February 25, 2014
To the Inyo County Planning Department
and the Inyo County Board of Supervisors:
I am neither a biologist, economist, nor archaeologist, so I shall not speak in technical detail about the many reasons that Inyo County should not approve any type of large-scale solar or wind power developments, especially in the Owens Valley. But I am a great lover of the arts and of the natural world, and I firmly believe that a group of people who live with little understanding of their history, their land, and their culture can only proceed in folly. It is very clear to me that the Inyo County Planning Department’s Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA) is a demonstration of how to do exactly this.
For those of you who have never been outside of this room—which may be a greater number than I’d imagine as evidenced by the very existence of this plan—let me tell you a little bit about the county you govern and call your home, specifically the slice of it just beyond these doors.
The Owens Valley is startlingly beautiful, tucked as it is between the intricately colorful White/Inyo mountains on the east and the breathtaking “Range of Light,” the Sierra Nevada, on the west. The green thread of the Owens River winds sinuously along the valley floor just east of small towns like Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop. This startling beauty of the valley is the lifeblood of these towns, supporting through tourism their fragile economies.
After the City of Los Angeles extracted water from the Owens Valley, taking with it an economy based on agriculture, some of the leaders of our county realized the people would have to find other ways to support themselves. Men like George Savage of the Inyo Independent, the famous “Desert Padre” Father Crowley, Ralph Merritt, and Robert Brown recognized that the wealth of the Eastern Sierra lay in its beauty. In the 1930s, in the heart of the Great Depression, they formed the Inyo-Mono Associates—a group which still exists today—for the purpose of encouraging tourism and boosting the economy.
It worked. As a result of their advertising efforts and our continued efforts today, people from all parts of the world flock to the Owens Valley year-round in order to experience the pristine land we have everyday in our backyard. These visitors recognize what we apparently do not: that which makes our county great is its untouched, open space.
But don’t take my word for it—after all, I was born here and grew up with a love of the Owens Valley deep in my veins, so my bias for this land shows through in everything I do. Luckily, many others have documented their reasons for spending time in our remote region of California.
John Muir is a man who needs no introduction. In the first-ever detailed descriptions of the Owens Valley, Muir writes from Independence in 1875,
The massive sun-beaten Sierra rose before us out of the gray sagebrush levels like one vast wall 9,000 feet high adorned along the top with a multitude of peaks that seem to have been nicked out of all kinds of fanciful forms for the sake of beauty… We arrived here on one of the best of those lovely purple afternoons for which the dry desert regions lying to the east of the Sierra are remarkable…
He ends the account of his trek down Mt. Whitney and through the Owens Valley to Mono Lake with encouragement for California tourism that would have made Inyo-Mono Associates proud: “Californians are little aware of the grandeur of their own land, as is manifested by their leaving it for foreign excursions whenever they become able—leaving the wonders of our unrivaled plains and mountains wholly unrecognized.” All of the wonders of the world, Muir continues, can be found right here. I wonder if Muir might be unsurprised to find that Californians—specifically those who dwell in the Owens Valley—are still apparently “little aware of the grandeur of their own land,” which they’d like to see sacrificed to industrial development.
Other writers too, of course, have sought and found inspiration in the Owens Valley. Those of us who live in Independence regularly pass by Mary Austin’s little brown house at the corner of Market and Webster Streets. Austin was someone who gained an intimate knowledge of the Owens and Panamint Valleys, and many other parts of Inyo County. Of the county’s desert regions that humans so often mistakenly describe as empty, including those thousands of square miles designated for development in REGPA, she writes in 1903,
Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil… Go as far as you dare in the heart of a lonely land, you cannot go so far that life and death are not before you. Painted lizards slip in and out of rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands. Birds, humming-birds even, nest in the cactus scrub; woodpeckers befriend the demonic yuccas; out of the stark, treeless waste rings the music of the night-singing mocking-bird. If it be summer and the sun well down, there will be a burrowing owl to call. Strange, furry, tricksy things dart across the open places, or sit motionless in the conning towers of the creosote… The fairy-footed, ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the rainless regions…they are too many and too swift; how many you would not believe without seeing the footprint tracings in the sand. They are nearly all night workers, finding the days too hot and white.
And of the Owens Valley, a home she did not choose, Austin writes,
If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.
Let’s imagine for a moment, as much as it pains me, an Owens Valley blanketed on one side with fields of solar panels, access roads, transmission lines, buildings and fences and lights—not to mention piles of dead migratory birds, tricked and confused by the shiny, hot surfaces of the solar panels as they make their way south to the Owens Lake delta, the fifth largest migration stop in the State of California. How could such an image, imposed violently upon a once open space, lay hold of anyone’s affections, except perhaps the CEOs of desert-ravaging companies like BrightSource? No writer would find her voice in such a blighted place. Those who “always mean to go away” would finally do it. Those who never meant to go away might do so as well, sick at heart. Property values in towns like Independence and Lone Pine would sink lower and lower, while tourists shied away from an area that once beckoned them with its rainbow hills.
