The Valley before Us Project:


Project Overview:

The Valley before Us (VBU) Project examines whether exposing a community to a “Lost Paradise” type of Counter World will result in an increased appreciation for the local environment and improved emotional well-being for community residents. The study will be conducted in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California, one of the poorest, least educated and most polluted areas in the United States. Not surprisingly, people who inhabit this area almost universally disparage it, frequently referring to it as “the armpit of California”. Remarkably, almost no one living in the area has any idea that it was once one of the most ecologically diverse and beautiful regions in North America, a landscape of massive oak forests bounded by high snow-capped peaks (visible before the smog), a realm of sparkling streams and massive lakes, with an abundance of wildlife that rivaled the Serengeti and that helped support the highest human population density north of Mexico in Pre-Columbian North America. Because this world, along with its native inhabitants, was completely obliterated so early in the settlement of the Valley, it has left no trace of itself in the popular imagination. This makes it an ideal candidate for testing the overarching hypothesis of this proposal, which is that exposure to a previously-unknown past Counter World (in this case a real one) with powerful aspirational potential at the individual, community and ecological levels will induce a positive transformation in the community’s perception of itself, with a resultant increase in its overall emotional well-being.


Project Team:

           Dr. Charles Raison

           Dr. Charles Raison

Charles L. Raison, MD, (Principle Investigator/Project Leader) is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, and the Barry and Janet Professor of Integrative Mental Health in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson. Dr. Raison also serves as the Founding Director of the Center for Compassion Studies in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Arizona, Dr. Raison served as Co-Director of the Collaborative for Contemplative Studies and Clinical Director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University. While at Emory, Dr. Raison was also a founding faculty member, and co-creator of the neuroscience curriculum, for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

Dr. Raison is internationally recognized for his studies examining novel mechanisms involved in the development and treatment of major depression and other stress-related emotional and physical conditions, as well as for his work examining the physical and behavioral effects of compassion training.

The recipient of several teaching awards, Dr. Raison has received research funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute. In 2014 Dr. Raison received the Raymond Pearl Memorial Award from the Human Biology Association “in recognition of his contributions to our understanding of evolutionary biocultural origins of mental health and illness.” In addition to his activities at University of Arizona, Dr. Raison is the mental health expert for

Dr. Raison will take a primary leadership role in The Valley before Us Project. He brings a highly relevant and unique set of skills to this work. He has significant experience, designing, implementing, overseeing and analyzing data from randomized clinical trials of a range of novel strategies aimed at enhancing emotional well-being (i.e. compassion meditation, whole body hyperthermia, compassion meditation).  In addition, he has a long history of engaging in highly interdisciplinary educational and research activities. He holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and is currently an affiliated faculty member of the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, one of the top programs in the nation. This knowledge-base, combined with significant expertise in various spiritual traditions makes him especially suited to explore the role of re-exposure of San Joaquin Valley residents to their lost natural world, not just at the level of the individual, but also at the community level. Finally, Dr. Raison grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, where his family owned a small-town newspaper for almost 100 years. As a result of this experience, he has a profound knowledge base regarding the landscape, culture and history of the area that will be the focus of the proposed project. In addition, he has unique access to many of the key thought leaders working in areas related to the core themes of the Valley before Us Project. Additional information on Dr. Raison can be found at:


Robert V. Levine, PhD, Collaborator, is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. Dr. Levine is internationally recognized for a range of studies relevant to various themes important to the current project, including a) methodologies utilized for persuasion and manipulation; b) the relative “real world” kindness of different cities in the United States and abroad; c) happiness; d) the social psychology of time; and e) the self. He is the author of a number of influential books including A Geography of Time (winner of the Otto Klineberg Intercultural and International Relations Award), Reflections on One Hundred Years of Experimental Social Psychology, The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold, Journeys in Social Psychology and Possible Selves. Reflecting his international status in these areas, Dr. Levine has been asked by the Prime Minister of Bhutan to chair the development of one of the core domains in that nation’s development of a “Gross National Happiness Index”. Dr. Levine has won numerous awards including the Western Psychological Association Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the Provost’s Award: University Outstanding Teacher of the Year at California State University, Fresno and multiple Outstanding Professor of Psychology Awards. Dr. Levine is also recent past president of the Western Psychological Association.

Dr. Levine will bring significant expertise to several core areas of The Valley before Us Project. His expertise in the analysis of mass media effects on individual and group psychology (i.e. see his book The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold) will be brought to bear on both the development of the media campaign for the project as well as the interpretation of project findings. He has unique expertise in a range of methodologies for assessing levels of kindness and related constructs, as well as the pace of life, in cities and counties across the United States and around the world (i.e. see his article: Levine RV. [2003]. The kindness of strangers.  American Scientist, 91, 226-233; and Levine RV, Norenzayan A. The pace of life in 31 countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 1999; 30: 178-205). This experience and expertise will prove crucial in the design of methodologies for assessing the impact of The Valley before Us media campaign, as well as for analyzing and interpreting study findings. Finally, Dr. Levine is a long-term resident of the San Joaquin Valley, which provides him with a unique perspective on the subject matter of the project, and which will enhance his ability to be “on site” during study planning and implementation. Additional information on Dr. Raison can be found at:


Paul Buxman, Collaborator, is a fifth generation farmer and nationally recognized plein air artist whose work focuses on the rural and agricultural landscapes of the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding hillsides. Buxman has for many years been a leading voice in the organic farming movement. In the late 1980’s Buxman formed the California Clean Growers Association, which seeks to identify and implement workable compromises between continual sprayings of crops and the organic emphasis on no commercial spraying. California Clean Growers became known for making their farms and homes accessible to visitors, for conserving fertility of the soil and water through the practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The California Clean movement gained national and international press coverage. Buxman’s dedication to discovering sustainable farming methods have influenced people worldwide. He has been the subject of many documentaries including those by National Geographic, PBS, Sixty Minutes, Bill Moyer, CBS Nightly News, California Heartland, Canadian Public Broadcasting, and Australian Public Broadcasting. Buxman has met with prominent policy makers like Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa as he made recommendations to legislation like US Farm Bills. The EPA awarded California Clean with the first ever IPM award for “helping to reduce pesticide in California.” Buxman’s produce has been featured in videos on Martha Stewart Living and his recipe for biscuits has been featured prominently in the Cooking Section of the New York Times.

Buxman’s art has had a powerful impact on the San Joaquin Valley’s perception of itself, and Buxman himself frequently headlines artistic, environmental and educational events in Central California. His brilliant coloring and focus on subject matter from his work as a farmer has impacted many artists in the U.S. His works have been displayed in the Senate Chambers in Washington, D. C. and California. His paintings are in public and private collections throughout the United States of America.

For The Valley before Us Project, Buxman has agreed to create paintings designed to evoke the natural landscape of the Central Valley prior to white settlement. Along with the art of Matthew Rangel, this work will provide images that will be central to the look and feel of the Project website and that will provide website visitors with an evocative sense of the lost natural world of the San Joaquin Valley. Additional information on Paul Buxman is available at


 Matthew Rangel, MFA, Collaborator, is currently an assistant professor of printmaking at the University of New Mexico. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of New Mexico, Rangel was adjunct faculty at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA, where he played a singular leadership role in increasing the communities awareness of, and appreciation for, the natural and cultural environment of the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding mountains. While in Visalia Rangel coordinated and participated in a series of community events. He was the founder of The Kaweah Land & Arts Festival (, an annual event of scholars, artists, nature enthusiasts and local non-profit groups that collaborated on public events throughout the surrounding landscape. In addition, he served as a mentor for the College of the Sequoias Puente (Bridge) Project and continues to serve as a board member for the Sequoia Natural History Association, Arts Visalia, and as an advisor for the Sequoia Parks Foundation. With Paul Buxman, he is a primary focus of the documentary Artists of the Great Western Divide (

Rangel’s work has been featured in numerous shows nationally and internationally, and has been included in collections such as the Stonehouse Residency for the Contemporary Arts, the White House in Washington DC, the Urban Land Institute in Washington DC, and at Mount Tai National Park in China. Among notable publications that feature his work are Journeys beyond the Neatline: Expanding the boundaries of cartography, a monograph published by University of Alberta Libraries, Elephant Magazine, Print Magazine, and in an international graphic arts anthology titled A Map of the World: According to Illustrators and Storytellers, published by Gastalten, Berlin. In his biography, he describes the link between his artistic vision and the landscape of the Central Valley and surrounding mountains:

Rangel grew up surrounded by world-renowned agricultural productivity amidst economically underserved valley communities challenged with significant cultural, ecological, and environmental concerns. This setting played a significant role in shaping Rangel’s creative inquiry of how human constructs of land shape his embodiment of place. Framed by the graphically encoded language of maps Rangel’s work is generated primarily using lithography along with a variety of other traditional and digital printmaking methods to incorporate observation-based drawing, photography, and historic inquiry, with topographic field research. This often involves adventurous field explorations along with discussion among experts from a variety of different disciplines. 

For The Valley before Us Project, Rangel will collaborate with Dr. Raison to integrate his current artistic project on the Tulare Lake Basin (the huge lake that existed in the San Joaquin Valley until the 20th Century) with the artistic needs of The Valley before us Project. He will incorporate his work into the project website in collaboration with his friend and fellow project artist Paul Buxman. In addition, Rangel is a unique resource for beginning the Project’s dialogue with artists, farmers, educators and other thought and opinion leaders in the Visalia, CA, area. Additional information on Matthew Rangel is available at:


Rick Tuttrup, Collaborator, is an instructor at Fresno City College and a well-known San Joaquin Valley musician and composer. He is President of Tuttrup Music and has served as Associate Producer and composer for the film Monster Killer ( In 2012 Tuttrup won a bronze Telly Award for his video for his song Forgotten Places.  He has a long history of successful artistic collaborations with Dr. Raison. For The Valley before Us Project, he will create ambient music for the project website, and will compose instrumental pieces designed to emotionally evoke various aspects of the ancient valley environment. These pieces will be available for download on the project website. For examples of Tuttrup’s work see: