Water, water, art

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The braided hump in the lower left of the photo appears to be one of the Nature of Art installations that Renee and I volunteered on in 2015. At least I want it to be! 

We went out and walked along the Truckee River from the western end of McCarran Ranch yesterday to soak in a little bit of the water that is flowing into the heart of the Great Basin, and will maybe recharge our aquifers and build our water tables (I’m not expert, this is just what I hope will happen), and refresh our hearts.

 

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Volunteering with artists Mary O’Brien and Daniel McCormick in 2015 (they are the people on the left). The photo above was taken from somewhere near the cottonwoods in the distance. 

McCarran Ranch has been the site of extensive, well, first landscape restructuring to straighten the river, and then, more recently, landscape restructuring to restore the river’s natural flow patterns, part of which mean diffusing the water out and slowing it down at times of high water flow. A part of this landscape work involved the Nature of Art, which Renee and volunteered for and I’ve written about before here and more briefly here.

 

The first impression of walking into the western end of the McCarran Ranch is that the work they have done is paying off. From the quick channel dropping water straight into the preserve, it almost immediately becomes diffused and spread out across the whole floodplain. While this is certainly no scientific observation, it seemed pretty clear that the work was doing what it was intended to do (we were also all the way across the plain from the main channel, so again this is just anecdotal).

Then walking along we saw an elongated hump out on across one of the slower moving channels. With the high water it was hard to say for sure, but we were fairly convinced that it was one of the Nature of Art installations, the first one that we volunteered on helping making willow wattles (written about in the post linked above). Whether it really was or not, it made us feel so good to see that and believe it. To believe in the power of people coming together to make a difference in our world, and in the power to revision a world in a different way that combines beauty and respect, and to see WATER!!!

Down in the Sink

On the Humboldt Sink, where the water comes to an end. Here it either rises into the sky or seeps into the earth. 

View of the Humboldt Sink from the southeast. Courtesy of photographer Famartin via Wikipedia Commons

Water has been the theme of life lately. More specifically, lots of it! In various forms too: rain, snow, frozen rain, floodwater, ice. Not to complain, I am loving this winter’s latest explosions. Any inconvenience is more than made up for by the good it does for all of us and the world we share with so many other living things. Tonight though, I’m thinking about a place where the water ends. Specifically, the Humboldt Sink. It has always been a place to rush by, the part of I-80 from Lovelock until you crest the hill and start arrive at the Fallon cut-off. A sort of blip in the map. But as I start to learn more about the Great Basin it occurs to me that sinks, even more so than mountain peaks or lush meadows, are the defining features of our part of the world.

A sink is a distinctive geographic feature; a basin from which no water escapes. Rather than flowing into some other basin (like an ocean), the water that flows into a sink does not flow out. It only leaves by evaporation or penetration (i.e., sinking into the groundwater). The Humboldt Sink is the end of the Humboldt River.

One Saturday we set out to explore the Humboldt Sink a bit, along with Lovelock Cave. The cave is an amazing piece of the human record of the Great Basin, a place that was occupied for over 4,000 years! After the cave we drove down the road and just walked out toward the sink. While we didn’t make it as far as the actual playa bed, just walking among the greasewood-dotted sand dunes,  swales and salt grass flats was striking.

This was also the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, perhaps the most terror-inspiring and horrific place on the California Trail. Travelers were no fan of the place,

“In place of a great rent in the earth, into which the waters of the rivers plunged with a terrible roar (as pictured in our imagination), there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a ‘slough of despond,’ an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison, which emitted a nauseous odor and presented the appearance of utter desolation. ” —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

“Even the very wagons seem to know that we are off today for the great adventure—in sand, volcanic ash, alkali, furnace heat, and the stench of putrid flesh—We crossed along the edge of an immense baked plain with the fetid stinking slough for a guide, although the wreckage along the way almost paved our route…. It must have been here that one emigrant said he counted a dead animal every 106 feet.”

