The Radical Case for Growing Huge Swaths of Bamboo in North America

The grass has a bad rap in the U.S. as an invasive nuisance, but the plant can quickly sequester at least double—and maybe even six times—the amount of carbon as a similar stand of trees.

Three species of farm-cultivated bamboo towering in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Credit: Audrey Gray

Three species of farm-cultivated bamboo towering in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Credit: Audrey Gray

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This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists. 

As a kid, Lauren Lydick would pack up a towel, a Harry Potter book, and head out alone into the bamboo groves. As a teenager, she took a blanket, War & Peace, and weed. Sometimes reading, sometimes just lying on her back looking up through the green, Lydick felt like she could be anywhere. Thailand, maybe, or Malaysia. It’s said that in rural parts of Japan, parents tell their children, “If you feel an earthquake, run into the bamboo. Its roots will hold the earth together for you.” Lydick felt that sense of protection somehow, even though she lived in Imperial County, California, one of the hottest, most polluted places in North America. And even though there was no escaping her easily-triggered, asthmatic chest. 

Lydick’s nickname in high school was Pneumonia. She laughs about that now, at 23, and remembers it not as a mean, bullying thing so much as camaraderie. Most of Lydick’s friends had asthma too—they’d share inhalers and watch out for each other in dangerous situations, like when the gym teacher made them run.  The kids were surrounded by a half million acres of flat, open, pesticide-laced farmland. They became amateur meteorologists, monitoring the wind, knowing that a dust storm would mean a bad breathing day. 

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From the porch of her family’s trailer on their one acre of land in El Centro, about 15 miles from the Mexican border, Lydick still watches dust storms coming at her from the North. But they don’t make it to the porch. In the middle of this desert terrain, her father has cultivated enough bamboo to act as a barrier, a green wall that won’t let the poison through. The son of farmers himself, Christian Lydick has spent more than two decades experimenting at his small, ornamental plant nursery with different species of bamboo that can stand up to Imperial County’s punishing heat and degraded soil. Lydick commissioned herself early to continue those experiments at a much larger scale. Solidly Gen Z and fully expecting a warming world to deliver more eco-mayhem, she’s become fascinated with bamboo’s ability to grow up fast and tough in apocalyptic conditions. 

“Think of bamboo like a leather daddy,” she told me the first time we spoke. “It loves abuse.” 

On a late-spring afternoon in 2019, Lydick and a 33-year-old urban planner named Christopher Velasco loaded up his truck bed with four, 15-gallon pots of Punting Pole bamboo, a pickaxe and a shovel. They drove a few miles from the nursery to Calexico, where Velasco had a dirt alley behind his house that, along with the county’s typical dust storms, was coating his backyard in particulate matter he figured was probably making it into his lungs as well. He wanted to try using bamboo as a shield. 

They started digging out back together in the high-bake sun and realized pretty fast that Velasco’s backyard was essentially rocks and pieces of busted-up old concrete with some silt holding it all together. 

“I’m a big guy, but Lauren out-passed me,” Velasco said. “She made me feel old.”  

LEFT: Lauren Lydick, 23, grew up at her parents’ bamboo nursery in Imperial County, California, and has devoted herself to planting more. RIGHT: Urban planner Christopher Velasco has proposed that the city of Calexico plant bamboo green walls to protect residents from some of the worst air pollution in the country. Credit: Audrey Gray

Four punishing hours later, they finally got the plants in, and Lydick taught Velasco how to keep the young bamboo fertilized and irrigated. She promised him the root system would catch on in what she called that “shitty dirt,” and sure enough, in just over a year, he saw his skinny bamboo plants shoot up 10 feet and fill in, a verdant picket fence between Velasco and the dust. 

Trained at Columbia University, Velasco had been thinking about Calexico’s struggles with excessive heat, air pollution, double-the-state-average asthma rates (now exacerbating Covid infections) and the big specter: climate change amping everything up. Suddenly last spring, his backyard green wall felt like a prototype, and he doubled down researching the properties of bamboo. What if hundreds of plants were set up as sentries instead of only four? What if they were put between the dusty banks of the city’s most polluted waterway, the New River, and the local kids’ ball field? He studied bamboo’s heat mitigation and air filtering properties, but what really got him was the plant’s ability to quickly sequester at least double—some scientists say even six times—the amount of carbon as a similar stand of trees. Here he was in California, a state with funding available to implement Climate Actions Plans. What if he had in bamboo a salve that could be applied immediately? 

