The Books: The White Album, ‘Holy Water’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion.

One of the best parts of Didion’s writing, which you might miss since her subject matter is so broad, is how obsessive she is. Give her a topic she’s into, and she loses herself in it completely. Her essays on real estate in California are phenomenal. She takes a story that seems separate (like the Spur Posse), and makes it about the building boom post-WWII in California, and she does it in a way that deepens our understanding of the topic. She often brings up things that other writers miss. She is not swayed by public opinion. She acknowledges its existence, but she finds her own way. I love that about her.

Water is a recurring theme, which is understandable, seeing as she is from California. She writes about it a lot. Rain affects her in a way it might not other people, people accustomed to more of it. She is obsessed with water, with how it is transported, and how it made so many parts of California possible. She understands that without water, most of California would be unlivable. She is obsessed with “how things work”, how human innovation and cooperation can literally change the face of the earth.

In The White Album, her essay collection that came out in 1979, she has the be-all end-all essay about water in California called ‘Holy Water’, and it is one of my favorite things she has ever written. She manages to be both highly specific (detailing how the water is moved) and highly personal all at the same time. The essay is informational, and yet it also manages to be a personal essay. This is a high-wire act not to be tried by anyone other than a professional, with a gift on the level of Didion. I still don’t know how she does it. She also manages to convey the loneliness of the true obsessive. Because it is rare to find someone equally as obsessed as you are with the same thing, who can talk in the amount of detail and passion that you would find satisfying. In ‘Holy Water’, Joan Didion writes:

Not many people I know carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries.

She talks about swimming pools in California and how they are mistakenly seen as symbols of upper-class leisure-living. She doesn’t see it that way at all. She sees it as a collective need for the people in that state to insist to themselves that they are in control. They live in an arid desert which has been made to bloom. A container of water in the backyard is a symbol of something very important, primal even.

Here’s my favorite excerpt from the essay. That final sentence, boy.

The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

I suppose it was partly the memory of that delirium that led me to visit, one summer morning in Sacramento, the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project. Actually so much water is moved around California by so many different agencies that maybe only the movers themselves know on any given day whose water is where, but to get a general picture it is necessary only to remember that Los Angeles moves some of it, San Francisco moves some of it, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project moves some of it and the California State Water Project moves most of the rest of it, moves a vast amount o fit, moves more water farther than has ever been moved anywhere. They collect this water up in the granite keeps of the Sierra Nevada and they store roughly a trillion gallons of it behind the Oroville Dam and every morning, down at the Project’s headquarters in Sacramento, they decide how much of their water they want to move the next day. They make this morning decision according to supply and demand, which is simple in theory but rather more complicated in practice. In theory each of the Project’s five field divisions – the Oroville, the Delta, the San Luis, the San Joaquin and the Southern divisions – places a call to headquarters before nine A.M. and tells the dispatchers how much water is needed by its local water contractors, who have in turn based their morning estimates on orders from growers and other big users. A schedule is made. The gates open and close according to schedule. The water flows south and the deliveries are made.

In practice this requires prodigious coordination, precision, and the best efforts of several human minds and that of a Univac 418. In practice it might be necessary to hold large flows of water for power production, or to flush out encroaching salinity in the Sacramento-San Joanquin Delta, the most ecologically sensitive point on the system. In practice a sudden rain might obviate the need for a delivery when that delivery is already on its way. In practice what is being delivered here is an enormous volume of water, not quarts of milk or spools of thread, and it takes two days to move such a delivery down through Oroville into the Delta, which is the great pooling place for California water and has been for some years alive with electronic sensors and telemetering equipment and men blocking channels and diverting flows and shoveling fish away from the pumps. It takes perhaps another six days to move this same water down the California Aqueduct from the Delta to the Tehachapi and put it over the hill to Southern California. “Putting some over the hill” is what they say around the Project Operations Control Center when they want to indicate that they are pumping Aqueduct water from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley up and over the Tehachapi Mountains. “Pulling it down” is what they say when they want to indicate that they are lowering a water level somewhere in the system. They can put some over the hill by remote control from this room in Sacramento with its Univac and its big board and its flashing lights. They can pull down a pool in the San Joaquin by remote control from this room in Sacramento with its locked doors and its ringing alarms and its constant print-outs of data from sensors out there in the water itself. From this room in Sacramento the whole system takes on the aspect of a perfect three-billion-dollar hydraulic toy, and in certain ways it is. “LET’S START DRAINING QUAIL AT 12:00” was the 10:51 A.M. entry on the electronically recorded communications log the day I visited the Operations Control Center. “Quail” is a reservoir in Los Angeles County with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons. “OK” was the response recorded in the log. I knew at that moment that I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself.

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