Life and Death on Route 395

I awoke the morning of my 46th birthday on top of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Not immediately on top of it – it was buried at a depth of at least 25 feet in this spot – but just a few steps from our parked van it was exposed by a service shaft: an open concrete box lidded with a thick grate. Standing over it, I could hear the roar of water being sucked southwards by the thirsty urban monster 100 miles away. Down the hill from my vantage point, the giant metal drinking straw of the aqueduct’s pipe emerged from the soil, spanned the dry creek below, and thrust itself back into the ground of the opposite slope. Another service shaft stuck up out of the hilltop above it, just like the one in front of me.

The Romans made far more elegant structures for the same purpose, but I marveled at the feat of engineering laid before (and underneath and behind) me. I wondered about the degree of angle it employed in order to run slightly downhill over such a long distance. I looked in vain for any sign of the tremendous excavation that must of taken place. Or did they bore a tunnel? If so, that must have been a big powerful machine. The engineering feats of the 20th Century are a wonder to behold for their sheer scale and complexity. The long-term costs of these projects, though, have not been so wonderful.

So much of the land called “wild” in the western United States of America is like this: rammed through, cut clear or ridden over. The particular parcel where I started my birthday is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is promoted as a recreation spot for OHVs (off-highway vehicles). Signage instructed riders to stay on marked trails due to the area being habitat for the endangered Desert Tortoise. Poor Gopherus Agassizii, who survived a dramatic – though gradual – change in climate that transformed a tropical forest into a desert (making it a “relic” like the California Palm Tree, not truly a species of the desert) only to have its burrows crushed by off-roaders. Of course, the not-so-gradual climate change of our own era will likely drive this creature to extinction. Such are the values of our society that unmonitored destructive activity is a legally-sanctioned and culturally acceptable use of “public” land.

If you don’t mind digging a hole for your toilet in the morning, BLM land can be a great place to camp for free. As with the National Forests, you are allowed to stay overnight just about anywhere (for a limited number of days) as long as you are not blocking any roads. I had accepted the birthday-honor of choosing the night’s camping spot and had picked this one because it was desert, which we would soon be leaving. We were on our way to Portland, Oregon, from Joshua Tree, California, by way of U.S. Route 395, which starts near Hesperia, California, ends at the Canadian border, and passes through many truly scenic areas on the way.

We had camped on the edge of a place called Freeman Canyon. The terrain was rocky but softened by greasy-leaved, winnowy-branched Creosote Bush (which can form clonal colonies several thousand years old), grey-green, tufty-shrubbed Rabbit Bush – brightly adorned with summer’s first blossoms of golden yellow – and frilly carpets of dessicated Cryptantha, its ephemeral flowers long spent from their brief exclamation. The Sierra Nevada range was announced by a dramatic multi-lobed outcropping of stone protruding from the landscape like bone through flesh. Large black ants filed back and forth from their home in a column a foot-wide, collecting seeds. It was quiet except for the wind. No OHVs or anything else disturbed the home turf of our threatened, shelled friend at that moment.

After breakfast, we hit the road but did not leave the environs of the aqueduct, which shadows Route 395 for nearly 200 miles from that point north. Soon we were driving alongside the site of the former Owens Lake, which was once a large body of water (12 miles long by 8 miles wide), fed by the Owens River. In 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) re-routed the river into the brand new Los Angeles Aqueduct. A little more than a decade later, the lake was almost entirely desiccated. Since then, groundwater pumping by the LADWP to supplement the take from the river has lowered the surrounding water table enough to dry up other seeps and springs that nourished the area.

The destruction of Owens Lake and the lower Owens River was – and is – an ecological disaster. Previously, millions of migratory birds had used it as a vital stop-over, but their habitat was drastically reduced. Meadows of native flora – which early European visitors described as filling the valley floor as far as the eye could see – have desertified. The lake bed’s exposed alkali soil, whipped up by the wind, is the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States, according to the EPA, and contains toxic constituents such as cadmium, chromium, chlorine and iron that are harmful to breathe.

