Month: July 2022

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Interspecies Assemblage: The San Gabriel Valley through the lens of Jesús Romo

Text by Daniel Talamantes, photos by Jesús Romo

“Riding the River”

Taking Shape of the River

“In it, you realize the river has no shape,” reflects Jesús Romo on his photo, “Riding in the River.” The photo depicts a pair of vaqueros wading through a tributary in Whittier Narrows. Above the horses’ cannon, water splashes above their knees, infusing motion in the still. Twilight eclipses a vaquero’s greeting hand and sombrero as his riding partner advances toward us—or is he following Jesús Romo? Ripples, ephemera, trace the contours of Jesús Romo’s ghost in the water out of frame as he puts the scene in focus. The patina of ordered ripples contrasts with the shoreline brush of shadowy chaos.

“Riding in the River,” though taken recently, feels like it belongs in another place and time. The photo conjures modalities in movement, of diaspora, and an environmental legacy that were once ubiquitous in the region, but now reduced to a rare and confined natural space. Wilderness and vaqueros elicit a pathos or melancholic reflection of what could have been. While the photo may hint toward a better depiction of the San Gabriel Valley’s natural setting, it does not necessarily portray the accurate social history of Mexican and Latinx communities. Still, it shows how vaqueros or vaqueras have gained success in claiming public space and reclaiming Mexican presence in the San Gabriel Valley.

What remains of Whittier Narrows is only a hint of what the region used to be. As David Reid in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte writes, “[Whittier Narrows] ensured the survival of some 400 acres of forest, lakes, trails, lawns, and soccer fields… preserved a link to the Whittier Narrows area’s history and to the natural world… and offers the first taste of the natural world to many locals.”1 Always under threat of development, Whittier Narrows, cleaved and siloed by the 60 freeway, 605 freeway, and Rosemead Boulevard remains a site of natural wonder, preservation, and recreation for the surrounding communities of Avocado Heights, El Monte, South El Monte, and La Puente, among others.

“Riding in the Narrows”

The oneiric quality of Whittier Narrows is troubled by the waking reality of the Whittier Narrow Dam. Despite community efforts to preserve Whittier Narrows by relocating the dam further down the river, the dam ultimately punctuates the city and county’s priority for energy extraction and management. But there’s a great irony here: the county’s erection of the dam had arguably secured Whittier Narrow’s survival. This is an important consideration. It evinces this space as an example of a contested site of culture and power. The dam becomes a metonym for industrial control and extraction of diaspora’s flow. Just beyond the frame, a titanic urban landscape lurks. It encroaches. Matrices of roads and freeways, telephone wires, and pipes fasten to strangulate the veritable island of wilderness. Waste facilities, manufacturing plants, and distribution centers leech pollutants into streams and soil. The air over it so thick of smog can be noisome of sulfur, ammonia, rubber, or other strands of toxic fumes.

“Trail ride with Esteban and company”

In winter, without any other form of access or way to bridge neighboring communities, Jesús Romo explains that the tributaries are the only passable trails connecting this natural corridor to his community of Avocado Heights, until they are too deep to traverse. Auto industries, waste facilities, and housing developments converted a rich agricultural and natural landscape into grids of pavement, fences, pipes, and wires. Avocado Heights, among many surrounding communities, became what city planner scholar William Fulton refers to as the “suburbs of extraction,” where Latinx individuals, despite attaining political power, struggle in economic scarcity to access resources and fund public services.2 Furthering this, scholar Laura R. Barraclough writes in Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity, suburbs of extraction like the many in San Gabriel Valley, “[find] themselves empty-handed, with few strategies available beyond luring businesses such as casinos, pawn shops, and scrap metal recycling yards—all of which…extract any remaining wealth from already-disinvested sources.”3          

“Employee at feed store near Sports Arena”

Situated between the Puente Hills, California canyons and Whittier Narrows, Avocado Heights is an unincorporated neighborhood east of the 605 freeway and just north of the San Jose Creek which feeds into the San Gabriel River. The town’s population remains approximately fifteen thousand people, yet it is surrounded by much larger cities such as City of Industry, La Puente, El Monte, South El Monte, and adjacent to a constellation of other unincorporated communities such as Bassett and North Whittier. A distinct feature of Avocado Heights is its designation as an equestrian district which traces its legacy to the vaqueros of early Californio’s and Mexico—of which hold a vast majority of the demographics. And while Avocado Heights has a prominent identity and agency of its own, its characteristics are as interpretable as the river.

“Rancho Jimenez”

“Mis tíos”

Wading through the river, vaqueros interact with assemblages of making and being. Contested sites, specific histories, and cultural exchanges emerge and submerge in expression of power and resistance. Though we can abstract histories and narratives from the photo, “Riding in the River” is material. The photograph is now a part of Whittier Narrows’ ecology. It is a fragment of the location, both as a living portal and as artifact. It would not exist if not for its historical contingency. Despite attempts at cultural erasure or despite the elision from regional, state, or national narratives, Avocado Heights is immutable. Photographs expose. They are taken, putting moments, people, and places into focus.

“Colitas”

Transnational Desfile

“Community desfile”
“la paseada patron saint festival in Avocado Heights”

“Community desfile” and “la paseada patron saint festival AH style” are celebrations of the patron saint festival, La Paseada. Celebrated in Avocado Heights annually, this is the second biggest event in Avocado Heights Park after the Easter celebration. Romo says, “Starting a few years ago after a group of different families in the area formed an association to raise money and connect with their loved ones back home by several individuals who were undocumented and unable to visit their home communities.” The organizers of the event originate from Las Palmas, Jalisco and like most patron saint festivals, these are religious celebrations that coincide with the whole community having the week off.

The celebration in Las Palmas is known for having a large cabalgata to inaugurate the event, Romo continues, “Given that this is horse country, we all join in their festivities in the Avocado Heights version as if we are there in Las Palmas for the week.” Along with the tamborazo, a reina usually carries the American and Mexican flag while following an altar containing the patron saint. The Independence celebrations in Yahualica, Jalisco are on September 16, 2016. The celebrations in Avocado Heights and among the equestrian community, at times, closely resemble the celebrations in Mexico.

“Industry Expo feria de caballo español”

It is not uncommon for the escaramuzas and charros of the San Gabriel Valley to compete with some frequency down in Mexico, or to attend an annual coleadero at their ranch, and then to come back to the US and give an update to their family and group of friends about the latest community gossip, who’s the leading equestrian athlete, and what musical group headlined the event.  For being a relatively small neighborhood, Avocado Heights epitomizes in many ways this unique bilateral relationship with Mexico. These are not relationships that exist because parents grew up in a particular place, but rather, these are relationships that are constantly reinforced by the consistent back and forth travel that occurs for recurring events, such as patron saint festivals or independence celebrations.

“Privadita”
“Filming a music video”

Vaquerx Ephemera

“Horse Parade in Jalisco”

On September 16, 2016, in the city streets of Yahualica, Jalisco, Romo joins a cabalgata underway. The vaquera centered in the photo is Nadia. And while she doesn’t announce her sexuality publicly, she is widely known in the horse community for being a prominent fixture at horse events and is often seen accompanied by her partner. Romo explains, “After marching on horseback in the parade, Nadia hired the banda and it was myself and one other escaramuza, kind of a protege of Nadia’s, who joined her for an impromptu parade once again throughout the town.” Nadia was not dressed in the typical escaramuza outfit, but rather a charro outfit. “She triumphantly led us on a long-winded post-march route with a loaded gun in her holster. It was a very public and triumphant display and I just had to document the photo.”

In Nadia’s story we have a unique exposure to the dimensions of gender embodiment and representation in vaquerx culture. She is both a leader and yet presents herself in traditional charro outfits. Likewise, her partnership, according to Romo, remains a discretionary fact. It is no doubt the case that vaquero culture celebrates and predominantly exhibits traditional masculine traits. Yet, it is and historically has been a space and identity that has opened gender fluidity and resistance. Across the United States and in Mexico, vaquerx spaces foster hetero-, homo-, and transsexual performance. Massive conventions occur every year in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Mexico City which host queer reuniones vaqueros. The events feature live performance combined with regional Mexican food, drink, music, and dancing. Though these conventions are unique, they also amplify the reality of the vaquero/a/x everyday—one present in Avocado Heights. Romo, who established his ranch in Avocado Heights as a queer space for artists and vaquerx, disrupts masculinized narratives in his photographs’ style and through his positionality.

