Bishop is the kind of town where every shop is named after the person who owns it. Rusty’s Saloon. Schatt’s Bakery. Brock’s Fly-fishing specialists.
I love small towns, especially old ones with incredible vistas and a western flair. If we didn’t always get the itch to leave, or think it might become a dried up ghost town, we might consider settling down here.
But before I get into the sad and scary but super interesting and maybe hopeful stuff, let me quickly catch you up on daily life. Really, it’s been a great month. Lot’s of good things happened…
…like a big Easter party at Keogh Campground and Hot Springs with our good friends, Scott and Elizabeth McGuire, and their three awesome kids, Owen, Esha, and June.
This was the first year Soleil could really enjoy the whole Easter Bunny production. We dyed eggs, hunted them , and ate lots of chocolate–all the more fun because she did it with a bunch of other little rascals. Thanks for the great memories Scott and Elizabeth, Mark and Sarah, and the rest of our new friends.
Charge: Criminal Cuteness
And we spent lots of time outside, exploring rocks and rotting wood, just getting dirty. (On a side note, Soleil is almost half way through her 100 days in the wild, and it’s still only springtime).
And, of course, we climbed. We hit up the Happy Boulders, the Buttermilks, the Dreamers, and the Catacombs, all of which were absolutely gorgeous, and good training for our upcoming Yosemite adventures.
Sol and I went on a bunch of nature walks, too. I got a pamphlet that identified and explained the local flora, both its edible and medicinal uses, but Sol was less interested in foraging than throwing rocks and sticks into ponds and streams.
Too bad, because I really wanted to eat some ephedra (nature’s speed) and be extra productive. I could have cleaned the house, done next year’s taxes, researched dark matter….
…or at least invented a baby toupee for severe cases of “stroller head.” Alas, the world will have to wait.
Seriously, do you see that bald spot? Let’s just hope it fills in before her first date.
How could someone not love this town? Even the dump has a scenic backdrop. Being such a small town, Bishop doesn’t have a roadside recycling program, which meant I had to sort stinky trash and drive to the transfer station. A minor pain in the ass, but it makes me wonder how much waste across the U.S is not being recycled due to inconvenience. I know people in L.A who don’t recycle, and it couldn’t get any easier there.
So here comes the sad and scary but super interesting and maybe hopeful stuff….
Keeping our promise to be good tourists in our own country, we complimented our nature adventures with a couple cultural ones, too. We went to the Paiute Center and the Law’s Train Museum, which gave us a decent history of the area, and a possible glimpse into the future.
The Native Paiute, who call themselves Nuumu, which means ‘people’ in their language, lived as nomadic, hunters and gatherers in the Owens Valley for thousands of years. They ate deer, fish, and rabbits; ground plants, seeds, and grasses; and, a pinyon nut that they roasted and ate whole, or ground into a flour to make mush.
I took a ton of photos of headdresses, beadwork, ‘gambling’ bones, rabbit pelts, and winter shelters (the rest of the year they slept under the stars), but I will spare you my enthusiasm and focus on the most salient point: they lived sustainably, and we do not.
I don’t mean to glorify the indigenous. Tree and I visited enough ruins–Palenque in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, and the Maoi on Easter Island–to know that many traditional peoples have overused their land and driven themselves to extinction.
But hunting and gathering societies don’t usually fall into that category; characteristically more egalitarian and always nomadic, they tend not to exploit land, animals or themselves to morbid extremes. Since they’re always chasing their food supply, and they don’t use beasts of burden, they only produce/own what they need and can carry on their backs–and, yes, that goes children, too. They space out child rearing by approximately 4 years to keep tribal units light and fast. Consequently, as the story goes, since they have a lot less wants and needs than we do, they have much more leisure time to socialize, tell stories, gamble (without money), smoke herb, and enjoy life.
Obviously, modern humans have little in common with our forebears, right?
But guess what. For 99% of human beings’ stay on Earth, we have exclusively been hunters and gatherers. On a relative time scale, agricultural societies have existed only briefly, and urban societies even more briefly. So although we feel so far removed from the hunter and gatherer lifestyle, we might be better designed for it than the one we live today. If you don’t believe me, look up mental health stats in the U.S: 25% of adults have a mental disorder, with escalating rates of anxiety and depression; 11% of children diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, a recent study suggests that ADHD isn’t a disorder as much it’s an anachronistic strength; the condition would be a boon if we were still hunters and gatherers.