It was also an important place for Native Americans, and as such they often came into contact with and conflict with the newcomers. I highly recommend reading Across Nevada, a pamphlet put out in 2012 by the National Park Service from which the top quote is taken. It’s definitely gone into the library. The bottom, unacknowledged, one is from The WPA Guide to Nevada (already in the library).

It is a sink, and walking along in its sand dunes we often started to disappear a bit, giving us an even deeper feeling of walking into a place older somehow than everything around it. A place where more has disappeared than has remained. And, as described by John McPhee in Basin and Range, where a new ocean will one day appear:

“Death Valley. Walker Lake. Carson Sink.” An Exxon map of the western United States is spread open on the seat between us. He runs his finger from Death Valley to Carson Sink and on northward to cross the interstate at Lovelock. “The ocean will open here,” he repeats. “Or in the Bonneville Basin. I think here.” (p. 138 of his collected Annals of the Former World)

I don’t know if this is the most current geology, but this was what most caught my imagination when I read this fascinating book and remains for me a striking image, a metaphor even for the ability of reality to be transformed by the passage of time. That the place that I had driven by hundreds of times, where I walked with Renee and Coco on a calm and cool early spring day, where emigrants had cursed and fought, where Native Americans had seen the beginning of the end of their life ways with the arrival of bands of newcomers with terrible weapons and new diseases, that this place will become an ocean. We come across a perfectly molted snake skin and stop to examine its contours. One day it will open and where we are will be swallowed by a vast expanse of cresting ocean. We walk on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the vast plain until you lift your eyes to the ringing mountains.

Rhyolite 1907, Where Are We Now?

This sculpture, in Rhyolite, Nevada, represents very well for me the tension between presence and absence that happens in Western ghost towns.

On our drive south for Christmas, Renee and I stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town nearby Beatty right off the main highway to Death Valley. Despite going by many times I’d never been there before and it was a stunning ethereal experience of standing in what had clearly been an important place for many people now tumbled into ruins among vivid colored cliffs, only tempered by a threatening overcast extending all the way along the line of Nevada. We stopped and parked along the old railway station and walked down the entrance road, which had most likely been the main street, now just tortured facades reminiscent of photos of bombed buildings. The emptied building dominates the skyline.

Ruin dominates the skyline. Other than the mountains, of course, which always dominate the real skyline in most Western cities.

It’s an idea that has interested me for a while. We are, well, future dwellers, at least it has always been a persistent feeling I’ve had—and the pace of human development, of the development of human population and technology leads to the idea of our being on the crest of a wave. But being in a place like Rhyolite begs you to consider that, in the midst of all of this population growth and networks of communication, culture, industry, et al., why do those of us who want to explore out in the reaches of the West find ourselves in a much less  populated planet than anyone would have experienced at the turn of the century? Where there were thousands of people there is now no one.

The old train depot, sadly, was swathed in chain link.

Rhyolite existed more or less from 1904 to 1909 (if you’re interested in details of the history, based on my fairly cursory research and just based on the quality, read the wikipedia article on Rhyolite, in addition to telling you all you want to know about the town, it is, in my opinion, a really great example of a Wikipedia entry). In those five years of existence it came to boast a train station, a bank with Italian marble and stained glass, two railroads, a building made of emptied bottles, thousands of people, a school and then another school, concrete sidewalks, maybe some more pools (based on this ghost towns’ site, by the way the as far as I could see uncited, but clearly  best text on this site’s entry begins “one of the most interesting stories”).

