Bonhomie and “Greetings” may once have been well meant for visitors to California’s Salton Sea. But even before the 2005 publication of Kim Stringfellow’s book about the sea’s unfortunate and malodorous history, her study’s subtitle was more apt: “Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape.”
The disaster that is today’s Salton Sea is one of the most dire tales in all of American ecology, a mixture of greed, hubris, arrogance toward the natural order and — in its most positive spin — a simple utopian vision blinded by naïve faith that man could solve his own miscreant behavior through legislative mandate.
Stringfellow’s book is partly a history of the Salton Sink and the accidental creation of its sea in the early 20th century. She documents not only the erratic course of the Colorado River that fed it, but also the even more erratic attempts by man to turn the sea into a boating, fishing and golfing paradise, a working man’s Riviera close to the Mexican border. Like much of the California lower desert, this area was once covered in water, and embedded sea-fossil remains attest to its watery prehistory, when it was an extension of the Gulf of California, much of it several hundred feet below sea level.
In the first section of her book, Stringfellow locates the Salton Sea’s geography:
The briny waters cover approximately 360-370 square miles … Located approximately 120 miles east of San Diego and 30 miles north of the Mexican/Californian border, the sea is about 35 miles long and 15 miles wide … and an average depth of 29.9 feet. Summer ambient temperatures often exceed 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average annual rainfall is less than 3 inches.
She then recounts in detail the successive waves of human political “folly” that turned this once promising desert paradise into a hellhole of chemical waste. As if it were already not apocalyptic enough, Stringfellow, an eco-photographer who has closely studied and recorded with her camera the systematic abuse of many desert lands, includes a record of how meg-agra fertilizer farming and irrigation-water runoff in the nearby Imperial Valley created ever higher levels of salinity in the Salton Sea.
Many species of non-native sport fish introduced to lure tourists were sickened, infected with botulism and died by the millions; many were consumed by dozens of native and migrating birds that then also died. An ever-expanding cycle of species death year after year made the stench in the oppressive summer heat a sickening reality, a trail of stink wafting sometimes as far to the north as the lush golf courses of Palm Desert.
When Stringfellow first drove to the Salton Sea in 1995, this eco-disaster was in full “bloom.” For the next decade, she traveled there often, photographing and talking to citizens of the nearby communities of Niland and Bombay Beach (which are little more than outcroppings along the eastern shore), as well as photographing the largely abandoned homes and resort structures along the once promising north shore. The brilliant eco-writer Rebecca Solnit describes the Salton Sea as “a strange mix of debris and sublimity that Kim Stringfellow’s pictures and history portray compellingly.”
Most of the rest of Stringfellow’s modest-sized book moves beyond history and geography to include saturated color photographs in double-page spreads, powerful visual documentation of the scorched and chemically raped land, fetid waters and collapsed buildings, the abandoned dreams of domesticity and commerce.
Nor does she fail to pay attention to the maverick human desert rats who came to the Salton Sea in more promising times. Many were stuck there when their property values plummeted year after year; they knew they would never sell their homes or land for a price that would enable them to live out their lives in other modest communities, like Desert Hot Springs.
Some were dyed-in-the-wool die-hards who found a sort of quasi-spiritual redemption in the sere, burning heat of this lunarscape desert — just as mystics and prophets have for millennia. One of these was the aptly named Leonard Knight, who was often seen around the community of Niland. He was a folk artist who spent his life much like Simon Rodia of Watts Towers fame: constructing a personal monument. Knight’s edifice is made not of steel, concrete and shards of glass, but of adobe, built berm-like against a 50-foot hill. He covered the massive earthwork with whatever brilliantly colored house paints he could find or obtain through friends and visitors. Knight called his artwork “Salvation Mountain.”
It is a testament to his faith in a benign deity of love. During temperate times of the year, he had dozens of daily visitors. Knight lived close to his mountain. A friend, Bob, described it this way:
Leonard's ‘house’ of 26 years, is built on the back of an old 1939 White fire truck decorated as ornately as his mountain. He has no electricity, gas, running water, phone, heating, air conditioning or any of the other things that so many of us take for granted. He is also one the happiest men I know.
Stringfellow made several photos of Knight, his home and his work.
Stringfellow’s artful photographs call to mind the work of several other Western photographers who have documented the rape of the West by industry, government and the military. One thinks especially of Richard Misrach and his work on the Nevada bombing range of Bravo 20.
Intent on finding more about the boondoggle of the Salton Sea, and keenly recalling Marisa Silver’s brilliant novel The God of War, about the Ramirez family living in a trailer at the Salton Sea, I found a one-hour documentary about the land and its people. Produced by KQED, it is titled Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. This quirky documentary not only uses archival footage to parallel Stringfellow’s historical essay, but also concentrates on a number of colorful local residents and business owners who are struggling day by day to keep their families and homes together. One of the documentary’s highlights is a visit to Knight and his “Salvation Mountain,” where we see him mixing straw and earth in a wheelbarrow (at 34:00). This modest but absorbing film was made in 2004 and was directed, photographed and edited by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. Its off-the-wall, outré credentials are firmly established in narration by the inimitable John Waters.
A footnote to the film and to Stringfellow’s work is the fate of the optimistic Knight.
A 2015 documentary by Andrew Blake Doyle, Leonard Knight: A Man and His Mountain, records Knight’s 30-year mission to proclaim “Love,” starting with a failed effort to launch a hot-air balloon emblazoned with his mantra, “God Is Love.”
In December 2011 Knight, then 80 and suffering from dementia, was moved to a long-term care facility in El Cajon. He died there on Feb. 10, 2014 — a few days before Valentine’s Day. The film ends with his funeral and memorial service at the mountain. Despite ongoing curating by friends, the fate of his artwork, like the fate of the Salton Sea, is darkly uncertain.
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