The construction of the aqueduct sparked what are famously known as the “California Water Wars,” which set Owens Valley farmers against the LADWP. The LADWP’s bad behavior began even before the aqueduct was built, when they sent agents to the area posing as farmers who bought up as many parcels as they could in order to gain the water rights for the utility. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Owens Valley farmers actually dynamited portions of the canal to provide themselves with irrigation water. The conflict is often styled, sometimes romantically, as the classic country vs. city clash – of simple agricultural folk struggling to survive an assault by effete urban hedonists – but this simplistic treatment ignores certain historical realities of the area: namely, its invasion and conquest by Europeans in the mid-1800’s.

Previously, the Owens River valley was the home to semi-nomadic Native Americans, specifically the Paiutes. They called the river, Wakopee, and the lake, Pacheta. They hunted, gathered, and practiced agriculture. Their diet included wild hyacinth tubers, yellow nutgrass corms, and Pinyon Pine nuts. They hunted deer, desert big horn sheep, small game and caught fish. They also collected the pupae of the Alkali Fly (Ephydra hyans) an insect that laid its eggs on the surface of the lake; the pupae would build up along the shores where they were easily collected and then dried for storage.

The fact that the Paiutes built a ditch irrigation system for watering certain of their crops has been cited to justify the use of canals by ranchers; however, the methods differed in purpose, operation and scale. The Paiute used their system to expand the range of native plants they ate, not to support imported animals or crops. Dams built on the Wakopee were often seasonal constructions, in place for only a portion of the year, and any fish stranded in the channel by the lowered water flow were conscientiously harvested. a philosophy of wasting nothing. Conversely, modern ranchers make permanent diversions, ignore the effects they are having downstream and are wasteful. A common sight on ranched lands, including the the Owens Valley, is the use of large sprinkler systems spitting out streams of water in the middle of the day; water loss through evaporation under those circumstances can be as high as 50%.

Among the first European visitors to the Owens Valley were “mountain men” Jedediah Smith, in 1836, and Joseph Walker, in 1834. In 1845, John C. Fremont, a military officer and later the first Republican candidate for President, led the first full-fledged expedition into the area. Fremont named the valley, river and lake after his compatriot, Richard Owens, who had served with him during the seizure of Alta California from Mexico. Not once in his life did Owens ever see the area. (Here is yet another opportunity for re-naming as decolonization.)

Until 1859, few Europeans visited, but in that year a military force led by a Captain John W. Davidson was organized and sent there for the nominal purpose of recovering stolen horses from Native Americans. When they met the Paiutes, Davidson was impressed, describing them as “interesting, peaceful, [and] industrious.” (A first person account by a member of the expedition expresses their positive impressions in detail.) Furthermore, the Paiutes had not approved of the horse-theft and had already disciplined the perpetrators, some with the penalty of death.

On this expedition no blood was shed and everyone parted on good terms. Davidson pledged to the Paiutes that “so long as they were peaceful and honest the government would protect them in the enjoyment of their rights.” The Paiutes replied that “such had always been their conduct and should ever be – that they had depended on their own unaided resources – that they had at all times treated the whites in a friendly manner and intended to do so in the future [my emphasis].” They also promised that anyone in their tribe who broke this word would be “punished with the sword.” Davidson closed by saying to the interpreter: “Tell him that we fear it not, that what I have said I have said. I have lain my heart at his feet; let him look at it.”

Everything went downhill from there. Davidson’s attempt to set aside the area as a reservation failed when Congress did not pass the needed legislation. (Not that this would have guaranteed protection for the Paiutes, as the history of broken U.S. treaty obligations with Native Americans illustrates all too well.) Meanwhile, cattlemen and prospectors started arriving in the area, their numbers swelling quickly. The winter of 1861-62 was severe, bringing suffering to the Paiutes due to the lack of game to hunt the following spring. Conflicts with the settlers began when a Paiute killed a steer that was grazing on their hyacinth fields.

