Bush Lupine at San Joaquin River Gorge


   Whenever I venture into the unknown, I search for signs of undisturbed grace, and I must confess that I continue even in middle age to risk my life to find places unmolested by humans. Once, when as a young man I was just beginning my quest for the pristine, I encountered a skink on a trail next to a stream. It gazed at me for twenty seconds, as though it were a guardian of the stream, then scurried off into the grass under some leaves. Then a rattlesnake, about fifteen feet away, slithered across the trail. These brief encounters revealed that I had discovered a place that very few humans had troubled in recent times, and I was overjoyed. As I continued along the trail, I found newts and turtles and frogs just about wherever I turned. Chinese houses, Ithurielís spears, fiesta flowers, larkspur and fairy lanterns wove a living tapestry on the hillsides. Finally I reached a quiet pool and stood gazing at a waterfall. A snake swam over to me, raised up its head and gazed for awhile at me without fear.

Baby Blue Eyes and Fiddleneck:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   At that moment, I had an eerie feeling that the whole place was watching me. The snake suddenly was not just an individual being, but one facet of the consciousness of its whole species. Not only that, the snake seemed also to be a facet of consciousness of the spirit of the place. I had the distinct impression that through the consciousness of this snake an Over Soul knew how I was responding to the creatures in its domain. Suddenly every flower, bush, and tree, every frog, lizard and snake seemed a facet of this overarching consciousness that was aware of me.
   I shook my head, thinking I was in some kind of trance. Later, though, I discovered that many cultures believe in vital, overarching spirits known as the ďspirit of place,Ē or Over Souls. The Romans, for instance, depicted the ďgenius lociĒ as a figure holding a cornucopia, a patera (a shallow dish used for libations), a snake, or some combination of the three. These overarching spirits, personified symbolically as humans, are considered extremely powerful and intelligent. Some consider them nearly omnipotent and omniscient inside the realm they inhabit, while others consider them vast, semi-sentient well-springs of magical energy. They are part of a spiritual territory that we tend to ignore.

San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area (formerly known as Squaw Leap)

   As I have witnessed more and more environmental degradation over the years, I have come to one conclusion: We must begin to see each ecosystem as an array of creatures linked in consciousness, not just in a physical web. We must accept that we are inextricably linked to that consciousness. If we continue to treat nature, without reverence, as only a lifeless store of resources, we are doomed to continue on our merry way to destruction.
   I live in the San Joaquin Valley, where the environmental ethos is basically this: Use the resources of a place until they are exhausted, for private gain, and give nothing back. For example, the San Joaquin River, the lifeblood of the Valley, has been used and abused for the last century until the river, a littered waste water sump, dies at a sinkhole. Even though dozens of dams already clog the river at just about every possible point, The Fresno Bee is once again rallying support for a dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat, just above Friant Dam, to store more water. Unfortunately the stretch of river above Millerton Lake (the reservoir created by Friant Dam) is one of the few stretches that still retains a semblance of the riverís former glory. It is public land. In other words, this land IS your land.
   A dam at Temperance Flat--You might as well dam Yosemite Valley for more water storage!

Baby Blue Eyes:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   For years, a handful of people have struggled heroically and unsuccessfully to create a continuous parkway (a project The Fresno Bee ostensibly supports) along a stretch of the river below Millerton Lake. Nobody seems to want to acknowledge it, but we already have a parkway known as the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area above the reservoir, a gem of public land only an hour from Fresno. No matter what sort of parkway eventually materializes below Friant Dam, the San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area would remain far superior in terms of natural values. A dam at Temperance Flat, however, would bury most of the public land above Millerton under hundreds of feet of water. The Fresno Bee to my knowledge has never even mentioned possible mitigation measures, such as the creation of another recreational area along the San Joaquin River or elsewhere in the lower foothills.
   The Fresno Beeís stated mission is to inform and advocate for the enhancement of life in the Valley--and Iím assuming that The Bee does not just mean the quality of life of the wealthiest top few percent. Since no one has yet decided who is going to foot the bill for the dam, The Bee in my opinion, given its mission, should support the idea that the users pay for the dam, and the wealthiest users pay the most. Moreover, The Fresno Bee should at the very least support the complete replacement of lost public lands, instead of giving the impression that it is wholeheartedly supporting a land and water grab for the private benefit of the elite group of farmers and politicians commonly known as the Hydraulic Brotherhood. Requiring the wealthiest water users to complete and maintain the Parkway below Friant Dam, in addition to paying for the dam, would be acceptable. Hereís another idea: The lower foothills outside of Fresno, from Dry Creek in the north to Kings River in the south, are particularly vulnerable to leapfrog development. Creating a parkway of comparable size in that area would also be adequate mitigation.

