• Steve Brown

Bidding farewell to a desert champion, Donna Charpied

Updated: Apr 23, 2018

Donna Charpied, legendary desert defender, died on November 1, 2017. Her memorial service at Donna and Larry's jojoba farm in Desert Center, was this past week, and we're all still in shock.

Donna and Larry Charpied, the organic jojoba farmers of Desert Center who valiantly fought the Eagle Mountain dump for nearly 30 years (and won), in happier times.

I remember walking the land around Donna and Larry Charpied's organic jojoba farm in Desert Center. Off in the distance was the silent Kaiser iron mine, the site that Kaiser's Mine Reclamation Corp. had proposed turning into the world's largest garbage dump - right on the border of Joshua Tree National Park. Donna and Larry had battled against that dump for nearly three decades before winning a court decision that ended the prospects of filling the canyons around the mine with a century's worth of garbage from Los Angeles.

They had some allies during various parts of the battle, but ultimately, if not for the Charpieds, it's fairly safe to say the BLM would have signed off on the dump decades ago. A number of the big environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, didn't take a position on the dump (though members of their individual chapters were quite vocal in their opposition).

As we walked the land, I noticed how alive it was. Some folks like to say the desert is devoid of life, barren, and hostile. Donna, Larry, and I, were seeing a flourishing community, filled with critter holes everywhere, home to anything and everything from burrowing owls to all kinds of delightful little creatures. A tarantula hawk flew by, without bothing any of us, and quail took off when we got too close. It was peaceful and beautiful.

And it was all slated for destruction. Almost no sooner than the Charpieds had won their long fought battle with the Eagle Mountain dump, an unbelievable contest of David vs. Goliath strength, and Illiad length endurance (these are mythical folk, they get mythical analogies), along came the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm project, with its six square miles of photovoltaic panels, butting up against their little organic jojoba farm.

It was a sad day for all of us, as we walked that land, with its wide open vistas that would soon be permanently destroyed. But Donna and Larry tried to face it with the courage that had become their trademark over decades of fighting on behalf of the desert.

Later, as construction progressed, I heard of issues like dust from the now-scalped miles of desert interfering with pollination, dropping jojoba harvests significantly. There would be no more wholesale sales of jojoba oil, I heard. There wasn't enough jojoba harvestable now to provide for both retail and wholesale demands. It was clear that Donna was heartbroken. Fighting for so long only to lose the battle in their backyard was hard on she and Larry.

Soon after, I heard they had moved, at least part of the year, to Carpenteria, on the coast. It seemed it was harder for them to face the desert with the enormous black sea of PV panels surrounding it. Raising the question of whether miles of black PV panels might soak up enough heat to create their own microclimate was complicated when a tornado tore through the solar project. Pilot Jim Bagley took some aerial photos of the damage:

Then, on November 1, 2017, Donna died at a young age of 62.

A small gathering of those who love Donna and Larry gathered last week on April 19, 2018, at the Charpied's jojoba farm in Desert Center to remember her, and to attempt to console Larry, who has been understandably devastated by losing Donna after 40 years of marriage. It's impossible for me to visualize these two not together, so I can't even begin to imagine what grief Larry is enduring.

After a time, we caravanned to a remote petroglyph site where Don Alfredo Figueroa (Yaqui, Chemehuevi) and his son Jesus (Chuey) Figueroa (Chemehuevi, Yaqui, Chichimeca), led prayers for Donna. I recognized the site immediately - Donna and Larry had taken me here the first time I had visited them in Desert Center. They told me about Alfredo when we went to the petroglyph, and that he was someone I absolutely needed to get to know, and they were, of course, right. Alfredo, once a labor organizer for farm workers with Cesar Chavez, has spent decades studying Aztec history, myth, and cosmology, and found evidence the Aztecs once inhabited the lands along the Colorado River, with giant geoglyphs pointing to clues of that time long ago. He's one of the most fascinating people I've met in my life (his whole family is truly impressive).

Larry, scattered some of Donna's ashes at the site, where a small hummingbird petroglyph was carved nearby. I wondered if time really is linear, looking at the petroglyph and questioning if it wasn't carved there centuries ago so that it would be there now, for this occasion. It's the kind of thing you think when you're in the desert for any length of time.

It was odd to me that there weren't more representatives from environmental organizations and local government there to pay their respects. Many of us had traveled hours to attend, but many were conspicuous by their absence. Donna and Larry had paid a high price for protecting the desert, and it was hard to say whether it was worth it. Larry said something about the heartbreak of the solar project killing Donna, and the thought that the BLM had approved the project around their farm to purposefully get even with the Charpieds for fighting against the dump so valiantly for so long, was overheard at the gathering.

Whatever may have transpired, the desert lost one of its strongest, most courageous voices. Donna didn't fight for the desert because of money, or fame, or anything but a love of the desert and the belief that the dump would irreparably harm it. She was right - it would. She and Larry paid the price to ensure that the desert would not become a gargantuan garbage dump. And she's gone now.

The desert has lost a true hero, and through her loss, has devastated another. Larry was, months after Donna's death, overwhelmingly inconsolable. I felt helpless, faced with his grief. But I try to remember them, on their wooden swing that looks out to the east, where once they had an unmarred view of the desert they loved so much, as they laughed and playfully kissed. They deserved better. But maybe they had it with their love for each other, and the desert......

- Steve Brown

112 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All