Velasco wrote up a “Calexico Green Infrastructure” funding proposal with four green wall projects, starting with the installation of 60 bamboo plants just past the home run fence of the baseball field. He targeted an EPA “airshed grant” (which he didn’t get) and various state committees, intent on securing enough funding to plant his bamboo barrier in 2021. 

“There’s just so much potential right here,” Velasco said. “And it could be a catalyst for all the parts of the world who need it.”  

Bamboo nursery owner Christian Lydick propagating desert-hardy species of bamboo in Imperial County, California, where summer temperatures often top 110 degrees. Credit: Audrey Gray
Bamboo nursery owner Christian Lydick propagating desert-hardy species of bamboo in Imperial County, California, where summer temperatures often top 110 degrees. Credit: Audrey Gray

Back at the Lydick’s nursery, Lydick and her dad spent their business-crushing 2020 propagating what they felt would be the best, hardiest species to manifest Velasco’s vision. There’s a benefit to a bamboo plant starting its life in the exact same climate where it will be put into action, and they’ll need a farm team of viable shoots to meet the project’s demand. No one’s seen any money yet, and at $150 a plant, they won’t get rich if and when the funding comes through, but to Lydick, this work has always transcended profit margins. 

“2050 is closer than 1980, and 2050 is when the earth is supposed to be on fire and everything is fucked,” she said. “For me, this is pretty much life and death.” 

Fifteen-gallon pots of “bambusa clumpers” at the Lydick family nursery, cultivated to lower the temperature and suppress toxic dust in the city of Calexico. Credit: Audrey Gray

A Solution in Sinks

In 2014, Paul Hawken, an enviro-activist and the author of the 2007 climate classic, Blessed Unrest,  founded a nonprofit organization, Project Drawdown, and later published a global analysis of exactly which climate “solutions” had the best chance of slowing down the death march of global warming. It catalogued many ways to arrest carbon emissions, not ignoring the environmental impacts of racial equity and better education for women. The word drawdown was Hawken’s vision for a time when we could stop the incessant puffing of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere and start clearing up that same airspace, sucking heat-trappers back down and sequestering them long enough to give the Earth a chance to regulate its own temperature again. 

I liked the name for those sucking-down solutions: sinks. 

Climate scientists will tell you that reducing carbon emissions needs to be the human priority right now. They’re not wrong. The emissions are the biggest bleeder in Earth’s triage condition. But the sad reality is that if we allow the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere to stay put, many people, animals and ecosystems will die before their time. It’s already begun. But the Drawdown research got me thinking less about lamenting and more about best next steps. Humanity’s chance is not over yet, and we’re not without resources: there are a lot of us, and nature is instructively self-healing.  

By late spring, I was obsessively researching carbon sinks and trying to find people across North America who were going all-in on the sink of their choice, like greening abandoned farmland or protecting super-wet landscapes. In a fortunate piece of timing, Hawken’s team released a spring 2020 update to their climate solutions list, The Drawdown Review. A big chunk of it was about sinks, ranked by gigatons (to picture that: one gigaton of carbon dioxide would fill a billion bathtubs). My eyes searched the dozens of top-ranking sinks—the big one is tropical forest protection— and landed curiously on bamboo. 

Bamboo. It was one of my lingering childhood memories, a bamboo plot maybe half a block wide that had grown up next to a creek near my family’s apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia. I remember finding paths into that green fortress padded down by previous kids. It felt like you were in a safe maze, with small clearings here and there for hideouts. I remember the glittering light. 

Bamboo, The Drawdown Review reported, could turn degraded land (abandoned farms, landfills, old mining sites and more) into a ranking carbon sink. Bamboo production hit a top-76 solutions lists at No. 21, with the potential to sequester as much as 21.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years if it’s planted aggressively (think: 400 million football fields’ worth of degraded land around the globe)

It wasn’t the entire answer, I knew, but it was intriguing, mostly because so few people were talking about it. I started making calls and asking scientists and materials researchers about the pros and cons of cultivating huge swaths of bamboo. I learned that like most “climate solutions,” it was tricky—the plant required a lot of management to net out a carbon savings. But the added long-term sequestering benefit of replacing high-carbon building materials like cement or steel with bamboo composites veered back into the “worth it” column. I began to pinpoint the people on this continent who were the most serious about making attempts.