Historian Susan Stryker argued that gender representation is analogous to a digital image. She writes, “It’s unclear exactly how [a digital image] is related to the world of physical objects. It doesn’t point to some ‘real’ thing… it might in fact be a complete fabrication built up pixel by pixel or bit by bit—but a fabrication that nevertheless exists as an image or a sound as real as any other.” Like the digital image, gender is a construction, not a material fact. Pixel by pixel, bit by bit, the bodily stylings through clothing and accessories, a person’s behaviors and interactions, their movements, dancing, songs, vocal utterances, and expressions add up to the mix of gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality identifications present in vaquerx lifestyles.

Away from the recursive performance of male bodies in vaquero spaces, Romo shares that out on the trails, men transcend typical male behaviors and share intimate details and stories about their lives with each other over bonfires. They exhibit acts of care, play, and bonding that transmute traditional male roles. Heteronormative behavior characteristics are often found to be more fluid where the binary gender model of nuclear family orientation is out of the picture. Men and women ride together in the desfile around the central park of Avocado Heights to show off their horses, socialize, and play. Performative gender hierarchies, though present here and there, are most often ambiguous and indeterminable within these events or settings. Vaquero/a/x practices can disrupt imposed binaries and essentialist notions through endless re-imaginings of sex/gender models, white/brown bodies, and middle class/working class lives. Vaquero/a/x performance digitizes and decolonizes the body. Like music, it blends and flows in measures and meter imperceptibly.

“Towards the San Jose Creek River Trail”

Interspecies

“Ranch in Avocado Heights”

Horses become the witness of human behavior. Witnessing their play, love, and connection, exists an entire irreducible lifeworld. The horse, the viewer from vantage of the horse, is immersed. They can grasp a sense of the embodied experience but are always in some way dispositioned. One can lament the separation, but the degrees of connection and distance are innate in every interaction, whether that is by photograph or in embracing a partner for the dance. The interaction between man and animal exposes gestural language. In behaviors between animal and human, or photographer and researcher, or dance partners are modes of interaction, coding and decoding practices, and unconscious and conscious choices.

In “The Vaquero Way” a horse trainer, Sheila Varian explains, “The Vaquero method of training is a beautiful song sung with the softness and beauty of the rhythm of the horse. It is about the total harmony and togetherness of horse and rider.”7 The process of becoming a vaquero often begins at an early age. Training involves more than the act of breaking or taming a horse, but developing a mutual relationship, a partnership with another being grown from respect. The best horses are trained over varied terrain and can navigate their surroundings through experiential learning. Feeling and unity with the horse comprise the methodology.

“Pajaretes”
“Recycled wood chips”

Like a photographer and their subject, or a historian and a past culture, animals and human beings train together to become “available to events.”8 French ethologist Jean-Claude Barrey’s analysis of this phenomenon is defined as isopraxis. To him, isopraxis articulates the “unintentional movements” of muscles that fire and contract in both horse and human at the exact same time.

“Talented riders behave and move like horses… Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse’s body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other’s movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other’s mind.”9

Animals and humans, like material and their environments become response-able. The interface reveals that between space and place, signifier and significant, forms lose distinction. Through iterations, intention, and idiosyncratic relations, emergent patterns evince rich cultural understandings.

“Herrero”

The complex interactive relations described between Avocado Heights’ connection with horses, their fellowship to other riders, how the vaqueros/as become innate stewards of the land, and how this connection ties history to the present situates humans, nature, and horses as central actors in the story. As anthropologist Anna Tsing argues, “Species interdependence is a well-known fact— except when it comes to humans. Human exceptionalism blinds us.”10 No matter the cultural variety available, many believe humanity, the biological human, is a constant. Instead, from molecule to ecosystem, humans reshape as they are reshaped. In considering the domestications that closely knot humans with horses and all other organisms, Tsing asks, “What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence?”11 She and Haraway submit that humanity is an interspecies relationship. It is more than us. It is more than human.

With the connection to the horses, the specific natural history of the San Gabriel Valley, and continual exploitation of the community’s health, Jesús Romo’s photographs convey that we are indelibly intertwined with our environment. Our subject of human nature and what is natural has historically excluded, or marginally considered, nature as a critical element of culture and society. Human behavior is a part of natural processes and never exempt from them. Everything from viruses, evolution, mycelium, deforestation, drought, food systems, tectonic shifts, to cosmic events are essential explanations for behavior. Environmental racism through development discourse is not just material but epistemic violence. Between fact-retrieval through the modalities of linguistic conventions, embodiment and space, or nature, these are “exposures” which emancipate past stories, events, places, things, and people from the rigor of hegemonic, settler, colonial regimes. As each modality can lead one down a lifetime of research for just one subject alone, the researcher alone depends on this collaboration to make something of the findings. The intention of the project and the responsibility of its representation are most important.

