My father dearly LOVES Mono Lake. One of his very grateful patients really wanted my Dad to buy his cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the eastern doorstep of Yosemite after my Dad operated on him. The cabin on Silver Lake became a regular part of my summer visits to see my Dad. When I was a kid, my Dad was always talking about wanting his ashes to be scattered on Mono Lake when he died. He went on and on about it being like no other place in the world. He took lots and lots of the same pictures every year and told the same stories. We went there for fireworks displays on the 4th of July. I seem to remember bomb blasts that created huge towers of water. Could that actually had happened back in the day when disrupting a bird habitat and blasting the tufa towers were regarded as inconsequential?
My Dad also had me write reports on the Kutsadika Peoples and I internalize an incorrect pronunciation that I would carry with me until this past weekend. That was a thing with my father. Having us write reports during summer holidays. For my older sister who was a perfectionist, it was nothing short of onerous. Not me. I was a second born. I finished quickly and submitted it to my Dad with spelling errors and all. Then he put his arm around me on the couch and we had an animated discussion about whether we’d eat alkali fly pupae if we were hungry enough. For me, who had never experienced real hunger, it was a definitive “No”. For my father who had endured times of starvation as a kid in wartime Germany, it was a definitive “Sure!”
I didn’t understand his love for Mono Lake at all. It was stinky. When I swan in it, I emerged with sore eyes (yes, even when I closed them) and itchy skin which quickly became covered in a white, salty finish. As a child, I regarded Mono Lake as part of a lunar landscape. Surrounded by volcanic mountains. No trees. Few flowers. Tall limestone tufa towers formed when fresh waters from five tributaries hit the carbon-rich waters with sources of calcium. Waters too salty for fish to survive. Too salty for me to swim in no matter how hot it was. With rattlesnakes lurking in the sagebrush. Limited chance of survival if left behind.
My father looked at Mono Lake with a different set of eyes. A lake with no outlet that created a unique context and a spirit of survival that endured for thousands of years. The mystique of calcium carbonate structures emerging from a lake that had sustained the Paiute People with with alkali fly larvae and continued to feed over a million birds each year with brine shrimp and alkali flies. A habitat where most of the California Gulls are born on Negit Island aka on the “blue winged goose” safe from predators when the water level was high enough.
There were lots of other pretty lakes where you could fish and have a much better swim. Yet, every year included Mono Lake. Because it was special. Because it was the oldest lake in North America. Because it was disappearing. The upside was that it always included a trip to the Mono Cone in Lee Vining for a half and half chocolate dipped cone. It was sometimes the best part of the trek to Mono Lake.
Mono Lake is a good metaphor for my father. Quite salty, but holding secrets and history that bring little glimmers of understanding to present circumstance. An enduring mystique and a will to survive in the midst of seemingly unsurmountable challenge.
This summer three events converged to give me a new perspective on Mono Lake. The first was that my husband and I decided to hike around the rim of Panum Crater. The panoramic view of Mono Lake from above is in itself is awe inspiring. The second event was that I talked my husband into the Forestry Services Birdwalk that started in the County Park about 5 miles north of Lee Vining on Sunday morning. This took me to a part of the lake that I was not familiar with and it caused me to pause and take notice. Thanks to our Forest Ranger, Kathryn, who was leading the Birdwalk, we benfitted from her insight and background knowlege.
The third event was I scheduled a meeting to start a non-profit called Wild About Outdoor Learning, an extension of the grassroots movement called Wild About Vancouver. Thanks to an appreciation of our Indigenous Peoples, or perhaps because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada pushed the card, part of the practice in most of my business meetings is the acknowledgement of the ancestral lands of the Indigenous people where we are meeting. It slapped me in the face that all I knew very little about the Indigenous people in the area. I knew they didn’t use the term First Nations in the US. Do they use Indigenous? My friend’s Dad calls himself an Indian but I don’t think anyone else is allowed to. Is Native American a more politically correct term? Were there any Kudsadika who were still alive? Were they the only Indigenous or Native American group in the area?
The waitress of the Double Eagle Lodge where I was eating breakfast couldn’t help. She gave me a strange look when I told her I was wondering if there was standard language for an Indigenous acknowledgement of ancestral lands used to start a meeting. My new friend, Kathryn, bird watcher extraordinaire and Forest Ranger in Mono County could. She set me up with a number to text to discover the Native American groups in any area in the United States. She also shared her initial attempts to bring the practice of Native American land acknowledgements into her meetings. And she encouraged me to go back to the Mono Lake Committee Information Centre and Bookstore aka the Lee Vining Information Centre, to buy a great new book written by the Native American groups in the area in collaboration with the Forest Service. She was particularly impressed with the inclusion of the Native American languages.
I followed her advice. I bought the book for our cabin library collection and I sat down at the cabin and read the book from cover to cover. Elders share their stories with an Indigenous lens that I haven’t heard before in this area. The voice is definitely that of the oral tradition that is part of their culture and it makes it a good read. In my experience at our family cabin, stories from daytrips to Bodie and stories of the Applegate Trail, the Oregon Trail, and series like Covered Wagon Women (1985), give a perspective of history that trivializes the history of people who inhabited the land for thousands of years before they ventured here. Treaties that were negotiated in good faith but never ratified by Congress do not find their way into these stories. Neither do the lands never transferred to the Indians or the impact of placing bounties on the scalps of Native American men, women and children. The devastating impact of the gold rush on obliterating the traditional ways of life is not considered or explored. So many questions to ask. So much to learn.
I was ready for my Monday morning meeting. I acknowledged that I was grateful to be working, learning and meeting on the ancestral lands of the Paiute People and more specifically the Kootzaduka’a Tribe who continued to fight for federal recognition and to raise the water levels of Mono Lake in order to protect the Mono Basin ecosystem from the water diversions to supply the thirsty Los Angeles people, golf courses and gardens. And yes, I pronounced Kootzaduka’a correctly but only after lots of repetition and practice! Old habits die hard! I also came to the realization that I still have much to learn about the area, as well as the historical and present day context of the Seven Traditional Associated Tribes of the Yosemite National Park. And with all that comes a tremendous sense of wonder that Mono Lake represents so much more than the salty, lunar presence of my childhood. Turns out, my Dad was right!
Knowledge Keepers of the Seven Traditionally Associated Tribes of Yosemite National Park. (2019).
Voices Of The People. National Park Service Yosemite National Park.
Dandelion Dreams is the section of my blog devoted to myself as a writer. The name is inspired by my favourite piece of art by David Klassen. It was previously known as Sunday’s Child. Too many of us were born on a Sunday.