In 1950, another artist drawn to the rainbow hills of the Owens Valley and Inyo County, published a new, special edition of Mary Austin’s book The Land of Little Rain. This was Ansel Adams, arguably still today the most well-known of all photographers. This new edition was illustrated with his selected photographs of the Owens Valley and parts of Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada. The introduction was by Austin’s friend Carl Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and critic, where he writes of Austin’s time in the Owens Valley,
The desert put its mark on her, in the profound calm of her temper, in the neglect of things not fundamental to mankind, in her oracular habit of communication. Her desert knowledge ripened to a wisdom that formed and colored all her later experience. She had a standard by which to measure the world.
When I page now through this text, looking carefully at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Owens Valley, I’m am sickened to see just how many of them feature the lands designated as dispensable and “low” scenic priority by REGPA. This landscape which inspired the photographer Ansel Adams and helped build his luminous career, this landscape which shaped the writer Mary Austin’s life and forged for her “a standard by which to measure the world” is the very same landscape that you would like to see bludgeoned by industrialization. The cover jacket to the illustrated edition of The Land of Little Rain introduces the book with the words, “The American west lives in the singing prose of Mary Austin.” Let us hope that someday it does not live only in her singing prose. Don’t let her writings of the Owens Valley and Inyo County’s wildlands become nothing more than a prophetic elegy written a century in advance—an empty remnant describing a place destroyed at the hands of people entrusted to protect it.
Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Owens Valley brought to others the inspiration of this beautiful landscape. In his book Wallace Stegner and the American West, Philip Fradkin notes that Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angle of Repose, had hanging prominently on the wall in his home “Ansel Adams’s photograph of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada as seen from Lone Pine… To Wally the photograph of dawn breaking over the Owens Valley signified ‘renewal, rebirth, reassurance’ and enriched him, as did the choral movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” One is forced to wonder if Stegner would have found reassurance in a photo of dawn breaking over solar panels and industrial paraphernalia, and if such an image would have brought to mind the glorious and celebratory Ode to Joy. One suspects not.
Lone Pine, the setting for many of Adams’s photographs, under REGPA would be transformed into a peninsula poking out into a sea of industrial-sized energy development. But Adams was not the only artist to find inspiration in Lone Pine’s landscape. The painter Maynard Dixon, yet another famed artist of the American West, sought out the Owens Valley as a place to collect his thoughts. Donald J. Hagerty writes about him in The Life of Maynard Dixon:
Searching for personal and artistic renewal, Dixon decided to explore desert landscapes around California’s Owens Valley in September of 1919… He rode the…narrow gauge railroad to the terminus at Keeler near Lone Pine in Inyo County. At Lone Pine he stayed with old friends, ‘Dad’ Skinner, an early Inyo County pioneer… Looking for solitude, Dixon wandered in and out of the little towns strung along the base of the Sierra Nevada—Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine—explored the vast playa around Owens Lake, and rode through the endless sagebrush into the Inyo Mountains fronting the western edge of Death Valley. To the Paiute Indians, this was the ‘dwelling place of the great spirit.’ He could think things out in this empty desert… His inner integrity…led him to decide that his art must include an understanding drawn directly from nature and the American cultural experience.
Here again we find an artist whose life work was given direction by his direct experience of the Owens Valley’s landscape—which he sought very purposefully. He married the photographer Dorothea Lange in 1920 and they had two sons. Dixon, “anxious to head back to the desert,” returned again to the Owens Valley on an important trip in 1929, this time with his family. They stayed again “…with the Skinner family at Lone Pine. Dixon sketched and painted the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, explored the Panamint Mountains, wandered around the sun-warped buildings of Darwin and Coso, and visited Shoshone and Paiute Indian camps.” The paintings and sketches that came of this trip are some of the best of his career. Dixon, taken by the deep shadows and colors of the Inyo Mountains, painted with great precision the towering 10,000 and 11,000-foot peaks just east of Lone Pine—a portion of the Owens Valley, of course, deemed of “low” scenic value by the Inyo County Planning Department.
Maynard Dixon was not the only artist in his family to have a life-altering epiphany in the Owens Valley. Dixon’s wife, Dorothea Lange, at the time was a portrait photographer. Hagerty writes that Lange…had a positive revelation from nature. One day she was perched on a large rock when a fierce thunderstorm broke, and in the midst of the turbulence, she realized that she should concentrate on photographing people not just in formal portraits, but all kinds of people in the context of their lives. She felt this as one of the great spiritual experiences in her life.
Lange went on to become the most well-known and most skilled photographer of the Great Depression, traveling around the country for the Farm Security Administration. Her famous portrait, “Migrant Mother” is a perfect actualization of her desire to photograph “all kinds of people in the context of their lives”—a desire which came into focus in conjunction with a sudden Owens Valley thunderstorm.
