The landscape of the Owens Valley, east of the California Sierras, is both vast and enclosed. The long desert valley is held by great ranges – the Sierras a white wall of granite and ice to the west, the Inyos and White Mountains a subtler but equally awesome wall to the east, all rising precipitously more than 12,000 feet above the valley floor. On the floor of the valley are the remnants of a once-vast lake – Owens Lake, now reduced to alkali flats. And beyond the Inyo Mountains, Death Valley, drier, vaster still.
My first visit to the Owens Valley was in late May 2006. I drove north from the roar of Los Angeles into an emptier, emptier, and still-emptier landscape, my heart growing happier mile by mile. When I got to the tiny town of Lone Pine and turned west into the high desert, towards the jagged 14,000-foot peaks of Mount Whitney, lit by the light of an early summer sunset, I thought I might explode with joy at the beauty there. I found a campground out on the tilted, open plateau of the upper valley, and settled in.
Over the next few days, I learned a little of the history of the place. Before 1861, it was all Paiute country – desert, mountains, and at the southern end of the valley a great alkaline lake, rich with birds and fish and tule beds. Then white settlers started moving in, and for the first few years the Paiutes and the settlers co-existed with some peacefulness. Then, as settlement continued, there was increasing concern by the new settlers about the presence of the Paiutes. After a few skirmishes, a military force was dispatched to the valley. At first the Paiutes fought back, but their resistance was broken when the military herded a group of 40 Paiute women and children into the lake, deeper and deeper, until they drowned. The remaining Paiutes were then forcibly relocated from the valley.
I sat with that story, and the almost unimaginable images it evoked, up in my campsite overlooking the lakebed where it had happened: the armed men on horseback, the children crying, the inexorable push into the water, and the end, after the struggle. I considered how this story is woven into the fabric of this place, many places; a part of the history of my own country that I can barely stand to see or know.
The history goes on. After the Paiute were removed, the valley was irrigated by the waters of the Owens River, and became known for its rich fields and orchards. And after that, in the early years of the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles showed up, quietly, and began buying land and water rights. A huge aqueduct was built, an artery from the valley to Los Angeles, and the waters of the Owens Valley were sent south. The lake was emptied, the farmers bankrupted, and the valley returned to desert. Later, there was another little boom when Hollywood discovered the rocky hills above the valley as a setting for Westerns, but even that has dried up now. The alkaline sediments that blow from the empty lakebed promise to keep the Owens Valley mostly empty for a long time to come. Now there are just a few handfuls of eccentrics, ranchers, retirees, Paiute and Shoshone (descendants of those who did not die in the lake, and who came back, years later), and tourists like me, wandering through.
As I watched the light at dusk over the dry lakebed, I was struck by the piercing ironies in its history. The lake that once nourished the original people of the valley becomes their grave. Then the water is taken to fuel the dreams of those who displaced them, before they are displaced in their turn, casualties of the continuing gold rush of Los Angeles.
A few days later, when I headed north in the mid-afternoon heat, I discovered another part of the history of the Owens Valley. A small sign on the highway pointed left towards what appeared to be a landscape much like the rest of the valley, except for one large building that was about the size of an airplane hangar. The sign said, ‘Manzanar National Historic Monument’. At the entrance was a small, beautifully constructed stone gatehouse. On both sides of the road were concrete slabs, cracked pavement, and weeds – all that is left of the most famous of the Japanese internment camps (or ‘concentration camps’, as they were known at the time): Manzanar.
In the weeks after Pearl Harbour, when the Roosevelt administration chose to round up every person of Japanese descent in the Pacific states, I imagine some bureaucrats were given the task of finding suitable places to put them for an undetermined length of time. Maybe there were requirements like ‘far from habitation’, ‘inexpensive land’, ‘easy to defend’. As is still true, when the US government needs a place to put a military installation, a prison, a nuclear waste site, or other secret and unpleasant institutions, it looks to the American deserts, otherwise mostly the abode of light and rock, jackrabbits and roadrunners. The Owens Valley hadn’t been a desert a few years before, but now land was once again inexpensive, far from habitation and easy to defend. Anyone trying to escape from Manzanar would have to cross miles of open desert, and then the highest portion of the Sierras. No-one ever tried.
Ten thousand men, women and children (two-thirds of them American citizens) were interned at Manzanar, beginning in March 1942. Most of them lived there for more than three years, in 500 hastily and poorly built barracks. The large building I’d seen from the highway was what remained of the high school gymnasium, now the National Park Service interpretive centre. The barbed wire and barracks were gone, bulldozed after the war, during the time when the Japanese internment was a largely hidden part of American history. Manzanar was made a national monument after decades of lobbying by the survivors, who were determined not to allow their history to be buried and forgotten.
I went into the small museum inside the former school gymnasium. It was hard to look at the large photos, at the shock on people’s faces (old men, old women, children) in the first days of internment, at the photos of barbed wire and armed guards in the towers. It was hard to read the hate-filled editorials in newspapers around the country, on display in glass-topped cabinets. It was hard to look at the rage in the faces of the young men in the camp. In one corner of the exhibit there was a large blank book where people could write their responses and reactions. Over and over again, sometimes in childish handwriting, sometimes in graceful cursive or in quick scrawls, visitors wrote, in various ways: never again, this should never happen again.
I was moved by the responses, but I also thought: some of us remember, and some of us forget, and even now there are innocent people waiting in our immigration prisons and secret overseas interrogation rooms. It seems to be so tempting to do what was done here – to the Paiute, to the Japanese – and to think, ‘This time it’s justified.
This time these people really need to be treated this way, for our protection, or for theirs.’ Only afterwards is there some larger realisation of going astray. I thought, what a world it would be if we could all remember and truly put into practice, never again.
There was an auditorium where a film was being shown: footage from the time of the camp, and interviews with internees still alive today. That’s where I first heard shikataganai. An old man was trying to explain how he had survived the experience of being an internee. ‘Shikataganai,’ he said. ‘What is, is.’ His expression was powerful and clear and his eyes looked straight at the camera. Later, I found that the usual meaning of this Japanese phrase carries a strong sense of resignation, even of fatalism, the Japanese equivalent of a shrug: ‘Can’t be helped. Nothing to be done.’ But what I saw in the eyes of the old man was something far beyond fatalism. I felt that he was saying to me, to all of us, ‘What is, is. Now how will you respond?’
The footage in the documentary began with the camp in its desolate first days, when the barracks had been put up in the empty fields and the people struggled to survive the dust and the heat and the cold. Then, as the footage went on through the months and years, something miraculous began to unfold. Gardens appeared everywhere, springing up from the desert floor like mushrooms after rain. There were pleasure gardens, flowering trees, stone bridges, pools. There were ladies strolling with parasols, couples laughing on the grass, artists painting, poets writing, and students dancing in the high school gym. In an extraordinarily short period of time, and with virtually no resources other than their hands and hearts, inside a prison in the middle of a desert in the middle of a war, a people that had had everything taken away created culture. They invited life to flower behind the barbed wire.
I walked out of the documentary filled with outrage, amazement, and a kind of piercing, poignant sorrow. It was quiet in the Park Service bookstore, and I wasn’t ready to leave. I started chatting with the blond woman behind the counter. I asked her about the gardens, and whether anything was left. She said, ‘You know, there were gardens in many places here, but most of them are gone. Even what you can see now, all the plants are gone, and most of the stonework is gone too, but there’s one place … ’ – and I could see that she loved this place – ‘there’s one place that all of us who work here love to visit. There’s something about it.’ And she pulled out a map of the site and drew directions for me. I would have to walk through the empty, weed-filled fields, along what was once a road between lines of barracks, to a particular spot. I would know it when I got there.
Then I noticed small, carved stones in a basket on the counter. Each was carved with one of two sayings: ‘Never forget’ and ‘Shikataganai’.
I went back into the heat and sun and the empty Manzanar National Historic Monument. I was the only person there, it seemed. Map in hand, I drove the straight roads now leading nowhere at all, bisected by the remains of other roads. The map showed the names and numbers of the blocks of barracks, but nothing was visible except the flat valley floor, weeds, broken concrete, and the distant wall of the Sierras.
It reminded me, eerily, of another place built at nearly the same time, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the desert of eastern Washington, where I spent three summers as a field biologist. There you can (if you have the proper security clearance) drive the roads of the Hanford Town Site, where more than 50,000 people lived, secretly, while they built the reactors that would eventually produce the plutonium for the bomb that destroyed the city of Nagasaki – surely the home of relatives and friends of the people who were behind the barbed wire at Manzanar. Now, just like Manzanar, there’s nothing at the Hanford Town Site but straight roads leading nowhere at all, weeds, and broken concrete. The physical and historical resonance of the two places was eerie: both once a home for thousands of people during a time whose terrors I can barely imagine, each now just this, descending back into the desert’s silence.
Following the map and directions, I left the car and headed off the paved road onto the eroded remnants of a smaller road. It was spooky to walk out into the heat and emptiness, and improbable that there would be a garden anywhere in this place. I kept walking, stumbling over broken asphalt, past the merest outlines of foundations. Finally I saw a grove of trees ahead of me: tough, scruffy locust trees from the steppes of Eurasia, survivors of 60 years with no water. I knew that someone must have tenderly planted them at a time when barbed wire and guard towers separated the man or woman who tended them from the outside world.
Under the trees it was abruptly cooler, like stepping from one world to another. My eyes adjusted to the quieter light, and I saw a network of paths and stones. It took a moment to realise what I was seeing. Beneath the trees was a small but exquisitely intricate construction, no more than 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. Winding through the grove of trees was a series of empty concrete pools and channels, sensuously curved. It seemed as if someone had shaped the concrete like a potter working clay, with a deep assurance, a kind of joy in shaping. A stone bridge arched over one of the channels, flat stones placed just so for the walker’s feet, everything still solid and strong.
Along each side there were paths beneath the trees, outlined in stone. Larger boulders were placed here and there, inviting the walker to sit, to look. Everywhere the shadows of leaves were dancing.
And carved, carefully, into the wall of the largest pool, was a date: ‘August, 1942’. Only five months after the camp was begun.
I sat down at the base of one of the trees, near the stone bridge. I folded my legs and sat zazen, the joyful ‘just sitting’ that has been central to my life for 20 years, transmitted to my country by Japanese Zen Buddhist priests. The quiet was very deep, except for the sound of a very small breeze in the trees above me. I felt held by this garden and the long-gone hands that had made it, safe like a child hidden beneath a bower.
After a while I began thinking of the spirit of the person who had imagined this place, perhaps only a few weeks after arriving in the camp, carrying all the pain of dislocation, dispossession and uncertainty. Someone leant over and began to gather stones, chose boulders from the desert, poured the pools, planted trees, brought water and made a simple place of peace, inside a prison in the middle of a war, not knowing what lay ahead. I considered what a gift the teachings of Japanese Zen have been in my life, and how Zen carries within it the same spirit that was so tangible here in this garden – generosity, simplicity and courage. I considered shikataganai, that ineffable Japanese expression: nothing to be done. What is, is.
I came to Zen when I was in my early 20s, like a thirsty person finding water. The path that leads towards anything is always mysterious, but for as long as I could remember, I’d been struggling with a koan, a deep question, and I think that it was this question, in part, that brought me to Zen. I’d spent portions of my childhood in Italy. The Second World War had only been over for 25 years or so, and the scars of that time were tangible. Most of us in America grow up shielded from the sufferings of great violence and disaster, but I walked streets where battles had been fought and saw ancient buildings still not yet rebuilt from the Allied bombings. My mother’s closest friend had been attacked as a young girl by an American soldier. My father is Jewish, and I had an inkling of what would have happened to me if I’d been living in Italy during the time when the fascists came to power.
At the time I was quite sure that I would be utterly broken by … well, by almost anything, but particularly by the brutalities of war and violence. I felt the presence of disaster close beside me, as it is beside all of us. My koan was: how does a person’s spirit survive when life becomes seemingly unendurable, as it can at any moment? How will my spirit survive? And how do I live with this fear?
In Zen, I learned to sit still with my life, whatever my life was at the moment: joy or sorrow, grief or fear. And gradually I discovered that something holds all of the dramas of being human, something larger and quieter, and gradually it’s gotten easier and less frightening to be alive. Disasters of various proportions have happened, and I’ve learned that life comes back after great fires.
But in Manzanar, sitting in the shade of those trees planted 60 years before, surrounded by a deep silence, I saw another, more radical possibility. Someone chose those stones and planted those trees in the midst of all that they wished was not occurring. They used what they knew to make a place of peace, for themselves and for those around them, even as they were powerless and without recourse. Right there, where loss and fear were in every heart, and where there was truly nothing to be done, shikataganai.
I thought of the cellist in Sarajevo, who played on the street corner day after day as the bombs rained down, asserting, with every note, that music cannot be destroyed. Or the Paiutes who watched their children die in the waters of Owens Lake, and who somehow survived to come back to their homeland and keep the flame of their people burning in the midst of those who wanted them gone. The power of the human heart rising up in the middle of darkness – this suddenly seemed as beautiful to me as anything in this whole world. As a child in Italy I remember hearing the nightingales singing in the middle of the night: there’s nothing like that song.
A few weeks after I’d been to Manzanar I went walking in the hills of Northern California with a friend, a man who happens also to be a creator of gardens. His grandfather had been born in Japan, and was a community benefactor in San Francisco. Because he was seen as a leader, he was separated from his family and sent to fearsome military prisons in the Arizona desert and in New Mexico, reserved for those who were considered particularly dangerous. When we arrived at the trail, my friend pulled out three walking sticks that had belonged to his grandfather, each carved from a different desert wood. One was made from a dark, hard wood, highly polished, with a curved head. One had a head that was a sort of latticework – an ocotillo plant, whose red flowers draw hummingbirds in the early spring. And the third came from the stalk of a century plant – the great candelabras of white flowers that rise from the desert floor. This one was light and strong, and on the upper portion were a series of beautifully carved Japanese characters, carefully filled with red ink. The calligraphy is so exquisite and sophisticated that no-one now is able to read them.
A few months later there was an exhibit in San Francisco of craft and art from the internment camps. There were watercolours and sketches, delicate carved wooden birds, flower pins made from hundreds of shells, inlaid Buddhist and Shinto altars made from packing crates, children’s toys made from crushed cans, and weavings made from the threads of onion sacks. I wondered how many were made as gifts, to cheer a friend or family member when things were hard. It seemed that each object, no matter how humble, had a quiet radiance, born from the care and love with which it was made. On the wall was a quote from Delphine Hirasuna, who had been an internee: ‘Everything was lost, except the courage to create’.
Wherever you are in your life, whatever lies ahead of you, I offer you this story and this word, like a small, carved stone you can hold in your pocket, to be taken out when needed. Shikataganai. What is, is. Not resignation or passivity, but perhaps the beginning, the first step, when faced with great difficulty: to admit and accept the place where you are, no matter how grim. And then to have the courage to turn and begin your garden, one stone at a time, one tree gently planted into the yielding earth.
Bruce Hooke, ‘Emerging’, from ‘The Immersion Project’, Paria Canyon, Arizona, USA
What does it feel like to physically immerse myself in nature and what can I learn from doing so? It is easy to use nature as a place to challenge ourselves; a place to get an adrenaline fix. I want something else. I want to slow down and feel nature more fully, more deeply and more physically; to rediscover the relationship between my body and the natural world. We come from mature and we will return to nature. In between we seem to have lost our connection. We wander in a human-made wilderness.
The images in this series were made on medium-format film, using a Hasselblad 503CW camera. I created a remote-control system that allows me to trigger the shutter once I am in position.
Bruce Hooke is a photographer and performance artist residing in the small, western Massachusetts town of Plainfield. His work focuses on the evolving human relationship to nature. He heard about Dark Mountain from a friend and felt an immediate connection between his work and the mission of the project. bghooke.com
Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain.