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Paradise Lost 

The last leg of a traveling exhibition on California's vanishing resources

Wednesday, Jun 18 2003
n Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion describes growing up in the ephemeral landscape of the Sacramento Valley: "All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears." In 1992, local photographer Robert Dawson and author Gray Brechin began an ambitious quest to document California's quintessential vanishing act, the loss and degradation of the state's most celebrated resources -- its land, air, water, and wildlife. To better understand today's environmental crises, they sought answers in the past: What had been lost and why; what forces, actors, and choices lay behind more than 150 years of relentless eco-destruction and abuse.

For five years, they explored the state's backwaters and areas not promoted in guidebooks, pretty postcards, or package tours. Their journey resulted in a 1999 book destined to become a classic of photojournalism, Farewell, Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream. Sixty-one of the book's photos, many by Dawson (plus others found in local archives), are currently on view at the S.F. Public Library's Jewett Gallery. The show, "Awakening From the California Dream," is the last leg of an exhibition based on their book that has been traveling through the west since '99, when it debuted at the Oakland Museum. It's a must-see for anyone concerned with California's future, whether from an ecological, political, or economic perspective.

Dawson's images are sobering and rarely prettified. They include black-and-white portraits, aerial and large-format landscape documentary pictures, and color cityscapes, full of pathos and sometimes irony about their subjects. The exhibit is a partisan photographic essay that, together with Brechin's eloquent texts, focuses on the saddening legacy of the state's environmental heritage and natural-resource policies (or lack thereof). The two men work with all the passion and political acuity of the great Depression-era social documentarians, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, whose pictures of Alabama's poor white tenant farmers and California's migrant workers aroused the conscience of the nation.

"As a photographer," writes Dawson, "I was challenged by the task of making images of things that, in many cases, no longer exist. ... Monuments, and the lack of them, gave us our cue. Early in the project we came upon a monument ... dedicated to the last commercial fisherman in the Delta. On the coast, a hand painted sign conveyed the complex relationship between rapacious logging and California's all but extinct salmon runs." As the exhibit artfully documents, this state's environmental depredations have unfolded alongside one of the longest-running promotional snow jobs in American history: the myth of California as Promised Land and Elysian health spa, the eternally self-replenishing cornucopia of orange-crate labels, and the nation's hassle-free retirement home for the young.

If boosterism has branded the Golden State as America's Garden of Eden, then, as the show suggests, original sin dates back to Jan. 24, 1848, when James Marshall found a nugget in the tailrace of Sutter's Mill at Coloma. His discovery prompted one of history's largest mass migrations, the California Gold Rush, whose violent environmental impact Henry David Thoreau would call "the greatest disgrace to mankind." Forests and chaparral were torched to find gold in the ashes, and giant water cannons called hydraulic monitors slashed pits in the Sierra foothills, turning much of that landscape into a barren rubble of badlands. Such unrestrained mining practices, the exhibition informs us, "dislodged a volume of rock and soil estimated at eight times what was moved from the Panama Canal."

Carleton Watkins' 1871 photograph Hydraulic Mining at Malakoff Diggins shows the radical erosion and gashes caused by these high-pressure machines operating 24 hours a day. The black-and-white image documents this reckless scarring: Above a mining shack, a network of enormous cast-iron nozzles pummels the landscape with arcing white jets of water, turning the bluffs into an amphitheater of rubble. This unbridled gush of free enterprise, writes Brechin, unleashed decades of mudslides and floods that devastated towns, "buried farms and ranches, and destroyed inland navigation" from Sacramento to San Francisco, as delta tributaries filled with debris and yellow mud. But it would be another 13 years after Watkins photographed the gutted Sierra hillsides before a federal judge, in a precedent-setting case, shut down one such hydraulic mining operation.

A recurrent theme of this collection is the human cost of California's environmental rape. As miners moved in, the "undesirables" -- Mexicans, Chinese, and Indians -- were moved out. Gold fever led to Indian massacres, which by 1890 had reduced California's indigenous populations from 300,000 to 15,000 -- 5 percent of their numbers a century earlier. Dawson commemorates this genocide through a 1995 photo, Model of Old Mission Dolores, picturing an eerily naive diorama showing happy Indian children at play. But the model is just another example of California kitsch and whitewashed history. Brechin describes how the tombstones of settlers buried in the Mission were marked with individual names, while a single granite pedestal reads "In Prayerful Memory of Our Faithful Indians." That column covers the grave of roughly 6,000 native Californians "whose identity," writes Brechin, "as at all other missions they once built has been lost in mass burials."

