Sagebrush ringing a lake filled with tufa reflecting evening colors from clouds.

A sage fades away

“But if ever you come beyond the borders as far as the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house under the willow-tree at the end of the village street, and there you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another…”

-Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

If only the door of Mary Austin’s home could have served as a portal to the past I would have long ago stepped through to share tea with Mary and marvel at her vision and knowledge of the Eastern Sierra. However, the passage of time is an even more formidable barrier than the granite escarpment of the Sierra rising to the west of the trim, brown, two story house in Independence that was Mary’s home.

It is the duty of each generation to seek their own sages, and I found one of mine in the spring of 1972 when I walked through the door of Andrea Mead Lawrence’s home at the Bluffs in Mammoth Lakes, on a UC Berkeley geography field trip led by legendary Snow Surveyor/Geography Instructor Doug Powell.

During this trip Doug introduced us to several Eastern Sierra icons such as pupfish savior Phil Pister and photographer Galen Rowell. But to us long-haired seekers of knowledge from Berkeley, no one made a greater impression than Andrea. For the next hour we were spellbound by her intimate knowledge of the area, her prescient views on the growing effects of local development, and her visions for the future.

Many years and miles later, Andrea entered my life again in the role of bow paddler. By this time I had done hundreds of canoe tours on Mono Lake and had occasionally observed reactions from our passengers ranging from quizzical to indifferent. On this day Andrea greeted Mono with an enthusiasm born of a deep knowledge of the lake that served as the foundation for her love of this strange and wild place. I had no need to guide that tour, because interpretation was replaced by celebration: of the lake, of the life within, upon, and above it, of simply being exactly where you wanted to be.

The natural world was the wellspring of Andrea’s soul. It was a reference point, a source of inspiration, a balm for the wounds inflicted by society, and something to be guarded the way a mother bear guards her cubs.

Andrea’s years as Mono County Supervisor provided a benchmark of local environmental responsibility. Such foresight did come at the expense of contentiousness and personal travail for her. Busy and beset as she may have been, I was always greeted with a firm handshake, a ruggedly friendly smile, and a willingness to share her time. Andrea’s explanations of how local, state, and federal politics interacted for or against the natural world, often punctuated by pithy assessments of the characters involved, were masterpieces of unvarnished, concise truth. I once jokingly suggested to her that if Mammoth Lakes continued its explosive growth the town would soon be looking covetously at the Mono Basin for water. With a steely look of determination Andrea Lawrence, longtime Mammoth resident, told me “If that ever happens, I’ll be right beside you, ready to fight!”

While many will complain of injustice, few do anything about it. Andrea was the very model of someone who chose to be involved, for all the right reasons. Through the despair that accompanies the grief of her passing, it would be easy to say that Andrea was irreplaceable. But she would be the first to emphatically state that she has to be replaced, and right now! For Andrea Lawrence has left as her legacy nothing less than life itself. The life of birds, brine shrimp, and alkali flies that teem at Mono Lake, the life of marmots and eagles on San Joaquin ridge, the whole intricate web of life that is the Eastern Sierra. Continuing Andrea’s work without the benefit of her wisdom and fighting spirit will be daunting indeed. But for all of us who loved Andrea and love the natural world, it is now our turn.

Top photo by Rose Nelson.