Reflections on Mono lake

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It’s a calm foggy day here on the Left Coast. We’ve just returned from an all too brief visit to the Mono Basin bioregion, that internal drainage on the East Sierra pockmarked with the ancient detritus of momentarily quiescent  volcanoes.

Mono Lake is a history lesson in the futility of living out of place. It seems that in the 1880s s few gold miners, disgruntled with the hard work of extracting reluctant gold ore from the mountain sides thereabouts, decided instead to raise food for the hungry miners at Bodie and Lundy. Flowing down the slopes from the surrounding mountains are a number of cool, effervescent streams plunging uselessly into the alkali waters of Mono Lake. Why not put them to good use, build a ditch, divert their waters to the sagebrush covered slopes of the ancient lake bed and farm the land around the lake?

The hard rock miners of the eastern Sierra were evidently little practiced in the art of irrigation ditch construction. They neglected to test the soils of their project area for permeability, and when their wheezing steam shovel had completed its work and the waters of Rush Creek turned loose into the ditch, they quickly soaked into the soil, never to reach their intended agricultural destination.

Not to be deterred, farmers arrived and rearranged the landscape anyway. They chained the useless sagebrush from the land, redirected existing drainages, built their houses and barns and raised crops and livestock for the hungry miners gazing down from their serene and garden free heights.

As we walked the trails slanting down to the tufa decorated lake shore, we came across the leavings of this temporary agricultural community: lengths of heavy chain among piles of dried sagebrush branches, assorted tin cans, bottles, broken glass, car parts and car bodies spotted with bullet holes, an occasional remnant of a log structure, and the Refrigerator Tufa, a hollow stone edifice that once contained a running spring, where farmers kept their perishables in its cool, bubbling interior.

Fortunately for the natural world that remains, hard rock mining petered out in the area in the 1940s. Lundy largely disappeared, and Bodie became a ghost town, visited by desert rats and curious touristas, a lesson in living in place gone bad. The shelf above Mono Lake returned to its dominant sagebrush ecosystem, hiding the leftovers of abandoned human endeavor.

Unfortunately for the local ecosystem and the humans who visit it, Mono Basin has been taken over by the Forest Circus and renamed the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. This misplaced agency of the Department of Agriculture treats all of its lands as croplands, and, judging by the singular lack of forest in Mono Basin, Forest Circus bureaucrats are unsure of their own responsibilities.

On our return walk from the tufa-bedecked shoreline of Mono lake, we climbed the hill to the fortress-like Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center, therein to be numbed to speechlessness by shabby human interpretations of the real world beyond its expensive, official government walls and windows.

One exhibit outshone all the rest, a collection of photographs of the area that was hidden away in a dark corner of the exhibit hall beyond a closed door with a tiny sign legible only in close proximity. The exhibit featured classic black and white photographs by photographers and observers of the Mono Lake area, including Ansel Adams and the Weston brothers, Brett and Cole. Unfortunately, the placement of the photographs in front of floor to ceiling unshielded windows, plus unimaginative and inappropriate lighting, made it virtually impossible to see and appreciate the unexcelled quality of the works on display.

Hitching up my Archival Photography Sheriff’s badge, I approached the three Forest Circus petty bureaucrats lounging insouciantly at the front desk of the tourist emporium, two of them resplendent in official Forest Circus olive tweed, eschewing for the moment their official Smokey Bear hats.

When I inquired about the state of presentation of the photography exhibit, the  two male government officials standing with arms crossed, staring in every direction but mine, inclined their eyebrows toward the third member of their band, a female of the species exhibiting black law enforcement plumage. When I mentioned how difficult it was to see the proffered photographs and how poorly they are presented, she observed, “Yeah, we’ve been trying to get rid of that exhibit for years. There are lots more pictures in storage.”

Apparently, photographs of the landscape in their charge are insufficiently crop-like to engage the limited interests of Department of Agriculture employees posted to this hot, dusty, singularly unagricultural facility.

We gathered the dregs of our disappointment and went back outside, into the real world of Mono Basin, past the unleashed dog peering in the door, past gaily decked out tourists climbing out of their air conditioned SUVs, to our pleasant walk across the sagebrush flats to Lee Vining, our traditional celebratory Frosty Freeze ice cream cone, and an outstanding repast in the Kitchenette at Murphy’s Motel.

Adams Mono Lake

Ansel Adams
Reflections at Mono Lake, California
1948
Gelatin silver print
David H. Arrington Collection
© 2011 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

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