Pine Lake Flat
There seem to be places in most of our lives that call to us from the past. Many times it is the home we lived in as children or the town we grew up in. For some of us, the place that calls to us may not enter our lives until we reach adulthood and choose for ourselves where to live. There is a place in my own life that haunts my dreams, both waking and sleeping, even though I haven’t seen it in more than ten years. The place is Pine Flat Lake, where I lived for two years immediately following my parent’s divorce when I was eleven. It is also the place where my family vacationed all of my life and where my grandparents purchased a marina in order to live at there favorite vacation spot. It is the place that saw my family at its height of closeness and also witnessed its falling apart. But the place in my heart where Pine Flat Lake lies is in the place of motherhood, for it was truly my surrogate mother during the most traumatic period of my childhood. The land held and comforted me, the wildlife represented my extended family and friends, the water bathed me in love. I almost lost my life at Pine Flat Lake which served to bond me even more deeply to her. I find myself often thinking of this place, what it is like now and what it was like then. I wonder if it would still hold its allure for me. It is interesting how places are forever linked to events within the human mind; they are inseparable. For me, they also seem linked to some underlying theme music, waxing and waning, just below the surface of consciousness; a singing of the land, like what is described by Australian aboriginals as they sing the Dreamtime link between man and land and its animal inhabitants (Abram, 1996, pp. 163-179). This song of places can both tie us to the land and haunt us when we are separated from the land which has named us.
When I dream into the lake I see her as a great river, water flowing in and out, breathing with the sky and air around her. She is not a lake at all but a beautiful curving woman. Her water supports those around her. There seems to be a part of me that she still holds close to her bosom. I feel a separation, an anxiety, when I think of her. I’ve memorized her face like the one of my own mother, for I’ve known her since I was an infant. She taught me to swim when I was six months old, she taught me about nature and weather and family interaction. It was in her body that I skinny dipped for the first time after I became aware of being a separate body from my parents. In the shadow of her presence I had my first kiss. I learned what hiking was in the hills surrounding her and learned how to control my breath, swimming as far as I could underwater. I also learned what death at her hand looked like as I watched a man I had known who drowned on his wedding day pulled from her depths.
One of the largest lakes in California, Pine Flat Lake, with its body snaking through the Sierra Nevada foothills, is a man-made reservoir resulting from damming the King’s river in an effort to stave off flooding to surrounding areas such as Fresno. The 429-foot dam was originally built in 1954 when the town of Piedra was relocated in order to fill the valley at the widest part of the river with water. When the valley was flooded, orchards were left behind to serve as new homes for aquatic life. At the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Pine Flat sits amid a dry, rocky landscape which is brown through most of the year. The trees are sparse and the sun is very hot, but the lake is a brilliant blue, resulting from the current year’s snow runoff, brought from the Sierra Nevada’s by the King’s river.
The runoff from the dam is used primarily as irrigation water for crops in the San Joaquin Valley. The Corps of Engineers maintains how much water is allowed to flow through the gates of the dam to surrounding areas. Every seven years there is a drought that lasts several years which forces the Corps to almost completely drain the lake in the hottest months of each year. The longer the drought lasts, the more the lake is drained. In 1984 the original dam was upgraded to hydroelectric in order to use the water as an energy source and at present the reservoir holds 1,000,000 acre-feet of water. Currently the dam is undergoing another upgrade which with raise the dam seven feet in order to allow for 92,772 acre-feet of additional storage capacity. Projections of the effects of increasing the reservoir are that there will be more water for the surrounding life and will help to minimize the effects of the cyclical drought. Studies designed to gage the geological effects and habitat effects of increasing the size of the reservoir were done and found to be minimal.
The area that houses Pine Flat Lake is a natural watershed. Prior to settlement by whites, the Yokut tribe inhabited the banks of the King’s River. These indigenous peoples lived in communion with the land and other native species of the area. While the area has vastly changed due to the damming of the river, people who live near the lake still tend to live in communion with the land to a degree. Water is obtained through wells which are abundant during wet months and tend to go dry during the hot summer months. For this reason, water must be conserved. This means there are few, if any, gardens planted in the area, so the area tends to be overgrown with native species of plants. Therefore, wildlife depending on those native plant species for food have not been displaced.
Yet displacement has occurred for some. “The Okanagan teaches that anything displaced from all that it requires to survive in health will eventually perish. Unless place can be relearned, it compels all other life forms to displacement and then ruin. That is what is referred to as “wildness”: a thing that cannot survive without special protective measures and that requires other life forms to change behavior in its vicinity” (Armstrong, 1995, p. 323). While the region has been deemed a relatively “healthy” ecosystem by studies, ultimately it has been forced to adapt over time to the artificial damming of the river and the artificial stocking of fish which has resulted in the creation of new ecosystems. Because of this, non-native species have displaced native species of trout. This in turn has affected other native aquatic species such as amphibians, zooplankton, other fish and macro invertebrates. Wildlife typically seen in this area include pelicans, seagulls, deer, coyote, rattle and king snakes, tarantulas, rabbits and bald eagles. In the past, bears, wild horses and mountain lions also roamed the area, but the larger predators have been displaced as well.
