ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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Once and Future Clear Lake

Scott Richerson

My family's cabin under Mt. Konocti was a paradise for me as a kid. I was fascinated by the endless treasures waiting under rocks and hiding in the water. I found gleaming obsidian and arrowheads, collected feathers of all kinds, and turned over mossy logs to find sticks that looked like snakes and snakes that looked like sticks. Next to our plot of land were about ten acres of rare undeveloped lakefront, a dense shoreline jungle of tules, willows and cottonwoods gnarled and tortured out of all proportion to the clement weather, ghostly snags, volcanic boulders, ancient oaks and every manner of creepycrawly known to a legion of dirty-fisted Tom Sawyers. Besides the more natural delights of the lake, I got a great thrill from sliding across the now blue, now red, now green surface of the lake on water-skis and shredding the water to choppy wavelets with on our jet-ski. Looking back, I want to say that I loved the lake more for its natural beauty and adventure than for the opportunity it provided for mechanical thrills. That memory, however, may be colored by my more recent priorities.

Returning to the lake for the first time in five or six years to work on the preceding chapter, I realized that no one who comes here after me will experience the same Clear Lake that I did as child, and that those who came before me were surrounded by a much different environment than I was. The list of changes that the Clear Lake area has gone through in the past 150 years is a familiar litany of recent human ecological impact. Much of the old hardwood forests and valley oaks have been removed for lumber and pasturage; animals like the bears, elk, and almost the entire native fishery have been driven off the land completely; foreign plants and animals such as the Cal-ubiquitous European grasses and the game fish have taken their place; a bouquet of pollutants of every kind has permeated the air, water and earth, and asphalt, foundation, driveways and boat ramps have taken up the land, particularly the waterfront. The net result of all this is that the ecology and landscape of Clear Lake have been significantly and irreversibly changed, and continue to be changed.

Apprehending this ongoing change, I feel both righteous indignation of what was stolen from me by my predecessors and guilt at what I am stealing from my descendants. Thanks to those who lived before, I will never see a bear catching fish on the eastern bank of the lake. I will never catch a steelhead for myself, never lie in a meadow of native grasses and never gaze down into the crater of the volcano. What has been left me is the ability to travel to the lake with incredible speed and comfort, spend only minutes of my time while there attending to the necessities of life; I can fly across the surface of the lake and I can dive to its bottom and remain for minutes or hours. And what will I leave my descendants, what Clear Lake will they know? If the current trend of exchanging irreplaceable natural resources and wonders for dubious mechanized comfort and thrills does not change drastically, they will have all the time in the world to leisurely enjoy a stay at a cement basin filled with oily water. I have slipped into hyperbole, but what I am trying to convey is my sense of environmental destruction as another example of that ancient and terribly natural human enterprise: screwing anyone who can't do anything about it. Inhabitants of Clear Lake before me stole the entire land from the Indians, and significant portions of it from me, because it was a better place to live than where they were before. I am even worse. I steal the beauties and life-giving gifts of the lake and the land at an ever-increasing rate, in service of my never-ending search for leisure and novel experiences.

From this vantage point, environmentalism is a moral and humanitarian matter of human rights, not a battle between an abstract aesthetic ideal of The Natural and the interests of people. One day, every member of this generation will be seen with the same eyes that we now cast on colonialists, slave traders and pillaging hordes. We wonder how those people could have lived with themselves after causing such pain to so many for such shallow gain—so how do we justify our creeping masses of pavement and plumbing, our CO2-spewing boats and cars, our toxic cleaning materials which in all likelihood will significantly damage the quality of life of our descendants? How do we justify the literally mortal danger into which we are forcing every single person born for thousands of years hence, increasingly not even in exchange for our own survival, but for conveniences and novelties which don't even seem to make us any happier? The answer, of course, is that we don't have to justify it, we just have to not think about it. And if there is anything people are good at, it is exactly that kind of doublethink which allows us to commit blatantly immoral acts; without that ability most people would be paralyzed by guilt.

So where does this leave us? Are we caught in an inevitable and unending cycle of selfishness? After all, if those who will come after us had instead come before, they'd sacrifice us just as surely as we're sacrificing them. So why not just enjoy the fine grade of Highway 20 and the easy access to the lake that the cleared tules leave us? Isn't the only other alternative to give up our cars and boats and even our packaged food, and if we enjoy Clear Lake at all to do so by camping by the shore and eating acorns? For me, the solution is to struggle with the forces of cognitive dissonance which create this all-or-nothing dichotomy out of what truly is a continuum of possible behavior. I know many of the things I do will harm people down the road. It's uncomfortable knowledge, but by refusing to pack it away in some dark corner of my brain, I am able to at least do some things to mitigate the damage that I cause. Yes, I drive to the lake, but with an eye to fuel efficiency. Yes, I eat food wrapped in plastic shipped from halfway across the country, but I buy organic and recycle everything I can. Behaving this way feels useless and hypocritical, but until I build the character to do my full share to halt what I see as the robbery and reckless endangerment committed by my generation, I try not to look away from it.

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