Photographs, when not outright exploitative practices, almost ensure a type of embodiment or positionality less credible in alternative medias. Jesús Romo’s positionality, affiliation, and agency inspire an even greater trust in the content and intentionality in representation. Jesús Romo’s photographs are exposures of interspecies assemblage of the San Gabriel Valley.


Notes

[1] David Reid, “Whittier Narrows Park,” East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, edited by Romeo Guzman, Caribbean Fragoza, et al. Rutgers, 2020. 191

[2] Barraclough, Laura R. Charros: How Mexican Cowboys Are Remapping Race and American Identity, 1st ed.. University of California Press, 2019. 164

[3] Barraclough, Charros, 159

[4] Kara L. Stewart. ”The Vaquero Way.” Horse Illustrated. November 16, 2004

[5] Donna Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008.

[6] Vinciane Despret. ”The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Body & Society. Vol. 10(2–3): 111–134. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X04042938

[7] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. [8] Ibid.

Daniel Talamantes is a writer from the Central Valley of California. He is working toward a doctorate at Claremont Graduate University currently as an environmental historian, ethnographer, and environmental justice activist. Essays, short stories, and poems of his have been published with Entropy, Elderly, SF Chronicle, Soft Punk, to name a few. His first poetry chapbook Ruminate Emergent was the winner of the Desert Pavilion Chapbook Series and set to be published Fall 2022. 

Jesús Romo is an activist, photographer, and resident of Avocado Heights. You can find him on the trails and fighting for clean air, water, and land with and for SGV residents.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Gravity of Things: Grounding landscape parliaments in California’s borderlands

Karl Kullmann

Rolling down under: protesting the proposed fencing off of the people’s hill at New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Lukas Coch / AAP, reproduced with permission.

An imaginative form of protest took place on the other side of the world in 2017 as some Australians took to rolling down grassy slopes at the heart of the nation’s capital of Canberra.[1] Although it appeared lighthearted, the motivations of these tumbling citizens were quite serious. They were rolling down Parliament Hill, situated at the heart of Canberra’s constellation of avenues and topographic landmarks. They were rolling to exercise an egalitarian ideal that was originally embedded in the design of the New Parliament House.

When conceptualizing the design in the 1980s, the New Parliament House architect Romaldo Giurgola sought to place the people above the parliament, rather than subservient to it. While this ideal has since been expressed in other parliaments—such as Foster and Partner’s gravity defying ramp that spirals above the Reichstag in Berlin—the design for Australia’s Parliament took the radical approach of burying the parliamentary chambers beneath a publicly accessible grassy knoll. This fusion of parliament and landscape sought to embrace the aspirations of all inhabitants and their interdependence with the timeless landscapes of the Island Continent.

The people’s hill: New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: John Gollings, reproduced with permission.

As landscape poetics go, it is a beautiful notion. Yet it is also selective, in the sense that First Australians have never identified with, or felt included in, the narrative of the people’s hill. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which for almost half a century has continuously occupied the lawn at the foot of Australia’s Parliament House, embodies this implicit exclusion.[2]

This exclusion remains unresolved, with global events overtaking Giurgola’s egalitarian gesture after little more than a quarter of a century in the ground. The concept of the people’s hill was initially eroded with the tightening of security following the trauma of September 11, 2001. Then, in September 2017, the object of the people’s protest materialized: a nine-foot high welded steel security fence was erected around the hill to finish the job once and for all.[3] By sealing the knoll—and its legislature—off from its citizens, the new fence invokes a fortified medieval hill town that has shut the gate on its hinterland.

Shutting the gate on the people’s hill: fencing off New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Kym Smith / Newspix, reproduced with permission.

And so, the people roll no more. As is also evident in the worldwide barricading of public space to repel vehicular terrorism, fencing off Australia’s Landscape Parliament is deeply symbolic. It reveals a feedback loop, whereby political systems are pushed further and further away, even as the ideal encapsulated in the people’s hill would seem ever more relevant to many political predicaments on other continents, including here in California.

