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  July/August 1996 Features:
Field Truths
The Little Things that Run the World
Shopper, Spare That Tree!
The Big Wall
Remembering Water
 
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Sierra Magazine
Sierra's 1996 Nature-Writing Contest Winner

Remembering Water

by Karen Piper

In the desert, you can see it coming. Time sits on the horizon like rain clouds, holding out. In the cities, you carry it around in your pocket. Time is organized around where you have to be. You dash blindly around busy corners, always racing against it. But in the desert, the world sits on the horizon, refusing to move. Before I moved to the city, I used to know what that meant. Now I found myself trying to remember, waking up every morning to look at the mountains and see what they held. If there were clouds there, you knew there might be rain. It could pour down like a dropped bucket minutes from your house, or evaporate right over your head before you could lick it on your lips. But you knew there was something to wait for. You could watch time coming.

I came back home because my father was still waiting for the clouds over the hills; I thought he needed me. He was losing his memory, as the city had made me lose mine. So I came back for both of us. My father said he would look down at his feet, which would look the same, but the ground was different. I don't know if he was forgetting things, or remembering them too well. He remembered the names of World War II bombers, the orange groves in L.A., the way Morocco looked in the rain. He could tell you what the valley looked like in 1945--he remembered who lived down the street during the war, but it was as if his memory didn't have room for anything else: his kids' names, where he lived now.

The doctors said it was transient amnesia, but I think they said this to protect us from the word we were all dreading: Alzheimer's. My father carried his disease around in his shirt pocket, so he wouldn't forget. When people asked about his health, he would bring it out and laugh. He was proud to own this name. My sister and I needed our father to hold together our memories, to hold together the world before we were born. When he got sick, this stopped happening and I began to realize for the first time that I was mortal-- as if, when I faded away in his mind, I would fade away in the world.

My dad remembered a lake in the Mojave, just outside our hometown. He would point at an empty lake bed, filled with alkali salts, and see steamships crossing. He said that in "the days before Los Angeles" there had been a lake that was more than a hundred miles around. He saw things like that, that sounded like unicorns to me. I would try to picture steamships in a Mark Twain fashion, but was confronted by the reality of miles and miles of white sand, dust devils racing across the surface.

So when I came home, I brought my dad to the lake, looking for a cure. Anyone who lives long enough in the desert begins to be infected by a search for water. You look for it everywhere because it is life. After a while, you can feel it in the groundwater beneath your feet, the springs in the back canyons, the clouds over the hills that may never come by. You know that water is always coming down somewhere, even if not on you, or else you would not be alive. Papago Indian children insist that "the desert smells like rain"- -scientists tried to explain that this is because the creosote bushes exude an aromatic oil that fills the air when it rains. But I do not think that this is what the children mean.

When I left for college, I let that place evaporate; embarrassed, I gave it up. I didn't believe in water yet. I thought the desert was a drying-up old woman; I thought she had betrayed me by making me different. It would take the blank look on my father's face to bring me back home, to make me start looking in the cracks of the desert, at the places he was pointing to with his memory. We would walk the surface of that empty lake, walk to the aqueduct which was carrying his life away to Los Angeles. I would face it, this time, with him. I would return to the truth of the stolen water.

I used to drive around at night, in the days when I was desperate to leave. I wanted L.A.--I wanted to dress like them, taste their food, be in their manicured green back yards. Where I lived, there were only smashed snakes on the road and skittish coyotes, reminding me of the desolation of the place. But every now and then, a white owl would make a wild dash past my windshield like God. And I knew the white owl was bringing me home. White owls aren't supposed to exist out there, you see. The Indian children write about them, but only as a myth. When I left for college, this one bird was implanted in my mind, making me late for work, making me remember my father.

I came home, more for myself than for him. I came home to learn the names of things, to remember places I'd tried to forget, to look for the springs. I knew that if you waited, they would come, trickling over your shoes at night, tugging at your hair. The fingers of rain and owls and moonlight would wrap themselves around you.

Water is the religion of the desert. It insinuates itself into the cracks of consciousness and allows the mind to move.

The doctor said that, in aging, the fluids of the brain begin to dissolve, making brain cells shrink slightly. This is why, when my father's brain began to dry up, I wanted to search for the water again. We used to go to the lake when I was young and thought that desert oases only existed on television. Los Angeles had sucked the water away and put it on TV, took it away for the pulse of the city. I feel now that they took my father's blood, eliminated his history, his memories, to support the city's life. My father's blood and brain fluid is flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, watering their lawns and filling their glasses. It's hard to say what it is to be forgotten.

My dad and I returned to the lake, and walked across it to the aqueduct that intercepted its water, to the captured rain that made its way past our feet encased in concrete. To us it was a vial of precious liquid, and our mouths watered at the sight. The lake was behind us, a strange moonscape of salt formations in a valley that seems to end only at the snow peaks of the Sierra. After it was drained in 1912 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the lake started producing dust storms, an eerie reminder of something gone wrong. Before Los Angeles, the valley sustained deep saltgrass meadows and marshes filled with everything from willows to brine shrimp to tule elk. Now Los Angeles looms always over the horizon, like a hallucination. My father knew what Los Angeles meant and tried to teach me. The city was everywhere, he said--the city was coming to get us. When you stand in the center of Owens Lake, history declares you dead.

The lake didn't go without a fight--the Owens Valley residents bombed the L.A. aqueduct over and over, trying to stop construction. If you walk out onto the lake now, you will not hear the explosions, you will not see the tourists, you will not feel the shadows of waterfowl overhead. The lake is silent, silent as the aqueduct waters that run down smoothly cemented passageways, diverting the river away from the lake toward its new destination. The desert becomes the haunting of Los Angeles, though the citizens of Los Angeles have not been told to listen. They will pour it out of their faucets into their blood, pour the desert as life into their veins.

We used to go there to walk the surface, play with the rocks that looked like they were from the moon, imagine the Star Trek episodes that were shot there. The Department of Water and Power passes out booklets at the Owens Lake visitor center claiming that this is a "prehistoric" lake, whose salt waters were completely useless even before its disappearance. "Prehistoric," in this case, obviously means "before Los Angeles." Anyone in the valley will tell you when the lake really disappeared, that history was diverted down aqueduct channels toward L.A. Scientists are proposing that the only solution to the dust storms created by the lake may be to set up a sprinkler system to stabilize the surface. The dust is a health hazard of unknown proportions. My sister has lupus--like so many others in my town--and my father is losing his mind. They have not yet defined the dimensions of this hazard. Sometimes we would pick up rocks and suck on them.

So I brought him here again, looking for the cure. Nearly 80 years after the water had gone, my father and I stood on the banks of that stolen river and tried to remember, dreaming of the forgotten lake as if our mere reverie would make Los Angeles sink back into the ground. I had lived in L.A. for four years, but I came home because to him, water didn't come from the faucet. I went back to its source, to my memories. My father knew we could have life again if the water stopped going to L.A. I couldn't stay there, betraying that dream. I had to start imagining, like him--to look at the ground and see something different. We looked across the lake and saw heat waves, dousing the lake bed in imaginary water. My father tried to fill in the blank spaces in his mind, while I tried to fill the lake with water. I tried to remember a lake I had never seen. I knew that it had existed, and I knew that the remembering was sweet, and tasted warm like water.

The lake stands forgotten but will not go away. I dream of a time when the water will spill over its banks again, bringing back life. I dream of a time when the relationships that were destroyed through its disappearance will feel that first drop of fluid binding them together, steadily, like flowing blood. And then my father will not have to work so hard to hold us together, to keep us alive in the desert. The first green grass will sprout from the banks, and the first tule elk will creep down to the marshes, and the first shrimp egg will open back to life. The desert is not dead, is not brown, is not desolate. It is only that it has temporarily forgotten itself, forgotten where the water is hiding.

The birds have stopped coming here on their long migrations because the desert has lost its watering hole. These things are still there, just waiting to be remembered. My father and I once stood on the banks and stared that forgetting in the face, trying to remember the scent of where we lived.

Our trek to the aqueduct had been a long one, and we were greeted with a sign that warned: "These waters are the municipal water supply of the City of Los Angeles. Trespassing-Loitering Forbidden by Law." The sign was filled with bullet holes. I glanced around in the falling darkness and saw no one. Stepping over the dusty, concrete banks of the aqueduct, I took my father's hand, and led him in. The water was cool as ice in the night and the shock of life was waiting for us there. Watching the clouds over the horizon, we knew the rain was coming. We knew the mud and dust would be washed away with time. And I led him down to the source, like his first baptism. He smiled, white as an owl, and drank.


Karen Piper, a native of Ridgecrest, California, is currently completing a doctorate in comparative literature and a master's in environmental studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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