New Appalachia

by Joshua Carlucci

They call us New Appalachia.

In 2005 the Congressional Research Service released a book-length report that decided we aren’t much different from the proverbial mountain people on the eastern seaboard. We’re a bit darker in color, though.

We: San Joaquin Valley, California.

We Valley folk are dopesick, hooked on an industry that is trying to kill us, the only industry keeping us alive. The Appalachians have the mines. We have the fields.

The San Joaquin Valley contains six of the top ten United States farming counties: Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Merced.

We: the fields.

Without the fields, my great grandparents would have died in Italy. Without the fields, the San Joaquin River’s fecund roar would shake the Buckeye limbs unbridled.

We: who bend the water.

In 2016 the Daily Mail reported that two hundred fifty thousand Central Valley residents were at excessive risk of nitrate exposure through drinking water. Nitrates from fertilizer.1 Nitrates in cowshit. Nitrates that make the verdant almond trees reach for the fat yellow sun. Nitrates that grow bone-white cotton, the world’s dirtiest crop.2 Nitrates that seep into the alluvium. Nitrates that poison the well. Nitrates that turned babies blue and made women miscarry.

The Congressional Research Service found that in Merced County, which contains my hometown, Los Banos, thirty-seven percent of births occurred with no or late prenatal care.

We: who carry the water from the well.

The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is one of the most important irrigation sources for San Joaquin Valley agriculture, producing hundreds of millions of dollars in cash crops every year. It is also home to a species of small, fickle fish known as the delta smelt, a creature whose population has been diminished because of a reduction in freshwater to the estuary.

It’s said the well-being of the smelt is that of the entire ecosystem.

California, seemingly in a constant state of drought, relies on what little water it has for the survival of everything.

Since 1993, when the delta smelt were declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, there has been a constant battle between farmers and the state about the allocation of the Delta’s limited freshwater, which both the fish and the crops will die without.

At Easter in the early 2000s, my cotton-farming uncles would stand in a circle in Nani’s backyard, smoking cigars and drinking Budweiser. “Four buckets of fucking minnows,” my great uncle would say. “The Democrats want to fucking kill us.”

What came first? The fish or the farmer?

In Dos Palos, one town over from Los Banos in Merced County, a long stretch of dirt and pavement is named Carlucci Road; is intersected by weaving networks of delta canals and drains; is where my uncles stole the road signs from their posts to display in their garages; is where I, too, pulled the entire signpost from its wet January soil gums and pitched it in the bed of my truck. Carlucci Road. One of the signs stands close to where my great uncle planted his rows of cotton. Carlucci Road. The road signs that bear our surname belong to the state of California. Carlucci Road. Our only semblance of permanence. We remove our expendability from the earth as we see fit.

We: sand-walking valley. Wobbling in the foggy mud that holds our souls on the ground.
We: the earth’s loose teeth.

In 2005, on the bank of the canal behind our house that wasn’t ours, I ripped my first fish from the earth. I caught it with a minnow I netted from the canal. It was a thick-whiskered channel catfish whose mouth croaked into the air that suffocated it while it writhed airborne from the fishing line. I asked my mother if we should eat it for dinner that night so she wouldn’t have to go grocery shopping. She cut the hook loose from its mouth and threw it back in the canal.

As of 2022 in Merced County, over nineteen percent of the population lives in poverty.3 Over twenty-two percent of children are impoverished. Over twenty-four percent of people live in severe housing situations.

We: fickle fiends tied over on toil beneath the bruise-colored sky.
We: fickle fish.

Over eighty percent of farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley are undocumented Mexicans who live in the shadowy terror of la migra, otherwise known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, whose sole mission is to deport them.4 Without undocumented Mexican labor, California’s agriculture industry would collapse to its knees.

As I write these words, California is the world’s fifth largest economy, behind Japan in fourth and before India in sixth.

We: the breadbasket.

In 2014, on the bank of the canal where I caught the catfish behind our house that wasn’t ours, my friend Jonas and I worked the chopsaw against the fifteen-foot steel post, the muscovy ducks scattering at the sound of grinding and sparking metal. With forceps I wrenched the Carlucci Road sign from the intersecting Hutchins Road sign. I mounted my sign that wasn’t mine in our garage that wasn’t ours like my uncles did before me.

We: the road less traveled.
We: the road less.
We: the road.

In 2021 my great uncle died of lung cancer. Doctors said it was the cigars, but I think it was the cotton. He worked the fields ’til he quit breathing.

When you see your name on something green, like a road sign, it feels like money. When you see your name on something you didn’t write, you feel like the world that never will be was always yours to begin with.

I imagine there, too, are green road signs in Appalachia. Signs that read the surnames of the families who bore the first holes in the earth. Signs that stand before the mines. The mines that took the lungs of someone’s daddy. Someone’s daddy who had the same damn name as the one on the sign.