Thinking about Rhyolite and how it represents the conundrum of the West in modernity, where even with the explosion of outdoor recreation we are still just a shadow of past use, I got curious about ghost town. Its specific naming seems pretty obvious, but I wondered, when did that term come into use? It had to have been in some way cultural, there had to have been a moment when “empty” or “abandoned” town became “ghost town” and based on my quick search, the date is 1931. The term seems to have been in use before this, based on a footnote appearing in Western Places, American Mythology: How We Think about the West by Gary Hausladen (which I found randomly, and is published by the UNP, and is now on my must-read list!), but based on a search of “ghost town” and 1931, that date is most likely the result of photographer Paul Strand and his striking photos. I don’t know anything beyond this, nor even if this is correct etymology, but it is really striking to come from 1931, when the West went for the first time from untapped area for exploration, to closed, to Dust Bowl and “nowhere.”

The famous bottle house. With a miniature bottle replica of the town. 

After walking the main street, we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, where Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created The Last Supper and, even more pertinently for me, the Ghost Biker. They capture really perfectly the idea of absence in presence that overwhelms me in Western ghost towns.

Read Land, Write Walk: Northern Virginia Range, Nevada

This image from the Lagomarsino trailhead on Long Valley Creek well illustrates the role of perspective in evaluating landscapes, if facing the other direction, rather than this pretty scene, we would be looking at the entrance to the Washington Hill quarry.

Walking in the foothills east of Reno recently, I thought about what my first write-walk should be after the end of NaNoWriMo. Sometime last year I wrote a post about a day out that Renee and I shared in Reno on our bikes. It was, among other things, National Indie Bookstore Day, so our day started off with a stop at Sundance Bookstore. There I found a fascinating book called How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. Casting about for topics, and wanting to really focus on this blog, I remembered that post and thought what a better thing to write-walk than a landscape. And what a better place to read landscape than these tortured, volcanic, long and deeply used hills.

Hills are mountains that will be hills again.

I pulled up the list that Wyckoff had created giving tips for reading landscapes. While there are many more to focus on than these, the ones that I want to focus on today are, “Appreciate the role of time,” “Recognize the importance of scale,” and “Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.”

Time

These hills east of Reno are the remains of volcanic activity that predates the rise of the Sierra Nevada, and the landscape would have then resembled the Cascades more than the current Virginia Range (more in my post on The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone ). The dominant plant and animal species came in waves: some “real” pine trees, the juniper and sagebrush, wild horses, later invasive species: cheat grass and mustard weed most notably. While I am walking across their slopes many jet planes, some obviously commercial, others more likely military, use the airspace above me to approach the Reno airport. There is day-long activity at the quarry that is Washington Hill. And there is much evidence of past heavy use: the remains of a stone house I see in the canyon bottom, a wide old road now an OHV path. At places I can almost see over to the Tesla Gigafactory. I crest over a hill and see in the canyon of the Truckee below me a place that was an important life source for native people. Then transformed into a major thoroughfare for the West: gold-seeking emigrant parties, the first transcontinental railroad, the first interstate all have used this narrow funnel into the Golden Land of California.

Volcanic deposits and pine trees in the Virginia Range, or the Mountains that Built Modernity.

Scale

The scale of the landscape is dominated by the massive undertaking that scraped off the top of Washington Hill and that continues to haul it away for our purposes. A massive scale that is mirrored in the vistas of the river, of the sierra to the west, Clark Mountain to the east. Nearby rock formations, splashes of multicolored rock, pines spaced parklike in otherwise grassless volcanic parks all seem to be muted against the vastness of all else, and yet these are just little trackless mountains, blinks of the eyes on the interstates. Places to go through to get somewhere else. The juxtaposition is powerful.

Washington Hill dominates the local landscape.

