28 Dec 2015 / JOURNAL ENTRY 1: FILMING TO DUST WITH CINEMATOGRAPHER MICHAEL PIETROBON
Life in the Owens Valley is defined and shaped by the austerity of the desert landscape. The snowy Sierra Nevada tower above the western valley floor while The Inyo Mountains to the east catch the famous 20 mile shadows from the setting sun every afternoon. There is no ignoring nature here. It fills both your windshield and your senses even on the shortest drive to the post office or the grocery store. Commuting to Los Angeles means risking whiplash every trip from soaking in the majesty and wonder on both sides of the road whether you’re leaving or coming home. We call it “DUI-EB”… Driving Under the Influence of Extreme Beauty.”
“So like the mountains and the desert and the enveloping sky the lake’s presence is always felt. It’s alway there, always reminding us of what once was and now is… whether we like it or not.”
The price for living in The Owens Valley can sometimes be steep though. Days of intense dust storms rise from the Owens Dry Lake to the south and are often enough to cause health alerts encouraging people to remain indoors and avoid the dangerous particulate matter carried north by the high winds into the communities of Keeler, Lone Pine, Independence and beyond. Many of these storms feel like a Hollywood disaster film, raging so violently to make driving nearly impossible between the disappearing lines of the road. To us locals it’s just called “The Lake”. Most of us don’t even see it every day unless you work one of the jobs for Los Angeles DWP or the contracting companies charged with constant and unending dust abatement. “Lake Guys” we call them. Our friends, family members and neighbors who rise before the merciless summer sun every day to battle the remains of a long lost water war.
On Sundays the dryers in the local laundromat tumble colorfully all day filled with the freshly washed, bright orange t-shirts of work crews readying for another week flooding the dry, dusty lake bed. Their motto is, “Mud don’t blow.”
So like the mountains and the desert and the enveloping sky the lake’s presence is always felt. It’s alway there, always reminding us of what once was and now is… whether we like it or not.
Some days when the wind is still and the sun is kind it can be a completely transformative place. Utterly silent with shallow saline pools reflecting the surrounding mountains and sky and even large flocks of migrating sea birds lighting upon the water. For all my time in this valley though, I’ve never explored or come to know the Owens Dry Lake as I did filming segments for To Dust.
Living here, you know it’s a big place, but to stand in the middle of such an expansive area knowing where the water levels would have been if things had gone differently provides insight you can’t get from the shore. There were many moments when I found myself just standing and listening, forgetting about cameras and drones and pictures and just being for a while. Time well spent. And time ultimately is what the story of this place is all about. The harsh reality is the scars here will never heal fully and dust will blow forever.
But we have time to make better decisions about our natural resources and the places we live and perhaps protect other desert landscapes from suffering a similar fate. For myself, filming To Dust brought me a deeper empathy for the land and more profound understanding of this place I call home. I hope everyone who experiences To Dust will feel the same.
~ Michael Pietrobon, January 2016