By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published September 8, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
More than a century ago, local California grapevines allegedly required no irrigation, and a hand pump could draw water from a hand-dug well. Now machines perform the well drilling and liquid lifting, and wells in the San Joaquin Valley may extend 400-800 feet from the surface.
A basin of lakes, marshes, and grasslands has become a vale of cities, towns, irrigated farms and orchards, ranches, dairies, oil derricks, and desert.
Valley farms have only grown drier as droughts and environmental regulations reduced federal government water deliveries in recent decades. Those deliveries supply water that once flowed freely in natural rivers but now sits behind dams in reservoirs.
The last great California dam would be 1979’s New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It and others were built to provide irrigation, flood control, water for Californians, recreation, and in some cases electricity. But despite them the valley suffers chronic water shortages, especially since the 1980s.
Not all valley water comes from reservoirs however. Deliveries from the Sacramento Delta have been problematic for areas with poor drainage. Used for irrigation, it leaves salt behind as it evaporates, and eventually sterilizes the farmland.
The Roman Empire allegedly would salt the fields of defeated enemies as a punishment. Without the ability to grow crops, the area would be unlivable for generations.
Time will reveal what the future of the San Joaquin Valley holds, but it already shows its partial desertification. In a way, it is the Judeo-Christian story of creation told in reverse.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void…” (cf. Bereishit/Genesis 1:1) The Hebrew word “tohu” (translated here as “without form and void”) signifies a completely empty wasteland. Tohu appears again in Deuteronomy (Devarim) 32:10 and Psalm (Tehillim) 107:40.
The Bible starts with a desert, and the desert never disappears from it.
Another scriptural word for desert is “midbar,” which means a lively wilderness in which sheep and goats may graze and wild beasts roam. It is used in the book of Exodus (Semot) and elsewhere.
A third word, “arabah,” is an arid and desolate desert plain sometimes spoken of by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. A fourth word, “horbah,” is a dry and desolate ruin of a previously inhabited land. A fifth, “jeshimon,” is an untamed land without water, and is mentioned frequently in Exodus. A sixth, “çiyyah,” is a drought region.
There are many ways to speak of a desert it seems, and that includes spiritually.
In the Jewish scriptures, the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu) retreated to the desert when fearful of execution and despairing, and instead encountered an angel to encourage him and, later, God on a mountainside (Sepher M’lakhim/1 Kings 19). Likewise the princely foster child of Egypt, Moses (Moshe), fled from justice to the desert after slaying an abusive slaveholder (Exodus 2). The Jewish tribes, in turn, would wander in the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery in Egypt.
The desert seems a refuge for the desperate — and not just for humans. In the Christian scriptures, the rabbi Jesus (Yeshua) said of demons, “When an unclean spirit is gone out of a man, it walks through waterless places, seeking rest, and finds none.” (Matthew 12:43)
Yet Jesus himself had a habit of withdrawing to a desert or mountainside to pray (cf. Luke 5:16; 6:12; Matthew 14:13, 23). His cousin John the Baptist preached primarily in the Desert of Judaea (Matthew 3:1). On one occasion, Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in a desert, although the devil did not leave him unmolested there (Matthew 4).
But the desert is more than a safe haven for the overwhelmed or a demonic home away from home. In the book of Hosea (Hoshea), God promised to lead his wayward people away from the idols and comforts that preoccupied it and into a thirsty desert.
“She shall follow after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then shall she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now… Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her…” (Hosea 2:7, 14)
Like a rehabilitation clinic, the desert can be a challenging place of healing — if we turn to God.
When we next journey through a desert, will we choose restlessness or renewal?