Lesson at Pyramid Lake
An Indian ranger teaches environmentalists about sharing the earth even with motorcyclists.
By Leslie Roberts
"Extreme situations require extreme reactions! We cannot compromise on land use! Off-roaders must be kept off the public lands, at all costs!" These were my words, words I clung to like a rosary. But I must now confess, something cherished and long held has been disturbed in me; more specifically, in the way I think.
I received the shock of my life this summer, my metaphysical rug pulled from underneath me in a way I'd never anticipated. I've spent the last several weeks in very serious reconsideration of a fundamental tenet of my Being, if you will.For as long as I can remember, I have hated dirt bikers, those cruel arrogant who happily choose to despoil Gaia. Always have, and I've always considered it a part of my mission to defend Gaia from the onslaught of these motorized cannibals. To wage war on these demons has been a personal passion of mine since college (Berkeley '81).
I'm an environmentalist from a family of environmentalists, stretching back now four generations. My Grandparents were some of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Columbia, assisting in the building of basic water and sanitation systems in rural villages; several sewage systems were dedicated in my Grandfather's honor. Mother and Dad have been Sierra Clubbers from birth; I and my brothers, members... well, if not by strict application, then by intention, since we, too, were kids. It was instilled in me as I grew that halting the rape of the environment was the special charge of my family, yes, almost a familial duty.
Even now, I can still see Grandfather pounding his fist at Thanksgiving, "Damn the loggers, they've got to be stopped!", words I took to heart then and now. And I've relished the fight, from cleaning rivers and streams, trail and habitat restoration, to picketing various bureaucracies and having myself arrested, more than once, giving my all to this cause I've devoted my life to.
So you must understand, what happened this past summer I cannot possibly explain away or forget; the baggage from the experience has caused tremendous and, yet, painful self-examination. Try as I may, something... paradoxical rises from within me. Clear though the issue has always been-perhaps conveniently clear I am troubled now, and no amount of discussion with my like-minded cohorts has made it go away... I'd taken a trip in August to the hot springs on the shore of Pyramid Like north of Reno. (If you've never been, it's an experience that brings you about as close to the primal sources as you could ask for, all in about five hours from the Bay Area) Some friends and I had trekked out to the desert to bathe away our tensions and rekindle spiritual bonds with Gaia.
I'd had the pleasant experience just the year before of meeting a wonderful Native American ranger from the Paiute tribe when he came in one evening to collect camping fees. We invited Charles to our fire and were thrilled once he recognized we were no average "conspicuous consumer/vacationer types" but people serious about our efforts to harmonize with Gaia by the myths and tales he shared, his lineage and his immense personal experiences of this magical region. I was hoping for another meeting with Charles, a chance, admittedly, to show off to my eager companions (especially Carol, who has been on the front lines of just about every environmental battle of consequence in the last 25 years!) my relationship with someone genuine, and, yes, with a legitimate Native American.
We'd arrived late that Thursday night and, to our great surprise, found the shoreline to be free of any fellow campers. Yes! Quickly we plunged into the inviting hot springs, mere feet from the edge of the cold, brackish water, a pit conveniently carved out for our use. Shovels in hand, battery-powered lantern and a little brandy, we dug ourselves into the hot, black sand and looked forward to a wonderful weekend, freed at least for the moment! from city trappings, meetings, that grinding commuting routine, and mostly, free to soothe ourselves in the warm blood of Gaia's benevolence. No sign of Charles or any other ranger as we bathed; within an hour, our souls illumined by the healing waters, sleep called invitingly. Soon, we were lulled to peace.
Then it happened! The resonating crack of a throttling motorcycle, and then another slashed my bliss wide open. Reaching for my watch 8 A.M., out here, out in sacred land?!! I ripped open my sleeping bag and tore out the door of my tent to see one, then another armor-clad biker roaring by our camp, then disappear behind the eery, mysterious rock outcroppings, the echo of their motors blatting! and killing what was left had been sweet morning calm. My blood rose. "Damn them!" I hissed, that sense of anger I'd always felt towards these blasphemous so-called 'sportsmen' at a fever pitch. Indignation, and more, a feeling that I had been defiled, clutched me. Defiled! And then the questions: Why? Why had they come, why had they so arrogantly taken from me and my companions our peace? And why had they chosen then to rip their menacing hooves across Gaia's flesh?
My friends, one by one, appeared from their tents, releasing sentiments of rage that are simply unprintable. Suffice to say, all of us felt violated. Then moments behind the bikers came a green Jeep Cherokee truck. "A ranger; thank God!" we cried aloud as he pulled into our camp. It was Charles! I raced to meet him, familiarity and a sense of thankfulness upon my lips. Instantly, before I could check it, my story was out. "Did you see those guys just now? They came racing through here, waking us up and tearing up the land!"
