Lay of the Land - saraharnoff

Lay of the Land

Tucked away in the Reese River Valley surrounded by Nevada's Toiyabe National Forest, sits the Shoshone reservation Yomba, a tiny community supported mostly by ranching and farming. Many residents here also practice traditional gathering--collecting berries, roots, plants and nuts for medicinal and culinary uses--though years of drought have strained snow packs, leaving the high desert dryer, and crops of pine nuts and berries smaller. Severe weather patterns--possibly the result of wider climate change--have produced lighter winters with longer periods of drought followed by short bursts of moisture that quench the thirst of the plants and animals struggling to stretch their water reserves for longer and longer.

On top of the drought concerns, the BLM is planning to lease parcels of land in the Reese River Valley and neighboring Smokey Valley for fracking and oil exploration,even though Nevada is not known to be rich in those resources. The Yomba tribe has voiced opposition to these sales, with water shortages listed as one of their main concerns. The massive amount of water fracking requires, they say, would drastically impact the quality of life for tribal members and the land they live on since the water that currently exists is barely (and sometimes not) enough to support the plants they traditionally gather and the animals they hunt, as well as the established farms.

Following three generations of the same family, Darlene Dewey, Melanie Smokey and Jay Martin, these images were captured in August 2016 and detail one of the hottest and driest summers the area has faced after it experienced a short, wet spring.

View of the Reese River Valley in Central Nevada, where the Yomba Shoshone Reservation is located.

View of the Reese River Valley where the Yomba Shoshone Reservation is located.

Jay walks through a field near his grandmother Darlene's home. He says that this is the first summer in about five years where the grass has been this tall, citing its growth as a remnant of the spring rain. This field, he says, used to be full of irises, but he hasn't seen any grow here for a long time.

Darlene feeds the horses on her property. A short wet spell in the spring replenished some of the plants that were plentiful here, though the rejuvenation was short lived as a hot summer provided little moisture. When the water does come, the plants seem to grow back OK, Jay says, though it's the animals that suffer more when the plants recede during drought.

Jay gathers elderberries in the Big Creek area north-east of the reservation.

Though elderberries are supposed to be ready to harvest in the late summer and early fall, many patches of berries on the Big Creek trees remain green in late August. "The plants are confused," Melanie says, referring to the warm winters, early springs and temperature fluctuations in the area.

Further evidence of plant "confusion" shows in the presences of elderberry blossoms, which are usually only around in the spring. Darlene, Melanie and Jay say they have never seen elderberry blossoms this late in the summer.

Pine-cone-less Pinyon trees in the Big Creek area.

Many of the pine cones that could be harvested for their nuts prematurely brown and shrivel up due to dry weather and extreme heat. Though pine nuts are usually picked later in the fall, those living in Nevada who practice the tradition have started harvesting earlier and earlier while the cones are still green in order to save the nuts from drying out.

Darlene removes pine cone pitch from her hands by rubbing dirt on them.

Darlene tells Jay that there is an area near Ophir that has "funny pine cones." The pine cones here are ravaged by insects, which have been able to burrow in and eat the nuts because the protective pitch that normally seals the pine cone has melted off in the heat.

A dead Pinyon pine lies uprooted near Ophir. The drought has gotten so bad that commercial pine nut picking has been banned this year. "That's good news for us," Jay says, since it gives the trees some time to recover. But "it would have been better if it had happened a few years ago." Commercial pickers, he says, clear the trees of all the cones, leaving none for the birds.

Sparse choke cherries grow on the side of the road near Ophir. These were the only choke cherries we found around the Reese River Valley. Melanie had to drive 185 miles east to Ely to look for more.

Melanie surveys a Pinyon pine near Carol Summit. Healthy pine cones cluster near the top of the taller Pinyon pines.

Melanie examines the pitch of a pine cone before taking a crystallized drop and placing it under her tongue. It's a refreshing treat during the hot day.

Jay knocks off pine cones that are too high to reach.

The day's harvest at Carol Summit. Later, the cones will be roasted underground at Darlene's home and the nuts pried out for snacking.

Healthy elderberries are ready for harvest near Carol Summit. Elderberries have a number of digestive health benefits. "They keep you regular," Jay says.

Darlene holds some of the day's gatherings. Jay will later process the elderberries into jam.

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