Letter to My California Dreamer: Discovering the Healing Power of Working With the Land

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Listener Gary Crandall 's brother Scott with their grandfather, Alfred C. Nelson. (Courtesy of Gary Crandall)

For our series “Letters to My California Dreamer,” we’re asking Californians from all walks of life to write a short letter to one of the first people in their family who came to the Golden State. The letter should explain:

What was their California Dream?
What happened to it?
Is that California Dream still alive for you?

Here's a letter from Gary Crandall to his grandfather, Alfred C. Nelson:

Dear Grandpa,

In 1920, as the valedictorian of your high school class, you realized you were destined for more than your family’s South Dakota farm. In spite of your first generation Danish father’s wishes, you and your brother hit the road for California.

Gary Crandall's grandparents, Alfred and Eunice Nelson. (Courtesy of Gary Crandall)

Once you arrived in California, you enrolled at UC Berkeley. You met my grandmother Eunice, fell in love, and married her. Once you started having kids, you realized you needed a dependable job that paid well. Eventually, you became an underwriter for Mutual of New York Life Insurance. You became a salesman for the company, embodying values of integrity and genuine concern for your customers.

So, contrary to your father’s expectations, you had become a success. I remember days spent in your office playing cribbage with my cousins and me. Plaques and trophies honoring your professional achievement cluttered the desk and filing cabinets. And still, perhaps surprisingly, there was a longing for the farm. The old maxim was true: You could take the boy out of the farm, but you couldn’t take the farm out of the boy.

So you bought a 200-acre walnut farm in Lake County that you referred to as the “ranch.” Despite your high-powered, time-consuming job during the week, you went back up to the ranch each weekend. Soon, my cousins and I began to come up to help with the work.

The last photo Gary Crandall ever took of his grandfather sorting walnuts on the farm. (Courtesy of Gary Crandall)

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I spent many hours tilling around walnut trees, killing rattlesnakes, pruning off the water sprouts at the base of the trees.

The agricultural DNA in the family runs deep for some of us. Each weekday I drive up the same roads that led to the ranch on my way to my job as head gardener at a Napa estate. And through my work as a documentary filmmaker, I chronicled a cycling trip I took down Highway 1, visiting gardens and teaching farms along the way.

Grandpa, though you were never one for flowery speech, you taught me the wisdom contained in the Khalil Gibran quote, “Work is love made visible.” Like you, I have discovered the emotionally therapeutic aspects of working and growing in the soil.

With love and growth,

Gary

We’d love to see your letter to your family’s California Dreamer. Maybe it was a parent, a great-great grandparent or maybe even you were the first in your family to come to California with a dream. Fill out the form here and share your story with us!

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