“the earth all around him was growing barren in the sun...the ground dead under their feet.”
Dust, this week’s IOU Theater production, was based on an adaptation of a Twilight Zone TV episode inspired by the high desert landscape in and around the Owens Valley, as was last month’s play, A Hundred Yards Over the Rim, filmed in Olancha. With temperatures outside in Lone Pine topping 110 degrees, the script run-through rings strangely prophetic. Set in a community hanging on to life in a dust bowl at the turn of the 20th century, images of the current carcinogenic dust cloud blowing across Owens dry lakebed scroll through the mind.
The performers, all residents of the valley, have been drawn together by this act, a small but powerful catalyst of cultural capital in a region where there is a scarcity. The scarcity of water and soaring temperatures seem to leave little energy for cultural expression and, indeed, cultivation in its broader sense. The subtext of the story of a small town struggling to live in harsh environmental conditions whose townsfolk come together in a communal act of love is not lost on the players.
The IOU Theater is presenting one performance a month in the form of radio plays, with the actors seated, reading from scripts and sound effects created live on stage. The actors are all residents of the valley, most of who have never performed before and the seated format gives confidence to those who may be shy of a more theatrical staging. They have responded to a call put out by Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio and are growing in number as the ‘summer stock’ season progresses.
The plays are staged in the Double L Saloon, next door to the IOU Garden on Main Street in Lone Pine, the mid-point of the Owens River valley. The IOU Garden is a flourishing community kitchen garden and soil production hub, another Metabolic undertaking in the IOU series, a number of acts of reparation in the valley that is the sacrificial donor twin to its insatiable sibling, Los Angeles. Refreshments are served using produce from the garden and from the Owens Valley Growers’ Co-operative, based up the road in Independence, yet another product of the studio’s five years of action in the area, emanating from the Bank of Trust and Time, a deep and sustained investment in the community there.
As the audience gathers, enjoying pizza made by young people from the local school’s Healthy Community program and baked in the garden’s bread oven, itself constructed from bricks made from the lakebed, the words of Lucy Lippard come to mind; “While entangling visual art with the cold realities of our current environment, some artists are realizing that they can envision alternative futures, produce redemptive and restorative vehicles with which to open cracks into other worlds, and rehabilitate the communal imagination.” (Undermining, Lucy R. Lippard, The New Press 2013).
The valley is the remnant of a former glacial lake, long gone, and home to the Owens River now fed artificially from the aqueduct owned and operated by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). It trickles down to the Owens dry lakebed, dry since 1924, a little more than a decade after the construction of the LA Aqueduct. The river was the subject last month of a summit discussion between LADWP, Inyo County and the Owens Valley Committee, all signatories on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) drawn up seven years ago to try to keep the Owens River flowing.
The signatories had gathered together an impressive array of eminent ecologists, hydrologists and other environmental scientists to give their opinion on the state of the river and advise how best to safeguard its future through ‘adaptive management’. What emerged was the acknowledgement that this is an artificial body of water, ‘staged’ by man, a prop in a sad tableau, an attempt to recreate what nature had intended the valley to look like at this point in the millennium. However, as one of the scientists remarked, with a wonderfully unscientific flourish, “If you push Mother Nature out of the door, she’ll come back in the window with a pitchfork”. In other words, the river is not performing to the script, it is plagued with tule and, at times, in the hot summer months, its water is so starved of oxygen that its surface is covered with fish, gasping for air, fighting for their lives.
At the end of the summit, in a living exemplar of the late, great political economist, Elinor Ostrom’s ‘local resource governance systems’, the assembled parties came up with a bundle of ‘adaptive management’ actions to help solve the problem and passed them over to their respective attorneys to create amendments to the MoU. Not an easy undertaking in a world governed by water rights. As Ostrom noted in her 2011 lecture, ‘The Role of Culture in Solving Social Dilemmas’ at the NYU School of Law, adaptive management is the acknowledgement that with cultural commons (such as water), the governance of these resources is necessarily experimental, but, she warned, it is not a panacea unless we learn that humans have the capacity to create norms and rules themselves, managed over time and accept that complexity is not always bad. Back to trust and time again. The title of Ostrom’s lecture is a pointed reminder that these are man-made dilemmas that have profound environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, Angelenos continue to water their lawns, oblivious to their debt to Owens Valley and the drought, now in its third year. The script below from the last IOU Theatre performance, A Hundred Yards Over the Rim, stands as an illustration to this attitude, one that was established at the Aqueduct’s opening ceremony in 1913 when Mulholland declared, “Here it is, take it!” and reinforced throughout the last century...
In which Christian, a 19th century pioneer who has travelled from Ohio to California and understands the true value of water is mysteriously transported into 1960s Olancha and stumbles into the diner of a gas station...
CHRISTIAN: Hey, you wouldn’t have any water to spare, would you Mister? Any extra I mean…
ATTENDANT: Water? Sure! Come on in here and sit down before you fall down.
STAGE DIRECTIONS: Joe takes a hold of Christian’s arm and leads him into the café. He pulls out a stool from the counter and gestures to the overwhelmed Christian to sit while he pours him a glass of water.
SFX: boots with spurs walking, chair sliding out, water being poured with ice and put on counter and slid to Chris.
ATTENDANT: Here you go.
CHRISTIAN: Is all this for me?
ATTENDANT: Sure – on the house.
CHRISTIAN: Whoa! Thank you kindly.
SFX: sound of water in a glass being swirled then being gulped. Glass put down on counter.
ATTENDANT: Ahhh, you want some more?
CHRISTIAN: You got more?
ATTENDANT: Sure do!