From a deep ecology perspective, the lake as a system that is “becoming” of its own right, has been thwarted, since its original intention was that of a river. In addition, the river has been further diverted in an effort to use it for the irrigation of crops. It is no longer a water highway on its way to the ocean. This points to a change in ecosystems from the point of the dam to the place where what is left of the Kings River finally joins the ocean. Additionally, as the San Joaquin Valley is an agriculture area rich in pesticides, there is a cumulative effect of bringing those pesticides along the way. The building of the dam is highly anthropomorphic. It was done to make the lower valleys more habitable and to harness the water for use throughout the summer. The effect of our behavior upon the area is in many ways obvious, but what of the effect of the region upon those who live there?
“For those who have become unbalanced in psychic, magical and spiritual endeavors, lakes and ponds help restore the balance” (Andrews, 2004, p. 207). My life and that of my family have always been intertwined with Pine Flat’s destiny. In this way I have come to know Pine Flat Lake in conjunction with my own identity. I have understood her as the language my body speaks when I choose to listen. I can see the fog pouring over the dam to engulf the lake; or the swollen moon casting a beam of light across her still face. My healing took place at Pine Flat as I became accustomed to no longer having my father in my life as a daily presence and my mother suffered a severe depressive episode. By that time my grandfather was already sick with the myriad of diseases that first took his joints and then his legs and finally his life. My grandmother was still strong and spent her time running the small store at the marina, managing the books and keeping everyone in line. My aunt and uncle were still married, living with my two cousins who were like siblings to me. My best friends were my cousins, the fish, the hills, and above all, the lake. I spent hours staring out my bedroom window at her beautifully curving body. I played out the final days of childhood pretense near her, experimenting with healing plants, playing house, being a mermaid and Electra-Woman. It is no wonder that my flying dreams often involve her or that my shamanic journeys in adulthood often do as well. I learned to put mud on a bee sting, tasted the flesh of rattlesnake and had my first transpersonal experiences on her shores. I challenged my fear of heights by sliding off waterslides mounted to the top deck of houseboats. I learned to wet-bike, jet-ski, water-ski and what it meant to trust others. I learned the constellations as I lay outside at night and counted shooting stars.
When I was a child I saw the draining of the lake as a letting of blood from the body of Pine Flat. I did not understand that Pine Flat was a river, rather than a lake, and it always seemed terribly sad to me that the farmers would choose to destroy her beauty when the weather was dry. I would watch the water line recede daily and feel as though my life were draining out with it. A sadness seemed to permeate the energy of my home as we all spoke of how long it would be before the Corps ruined the lake altogether. This sadness often gave way to anger and then despair as the summer wore on. I would cry by the end of summer to see her body withered and dying.
The lake supports a community of people who come every year, often for the entire summer, to live on their houseboats and sailboats. When the “summer people” come, there are often events such as dances, competitions and various gatherings scheduled which bring the vacationers and locals together. There is a feeling of growth in community as well as a decrease of personal space in the summer, both having effects on emotions, cognitive processes and social interactions of the people who live there. The winter provides a quiet rest from the intensity of the summer’s madness as there are few who call Pine Flat their permanent home. Because the area is relatively unpopulated during the winter months there can also be an element of desertion and desolation that creeps in. The hardships of the natural weather cycles often pit the marinas and lake dwellers against the Corps of Engineers and farmers who are seen as responsible for draining the lake. This practice has seen to the bankruptcy of two of the three marinas on the lake. While one marina was eventually purchased by another party, the third marina never regained foothold. This creates a strange balance between the opposing forces of recreational fun and basic survival needs, almost manic-depressive in nature. Additionally, the changes in habitat, cyclical drought, extreme heat in the summer and draining of the lake all have effects upon the behavior of people living in the area. The people who live at Pine Flat are often weathered and craggy, like the sun bleached dirt that is so dry in the summer. Alcoholism is prevalent. Joblessness, poverty, teen pregnancy, drugs, family and neighbor feuds and early death are all part of the community.
Pine Flat was once my family’s favorite vacation spot. When we bought the marina so much changed. Rarely did my family have but tiny breaks of fun; stolen moments of joy. Running the marina sapped the strength from everyone but the children. There were constantly adjustments that had to be made in where the marina was located in relation to the land and receding or increasing water line. The storms reeked havoc on the docks. Repairs needed to be made consistently. There was no longer time for the closeness my family experienced by having fun together. Eventually there was nothing but the never-ending demands of running the marina. Life at Pine Flat seems to have taken its toll. My grandfather’s death signaled the end of both my family’s love for the marina and its unity. Most of my family is now scattered between San Diego and the bay area and my uncle finally sold the marina this year.
