A Q&A with the Owens Valley’s Best Friend – Mike Prather

Mike Prather sharing his love for, and knowledge of, the bird life at Owens Lake.

A staunch defender of the Owens Valley’s incomparable natural features, former elementary and middle school teacher Mike Prather is a consistent and reliable advocate for nature through his efforts to preserve the Lower Owens River and Owens Lake, among many other places. Born and raised in Sonoma County, Mike’s family introduced him to the great outdoors through trips to their family cabins on Salmon Creek, just north of Bodega Bay, and on the Russian River. He hiked and played among the oaks, streams and redwood forests, and in school pursued his wide-ranging interests in education, botany, biology, ornithology and even fungi. After graduating from Cal State Chico, Mike taught all subjects to fourth through sixth graders in a two-room schoolhouse in Death Valley National Park alongside his wife Nancy, who taught K-3. They later moved to Lone Pine, where they have lived since 1980. Mike and Nancy raised two daughters in Lone Pine and are enjoying being grandparents and active community members.

Owensrivergirl posed some questions to Mike recently. A good friend to all of us working on behalf of safeguarding the lands and waters of our golden state, Mike is fond of quoting a sign he once saw hung on an office wall at National Audubon: “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” Thanks to his passion for the Owens Valley, Mike is the best friend the two mountain ranges and their deep cradle in between could ever hope to have.

Tell me about your mom and dad.

My mom accepted all of the wild critters that I brought home. Once, while conducting a conversation with our neighbor over the fence, one of my ravens flew and landed on my mother’s head. Mom continued the conversation as if nothing had occurred. My father was the Planning Director for Sonoma County during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when PG&E was proposing to build the nuclear power plant on Bodega Head. I learned a lot about pressure, politics and lobbying during that time. Our phone rang off the hook with lobbyists with PG&E. My father advocated for the PG&E plant since he worked for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. He took his lumps and our name is even in the lyrics of the protest ballad of the time, “Ballad of Bodega Head.” About that same time Castle and Cook was developing the Sea Ranch, which eventually led politically to a campaign to protect our California coast and protect access. My father supported the Williamson Act that protects farming and ranch lands. I went with him as he spoke in support of legislation to create Point Reyes National Sea Shore in Marin County. He gave me a book on global warming that he received from a writer in the early 1970’s. I know he valued the environment. I also know that politics stink and I would never want to be a planner and work for others.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Anything that was outside – in Nature.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

A grandfather and to promote and defend Nature.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

  • Several of John Muir’s books – the reverence shown for Nature touched me. Climbing to top of a Douglas fir in a windstorm, laying in a hot steam vent mud on Mount Shasta all night in a blizzard to stay alive, enjoying the singing of a Dipper in an ice-covered Merced River in winter moved me.
  • The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen – the phenomena of migration and the passing of seasons. Sheer wonder.
  • Desert Wildflowers by Edmond Jaeger. Beautiful black-line illustrations with such informative text by a man who truly knew and loved the California desert.
  • Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. The best of desert literature and it was written more than 100 years ago right where I live today. Accident?
  • The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher. I read this book after my wife and I backpacked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back. Fletcher’s descriptions of natural sounds and silence and space remain with me.
  • Anything written by Wallace Stegner.
  • Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

The most important environmental book that you write is in your head while growing up and during your time on Earth. It contains the sounds and visions that you experience. The smells and wonders. It is personal and perfect. It’s you.

What projects are you focused on today?

The return of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl to Owens Lake. Working to enhance and protect the habitat for those species. Also working on the restoration of the Lower Owens River riparian ecosystem and recreational paddling trails.

Where did you learn the most in terms of how to get things done on behalf of nature?

When I became active on a regional level with the Sierra Club and became part of a large network of activists my skills grew and were refined. I found many mentors through the Sierra Club Regional Desert Committee – Elden Hughes, Jim Dodson, Cal French, Marge Sill and many others. The Sierra Club sent me to lobbying weeks in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

What awards have you won?

