culturally equivalent to the prideful bravery with which New Englanders boast about their adventures in the ice and snow (the phrase ‘hold my iced coffee and watch this’ calls up memories of my mother driving me to school in weather most districts would have closed for). To both abate inevitable accusations of regional ethnocentrism, and to negate colloquial stereotyping of the pretentious New Englander; in an ever-changing global climate, human beings clearly possess great power, and mother nature, amazing strike-force adaptability. Due to their continuous exposure to the situation, it seems many residents of California are as accustomed to the extreme drought conditions as New Englanders are to the presence of heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures which would cripple other regions of the country, thus resigning themselves to the inevitable lack of water given its correlation with regional identity… presenting clear cultural equivalence between two incredibly different sociological dynamics and humanizing all in the face of striking environmental change.

Dried stream bed, Lake Berryessa, California
Dried stream bed, Lake Berryessa, California

After some reflection, I felt as though local perspective of current drought phenomenon begat as much a deficit in current photojournalistic documentation efforts of the drought as there is of rainfall itself. While my perspective is that of an objective observer from a starkly different native climate, this affords the investment potential of artistic objectivity, the project thusly resting on the hope that artlessness itself, in this sense, can convey more with simplicity than current, more intricate efforts.

Of course, this photography project comes with a certain disclaimer: I cannot claim that a year’s residency or two years prior of effectual tourism permits me the authority to comment on the lives or opinions of Californians (nor would I ever qualify to truly be a Californian as I value the use of turn signals too highly), and so I can neither speak to their personal adaptability to drought beyond what is directly observed, nor to their individual political stances on an environmental issue which segues into a deeply controversial political topic.

But with each smog-fueled sunset shrouding the far-off hills in a gaseous byproduct of human capitalism, our anthropocentric endeavors become clearer. The shade of the overpasses and underlying stagnant water will remain barren concrete citadels beset by abandonment and scorched with an unforgiving sun, the only refuge to species who have reached the limit of their environmental tolerance, and to those of the human species abandoned by society itself.

Locations Photographed: Yolo Bypass Wildlife Refuge, Lake Berryessa, Yolo County, Sonoma County, Central Valley




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Caroline C. Evans Abbott

I am a rising Master of Research (M.Res) English Literature candidate at the University of Glasgow, incoming MFA Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and a recent Honors Program graduate of the B.A. Studio Art program at Albertus Magnus College (2015). From 2015 - 2016, I served as an English, Writing, and Creative Enrichment Tutor for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Reservation in Brooks, California, and from 2014 - 2015 as a Writing Associate (Tutor) in the Albertus Magnus College Writing Center. I am based in West London.

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