QUAIL MUTTERINGS #30. A Change in Routine (August 23, 2014)
Time is money. Money is time. I’m so sick of it all I think I could puke. There’s more to life than what money can buy. And what use is time if we don’t know how to use it wisely? Perhaps we could take a few lessons from Mother Nature.
The pre-settler Indians of the Owens Valley discovered a valuable commodity simply by watching the birds around Mono Lake in the Northeastern Sierra. Multiple species of birds flock to its shores. The native people would watch them run around with their beaks wide open gulping the multitude of flies in their path. Others would peck around in the shallow water while some scraped fly pupas off the edges of rocks with their feet. Literally thousands of gulls, osprey and other large and small avians have used this oasis in their migrations for millennia.
The Kutzadika’a, one of the early tribes inhabiting the Mono Basin, was known as “Fly eaters.” They learned from the birds and would scrape the fly pupas from the rocks around the water’s edge into baskets and then toss them into the air allowing the lightweight, crusty husks to blow away in the breeze while the tiny bits of flesh fell back into the basket. Each larva is worth one micro-calorie, according to the docent demonstrating this to our small group assembled in the tufa grove. She explained that the fat content and nutrient value in these tasty morsels is extremely high and was worth a lot when trading with other tribes. As one walks along, these Alkali Flies lift off the ground and part from one’s path. They are not pestiferous at all, unlike other flies.
Mono Lake is known for its tufa towers, beautiful limestone spires rising up from the lake’s surface and the surrounding ancient beds. The salt content in the basin is exceedingly high due to water flowing down the tributaries from the High Sierras, but not exiting from the lake. Eons of evaporation leave the pH at levels around 10! We tested it ourselves. This is about as alkaline as you can get. It’s even more than borax, which explains why the water feels a little slimier than we’re used to. In this kind of environment the tufa towers can form quickly. Up to an inch can be added in a day, although this is rare.
In the fishless waters of this inland sea live trillions of brine shrimp. They are about the size of a fingernail and are quite a feast for the migratory birds. This place teems with life. But evidently, Mark Twain had visited here and decided it was not his cup of tea. The volunteer told us that he deemed it a desolate desert, empty of all life. I can’t say that I agree with him.
I love the beauty of this area. The purplish-red hues are cast upon the evening clouds and across the lake by the sun’s reflections off the towering, jagged peaks. In the evenings, the mountains to the east slowly become shadowed by the higher range to the west, as if they are getting tucked in for the night. The covers eventually are pulled up all the way. The pungent sagebrush and dry quality of the air is intoxicating. Perhaps I might live here if it wasn’t for our beloved canyon. Kent and I drove Chance back up to Chico State for his senior year of mechanical engineering and decided to take the long way home. We checked out old mining country: Nevada City, Virginia City, Carson City… And now we’re meandering down through the places I like to visit every couple of years – the Eastern Sierra.
In my last Quail Mutterings I mentioned the importance of breaking up one’s usual routine, to keep life interesting as well as to appreciate what we have. This is one of the many benefits that this trip is providing us. After a night spent in Lee Vining we headed down to the Bishop area. Taking the cut-off to Tom’s Place, we continued up the narrow road all the way to the dead end. From here you can hike a few different routes, including one over Mono Pass which is around twelve-thousand, one-hundred feet above sea level. We took off in a more southerly route this time and enjoyed the view of a few glacial lakes. Occasionally we had to slow down to allow for the decrease in oxygen available in this altitude. The wind threatened to blow our hats off several times and I kept my lightweight jacket on despite it being August. We both loved walking out in the fresh air since so much of the days have been spent driving.
On Saturday we drove up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where my mom had come with the Geology Department at SDSU, back when she was working on her degree. I don’t know why it took me so long to come here. It’s a beautiful place hovering in the ten-thousand foot altitude range. Kent and I took the four-and-a-half mile Methuselah trail so we could visit the oldest known living tree on earth: an almost four-thousand seven-hundred year old Bristlecone Pine. It is surrounded by other three to four thousand year old neighbors. These amazing trees bend, twist and die back in order to survive the extreme conditions of fire, ice, snow, and wind. Some of these stand in unique natural sculpture gardens. It seems here that greater adversity grows stronger trees, century after century after century. The oldest trees survive in the most difficult situations. There might be a life lesson there for all of us.
Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.