Lost Peoples of the Lake


I am walking out the door of Room 18, at the Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine, California (gateway to Mount Whitney) at around 5:30 am early in July. If there is music to be cued it is Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathrustra: horns, reeds, strings and timpani in full flood as dawn’s first light hits the craggy peaks of the Sierras to the west. The crashing chords and the heart beat percussion (Strauss’ accompaniment to Nietzsche’s enquiry into God, humankind and the natural world) are the exact aural equivalent of the silent sensory palpitations that are occurring somewhere deep within the striatal sub regions of my brain as I focus (blearily) on the magnificence of this primordial scene.

We are not in Upper Ojai anymore, where the pretty wash of first light on the Santa Ynez Mountains impacts me like the breathy trilling of a flute.  In the synesthesia induced by this Sierran scene I am hearing the dawn’s light wash over the celestial ramparts as a full symphonic assault, where the reticulated mountain ridges are bleached pale within a triumphal sound scape: the crashing sonic waves resound in my head – signaling the start of another remarkable day on the planet.

We are in Lone Pine to meet up with neighbor Margot and her partner Michael to visit the dust remediation project on Owen’s Lake that Margot and her consulting firm have been working on for the past fifteen years.

It is only in the past one hundred and fifty years that the Owens Valley has existed as a contested landscape. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century a relatively consistent human population had, for many millennia, remained enfolded in its geological, biological and hydrological setting

The level and hence the extent of Owens Lake varied over pre-historic time, but it has slowly shrunk from its post ice-age maximums of 10,000 years ago (which saw it stretch to thirty miles long and up to 250 feet deep) in a process that, through the last millennium, greatly increased its salinity. Through it all, however, it provided a rich and varied lacustrine environment for human, faunal and floral life; but as all of Southern California knows, despite its continuing decline, the Lake’s death, when it came, was not natural.

Early in the last century it became a toxic waste land, inimical to all life, spreading poisonous clouds of dust along the wind corridor that lies between the eastern Sierras and the White-Inyo mountains.

The destruction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century pastoral life in the Owens Valley that centered on the lake is often lamented: local farmers are portrayed as victims of urban rapacity. As anyone who has seen the film Chinatown (1974, dir. amergenocRoman Polanski) knows, in the great conurbation to the south, water engineers, (most famously Mulholland) inspired by civic boosterism, professional hubris and their implicit partnership with the profiteering of land barons who purchased dry land in the Los Angeles basin in the sure knowledge that it was about to be watered by the California aqueduct, syphoned the lake’s last water some two hundred miles to the Los Angeles basin where the artesian wells that sufficed when the city’s population was no more than 300,000 had long since run dry. What is entirely lost in this story are the circumstances by which these dispossessed Anglo Americans came to be farmers in the Owens Valley in the first place.

They, and their immediate predecessors, it should be noted, had engineered agricultural diversions in the valley in the late 1800’s hastening the shrinkage of the lake to which Mulholland administered the coup de grace in 1913. Eleven years later, the valley floor become a playa, the fate to which other pluvial lakes in the region had long since been consigned.

What then we’re the circumstances of the establishment of these American farms in the graben, or geologic ditch (specifically a linear fault bock basin) that runs between the mountain ranges and where the sediment atop the underlying granite is as much as two miles thick?

Benjamin Madley, in his startling new book, An American Genocide, writes of the extermination of California’s indigenous population between 1846 and 1873: he notes that “Owen’s Valley’s Paiute-Shoshones to the north and Western Shoshones to the south, had very little contact with non-Indians prior to 1861”. He paints an idyllic picture where these native peoples hunted deer, big horn sheep and antelope on the lakeshore and into the mountain hinterlands while trapping rabbits over the russet colored Alabama hills that lie at the foot of the Sierras, or foraged for pine nuts in the cooler alpine altitudes of the Inyo Mountains in the summer. All that changed after 1860 when white ranchers invaded the area and unleashed hundreds of cattle to fatten in the valley for sale to miners who had discovered gold north of Mono Lake and nearby Aurora , Nevada.

The inevitable friction that developed between the indigenous peoples of the area and the newly arrived immigrants quickly devolved into what Madley calls “the well-established California patterns of genocide” whereby mounted vigilantes, supported by the Second California Cavalry, armed with howitzers and muskets, slaughtered hundreds of Valley Indians, destroyed their food stocks and burnt their villages. This first ‘Owen’s Valley War’ culminated in 1863 with the forced removal of upwards of a thousand Indians who were marched over the Sierras to a reservation in Fort Tejon. The survivors of this grim journey were left without adequate food or clothing at the reservation and most attempted to escape despite the threat of being shot for doing so.

Those that managed to return to their homes found a land transformed by cattle ranchers and with their traditional food resources and game animals in short supply. Forced to rely on taking the settlers’ cattle, a second war was precipitated between 1864 and 1865 in which the indigenous peoples of the Valley were hunted to extinction.

This genocide is the patrimony of the ranchers and farmers whose lands were subsequently made worthless by the diversion of the Lake’s remaining water to Los Angeles. They and their descendants have been obliged, for almost a century, to breathe the poisoned, dust laden air that blows off the desiccated Lake bottom: conditions for which the L.A. Department of Water and Power has now been held responsible in suits filed by the EPA and subsequently by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. It may not be too fanciful to imagine that this Californian inheritance of a playa that generates toxic winds containing arsenic, boron and other carcinogens, is the dark consequence of some long ago Paiute shamanic curse that might be idiomatically translated as Eat my Dust.

Since the beginning of this century, the efforts of Margot and other Environmental, Engineering and Landscape consultants have been largely successful in remediating the conditions at the Lake, and have made life tolerable for Valley residents. Now, Lake bottom tourism is being encouraged through the building of trails and a central monument designed by Nuvis Landscape Architects.

Our visit was punctuated by the sighting of a lone coyote padding along the salt crust: the traditional Native American trickster is perhaps conjuring further redemption for the Lake. There is no commemoration of the killing fields of Inyo County:  surely they bring even greater shame upon this country than, for instance, the nearby WWII era Japanese internment camp of Manzanar and are of at least equal educational potential.  The new monument might be more relevant if it referenced the lost peoples of the Lake rather than simulating, in earth and granite cobbles, the waves that animated the vast body of water that once filled the graben. In the Owen’s Valley, there is yet a greater, unacknowledged debt to be paid.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org