To comprehend why a landscape parliament in the land Down Under was worth rolling for—and why it is relevant to California—entails venturing a thousand years back in time to Iceland.  The land of ice and fire is steeped in geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, and Sagas. Amidst this storied landscape lies Iceland’s most hallowed ground, where from the year 930 to 1798, Thingvellir (Þingvellir) served as the dramatic venue for the world’s first parliament. Unlike the climate-controlled buildings that house contemporary political forums, Iceland’s parliament was held out under the open sky. Each year, Icelanders gathered amid the rocky fissures formed by diverging tectonic plates to discuss important matters of concern.[4]

Site of the ancient landscape parliament of Thingvellir, Iceland. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

In reference to its topographic setting, the name Þingvellir translates loosely as meeting valley in English. And while the correlation between vellir and valley is evident, understanding the other half of the name is more complicated. Although Þing is etymologically connected to the English word thing, it is unlike anything we know today. In Old Norse, Þings referred to landscape-based forums for discussing important community matters. Indeed, while the dramatic setting and near millennium of constant use make Thingvellir the most celebrated example, Thing parliaments were established in many locations throughout the Viking world. Their names live on in places such as Gulating in Norway, Tingwalla in Sweden, Tinganes in the Faroe Islands, Tingwall in Shetland and Orkney, and Tynwald on the Isle of Man.

The etymology of Þing can also be traced further back to the ancient Germanic proto-parliamentary Ding.[5] Referring to a general assembly or court of law in Old High German, Dings were often sited in topographically prominent locations that typically included megaliths, springs, or distinctive trees. These meanings were also absorbed into English, with traces of Þing and Ding still retained in thing, in the sense that we might say that someone “knows a thing or two” to imply that they comprehend the issues at hand.[6]

But these traces hang by a thread. In today’s industrialized world, we are far more likely to understand things as the many inanimate objects that surround us with our own indifference. Today, things are just the peripheral stuff that we overlook and often can’t be bothered to call by name. We might run an errand to “buy some things” or observe that we “forgot something.” And as the Internet of Things vaporizes our interaction with everyday appliances into the Cloud, our collective ambivalence towards things seems destined to increase.

Dispensing with things. Self Portrait as Revealed by Trash: 365 days of photographing everything I threw out, gallery exhibit, 2004-2008, Tim Gaudreau. Image credit: Tim Gaudreau, reproduced with permission.

To understand why the language of things changed so profoundly over the centuries—from the discussion of important matters to the trivialization of dispensable objects—entails travelling again. Even as Thingvellir’s parliament continued to operate within the unique and isolated landscapes of Iceland, things were subject to new forces of transformation in Continental Europe. As Europe modernized and political control centralized, the process of land enclosure began to displace the feudal commons that Thing parliaments had traditionally occupied. With no place left in the landscape, Thing parliaments moved undercover, and in time, into the fully enclosed buildings that inhabitants of the industrialized world take for granted today.[7]

In addition to parliaments, other culturally significant forums such as markets, performance spaces, and religious ceremonies also came in from the cold. Extrapolating this process to the present day, enclosure takes the form of industrially scaled agriculture within endless fields of climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses.

The Sea of Plastic: the fully enclosed agricultural landscape of Mar del Plástico, Almeria, Spain.  Image credit: George Steinmetz, reproduced with permission.

Whereas Things once referred to landscape-based community assemblies for discussing important issues, the enclosure of these forums led to things becoming understood more as the objects that surround them. With things now conceived more as objects than as issues, this shift also had profound implications for conceptions of landscape. Divested of its thingness, the landscape became more of a passive receptacle of physical things than a political Thing inherently.[8] So much so, that today it is hard to imagine landscape in any other way than as a benign scene or as ‘threatened’ nature in need of human assistance.

In this world, the landscape bears the scars of objects and events, but no longer takes a seat in the parliament that it once cultivated. And despite the promise of a seamless globe in which humans, capital, and wildebeest move without friction, the landscape is riven with more fissures than ever before.[9] These divisions take the form of walls between nation states, infrastructural ruptures within communities, socio-economic inequality, fragmentation of ecological biomes, and so forth.

Gathering at the edges: migrants attempting to cross the Macedonian Border from Greece, 2015. Image credit: Nikos Arvanitidis, reproduced with permission.