  • The National Audubon Society ‘William Dutcher Award’ (2013) for work on Owens Lake habitat.
  • The Audubon California Chapter Volunteer Award for ‘Outstanding Service’ (2009).
  • The Range of Light Group (Toiyabe Chapter) ‘2006 Andrea Lawrence Lifetime Achievement Award.’
  • The Sierra Club ‘Ye Olde Bottle Award’ (2003) for work on water and land issues in the Owens Valley.
  • United States Geological Survey award for completing over 50 Breeding Bird Surveys.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

  • Shaping the 1991 Inyo County-Los Angeles Long-term Water Agreement.
  • Re-watering 62 miles of the Lower Owens River on December 6, 2006.
  • Enhancing and protecting habitat for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl through my work writing portions of the Owens Lake Master Project with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
  • Adding 1.5 million acres to Death Valley National Park and 800,000 acres of wilderness to Inyo County through my ten years of advocacy and participation in the creation of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

What is your favorite animal?

All birds – they fly.

What is on your travel bucket list?

The Far North in Alaska and Canada where my shorebird friends nest each year. I have only ever been able to spend time with them ‘in passing.’

I would like to return to Australia and see the rest of it – Western Australia.

Describe a time when you felt like your task was hopeless, yet you persevered.

  • Countless times over 30 years while working on water and land issues in opposition to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Agreed-to timelines missed with callousness. Revisionist reading of legal agreements regarding groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley and for returning water to the Lower Owens River. Being told with a smile by LADWP, “Litigation is cheaper than water.” (In other words, “Sue us.”)
  • Working to control and reverse the onslaught of off-road vehicles on our wild lands.
  • Failing to win support in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles for a conservation easement on LADWP lands in Inyo and Mono counties. Twice…

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Driving into Lone Pine on Hwy 136 from Death Valley where you cross the Owens River, see the Alabama Hills ahead and the Mount Whitney Crest towering in the distance. I enjoy the ‘Big Picture’ – the wholeness.

Where is the best place to eat in the Owens Valley?

  • Seasons Restaurant in Lone Pine for dinner.
  • Still Life Café in Independence (French) – be prepared to spend three hours at the table. An experience.
  • Merry-Go-Round for Chinese in Lone Pine.

What gets you up in the morning?

The world excites me. Each day I want to get up and see what’s happening and what I can do. I like to seek solutions.

Do things seem better to you or worse with regard to the planet’s health? Do you ever get depressed about the state of the Earth (climate change, species extinction, development, energy use, poverty, etc.?)?

I truly think that overall we are in trouble. I try not to think about it that much, however, or I wouldn’t get out of bed. There are good things happening, but the demands for resources, for energy, for water, for space, for food are staggering. We must do better in our vision and efficiencies.

If my mind goes there then there is no point in continuing. I have two daughters, two grandchildren. I sincerely love people and want improvement. I’m not finished yet.

What difference can one person make, if any?

There is no measure of what one person might accomplish. That is all I need to know. I do focus locally on my community and region.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

Patience, better listening in order to understand all the points of view, focus, build bridges – don’t burn them.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Go for it! Now! The Earth and all of us who ride it together need you.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Yes. Artists can create unique works in many kinds of media that allow others to come to understand things in different ways and points of view. Throughout time artists and writers have contributed in priceless ways to the betterment of society and our Earth.

Go to Lone Pine! See Reel Life in the Alabama Hills!

“Hilda, you got to understand. Whenever I bring the girl in, I got to make sure things don’t come to a terrible stop. Because that’s a tendency in Westerns, or in any action picture. The girl is a bore.” Mr. Deane turned, shouted to an assistant for another cup of black coffee and waved Hilda away. ~ From my story “The Girl’s A Bore.”

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I’m not even sure if these locals were in costume or not!

The Alabama Hills and the surrounding brushed granite boulder landscape near Lone Pine, California form the backdrop for hundreds of Hollywood’s commercials and films, including recent blockbusters such as Iron Man and Django Unchained as well as well-known Western serials such as the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. This October 11-13 the 24th annual Lone Pine Film Festival promises to elevate the stature of this natural treasure with a recently announced special guest star – the revered film historian Leonard Maltin, who will interview industry insiders and actors. Maltin’s credentials are impressive: author of five books and an annual movie reference and guidebook, board member of the National Film Preservation Foundation at the Library of Congress, 30-year host on Entertainment Tonight, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and host of the weekly program Maltin on Movies for ReelzChannel.

The film festival and the Alabama Hills are the setting for my story “The Girl’s A Bore,” inspired by the history of Westerns and the exclusion of women from leadership roles in the industry.

