ContentsPutah and Cache: Capay Valley

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Earthquake Country

Ann Scheuring

My old farmhouse faces the Blue Cliffs, part of the Rumsey Hills, in the upper Capay Valley. The farmhouse has stood here more than a hundred years, and, although it has been remodeled twice, its redwood heart is the same as it was when it was built—sturdy, square, and, so far, enduring. I like that, and I like the fact that my family and I, though we moved in only ten years ago, are the fifth generation to call this place home.

In California a hundred years in human history seems a long time. The builders of my house followed the railroad after that snorting beast opened up the quiet Capay Valley in 1888 to what the land speculators of the time hoped would turn into a landscape of small fruit orchards settled by colonists on 20 and 40-acre parcels. For a time in the 1890s and for a few years after, people thought that peaches and apricots and other fruit might thrive here, blessed by the sun and irrigated by the waters of Cache Creek. Packing sheds were set up at Rumsey and Guinda along with schools, small stores, and churches, and the valley population grew to several thousand, conveniently served by the railroad at several stops punctuating the length of the valley.

As the years passed, however, it became clear that the climate and soils were not all that propitious for dependable fruit growing. A good year—and there were some—might be followed by two or three bad years when a random late frost might kill the fruit blossoms or the trees would shrink into themselves against weeks of 100 degree heat. Some of the soils were simply too droughty to sustain orchards even with the application of water from early ditches lined out from Cache Creek, and in any case irrigation was back-breaking work. By World War I a good many small would-be farmers had pretty much given up on fruit orchards, and many parcels changed hands, particularly during the postwar depression in farming. Our particular farm was a little bigger than most, at 100 acres; it stayed in the same family, but the family had lost its cherished only son in the war, and the land was rented out to relatives or neighbors. The valley lost population steadily through the 1920s and 1930s as the dream of profitable fruit orchards faded. A number of parcels were converted to almonds, an easier crop to care for and more adapted to the dry heat. In 1938 the railroad ceased service, and the right-of-way vanished along with the tracks.

And so the Capay Valley slept, a little too remote, a little too small, not quite productive enough to attract much interest from the bigger farmers in the rest of Yolo County. Some families stayed on to make modest livings at one thing or another, but many left for brighter economic prospects elsewhere in California in the expansionary years after World War II.

I think of this slightly sad, desultory human history of the valley when I look out on our farm—now converted largely to walnuts—from my breakfast table, facing the Blue Cliffs south of Rumsey. But I think of something else too, immediately related to the jumble of cliffs and eroded slopes a half-mile from my house. The Blue Cliffs heave sharply up from Cache Creek, which curls around the bottom of our farm at their base. Deep beneath that jumbled mass lies a buried thrust fault, called by the geologists who study it the Rumsey Fault. There are in fact two major faults, each accompanied by associated folds, sedimentary layers, and angled sub-faults. A little to the east of my breakfast window, still clearly visible from the farmhouse, is the Sweitzer Fault, an exposed thrust quite blatant about its existence. Eons of time have led to these geological formations that are my near neighbors.

The Rumsey Fault slumbers under the cliffs, stretching itself in its long sleep. Salt seeps along the cliffsides, monitored by UC Davis geologists, are said to be signs of ancient sea water trapped far beneath the million-year layers of sediment and rock, under considerable hydrostatic pressure from the uplift of layers that inexorably continues. The sharp angles of the escarpments reveal that the thrust layers have risen on the northeast side of the creek as, over time, the Capay Valley on the southwest side has tilted downward, nudging the creek toward the base of the thrust. The whole scene from my window is a colorful complex of cliffs, eroded channels, and slumped banks, tints changing with the slant of the sun or the season of the year. The blue-gray tones that stand out in the late afternoon light, I've been told, were created by the venting of ancient gases through the sediments. Meanwhile, as the slow centuries have passed, gray pines and green chaparral have established stubborn footholds in scattered crannies between the ridges. Biological life has a way of colonizing even the most inhospitable sites.

I know a woman who said she was afraid to move to California from the East Coast because of her fear of earthquakes. Over the course of my lifetime in the West, I've lived through a dozen or more earthquakes, mostly pretty small, and I truly have more fear of dying on the highway than I do of suffering much in a quake. Easy for me to say, of course, at my age, and living in the place I do, with no high-rise buildings, no massive man-made structures to be damaged by a sudden violent jolt. But I eye that set of inclines—anticlines, actually—occasionally and wonder sometimes if, somewhere in those complicated ranks of angles, one of the thrust fault lines will slip or twitch within my lifetime, if the long-quiet earth will shrug and settle its surface raiment into new folds for the upcoming century.

Such thoughts are curious rather than apprehensive, though the geologists say that the uplift along these faults is as rapid as anywhere in California, and that a "big one" would not be impossible, though it cannot be predicted. This information does not trouble me. I love the Rumsey Hills and the Blue Cliffs for their rugged beauty; but I also find it oddly comforting to live next to an earthquake fault (or two), especially the one that's so open about being there. It puts my small individual human life into cosmic perspective. Perhaps I'm not exactly a mote in the sunshine, but my lifetime accounts for hardly a blink in the millennial progression of earthquake country. Like the wildlife species that inhabit these lands, human beings come and go; we may alter the surface landscape incrementally, but the earth retains its ancient prerogatives.

In recent years, the Capay Valley has seen a resurgence in farming. Almond orchards have been replanted, walnuts have become moderately successful despite the dry heat, and grapes are being established in a few experimental plots. Some very hard-working young organic farmers have developed sustainable operations that sell vegetables and other produce directly to consumers who favor chemical-free food and ecologically-sound practices; the county agricultural commissioner reports steadily growing revenues from the valley's organic agriculture. But the valley is still a place of relatively small fields, not convenient for the mechanical behemoths of row-crop agriculture, and family farms are still the norm.

In many ways the Capay Valley remains, in the words of an acquaintance of mine, "the way California used to be"—unpretentious, uncommercialized, and very rural. One tiny country store in Guinda stocks a few groceries, otherwise the valley offers few places to buy anything. Signs of change are looming, however. Many valley residents are hooked up to satellite television and the internet; UPS trucks make frequent deliveries; and sport vehicles on their way up to the canyon make end runs around battered pickup trucks.

The biggest harbinger of change, however, undeniable and apparently unstoppable, is the Rumsey Rancheria Indian Casino in the lower third of the valley. The Native American bingo parlor of some ten years ago has expanded into a multimillion-dollar gaming business that draws thousands of customers weekly, their automobiles and buses thickening the traffic along Highway 16 exponentially. Slot machines, poker tables, and two restaurants attract a diverse crowd daily, more on weekends. Although most casino visitors never venture beyond the casino, valley residents have mixed feelings about the gigantic gambling enterprise, expressing sympathy or indifference, resentment or dread in varying degrees.

Many in the valley wonder what further change the 21st century will bring to the Capay Valley. Will new trends replace old ways? Will rural values vanish? Will the future wipe out the past? Human history tends to ricochet in unexpected directions.

And earthquakes do happen.

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