Seeing Your Own Experience

I set out in the morning along a jeep trail that climbs along the side of the Washington Hill Quarry. There are numerous shooting sites here and the landscape, while still brilliantly volcanically colored, is tortured and adorned with litter and the trappings of modern gun culture: hundreds of shells, metal and plastic twisted by bullet holes, the remains of several destroyed pumpkins from recent Halloween. In the canyon bottom I notice a large piece of cardboard on which someone has scrawled cartoons of a man grasping his penis and a naked woman alongside. The crude drawings are labeled “DICK HEAD” and “SKANK” and are peppered with bullet holes. Something I hope was just the release of steam and not the prelude to tragedy. Beyond there someone has planted 2 trees, surrounded by stones as though they are meant to mark something. The place makes me nervous and I hurry past. Deeper in the canyon there is still evidence of people. I follow tracks, but the litter is less and I start to appreciate the presence of the volcanic parks dotted with not-juniper pines. Climbing out of the canyon I am struck by the vastness of the city basin from Mount Rose up to Peavine. The modest silhouette of Clark Mountain belying in the distance its grandness, the utility of Washington Hill. Walking back along the ridge line it is the Truckee and colorful volcanic outcroppings.

The remains of the gun range.

I think part of the reason I am so attracted by this landscape, by exploring in this area, is just this. It is a place in complete transit, unconsidered by many and used hard by others. It doesn’t reveal itself easily. And yet when it comes into focus its story is incredibly rich and is a microcosm for how Nevada has always been seen by people. While there is a growing sense of pride in place in Nevada, it still remains for many a place to use and go through. Real understanding of the landscape goes much deeper than that.

The End of the Road at Massacre Lakes (3 of 3)

This is the 3rd installment for this post, read the first here and the second here. And now there is a fourth follow up here

In Winnemucca yesterday, Renee and I stopped at the Humboldt County Library. It is a pretty special place in my memory and it’s always a pleasure to visit there, both for nostalgia and to see artist, and friend, Megan Berner’s show from her Black Rock Desert Artist in Residency (but more on that later …) There was another purpose to this stop, however, it was to visit the library’s Nevada Room, where I guessed that I would find Effie Mona Mack’s 1936 book Nevada: A History of the State from Earliest Times through the Civil War, which contains another account of the events at Massacre Lake.

Mack was said to be, according to Wikipedia, “the only person to receive a Doctorate in the history of Nevada,” which seems pretty unlikely, but she was a professor at UNR and the precursor to UNLV. Among other books, she wrote The Indian Massacre of 1911 about “The last Indian battle of the West,” the murder of Basque stock men in Little High Rock Canyon by a Native American extended family led by the man most famously known as Shoshone Mike, and their pursuit and eventual (mostly) deaths at the hands of a Winnemucca posse (See Frank Bergon’s excellent novel Shoshone Mike on this). Mack’s Shoshone Mike book (I think the first) was very pro-posse and anti–Native American, so I didn’t really expect a balanced account of the Massacre Lakes events, but still its the last source to track down and I was curious to see her take. Here is Mack’s:

Massacre Lake was named for a fearful slaughter of emigrants which took place near there in the summer of 1850, a tragedy concerning which little is known. It seems, however, that this train was a particularly large one composed of several companies. The party had been bothered by the Indians on the Humboldt Trail, and several red men had been killed. Finally the party decided to make a united drive against the Indians, a fatal mistake. Although the Indians were driven back of the train and the white forces returned to their main encampment, the natives were not beaten. Almost at once, they gained on the white train, and attacked the camp when it was not prepared to defend itself. The men of the train finally gained the victory, but not until forty of them had been killed in defense of their wives and children. They were all buried in a common and unmarked grave. Every precaution was taken to obliterate its location lest the Indians disinter and desecrate the bodies.

Despite its biased language, there is an interesting detail in this this telling—first, direct provocation, the party “bothered” by Indians, had killed “several red men.” I don’t really think that her account here of the natives attacking the train is necessarily that likely. A train “composed” of several parties, and with well more than 40 men and the firepower that that entailed, would probably have been a pretty formidable force for less well-equipped natives to attack. Also, if the wagon train was attacked, then why would only “men” have died. All of the accounts stress this, and I would think in confused battle at the train, some women and children would have been at the very least caught in the crossfire, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think the account I shared in my last post is more likely. A force of men probably thought they would drive off the natives, attacked, and then, too late or too overextended, were overrun. The remainder of the party, barricaded in the wagon train, then would have emerged after the battle to bury the dead in their unmarked mass grave.