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Get this graboid off of me! Creature from the Kevin Bacon sci-fi classic “Tremors,” shot near Owens Lake. You can visit this and many other fun exhibits at the Lone Pine Film History Museum on Main Street in Lone Pine.

I conducted research for my story by watching dozens of Westerns shot in the Alabama Hills, among them How the West Was Won, Bad Day at Black Rock, Joe Kidd, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, and attending the Film Festival in 2009. I found one film, which was not shot in the Alabama Hills, especially helpful – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The accompanying documentary on the 2006 two-disc collector’s edition of the film made for rich opportunities to fictionalize the real-life story of tensions between Cassidy director George Roy Hill and actress Katharine Ross. Thanks to Hill for the title of my story. I hope he approves.

Don’t miss out on one of the West’s most charming and all-American events that will educate (I’m especially looking forward to the 1900 Water Wars Tour of the Owens River) and delight. The Sunday parade down Main Street complete with hoop dancers, cowgirls and cowboys, antique cars, actors, horses and mules, will leave you believing that land, water, movies and history matter – and that they’re never a bore.

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The Lone Ranger in the Parade.

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Gifted actress Geri Jewell was the first actress with a disability to be cast as a regular in a primetime series. Her work in “Deadwood” was brilliant.

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Nothing beats a parade and free candy!

For a set of stunning photographs from the Los Angeles Times, click here!

Field of (Broken) Dreams

Last year I visited a recreated baseball diamond accompanied by a panel with this quote: “Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” I was not visiting a neighborhood park where a venerated Hall of Famer played as a child, nor was I conjuring the site of a long demolished stadium where the sport of baseball became legend. I was at Manzanar, and I was trying to imagine more than 6,000 acres of the Owens Valley dedicated to the imprisonment of 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Baseball diamond, Manzanar, January 2011. Photo by author.

2012 marks the 70thanniversary of Executive Order 9066 that detained, behind barbed wire, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent and resident Japanese aliens without due process. Following on the heels of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, some government officials feared  potential espionage and sabotage. Near Lone Pine, California the stories of some of these individuals can be seen and understood at the well-designed National Park Service facility.

A reconstructed barrack is open for visitors, lending insights into daily life for internees. Photo by author.

Kumiko, Kiku, Yusuro, Lily, Chiyoke, Mitsuye, Misuko, Kenji, Takeo, Kentaro, Mariko, Aiko. The names of the people who lived here for three years are etched into glass in the Visitor’s Center along with thousands of others. I read them one by one, but after a few minutes I stopped. The list was simply too long. A good many of those interned were from a small fishing community in San Pedro, California called Terminal Island.

I wanted to see this deserted village, so a few months later I drove to San Pedro near Long Beach to try to see what the community suffered. Again, imagination is required to piece together the history of Terminal Island, as no trace of Japanese gardens, schools, merchants or recreation halls remains. On foot I circled the memorial established by a committee who did not want the history to be forgotten. Two larger than life sculptures of Japanese fishermen reeling in their catch arrested my attention. A regal torii gate stands guard over the past. No tourists visited in that remote part of San Pedro, only 18-wheelers hauling freight for unloading cargo ships of goods from Asia and Europe. I toured Tuna Street and recognized storefronts from 1930s and 1940s photographs that now stand empty and will probably be demolished. It was here that barber shops, pool halls, small mercantile, grocers and restaurant owners were forced out of business, bound for the Owens Valley where President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently wanted them. The Navy subsequently razed their homes in the village.

My first memories of Manzanar are as a sort of ghostly roadside attraction, one of many markers along the road from Bishop to my Grandmother Lorraine’s house in Lakeside near San Diego. As mom or dad drove, my sister Carol and I looked out the windows and counted things such as train cars, Volkswagen Beetles, power lines, or big rigs. We always noticed Manzanar. As we grew older our questions about what it represented became more inquisitive. I realized after several years of asking that I would not know much more than what Mom and Dad said, namely, that it had been a sort of prison camp for the Japanese and now it was abandoned.

Soul Consoling Tower, Mount Williamson in background. Photo by author.

Addressing the deep wrongs of Manzanar has been a bipartisan affair – Gerald Ford revoked Executive Order 9066 in 1976; Jimmy Carter recommended an apology accompanied by payments of restitution and an educational center; Ronald Reagan delivered the apology and signed the act for payment; George H.W. Bush mailed the payment checks and signed the apology letters; Bill Clinton signed legislation establishing Manzanar as a National Historic Site; and George W. Bush signed legislation to preserve all ten sites where the Japanese were confined.  Now three of the ten original internment camps have been transformed into national monuments.