“We speak of ‘healing the earth,’ but in reality, what need healing is our human relationship to the earth” (Starhawk, 2004, p. 216). It is difficult for me to separate what I feel about Pine Flat from what I would imagine Pine Flat to feel about itself. There is something sad about a place that is used almost exclusively for recreation, as though it has lost its sacredness. Yet, I can honestly say that the people who frequent Pine Flat have been typically doing so for generations. For them, it is a sacred place where family comes together in nature and bonds. As a child I felt most sad when the Corps began draining the lake. It lost its beauty, the fish were forced into small quarters and people stopped coming because boat motors would become caught in tree branches. It seemed small and shriveled. I always imagined that Pine Flat liked being a lake, even though its original destiny was as a river. As a lake more life was drawn to it and it still functioned as a river, just as a slower, more controlled one. By damming Pine Flat, the water was able to be used to sustain life over longer periods of time and without the potential danger of flooding. It has felt to me as though Pine Flat recognizes the interdependent relationship it has with the people who live there. This may be why I always felt a great sadness when the waters begin to recede.
The lake and pond is a place where mothering, nurturing and nourishing energies come alive. A mother feeds, nourishes and protects her young. This is the energy of lakes and ponds. They awaken a need and a drive for that which will nourish our body, mind and spirit. They help us tap new waters within ourselves and replenish our creativity and our connection to spirit. They enable us to bring forth the magic within waters of our own being (Andrews, 2004, pp. 207-208).
Terrapsychology posits that a place’s historical and ecological events can be felt as psychological wounds. Essentially, if you are not aware of a place’s psyche you may end up living out the core of what that place is about. The above quote is interesting in light of this position. Yet, while a lake has this mothering, nurturing energy--which is something I have definitely felt in my own life--there is also the fact that Pine Flat is a river to take into account. Not only is it a river, which is often used as a metaphor for the unconscious, the collective unconscious and creativity, but this lake is a dammed river. What was once a fully thriving, fast running river is now stagnant. I find this interesting because my mother finally moved us from the area due to a feeling of stagnation. Most people who grow up in the area, stay in the area. There is a feeling of impoverishment, of lack, about the area. People do not do anything new; in fact, the only newness of the area comes from the summer vacationers. There seems to be a damming of consciousness, creativity, and abundance in those who live there. In this way, the psyche of the place can be seen in the people.
I believe that if it were up to Pine Flat, she would break the dam and flood the valley below her. Her banks would recede and new life would grow in what is now underwater. Fish would be free to swim the river and the ecosystem would return to what it originally was. She would grow in the spring and shrink in the autumn. She would wash the stagnancy from the area and encourage movement from the species who lived at her banks. But her power has been harnessed and she has been put to sleep.
My memories of Pine Flat Lake are integral to my sense of history and identity today. It will always be a part of my consciousness. When life gets too intense, I often have fantasies of returning to Pine Flat to live. I believe it was a place of healing for me, and may be again, but had I stayed it would have become like staying in one’s parents home too long. I would not have developed my independence. I would have re-enacted the psyche of the place just as those who live there now do. By leaving I have taken with me the sense of healing she gave me.
I had the following dream several years ago. It is set at Pine Flat and best represents the relationship I have with her in my heart. It often arises in my memory when I am in need of healing.
The sun is about to rise and the first morning light fills the sky. There are hills all around me, the lake at their base. I look down at the water from the cliff and am filled with something I have never felt before. I step closer to the edge of the cliff and breath the morning light into my body. The light travels in through my mouth, down my spine and down my legs. I feel rooted to the earth. I breathe in again, this time more slowly. The light fills my chest and radiates outward into every cell of my body, and then outward beyond my body. I am no longer just breathing light; I am light. As the sun begins to break, I take a step forward, open my arms wide and dive like a swan from the cliff. The air rises up to meet my naked skin. The wind is chilly but I don’t feel it, nor do I feel terror at falling such a long, long way. As the sun rises and hits my body I begin to fly. I continue downward gracefully, swooshing through the morning air. I putt my arms out dive into the glistening body of water. I dive further down and as the sunlight hits the water I breathe it in. I glide through the water like a fish, greeting all the creatures who live there. I finally break from the water, rising up into the sky to fly again high amid the creatures of the air. I feel the water beading on my skin, drying in the cool morning air. I feel the sun begin to warm me and I am happy beyond words.
Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous (pp. 163-179). New York: Random House.
Andrews, T. (2004). Nature-speak: Signs, omens & messages in nature (pp. 207-208). Jackson, TN: Dragonhawk Publishing.
Armstrong, J. (1995). Keepers of the earth. In T. Roszak, M. Gomes, & A. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth; healing the mind (pp. 316-324). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Fisher, A. (2002). Radical ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Starhawk (2004). The earth path: Grounding your spirit in the rhythms of nature (p. 215-230). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.