Native American Trail near Pounding Stone:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   Within the last sixty years, every river flowing into the Central Valley has been dammed, the water in each reservoir completely destroying a large area of river habitat. Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River, for instance, in drought years clearly shows the adverse impacts of inundating a watershed. The other day I explored the bottom of Pine Flat Reservoir at the confluence of the Kings River and Sycamore Creek because the drought has exposed an old road, bridge abutments, and an ancient Native American site. On the denuded slopes of the reservoir, no root systems remain, which means that all the rocks, even the big ones, are unstable. I injured my shoulder because I stepped on a large, unstable stone that tumbled down the slope; I did the splits and landed too hard on my hand, damaging a rotator cuff. At the bottom of the reservoir, as I stood in pain staring at the pounding stone, I sensed a total lack of cultural, historical, and spiritual roots as well.

Pounding Stone, Bottom of Pine Flat Reservoir in Drought Year

   Also as I stood at the bottom of the reservoir, a word popped into my head: subnatural, which seemed the perfect word to describe the San Joaquin Valley as well. Almost all of the ecosystems of the Valley have been altered over the years by cultivation and urbanization. The largest lake west of the Mississippi was drained, and all but four percent of the wetlands are now gone. What was once a thriving wildlife area comparable to the Serengeti Plains in Africa is now a patchwork of profit and loss. As I stared at the rusty crop of cockle burrs that flourishes underwater in the otherwise denuded inundation zone of Pine Flat Reservoir, I felt the same as I have felt my whole life in the Valley: in a subnatural world, where you can live your entire life without any sense of cultural identity or history or connection to nature.

Native American Site with View of Pounding Stones and Old Road:
Bottom of Pine Flat Reservoir in Drought Year

   Of all the cultivated and urbanized land, what percentage of land has been set aside for wildlife or for public parks in the Valley? The vast Pacific flyway that once provided a home for millions of wildfowl and thriving species of wildlife, including tule elk and prong-horned antelope and grizzly bears, now features a few small refuges, one of which, the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, is famous for receiving toxic agricultural run-off that resulted in bird deformities. Cultivation and urbanization of the Valley has resulted in the loss of the vast majority of its ecosystems--in other words ďecocideĒ--a trend which continues to extend into the mountains.
   If The Fresno Bee is truly concerned about enhancement of life, then The Bee might want to reconsider its support of the destruction of the San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area.

Native American Pounding Stone near Suspension Bridge:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   Many ancient Native American village sites can still be found in the mountains, especially along rivers, reminders of the genocide that took place a few generations ago. I am aware of several pounding stones within the proposed inundation zone of Temperance Flat Dam. One pounding stone, for instance, exists just south of the suspension bridge where a creek meets the river. Where there is a pounding stone there is a burial site nearby. Native American burial sites are protected by law. No one at The Fresno Bee has addressed the ramifications of the destruction of Native American sacred sites and cultural resources. Iím sure The Bee doesnít want to ignore the cultural and historical significance of those Native American village sites.
   No one yet to my knowledge has detailed exactly how the water will be allocated. Given how tight the Hydraulic Brotherhood of farmers, lobbyists and politicians remain, how do we even know that urban needs will be adequately addressed? After all, a massive over-draft of the underground water supply was the impetus for the great era of dam building, and now in 2014, farmers are still over-using the ground water supply even with numerous dams on all the major rivers. Will one more dam quench their thirst for more water? Probably not, but it will completely destroy a gem of nature. In creating a new dam for water storage, the Hydraulic Brotherhood would be once again taking from the community what the community desperately needs.
   No one at The Fresno Bee is talking about mandatory water conservation measures for agriculture or laws requiring that farmers plant crops that use less water. The Central Valley is a semi-arid region--practically a desert, in other words--and farmers have no business planting water-intensive crops like cotton, rice, pasture grass, grapes and almonds, yet if one travels west from Fresno across the Valley, thatís about all that one sees. Crops not essential for survival, moreover, should be, if not eliminated, then severely limited.
   The media tends to present farming as a noble, even heroic occupation. Some farmers no doubt treat their workers as magnificent spiritual beings, but farming is a capitalistic enterprise like any other business (supported by taxpayers in a way that is quite unlike any other business). If you doubt that farming isnít based on the profit motive, try working as a farm laborer for a week. The farmer owns the land, the resources and the means of production. Like the vast majority of businesses, the profit motive drives economic decisions in agriculture, and the worker is an expendable unit of labor.
   Donít get me wrong. I believe that farms are just about the only form of nature left in the Valley, and I believe that farming can be a noble profession. Iím sure, however, that I would maintain a much more romantic view of farming if all farm workers were members of the middle class--or even earned a decent living wage. I would respect the profession even more if farmers stopped relying on taxpayer subsidies. And of course I would respect the profession so much more if farmers would stop insisting on destroying public lands for private gain.