The European settlers had little or no respect for the rights and lifestyles of the indigenous people and soon the situation escalated to bloodshed. In mid-1862, the settlers asked for, and got, a U.S. military force sent to the area to bolster their side. By 1863, the Paiutes had been subdued. Owens Valley now belonged to the invaders, who were predominantly ranchers.

Only fifteen years later, in 1878, excessive irrigation by the ranchers caused the water levels of Owens Lake to start dropping. In other words, their methods were already unsustainable before the arrival of the aqueduct, a fact now little remembered. The plain truth is that, lake or no, the arid Owens Valley is not an appropriate place to raise cattle. It is in defiance of all logic (except that of the short-term financial) that ranching has been allowed to remain there at all.

Ecological issues entered the “Water Wars” in the 1970’s when Inyo County sued Los Angeles under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Act. In 1997, two nominally environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee, were parties to the Memorandum of Understanding that required the LADWP to allow some water to flow into the river and thence to the lake. Over the decade that followed, a series of court orders forced the LADWP to make good on its promises.

In the present day, Climate Change is now an exacerbating factor, threatening to throw the fruits of these hard-won battles into the garbage. Witness: “Owens Valley ranchers and environmentalists brought together by drought,” a front-page article in the LA Times on May 20, 2015, published shortly before our journey to the area.

A quick summary of the story: Due to the prolonged drought in California, and specifically the record low snow-pack in the Sierras, the LA Department of Water and Power has declared that it can not deliver promised (and legally agreed upon) water allotments for both the restoration of Owens Lake and the ranching industry. Parties calling themselves “environmentalists” have caved under some implied but unspecified pressure to give up a portion of the restoration allotment so the ranchers will not have to lose as much.

That sounds simple enough, but to make full sense of it a reader needs more: clear differentiation of opinions from facts, some “follow-the-money” analysis, and a decent helping of “big picture” contextualization. This is not what the author of the piece, Louis Sahagun, delivered. As is typical of the corporate media, the article fell far short of telling the whole story, took the side of the moneyed status quo, and played loose with the truth – all while speaking in a tone falsely conveying “objectivity.” The modern newspaper does little more than construct a “he said/she said” narrative around every issue without questioning the veracity of what is being said, and calls it “balance.” Investigatory work is not only expensive but likely to upset advertisers. This was the predictable (and predicted) result of Clinton-era legislation deregulating media ownership. Too few people keep any of this in mind when reading the corporate media.

A lack of clarity begins with the very first teaser line, which is placed at the top as a quotation to tweet: “If ranches go dry, owners will lose livestock as the natural habitat on the property succumbs to drought [my emphasis].” Since when is irrigated pasture “natural habitat”? Later in the article, a rancher states: “‘A lot of people think all this green grass is natural,’ Talbot said, while inspecting the latticework of creek-fed ditches in his browning pastures. ‘Without irrigation, it’d be nothing but sage flats.’” So are “environmentalists” calling irrigated pasture “natural habitat”? Apparently so: “Environmentalists say the loss of habitat [on ranches] would be disastrous to wildlife and vegetation in the valley.” But sage flats do not need irrigation so the mystery is not solved because the article says no more. Fortunately, a helpful commenter who sounded like a knowledgeable local, noted that certain irrigated areas “are in the historic wetland and meadow locations that have existed here for millenia.” That is indeed helpful to know, but does it makes ecological sense to keep the cows there? No.

From “Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West,” by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson:

“Perhaps the biggest fallacy perpetrated by the livestock industry is the idea that if we would only reform or modify management practices, there would be room both for livestock and for fully functional ecosystems, native wildlife, clean water, and so on. Unfortunately, even to approach meaningful reform, more intensive management is needed, and such management adds considerably to the costs of operation. More fencing, more water development, more employees to ride the range: whatever the suggested solution, it always requires more money. Given the low productivity of the western landscape, the marginal nature of most western livestock operations, and the growing global competition in meat production, any increase in operational costs cannot be justified or absorbed….

