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Lake Tahoe: A Fragile Beauty

Foreword: Not One, but Many

I struggled against the mountain, looking for a perspective - one that would reveal the conflicted landscape we call Lake Tahoe. With its bare crimson slopes telling of a volcanic past, Red Lake Peak rose majestically above the folded granite of the Sierra Nevada. I reached into the thin air, across spring snowfields and over damp, coarse, muddy soils alive with a long winter's dissolving snowmelt flowing undecidedly to the desert, Lake Tahoe, or the Pacific Ocean. Above, spires of once molten rock, now sprayed yellow and orange with lichen, soared skyward.

I was chasing the ghost of John Frémont, who in February 1844 surveyed the Sierra for a young nation. His was the singular perspective that opened the West to a wave of migration that would suddenly and irreversibly change the landscape. On the upper-most slopes of Red Lake Peak, Tahoe comes upon one quickly. In a view that crosses peaks and creases ranges, the inland sea lies quietly and partially obscured, an expanse of smooth blue water more akin to sky than earth.

Frémont was blessed with mild weather and, despite warnings from the local Washoe Tribe, embarked on an ultimately successful winter crossing of the Sierra. This is rugged, unforgiving country. The Sierra's record annual snowfall, seventy-three feet, is a mere reminder of the glaciers that buried and shaped these mountains for over a million years. History is conveyed by landmark and headline. In the foothills, ribbons of golden soil mark the infertile legacy of Gold Rush hydraulic mining. Miles of avalanche sheds shield the railroad during winter summit crossings. Annually, errant recreationists, claimed by avalanche or lost to darkness, go missing. A journey that now takes less than two hours once stranded the Donner Party in a winter of desperation. Today, less prepared and aware, we whisk ourselves across these once impenetrable mountains, impervious to temperature and terrain, and arrive at secure destinations struck by the smell of pine and the damp of the forest.

The arrival of frontiersmen on Lake Tahoe's shores signaled the end of the Washoe's nine-thousand-year seminomadic habitation atop the Sierra crest and the western edge of the Great Basin. By 1860, sawmills were established in South Lake Tahoe to supply the Comstock Lode's tremendous demand for lumber. Thirty years later, only the Tahoe Basin's inaccessible slopes remained forested. Sheep grazing further damaged the exposed soil. Watershed degradation, the introduction of non-native species, and overfishing drove native fish stocks to extinction. From this environmental catastrophe sprang Tahoe's "Golden Age." Along with resorts and private estates, an appreciation of the area's beauty and the seeds of a conservation effort evolved. Tahoe existed quietly until the post-World War II era of freeways and development opened it to the middle class. Construction in the basin began in earnest, and the politics of development versus preservation dictated Tahoe's course. Eventually, nearly 90 percent of the Tahoe Basin came into the public domain. In 1873 geologist John LeConte measured the lake's water clarity to a depth of 108 feet. In the ensuing 135 years that figure has fallen to 68 feet. Public concern for Tahoe's health has made it one of the most studied and regulated ecosystems in the nation.

To turn back from Frémont's vantage point, though, is to discover a different perspective from Red Lake Peak - a Washoe perspective that may be everlasting. Any thoughtful look at Tahoe necessarily carries one well beyond its borders. On an average day, from the foot of the peak's once molten spires, one sees much of Washoe country. On a good day, the horizon from the crest of the Sierra Nevada seems to bend as the views from Red Lake and neighboring peaks touch the Coast Range, the Sacramento Valley, and Nevada's Great Basin. Hazy days witness California's metropolitan ozone rising east over the mountains and settling on the Sierra's snowmelt and alpine lakes. Creeping more slowly into the Sierra is a demand for second homes, commuter communities, and resorts that mine the land for the American dream of country living, luxury, leisure, and recreation. No longer is this a vast, unexplored wilderness holding unknown treasures. Urban sprawl, regional air pollution, a growing appetite for recreational opportunities, the specter of global warming - in many respects, Tahoe is a case study in America's challenge to manage consumption pressures while sustaining the environment.

Tahoe, though, is more than an environmental report card. It is emblematic of our relationship with the landscape. When we reduce Tahoe to numbers and calculations, we deny a social and national significance, which touches other horizons. For the Washoe, Da-ow's waters gave birth to all others. Man was governed by nature. Lives were shaped by a larger world, one of its own making. In 1873, John Muir wrote in a letter,

Tahoe is surely not one but many. As I curve around its heads and bays and look far out on its level sky fairly tinted and fading in pensive air, I am reminded of all the mountain lakes I ever knew, as if this were a kind of water heaven to which they all had come.

