What It's Like To Live in Sequoia National Forest: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

I encountered an earthly experience just one week after I had moved into my new residence in Kernville, a small village encircled by the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest and crisscrossed by the mighty Kern River. 

As I took an early morning stroll to Sierra James Gateway, a general market that serves the town’s population of 1,800, the silence of the forest was pierced by a resounding flutter, like wind whipping through a clothesline of sheets. “What the hell,” I yelped. I swung around and witnessed a black raven about 20 feet away swooping down to make a beeline to the river. Really! Yessum, in the forest you can hear the flutter of a bird’s wings, sounding much like a Pterodactyl raptor from the Cretaceous period. However, you can’t hear this in this city because the white noise suffocates the delicate sounds of nature.  

And that’s the moment I realized that living in the highlands offers an opportunity to endlessly rendezvous with nature. I wake up every morning to experience eye candy, breathing in the forest’s sights, sounds, and smells. 

In my six years living in this rugged, high desert river country, the mountains have blessed me with some amazing experiences, like the time a lost and panicked doe scrambled upon me while I was fishing, and frantically swam and bobbed across the raging Kern river to join with a rangale of deers. Like the time I once again heard that familiar flutter from overhead to see a raven flying high in the blue skies clutching a struggling and twisting trout, who had an aerial view of the river before the last swim of his life. 

 

Like the time I was driving home in the dark forest night and my car was dive-bombed by a beautiful white owl that made me duck in my own car. Like the time I was driving during twilight and saw a coyote dart across the 178 highway carrying a bloody femur in his mouth that was twice the size of him. Nature is the constant. Everyday, I awaken to the sounds of the river rapids and fall asleep under the star-studded skies. 

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that living in the mountains comes without hardship. It can be difficult on so many levels — economically, politically and socially. I’ve always said the Kern River Valley (KRV) represents the best and worst of America, as there are plenty of fine folks up here, but I’ve also experienced the darker side of rural living. 

When I first moved to KRV, I felt like I took a step back in time. In certain pockets of the community and while I worked at Camp Erwin Owen Boy’s Home, I experienced a regressive culture — people who held antiquated beliefs and were intolerant of people who did not think or act like them. (The worse part is what happened to the youth at the Camp, but that’s for another soon-to-be-published work of non fiction.)

The underbelly of the KRV culture can partly be explained by geographical isolation, also known as allopatry. This is a mechanism of speciation that happens when populations of a species are divided by a geographic barrier. The KRV is geographically isolated from urban regions by the subranges of the Sierra Nevada—the Kern Plateau to the northeast, Breckenridge Mountain and Piute Mountain to the south, the Scodie Mountains to the east and the Greenhorn Mountains to the west. 

When a community is physically separated from the larger population, there is less access to a diversity of opinions, behaviors, societal standards and ethnic customs. This isolation from others can cultivate a homogenous culture where values, ideologies and customs become entrenched or narrow. Walled off by the mountains, the KRV evolved separately and with different characteristics from cities to the north and south. In the KRV, there remains a deep tradition to honor the past and respect the culture of yesteryear. 

Such shared common values can help fortify a community, and build social connections. But if such folks believe that these values or their way of life can be threatened by outsiders, there can be a push to isolate or hurt those outsiders that aren’t like minded. Unfortunately, this is the difficult part of living in the high Sequoias if you are a city transplant. At its best, former city dwellers who move to the KRV may experience a culture clash with the old guard. At its worst, these migrants can encounter the ugliness of a hazing experience. I know this to be true because I, and others who have moved here, have lived through it. They even have a label for us, flatlanders. 

Consistent with similar rural areas across the nation, the KRV is plagued with a paucity of commerce and insufficient quality, professional health and human services. The social isolation, lack of services, and weak social and economic infrastructure can affect the quality of life for many residents. A recent article in the Kern Valley Sun explored the high rate of suicides in the KRV. The socio-economic adversity of the region is evident as nearly 15 percent of all adults in Kern County cannot read at the 9th grade level and studies indicate KRV’s Lake Isabella is among the most distressed communities in the nation, according to a recent study

The economy and demographics of the KRV have precluded BUCHANART, as well as my own business, from operating the way we did in the city. We have had to re-strategize and align operations to more of an online model to sustain our respective businesses. At BUCHANART, we have extended our reach beyond Sequoia National Forest to connect with patrons and friends statewide and nationally through online experiences.   

Though we live in a cultural wasteland — virtually devoid of diverse ethnic cuisine, progressive people, cutting edge art, and professional services — it’s the loss of these things that allows me to hear the flutter of a raven’s wings.

And for my partner, Chopstick Drip Painter Peter Buchan, the energy of the forest has coursed through his artistic spirit, inspiring him to create a new body of work, Mother Sequoia and the California Stars. And for these reasons, we have chosen to live amid nature.

And, now I must go. The mountains are calling. 

Marsinah Ramirez Buchan, Chief Operating Schelper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The River At Night, Original Chopstick Drip Painting By Artist Peter G. Buchan