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Know the West

Strength in small victories


Two letters slammed Kim Todd's essay "Walking Woman" for alleged inaccuracies of grammar and, more deeply, for incorrectness of attitude -- demonstrating exactly what too often turns us enviros into self-defeating scolds (HCN, 5/24/10).

First, to the would-be grammarian: In 30 years of hiking and climbing the range as a native-born L.A. boy, I and my confreres habitually called our mountains "The Sierras." Modern scholars know that dictionaries don't define language; usage does. As to the minor glitch of Todd's leaving out some highway numbers -- well, you do drive "down" to Big Pine from Tioga Pass. At Lee Vining, where the pass road meets U.S. 395, the elevation is thousands of feet higher than at Big Pine.

Secondly and more seriously, California Native Plant Society Conservation Chair (Bristlecone Chapter) Daniel Pritchett complains that Todd has overstated the extent of the Owens River's restoration. He's right -- she shouldn't have used the word "full." Yet the minimum adjudicated flow of 40 cubic feet per second is a significant partial victory. The previous flow in the Lower Owens River was, after the 1913 L.A. water theft began, at best about 5 cfs. In many places it was zero.

Todd's second-to-last paragraph acknowledges Pritchett's point: "There's more work to do. ..." But she adds this important coda: Defeats aren't necessarily permanent.

Even angry ol' Ed Abbey acknowledged that "losing" Glen Canyon was only temporary. In a hundred years, or two, the dam will prove unsustainable, the monstrosity will crack and fail, and the river will go back to rivering. The natural world has unknowable reserves of self-restoration, and it will start coming back in the very instant that we stop abusing it. As we face the coming century of eco-disaster, we enviros will have to give up our end-of-the-world language and adopt a crafty, often-compromised language of moving in the right direction. And celebrating imperfect victories.

Felicia Marcus, the environmentalist lawyer who took over the L.A. Board of Public Works in the '90s, said: "Let's be willing to capture results. You know: They offer you 80 percent; you take the 80 percent, and then you sit down to talk about the other 20. Versus to continue to beat them over the head unless they give you 100 percent, which is a major flaw in the environmental strategy in a lot of places" (quote from Bill Sharpsteen's book, Dirty Water).

Maybe the Owens River only got a 50 percent victory in this case. My thanks to Pritchett and the Bristlecone Chapter for battling for the other half. But my thanks to Kim Todd for her work, too -- for reminding us to "capture results" emotionally, literarily and spiritually. How else will we have the strength to return to the fight?

David Oates
Portland, Oregon