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The Silos of Inyo County: Tombstones of the Ghost Farms

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.

Twin Silos and Collapsed Farm Building - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Twin Silos and Collapsed Farm Building - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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.

Boarded-Up Farm House - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Boarded-Up Farm House - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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:

Silos and Shadows - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetof
Silos and Shadows - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetof

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.

 

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The story being told by these shadows permeates my conscience. I think about how hard life was in the 1870s. When these pioneer farmers got here from the Midwest, most of them had to master a new way of farming in arid lands. Since the seasonal rains were both severely delineated and often unfaithful, these farmers learned irrigation techniques, and ultimately built two hundred miles of unlined canals.

Window View of Twin Silos from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Window View of Twin Silos from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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.

Twin Silos, Collapsed Building & Pink Foliage - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Twin Silos, Collapsed Building & Pink Foliage - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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.

I wanted to argue with this voice. As a loyal Owens Valley patriot, I knew it was only Los Angeles taking the water that caused the collapse of agriculture here. The abandoned silo ruins and boarded-up farms gave undeniable evidence to the main cause: water extraction by “flatlanders.” Now it seemed the responsibility must be shared.

Boarded-Up Farm House with Watchful Horse - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Boarded-Up Farm House with Watchful Horse - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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.

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.

Collapsed Building with Hoarded Appliances and Tires - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Collapsed Building with Hoarded Appliances and Tires - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff 

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.

Window View of Boarded-Up Farm House from Abandoned Barn - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Window View of Boarded-Up Farm House from Abandoned Barn - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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.

View from Atop Silo onto Naturally Irrigated Pasture and Snowcapped Sierra Nevada - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
View from Atop Silo onto Naturally Irrigated Pasture and Snowcapped Sierra Nevada - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

The continuous planted fields from Laws to Bishop, the trees along the highway, the flowers and the pasture, rich with nutrients for bovine stomachs are now gone. It feels to me that this lost land is a floating dream world. All that remains besides community and personal family gardens are alfalfa fields.

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.

Traffic on Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016  (approximately one mile from silos) | Osceola Refetoff
Traffic on Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016  (approximately one mile from silos) | Osceola Refetoff
Kevin Mazzu  Downtown Bishop, CA  Kevin is a Bishop resident, local businessman, and civic leader. Active with local projects and charities, he has led the committee to gain National Scenic Area status for the Alabama Hills in nearby Lone Pine, CA.
Kevin Mazzu Downtown Bishop, CA Kevin is a Bishop resident, local businessman, and civic leader. Active with local projects and charities, he has led the committee to gain National Scenic Area status for the Alabama Hills in nearby Lone Pine, CA.

We head into downtown Bishop, where farming has been replaced by another landscape-based economic engine: recreational tourism. I stop and talk to Karen Schwartz who owns Sage to Summit. She is rushed to get home to cook dinner for her family, but stops to say her business is on an upward curve. She assures me life is good on Main Street, no matter how many challenges are presented. I realize from adversity on our land the meaning of life is born. Still I hear the murmuring of restless voices. However, the bitterness from damage done to the land in the past is mitigated by local acceptance of some responsibility for the demise of the farms. The rancor of the past is also balanced by a new sense of optimism in the residents today for the hope of an improving future tomorrow.

We still shape the land and it continues to shape us.

– C.L.

Window Display of Ultralight Adventure Gear – Sage to Summit Store - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff
Window Display of Ultralight Adventure Gear – Sage to Summit Store - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

Almost all the black & white images presented on High & Dry are infrared exposures, likewise the strange-colored images captioned as "Color/Infrared Exposure" above. I've been experimenting with a "hot sensor" camera that allows exposure of the entire continuity of light energy from infrared, through the visual spectrum, to ultraviolet. Since the human eye can only perceive radiation in the visual spectrum, the infrared and mixed visual spectrum/infrared exposures capture ghostly forms detected only by the camera sensor and re-interpreted as colors we can see. A dispatch that includes "spirit" voices seemed like the ideal place to introduce this color infrared technique that I'll be incorporating into my general photographic practice.

– O.R.

To explore more High & Dry: desertdispatches.com - facebook.com/highanddry. We welcome your questions and comments.

Top Image: Boarded-Up Farm House - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

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