This piece is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Atlas of Sorrow: a Natural History of Empire and Family. The book is a family memoir that links the ecological devastation of empire with personal and global events. It explores how the trauma of the Natural World shapes our reality and our perception of reality, and how sexual trauma cascades through multiple generations. Conventional historical narratives explore human activity in isolation, devoid of ecological context: we have been conditioned to see ourselves as separate from the Natural World. This, in turn, diminishes our intimate connection with Nature and the spirit world. Atlas of Sorrow seeks to redress this imbalance in my family story. 

In 1939, for fifty thousand dollars, my grandfather purchased five thousand acres of raw land along the Colorado River in Blythe, California, where Arizona begins and the river bends south toward Mexico. We used to joke that at the time, Beverly Hills was for sale; the Palos Verdes Peninsula was for sale; and the San Fernando Valley, as well: all are now sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles, worth untold millions.

The land my grandfather bought was known at the time as ‘swamp and overflow land,’ reclaimed by local farmers through a system of levees constructed by dynamiting the riverbanks and throwing in pilings and mesh to block debris in order to redirect the river’s flow into a narrow, straightened course. In 1935, Hoover Dam had been completed about two hundred miles upriver and the wild Colorado was permanently subdued. These days we understand ‘swamp and overflow’ to mean wetlands and marshes, meanders and oxbows, rich in the wildlife and water-nourishing biome of a natural river. But my grandfather and father were in a hurry: they weren’t thinking about the health of the river or the longevity of the soil. They wanted a place for German Jews to escape to where they could grow food to feed their families, and they wanted to make money. (Ironically, since my father wasn’t eligible for military service, he spent WWII constructing Internment Camps for Japanese Americans.)

For the sixty-plus years of my family’s tenure in the desert of eastern California, on the banks of the Colorado River, outside the small, homely town of Blythe, the story of the place began with us. The land and the river were props. The story was one of wresting abundance from a bleak and lifeless landscape through the triumph of technology. But desolation can be deceiving. Places that seem empty in the eyes of a stranger are actually brimming with complexity. Now, reading myth fragments from the ancient peoples of that harsh desert place is like falling out of an empty box adrift in a dark sky and tumbling into a galaxy of relationships.

Standing on the riverbank on the land that was briefly ours, the view to the East is silent. Neither roads nor fields interrupt the clusters of arrow weed and mesquite. It belongs to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, an alliance of people from ancient riverine cultures who have thrived in the area for thousands of years, primarily Mohave—the Water People. According to Native accounts, American troops arrived after the murder of a white man who had shot a Mohave boy for teasing his child. The people who settled on the reservation were survivors of sickness and slaughter whose forbears had once thrived for a hundred miles up and down the river. They must have watched in horror from the shore of their reservation east of the river as my grandfather, father, aunts and uncles strung chains between tractors and pulled down the cottonwoods and the willows, killed the rattlesnakes, and drove out coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, raccoons, pheasants and beavers. The land was leveled. The river grew quiet. 

Just past the ranch, on the mesa at the Northwest edge of the Palo Verde Valley, are the mysterious intaglios created by prehistoric Yuman people. It’s said that the rock drawings tell the Yuma creation myths and were crafted in places where certain historical events took place, where healings occurred, or where young healers and leaders received their medicine. It seems the petroglyphs were likely also dancing grounds and may have been places of mourning for deceased warriors or beloved members of the community. One of the intaglios depicts a man nearly two hundred feet tall, standing next to a mountain lion or perhaps a coyote, and a figure with a spear aimed at fish that swim at his feet. Today, from that dry, gravel canvas above the river, one hears only the wind as it sings through the chain-link fence, and the silence of missing stories that wait, patiently crouching in the arrow weed, or hanging suspended from the flowering tips of Palo Verde trees. The intaglios can best be seen from above, far away: they are visible to birds and journeying humans who traverse the sky to read the messages tattooed on Earth’s wide arms. Maybe this is how the dead and the land watch over the place to protect its meaning. 

