Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Grass Growing from Pounding Stone:
 San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area

     Many years ago I heard a version of a legend about how one of the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin River got the name “Squaw Leap."  In this version a squaw during a skirmish pulled a Spanish conquistador over the edge of the cliff. I didn’t think much of the story then, but one meaning of the story has stuck with me over the years: Some people will, without hesitation, give their life to protect a place and a community. 
     Over the years I have come to understand the natural, cultural and spiritual “significance of place”  at “Squaw Leap” and other areas in the foothills. I know where to find different species of flowers and birds every year. I know where to find many of the ancient Native American village sites. And I have experienced profound spiritual revelations in the river gorge and elsewhere in the mountains. 
Fiddleneck and Popcorn: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     For instance, almost every year in early spring near the parking lot of the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area, popcorn and fiddleneck flowers bloom profusely. In some years baby blue eyes blanket such a large area that you might think the sky has fallen to the ground. As you progress along the trail you find red maids and purple vetch and poppies and soon are overpowered by the cloying fragrance of deer brush. Next to a small stream that runs across the trail, shooting stars bloom. Storks beak and fennel grace the edge of the trail. Then you find spot rugs of baby blue eyes and goldfields, each stretch of trail providing a different array of flowers.
     When I was a younger man, one day as I hiked down to the river all stress disappeared and my senses opened. I noticed flower after flower, each with its own stunning color and design. Feeling adventurous, I decided to stray just a little from the trail to explore the creek and discovered a pounding stone with one mortar. 
Pounding Stone next to River: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     The place took on a completely new significance for me. I realized that another culture had dwelt there for thousands of years, perhaps sixteen thousand years or more. Our own culture, in contrast, has only settled the area in the past century and a half. In most of the mountains and valleys, a few trails and pounding stones are all that is left of once great cultures that spanned across the the entire continent.
     What we did to those cultures was unspeakable, and what we continue to do to what they left behind and to the natural world that was once their home is also unspeakable. 
     I have returned many times to the river gorge. If you have only been there once or twice, you cannot possibly have a true perspective of the place. You have not seen how the living tapestry has changed from one year to another.  You do not know the different arrays of flowers that grow there given the varying weather conditions.  You do not have, in relationship to this place, the living, changing tapestry of memory that is the basis for so much meaning in our lives.
Lupine Bushes: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     Once, when I was hiking down to the river, I passed a lupine bush with numerous buds. That day at sunset when I returned back up the trail, I noticed that one of the buds had bloomed--perhaps the first bloom of spring in the gorge. The next year that I returned I searched for the lupine bush and discovered that its gray limbs were strewn upon the steep slope.  The other lupine bushes and the goldfields that had jeweled the slope the previous year were blooming again in the sandy soil, but there was also much more miniature lupine and owl’s clover. I risk stating the obvious when I say that these little things weave together to form the living tapestry of memory.
     A little farther down the path, just south of the second gate, over the past twenty-five years or so I have occasionally encountered a pale yellow flower that I have never seen anywhere else in the foothills (and I have seen much of the foothills). It only blooms when the conditions are right. I have never found it in wildflower books, so I don’t know its name.  It’s possible that the home of one of the last specimens of an entire species is right next to a path that will be buried underwater by the dam.
Popcorn Flowers below Bluff:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     On that path I had what the Qabalists call the “Vision of Harmony.” I saw each life form, in the river gorge and the cosmos, as a field of energy within fields upon fields of living energy all harmoniously interwoven. But I cannot dwell on what kinds of spiritual experiences I have had or how or I have recovered from personal losses in the river gorge. 
     I know from experience that the jargon of an environmental impact statement often hides what is truly happening. This process is all about legality--essentially about what makes the destruction of this river gorge legal. However, what is legal and what is moral are two very different things indeed in this case.
     You cannot rip apart a magnificent tapestry thread by thread and hope to put it back together again. The habitat of the San Joaquin River Gorge is a majestic, sprawling tapestry in all its dazzling complexity and fragility. All the species, so interwoven and interdependent, have adapted to their own unique location and to each other over time immemorial. When you destroy an entire habitat individual “mitigation measures” become merely a piecemeal attempt to salvage the most threatened species. 
Goldfields near Dead Lupine:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     Moreover, a habitat does not just consist of rare, threatened, or endangered species but of many interrelated species, all of which are significant. The loss of individual members of a “thriving" species due to habitat loss means a loss to the overall species as a whole, moving it closer to the “threatened" classification. Destruction of the entire habitat means dissolving the web of species that have adapted to each other within uniquely specific conditions that cannot be recreated anywhere else. You cannot hope to recreate the habitat ever again if you bury it under water--no part of the personal, cultural or biological significance of the habitat can truly be recovered or replaced. Mitigation measures become a pathetic attempt to save a few of the most fragile threads, not the whole tapestry.
     Once the water from the dam at Temperance Flat drowns the habitat, the threads of life that once tied the place together will be gone forever. The roots will die, the rocks and soil remaining unstable. 
Pounding Stone near Hydro Project in Inundation Zone of Millerton Lake: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area

     The dam will not only destroy an entire habitat. The water from the dam will bury the homeland of a Native American tribe under hundreds of feet of water, the last stage in a long, horrendous process of genocide. You cannot realistically mitigate the destruction of a Native American site, each of which is unique, each with its own cultural, historical and spiritual significance. You cannot move the pounding stones and house pits and burial sites and trails to some other place. 
     Despite all the discussion of mitigation in the environmental impact statement, adequate mitigation for ecocide or for the last stages of genocide is impossible.
     Every stretch of trail in the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area contains personal significance to the people who have hiked or biked the trail with friends or relatives or alone. You cannot tear apart the living tapestry of memory within an individual or a community and hope to piece it back together. 
Baby Blue Eyes next to Trail: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area
     If the dam is approved, the public will pay more than a billion dollars (perhaps billions) for the destruction of this habitat and former Native American homeland. The public will pay to destroy the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area. In other words, taxpayers will foot the bill for the destruction of its own land, essentially for private interests, such as the farmers on the east side of the valley.
     Claiming that water for salmon is a public benefit, after Friant Dam destroyed the original run, is an insult to the intelligence. The greatest public benefit would consist of spending the billions for water conservation measures, which have already proven to be far more cost effective, far more efficient and far less damaging to the environment. Government agencies should already know about these conservation measures.  If not, just a few minutes on the internet can be very enlightening.
     As a final insult, the burden of ensuring that mitigation measures are effective ultimately falls on the public. Too often, government agencies make a poor attempt to implement or “bird-dog” the implementation of mitigation measures.  To continue with the analogy, the public is left with the task of ensuring that a few threads of a huge tapestry are woven back together in a way that resembles the original.
Pounding Stone near Suspension Bridge: 
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Management Area

     Regarding the loss of the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area, the only adequate mitigation would consist of replacing these public lands with habitat of equal size and natural values.  Without this one-to-one mitigation the public ends up a pathetic, hoodwinked loser, paying for ecocide and the destruction of its own lands and participating in the last stages of genocide, essentially for the benefit of private interests.  A dam at Temperance Flat would remain an unconscionable violation of the public trust in the broadest sense.