When pandemic lockdown restrictions began to lift in early June, I bought the first vehicle I’d owned in two decades. Masked, cautious and relieved to be out of the house, I Google-mapped a path across the country, set to explore an under-reported, viable sink and the quirky, near-secret society of people who believe in it. I had an unspoken hope they might let me wander alone in the bamboo at some point, imagining how it would feel to sequester myself, 18 percent  carbon as we all are, deep in the groves again. 

Project Drawdown estimates that bamboo production on abandoned or degraded land could sequester as much as 21.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. Credit: Audrey Gray

“It Does Have Its Superpowers”

Bamboo has a reputation problem in North America, registering in the collective imagination somewhere between tiki torches and a pain-in-the-ass invasive that’s threatening to take over both your yard and the neighbor’s too. Americans seem comfortable as long it’s relegated to a small area with a tightly controlled perimeter, performing its elegant role as a niche ornamental. 

But that’s not the way bamboo grows on other parts of the planet. Given sway, bamboo’s roots will move intelligently toward water, and when many bamboo species (there are over 1,500) find a good place, they will mature into a true phenomenon: a fast-growing forest. 

Emphasis on fast. In Japan, researchers clocked a Phyllostachys edulis growing 47.6 inches in one day. Over the last year, as the world has watched its timber forests eaten alive by wildfires, the idea of a replacement, carbon-thirsty forest that could grow to full maturity in a decade rather than a century is incredibly compelling to scientists desperately seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before we trip more global warming feedback loops. As Virginia Tech bamboo materials researcher Jonas Hauptman put it, “It grows so damn fast, you can sort of stop the clock.” 

Conservationist Bronson Griscom, who authored a landmark paper on “natural climate solutions” in 2017 and has planted bamboo in his own Virginia backyard, notes that while bamboo can suck carbon into its elaborate root system at a rate faster than many trees for a decade or two, a forest of native trees will catch up and outpace the sequestering potential of bamboo over a century or two. 

“I wouldn’t point to bamboo for long-term carbon storage, but it does have its superpowers,” said Griscom. He favors it as a replacement for high-emissions building products, like steel or plastic pipes.  

Scientists who’ve studied the carbon thirst of bamboo stands in other parts of the world, like Dr. Changhui Peng, report that sequestering success depends on how well suited a species is to its site and how well the plot is managed—bamboo forests perform better if they are regularly trimmed and thinned.  If humans are looking to bamboo as a powerful carbon sink, the consensus suggests, they need to commit to sensitive site-species matchmaking and an enduring, high-touch relationship. 

In many cultures, that symbiosis has long been a given. The Japanese word for new shoots is takenoko, “bamboo kids”—partly because it has such an interconnected root system (bamboo is technically a grass) and partly because it’s considered family. For millions of people around the world, bamboo offers a living.  You don’t harvest a bamboo grove all at once, you go through and hand-cut the culms that are thick and ready, about a quarter of a grove each year. This is good for the grove, it gives the takenoko some space to thrive, but even better for the growers. The global marketplace for bamboo reached $72 billion in 2019, with demand rising steadily. The number of uses for the stuff when processed feels endless: you can wear it, eat it, live in it, and get drunk on it. Bamboo fibers mixed into biocomposites act like plastic—you can 3D print with it. Sliced thin and laminated, you can use bamboo like wood for flooring, siding, or replacing railroad ties. It’s even disrupted a timber-based product that once seemed inviolable: toilet paper. 

Pacific Asian nations reap the majority of bamboo industry revenue, with Africa and South America increasingly finding their own market share. But there’s no ecological reason why North America is stuck in the role of importer. At least three species of bamboo are native to the United States (in earlier centuries, people called it “cane”), and many other species, including Moso, the type of bamboo in most consumer products, have a happy grow-zone across the South. If bamboo could bring in significant revenue as a crop, help revive abandoned farmland, and provide an immediate carbon sink, why wouldn’t Americans at least give it a substantial shot?

