For much of my life I have been in conversation with a man who died 86 years ago. He was born in Dublin in 1855 and grew up poor, with a face bruised by the fists of his father. He ran away from home at 14, joined the British Merchant Navy, and came to America. His name was William Mulholland, though he went by Bill, and by some he is known as the father of Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the country and the 13th in the world.
I was born more than five decades after Mulholland’s death, five hours north of that city, in a place called the Eastern Sierra Nevada: the remote, dry edge of California, a desert running into desert running into the Great Basin and Nevada. I grew up beneath looming mountains, shoved by trash-can hurling winds. Here, in Owens Valley, a plane of sagebrush encircles the town of Bishop, where I live today. The First People of this valley, the Paiute/Nuumu, called it Payahuunadu, which means land of flowing waters, for snowmelt pours from our mountains every spring.
When Mulholland first saw the valley, he almost certainly didn’t pause to learn the word Payahuunadu. But he saw the water, and he figured out how to take it away.
In my lifelong argument with Mulholland, I have tried to understand the way the thefts and losses of the past ripple into the future. I wrote a book trying to do this. I found it to be a tricky job.
After all, literature is not an instruction manual. So says the author Charles Baxter. Literature, and the history on which it feeds, are also not public service announcements or ready-made moral compasses. Rather, literature and history together say to us again and again that the world is complicated. And yet we turn to these realms to understand the way the past plays on the present, like shadows over water.
Mulholland engineered the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That metal pipeline, double-barreled, each tube nine feet in diameter and pocked with rivets, spans more than 230 miles of desert, crossing peaks and canyons between the Eastern Sierra Nevada region and the city to the south. Since 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct has collected water from my home valley and carried it away.
Even the short version of this story is complicated. The short version is that, through a series of ethically dubious moves, the city of Los Angeles acquired enough rights to remove a substantial amount of water from Owens Valley and used it to supply a booming urban population, as developers boosted California all over the country.
In Payahuunadu, once a land of flowing water, meadows dried up. A lake once deep enough to carry steamboats desiccated, and its bed blew as toxic dust. Many creatures died. The agricultural industry tanked. Some ranchers were glad to sell; others wept when they were forced to leave their homes. The people hurt the worst by the poverty that came to the valley were the Paiute, who had already seen their lands taken, had watched cattle graze the fields they once irrigated and ranchers rewrite their canals with dynamite.
In dusty archives, I read the words of the people alive in those times. I read the words of Mulholland. And then I wrote down what I learned and fretted over it for years, rethinking and rewriting and re-contextualizing, inevitably stitching history into my own experience, into now.
Writing has the power to join the past and the present in a rare triangle. From the first point on this triangle, the writer reaches to the second—from her moment in time, the moment of the writing, to another—the very recent past, maybe, or farther back to an old time that waits, almost forgotten, like something dropped along a trail. The writer strings these points together and passes them to a reader.
Here is the wonderful, elastic, third point on the triangle: the reader synthesizes the writer’s concoction with her own mind, her own moment, and what ensues is a living conversation. Long-gone voices weigh in on what’s trending. Oceans, continents, borders, even war and death cannot interrupt such a seance. The wife of a 19th-century sheep farmer slides her cold, calloused hand into mine, slides her mind and memory into this afternoon, presses onto me as I sit with my tea and my book in my small town, vaguely aware of the autumn leaves dripping from the trees outside and the wet towels sitting in the washer, waiting to go on the line.
I read about faraway mountains and freezing and near-starvation and landholders who look down from their horses at poverty. I read this and I look out the window in 2021, at my own mountains just snow-dusted. I think of the landed and the landless in my valley. I think of my own vantage point to the beauty and destructive power of nature. The shepherd’s wife lays her face on the bank of the river and goes to sleep and hopes not to wake to another day of hard work and moldy catfish. I sit with my book. I adjust the furniture of my mind just slightly.
If literature is no instruction manual, it is, instead, a reckoning. After enough subtle shifts, I cannot abide the furniture as it once was. It crowded the room; how did it take me so long to see? When I reckon with the past, I keep coming back to Mulholland.
“The test of a man is his knowledge of humanity,” Mulholland once said. “Of the politics of human life, his comprehension of the things that move men.” Here was a person who loved Shakespeare, who said, “Damn a man who doesn’t read books.” He loved the opera, and baseball, and the Los Angeles River, in his early days in the city when he lived in a shack and dug ditches. He rescued saplings from the blade of his shovel—eucalyptus, willow, oak—and raised them in salmon tins before planting them outside.
