TOMBSTONES OF THE GHOST FARMS

November 17, 2016  •  1 Comment

Twin Silos and Collapsed Farm Building - Bishop, CA - 2016Twin Silos and Collapsed Farm Building - Bishop, CA - 2016Infrared Exposure

Twin Silos and Collapsed Farm Building - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action.
Felix Adler

 

Across the dead fields and arid wasteland of northern Inyo County there are ringed silos standing straight, desolate and empty. They are now tombstones marking a way of life gone by. These cement cylinders were for silage during the beginning of the last century. They were a symbol of owner-pride. These were farms and dairies that have since blown away with the dust of many windy days.

Once there was plentiful water, human greed, and the lamentations of the pioneers taming a beautiful, harsh, and hostile land made of sand, soil, and stone. I hear mournful voices whispering under the winds as we ponder lives turned barren and lost on Highway 6 just north of Bishop, California.

The winds today are brutal, shaking the giant, ancient and gnarled cottonwoods that were planted when farmers came to this land to break the earth to plant. Today the sky is electric blue, with fair-weather cumulus gamboling across the azure firmament above our gale-sanded eyes. These clouds tantalize the photographer waiting for them to form the composition he wrestles to create.
 

 

Boarded-Up Farm House - Bishop, CA - 2016Boarded-Up Farm House - Bishop, CA - 2016Color/Infrared Exposure

Boarded-Up Farm House - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

We walk to the milking barn, whose looming, warped profile summons us to enter. With its breached roof creating complex, striated light patterns all about us and across our upturned faces, at first we hesitate to intrude on the memories here. Woven into the whining wind I hear the whispering, disconsolate ghost voices of those who came before. They tore the land, built the barn, erected a farmhouse, and finally hired a local man to pour the cement jackets, ring upon ring, to fabricate the twin silos.

There is so much I am seeing that I don’t really understand. Is it just a matter of the City of Los Angeles taking the water south? I go back to study the history, economy and practice of farming here to fully understand. In my mind there is a dialogue of what I see and what I learned late after my visit, a dialogue of experience and later research. I share this dialogue that continues in my head as I reread my writing:

 

A.O Adams built twin silos at the bequest of this nameless farmer. The paper said Adams had built a few dozen across the area. These twin structures that reached from the earth straight up towards the heavens were a source of swelled virile pride for this farmer.
 

 

Silos and Shadows - Bishop, CA - 2016Silos and Shadows - Bishop, CA - 2016Infrared Exposure

Silos and Shadows - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

I study the dairy landscape through a time-vandalized window as the wind rustles litter nearby. The pasture, pocked by cow patties (although there are no cows today) glistens green with energy from the sun. The variegated light through the expiring roof marks our faces, creating both hesitation and uncertainty whether we belong here.

 

In the 1870s settlers set out with friends in a small wagon train from Fort Scott, Kansas. The wife and husband stalled out in Laramie, Wyoming waiting for their young son, grown sick, to get well. Although they were hopeful, he did not survive. They finally made it here on this land just north of Bishop.

All around them was the promise of the land. Not only how to grow, but how to sell and find new markets, even though they lived in the middle of an arid, rural nowhere. They incorporated the Inyo Creamery just before the century turned.

 

The story being told by these shadows permeates my conscience. I think about how hard life was in the 1870s. When these pioneer farmers got here from the mid-west, most of them had to master a new way of farming in arid lands. Since the seasonal rains were both severely delineated and often unfaithful, these farmers learned irrigation techniques, and ultimately built two hundred miles of unlined canals.
 

 

Window View of Twin Silos from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016Window View of Twin Silos from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016

Window View of Twin Silos from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

The photographer shoots the two silos to the west through the same window I use to imagine the historic dairy landscape. He masters the challenge of lighting as I listen to the wind-torn silence all about. No vocalization rises above the pulsating howl of the wind. Do I hear the troubled mumbling of relocated farmers?

I ponder what other signs remain of this agrarian way of life in this spectacular landscape, with Sierra Nevada Mountains on one side and the White Mountains on the other. I later learn that by 1891 there were 22 separate ditches. Today these dry watercourses still meander like scars across the land, but only visible to the vigilant.

I leave the barn and walk over to the cement cylinders. A rusty ladder clings to each of their rough poured sides. The forms were two and a half feet high when poured, then hitched up to the next level. Gin pole and mule lifted the cement forms.
 

 

Twin Silos, Collapsed Building & Pink Foliage - Bishop, CA - 2016Twin Silos, Collapsed Building & Pink Foliage - Bishop, CA - 2016Color/Infrared Exposure

Twin Silos, Collapsed Building & Pink Foliage - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

Weeds dance in the wind around the bottoms of the silos. The tops are spiked with exposed rebar. I struggle to understand how they used these silos, imagining getting the forage to the top to fill the cement jacket.

 

W. R. Ford in Round Valley first experimented with the practicality of silage. For those non-farmers reading this, silage “is grass or other green fodder compacted and stored in airtight conditions, typically in a silo, without first being dried, and used as animal feed in the winter.”

Ford showed the top only spoiled down to ten inches, eighteen on the sides. The first silo was built in 1892, and in the next twenty years, anyone who could afford one, wanted one or two for their farms. Then after a depressed period, the new century gave way to prosperity. But these inexperienced arid land farmers – through their carelessness, inexperience, or incompetence – were creating a major disaster.

 

I wanted to argue with this voice. As a loyal Owens Valley patriot, I knew it was only Los Angeles taking the water that caused the collapse of agriculture here. The abandoned silo ruins and boarded-up farms gave undeniable evidence to the main cause: water extraction by “flatlanders.” Now it seemed the responsibility must be shared.
 

 

Boarded-Up Farm House with Watchful Horse - Bishop, CA - 2016Boarded-Up Farm House with Watchful Horse - Bishop, CA - 2016Infrared Exposure

Boarded-Up Farm House with Watchful Horse - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

But it was Mulholland and Eaton who masterminded killing the Federal Reclamation project in order to bring water to Los Angeles. The project would have saved agriculture here and there would still be working dairies and farms.

 

These pioneers bear the onus of being careless and ignorant with the water. In high rain years the water was left to stand. The seepage from the unlined canals created marshes. The poor drainage took its toll and the best lands became spoiled with alkali deposits, laid down year after year.

 

The wind rises in a sibilate whine as I poke around the collapsed building to the north of these silos. White enamel ghosts leer out at me in the wreckage of the storage shed. Old stoves, refrigerators and antique appliances, all broken down, are salvaged because on the farm everything has potential use down the road.
 

 

Collapsed Building with Hoarded Appliances and Tires - Bishop, CA - 2016Collapsed Building with Hoarded Appliances and Tires - Bishop, CA - 2016

Collapsed Building with Hoarded Appliances and Tires - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

There is no proof that the reclamation project in the valley would have paid for itself with agricultural profits. These farmers ruined the best lands and filled the young men and women with bitterness. It was easy to blame the other, the City of Los Angeles. From more than 500 farms the number dropped to a little more than 200. A quarter of the population left. The drought of the early 1920s did bring the City back with a vengeance to buy land for more water for the aqueduct. We joke still, “Flush your toilets, L.A. needs the water.”

 

I am arguing with a disembodied voice in my head. I smirk with a sudden conscious embarrassment and return to the barn. The photographer works to frame the boarded windows of the farm house, a now blind domicile, in a weathered window frame. He frames his desert visions with abandoned architecture. At his feet are more disowned machinery and appliances, detritus of our consumer age.
 

 

Window View of Boarded-Up Farm House from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016Window View of Boarded-Up Farm House from Abandoned Barn - Bishop, CA - 2016Color Infrared Exposure

Window View of Boarded-Up Farm House from Abandoned Barn - Color/Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

My inner argument continues. But it is the flatlanders, the lack of water storage, their profligate waste of water in swimming pools and washing off decks and walkways. It is too little too late. It is easy to understand the faults of others, especially impersonal, heartless utilities that crush our farms, dairies, and creamery.

 

Before the end of the 1800s Owens lakeshore had shrunk 200 feet. If there never had been L.A., still the lake could have become dry. A somewhat pointless speculation involves what this land would look like today without the City? Like San Jose or Riverside? True the City used nefarious means to buy land. Appeal to local greed and pay top dollar for one central piece of land, then pump down the groundwater and buy several surrounding pieces for much less.

But at every turn the City outsmarted the people living in its water-rich colony until, drained by embezzlement the collapse of the Watterson banks brought almost everyone to poverty. The water wars were over, and all that remained was tallying the accumulating dead farms.


View from Atop Silo onto Naturally Irrigated Pasture and Snowcapped Sierra Nevada - Bishop, CA - 2016View from Atop Silo onto Naturally Irrigated Pasture and Snowcapped Sierra Nevada - Bishop, CA - 2016

View from Atop Silo onto Naturally Irrigated Pasture and Snowcapped Sierra Nevada - Bishop, CA - 2016

 

Yet the pastoral beauty of our land does remain. The continuous planted fields from Laws to Bishop, the trees along the highway, the flowers and the pasture, rich with nutrients for bovine stomachs are now gone. It feels to me that this lost land is a floating dream world. All that remains besides community and personal family gardens are alfalfa fields.

Yet, we live well here in Inyo County. The loss has been acknowledged and we move on. Still in my heart is a bitterness that is slowly being healed by all the good people I meet here and in the City.
 

 
Traffic on Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016Traffic on Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016

Traffic on Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016  (approximately one mile from silos)

 

This farmer on whose land I stand lived a full life and died in 1929. He saw so much. There was a contradiction between the farmers’ deleterious misuse of irrigation on the land, mostly through ignorance, and their wish to farm the lands for their bountiful crops. Just as their lives on the farm were dying, voices of the past were stirring the people of the City of Bishop towards action. They still love and use the land respectfully, but now they have created an industry of recreation. Exercise, becoming one with nature, hiking, fishing, hunting, and biking: the list of recreational opportunities goes on.

This new way of life depends on the people who took the water, and the first farmers who did such a mediocre job with our fertile valley. There is a kind of peace born in acceptance. Bishop High School once had dances in the old barn, and now occasional weddings take place outside its weathered face. It’s funny how things change.
 

 

Kevin Mazzu – Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016Kevin Mazzu – Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016

Kevin Mazzu – Main Street (Highway 6/395) - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016
Kevin is a Bishop resident, local businessman, and civic leader. A
ctive with local projects and charities, he has led the committee to gain National Scenic Area status for the Alabama Hills in nearby Lone Pine, CA.

 

We head into downtown Bishop, where farming has been replaced by another landscape-based economic engine: recreational tourism. I stop and talk to Karen Schwartz who owns Sage to Summit. She is rushed to get home to cook dinner for her family, but stops to say her business is on an upward curve. She assures me life is good on Main Street, no matter how many challenges are presented. I realize from adversity on our land the meaning of life is born. Still I hear the murmuring of restless voices. However, the bitterness from damage done to the land in the past is mitigated by local acceptance of some responsibility for the demise of the farms. The rancor of the past is also balanced by a new sense of optimism in the residents today for the hope of an improving future tomorrow.

We still shape the land and it continues to shape us.
 

– C.L.

 

Window Display of Ultralight Adventure Gear – Sage to Summit Store - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016Window Display of Ultralight Adventure Gear – Sage to Summit Store - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016

Window Display of Ultralight Adventure Gear – Sage to Summit Store - Downtown Bishop, CA - 2016

 

Almost all the black & white images presented on High & Dry are infrared exposures, likewise the strange-colored images captioned as "Color/Infrared Exposure" above. I've been experimenting with a "hot sensor" camera that allows exposure of the entire continuity of light energy from infrared, through the visual spectrum, to ultraviolet. Since the human eye can only perceive radiation in the visual spectrum, the infrared and mixed visual spectrum/infrared exposures capture ghostly forms detected only by the camera sensor and re-interpreted as colors we can see. A dispatch that includes "spirit" voices seemed like the ideal place to introduce this color infrared technique that I'll be incorporating into my general photographic practice.

– O.R.

 

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Comments

1.Karl Young(non-registered)
Hey guys, sorry for sounding like a broken record but I've yet to find a dispatch that I find less than compelling - and the color/infrared exposures are eerie as well as stunning (maybe like wiring up some bees eyes to provide added signals to my optic nerve).

It seems that only those unwilling to acknowledge the universal tendency to strive for a leg up re. holding off our inevitable demise, would lack feelings for the plight of the Inyo farmers. But by the same token your beautifully paced writing and photographs inspires the kind of long view that reminds me that LA is a desert too. Similar dispatches in the far future might provide similarly populated images of LA.
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