Joined by my friends, we collectively unveiled our indignation, probably overwhelming the man before he could even have a chance to get his bearings. He waved us back, "Hey, calm down, it may not be what you think; you have any coffee?" walking right through the middle of us and heading towards our glowing fire, logs still at ember. We wanted, no, demanded he hear our rage, but more, we desired the satisfaction so long denied of seeing these offenders immediately captured, arrested, hung by the heels, punished, and whatever else we could think of.
But, oddly, he seemed not the least bit concerned. It was as if he hadn't heard us, or chose not to. From behind him, I called out, "Look, hey, we'll make some coffee, but, aren't you going after them? They just left, they're only..." He turned and looked into my face. It was so strange, the look he gave me then: cool, yet commanding attention. "No; why should I? What have they done?"
I could not accept what I'd just heard. Perhaps he didn't understand. "But they just... they aren't allowed here, are they? This is a reservation, this is sacred land! Aren't there rules preventing those kind of people from just... coming in here and... "What makes you think they just 'came in'?" he asked with irritation, a glare now aimed straight at me. "Did they stop and introduce themselves? Do you know them?" I felt as if I was under attack. This wasn't the same Charles I had known before, kind, thoughtful, the Charles who'd so touched me with his tales of tender spirit life and great-grandfather teachings of earth harmony. What had I said? Couldn't he understand my, no, our anger? I looked on, perplexed, waiting for the right words, but more, waiting for something from him which would make sense for why he, charged like me with taking care of Gaia, would allow this obvious desecration of his home.
We stared in silence until, looking at each of us one by one, he slowly spoke, in a tone which I think I'm only now understanding. In more or less these words, he said, "How do you know who those riders were, and how do you know what they were doing? I know, they came 'flying by you,' and no, we don't allow just anybody to come onto our land and do what they please. This is my homeland, my Mother, and I protect Her with my life." He looked at me again.
"But those are Indian riders. I waved at them as they passed me, guys who're just taking a loop around the edge here before heading out to the Smoke Creek desert. They don't ride here all the time, Council wouldn't let 'em; it would disturb too many of you tourists!" (The word 'tourists' tore through me, much like the invading bikers had just moments before.) But that is their right, this is their land, too, and I wish them a happy ride. "I was stunned; what was this?
"Charles, I'm sorry but I can't believe you, of all people, would permit... dirt bikers to ravage this land!" Oh, how I wanted right then to be battling anyone but this kind man. I could feel my outrage backing up in my head and swelling to the point of bursting, and I did not want to vent upon him! Perhaps, though, it was best that Charles stood before me. Anyone else might have provoked the situation, might not have understood. He looked into my eyes, studying me for a moment.
"You must calm down; there is something here I don't think you see." He paused and then a gentle smile spread across his face, disarming me. "You don't like those machines, do you?" Like a knee-jerk reaction, I spit out, "No, I hate them, and I hate to see what they do to the earth. My friends and I are people who care about preserving our natural resources."
"Resources," he echoed, a hint of mockery in his voice, "and to see what those bikes do just kills us!" Each of my companions nodded in assent. Evidently, in my civilized, compartmentalized way of reducing things to raw fact, I had unwittingly offended him, for he thoughtfully replied, "I prefer not to think of Mother by what she can do for us, but what we share together. "His comment slammed into me as if I didn't feel the same! but before I could find the words to respond, he continued.
"Look, I understand what you're saying, but this is Indian land, and we govern here in accordance with the old ways. We're bound to balance the needs of Mother and Sons. Yet there is something larger here you must look at. This issue has come up here before, you know." He smiled and shook his head, then pointed to the hills behind us. "Just a few miles north is Fort Sage, an off-road park where all kinds of people come to ride. There are many lessons to be learned there. "Fort Sage; why, yes, I knew of it. Some friends from Berkeley had helped shut down the park and a race they were having a year before because of fear of bald eagle habitat destruction. It's a corner of California that receives little attention but where, isolated and unknown, we had scored a victory for the forces of conservation.
I wanted to give my personal knowledge of the area, what I knew had recently occurred there, but Charles continued, and what he said next took me by complete surprise. "They have an annual desert enduro up there, guys going flat-out for 100 miles something I would personally never do; don't ride bikes myself but I would never... how can I say this? It's good for those people to do what they do, and afterwards Mother sweeps their trails away. Those riders come here only once a year; of course, there's local riders who use the desert almost full-time, but except for the occasional jerk usually a kid who just doesn't know any better they come and go and leave very little trace. The desert is so very forgiving, you know; all of Earth Mother is."
He turned to me, sensing my impending reaction. His tone reminded me then of my Grandfather. "I have met many people like you who come here to enjoy this spot, feel intuitively connected to the land and yet express real anger and resentment at those who have chosen a different form of relaxation than you; bikers, hunters, explorers. Yes, relaxation, recreation, forms of self-expression. You must see that all people need recreation, or they fall out of balance with themselves. And when people fall out of balance, terrible things happen within their families. Earth Mother knows this, understands this, as we Indians do, and thus we know it is not our right to order the way any given man chooses to release himself. We make room for all."
