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National Steinbeck Center’s Susan Shillinglaw Talks about the Importance of Water in Salinas

July 28, 2016 by California Humanities

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I am a water fiend . . .Water is everything to me
- John Steinbeck, 1948

As part of a national celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, California Humanities is convening a series of discussion forums throughout the state through the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative. The fourth in the series features a conversation on the California’s Water at the National Steinbeck Center. Susan Shillinglaw, Director of the National Steinbeck Center and host of this forum explains what water and Salinas meant to Steinbeck. For more info on this forum and the series, please click HERE.

California's Water: Rivers, Oceans and our Future
CSUMB @ Salinas City Center/The National Steinbeck Center
August 27, 2016 - 7:00pm
Bettina Boxall, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
Felicia Marcus, Chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, facilitator
Abby Taylor-Silva, Vice President of Policy and Communications at Grower-Shipper Association of Central California
Bruny Mora, UC– Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Aquarium Teen Programs alumni

By Susan Shillinglaw, Director, National Steinbeck Center

For John Steinbeck, as for Wallace Stegner, Mary Austin and other western writers, water was the ur-story of the west. Steinbeck’s first novel set in California, To a God Unknown (1933), traces the inevitable cycles of California drought. In the opening chapters, the central character, Joseph Wayne, shouldering his way west from Vermont, is warned about “dry years” when “half the people who lived here then had to move away. Those who could, drove the cattle inland to the San Joaquin, where there was grass along the river.” Joseph ignores the warning—to his peril. His land cracks, cattle die, and he consults a seeker, yearning for rain. Mighty Joseph Wayne must learn that nature, not man, determines the cycles of dry and wet years.

To live in place, Steinbeck reminds us in To a God Unknown, is to abandon the notion that humans control nature. The imagined, edenic and verdant West is an impossible dream in To a God Unknown, as it is in so much of Steinbeck’s fiction. Lack of water shrivels the visionary West; too much water dooms crops and people.

Eliza Allen in “The Chrysanthemums” waits for rain. George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men yearn for productive, illusory acres. At the end of the The Grapes of Wrath, the destitute Joads huddle together in a California downpour—the water they yearned for in Oklahoma becomes a California deluge, another kind of ecological disaster.

Sam Hamilton, patriarch in East of Eden and Steinbeck’s own grandfather, drills wells on other’s land and scratches out a living on his own arid tract--“old starvation ranch,” Steinbeck called it in real life. Sam arrived in the west too late to claim rich Salinas Valley land, supplied by deep aquifers. “On the wide level acres of the valley the topsoil lay deep and fertile,” Steinbeck writes in the opening chapter of East of Eden. “It required only a rich winter of rain to make it break forth in grass and flowers.”

Steinbeck briefly considered water—the subterranean Salinas River--as the central symbol of this epic novel that is replete with contrasts of abundance and drought: “I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycles.”

John Steinbeck was poignantly aware of the importance of water to the west—whether too much or too little. Human survival demands adaptation.

This forum is free and open to the public. For registration information and more information on the series, please click HERE.

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