“Even if mitigation were economically feasible, we would still be allotting a large percentage of our landscape and resources – including space, water, and forage – to livestock. If grass is going into the belly of a cow, there’s that much less grass available to feed wild creatures, from grasshoppers to elk. If water is being drained from a river to grow hay, there’s that much less water to support fish, snails, and a host of other life forms. The mere presence of livestock diminishes the native biodiversity [my emphasis]….”

Sahagun betrays an anti-scientific bias with his single statement about the ecologically deleterious effects of ranching: “Environmentalists have long believed the local mountains would be better off without cattle trampling stream banks, polluting creeks with animal waste and eroding fragile meadows with intensive grazing [my emphasis].” Oh, this is just something that “environmentalists” “believe,” is it? That fragile desert ecosystems and riparian zones would be better off without cows is not a “belief”; it has been exhaustively documented over the course of many decades in a multitude of locations. You can read entire books on the subject. But if Sahagun acknowledged these facts, it would muddy the scripted ranchers-vs.-environmentalists squabble.

So why did the “environmentalists” give in to the ranchers? According to the LA Times article, Mike Prather, “longtime environmental activist,” said: “We were driven into each others’ arms by the DWP.” So much for Brock Evans‘ famous call for “endless pressure, endlessly applied,” a phrase that Prather is apparently fond of quoting. Mary Roper, president the Owens Valley Committee, said that her organization has been “building an alliance with ranchers – our friends and neighbors.”

If Prather and Roper don’t want to rock the boat too much in their community, that’s their choice and I won’t begrudge it to them. But I wonder if they should be called, “environmentalists.” I am not the only one who has expressed skepticism over that self-designation by certain individuals involved in the “Water Wars” over the years: see this scathing indictment by Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, writing about Democratic LA politicians.

The bottom line, of course, is… the bottom line. The article states that, according to “officials,” “Farming and ranching generate $20 million a year in Inyo County.” This – and the sepia-toned myth of the self-reliant cowboy (which is so ridiculously fallacious I can’t stomach any more than to mention it) – is why no one can raise the fundamental question of whether ranching should even be allowed.

And it shouldn’t be. In the big picture, $20 million is chump change. If we were a rational society, we might just pay it if that was the price for ceasing such destructive activity, and shut down the aqueduct. I can think of other possibilities, such as deeding all the LADWP land back to the Paiutes. To see that they were better stewards is as easy as identifying the color of the sky on a clear day.

*     *     *

The first town you hit going north on the 395 after the former Owens Lake is Lone Pine, home to a movie museum celebrating the area’s frequent use as a backdrop for Hollywood productions. The scenery is quite striking, with the 14,505 ft Mount Whitney dominating the western view. After traveling through desert for hundreds of miles, the town is unexpectedly verdant, with many trees and irrigated pastures. The city park where we stopped to have lunch was centered around a winding stream with giant cottonwoods and a thick lawn of grass and clover. People were enjoying the cool shade on that hot day: families with children, tourists with picnics, and the local home-bum set, who were blazing up joints and laughing loudly in a back corner. Dogs invariably gravitated to the stream for a splash. The sound of the wind in the foliage of the cottonwoods was like a whispering crowd. The Romans noticed this quality many centuries ago and named the tree, populus, their word for “people.”

After lunch, we were walking through the park, admiring the trees, when we found two baby birds at the foot of one particularly large Populus. They didn’t look old enough to be on their own. Indeed, everything about their demeanor – their downy feathers, their awkward movements, and most of all their plaintive cries, emitting from mouths that seemed over-sized for their stature – suggested that they were out of the nest prematurely. One had a bit of runniness in its eyes and was carrying a wing not quite right.

We were both immediately filled with both compassion and doubt. We felt so bad for them but… but what could we do? We crouched down with them for a few minutes to take better note of their conditions and behavior. Were they in danger? Was there any way we could help?

We called an animal-loving friend who knows about these things. He told us, plainly and simply, “they’re fucked.”

