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Quiet Valley


California's Great Central Valley doesn't get the same kind of attention as some of the state's other draws--the Monterey Peninsula, the redwood forests, Yosemite. But the area, 430 miles long and up to 75 miles wide, covering almost 15 million acres, has its own mystique.

It produces more than one-fourth of the table food grown in the United States. It has also produced such writers as Maxine Hong Kingston (Stockton), Richard Rodriguez (Sacramento), Joan Didion (Sacramento) and William Saroyan (Fresno).

Myriad aspects of the valley are explored in "The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland" (University of California Press), with photos by Stephen Johnson and Robert Dawson and text by Gerald Haslam, all Central Valley natives.

Johnson's and Dawson's black-and-white and color photographs of the Delta, the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Plain and the Tulare Basin reveal widely diverse plains, mountains and rivers.

Dawson captures the eerie calm of the Sutter Buttes, with a lone electrical pole standing in rolling hills. Wide aerial shots reveal the beauty of the plains and the symmetrical crops, growing in neat, geometric fields. Other photos show the minutiae of life in the valley: a graffiti-covered grocery store in South Dos Palos, laundry hanging on a line in Le Grand, a picnic table that seems to float after a flood of the Sacramento River. These are interspersed with paintings, drawings and historical photos--some dating back to the 1800s--that show a wild, untouched land and families that could have been models for John Steinbeck's Joads.

Haslam's text introduces the people who inhabit the valley, whose families have farmed the land for generations and who care about the fate of the region.

The area faces numerous problems, from soil erosion, pollution and the destruction of wildlife, to farmers threatened by economic ruin. With so much at stake, it's easy to see why the authors chose to present the beauty of this vast country.

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