Just Sitting and Being Alive
Excerpted from The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, the autobiography of William Saroyan, © 1952:
Water to an Armenian is a holy thing, like fire. A farmer watering his plants, trees, or vines is taking part in a rite which has profound meaning and satisfaction for him. The farmers of Fresno went to the headgates of the irrigation ditches, or to the banks of the San Joaquin River or the Kings River for their Sunday picnics. They had to see the water where it was most abundant. They had to be near it.
Plans for going to The River were made by every family all week, and then early Sunday morning, or immediately after church, the family got into the horse-drawn carriage or into the automobile and drove there to spend the day looking at water, smelling it, hearing it.
Going to The River was like going back to Armenia, or back to the days of youth. The mingling of excitement and peace at the river’s side was continuous, the kids dancing at the sight of the swift-flowing water, running to dive into it and swim, the old people just sitting and being alive in a place that was like their own country to them.
The eating of watermelon has deep meaning for the Armenians, too. Watermelon, white bread, and white cheese is a favorite summer meal. A pitcher of water is always on every Armenian table. The people are forever remarking on the quality of the water of a place.
One of the reasons the Armenians settled in Fresno was that the water there was the nearest thing to the water of Armenia. The load of Fresno County and in fact of the greater part of the whole San Joaquin Valley was not unlike the land of Armenia, or certainly not unlike great areas of that land. Trees and vines flourished in the land, especially the apricot tree. One of the noblest of Armenian songs bears the name The Apricot Tree. The Armenians quickly planted mulberry trees and watered them, for the mulberry was a tree they knew and loved in Armenia. They put in pomegranate trees as well, olive, almond, walnut, and many of them even tried to grow pistachio trees, but these trees would not grow in California. They planted watermelons, casabas, Persian melons, cantaloupes. They planted okra, eggplant, string beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, parsley, mint, and a dozen kinds of herbs. They planted vines of all kinds. And to all of these things the led water in furrows, working with shovels to guide and control the flow.
If you want to behold a truly religious man in action, go to Fresno and watch a farmer watering his trees, vines, and plants.
There were better cities to live in than Fresno, but the good water was there, the water of home was there, and they went there to live.