My father was enamored of the Green Revolution. He thought it would solve world hunger. He had a degree in chemical engineering and always said that organic and non-organic chemicals were identical. Everything was reducible to its basic mathematical expression. Organic farming was nonsense. A few months before he died, my father wrote a letter to my children describing the early days of the farm that seem prescient now—he intuited the result of their labors but stopped short of recognizing causality: We ‘rented’ geese to weed the fields and we even tried spreading blocks of frozen ladybugs… to eat bad bugs, as soon as the ladybugs thawed out. We tried to avoid putting poison on the crops. We dealt with our share of rattlesnakes and rabbits. Beavers were frequently found in the larger canals. But, sadly, there were fewer and fewer wild deer and pheasants to be seen as the land was put into production… The shores of the Colorado River were neatly rip rapped. Cement-lined canals and drainage ditches did their jobs.

These days the agricultural run-off, laden with chemicals and salt, still trickles into Mexico about ninety miles south. The water is undrinkable and can barely be used for agriculture. But the real damage can’t be seen: the free flow of water affects wind and, therefore, weather. In earlier times, as now, the pace of currents that slowed at the end of summer or hurtled seaward in spring would move nutrients in ways that aquatic and riverine plants depended on, adapting their root structure, exudates and rate of maturation accordingly: tender shoots appeared at just the right time for wobbly-legged baby deer; aquatic plants protected fish eggs and tadpoles; overhanging branches of plants kept the water cool for all the Selves that depended on a consistent range of temperature. 

My father and his partners added a feedlot and a dehydrator that pressed alfalfa into pellets to export to Japan to feed cattle there. In its heyday, the feedlot held forty- thousand cattle packed together in its fetid rectangles. They arrived in boxcars, herded with electric prods into a narrow chute whose iron bars held them fast as they were castrated, and their horns trimmed while they were being inoculated, branded, and tagged, all without anesthesia. The memory-scent of burning fur and skin; the sound of their hoofs sliding beneath them as they struggled to gain purchase in the gravelly dust; their snorts of terror as they struggled and writhed, ask me to consider how it is that my family came to torture cattle so we could sell and eat them. 

My father convinced his family, his in-laws and friends to invest in the feedlots and dehydrator, and they did, but the price of cattle collapsed and everyone went bust. Eventually, my father repaid the original investments, but the prolonged crisis sundered the family and eroded friendships. Then, in 1972, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Indian Affairs sued some of the ranchers in the Palo Verde Valley on behalf of the Tribes, arguing that, prior to the closure of Hoover Dam, when the river overflowed its banks in the spring, riverfront land now in California rightfully belonged to Arizona and, therefore, was part of the Colorado River Indian Reservation. My father and his partners went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The lawsuit lasted eighteen years. In 1987, California Magazine ran an article entitled ‘Travis’ Last Stand’, decrying the injustice being done to my father and other landowners in the valley. My father felt vindicated. I was appalled. In the end, the Tribes were awarded 1,500 acres at the heart of the ranch. By then, nearly all the remaining acreage had been sold. Looking at the jumble of boulders and brush across the river, my father would shake his head in frustration and say, The Indians are happy just to hold on to the land and not do anything with it! 

The Mohave were Pipa Aha Macau – the people along the river, instructed by their creator to protect it.1 O’Neil, F.L. & Wittmer, P.W., ed. Dreamers of the Colorado: The Mojave Indians, Part 2: Their Culture and Arts. Tunxis Community College Publication. 2013 They knew themselves as dreamers, as the People of the Water who had settled in that valley at least as far back as 1150 A.D.  They traded with tribes as far away as the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Coast and could run an easy hundred miles a day at a leisurely jog through the desert heat. They believed that the First People had appeared in the form of birds and animals who thought, spoke and behaved as human beings. They dreamed the names of their twenty-two clans and all their powers of governance and healing, including the songs that cured illness and more than three hundred Bird Songs sung in sequence that described the path of the ancestors and mapped exactly how to survive in the desert. 

For my father, his partners and the family, the ranch was a place of struggle and strife; a place to try to make money; the place that shattered the family and became the central challenge of my father’s life—his heartbreak and his triumph in the Sisyphean struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of his father and siblings, and to prove that mechanized farming could conquer world hunger. 

