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 Profile: Karen Piper.


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Intruder in the Dust

When the wind whipped down through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, young Karen Piper, her parents, her sister and just about everyone else in their Ridgecrest, Calif., neighborhood found themselves enveloped by billowing clouds of fine white powder. Residents couldn't see from one side of the street to the other. Even the sun struggled to break through.

"I didn't really know what it was," recalls Piper, now a 41-year-old associate professor of English at MU. "I would watch it building up on the mountains, and then it would roll in like this blanket of fog, like a thick white blanket of fog. Then it would get really hard to breathe."

This dust-shrouded childhood has since helped to shape both Piper's personal and professional lives. At MU she specializes in "creative non-fiction," a genre devoted to examining real-world issues through the lens of authorial experience. Her latest book project, Left in the Dust, makes use of history, memoir and environmental-policy polemic to tell the story of the "fog" that choked the skies of her hometown. It was published in August by the Palgrave Macmillan press.

"I thought of the book as the weaving together of different stories as I was taking a journey into my own past," Piper says. "I read old newspaper accounts and histories, talked to local people, to neighbors, and then thought about how I could turn them into a coherent personal narrative." For Piper, that narrative is rooted in the high-desert landscape of her youth, the sort of beautifully harsh environment where one might expect dust storms.

But the storms she experienced, as Left in the Dust makes plain, were a man-made phenomena. Near the turn of the last century, a wealthy group of Southern California's movers and shakers, led by engineer and utility administrator William Mulholland, hatched a plan to bring water from the well-irrigated Owens Valley to the dry suburbs of Los Angeles. It became a monumental project, one fraught with violent opposition, but on Nov. 5, 1913, five years after construction began, a 230-mile aqueduct was delivering 485 cubic feet of water each second to what was soon to become one of America's largest, and thirstiest, metropolitan areas.

Everything downstream from the now-diverted Owens River, meanwhile, quickly dried out. This included, disastrously, Owens Lake, a body of water once robust enough to support steamship traffic. Churned by the area's high winds, the dust from the now-dry lake bed, much of it the consistency of cake flour, would become airborne, transforming itself into powdery clouds that the locals dubbed the "Keeler Fog," after a nearby town.

By the time Piper and her family began breathing it in the 1970s, the fog had for decades been embedding itself into the lungs of downwinders, mainly poor farmers, Paiute Indians and, during World War II, Japanese internees. Inhaling dust is never a good thing. And the Owens Lake clouds -- chock-full of naturally occurring heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and cadmium -- were particularly noxious.

Despite her hale appearance and ready laugh, even now Piper suffers from an array of ailments, including pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma. Her sister, she says, has lupus. A former neighbor has rheumatoid arthritis of the lungs. Others from the neighborhood are also sick. "All of these metals cause their own unique problems," says Piper.

Oddly, few in Ridgecrest linked their illnesses to Owens Lake dust. This was in part, Piper says, because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as both aqueduct administrator and chief landlord in the Owens Valley, wasn't interested in owning up to problems.

But there was also complacency among the down-winders themselves. "There was a lot of denial," she says. Even her mom had doubts, Piper says. That changed after publication of her book. "Now she's quite the campaigner," Piper says with a laugh. "She goes to the newspapers and says, 'You need to talk about this issue!'"

With her skill at mining childhood experience, one might expect Piper grew up with pen in hand. Not so, she says. Back in Ridgecrest, a strict religious education limited her interest in the literary arts. It wasn't until high school, in fact, that she embraced the written word. Piper went on to study English at Westmont College, then comparative literature as a graduate student at the University of Oregon. At Oregon, she also developed a passion for environmental issues, thanks in part to her learning, in 1987, about studies detailing problems at Owens Lake. "I was taking a class in environmental justice, learning about how these kinds of health hazards are unequally distributed throughout the nation, and how poor people and people of color tend to suffer more from them," Piper says. She eventually earned a master's degree in environmental studies along with a doctorate in comparative literature."

By the time she joined the MU faculty in 1997 she was deep into the Owen's Lake project, working to temper the anger she felt when learning of the heavy-handed race and class politics that characterized California's "imperialistic" water grab. Was she at all nervous that L.A.'s Department of Water and Power might themselves get mad? The agency, after all, has a long history of silencing critics. "Oh yes," she says with a wry smile: "I didn't think I'd get published. I thought for sure that I'd get sued... But I can stand my ground, let's put it that way."

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