Dorcas Haynes Birchim
Anyone around Independence and Lone Pine during the 1960’s would no doubt fondly remember Dorcas “toodling” around town in her green 1957 Austin Healy with the top down. Her cherished little Border Collie, Patsy, perched precariously on the “boot,” leaning into turns and nipping at passing cars. Onlookers not familiar with the strange sight would gaze in disbelief and delight.
Dorcas was born Dec. 9, 1923 in Danville, Ind. As a young girl, she would visit her grandparents’ farm always in anticipation of receiving the small piles of “funny papers” her grandma Minerva lovingly stowed away for her. Hidden away in a quiet place, Dorcas spent hours drawing from the comics as accurately as she could.
These funny papers were her prized possessions as a young child. She often expressed gratitude for her grandmother, knowing that her artistic roots were planted then and continued to grow throughout her life.
Dorcas’ family left Indiana and she spent the majority of her youth in El Segundo and in Mammoth Lakes. Her family spent summers in Mammoth at the Haynes family cabin built by her father which stands today and is still in use. Here she became acquainted with her future husband, James L. Birchim, whose family had pioneered in the Owens Valley since the early 1800’s.
In 1941 Dorcas graduated from El Segundo High School with honors and in 1987 was honored in their “Hall of Fame” for outstanding artistic achievements. Dorcas went on to study at UCLA, where she was an academic honored Phi Beta Kappa majoring in psychology. She left her studies at UCLA to join World War II and served in the U.S. Marine Corps. While in the service she married James Birchim, a navigator in the B-24. In the late 1940’s Dorcas and James moved back to the Owens Valley and raised their four children, James, Russell, Kenneth and Jean. Making their homes in the towns of Independence and Bishop.
In each of the houses Dorcas made into homes, there was always the faint smell of oil paint, turpentine, books and coffee. Many people would come to visit with Dorcas at her kitchen table. Intellectuals, artists, housewives, friends, family and the forlorn were invited to sit once the clutter of art works in process, books and magazines were cleared from the chairs and table tops. She could console, advise, converse and entertain on any subject from relationships to world politics to quantum physics. She had a relaxed freedom about her and a clever sense of humor that allowed her guests to be listened to, laughed with and to stay for hours sipping the coffee she offered.
Dorcas’ contribution to others extended into her work as a social/welfare worker, a tutor for academically challenged children, a high school substitute teacher and as an art teacher for children and adults.
As a self-taught artist, Dorcas continued to paint, draw and sculpt through her mothering and working years. Her need to create was insatiable. She would stay up all night with her radio blasting KPFK or opera, smoking dainty cigars and painting on large canvases. Dorcas passionately recognized the need for art and culture in her community. She single-handedly created the “Inyo Council for the Arts,” diligently writing grants and appealing to the Board of Supervisors. This organization still actively supports the arts of Inyo County.
Dorcas fervently loved books and she was never without, as she would say, “something to read” and read she did. One admirer nick-named her home “The Dorcasonian,” because she had books about anything and everything. She never forgot any book she owned and could put her hands on any one of them no matter how deeply she had to dig to retrieve it. She always kept several copies of “The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and “Wind in the Willows,” which she read to her children and grandchildren throughout their childhoods. If her family needed to find her, they could call the Bishop Public Library and more than likely she would be there.
In the spring of 1970, Dorcas, with her business partner, Patty (Lloyd) Rowbottom, started the much loved, “Spellbinder Books,” which is still a hot spot on Bishop’s Main Street today.
Dorcas’ eldest son, James, was a Captain in the Green Berets during the Vietnam War. He was lost in 1968 during a recon mission and listed as POW/MIA. Dorcas never recovered from the tragedy and in lieu of her loss, she joined the fight to end the Vietnam War.
Dorcas eventually purchased a house in Round Valley on Birchim Lane where she planted a weeping willow and hand dug a little pond in the front yard. Her daughter remembers stopping by the little home, to find her mother donning gloves up to her elbows, wearing a pair of oversized safety goggles, tin snips in hand and cutting a huge hole in the metal siding her house so she could see the beautiful view of Round Valley and the surrounding mountains. Over the years she continued to cut more holes in her little house and built “pop outs” with windows and sky lights that always leaked. Instead of hanging curtains, she used her own paintings as window shades. It was a house creatively lived in and warmed by a wood burning stove that boiled water and cooked pancakes, comforting family through difficult times and offering absolute magic to her young grandchildren.
Living in Round Valley, Dorcas began to recognize the suffering of the plants and trees due to the lack of water and made it her personal mission to steward the land. She took on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to stop their excessive pumping of the ground water in the Owens Valley. To support this effort Dorcas started, “Friends of the Owens Valley,” a community organization made of up of individuals who wished to see the land verdant and thriving. She sold her beloved 1957 Austin Healy to help fund the effort. It was a long, hard fight that created a valuable awareness in the community, but ultimately it ended without success. It pained her greatly to watch the trees and bushes in the valley suffer and die.
In the spirit of her desire for unfettered views of the valley, she bought her next car, also a convertible, a 1973 canary yellow Volkswagen Thing. She would fill the back seat with her easel, watercolors, drawing gear, camera, the ever present binoculars, a can of deluxe mixed nuts, sometimes a grandchild or two and happily ventured out onto the land to paint, draw and be with the wildlife of the Owens Valley.
As a professional fine artist of diverse mediums, Dorcas has been honored time and again locally and through prominent art books and showings in the prestigious Saddleback Inn Art Gallery in Arizona. She was an intelligent, compassionare, talented and unique woman. She was a environmental activist, a mentor, a naturalist, an eloquent writer, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother and a devoted friend.
Dorcas Haynes Birchim passed peacefully in her sleep on Sept. 4, 2012, in her beloved Owens Valley at the age of 88. She was the daughter of Russell and Blanche Haynes and the younger sister to Bud Haynes.
Dorcas is tenderly remembered by four loving children, eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, her numerous friends, the old cottonwood tree in the middle of Birchim Lane and one little red dog.
Her extraordinary devotion to life, art and the life of an artist, made all of our lives more meaningful. She will be missed, but no doubt, heaven has improved immeasurably.
“I’ll never not remember you, ever.”
– Winnie the Pooh
In lieu of flowers, contributions to the arts can be made to the “Dorcas Birchim Scholarship Fund” for young artists and writers.
Donations can be made or sent to the Dorcas Birchim Scholarship Fund set up at Eastern Sierra Community Bank, 351 Main St., P.O. Box 817, Bishop, CA 93514
A Celebration of Life for Dorcas Birchim will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at Spellbinder Books, 124 S. Main St. in Bishop
For further information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.