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Desert Pears

by Linda Thomas

In southeastern California, along Highway 395, halfway between Lone Pine and Independence, there lies at the base of the Sierra Nevada range a square mile parcel of land called Manzanar. Three times in history this place has been occupied by people whose differences may on the surface seem extreme. The first were the Shoshonean and Paiute people whose entry to the Owens Valley pre-dates history. Archeologists have determined that they were people who not only attached themselves to a place that could sustain them within a few miles of a stream or a valley, but who also attached themselves to their family and to a small group of lifelong friends. These people no longer reside at the place called Manzanar, nor can we know what name they gave to the place.

The second group to reside in Manzanar came there at the invitation of a man named Chaffey, whose intent it was to plant orchards of pear, apple, peach, and cherry trees, and to build a settlement of industrious European Americans. The small village--called "Manzanar" after the Spanish word, manzana, meaning apple--thrived. There was a school, and a family named Shepherd built the first two-story frame house in the valley. By 1912, two men, Fred Eaton and the now notorious William Mulholland, city engineer for Los Angeles, had bought up and otherwise acquired the valley ranches--and water--for the city of Los Angeles. Legend has it that in Mulholland's papers was a note regarding Chaffey and the settlement of Manzanar, saying, "I will dry him up."

For three decades, Manzanar lay fallow, merely part of the now desert landscape across which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power moved water westward through the deep, narrow, steel and concrete aqueduct. Then, a thing happened that would forever mark the rectangle of five hundred and fifty acres of dusty, high desert valley land. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for all people of Japanese ancestry residing on the west coast, most of whom were American citizens, to be placed in relocation camps. The War Department approached the Los Angeles D.W.P., requesting the land called Manzanar as the location for the first of ten of these relocation centers. Initially reluctant to jeopardize the flow of precious water to the thriving metropolis, the D.W.P. hedged. When the War Department officials threatened to confiscate the land, Los Angeles settled on a figure of $25,000 for a ten-year lease.

Today, Manzanar is a National Historic Site and although the National Park Service has plans to protect the site and to study the remains of the people who lived here, on this morning of my visit the place is open and vulnerable to mischief and desecration. In Lone Pine last night, I asked the woman behind the cash register at the trading post about local plans to help protect Manzanar. She looked at me. "I am not from here," she said. "I've been here only eight years. So I can tell you."

I had heard this preface before from others who wished to distinguish themselves from the history of United States imprisonment of American citizens. "Every once in a while," she said, "the thing comes up again--Manzanar--in the newspaper. Someone says we need to do something. Then, there's this outcry about how Americans were treated worse in Japanese war camps. The old people, the ones who were here fifty years ago, they say they never saw anyone in those guard posts, so nothing really happened out there at all."

From the Manzanar sentry gate just off Highway 395, I look across acres of rabbit brush blooming now in mid-autumn a deep pollenized mustard yellow so that the air itself is golden. Here and there, a scraggly locust tree struggles against the lack of water. And from the stand of cottonwood trees a half mile beyond, I can hear the sounds of shotgun blasts and catch glimpses of men poaching the quail that scurry ahead of me. Further on, across the bare alluvial plain that rises gently away from the camp, Mount Williamson juts up like a mottled silver colossus among the peaks of the Sierras.

Government records and the displays of evidence at the Eastern California Museum in Independence tell me that ten thousand people lived here between March of 1942 and November of 1945, internees who were forced by the U.S. government to walk away from their homes, jobs, and lives with what little they could carry in suitcases. I am looking for the cemetery, the place where many of these Americans of Japanese ancestry were buried.

On this cool, clear morning, the walk is difficult because the terrain now--over fifty years since the camp closed--is confused by rocks and the overgrowth of prickly desert brush. The ground is littered with nails, bits of barbed wire, broken chunks of concrete. The map I carry shows me the former layout of thirty-six blocks of tarpaper barracks, each block composed of sixteen twenty-by-twenty-five foot apartments overcrowded with men, women and children used to privacy and dignity. Each block was served by a single latrine divided for males and females, eight toilets each, none partitioned from the other.

Today--except for two stone sentry houses and the dilapidated auditorium--the buildings are gone, and there remain only a few scattered remnants of the latrine foundations and sewer systems. As I walk, I come across other remains, small oases left not by the Wartime Civil Control Administration, but by the Japanese Americans themselves. I find large river stones carefully placed to form circles and walkways, and set into concrete to form ponds. One such garden site, built by an internee who worked as a camp cook and also played a key role in the December 1942 rebellion, is particularly haunting. Overhung with trees, it includes two large now-overgrown ponds connected by a small foot bridge. Small stones set into the concrete bed of the ponds spell out, "8-7, 1942."

Near the site of Block 28, I stop to conduct a private search. In Jeanne Wakatsuki's memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, she speaks of the pear trees not far from her residence in Block 28. Here, her father resigned himself to the loss of his fishing boats and his house in Ocean Park and spent his time tending the four small rooms that housed his family of twelve, carving gnarled chunks of river wood into usable furniture, and tending a few nearby old pear trees left from the Manzanar village days. When I find the trees, I am astonished at the fruit hanging in bunches of blushing yellow globes from the upper limbs, the ground littered with fallen pears. I pick one up, polish it against my jeans, and take a bite. The flesh is wet, juice rises in my mouth, and there is a bitterness that I imagine--like everything else for the Japanese Americans forced to live here--set a sharp edge on anything otherwise beautiful, peaceful, or sweet. As I walk, I eat the entire bitter pear down to the soft core, and I press on toward the cemetery, whose white monument tower I can now see extending up in the distance.

One hundred and fifty-eight Japanese Americans died here during those forty-four months of imprisonment. Of those buried at Manzanar, four actually remain. Two of those had nowhere else to find rest, and two left instructions that their bodies are to remain where they died. The tower that marks this windswept cemetery is engraved in Japanese characters that indicate this plot's dedication to the souls of Manzanar, and the stair-stepped base of the tower is strewn with offerings--rocks, coins, mementos that on this day include key chains, hair clips, bits of broken colored glass. The leaving of stones is a Jewish practice, a familiar sight in the concentration camp sites of Europe. The leaving of coins is a custom among followers of the Shinto religion.

The graves themselves are small and personal, erected and tended by family. Some are circles of river stones that echo the stone gardens inside the camp. Some are distinguished by hand-poured concrete bases or small markers engraved with names. Some mark the graves of babies. At one grave, I find a pair of child's sunglasses mounted on a small stone monolith, and a sprinkle of pennies. At another grave, I find a weathered wood post topped with barbed wire--the kind that once encircled the camp--bent into the shape of a heart. At still another grave, I find a nest of origami birds.

These objects conjure for me images of flight, of vision, of a small fee dropped into the ferryman's hand, of safe passage. Of remembrance and forgiveness, of regret and restitution.

  • Websites where you can learn more about the National Historic Site of Manzanar:

    National Park Service description
    The Manzanar Project
    Manzanar--America's Concentration Camp
    PBS presentation of the Owens Valley water scandal

    Return To Rambles Archive.

    Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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