Drinking the “Boo Juice”

Alabama knows Marsha Folsom, the former state first lady, is trying. On a 100-degree day last June, Folsom threw a slew of bamboo product samples in her black patent leather bag, tossed it in the back of her Lexus, and drove downstate to meet me at a truck stop in Eutaw, Alabama, 90 miles south of Birmingham. From there, we made our way along 20 minutes of back roads to Resource Fiber, a 100-acre nursery that’s currently the largest bamboo growing operation in North America. Folsom and her business partners call it “the genesis of the domestic bamboo supply chain.” 

Folsom steered us off-road—“That’s what us country girls do,” she said as I laughed and put my hand on the dashboard for ballast—guiding her white car over dirt clods far back into a former corn field that now hosts 2 million proof-of-concept plants. Once we’d completely lost sight of anything but bamboo, she cut the engine and stepped out. Folsom had on a big sunhat, a crisp, striped button-down layered over white capris, and sandals. She looked small and neat compared to the tall thicket around us. Folsom bushwhacked her way a few feet back among the stalks, placed her hand around a lime-green culm and looked up. 

It was quiet. I saw her take some deep breaths through her mask. 

“There’s a certain zen, a peacefulness out here in the bamboo,” she said. “I don’t know why it speaks to me, but it does. I drank the boo juice.” 

Marsha Folsom, the former first lady of Alabama, deep in the “Rubro” groves at Resource Fiber in Eutaw, Alabama. Credit: Audrey Gray

Folsom is a natural salesperson—smiling-eyed, smart, and ready with one-liners. She started Resource Fiber 10 years ago with David and Ann Knight, two West Coast green business entrepreneurs who’d pioneered the U.S. bamboo flooring industry, sourcing from China. The Knights are based in Seattle. Folsom is the one on the ground in what used to be Alabama’s cotton country, once the epicenter of enslavement, sharecropping and Jim Crow injustices. That history is not something Folsom avoids addressing. When her husband Jim Folsom Jr. was governor in the 1990s, their family received death threats after he directed that confederate flags be removed from the state capitol building. As a young adult, Marsha Folsom worked for the Red Cross in rural West Alabama and was moved by the survival instincts of farm workers whose families never left the area. Nothing ever really replaced “King Cotton” in the region, only poverty, and Folsom spent many years looking for something that could be redemptive. Bamboo cultivation felt to her like a bullseye. 

“Growing things is natural for this community,” she said. “If we do this right, it could be good for people, the planet, and for profit.” 

Resource Fiber’s business plan is to grow bamboo for industrial uses only, products like biocomposites that can replace petroleum-based plastics, and “bamboo nail laminated timber” (BNLT), that low-carbon structural alternative to steel or concrete. Since they’re raising bamboo for its substance, not its looks, they’ve concentrated on species best suited for fiber: skinny and scrappy Phyllostachys rubromarginata, and the taller, wider-culmed Phyllostachys edulis. “Rubro” and “Moso” for short. With significant personal investment, the founders planted 17,000 bamboo plants in 2014 and 6,000 more a year later, hoping a successful performance would be enough to convince local farmers to join them in the effort. The Rubro caught on quicker than the Moso, but both species were able to thrive in the Alabama climate with very little irrigation and no chemical fertilizer whatsoever. 

Resource Fiber offered mature bamboo plants to local farmers for the first time in 2020. They created a “Preferred Farmer Program,” asking landowners to purchase the plants and commit to growing a minimum of 100 acres. In exchange, Resource Fiber guaranteed the farmers a marketplace for the bamboo fiber when the groves were ready to be harvested, a quarter of the grove per year, with a profit margin that was better than corn or soy beans. And they promised to help farmers, many of whom still believe bamboo is an invasive nuisance, keep the stalks from spreading beyond set perimeters. 

Not one Alabama farmer has taken them up on their offer. 

“Farmers are good business people,” Folsom said, footnoting the frustration about what she calls “the delay” with understanding. Alabama farmers are generally watch-and-wait when it comes to specialty crops, and currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not classify bamboo as a crop at all, which means there’s little starter loan money available from farm credit groups. Folsom believes the farmers just need more proof that a 100-acre gamble would pay off, so she and the Knights plan to establish a factory in the area to begin making bamboo timbers and rail ties. 

“I think the big ah-ha moment will be the manufacturing facility. They’ll see the fiber put to use right away and understand there’s a good market for this,” Folsom said. 

My first thought when I heard this was, “Another delay.” Not as business analysis—green entrepreneurs who can play the long game often have breakthroughs long after others would have given up—but because I was deeply aware of a simpler metric: the carbon sink potential of this one field with its 2 million ready-to-multiply bamboo plants was extraordinary. And it was ready to go—so ready, in fact, that Resource Fiber added the sale of carbon offsets to its revenue model, pledging to share that profit with partner farmers. The only thing standing in the way of bamboo was attitude.

More than 13 species of bamboo planted seven years ago on Daphne Lewis’s Georgia research farm have flourished, thanks in part to regular doses of llama poop. Credit: Audrey Gray

Solving a Complex Puzzle

On Wednesday mornings, Georgia bamboo farmer Daphne Lewis, who is 79, drives four miles to a neighbor’s exotic animal ranch to fill her weathered van with llama poop. 

“It’s a routine, like going to church,” she told me as we headed over last summer, masked and with the windows rolled down.  

Lewis and her right-hand farm worker Darryl Thomas had promised it wouldn’t smell as bad as you might expect on our trip back. Thomas had done some research on the internet and found that llama poop is the best fertilizer you can get. 

“Rabbits’ was second,” he said. 

Lewis and I pulled into the driveway of the ranch, past two, snow-white peacocks and a Trump sign tied to a fence—typical for that part of Georgia—that read No more bullshit

LEFT: Daphne Lewis is on a personal mission to provide American farmers with all the intel they need to cultivate bamboo at scale. “I don’t have time to die,” she said. RIGHT: The entrance to Daphne Lewis’s research farm in Pulaski County, Georgia, an anomaly in a region known for its pecan orchards. Credit: Audrey Gray

Waiting for us were seven plastic concrete-mixing trays full of firm brown pellets. We stacked them in the back of the van. And it was true, llama poop smells like dirt and warm hay, as if you’d wandered into a sunny barn. We spent the rest of the morning spreading those pellets at the base of bamboo culms, a slow-motion meal for the flourishing groves Lewis has been husbanding, mostly alone, on her flourishing farm

A Wellesley-educated, liberal landscape designer and author, Lewis moved to Perry, Georgia—a rural community 100 miles south of Atlanta—when she was 70, believing that she had one last shot to do something she considered essential for an ailing planet: prove to American farmers that they could and should grow bamboo. 

“I think it’s a save-the-Earth kind of plant,” she said. “The hard-core bamboo people know about ecological impact. I’m as hard core as they come.” 

Lewis had raised a family in Seattle, but she was drawn to Perry after talking to a bamboo collector and businessman, Robbie Russell, at an American Bamboo Society conference. He was glad to meet Lewis because he’d admired a book she co-authored in 2007, Farming Bamboo, one of the only guides to bamboo cultivation in North America. He invited her to come have a look at 10 acres of experimental groves where he’d planted 75 different bamboo varieties over the years. Lewis had done most of her research with younger plants, the kind you find in nurseries. She was dying to study more mature stands because, frankly, she was worried she wouldn’t live long enough to raise her own. 

Lewis landed in Perry in 2010, rented a house from Russell, and set out exploring the old groves. What she found was no silver-bullet climate solution, but a complex puzzle—some varieties were thriving and sending up new shoots, others were diseased, rotted or close to it. As she wandered through decaying groves, she wondered, “How much carbon are they sequestering when they are dying like this?” Lewis spent two years clearing out some of the dead stuff and applying different types of organic fertilizer to see if she could revive the weaker plants, recording data as she went along. She was learning which species made the most sense in that climate, and she began to formulate theories about how proximity to water and soil-warming direct sunlight could make or break an acclimated grove.

In 2011, Lewis’s elderly mother passed away, leaving her an inheritance. For the first time in her life, Lewis had the funding to do bamboo research the way she’d always wanted. And what she wanted most was to plant what were, in her opinion, the 13 best species suited to that latitude. She’d offer those baby bamboo plants just-the-right conditions according to her research: the perfect irrigation, fertilizer, weed management and grove-thinning. Gone were her fears about not living long enough to see the project through. 

“I’ll have to stay in shape,” she remembers thinking. “I don’t have time to die.”

A dog trainer friend recommended a piece of land about 30 minutes from Perry, near an old cotton town called Hawkinsville. As soon as her mother’s estate cleared, Lewis bought the land, built a single-wide trailer home for herself in the center of it, and set about designing the farm of her dreams: rectangular plots of bamboo crisscrossed with access alleys and intersected with elegance  by a long, winding driveway. 

By the time I turned into that driveway six years later, it looked like a fairy-tunnel, flanked by bamboo stalks as tall as houses. Lewis had invited me to spend four days on the farm working alongside her and Thomas as they tended the groves and made attempts to transform the crop into things Lewis could sell, from charcoal and edible shoots to shiny fence poles. We started early every morning but took an apples-and-cheese snack break at 11 a.m., a de facto strategy meeting for Lewis and Thomas. Maintaining hearty bamboo stands takes a rather massive amount of culling, hauling and perimeter patrol. Lewis chops, digs and lugs every bit as much as 50-year-old Thomas, but they have to work smart to endure the marathon grind. Thomas is a retired marine—he’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan leading helicopter maintenance teams. His face has one setting: stoic. He doesn’t need the money he makes on the bamboo farm. 

“I got trapped here,” he said. “The only fun part of bamboo is not having any at my property.”  

Retired U.S. Marine Darryl Thomas, who used to manage helicopter maintenance in Afghanistan, is the can-do inventor behind Daphne Lewis’s experiments with bamboo cultivation in Georgia. Credit: Audrey Gray

And yet, he’s kept coming back to work with Lewis, partly because he admires how the woman had no quit in her and partly because the farm gives him myriad opportunities to invent: he rigged a machine to make bamboo charcoal out of 10-dollar oil barrels. He used old cinder blocks, chicken wire and a propane blowtorch to create a mini-manufacturing system for firing and polishing a glamour-species of ebony black bamboo. 

“You know I’ve never done this before, right?” he said one morning after I’d hung around him asking a lot of questions. “But somehow I’ve become an expert.”

The fact is, Lewis and Thomas are some of the most qualified experts the American bamboo industry has.  Lewis has created a How To Plant vertical on her website, and serves on the American Bamboo Society’s panel of regional cultivators who can recommend species for each U.S. growing zone. Her vision is for every farmer in America to at least consider bamboo, even if it’s just on an abandoned corner of their property and used to feed livestock, who love munching the leaves. The carbon impact could be cumulative, she figures. At this point, everything counts. 

In the afternoons after work was done, I was free to walk the farm alone with a one-page site plan Lewis had made mapping each species. Those walks—through the fat Vivax, the famous Moso, Henon swaying like a feathery carwash and Tanaka arched in buttresses like a cathedral with a lime-green poof for a roof—made me think that if beauty alone was enough to convince Americans to grow bamboo, we’d have forests again instead of cornfields. Beauty has taken a backseat to survival since the pandemic, though, so the arguments for this particular sink have to be more pointed: we need fast-growing sequesterers that can beat the carbon clock, and we have plenty of degraded, abandoned land that could host bamboo farms and turn out building products that would significantly reduce carbon emissions. Would it take work? A ton of it. Does work mean jobs? It does indeed. Everybody has to work at something. Why not life? 

Bamboo researcher Daphne Lewis calls bamboo a “save-the-Earth kind of plant.” Credit: Audrey Gray

Changing the Salton Sea’s “Degraded Destiny”

Lauren Lydick and her best friend, Cameron Leslie, were drunk on Buzzballs (vodka cocktails packaged in plastic, for the uninitiated) and standing on the shore of the Salton Sea one night last June, debating whether or not to get in.  

The Salton Sea is one of the weirdest engineering accidents in the United States, a giant lake that was created when some poorly planned irrigation canals busted and flooded in 1905, diverting the Colorado River into a desert valley that sits atop the San Andreas Fault. The valley filled up with fresh water first and then, over decades, with the foulest runoff in the West. It was like a final-destination bathtub where raw sewage and pesticides went to fester. The saline levels in the Salton Sea are now about 60 parts per thousand, about double that of typical ocean water, and the bottom of the lake is layered with settled poisons like arsenic. 

Still, Lydick and Leslie had grown up in Imperial County and were used to all its threats. And they had a mission that late, buzzed night in Bombay Beach, one of the Salton Sea’s steampunk shore towns: an installation artist had placed an old-fashioned mailbox about 25 feet out in the water, and they were dying to find out what, if anything, was in it. 

Game, if unsteady, and determined to stay as dry as they could, Lydick and Leslie rolled up their jeans and waded out. The lake bottom was bizarrely crunchy from decades of mineral deposits but the water was fairly shallow the entire way, just up over their knees. The mailbox did hold a surprise: a small package of hard candy in the shape of penises. 

“It’s dick candy!” They screamed, laughing. “And what did you expect?” 

Making a judicious decision to not eat it, Lydick and Leslie shut the mailbox, splashed back to shore and shot selfies commemorating their courage. 

They told me this story at the Bombay Beach American Legion Post 801, where Leslie works as a bartender. It was July 22, and the temperature gauge on my dashboard had read “112 Outside” as I pulled up. The air in Imperial County was so smoggy that day—and this was before California’s 2020 wildfires had really started—that you couldn’t see the Chocolate Mountain range just a few miles in the distance. Lydick had her inhaler on hand. 

They’d asked me to meet them at the bar because they wanted to talk somewhere out of the beating sun before we headed over to the shore. The Salton Sea is receding rapidly, they told me, a result of year-round heightened temperatures because of climate change and a government decision to reroute fresh water from the Colorado River away from the area toward more populated cities. As the sea evaporates, the toxic bottom is exposed to the sun and to the wind, which picks up the dehydrated chemicals and disperses them in a new generation of dust storms. 

Cameron Leslie, the bartender at American Legion Post 801 in Bombay Beach, California, said she has no patience for climate defeatists: “If we don’t try, nothing is going to change.” Credit: Audrey Gray

Leslie locked up the bar and we drove a half mile—it was too hot to walk it—to the spot on the beach where Lydick and Leslie had waded out in June. The sandy shore along the lake was a soft gray threaded with white stripes of decaying barnacles and fish skeletons. It got crunchier the closer we got to the water, and from what I could see, the bottom of the lake looked something like those bleached coral reefs where all that’s left is a scummy film over pale carcasses. 

“Look, those are our footprints!” shouted Leslie. And I could see them, preserved, an underwater trail to the metal mailbox poking up out of the lake a few yards away. 

“This is crazy,” said Lydick, showing me how the water had receded at least four feet since June. It looked significantly shallower to them too. What had come up above their knees as they waded out that night now looked to be only ankle-deep. The speed of the Salton Sea’s retreat was freaking them out. They stood speechless for a bit, sweating. 

Before my trip, I’d read a proposal Lydick and her father had submitted to the county offering to plant a ring of bamboo groves around the Salton Sea. They believed it could hold down the dust and provide a new, safer habitat for the birds and other playa critters who’d been tough enough to survive thus far. They used a phrase in that proposal I’d never forgotten, lamenting the ecosystem’s “degraded destiny.” 

The mailbox art installation just offshore from Bombay Beach in the Salton Sea, the fast-evaporating polluted lake that Lydick and Leslie waded into last June. Credit: Audrey Gray

I stood on the beach behind these two 20-somethings considering their destiny too, all the battles ahead of them. Here they were, clued into climate change and living in a place that seems like a precursor to a warmer world’s worst impacts. 

Lydick told me once that her first memory was sitting next to her mother in front of the television on 9/11, watching people jump from the towers. She was barely 4. 

“Our whole lives have been a shit show, pretty much,” she said of her generation. “We’ve got to figure it out somehow.” 

Lydick and Leslie are planning their own installation this winter at Bombay Beach, a Tiki Hut fashioned from desert-compatible bamboo. Lydick is already growing the canes they’ll use for the A-frame.

Do they believe bamboo is the full-scale solution to Imperial County’s problems, or the world’s problems? No, and Lydick’s answer when friends give them a hard time about the futility of small acts in the face of planetary crisis is direct: “We all need to fuckin’ do something, no matter what it is. What are we going to do, just roll over and die?” Any number of bamboo, they reason, is better than the barrenness before them.  

Audrey Gray is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist focused on climate shifts, environmental restoration and equitable design.