All of the sources I’ve examined, of course, have been written by the “victors,” and I would love to be able to look at the same story told from the other side. But (although if anyone reading this knows of anything else, please let me know) it is likely that not much else exists and it’s time for me to close this chapter anyway.

What is clear is that the Massacre Lakes name carries the weight of tragedy. These places that I find so idyllic, beautiful, peaceful are often illusions that hide stories of pain, suffering, violent death on all sides. (Although in the long run, and in contrast to this story, more for the Native Americans.) I am happy to focus on beauty and harmony, but it’s also important to acknowledge all that has gone on before and to try, even if only in the memory and the imagination, to honor it.

Down the Rabbit Hole—Massacre Lakes edition (2 of 3)

Read the first post in the series here or the third here

I love working in a library! I might bitch sometimes (who doesn’t) but the fact that I spend my days in the middle of a vast repository of knowledge, learning and scholarship is an absolute privilege.

So after writing earlier on Massacre Lakes I was able to look at the book and follow the sources (good citations are a beautiful beautiful thing) and I found this great little further explanation of what happened there in 1850. There is one more citation I hope to look at, at least, but this is such a little wonderfully evocative piece of writing:

 “little further on are the MASSACRE LAKES (R), dry sinks. In 1850, a large and well-equipped train elected to take the Applegate Cut-off into northern California. In this area, reached by way of High Rock Canyon (L), they were attacked by Indians. Rashly leaving the shelter of their wagons the immigrants charged on their foe and though they vanquished the Indians, 40 men were killed. In fearful haste the dead were gathered and interred in a common grave. Then oxen drew wagons back and forth over the spot in an attempt to disguise it and save it from desecration.”

Of course this also raises more questions, so on we go!

What Happened at Massacre Lakes? (1 of 3)

Looking east-ish from the dune tops toward Dr. Seuss’s farmstead.

One of the more striking places I’ve been lately has been Massacre Lakes in northern Washoe County with the Middle Lake’s Dr. Seuss–feeling old ranch site, obsidian strewn dunes, alabaster lake beds, and enormously moving sky. We barely even scratched the surface of the place on this first, a little fearful of rain, visit, but I can’t wait to be back.

Obsidian, obsidian, everywhere. From the top of the dune it caught sunlight and looked like broken glass strewn everywhere


Nice little obsidian rock


There is plenty of evidence of human intervention here


Another view of Dr. Seuss’s farmstead, check out @dannvdan on instagram for some more from this striking place!

But there is a thing, that name. Not exactly the kind of the name that says, “Hey, happy things happened here!” What did happen at Massacre Lakes? Well, first a little background from Wikipedia. The Massacre Lakes are a part of Long Valley, a closed, no water flows out, basin (endorheic is the technical term from Wikipedia). The lakes themselves extend into the ridge of the lava flows to the east toward the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

How did this striking place become Massacre Lakes? Well, you might guess. From Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary by Helen S. Carlson (Why don’t I own this book? Although this entry luckily included in the Google Books preview, page 164):

“A large and well-equipped wagon train was attacked near here in 1850 by Indians of the High Rock Canyon country. Forty men of the emigrant party were killed in the battle and interred in a common grave.”

So there you have it. Somewhere nearby there is a mass grave (I think if human history has taught us anything, one thing you can expect near a massacre site is a mass grave). But knowing more raises questions. Why was the train particularly “well-equipped”? How is it that exactly “40” “men” were killed. How many survivors were there? How many native casualties? What are the sources? (They of course are given, but the citation page isn’t in the Google Books preview so that will have to wait until I get to the library.) If it were a “massacre” then why does the source say “battle”?

Some of these things are surely just lost in the past, carried away by the persistent and prevalent wind, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn what we can?

* Continue reading here.