Seventy years later, in 2015, my mother and I returned for one last visit to the ranch. My father had been dead for three years. My mother brought along my father’s briefcase—a worn, leather satchel etched with his initials in gold at the top. I don’t know what papers were in it, if any. It seemed more like a talismanic stand-in for my father. We left it on the back seat when we stopped for a snack. When we returned to the car with our bags of over-salted pistachios and over-sweetened dried fruit, the briefcase was burning. A tendril of white smoke twisted up from a dark-edged circle the size of a bullet hole. 

Late that afternoon, at the ranch, as we stood on the bank of the quiescent river, a coyote appeared on the opposite shore–the first and only time I saw a coyote there, long after I thought my family’s story in that place had ended. I watched her trot from the water’s edge into the cattails and back again, bathed in the wet glow of late afternoon, lapping her reflection as she bent to the water to drink. Like my parents, coyotes mate for life. Seeing the coyote confirmed three things I already knew: this was my mother’s last visit to the place where her life with my father had begun; tricksters are alive and well, moving between worlds as they always have; the unexpected and the possible are twins.

Before Blythe, the extended family lived in Tulsa, in the homes they had built next door to each other. In Blythe, my Aunt Ava and Uncle Mike were sent to the far, dry hills at the north end of the ranch, at the periphery of the family story. My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Ron moved to an airless adobe in town, and my parents settled into their mint-green cottage next to the irrigation canal. Everyone except my father grew to hate the ranch, the town, the weather, the landscape, my grandfather’s dream, and, sometimes, each other. One by one, they fled back to Los Angeles. None of them had a relationship to the land or the river other than to try to make a living from it. Eventually, my father bought out his parents and siblings. When the ranch at last recovered financially, the rest of the family accused him of swindling them. Angry letters were exchanged. Over the years, a superficial détente was established, but the rift in the family never really healed.

It’s odd how patterns of closeness and betrayal get passed along: it happened between my grandfather and great grandfather; my father and my grandparents on both sides who had gone into business with him; and, ultimately, between my father and me. Shortly before his death, my father accused me of plotting with our accountant and lawyers to steal control of his money. Our relationship never healed. The ranch ricocheted between profit and bankruptcy as regularly as the river had once flooded her banks. But my grandfather, ever the shtetl boy who wanted his family close and well fed, and my father, who inherited the pipe-dreaming gene, were convinced that success was just around the corner, and it was, in a way, though they underestimated the number of corners by several orders of magnitude. 

On the other side of the river, Mohave tradition held that information and skill were ineffectual unless they were dreamed. All noteworthy success in life was obtained through dreaming.2 ibid. The ‘great dreams’ occurred in utero. At birth, the dream was forgotten, then dreamed again in adolescence. During the precious days of a girl’s first menstruation, a warm pit was prepared for her to sleep in so she could dream: these dreams were understood as omens of the future. Song cycles containing instructions, prophecies and origin lore were dreamed by singers. There were thirty cycles, each with as many as two hundred songs, recounting the tribe’s Great Stories. No matter if the Mohave had splintered or settled in remote locations, They thought of themselves as one people regardless of where they lived.3 O’Neil, F.L. & Wittmer, P.W., ed. Dreamers of the Colorado: The Mojave Indians, Part 1: Their Land and Religion. Tunxis Community College Publication. 2013

In the early 2000’s, the California Department of Fish and Game decided they wanted to buy what was left of the ranch and turn it into a wetlands preserve. Developers from Arizona wanted it, too: they promised quick money and a choc-a-block retirement community of mobile homes on manicured cul-de-sacs with happy snowbirds plying the streets in golf carts. My arguments in favor of Fish and Game weren’t having much effect. 