Here’s Soleil climbing sacred petroglyphs. Just kidding. I’m not an A-hole. They were only decorations.
Richard Nelson, an esteemed anthropologist, talks about the disorientation experienced from having lost our totemic selves, the wild part within us that identifies with the natural world: “Probably no society has been so deeply alienated as ours from the community of nature, has viewed the natural world from a greater distance of mind, has lapsed to a murkier comprehension of its connections with the sustaining environment. Because of this, we are greatly disadvantaged in our efforts to understand the basic human affinity for nonhuman life.”
The result has been akin to a widespread identity crisis; as a society, we don’t really understand who we are or how to live in a way that honors our needs. We don’t realize how much we need to forge deep connections with wild nature to maintain a healthy balance on both a personal and planetary level. If we did, we wouldn’t need Xanax just to get through the day. We wouldn’t consume resources at cancerous rates, “chopping off the limb on which we’re perched.” We wouldn’t spend most of our time in little boxes, driving little boxes, working in little boxes to make money for big corporate boxes that make mental boxes that we’re stuffed in to, ironically, survive. Clearly, we’ve lost our f’n minds.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” Einstein
If we want to live more sustainably, we first need to change the way we think. Maybe by looking back at societies that lived in harmony with mother nature, we can apply the same principles as well.
I saw three exhibits at the Paiute Center that really stood out to me regarding the contrast between Nuumu cultural ethos and our own.
Exhibit 1: SUSTAINABILITY- Bow and Arrow
Rather than chop down trees to make tools like we would do, the Nuumu hacked a rectangle into the bark, waited a few days for the cut-out to die, and then pulled that piece out. This method of harvesting wood allowed the the tree to survive. Everyone wins.
Exhibit 2: INTERCONNECTIVITY- Baskets, or Pasukitu (the below description was on a plaque by the exhibit)
“Baskets (pasukitu) are a central part of life for Nuumu. From the beginning of time we have been weaving pasukitu. Some of the specialized pasukitu we weave can be used for:
- carrying our children
- cooking pine nuts
- storing water
- beating seeds from native grasses
- winnowing shells from seeds and nuts
- catching fish
- and a hundred other uses
In addition to their functionality and beauty, pasukitu are an enduring symbol of life for Nuumu. The shape represents the earth, the womb, and the toni. Each fiber is interwoven with many other fibers, just as our relationships intertwine with those around us; there is great strength in those connections. It may take an entire lifetime to create a perfect basket, but there are many opportunities to practice along the way.
Exhibit 3: WORK WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF NATURE- Irrigation
Each spring the Nuumu elected a Tuvaiju, or Head Irrigator. The start of irrigation was declared by the Tuvaiju and approved by tribe members. Then, around 25 men would help the Tuvaiju build a dam out of sticks, rocks, and brush, and dig ditches into the fields to irrigate native plants that were staples in the Nuumu diet. Since the water was being diverted into the fields, they easily caught fish in the shallow creek beds, most of which they dried out for consumption throughout the year. At harvest, the dam would be destroyed. Each year the Nuumu rotated the section of land irrigated to protect soil fertility.
So, where are the Nuumu now? Well kids, the Nuumu I’ve just described no longer exist. Like almost every other hunter and gatherer society, they were forcibly made to conform to agricultural and industrial society. The Nuumu today live on the rez and battle beasts like disenfranchisement, poverty and alcoholism while fighting to preserve their tribal identity and hobbled culture.
Yup, we totally ruined their way of life. Here’s what happened…
Around 1830, the cattle ranchers started showing up in the Owens River Valley. As time went on, the cattle were destroying the plants and grasses eaten by the Nuumu, so the Nuumu used rocks and bows and arrows to push the cowboys back. But that only lasted a few years until the ranchers came back with an army, and together they killed enough Nuumu to quiet their revolt. Once the ‘indians’ were subdued, the settlers came, followed by the gold miners, which of course led to the construction of the Southern Pacific railway.
By the turn of the century, Bishop, California was an established agricultural land and a booming western town.
