Joe Mathews: Lessons from California’s ‘Miracle Country’

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Owens Valley, California Image by gloverbh222 from Pixabay

Overcoming disaster is a way of life east of the Sierra Nevada.

California is feeling down on it’s luck: the pandemic has ravaged the state’s economy, exacerbating economic inequities and killing more than 15,000 of our neighbors. Wildfires have driven thousands from their homes and left millions breathing toxic air. Meanwhile, political divisions are leading to widespread angst about the upcoming elections. Zocalo columnist Joe Mathews says there’s solace to be found in the Owens Valley, a place that knows all-too-well about rebounding from loss.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Owens Valley tough

Recovery from recession, fire, pandemic and political conflict might require a miracle. Where can Californians find one?

In Miracle Country.

Miracle Country is the title of Kendra Atleework’s magical memoir about her life in the Eastern Sierra. The book begins with the 2015 fire that decimated her 200-person hometown, Swall Meadows, north of Bishop and 7,000 feet above sea level. And it relates unforgettable stories about how disaster shaped and reshaped the Eastern Sierra, particularly the Owens Valley. 

Atleework, in prose as beautiful as any writing ever devoted to our state, shows that apocalyptic events aren’t really ends. They are beginnings that ground and even nurture us. Her oft-devastated home region offers a preview of a post-apocalyptic life of great beauty and engrossing mysteries.

“Where do we turn after everything burns? she asks. “What light do we find, or not find, just over the summit?” 

Atleework’s life, and book, toggle between Swall Meadows, where she was raised, and nearby Bishop (pop. 4,000), the only incorporated place in Inyo County. But her true subject is the high desert of the Owens Valley, “a long brown sliver of sagebrush and bitterbrush cupped between ranges—to the west, the stark granite escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, casting its rain shadow across our towns; to the east, the Whites and Inyos, those ancient desert mountains.” 

She weaves stories of her family’s life with the valley’s two great apocalypses. The first was the taking of the region from the Paiutes, who called the valley “Payahuunadu,” land of flowing water. The second was the taking of that water, through the deceptions of William Mulholland, to serve Los Angeles, leaving Owens Valley with a dry lake bed of chemicals that produces hazardous dust storms.

Most accounts of the Owens Valley end with that crime. But Atleework, while unforgiving of the water theft (in L.A., she seeks out Mulholland’s grave at Forest Lawn), is more interested in appreciating the marvelous emptiness of the valley left behind. “When the water went away, growth occurred someplace else,” she writes. “With water, Owens Valley might not be the country that drew my parents together for love of its strangeness.”

Atleework even conveys affection for the fires, droughts, floods, and blizzards that have taught Owen Valleys residents how to endure powerful, uncontrollable forces.  “To be made careful is to be made grateful,” she writes. “Loss highlights all you have, just as absence in the desert highlights presence, until what little water we harbor glows.”

The most memorable character of this story, other than Atleework’s pilot-father and her late educator-mother, is a wind, the Sierra Wave, which blows from the Pacific and races up the Sierra, producing 60 miles-per-hour gusts that overturn big-rigs and push airplanes into mountains.

 “If God is ever present, if God can get in through the frames of our doors and the pores in our skin,” she writes, “then on this obsidian edge of California, God is the wind and the dust it carries.”

Atleework, 31, has glimpsed California’s future, since climate change has shadowed her life, with the Eastern Sierra’s winters growing warmer, its fires bigger, its seasons more alike. Coping with such change means Californians are condemned to spend their lives rebuilding.

Still, after stints in Minnesota and San Diego, she choose to return and buy a house in Bishop.

“We live in a landscape damaged beyond repair, and we see our loss magnified the world over,” she writes. “We are here regardless, learning how to keep an eye on mystery and miracle, where they flicker beside disaster.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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