We hung around a little longer, watching them, then finally decided to leave, sadly. But we sat in the van for a long moment after we started the engine because just then a couple with an unleashed dog was approaching the spot. We kept our fingers crossed that our little avian friends weren’t about to become canine food. They didn’t. The people and dog moved on. So did we, but not without reservations.

For the next few miles we agonized over whether we should have taken them with us. We could have put them in a box and fed them worms from the bait shop, we surmised. But did they need their food pre-macerated at this age? Neither of us wanted to chew on night crawlers. The highway was divided by a barrier in that section but an opening was coming up where we could turn around and go back. “Should we?” one of us asked, but the other didn’t answer and we kept driving.

Quite a few people would say we were stupid to worry. After all, this is just nature. Some babies live and some don’t. Maybe the mama bird pushed them out of the nest on purpose. “Survival of the fittest.” We could claim that our emotional response sprang from sensitivity, but a “realist” would counter that we were only indulging a sentimentality born of disconnected city life, nothing but wallowing in kitsch.

I am utterly familiar with all the reasons it “makes no sense” for me to care the way I do about non-human living creatures, especially injured ones. The let-‘em-die rationales are trumpeted with a multitude of fanfares, from the dick-swinging impudence of our hyper-macho culture (which is not exclusive of women – I’m looking at you, Hillary), to the presumptuous claims of “dominion over creation” by our patriarchal religions (the Pope’s eco-posturing notwithstanding), to the rapacious devouring of nature’s bounty by our corporate overlords (while they greenwash all the way to the bank). To put it simply, our society is just mean. Was our heart-ache for the baby birds an overcompensation for all of this, understandable but pointless? I don’t know. But what I can say was that the overwhelming sensation was one of helplessness: of not knowing what to do.

*     *     *

The last time we had driven up the 395 we had seen signs for a Bristlecone Pine forest. Among the oldest living things on earth, individual trees of Pinus longaeva can reach ages in excess of 5,000 years. The turn-off, on California State Route 168, comes up just north of Big Pine. This time, we resolved to go and soon we were climbing up the Westgard Pass alongside a dry stream bed.

After a couple-three miles we stopped to check out some Mojave Prickly Poppies blooming in the channel. Both being plant geeks with a particular interest in wild medicinals, we had to stop to observe Argemone corymbosa in its natural habitat. Their common name is apropos, as the leaves are sharply-toothed and the pollinated fruits covered with spines. The showy blossoms, swaying in the breeze, were decorated with papery-white petals arranged around a bulbous-headed style (the female part) in the midst of a riotous crowd of orange anthers (the male parts). Yellow pollen dusted the petals and also every insect that visited them. The Prickly Poppy genus has a long history of medicinal and ceremonial use by Native Americans. Nowadays, it is popular on “legal high” websites due to its euphoric opiate effects. We went from plant to plant, checking them out at every stage of blooming, from fresh-as-a-sheet to blotchy and ragged.

When we turned our attention to our greater surroundings again, we noticed that big, dark clouds had broken free from the Sierras and were piling up on top of the peaks of the White Mountains above us. We still had twenty miles to go, up onto ridges that were now coming under deepening shadow. Having been caught in a mountain thunderstorm before – and having the living daylights scared out of us by close lightning strikes – we decided to put off our trip to the Bristlecone Pines again, and head back to the valley and continue north.

As we were approaching the bottom of the slope, but still had a wide view of the landscape below us, we saw a cloud of dust off the side of the highway about a half mile ahead. We wondered if it was a dust devil or maybe someone off-roading, but it stopped before we could make a positive ID. About 90 seconds later, the mystery was solved. A vehicle was parked on the shoulder and the driver was waving his arms for our attention. We pulled up and he asked urgently if we had a phone and pointed to the ditch off on the other side of the road. There we saw what had caused the disturbance: a motorcycle was laying on its side and, a few feet away, the body of a woman in riding gear, face-down and unmoving.

My traveling companion called 911 immediately. Unlike with the baby birds, there was something we could do, and that was it. The dispatcher got our information and asked us to wait until help arrived. We approached the body.

It was a woman in riding leathers, the patch on the back of her jacket proclaiming her affiliation with a Harley Davidson club. Her hands were pinned underneath her body and her ponytail was flipped up over her helmet. Her face was in a pool of blood in the dirt. My friend went to one side and I to the other.

“She’s still breathing,” said my friend, and indeed I could hear her labored gurgles. My friend stroked her arm, saying, “Keep breathing, sweetheart. Just keep breathing.” I put my hand gently on her back, doing what I thought I might want someone to do for me if I was the one laying there. I could barely feel the rise and fall of her body through the thick leather. Looking at her more closely, I estimated her age to be right around my own, which was certainly a sobering observation on my birthday.

The accident had been serious. The motorcycle was facing the opposite direction that she had been traveling. All her gear was scattered around a fairly wide area. I saw a sleeping roll, an iPhone, a tube of Carmex.

We hoped she was not in pain, and probably she was not, “shock” being what it is. I hoped that she was not afraid but I could not tell if she was conscious. My friend kept softly saying, “sweetheart”. It seemed like an eternity waiting for the paramedics.

A flash of paranoia hit me. Could I “get in trouble” if the paramedics saw me touching her when they arrived? Would the family sue me if they believed I had somehow hurt her worse? With these questions, the paranoia was joined by resentment: what a frightful and frightfully legalistic society we live in that I was even having such thoughts. Must we fear to comfort the apparently dying? Nevertheless, when at last we heard sirens on the highway, I kept an eye out and stepped away well before the emergency vehicle and its team arrived.

As it turns out I was the last of their concerns, of course, and they ignored me as they sprang into action. It was a fire crew made up of one middle-aged man and two younger women. The two women seemed a little shocked at the sight, but the man betrayed no emotion other than surprise that the injured biker was still breathing. They turned her over, put a tube down her throat, and focused on their jobs.

I spoke briefly with the driver who had flagged us down. He passed a few quick words with his companions in a language I didn’t know so I asked him what it was. “Spanish,” he replied. I expressed surprise that I hadn’t recognized it. “We are Argentinian,” he said and we both smiled. He knew their accent was quite foreign from the “Mexican” Spanish frequently heard in the U.S. He seemed ready to go so I mentioned that the 911 operator had asked witnesses to stay on the scene until the police arrived. He agreed to do so, but was clearly a little nervous about it. His companions looked terrified. Recently, the news had featured coverage of the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers, and the protests that followed, so I could totally understand why they might be hesitant to interact with American cops.

Before the woman had been loaded into the ambulance the California Highway Patrol arrived. One checked in with the fire crew, two started inspecting the scene and the fourth approached me and the Argentinian. Having established that none of us had been present at the spot the moment the accident occurred, he told us that he was asking us to leave. Then, he looked me right in the eye, but without the cold menace that cops usually project, and put out his hand to shake mine. “Thank you,” he said, with utmost sincerity. “Most people don’t stop.”

“They don’t?” said my friend, who had just joined us.

“No,” said the cop.

“I can’t believe that,” I said.

“It’s true,” the cop replied. “So, thank you.”

We turned and left. As soon as I was seated in the van, I burst into tears and cried hard. I was sad for the injured woman, but also to be living in a place where “most people don’t stop.” My friend waited until I was done and then started driving.

We drove the rest of the way down the 168 to the 395, but instead of getting back on right away, we turned off into a parking area with an historical marker to sit and breathe for a moment. The whole time we were at the accident scene, different vehicles drove by, some pausing to see what was going on. One car in particular had caught my eye: a Model T driven by a white-haired white man. He pulled up beside us in the parking area and asked us about what we had seen, but didn’t listen much, giving us his theories about what happened instead. “He must’ve been going 85 to go off the road like that,” he claimed, implying reckless behavior on the part of the biker.

“She,” my friend said, but the man ignored her, and kept going. “She,” my friend repeated again, in response to another usage of “he,” but he wasn’t paying attention, as he tried to build a case for negligence or even recklessness. Eventually my friend cut him short, though courteously, and he drove off.