In 1913, Mulholland finished the Los Angeles Aqueduct under budget and ahead of schedule. In the city, he occupied the status of celebrity engineer. Headlines called him a modern caesar, a genius, and a superman. All his life he followed his culture’s utilitarian code, chasing “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Later in Mulholland’s career, a dam he engineered north of the city he so loved broke apart just after midnight. On the morning before the disaster, Mulholland was called by the dam keeper to address a crack at the bottom of the western abutment. He considered the seeping brown water. It’s normal, he said. It’s fine. When the wall broke, an eighteen-foot mud monster barreled forth to drown over 600 people, washing their bodies to sea.
Knowledge of humanity, the politics of human life. Lofty words, Mulholland, to have spoken with such confidence—and then the citizens who once worshipped him installed signs in their front yards: KILL MULHOLLAND.
A century in the future, good can look so different.
When I read about the crimes of history, I rail against the wrongness of the thinking, the backwards, shortsighted cruelty. I despair over consequences, now writ large. From my own time, I can see it all: how Mulholland ignored the presence of the First Peoples in the place from which he took water, following the lead of the California governor who said, in 1851: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.” How Mulholland built upon the march conducted by the U.S. Army, whose soldiers led 1,000 Paiute out of Payahuunadu at gun point, 225 miles through desert and over mountains in the heat of July, because the ranchers wanted them out.
The removal of water from the valley was a link in a chain which Mulholland took into his hands. With it, he carried out an age-old task, according to an age-old pattern: he did the work that was expected of him by the society he served.
Time corroded Mulholland into a villainous character in Hollywood’s signature account of Los Angeles: Chinatown. History turned him inside out. It’s all so clear from where I sit now, cocooned in my living room.
What’s more difficult to remember? That history has the power to do the same to me.
We will someday be that third point on the triangle, a past with which the future reckons. I want to stay open to being wrong, but I do not want to be wrong in a way that paves a path to suffering. Thus, I must try to learn from the failings of Mulholland. With equal harshness, I must turn the lens I lend to the figures of history onto my culture and myself.
I remind myself that I, too, exist within the sticky sap of an era. The things I hold to be self-evident and undeniable may, in time, be proven false and denied. I walk through the desert in this particular autumn in this patch of the world, and I prepare to be undone.
If men like Mulholland cause me anger, and I burrow into that anger, I find a desire to understand how the Mulhollands of history came to be: where and how they failed to think themselves free of the boundaries of the dominant way of living during their moment in time. How Mulholland missed the cracks in the dam that was the world in which he lived. How all we might fail to see out of the murk of our moment, and in this way commit what may, through the centuries of reckoning, come to be known as crimes.
There exist, perhaps, antidotes to the archetype of Mulholland.
Perhaps they are the Paiute who survived the march and came home, who returned to a changed world, but retained an old knowledge of living reciprocally with each other and the land, a perspective that goes beyond ownership and money and may just be essential to continued human survival.
Perhaps these antidotes exist in the author Mary Austin, a young schoolteacher from the Midwest who came to Payahuunadu in 1892. Austin got to know the indigenous folks of the valley, listening to ways of thinking and being that were not a part of the conversation for many of her peers. “It is the mistake of cities to assume that everything in the world is run upon what is called a ‘business basis,’” she wrote against the removal of the valley’s water, “which is to say that money is the end and aim of every operation.” She spoke of the dangers of unlimited development and the value of that which cannot, or should not, be exchanged for money. “Not the law, but the land sets the limit,” she wrote in 1903.
Now fire moves across our drained and parched California, and these old words ring true. It has taken the world a long time to listen. Austin walked with Paiute healers in the desert and she tried to understand. This willingness to look beyond was something Mulholland and men like him, for all their power and genius, failed to do.
It is useful to turn the Mulhollands of history inside out. And it is useful to search for the stories of the people who set themselves a little bit free, who thought their way, not flawlessly, to living differently, to doing less harm, to pushing toward that illusive future where the atrocities of the present are relegated to the past. I try to reach backward, to draw all of them into the room where I read, where the shepherd’s wife rests her cheek by the water, and Mary Austin tears her skirts on sage, and Mulholland regards us, sodden to his chin in the ruins of a dam. I reach for them, these figures. I overlay their lives with mine. We gather here, points on a triangle, as I search for the cracks to which I am blind.