And yet, many of the most pressing issues that define the present Age of the Anthropocene transcend these barriers with impunity.[10] Walls do not readily circumscribe global warming, nuclear radiation, antibiotic resistance, non-biodegradable plastics, or global human migration. And unlike the everyday things that surround us all, these hyper-things are so vast and enduring that they often defy human scales of comprehension. They reveal a yawning gulf between our hazy awareness of the things that matter and our limited capacity to discuss, let alone address them.[11]

What to do? The issue here is one of horizons. From within houses of legislature or parliament, our shared political horizons are simply too inhibited to accommodate the scale and scope of the Anthropocene. In response, a city, a state, a nation, or even a coalition of nations, may seek to construct more expansive parliaments under which to gather ever-larger political assemblies.[12] And yet, even if these forums were to rival in enormity the largest sporting stadiums on Earth, they would still be buildings. And as buildings, they remain historically bound to the enclosure of political gatherings, and subsequent diminishment of Things into things.

For all their proficiency in keeping the rain out and the politicians in, buildings can never truly become Things. How, then, might the ancient conception of the landscape parliament be re-imagined to stretch our shared political horizons in order to more adequately encompass contemporary matters of concern? That is, how might some of the lost agency of landscape be rediscovered within the political process? How might some of the Thingness of things be recovered?

This is not to imply that Californians begin dissolving Capitol Hills and City Halls and repatriating venues of governance out into the landscape in a futile attempt at refashioning Thingvellir. It is not possible to just go back and recreate Things because the nature of contemporary political processes and assemblies has profoundly changed. To take Things literally in this way would probably just add to the assortment of unused public amphitheaters that unwittingly reify nostalgic yearnings for community congregations of yesteryear.

Taking Things literally: abandoned amphitheater, Foster Park, Ventura County, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Nor is cultivating Thingness in landscape akin to invoking some form of animism that imbues inanimate objects with a mystical life force. And to be clear, re-connecting landscape and politics has nothing to do with the “blood and soil” that the Third Reich used to such catastrophic effect by weaponizing the power of place on an industrial scale. What it is about is feeling connected to a process. It is about leveraging the public landscape to embolden the public in politics.[13]

To begin this process, the first instinct may be to take down the fences. De-fencing parliaments and legislatures would be a revolution of sorts. It suggests comparisons with the eighteenth and nineteenth century process of dis-parking, whereby the royal hunting grounds of Europe were gradually opened up to public use.[14] This process was initiated by unlocking the gates, and ultimately—as Californians now take for granted in city parks that remain open 24/7—demolishing the boundary walls altogether.

If we return Down Under for a moment and think through dis-parking Australia’s freshly fortified landscape parliament, the flaw in this venture becomes apparent. To remain functional in the current climate, new, more sophisticated, invisible, and insidious forms of security would almost inevitably emerge to offset a de-fenced the house of the legislature. Albeit at a vaster scale, this phenomenon is demonstrated along the US southern border. From California to Texas, the heavily surveilled and profiled 100-mile-wide thickened zone that shadows the border puts fences and walls in context; material expressions of a more pervasive filtering process that occurs before a traveler even knows they have arrived and persists long after they think they have left.

And as the deplorable scenes from the January 2021 breaching of the US Capitol demonstrate, even the most hallowed ramparts can be scaled with sufficient incitement. As at the border, the walls of the Capitol proved more performative than impervious; something reassuringly concrete to assail as a diversion from thinking though what one hopes to accomplish once inside. Here, as at Australia’s parliament, walls and fences are a symptom not a cause. The parliament’s fence is going to remain somewhere; if not encircling the building in full view, then as a thickened zone on the margins, or, more perniciously, as a wall in the minds of those who feel shut out from the political process.[15]

US/Mexico border zone, Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Instead of deconstructing the walls and roofs of official houses of parliament and legislature of the State (only for other more pervasive barriers to raise in their place), a more constructive path could lay in devolving landscape parliaments as parallel processes. That is, perhaps the role of landscape Things today is not to be reprised as (non)representative parliaments for making laws, but to operate as moral shadow parliaments for discussing the issues that really matter; issues that dithering bricks-and-mortar parliaments and legislatures seem to habitually forfeit under the weight of earmarks and the fog of obfuscation.