Muir is a bridge from our modern culture to the more elemental world of our ancestors and a reminder of the primal connection we share with the earth.

The photography in this book depicts both the one - a spiritual landscape where light plays off water, sky, and earth - and the many - the waters of history, economy, and ambition that indelibly shape this landscape. Single, sublime, and often fleeting moments communicate a permanent truth found only in nature. By embracing the historical perspective - our connection with both past and future - this work attempts to achieve a sense of honesty, or naiveté, found when one first encounters the landscape. With those images depicting society's transitional attitudes toward the environment and the land, the intent is not to mourn the loss of nature but, instead, to convey the disharmony intrinsic in human affairs. While nature is the final arbiter, our mere presence alters the land.

A notable example of this are Plates 45-50 showing smoke from the 7,700-acre Fred's Fire of 2004, which was located beyond the edge of the basin near Kyburz, not far as the crow flies from Red Lake Peak and Frémont's vantage. Only a few structures burned. At the lake, the smoke obscured the basin's rim for days. Piers, boats, and other alterations to the landscape, stood apart from the natural setting, accentuated against the grey-brown background, itself a product of man's activities. Three years later, the smaller Angora Fire had a much more devastating effect on the Tahoe community. While less than half the size of Fred's Fire, nearly 250 homes were destroyed and erosion risks were exacerbated along the south shore.

For me, the sight of burning neighborhoods brought back memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 and those deep feelings of loss that come from the destruction of one's family home and community. I recalled the two worlds in which I, with little more than the clothes on my back, found myself. The unfathomable forces driving such events make clear the enormity of the natural world and its indifference to our fragile place within it. Conversely, as if to underscore a fundamental incompatibility with nature, I had been ejected from our material culture.

The similarities between the Tahoe and Oakland Hills fire events are striking. Significant to the destructive power of the Oakland fire were the tightly-spaced homes and non-native trees and plants crowding densely-wooded streets. Like Tahoe, the denuding of Oakland's forests was a product of gold fever. Prior to becoming construction material for San Francisco, Oakland's giant old-growth redwoods were trusted landmarks to schooners entering the Golden Gate and navigating San Francisco Bay. Tahoe's lumber was destined for the silver mines of Virginia City.

Today, Tahoe's forests differ substantially from pre-settlement. They have grown more homogeneous, dense, disease prone, developed, and highly combustible. Illustrating the complex web in which we find ourselves entangled is the breadth and depth of research on every aspect of Tahoe's environment, including biodiversity, soils, air quality, water quality, socio-economics, and global warming. While Tahoe's sublime vistas always capture me, it is upon closer contemplation that I inevitably find myself at those intersecting landscapes, those brought on by our industriousness, dreams, and ambitions.

At the heart of these intersections is Charles Goldman, University of California at Davis Professor of Limnology and Director of the Tahoe Research Group, who in his introduction brings us inside the discovery of this landscape's complexity at perhaps the most pivotal time in recorded history. Supporting charts and graphics from the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Desert Research Institute, and the United States Forest Service distill volumes of modern research for a glimpse of the forces driving Tahoe's future. From the landscape's historic junction, in the midst of the migration that followed Frémont, come two timeless visions. Master 19th Century photographer Carleton Watkins' work throughout the West offers witness to the end of wilderness and indigenous cultures and the establishment of today's communities and ethics. Mark Twain writes across centuries, as if speaking directly to our time, and describes the American pioneering character, one torn between awe and exploitation. Finally, Robert Hass offers Tahoe as a backdrop, where a crown jewel of our natural environment hides in plain sight from our modern, personal, and, often, distracted lives.

I sat on Red Lake Peak for hours, taking in the landscape and Tahoe's place within it. I thought of Frémont and his cartographer standing beside me on that promontory reveling in a premature spring, celebrating achievement, and recording discoveries. By now, the land has all been parceled, sectioned, claimed, and its features optimistically labeled - Hope, Charity, Emerald, Heavenly. Invisible boundaries demarcate ambitions, fears, and dreams. Neither the rivers nor the forest are the wiser. Ultimately, the land is not measured by distance or dollar. To view our world only through an economic eyeglass such as Frémont's is to obstruct the naked eye. I thought of the Washoe below, moving respectfully through this landscape, celebrating family and the gifts of nature. If there was a singular perspective from Red Lake Peak, perhaps it was not of those seeking a guidepost or benchmark toward growth and prosperity, but rather, it was one grounded in a more fundamental recognition of our place in the landscape, inspired by an inner peace and wonder that sustains the soul.

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