Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Standing on the Lake Bottom

(This essay appears today at as well.)
Depending on the time of year, the amount of snowfall, and the thirst of people and potatoes downstream along the Snake River, I live anywhere from a third of a mile to a little over a mile of the Palisades Reservoir. I run with the dog for miles along its edge with frequency, particularly in late spring when snow keeps me out of the mountains and early fall when hunters push me back to the flatland. This late in October I can drive for miles across the lake bottom, bumping along on a ever-narrowing strip of old asphalt pock-marked with gaps where the lake gradually erodes the pavement during the few months each year the abandoned highway is underwater. Sometimes the dog and I explore the lake bottom and the high-tide line. This day I stand on the low foundation remains of a farmhouse, the neat grid of cement blocks the only legacy of someone’s home before the dam was completed a dozen miles away in 1957. Silt anchors the blocks in the ground and covers more than half their small elevation.

The lake has receded for the winter, drained to fatten Idaho potatoes to McDonald’s uniformity, or to be fair, to the uniformity demanded not just by McDonalds but by Burger King, In and Out Burger, Carl’s Junior, Ore-Ida, and a few dozen other purveyors of the American obsession with the French Fry. A bit of the water goes to Idaho cities of course, which largely means Kentucky bluegrass imported to Idaho, and some of it feeds sugar beets and alfalfa and wheat, but mostly it goes to potatoes, for Idaho is practically a case study in industrialized monoculture, which means it hosts many “managers” with expertise in irrigation storage and chemical soil enhancement. The reservoir is 34% full the Bureau of Reclamation tells me in its daily statistics, nearly two thirds of its million and a half acre feet of storage removed. The summer boaters are gone too. No anglers here in a land that is often cracked like an aging palm.

What those “managers” mostly offer me this day is a place for contemplation from a small rectangular pad of cement that probably served as the front stoop of a farmhouse. From there I contemplate the surrounding mountains that are my daily companions and try to imagine the valley as it might have once been. Now miles of that valley succumb to a mostly flat expanse of spongy soil tinted faint green by the limited hardy plants and grasses that can sprout during the brief time between burial under summer water and winter snow. In the days of the farmhouse I assume I would be looking at a waist-deep expanse of hay meadows turning autumn gold and awaiting the reaper’s scythe. I have followed the irrigations ditches that once curved along the valley floor, have seen the labor evident in rock piles from cleared fields. I wonder if any neighbor’s rooflines would have been visible. I imagine the work: the labor of digging irrigation ditches and tending animals and harvesting enough hay to get them through brutal winters, the effort of hauling enough wood from the surrounding mountains to heat this tiny home through six months of bitter cold when the snow would pile four feet deep against the now missing walls

And what was here before these foundation stones where laid in their neat, small grid? Probably sage flats, and in October that would have meant the presence of bison to be joined in November or December by elk. Would there have been cottonwoods and willows along the river? How many pools and unexpected falls would the river have offered, how many braided channels and choked-off islands?

I stand on these thin strips marking the outline of a once-house and I wonder. There are a few cliffs that protrude from the mountainsides above me, though such palisades are not the dominant topography of these timbered mountains. What fences, what barriers then did the managers choose from when naming their new lake? There is not a fence in sight. Only the occasional roofline dots the last fall color in the surrounding mountains. No army settled here. No, the only true barrier seems the lake itself, slowly silting the past.

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