Carol about exploded, "But dirt bikers destroy habitat, they carelessly"
Charles cut her off. "I think you're confused about that. Yes, bikes destroy terrain, as do cars, tractors, buildings, roads. Everywhere Man has stepped, his heavy foot has left marks. But we cannot single out those who chose bikes to recreate for punishment. Why stop there? How many people"
I couldn't contain myself, "But they go all over, tearing huge ruts in the earth!"
"And how did you come here today? Did you fly, or come by car?"
"Well, in a car, but we stuck to the road, so "
"Most dirt bikers stick to their trails, too. Trails have been left from the very first Indian, trails we still use today. There will always be trails, as long as there is Man."
"But your impact, and a horse's impact, are just not the same as "
"Despite your evidence, the way White scientists measure impact and destruction, you are wrong to think in those ways. Damage to Mother cannot be measured by numbers; it can only be felt. And it is the immature, the few when they are recreating who do the real destruction, those in every society across the world who cannot understand the consequences of their actions. Yet, I say, because most of them grow and, in time, do learn how to tread lighter, how to move about in their lives with less damage, though there will always be those who selfishly indulge some destructive urge within them, despite their age. We have a word for them, ------." (A word that, I am sorry, I do not remember as I write this. And I must apologize for the inexactness of my narrative and the words I have put in his mouth; Charles was much more articulate than I have pictured him here.)
"But they are the few, and they will grow. Mother has many different-colored creatures, with many different evolutions, upon her skin. He turned again to me. "Listen to me. You, and others like you, must learn patience with these people. Forget what you have seen here today, forget your indignation at those you do not understand, and forget what corporate greed has done to put you here, too. Oh, yes, Greed built the roads that allowed you access into the heart of Mother. But none of that can we change. It is done, and the issue is now one of balance.
We Indians know how to keep balance and order here on our home, but you outside this valley cannot seem to balance your concerns with the very real need of all people to recreate. Things have changed, we cannot return to the old ways of horse and footpath. Mother does not ask us that; She asks us to integrate with all men, to find ways to harmonize. You must allow these bikers their place, too; most of them have concerns for the land like you do. I have heard these arguments before, how land must be closed to all but the conservationists and the scientists. This, too, is wrong, for you have taken Mother's great gifts and allowed only the privileged to enjoy them."
At these words, I was struck dumb. Privileged? Did he mean me? My defenses erupted, "Charles, I don't come from the upper class, I'm not a materialist, all I want, all I ever wanted was to"
"Yes, the privileged: only those who belong to certain 'approved' groups are allowed to enjoy these trails and streams, all in the name of preservation. But this is a selfish act, this locking out of the mass. The mass is here, they are not going away. You must find ways to give every person their chance to find their freedoms, even dirtbikers. Compromise, share, as Mother shares with us. There is room for all men here, all of us. Do not lock any out; it is wrong to seek that. There is great reward for living in harmony, just as there are great penalties for extremism of any kind. Extremism is not balanced, and Mother balances. Let us cease to provoke Her."
With that, before any of us could reply, he asked, "How long are you staying here?" Stunned, Carol muttered, "Until Sunday." "Good, that will be five dollars a day, 20 dollars total. Enjoy your stay, be wary of the afternoon winds which come fierce, and think about what I've said, for it is not our place to condemn those different than us, but to find ways in which we can all get along." He turned, walked up to his truck and got in; with a short, friendly wave, he drove on through the campsite. We did not see him again the entire weekend, and I suppose he chose to stay away, perhaps to let his thoughts sink in.
Oh, and there was endless discussion over the next few days about what he'd said. I, for one, felt great alarm at his careful words; it took until the end of that great weekend, but I must confess now that I think Charles may be right: perhaps we are extreme, and thus, out of balance. Perhaps our uncompromising position with off-roaders is extremist, leaving them out while we retain access. Hard to admit, but, isn't that selfish?
I cannot shake his words now; they bore into my entrenched mental framework. I had referred to Gaia as "resources," a mere thing to be used. I felt bad for this slight, but what was worse, what rings loudest in my ears, that is, for so long, I had assumed my position, my view, was Truth incarnate. I have come to learn that I must expand my thinking, and that, yes, I have been wrong. Somehow, as Charles says, we must find ways to preserve and allow all to recreate. All must share this land we've been given, not just the few, the "members only" of our special little group.
This message was revealed to me by a true steward of the land. Perhaps it could not have come any other way. By his gentle words, I have now seen things outside my system of thinking I had never accounted for before, yet I have seen, and it is too late to ignore. Yes, Charles, there are others out there, people with needs, different people than me, people who are not going away. As Gaia gives, so must I. I think I understand now: we must learn to share, to cooperate, or one day, Gaia may just take it all away.
Writer Leslie Roberts welcomes your comments. You may contact him at P. O. Box 2136, Chico, CA 95927
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Updated March 15, 2007