by Thomas Steinbeck, ©2012
As a lifelong student of history, I’m forced to agree with those social critics who state that there are few variations to the themes of hubris, greed, and violence that so often accompany the acquisition of wealth. Where that wealth is represented by thousands upon thousands of hectares of fertile farmland, ancient, medieval instincts for agrarian practices seem to come to the fore and prevail, especially in regard to the migratory battalions of field labor required to draw a profit from the land.
The arcane and often subtle traditions that key in on this kind of agricultural gluttony still prevail to this day. Sometimes the images in Valley of Shadows and Dreams may seem slightly obtuse to the uninitiated eye, but close examination of Ken and Melanie Light’s exploration of California’s Great Central Valley exposes a system and set of attitudes that go back to – and have changed little since – the region’s conquest by colonial Spain. In one sense Ken and Melanie have managed something quite novel in this regard, for they have used the camera not just with an artistic sense of composition and social perspective, but also a s kind of archeological tool of calibration that links past and present in the same image. The text handsomely laces these images into a cohesive portrait of the whole, while acknowledging that the saga is ongoing and still worthy of close attention.
It was John Steinbeck’s confirmed opinion that any culture that refused to protect and nurture those people who cultivated, harvested, and processed crops was playing long odds with potentially catastrophic starvation. To illustrate, he recalled that despite Sparta’s vaunted military prowess and rigid self-discipline, when their helot slaves finally rebelled and refused to work their masters’ fields, the Spartan state withered and reverted to barbarism – which wasn’t really a radical step down for the Spartans, who had acquired their slaves using rather barbaric methods to begin with.