Book review

This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Almost every Sierra Club volunteer who loves the desert knows Craig Deutsche. Either they have talked with him at Desert Committee meetings, or written articles for him when he was Managing Editor of Desert Report (he still serves as a Co-Editor), or have worked alongside him pulling fences somewhere in the 400 square miles of Carrizo Plain National Monument, where he regularly leads volunteer outings. Now Craig has done all of us another great service. He has combined his love of conversation, his love of language, his love of stories, his love of the land, and his particular love for the Carrisa Plains into a new book, Another Place & Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains.

No, I’m not misusing spellchecker.

bookcoverOn page seven of Another Place & Time, I learned that the locals call this central California valley ‘Carrisa,’ while the formal designation is ‘Carrizo,’ the Spanish word for a tall reed, and that Carrisa is a plural plains but Carrizo is only a singular one. Set half way between San Luis Obispo to the west and Bakersfield to the east, the area’s history (and even its checkered spelling variations) encapsulates rural settlement throughout the American West. Optimistic ranchers and sheepherders and farmers established themselves there first, saw their livelihoods swing metronomically between boom and bust, and finally watched their children and grandchildren move away. Families dispersed; the land was subdivided; and then the terrain was put back together again, as the Nature Conservancy worked with the Department of the Interior to preserve what is now a national monument.

Some years ago Craig went there as a volunteer, and his heart never left. Chatting with the few remaining old-timers and some of their children and grandchildren, he found himself intrigued by their attachment to this special place. He met Jackie Czapla, who works at the Visitors Center and who had once begun interviewing some of the people still living in the valley. Talking together, they decided to combine forces. Craig and Jackie would renew her project, tracking down as many past and present residents as they could find, finding second and third generation survivors, and talking with them about the Carrisa Plains and its history. The result is Craig’s newly-published book, Another Place & Time. It combines fifty-five interviews with Craig’s own journey of discovery, and it preserves an invaluable slice of California lore, old and new.

Rather than replicating their interviews word for word, Craig presents the Carrisa history in his own voice. The book narrates his personal treasure hunt to find the relevant people, to trace some secret off-road places, and to synthesize the essence of Carrisa stories that he and Jackie heard. As Craig explains, “In some sense, I was looking to find roots of my own. The stories of childhood games, the summers exploring outdoors, and even high school years resonated with my own memories. I was being drawn more and more into the past and into the world of the Carrisa Plains.” Using every investigative technique he could imagine, asking everyone he met for the names of other contacts, and often just calling strangers on the telephone, Craig slowly developed a taxonomy of Carrisa voices. But he wisely decided not to print the interviews word for word. Instead, he was more creative.

Once Craig decided to filter his material through his own eyes, he then had to make another key determination. Another Place & Time is designed thematically, not chronologically. It begins with the earliest settlers, and then tells about the lives of the farmers, the ranchers, and the sheepherders. In its second section, the narrative expands to include the communities, the children, and the matriarchs.

Fred, Alden, and Lewis Traver. Courtesy of Alden Loucks
Fred, Alden, and Lewis Traver. Courtesy of Alden Loucks

Because of this design, the book often loops back on itself, revisiting one family in several different places. That doesn’t mean it is repetitious, however. Craig keeps the narrative moving smoothly, so the reader is never confused.

As I write this review, I muse about which particular voices I should mention. The reader meets some firsthand and others only through recollections. Nonetheless, I felt like I knew each one personally, as I’m sure Craig intended. One of my favorites was Aunt Lottie, a trained nurse who functioned almost as a country doctor.

Many people remembered times when she saved the day, setting broken bones, sewing up cuts and gashes, prescribing some home remedy to cure a cold or a fever.

Or here’s Rick Hudson, thinking about his boyhood, a five-year-old living on the ranch, who “milks cows, feeds chickens, gathers eggs, cleans corrals, and works right alongside Grandma and Grandpa.’” Or Debbie Beck, a new bride who found moving from the city to the plains as “Shocking, utterly and totally shocking.” Or the brothers, Ian and Eben MacMillan, self-taught naturalists who were some of the first preservationist voices coming from the Carrisa Plains. Some people spoke of more happiness and success than others, but not one of the interviewees, ever, used the word ‘hardship.’ Rather, the watchword was ‘community,’ helping each other in time of need. The plains was truly special.

I encourage everyone reading this Desert Report review to buy Craig’s new book. Fascinating people populate all of its pages. And if you’re a friend of Craig, you’ll learn more about him, too. Best of all, however, you’ll discover a wealth of information about the history and the landscape of the Carrisa Plains. If you haven’t been there already, Another Place & Time will surely make you want to visit soon. Perhaps Craig had some unspoken goals in mind as he wrote this wonderful book. Might he hope to build a volunteer workforce that just won’t stop? Will his readers become a vast collection of voices that will urge further Carrisa protection? I don’t mean to imply that Craig wrote the book with any ulterior motives in mind, because Another Time & Place is truly a labor of love. The reader finishes it, however, not only with a sense of that love but also with a sense of urgency. We must not lose such places, not at all.

Ann Ronald, now retired from the University of Nevada in Reno, is a long-time Sierra Club member who has written many books about the American West.