Dawson's photographs also record the "absence of things," such as what became of the second largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, Lake Tulare. His 1996 diptych, Dry Tulare Lake Bed, San Joaquin Valley, is like a modern-day version of "Ozymandias," Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem about an ancient monument to an arrogant tyrant buried in the desert and forgotten by history. The photo shows a rural wasteland surrounding a viaduct, with a "No Trespassing" sign and a huge billboard on wheels proudly proclaiming "Farm Water "Works'!" The story here is of the desiccation of the San Joaquin lakes when the ground water and rivers that fed them were diverted by a San Francisco firm in the 1880s "to irrigate a half-million acre barony it would later incorporate as the Kern County Land Company." In 1954, 90-year-old Bill Barnes, who had spent much of his childhood hunting in the area's marshy bulrushes, described for a local historian herds of 2,000 antelope that had once fed there, inland otters, and millions of birds nesting in what he called Pelican Island. In 1880, fires were set in the tules around Tulare, burning the rich soils five to six feet below the surface. Millions of fish died in the mud, and Barnes remembered seeing the otters eat them "until they too starved." Then came the raccoons to feed on the otters' carcasses. The birds disappeared as well, leaving dust and silence. The fields of the San Joaquin Valley had once offered a clear view of 120 miles of the Sierras; today, writes Brechin, that view "is almost perpetually hidden by a dingy broth of smoke, exhaust, and dust that fills the basin of the San Joaquin."

Dawson and Brechin document more recent destruction in California's farming valleys: why Fresno has become the state's asthma capital and why towns like Earliment, Fowler, and McFarland have endured cancer clusters and too many babies born with deformities. "Plumes of pesticides," writes Brechin, "moved underground, contaminating thousands of wells with chemicals that were supposed to stay in root zones and break down rapidly into harmless components. Many residents ... drew their drinking water from these wells." The story is captured in one of the exhibit's more poignant color photos, Cancer victim and mother in front of contaminated town well, San Joaquin Valley, 1988. In it, a woman covers the face of her young daughter and quietly comforts her. The long shadows of the mother and child -- who wears pristine white rodeo boots and jeans -- are cast across the polluted grounds of the bone-white structure housing the local well. Similarly, two of Dawson's images, Polluted New River, Mexican-American border, Calexico and Terminus of the New River by the polluted Salton Sea, document a current human and ecological disaster. The former, a black-and-white riverscape, shows a flat, receding stream of filth and chemical suds bubbling up from south of the border. The latter, a highly saturated color image, presents a sickly, stunted palm set against the lifeless inland sea that seems to melt into a hazy, bilious oblivion. A 1995 study found the state's highest rates of birth defects along this stretch of the Mexico-California border. There, the New River, which Brechin calls the filthiest stream in America, carries a witches' brew of raw sewage, "landfill leachate, [and] industrial wastes from the Mexican boomtown of Mexicali," then swings north, where it picks up pesticides, salt, and selenium leached from the Imperial Valley before delivering them into the Salton Sea, now a burial sump for thousands of migratory birds and fish.

Dawson, an environmental activist who as a journalist helped break the story of the poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge for a San Francisco television station, understood that if this exhibit simply depicted devastation and failures, it would invite "cynicism and detachment." So he and Brechin insisted on documenting some of the state's environmental success stories as well as the eco-heroes and pioneers who've fought to prevent further ruin of such areas as Mono Lake, San Francisco Bay, the Redwood National Forest, Gerbode Valley, and the Los Angeles River. These tales are told in the form of portraits of individuals and collective actions. There's a portrait of Aurora Castillo, founder of Mothers of East L.A., who led a campaign that successfully blocked a toxics incinerator, a hazardous waste facility, and the area's eighth prison from being built in her barrio. There's another of Trevor Burrows holding up a large map of East Palo Alto, once known as the nation's murder capital; he worked with locals to produce and sell organic vegetables as a way to "break the cycle of poverty." These and other "alternative courses" are celebrated in this powerful display, which illuminates both the road toward and the path away from California's environmental suicide.

About The Author

Carl Nagin


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