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Dispatches From
truro
the Wilderness

Environmental Literature and Nature Writing



The Mono Lake Home Page

Mark Twain

Bodies of Water

My boots crunch into the pumice-covered slope so loudly that I have to stop every few feet to listen to the mountain chickadees. Their familiar "cheeeezbuurger" song makes me nostalgic, and I'm glad to be back. For more than 20 years I've been coming to Mono Lake, attracted by its landscape and the fecudity of its waters.

This moonscape of craters and desert along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada is a contrary land. Snow covered Sierran peaks tower well over a mile above the lake surface, which, at th e moment, is at 6,384 feet above sea level. In the summer, the clouds are mostly dry by the time they pass over, and a lot of the rain evaporates before it hits the ground.

The weird laughter of four pinyon jays distracts me and I watch them zing from tree to tree. I crunch my way back to the car and dig out my water bottle. I was looking for red crossbills, but have had no luck today. I get in the car and head for the south shore.

Most lakes turn to meadow, drain, or dry up within a few thousand years, but Mono Lake is over 700,000 years old, making it one of the oldest lakes in the country. The basin that contains it filled as the glaciers in the Sierra receded at the end of the last ice age. There are no outlets, so as water evaporates carbonates a nd alkaline minerals are left behind. Several small streams feed fresh water into the lake at about the same rate as the evaporation, maintaining the lake level and the salinity. Mono Lake is three times saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

Mark Twain called Mono the Dead Sea of California. There are no fish. There are no lilypads or waterstriders. The only life in its waters are some algas, and tiny, clear brine shrimp. The shrimp evolved along with the lake, and became their own species, Monoensis. Brine flies surround the shore in a foot-wide swath of black. The circle of life here is astonishingly simple: the birds eat shrimp and flies, the shrimp and flies eat algae. The algae eat the death at the bottom. Around and around.

An afternoon storm is moving across the Sierra. Flashes of lightning silhouette the ragged peaks. Far away thunder dispatches the arrival of rain. The clouds churn, molecules mingle, and rain falls. It rolls down the slopes to creeks and rivers, dragging specks of dirt and plant along with it.

Eventually, the rainwater wends through crevices and fractures, through the interstices of rock, and joins the underground tide. Some groundwater rises up through springs in the bottom of the lake. The fresh spring water is full of calc ium, which combines with carbonates suspended in the lake water. Calcium carbonate, or limestone, precipitates out of solution to form tufa towers around the springs.

In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from four of Mono's freshwater streams. The lake level dropped over 40 feet in 50 years, doubling the salinity, and beginning the collapse of the ecosystem. Island nesting colonies became linked to the shore by land bridges, and as predation increased, nesting bird populations plummeted. Crystalline white spires reach skyward like fingerbones, a dozen feet above the surface. Mono Lake was dying of thirst.

The level of the lake is now rising. After 20 years of battles between the LADWP and several environmental groups, the diversions have been stopped, the streams have been rewatered, and the lake is higher than I have ever seen it. In the next 20 years, it will return to its 1963 level of 6,393 feet, and hopefully, the bird populations will increase from thousands to millions.

An osprey takes a few swings back and forth and I can only see glimpses of him between the tufa towers. Osprey have become summer residents at the lake. Nearly one hundred species, almost every North American shorebird, grebe, duck, and gull visit Mono throughout the year. They feed and rest during their migrations, some nest, molt, and raise their young. Their food is easy to find; in one cubic yard of lake water are an estimated 50,000 brine shrimp.

It's July, and Wilson's phalaropes have begun to arrive and thousands are twirling in the brine. Mono Lake is a critical stop on their long migration; they will nearly double their weight here before non-stop flights to Bolivia and Argentina. Paddling in little circles stirs up the flies an d brine, making it easier for them to feed.

At the small county park on Mono's north side, I walk past the 1963 lake level marker toward the lake. As I approach the shore, the ground becomes the soggy under the wooden walkway, and the willows are becoming inundated. They will recede as the shoreline advances, returning once again to their former location. I sit down and pull out my binoculars, hoping to spot some warblers.

Tiny roothairs, thin as thread, suck droplets of moisture from the soil by capillary action. Millions of roothairs creep blindly through the dark and suck moisture into the roots. A water-loving tree like the huge cottonwood further up the shore will heave hundreds of pounds up its trunk every day. Their sap travels miles, carrying nutrients to every leaf and branch.

The cells of cottonwood leaves are green with chloroplasts instead of hemoglobin. Trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen; and we do the opposite, complementing and depending on each other for our next breath.

As the sun begins to set, an alkaline wind stirs the surface, and a huge flock of Wilson's phalaropes fan away to another patch of lake. I heave myself up and head toward camp.

When groundwater is heated from below by hot rock and magma, it rises as hot spri ngs. One spring, near where I am camped, sits on a mound of mud that it formed with the earth around it. Hot spring mud. Smecktite. The locals have dug out the spring, and lined it with concrete and rock. In winter, steam rises from the pool in tiny hot clouds.

After dark, I lower my body into the hot pools. Steam wets my face. The water here is soft with dissolved minerals and salts, and slightly slimy. The evening air is chilly. I sink in up to my neck.

Life began in water; a bolt of lightning shocked the primordial broth. We began as a lifeboat of cells, sailing together in a fertile sea. Our bodies slowly changed form; fins became arms, ears grew cups, our bones became more rigid. What made us decide to try life on land? Were we coaxed by the light, or pushed from the dark? Or, were our watery ancestors cast upon the beach in a storm and stranded there, naked and scared?

We are, all of us, bodies of water. Two hydrogen atoms attach to an oxygen atom at an angle of 109 degrees, creating a lopsided molecule. The molecules are polarized slightly, and will surround bits of matter with shells of themselves. Two thirds of our bodies are lopsided molecules, and this lopsidedness is what allows us to absorb and digest, to breath, and to dream. There is no life without water, and no hope at all.

Throughout our lives, we leak. We sweat. We cry. We urinate, defecate, spit, sigh, and pant. We replace the water every day, only to lose it to the life force that flows underground.

My body lost a lot of water once, when I was sick with the flu. For days I could not keep any food down, and my body stopped digesting. I became light-headed and so disoriented that I couldn't walk straight. By the time I got to a doctor, my temperature was 104 degrees and my skin did not snap back when pinched up. I was well on my way to becoming a Dead Sea of California.

Floating on my back, around the pool, I can see the dome of stars above the jagged edge of the earth. There is energy in the air: the atmosphere is electrified by an advancing storm. A flock of ducks, some crows, a few killdeer, and three or four coyotes call and cry across the valley. The candle has burned low, and the heat has made me sleepy. My body hangs suspended on the tension of the surf ace. Sweat leaks from my pores. I take a long swig from my water bottle.

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