High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.
The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action.
– Felix Adler
Across the dead fields and arid wasteland of northern Inyo County, there are ringed silos standing straight, desolate and empty. They are now tombstones marking a way of life gone by. These cement cylinders were for compacted grass during the beginning of the last century. They were a symbol of owner pride. These were farms and dairies that have since blown away with the dust of many windy days.
Once there was plentiful water, human greed and the lamentations of the pioneers taming a beautiful, harsh and hostile land made of sand, soil, and stone. I hear mournful voices whispering under the winds as Osceola and I ponder lives turned barren and lost on Highway 6 just north of Bishop, California.
The winds today are brutal, shaking the giant, ancient and gnarled cottonwoods that were planted when farmers came to this land to break the earth to plant. Today, the sky is electric blue with fair-weather cumulus gamboling across the azure firmament above our gale-sanded eyes. These clouds tantalize the photographer waiting for them to form the composition he wrestles to create.
We walk to the milking barn, whose looming, warped profile summons us to enter. With its breached roof creating complex, striated light patterns all about us and across our upturned faces, the barn created a hallowed atmosphere we were at first hesitant to intrude upon. Inside, I hear the whispering, disconsolate ghost voices of those who came before woven into the whining wind. They tore the land, built the barn, erected a farmhouse, and finally hired a local man to pour the cement jackets, ring upon ring, to fabricate the twin silos.
There is so much I am seeing that I don’t really understand. Is it just a matter of the City of Los Angeles taking the water south? I go back to study the history, economy and practice of farming here to fully understand. In my mind there is a dialogue of what I see and what I learned late after my visit, a dialogue of experience and later research. I share this dialogue that continues in my head as I reread my writing:
A.O Adams built twin silos at the bequest of this nameless farmer. The paper said Adams had built a few dozen across the area. These twin structures that reached from the earth straight up towards the heavens were a source of swelled virile pride for this farmer.
I study the dairy landscape through a time-vandalized window as the wind rustles nearby. The pasture, pocked by cow patties (although there are no cows today) glistens green with energy from the sun. The variegated light through the expiring roof marks our faces, creating both hesitation and uncertainty whether we belong here.
In the 1870s settlers set out with friends in a small wagon train from Fort Scott, Kansas. The wife and husband stalled out in Laramie, Wyoming waiting for their young son, grown sick, to get well. Although they were hopeful, he did not survive. They finally made it here on this land just north of Bishop.<br> <br> All around them was the promise of the land. Not only how to grow, but how to sell and find new markets, even though they lived in the middle of an arid, rural nowhere. They incorporated the Inyo Creamery just before the century turned.
The photographer shoots the two silos to the west through the same window I use to imagine the historic dairy landscape. He masters the challenge of lighting as I listen to the wind-torn silence all about. No vocalization rises above the pulsating howl of the wind. Do I hear the troubled mumbling of relocated farmers?
I ponder what other signs remain of this agrarian way of life in this spectacular landscape, with Sierra Nevada Mountains on one side and the White Mountains on the other. I later learn that by 1891 there were 22 separate ditches. Today these dry watercourses still meander like scars across the land, but only visible to the vigilant.
I leave the barn and walk over to the cement cylinders. A rusty ladder clings to each of their rough poured sides. The forms were two and a half feet high when poured, then hitched up to the next level. Gin pole and mule lifted the cement forms.
Weeds dance in the wind around the bottoms of the silos. The tops are spiked with exposed rebar. I struggle to understand how they used these silos, imagining getting the forage to the top to fill the cement jacket.
W. R. Ford in Round Valley first experimented with the practicality of silage. For those non-farmers reading this, silage “is grass or other green fodder compacted and stored in airtight conditions, typically in a silo, without first being dried, and used as animal feed in the winter.”<br> <br> Ford showed the top only spoiled down to ten inches, eighteen on the sides. The first silo was built in 1892, and in the next twenty years, anyone who could afford one, wanted one or two for their farms. Then after a depressed period, the new century gave way to prosperity. But these inexperienced arid land farmers — through their carelessness, inexperience, or incompetence — were creating a major disaster.
But it was Mulholland and Eaton who masterminded killing the Federal Reclamation project in order to bring water to Los Angeles. The project would have saved agriculture here and there would still be working dairies and farms.
These pioneers bear the onus of being careless and ignorant with the water. In high rain years the water was left to stand. The seepage from the unlined canals created marshes. The poor drainage took its toll and the best lands became spoiled with alkali deposits, laid down year after year.
The wind rises in a sibilate whine as I poke around the collapsed building to the north of these silos. White enamel ghosts leer out at me in the wreckage of the storage shed. Old stoves, refrigerators and antique appliances, all broken down, are salvaged because on the farm everything has potential use down the road.
There is no proof that the reclamation project in the valley would have paid for itself with agricultural profits. These farmers ruined the best lands and filled young men and women with bitterness. It was easy to blame the other, the City of Los Angeles. From more than 500 farms the number dropped to a little more than 200. A quarter of the population left. The drought of the early 1920s brought the City back with a vengeance to buy land for more water for the aqueduct. We in Inyo County joke still, “Flush your toilets, L.A. needs the water.”
I am arguing with a disembodied voice in my head. I smirk with a sudden conscious embarrassment and return to the barn. The photographer works to frame the boarded windows of the farm house, a now-blind domicile, in a weathered window frame. He frames his desert visions with abandoned architecture. At his feet are more disowned machinery and appliances, detritus of our consumer age.
My inner argument continues. But it is the flatlanders, the lack of water storage, their profligate waste of water in swimming pools and washing off decks and walkways. It is too little too late. It is easy to understand the faults of others, especially impersonal, heartless utilities that crush our farms, dairies and creamery.
Before the end of the 1800s Owens lakeshore had shrunk 200 feet. If there never had been L.A., could the lake still have dried? This somewhat pointless speculation involves conjecture on what this land would look like today without the City. Like San Jose or Riverside? True, the City used nefarious means to buy land. Appeal to local greed and pay top dollar for one central piece of land, then pump down the groundwater and buy several surrounding pieces for much less.<br> <br> But at every turn the City outsmarted the people living in its water-rich colony until, drained by embezzlement, the collapse of the Watterson banks brought almost everyone to poverty. The water wars were over, and all that was left to do was to tally the accumulating dead farms.
Yet, we live well here in Inyo County. The loss has been acknowledged and we move on. Still in my heart is a bitterness that is slowly being healed by all the good people I meet here and in the City.
This farmer on whose land I stand lived a full life and died in 1929. He saw so much. There was a contradiction between the farmers’ deleterious misuse of irrigation on the land, mostly through ignorance, and their wish to farm the lands for their bountiful crops. Just as their lives on the farm were dying, voices of the past were stirring the people of the City of Bishop towards action. They still love and use the land respectfully, but now they have created an industry of recreation. Exercise, becoming one with nature, hiking, fishing, hunting, and biking: the list of recreational opportunities goes on.<br> <br> This new way of life was birthed because of the people who took the water, and the first farmers who did such a mediocre job with our fertile valley. There is a kind of peace borne in acceptance. Bishop High School once had dances in the old barn, and now occasional weddings take place outside its weathered face. It’s funny how things change.
We still shape the land and it continues to shape us.