“Do you believe that?” she said.

“Playing the blame-the-victim game,” I said.

“Like he knows what happened.” She was clearly flustered.

The Model T was so emblematic of his father-knows-best haughtiness that I could hardly believe it was real, the anachronistic vehicle and the old-fashioned moralizing such a perfect match that I knew I would have to write up this story like I have here, as a true-life narrative; In a work of fiction, readers wouldn’t believe a detail like that or would find the symbolism trite. Yet there it was.

I stepped out of the van to read the historical marker. It was set underneath a Giant Sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which is not native to that area though they grow in the Sierras nearby. The marker identified it as “The Roosevelt Tree,” planted July 23, 1913. At 101 years old, it potentially has centuries of life before it. The inscription said:

This Giant Sequoia tree is
reported to have been
planted to commemorate
the opening of Westgaard [sic]
Pass to automobile traffic

The tree was named
in honor of President
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Presented by the Big Pine Civic Club

How proud people were of their wilderness-breaking infrastructure projects in the 20th Century! On the day the tree was planted, did they wish for the safety of all who would use the road? Maybe. Did they foresee that the next century would bring 3,599,489 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S.? Doubtful. How would they have reacted if a time/space wormhole had opened and showed them the woman biker on the side of the road, trying to breathe in a puddle of her own blood? Would it have broken the spell? Maybe for the people who witnessed it, but the road was already built, and what should they have done then? Dynamite it?

In our own time, scientists are giving us very clear pictures of the quite dire future we are bringing on with our current choices. How are we reacting? California Governor Jerry “not-a-moonbeam-now” Brown is requiring California citizens to cut their water usage, but is letting corporate agriculture and the fracking industry have their wasteful fill. U.S. President Barack O-bomb-ya is allowing Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic, even though Shell’s own study shows that such activity will contribute to global warming. And at the former Lake Owens, the short-term bottom-line of a small class of welfare-dependent businessmen (aka “ranchers”) is benefiting at the expense of the environment with the apparent blessing of “environmentalists.” We are certainly no wiser than the road-builders of 1913, and I would wager that we have become less so.

Speaking of dynamite, Derrick Jensen has written that if you want to make a difference, blow up a dam. Positive environmental effects would result, especially for salmon, and – unlike with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the 1920’s – there’s a high likelihood the infrastructure wouldn’t be fixed. At what point does it become our existential imperative to devote ourselves to such meaningful actions instead of talk, half-measures and politicking? For those species that have already been extinguished from the planet during what can no longer be denied is the Sixth Extinction, that point has passed.

*     *     *

Back on the 395, we headed toward Mammoth Lake, there to meet a friend from Portland who is hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and happened to be staying there that night in a hostel. On the way, we stopped at a pull-out to check the oil. I took a little walk around and found Cryptantha flowers in bloom, unlike at our camping spot that morning where they were already finished for the season. By traveling farther north and higher in elevation, we had effectively gone back in time for them.

Cryptantha is Greek for “hidden flower,” which aptly characterizes their tiny size. Each blossom was perched on the end of a long, fuzzy green ovary, and the plant’s spindly stems were bent in the breeze like the branches of an old pine on a beach cliff. Cryptantha is an example of an “ephemeral,” a quick-growing annual that sprouts, flowers and seeds in just a few weeks. Individuals of our species, Homo sapiens, regularly survive for decades – longer or shorter on average depending on where we live – but that is “ephemeral” to a Creosote Bush clonal colony, a Bristlecone Pine or a Giant Sequoia.

*     *     *

We wondered about the woman biker every day after that, for the rest of the trip. Back in Portland, we looked up the accident and found out that she died about two hours after the crash. She was 48, two years older than me. If her Facebook page is any measurement, she was loved and appreciated by the people in her life, who included a daughter and many Harley riders. She was commonly described by posters as a “sweetheart,” so I guess my friend called it right.

But I still wish we could have done something for the baby birds.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. Sonnenblume’s writing and photography can be found at


Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press