Interestingly, both Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams returned to the Owens Valley during World War II to document and provide support for the Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government at Manzanar War Relocation Center, between Independence and Lone Pine. As you are well aware, Manzanar is today a National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service. The site seeks to educate the citizens of this nation, as well as the citizens of the world, about the tremendous mistake made by our government when it placed in concentration camps 120,313 people, two-thirds of them American citizens. These camps were purposefully selected in extremely remote areas where one would have no hope for escape, yet at the same time be provided with enough water and arable land for farming operations. The Owens Valley met this description perfectly. Former incarcerees remember very clearly the desert floor and the mountains that served as constant reminders of imprisonment. Yet simultaneously the beauty of the Owens Valley, the Sierra Nevada, and the Inyos provided some amount of comfort and hope. Japanese Americans remember seeing stars for the first time at Manzanar, astounded by the bright skies revealed by the solitude and remoteness of the Owens Valley.
Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams took photographs at Manzanar they hoped would demonstrate to the American people that this group we had evicted from their homes and locked behind barbed wire were just like you or me. The photographic records they kept of the camp demonstrate their determination to record this injustice so that we might learn from our history and be better by it. These photographic records also show, in great detail, the vast open space surrounding the confines of Manzanar—a space at once threatening and consoling.
REGPA defines forty-two square miles between Independence and Lone Pine as recommended for industrial-scale energy projects. The majority of these forty-two square miles would be clearly always visible from Manzanar. As a result of this, that very important solitude and emptiness would be mangled and lost. Visitors would have to study Lange’s and Adam’s photographs, hoping in vain to discover what that kind of desert and mountain solitude described by the Japanese Americans might feel like, since you would have it eradicated from the Owens Valley, just as it has been eradicated from almost all of the once wild state of California.
The artists and writers detailed above, who have been profoundly shaped by the Owens Valley and its environs, are but a miniscule smattering of all the artists, writers, musicians, composers, et cetera, I might have chosen to discuss. Others include Albert Bierstadt, Leland Curtis, Conrad Buff, Alson Skinner Clark, Alfred R. Mitchell, Edgar Payne, Frederick Doyle Penney, Edward Weston, Evelyn Eaton, Iren Marik, Frederick Grofe, Edward Abbey, Galen Rowell and scores more.
Isn’t this list incredible? Perhaps you’re surprised by how important the Owens Valley has been to so many people, who have then gone on to write about it, or paint or photograph it, bringing not only great renown to themselves but to the beauty of the Owens Valley.
Please consider what damage you will be doing to the future by denying future generations the chance to experience and be changed by the wide-open, undeveloped spaces of this valley—generations not just of artists, writers, and musicians, but everyone: travelers, adventurers, rock climbers, hunters, fisherman, history buffs, and others who seek this wild, untamed, and unparalleled intersection of mountains and desert for solace, or refuge, or inspiration.
And please do not forget the damage you will do to those of us who call the Owens Valley our home.
On that note, let’s consider also those who may someday like to call the Owens Valley their home. For a moment, let’s focus on our contemporary world and take a quick look at everyone’s favorite source of information: social media. Just today I posted a photo of the Owens Valley on the mobile sharing app, Instagram. I do this regularly, and I’m always amazed by the number of people from all corners of the globe who love the Owens Valley. One Instagram user commented today, “Without a doubt, the Eastern Sierras are, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the US. Definitely hope to settle down there one day!” Another wrote, “Owens Valley is one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever witnessed.” An Instagram user who lives in England and honeymooned in the Owens Valley said, “hope 2 return to Owens Valley one day, it’s such a beautiful place.” Another from North Carolina wrote as a caption to his own photo of the Owens Valley just outside Independence, “I would die a happy man if I could call this place my home… I can’t imagine waking up to this beauty every single day!”
I’m sure you get my point. People are so moved by the beauty of this valley that they literally want to live here. One can’t express love for a place much more strongly than that. For others, the landscape of the Owens Valley has changed the trajectory of their lives. This landscape has inspired artists to create some of the most beautiful works of art in the history of the United States. Their experiences in the Owens Valley encapsulate the defining cultural history of this country, changed and shaped forever by expansion into the fabled American West.
So, I must ask of the Planning Department, who created this horrific document, and of the Board of Supervisors, who could not have been unaware of this plan’s progress and in whose hands lies this plan’s future:
You all live here in Inyo County. Some of you have spent your adult lives here. Some of you were born here. Has your proximity to the world-renowned beauty of the Owens Valley and Inyo County rendered you blind? Are you just too close to see how lucky you are?
Our very own newspaperman W. A. Chalfant, founder of the Chalfant Press, said of Inyo County, “Nature has written here, in bold strokes, studies more fascinating than the little affairs of humanity.” Your decision to create and support a plan like REGPA demonstrates that you are getting far too caught up in these little affairs of humanity—these promises of temporary political comfort or temporary wealth—and you have forgotten to take into account what “Nature has written here”—a lasting comfort, a permanent wealth.
Permanent, that is, unless you move to destroy it. Don’t.
For if you do, you will live out the rest of your life always aware of a heavy, gnawing guilt lodged in your conscience and in your heart for having irrevocably destroyed one of the most beautiful lands on this earth.