But just around 300 miles south, there was another small town expanding at a rapid rate: my very own hometown of Los Angeles, California.
In 1904, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland, visited the Owens Valley and saw the river as a potential source of water for his growing city. A bond issue for the construction of a gravity-flow aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley (233 miles) was quickly obtained, and the Los Angeles aqueduct was completed in 1913. By 1932, the city of Los Angeles had bought out 85% of all private property in the Owens Valley to secure the watershed–and everyone that had been on the land was displaced, except the Nuumu, who were still scattered across the DWP’s land, much to their frustration.
To deal with what it referred to as “The Indian Problem,” the DWP negotiated a shady deal with the U.S. government. Long story short, the Owens Valley ‘indians’ went from having 67k acres of land in trust to being ‘consolidated’ on 1.391 acres. Even though the 1937 Land Exchange Act (rape) specified that water rights were to be exchanged along with the lands, the LA City Charter would not permit sale or trade of its water rights without the approval of two-thirds of city voters. Needless to say, that’s never happened. Today, these water rights are a central issue of negotiations between the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Tribes and the city of Los Angeles.
So where are we today with all this?
In a little more than 150 years since Bishop was established, and a little over 100 years since the aqueduct was built, we are facing a national crisis undoubtedly precipitated by this building snowball of exploitation.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that California has been in a severe drought for the past 4 years. As of April 1st, this years snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas was the lowest it’s ever been at a mere 6%, following multiple years of sub-level snowfall. Given that California only has enough water in storage to last the next 12-18 months, Governor Brown has mandated a 25% decrease in water usage, which many cities are contesting.
In Bishop, the agriculture industry has been gone a long time. All that’s left are some alfalfa fields and cattle. The marsh land is dried up. I overheard some locals outside the hot springs talking about how they’re running out of well water, how their land is indefensible against fire, how old Dan’s hill lit up again but this time they couldn’t save the house, and now the insurance company won’t pay out….
Meanwhile, thanks to modern advancements in irrigation, Los Angeles has grown into the 2nd largest city in the United States, with a sprawling population of nearly 4 million people. California is home to 38 million people, and is the largest agricultural producer in the United States. Farmers can’t water their crops, most of which shouldn’t be grown in a desert to begin with (almonds and rice, really?), yet we’re still watering the golf courses.
As I was walking around the Law’s museum, which is laid out like an old ghost town, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more a glimpse into the future than the past.
What’s going to happen when the water runs out? Will Bishop be totally uninhabitable, drained completely dry? Where will all the people in the monstrous city of Los Angeles go to? What’s going to happen to our nation’s food supply? How will any of us afford to eat?
And the snowball is just beginning.
Before I had Soleil, I used to secretly wish for a plague to wipe out the human race. I know, that’s not very nice of me, but I argued that humans aren’t very nice. Seriously, ask any other species (except dogs, we bred them to like us), and they will tell you that we are selfish douche bags.
But now, after having held my baby in my arms and been blown away by the natural goodness in her, I realize we’re not all bad. Maybe, we’ve just gone astray. And, maybe if we consciously rewild our psyches, we can find our rightful place in nature again:
“Nuumu believe that we are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. Native people have been stewards of the land for thousands of the years, and part of the imbalance in Nature today is because Nuumu aren’t gathering, harvesting, weaving, singing, praying, and living in the traditional way. In order to have a balance within the wildness, it takes Nuumu to ‘weave it all together.’ “ (borrowed from a plaque at Paiute Center)
Yet, let’s face it, we won’t willingly go back to the way we lived 10,000 years ago; I doubt even today’s Nuumu would live ‘in the traditional way,’ assuming the DWP would ever let them wander their lands. We love our technology–from our trains and aqueducts to our toasters and iPhones–and unless we face a total collapse, we’re not going to give it up.
So if we can’t go back, and we can’t stay the course, we must design a brand new way of living–maybe one that bridges the gap between hunting and gathering, and pizza delivery. Certainly, we need to think sustainably, connect with the wild, and work within the bounds of nature like the Nuumu, but we also need to apply some serious technological ingenuity if we plan to make it out of this mess alive.
Maybe, then, we can ‘weave it all together’ again.