With Things no longer satisfactorily represented in conventional parliaments and legislatures, where might these shadow landscape parliaments be situated? Perhaps everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that today a great deal of political assembly occurs in online forums that transcend borders and censors. But being digitally untethered from time and place has the significant downside of conveniently enabling individuals to insulate themselves from divisive issues within polarized online communities.

Yet even as social media spins its wheels, when people really need their voices heard, they still take to the streets on foot. If these issue-driven gatherings are to stick for any longer than an outrage-news-cycle, momentarily occupying the frictionless ground of polished airport foyers and online echo chambers is insufficient.[16] To stop Things from just slipping away into a capsicum haze of unfulfilled aspirations, landscape shadow parliaments would need to somehow lodge into the fissures that permeate everyday Californian environments. The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia’s capital Canberra are recent and continuing precedents for this enduring act of literally digging in on an issue.[17]

Interstitial spaces in Northern California, (top) freeway teardown in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, and (bottom) freeway easement in Santa Rosa, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Although often overlooked in our individual cognitive maps, California’s cultural landscapes are riven with local borderlands that cleave between neighborhoods, discordant land-uses, maintained and derelict sites, and most insidiously, between planning visions and their lived reality.[18]

In many situations, agencies or communities have valid rationales and useful mechanisms with which to heal rifts in the urban fabric. Consider, for example, the re-stitching of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood following the demolition of the earthquake damaged double-tiered Central Freeway. Yet in other circumstances, adjacent locales march to decidedly different tunes. Consider a neighbourhood ‘on the other side of the tracks’ that is vulnerable to runaway change when the tracks are sunken or removed. Richmond’s Iron Triangle, which circumscribes an underprivileged neighborhood in the shadow of the oil refinery, encapsulates this condition.

In certain circumstances, this latter type of linear no-man’s-land could provide fertile sites for snagging shadow landscape parliaments. Dug into these thin borderland situations, landscape Things could be configured to thicken the jump-cut between two conditions with a third space that is neither one, nor the other. Here, ancient Thingvellir is instructive, with the geological fissures of the Icelandic setting cleaving space between local clans, into which the parliament occupied an interstitial every-man’s-land over which no single clan held jurisdiction.

The parliament of tears: Friendship Park, California/Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

While California’s coastal conurbations are riddled with manmade fissures that suggest potential thickening into landscape Things, one of most potent (and confounding) sites surely lies at the State’s southernmost edge. Friendship Park straddles the US/Mexico border on the last high ground before the border fence spills down into the surf.[19] As one of the few locations where in-person cross-border interaction is condoned for a few hours on weekends, Friendship Park is a place of family reunions, mixed emotions, sit-in protests and coordinated trans-border activities. Twin fences define the site; one on the border, and a second inside US soil. This second fence is furnished with a disproportionately monumental gateway that promises thoroughfare but leads only to no-man’s-land.

Considered in the context of other heavily fortified no-man’s lands in urban areas, one may continue to hope for a future ‘Berlin moment,’ whereby the fortification of California’s southern border is eventually demolished as a relic of history.[20] But in the meantime, working within current geopolitical realities, how might a site such as Friendship Park be thickened into a third space? How might the fledgling aspirations Friendship Park be amplified into a landscape Thing?

At present, the challenges of the site and situation are immense. The fences are too insistent, admission to the controlled no-man’s-land too selective, and the shared horizon glistening out across the Pacific Ocean too bittersweet. Indeed, as the semantic distinction between fences and walls becomes increasingly partisan, the border ‘fence’ at Friendship Park is now so heavily armored with welded mesh—leaving apertures barely wider than a human finger—that it is, in substance, already a ‘wall.’

And although walls ably defended territories for thousands of years, their presence today is decidedly regressive.[21] In the sixteenth century, as medieval fortifications proved increasingly ineffective against advancements in ballistic technology, horizontal defensive earthworks supplanted vertical masonry walls. Reaching its zenith in Europe’s Renaissance star forts, this strategy can still be explored today in the Batteries that were built along the California coast in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the advent of long-range ballistics pushed defensive earthworks to new extremes. As threats materialized from over the horizon in every direction, people retreated underground, relying on the thickness and shape of the land as their primary mode of defense.

Battery Cavallo, Fort Baker, California, circa 1938. Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Aerial Photographs Collection, image in the public domain.

