Humbug Valley is a lush meadow in Northern California; a place the indigenous Maidu Indians believe was specifically chosen for them by the great spirits of their ancestors. For years, it's been the site of a controversial timber harvesting project by the large utility company that owns the land. And a group of activists known as "The Reclaimers" has been fighting against it. They are the main characters in Ana Maraia Spagna's latest work of non-fiction, Reclaimers...the focus of this month's Southwest Book Review by Mary Sojourner.
"Hope without hope; faith without faith." The words might be a Zen Koan, one of those puzzles unsolvable by logic. Ana Maria Spagna, the author of the brilliant non-fiction Reclaimers, uses the dual paradox to describe people who work steadfastly without expectation to take back a chunk of earth - sometimes for a tribe, sometimes for the place itself. Spagna tells the stories of a valley and spring tucked away at the end of a Northern California dirt road; of ancient tribal land in the molten heart of Death Valley; and of a once salmon-rich Northwestern river, its water and fish choked by a dam.
She tells the stories of The Reclaimers: the activists's of California's Maidu Summit Consortium who fought to reclaim Humbug Valley and Soda Spring from Pacific Gas and Electric; the Timbisha Shoshone activists working to regain their Death Valley homeland from the United States government; and the Friends of the White Salmon River's successful campaign to decommission the Condit Dam.
But, perhaps more than even people or land, she writes about how the original native peoples of Northern California and Death Valley cared for and managed the ancestral lands - using complex knowledge and methods handed down over dozens of generations. She quotes from Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild: "An overarching gathering rule was to spare plants and plant parts: do not harvest everything."
Spagna is not just an internet or library researcher. She drove her sometimes-not-faithful, old Buick thousands of miles to talk and listen with the Timbisha, the Mountain Maidu and those who defeated the Condit Dam - paying attention with all her senses wherever she went. Reclaimers comes alive in details of green California twilight, of the rill of Soda Spring, of the jack hammer Mojave sun. She lets us feel her discouragement when a few tribal members are reluctant at first to talk with her - and her understanding at why they might be. "Joe had changed the date of the council meeting," she writes, "so my most recent plan - south to Death Valley, stop in with the Maidu on the way north - had been unrigged. Now, I'd go north first, then south, then north again. As long as the Buick held together. I tried to call and reschedule with everyone. No one was answering. Nothing to do but show up."
Show up she does. Open hearted. I've read hundreds of books and articles with environmental themes over the years, too often forcing myself through statistics and dry academic theories, but with Reclaimers, Ana Maria Spagna brings place and people fully alive. If she still had that old Buick, I'd climb in the passenger seat any day.
Mary Sojourner is a Flagstaff-based writer. KNAU's Southwest Book Reviews are produced by Arizona Public Radio.