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gathered with seven women on the banks of the river in the middle of the ranch to make offerings on behalf of that place: my grandmother, Molly, my mother’s mother, had told me in a dream to come thank the water. The following morning, I was to meet my parents to decide on the fate of the land. I made a feast and brought my grandmother’s fine china to serve it on. Silver candlesticks. Loaves of bread. The wooden owl that my grandmother carved out of a solid chunk of walnut: it perched on the white tablecloth that we spread on the ground. This was to be a Thanksgiving Tashlich and it was important to do it up right: Tashlich is a ceremony that is usually performed at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which takes place in the fall. Paired with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, these are the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, known as the Days of Awe. During this time, one apologizes for wrongdoing in hopes of wiping the slate clean so as to be ‘inscribed in the Book of Life’ for another year. For Tashlich, one goes to a body of water and tosses in pieces of bread that carry our regrets and our prayers: we cast the regrets upon the water and ask that they return as blessings. Each of us in turn prayed in our own way. 

How sweet and unfamiliar to stand at dusk with a circle of women, two days before Thanksgiving, tossing in chunks of bread, watching each piece as it dissolved and sank below the surface. In the fading light, I asked that the hearts of my parents, whose decision would determine the future of the place, be softened towards the possibility of repairing the river so that it could once again flow towards Mexico, untroubled along this stretch. I asked that it become a place of refuge where the birds and the animals and the reptiles that once were plentiful could repopulate in protected exuberance. I asked solace for the spirits of the people who had lived there long before we ever knew of the place, especially the young Native woman who they say was raped by a white man, one of the newcomers, her ravaged body left in the shallows. I apologized for Hoover dam because what made it possible for my father and grandfather to find a homestead for their dreams and their own restless souls had cost the river her freedom, and dozens of workmen their lives, and the people and land and animals of the United States and Mexico the water they had relied on for centuries. 

I thanked the river for the rattler we saw swimming one time, its head barely lifted above the surface, its body like a gently undulating stick sending out tiny ripples— glad to see it from the car and not from the water, in spite of the heat that day. To the river, I said thank you for the inner tube rides. When we were first married, my husband and I would smoke a fat joint, jump in the water and float all day, hugging the shore, towing six-packs of beer with a rope so they’d stay cool in the water. One time I came face to face with a beaver, so close we almost kissed. I thanked the burrowing owls for teaching us how to spot them as they peeked up from their nests in the ground. And the barn owl who flew close at twilight when we stood on the ruined tracks, and the owl grazed the top of my head with the tip of his wing—the brush of air as he swooped past; how enormous he was up close; the immense cape of his shadow as it slid down my face to my neck, brushing the top of my shoulders. 

How must it have felt to the land to host our feast, that night of women and offerings? What must it have been for the river to receive that bread and those prayers after sixty years of enduring the violence of my family’s dream? 

In the morning I met my parents at the park. We sat at a picnic table of molded plastic, its bright colors all faded to sherbet pink. We were glad for the warmth of the sun on our backs as we talked. 

Well?  said my father. 
We had a lovely picnic, I told him. We blessed the land and the river and said thank you.  Fifteen minutes later, my parents agreed that the ranch should be sold to Fish and Game. Now, of the feedlot, the office, the dehydrator and the train tracks, only rubble remains. Someone else lives in my parents’ green bungalow. In place of alfalfa and cotton, Fish and Game planted neat rows of Cottonwoods and Palo Verde. Rattlesnakes returned, along with ducks and deer. Hoover Dam is still there. And so are the coyotes.

About the Author

Cynthia Travis is a writer, photographer and Earth lover. She is passionate about soil health, gut health, food, peacebuilding, and the ocean. She is currently completing a family memoir that de-centers humans by exploring the natural history of empire as the context for human events. From 2004 – 2018 she was Founding Director of the non-profit peacebuilding organization everyday gandhis (www.everydaygandhis.org) whose work is focused on reconciliation, trauma healing and ecological restoration with traditional communities in Liberia, West Africa. That work continues under the guidance of the Liberia team. Her blog, Earth Altar, (www.earth-altar.org) is a meditation on our relationship with the Natural World, and ways to heal in tandem with Earth, with new moon and full moon posts. In a former life she was a teacher and mediation trainer in California and New Mexico. She lives on the Mendocino Coast in Northern California.

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