Saturday, July 14, 2007

Fire and Water

Even though I live in north Texas, for some time I have regarded doing so as a form of exile. I followed a husband here, and raised my children here, and (partly from inertia) I stay. I will probably die here, but my ashes will be tucked into the family plot in a little town in eastern California, among those of my father's family.

Last week, the family plot itself was threatened by this season's biggest California wildfire--a 35,000-acre conjunction of lightning-caused fires among the sagey open spaces and canyons of the Owens River Valley, and on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The fire, known as the Inyo Complex, is now under control, but at its height it closed U. S. Highway 395 and forced the evacuation of 200 residents in the county seat, Independence. Popular campgrounds west of Independence and northwest of Big Pine were closed, and one was burned over by the blaze. (A fellow blogger has commented on the fire at Blogged In The Desert.)

I have often railed (and have witnesses to prove it) against the propensity of human beings to build homes in areas demonstrably prone to disasters of one form or another. It seems to me that we're asking for it when we build in flood plains, fire-climax vegetation areas (like many of those near Los Angeles), some types of forest (like the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and Long Island), and especially on the edge of the ocean in places subject to periodic (and inexorable) beach erosion and/or hurricanes. As much as I love the idea of New Orleans, it should never have grown up where it did, and it certainly never should have grown as large as it has. Los Angeles is another example, not only because it was built on or near the conjunctions of several earthquake fault lines, but also because the region couldn't possibly sustain the population it has acquired without pulling water from the Colorado and Owens Rivers--both of which had other communities to support, thank you.

But the original inhabitants of the Owens River Valley (the Numa, members of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes) and early white settlers must have thought that they had found an idyllic home. They may well have known about the earthquake hazard there--at least, they did by 1872--but there was abundant water to support a farming/ranching economy, and they probably didn't suspect that a behemoth of a city would grow up to the south or that one of capitalism's great heroes would arrange to carry away most of the river's water by the 1930s and cause the great Owens Lake to dry up.

Don't get me wrong. I love L. A. Not nearly as much as I love the Owens valley, but it does have its charms. I graduated from high school near there (Orange County) and began my academic career not far away (Riverside County). I always returned to Inyo County, however, in part because my family had inserted such a palpable sense of place into my genes that even when I lived in Texas for a while as a teenager, I would hop on a Greyhound bus every holiday break and take the two-day ride to L. A. and then to Lone Pine to stay with my grandmother (who always seemed glad to pay for the trip because I was the grandchild who loved the valley the most). Sometimes I'd spend 4.5 days on the road just to spend 3 days breathing the granite- and cottonwood-scented air that meant "home."

I'm also fully aware that if Mulholland hadn't arranged for the aqueduct that still pumps millions of gallons of water out of the valley daily, the towns for which I hold such affection would probably have grown into a massive metroplex of expensive homes and resorts, instead of making a living for themselves by providing backdrops for science fiction movies and SUV commercials, and acting as a gateway to the national parks and campgrounds of the eastern Sierras. But my grandparents' photographs of the early homesteads and Owens Lake when it was deep enough for steamboats, and even Ansel Adams's photos of the infamous Manzanar Relocation Camp during World War II, evoke a sense of open spaces, clear air, purple mountains' majesty--and all the nostalgia anybody could ever want (unless, of course, you were interned during the war; but I've met people who spent several years at the camp, and they remember the valley itself fondly).

A few years ago, on a trip home from Texas, we drove by Owens Lake, hoping to see the results of the new wetlands project. I noticed that an imposing new building of corrugated metal had sprung up just outside of Olancha, blocking the view of the lake. A somewhat ironic development had brought to the valley a new industry: bottled water from the Crystal Geyser people. So now the thirsty minions of L. A. can help themselves to even more water--from the mountains above the lake they had already drained.

The fact that people have built and continue to build homes in the valley indicates to me that there are many others who are still drawn to this very place. Infrequent wildfires are much less of a threat than inevitable hurricanes or--here in exile--tornadoes, so that living between two mountain ranges that frame the clearly visible Milky Way at night seems a far better choice. The valley is pretty arid (even though the city of Los Angeles has been forced to allow more water to flow into Owens Lake to eliminate the pollution it causes when it's dry)--but then so was north Texas until this spring. The impending climate crises will affect everyone, and the outcome of global warming is largely unpredictable. (I wasn't going to plant tomatoes here this year because we all expected the drought to continue--and then the rains came.) I can't even begin to imagine what will happen in the valley as the temperature rises.

Many strategies exist to mitigate the problems brought on by climate change. We could, for example, learn from past mistakes that building huge, ungainly cities that drain natural resources of their value and require huge investments of technology and capital cannot provide a sustainable future. Small, self-sufficient communities based on appropriate technologies and minimal exploitation of local resources might help see us through another century. Siting these communities should also include risk-assessment so that we don't try to mold the environment to satisfy perceived human "needs" by abdicating common sense. We don't have to build houses on the beach in order to enjoy the ocean. We don't have to build expensive wooden cabins in areas prone to forest fires, just so we can get away from monotonous nine-to-five jobs. While it's certainly not possible to prevent natural disasters (the high desert does burn on occasion), we can certainly avoid the obvious locales (flood plains, hurricane-prone shorelines) or at least build houses designed to withstand the inevitable. And perhaps if we were to spend more time trying to develop meaningful work-lives, the need for "vacation homes" might be reduced.

The earliest examples of "civilization" (from the Latin civis, "city") were built along rivers: the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Hwang Ho, the Indus. Carefully tended (rather than ruthlessly exploited), rivers can provide many of life's necessities (food, water, plant materials, natural beauty) for as long as their sources exist. But they can also become polluted, over-fished, over-traveled, or generally over-used. Studying the various "collapses" of ancient civilizations (in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, North America) inevitably leads to the conclusion that misuse or abuse of an area's water-sources is always a major factor. Although human beings seem to be drawn to riverine environments (only to exploit them ruthlessly), imagine what would happen if we learned to use our rivers lightly and well. The Thames, for example, may not be the pristine stream Morris imagined in News From Nowhere--but it's far cleaner than it was in the nineteenth century. And New York's Hudson River has undergone significant improvement thanks to groups like the Hudson River Foundation and new efforts to clean up toxic dump sites. Hope abides.

So what does any of this have to do with utopia? In my thought experiments regarding "how we might live," I always conjure up a prelapsarian image of the Owens River Valley: pre-Mulholland, pre-aqueduct, even pre-mining days (although they didn't last long and didn't do all that much damage). This version of the valley is a bit like the New Zealand of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films: open valleys, impossibly tall mountains, rushing rivers, expansive landscapes. Morris imagined his utopia along a clean, unpolluted Thames, on which he traveled and re-imagined London after the "revolution." A free, unfettered (un-pilfered) Owens River offers similar opportunities. I'd build a mote house near Uhlmeyer Spring, overlooking the river and the valley (see the photo, above), and like-minded folk could discuss and practice sustainability, permaculture, social responsibility, and other "utopian" ideas to their hearts' content, while breathing clean, desert air.

That is, of course, as long as the whole place doesn't go up in smoke.

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