Monday, October 1, 2012

Ghost Town

I drove out to one of the more infamous ghost towns in California named Bodie.

Bodie is not necessarily empty – not with the large numbers of tourists that drive out to experience this piece of American culture.  It is a ghost town straight out of the gold rush stories that tell the tale of why so many people came to California close to 150 years ago. All that is left are weathered buildings, rusted mining equipment and a graveyard that sits on the western hill.

I’ve seen a number of ghost towns in the west – those forgotten communities that left walls standing where once dreams and life existed. Bodie is particularly sad because it is hard to look at the abandoned mines and not think about all the mercury that was used to extract the gold out of the ore.  Hydraulic mining techniques washed millions of tons of soil out of the Sierras.  The wood used for the buildings and mining structures were Jeffrey and Lodge pole pines stripped from the south side of Mono Lake. Bodie creek still has elevated levels of mercury and arsenic present. That’s one place you don’t want to drink the water.

What remains of Bodie sits in silent testimony to a dream of wealth that had no idea as to the long term consequences that it was creating. The eastern Sierras are filled with the remnants of other mining camps. Lost among the scrabble of the high peaks – it’s hard to hike a trail and not find yourself passing along old outposts or roads or collapsed mines.

And yet, here is what struck me the most: the graveyard. I always end up there when I come to Bodie. The old buildings have no pull for me – not like that graveyard. Out of all the tourists who were wandering around the old streets and peering through windows, I had the graveyard to myself for over an hour. I read every tombstone and realized that most of the people buried there had died under the age of thirty. Many never saw their tenth birthday.  Around half of the graves no longer carry any markers at all. Weathered wood cribs – some completely falling apart – mark  ground that sags gently with what lies beneath.
A mother who died in childbirth – and the child who died a year later.
The young man from Ireland who never lived to see his thirty-third birthday
The stalwart pioneer who lived well into the 20th century and had his remains brought back to his family plot on that windswept hill in 1956.

These people weren’t trying to damage the earth or streams or forests. They were eking out an existence in the wilderness with the hope that they would be part of something amazing. Wealth beyond their wildest dreams seemed right around the corner. They came from around the world seeking an elusive and fickle dream.

I have ancestors who came from Cornwall, England for just those reasons. Miners in Cornwall – they came to the western Sierras and joined the thousands of men who sought gold in California. My great, great grandfather Richard Moore.  Richard married Bessie Bray, daughter of another gold rush pioneer from Cornwall - William Bray, born in 1815. They were men who knew their business and brought families to this country; traveling across the United States in the 1860’s and yet never struck it rich. They built communities and had children who wandered into their own fates – which included the eventual birth of my father and so it goes.

This is part of why I spend time in the graveyard at Bodie. I see my ancestors in that wild land; in those sun beaten headstones. I can’t find fault for what led them west. I can’t be mad at them for what they didn’t know at the time.

I can, however, learn from their mistakes. It’s not enough anymore to say that we don’t know what the consequences are for all the damage that is constantly done to our fragile ecosystems.  It isn’t okay for us to ignore behavior that looks at the earth as a commodity to be consumed without regard to health and sustainability.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

Our buffer of ignorance is gone.

No comments:

Post a Comment