Baby Blues Eyes in Dead Lupine Bush
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   The Fresno Bee does not mention that land and water from the public domain would once again be taken--essentially for private gain, if a dam is built at Temperance Flat. Approximately 95% of the San Joaquin River is already diverted at Friant Dam, about eighty percent for agriculture, and fifteen percent for urban uses. In other words, the vast majority of the water from a new dam might continue to go to private, commercial users who use the water for profit, and the water for the most part might remain highly subsidized by taxpayers, without many strings attached.
   If farmers want taxpayers to spend billions on a new dam while public land is destroyed without mitigation, the public at the very least should have a say about what sort of crops are grown in the Valley.
   Socialism! I can hear the shouts already. What is the construction of dams to benefit the top few percent but socialism for the rich? The media loves to present farming as a family profession, when in fact it is less and less a family venture and more and more a corporate enterprise, with profit as the bottom line.
   As the Oxfam, World Bank Poverty and Equality Database reveals, 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the bottom three and a half billion people. Concentration of wealth, locally and globally, leaves the rest of us more and more with a subnatural and subhuman quality of life. You can find precious little that lifts the soul or stimulates the mind in the Valley. Our infamous smog is a perfect symbol: A sickening cloud that hangs just above the ground, obscuring more and more our sense of being fully human and our connection with nature.
   Class warfare! You bet, and I hate to admit that the top few percent are winning, if they havenít already won. In the Valley we have capitalism in its rawest form, a system that uses up resources for profit and gives nothing back. People wonder why there is a brain drain here? Quite simply the rich have become so adept at exploiting people and resources that they donít feel the need to give back to the community in any meaningful way. (I imagine that it amuses them to get the editorial staff of The Fresno Bee to do their PR work for them.)
   The Fresno Bee argues that increased population pressures will eventually result in a demand for more water storage. The increase in urban water use would be a trickle compared to the raging flood of agricultural use. Convincing agricultural users to share a little with their urban neighbors shouldnít be difficult since farmers are so concerned with the publicís welfare; the public, after all, over the years has supported farmers with vast amounts of water and land and cash.
   There is a spiritual component to this issue that The Fresno Bee would never mention. Doors to spiritual development exist in nature. Like me, people tend to understand their link to all other creatures by experiencing the web of life first hand. Some even recognize the essential harmony and inter-relatedness of the field upon field of energy within the cosmos, and their lives are radically changed for the better. As the great poet William Blake says, everything is energy, and everything is holy.

Ithuriel's Spear and Fiesta Flowers:
San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area

   As I have mentioned before, the glyph of the Tree of Life is a symbolic representation of the major states of mind possible within the human psyche. We are continuing to shut the doors to most of those experiences and consequently are creating terrible imbalances. Those with economic and political power have remained stubbornly materialistic, and are now attempting to build a dam that will limit the exploration of nature even more, which means also shutting the doors to the spiritual side of nature. Call me a unicorn pissing rainbows, but I insist that physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health is a right, not a privilege, and authentic experience of pristine ecosystems is part of maintaining that health.
   Something else about my experience with an Over Soul when I was a younger man stays with me: I felt renewed when I discovered my link in consciousness with all the other creatures in that watershed, and I discovered the magical aspect of the Over Soul. The snake in the Roman statues is a symbol of regeneration. Snakes shed their skin, and we too have the ability to change and grow, but sometimes we have to fight to insist on that God-given ability. Otherwise we might as well accept a subnatural state of life.

Take the next path.
Float down the river.