County Seat

Tomatoes, garlic. I struggle with whether to get close to people here. If it were about figures in a landscape. Want to stay at arm’s length. The neck tattoo on a sun-burned neck reading ‘redneck.’ It’s the echo in my ear of Diana Garcia. I don’t know who I am here. I don’t know who they are here. I could tell you about the gigantic, human-size fig sculpture that looked like a bruised scrotum, a cartoon character, and a piece of industrial machinery, simultaneously. To use my human eye, serviceable eye. To compile all the stories. Michael and I want to use a camera to put all the stories together. It began life as a whistle stop town. The WPA guide says the following about Merced and environs:

ATWATER, 100.9 m. (153 alt., 319 pop.), styles itself the “Home of the Merced Sweet Potato.”

BUHACH, 102.4 m. (155 alt., 100 pop.), is the trading center for a district of Portuguese farmers who specialize in growing pyrethrum (feverfew), the powdered blossoms of which are used in certain insecticides.

MERCED, 108.3 m. (167 alt., 7,006 pop.), seat of Merced County, is the principal rail and motor gateway to Yosemite Park. It is in a grazing and hay and cotton-producing area and has a cotton gin, cement factories and potteries. A rodeo is held in June and a district fair in October.

Of Merced its townspeople like to say, “It’s close to everything” – this is the selling point, and implies that the town itself is perhaps, like the dark matter that’s supposed to make up 70 percent of the universe, the unseen in-between. When people write of out of the way places, they tend to do so in terms of ‘escape’ or ‘refuge.’ Merced is neither of these. You might’ve seen this story, proclaiming Merced the 3rd most miserable city in the nation. I feel validated, but defensive. It’s miserable, but clearly these people don’t know why. Long story.

I need to try harder, to love the unloved little place. What is there to love? The grasslands? The Microscopic shrimp? The grasslands? The present is resinous. If Merced is the “Gateway to Yosemite” it is the exact opposite of that place, much beloved by German tourists…(Schama). As Kenneth Olwig writes, we can’t “lose the connection between the ‘nature’ of these uncommon places and the ‘nature’ of ordinary worlds where we spend our daily lives.” (Cronon, 408) In this formulation, the grasslands, their ‘cow-and-calf operation,’ the twin reservoirs, McSwain and McClure (Think Jetskis and Houseboats) and the town itself, its postwar subdivisions built in plum and fig orchards around a canal built by Huntington, one of CAs railroad infamous railroad barons.

When we first moved here, we had the benefit of friends who were genuinely interested in the place, and would explore it and introduce us to lots of people – it’s a hard thing to realize that you don’t have this skill. Once, Rocky (now a professor in Boston) took me to a bar called Carolynn’s. Approaching on my bike, I could see the parking lot was full: Truck, truck, truck, horse, truck. There was a horse in the parking lot. We spend a long patchwork night in this place, Rocky telling me about Hardt & Negri, about how he’d missed the boat on Dubai; all along we’re having this conversation, there are, I don’t think its terrible to say, derelicts milling about through and around the bar, eating steak sandwiches, playing dice, and, mercifully in a town married to the SF Giants, watching an A’s game on the television. The kind of alcoholics bar where people bring steak and whitebread, and each sandwiches together. I supposed you can’t get a DUI on a horse?

Paul said “The thing is, a lot of people in Merced just don’t give a shit.” There’s a remark with history.

To which I might add, this is the kind of fertile loam in which big box christianity flourishes.

The sun arcs, another knife used in a carjacking.

I’m not exactly sure why my mind tends towards the worry and fret of malice: I, like every American, am callow and flip about the distractions and real scary things that happen in the country, but in Merced, this is dailiness.

One day, heading out of Merced on my bike, I saw a lamb standing in the culvert alongside G. St, all alone. A man in a battered pickup with a large hat pulled over, and scooped up the bleating little thing. The whooshed off with a workaday rumble.

The city is situated at the Eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, and the river from which it takes its name flows well to the South, through Snelling and Cressey, about the only towns, unless you consider Yosemite Valley a town. On a clear day in March, you can see snow on top of the Sierra Nevada. On smoggy days in, say, August, you can see some grass. As you leave town on G. St, the tract houses quickly drop off, first into fields which are increasingly full of dense stands of corn in summer, but are more typically full of timothy or alfalfa or orchard grass. The summer wind is usually coming out of the northeast, right into your teeth and eyes, carrying dust coated in god-knows-what – if you could take a firehose to your lungs and dislodge that shit, you’d be wise to. In Spring, cropdusters fly over. You could think of the air as a commons, but that would be naive. What are grasslands especially when they’re prologue to the huge upthrust of the Sierras? Why would you look at them? The big rocks steal your eyes.

About the 2 mile mark, There’s a huge bramble of wild roses. Acres of it. I think of rats. Further on, in Spring, steers are corraled together, where the last vestiges of tree cover (eucalyptus cover) give them some respite from the sun. Steers, however, being gigantic creatures and accustomed to moving only when they want to move, rest their tonnage out in the full sun, in the tawny, crotch-high grass. I like to pull over and talk to them. Being prey animals, you can’t really look them square in the face because their eyes are on the sides of their heads. But there’s something hilariously calming about talking to an immense, haughty steer. They refuse to acknowledge you. They look like long sleek boulders. I have seen eagles strafe them, and they don’t move.

It really is detail country. Coyotes, for example, perfectly match the grass after, depending the amount of water, April. It’s tawny, with a gray-ish undergrowth – if you don’t keep your eyes on the grasslands, you won’t notice the coyotes. I like to talk to them. Cycling east, they’ll cross your path. By the time you get to the point where they’ve crossed, they’re maybe a quarter of a mile back into the grasslands already, running off. So I howl at one. It breaks its stride, turns around and looks at me – coyote, when you look over your shoulder it never bodes well. Dogs don’t get bemused, but coyotes seem to.

The birds. Kites, kestrels, red tail and Cooper’s Hawks, Kingbirds, Mountain bluebirds; in spring the Swallows nest under the canal bridges, and expertly pick off the massed crickets who live in the road. The crickets have a thing about jumping onto your legs and getting tangled into your leg hair. You start to see evidence of everyday super-slop: hollowed TVs the lid of a 5 gallon bucket square in the center of a former puddle, hieratic eye.

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