“Without baseball, life at Manzanar would have been miserable,” said one internee.

Sporting events were common inside the camp. A men’s team called the ManzaKnights played baseball; the Dusty Chicks played softball.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX; recently I visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum’s temporary exhibit honoring the seminal legislation that addressed gender discrimination in girls and women’s sports in the schools. The gallery displays women’s uniforms through time as well as photographs of athletes such as tennis player Billy Jean King. In one section a grainy photograph of two teams of Japanese women playing volleyball at Manzanar was featured. Though they played under a scorching sun and competed behind barbed wire fences, these women put on their game faces.

Women play volleyball at Manzanar internment camp. Photo by Ansel Adams.

I feel a kinship to these prisoners unknown to me, as sports have always been an anchor to my family, place and a special feeling of patriotic fervor. Yet I am not proud to be American as I drive from the baseball diamond toward what used to be Manzanar’s hospital.  Before 2011 only the guardhouse entry building and the gymnasium, and the concrete foundations of the hospital and mess hall, remained. Now, thanks to the National Park Service, visitors can see recreated barrack buildings and learn about the camp through photographs and educational films and displays in the interpretive center. It’s a sobering visit, one that alternately makes you feel superior that it wasn’t you that made such an unfair decision to falsely accuse and jail American citizens, and ashamed that it was your grandparents who probably supported it.

We passed Manzanar hundreds of times during our Owens Valley childhood, as it was the first touchstone along what seemed an interminable drive on Highway 395 from Bishop to San Diego. Traveling south, it was a sign that the journey had just begun; returning from Grandma’s house, it was how we knew we were almost home.

Its mysterious, shadowy past intrigued and plagued me; I had to write a story to include in my collection, Cover This Country Like Snow.

But what right do I have to tell a story set in Manzanar from the point of view of a third generation Japanese-American woman? I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Forrest Carter’s Education of Little Tree, a book originally marketed as an autobiography written by a Cherokee man and later found to be a fictional story penned by a white man with ties to racist groups.  While I’ll never fully understand the experience of a Japanese woman interned at Manzanar, I can do something about it by bringing it to light for a 21st century audience. The story is “Manzana,” which is the Spanish word for apple and was the name of the orchard town before the federal government leased the land from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Writing this story has taught me more than all the years of driving by the site of the former camp.

Military police sentry post built by a Japanese stonemason and internee, Ryozo Kado, serves as the present entrance to Manzanar. Photo by author.

The last Japanese American prisoner left Manzanar in November 1945 several months after the conclusion of World War II. Though they were forced to surrender their livelihoods and communities, the prisoners themselves volunteered to fight for the United States and thousands of them served in the Armed Forces. Many internees later wrote about the horrors in the camps, the extreme temperatures and the betrayal they endured. Photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams captured the experience for government department records. Despite the hardships the prevailing theme was – make the best of it and keep close to one another. U.S. intelligence services later found that not one Japanese American committed any act of spying or treason.

During baseball season we have our family’s teams games on nightly – Padres for me, Giants and Phillies for my husband. No matter what I’m doing around the house, whether it’s catching up on emails, preparing for work the next day or editing my book, I stop, stand up and place my right hand over my heart, and sing along to the National Anthem before a baseball game. I am proud to be American. Coupled with the Seventh Inning Stretch and the singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” these traditional ceremonies unite us all, as disparate as we are. And as flawed as we are.

Ansel Adams photograph of a baseball game, Manzanar

Turns out, even during years of internment, Japanese Americans at Manzanar War Relocation Camp felt the same way. Today, the DustyChicks and the ManzaKnights live on with just the merest suggestion of a baseball field, the ghosts of a cheering crowd rooting the players on and the crack of a wooden bat making contact with the ball in the middle of the High Desert of the Owens Valley, barbed wire well beyond the outfield.

Interested in learning more? Visit these wonderful sites:

http://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm

http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/08/world-war-ii-internment-of-japanese-americans/100132/

http://www.uchastings.edu/faculty-administration/faculty/wingate/class-website/docs/int-reportoninternmentrep.pdf

http://www.californiajapantowns.org/terminalisland.html

http://www.schulzmuseum.org/exhibits.html