This brief fortification primer illuminates the superiority of strategically shaped landform over masonry walls and reinforced fences. By shifting this capability from a defensive to a public conception of space, the shaping of landscape thickness becomes an intriguing proposition. Through the medium of land shaping, what form could a shadow landscape forum at Friendship Park—or elsewhere—take?

Mounding the landscape up into a hill would seem the obvious answer. As was (until recently) possible on Australia’s Parliament House hill, Californians from all walks of life may seek to fabricate the moral high ground from which to better foresee and understand the expansive issues at hand. If the concept of a political horizon is conflated with the physical horizon (as formed by the curvature of the earth), climbing a hill would appear to expand one’s horizons, allowing each of us to see more things—to literally see over the wall.

To take things to the next level, those who are so inclined could go a little higher in the basket of a hot air balloon and expand their political horizons a little further. Or, they could liftoff into the low Earth-orbit of the International Space Station and see what satellites see. Or, like the astronauts on Apollo 17, travel halfway to the moon to catch the lonely blue marble within the single frame of a Hasselblad; revealing that the whole Earth is itself a thing, albeit one that no human can see both sides of at the same time. In the sense that this epiphany energized the environmental movement, humanity has been metaphorically trying to get back down to Earth ever since.[22]

The Earth becomes a thing: Southern California and Mexico seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: © 2011 NASA, ISS, reproduced in accordance with NASA/ISS non-commercial use policy.

The point is that the higher an individual goes, the more likely they are to feel as though they are on top of things. And yet, from up on the hill (or space station) their horizons defer further outwards, circumscribing more and more issues while leaving them no closer to grasping or acting on the issues that matter. But what if this yearning to climb is upended, and instead of seeking landscape Things up on hills, we think of Things as forming down in hollows? Once again, ancient Thingvellir offers guidance here, with the geologically fissured Icelandic landscape providing a range of crevices that drew in gatherings of varied scale and scope within their embrace.

Through the organizational pull of gravity, hollows instinctively collect things. Consider the dunes on the floor of California’s Death Valley, where over the eons each grain of sand made its way to a gathering of like-minded grains at the lowest point in North America. Or in a more general sense, consider how water—access to which is a defining wall-crossing issue of the twenty-first century—converges fluidly into hollowed out landforms.

And like the water that makes up about 60 percent of our bodily mass, hollows can also collect humans. If the people rolling off Australia’s parliament hill were to repeat their mass tumble from the rim of a hollow, they would all end up drawn together at the bottom. What they may find there could be confronting, since hollows have also served historically as dumping grounds; as places where all the things that humans discard end up, out of sight and out of mind. It turns out that many of these things are still there, decaying on a geological timescale. Confronted with these things, the parliamentary hollow impels its occupants to recall; not in the sense of officially ordering someone (such as a Governor) to return, but in the other sense of bringing an event or situation back into one’s mind.[23]

Hollows foreground these things by compressing space and time by retraining the horizons of those who enter them. When going down into a hollow, everyone’s personal horizon temporarily retracts to the rim of the concave landform.[24] A kind of horizonal hand-over occurs, whereby instead of retreating unceasingly into the distance (and off into the future) as each individual moves around, the horizon stays tethered to the landform. As a result, everyone in the hollow sees the same horizon. That is, they share a collective horizon with the many other things—human, non-human, and inanimate—that are gathered in the present moment.

Gathering things: the horizon as formed by the curvature of the Earth from (top to bottom) on the plain; up on the hill; and down in the hollow. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

The other thing about hollows is that they leak. Through either infiltration or evaporation, hollow landforms leak water (otherwise they would become lakes), and unfortunately hollows often leak toxins when associated with dumping grounds. Yet in a positive sense, hollows also potentially leak people and ideas. In contrast to the illusion of a hermetically sealed leak-proof house of parliament, the landscape parliament shaped as a hollow makes no claims to being watertight. Unlike a wall or fence, the rim that encircles the hollow landform remains permeable. Freed of the limitations that architectural containment places on access and participation, humans, along with many other things, can cross over this topographic threshold and gather to discuss matters of concern. And when the time for discussion has passed and the time for action is present, they can move back over the collective threshold and leave.

Outside of the hollow, the Earth’s horizon comes back into focus and the wider world, with its myriad issues, comes back into play. Out here individuals are potentially primed to extend issues of concern beyond a preoccupation with their own and immediate futures, which from ecological crises to genetic design, encompass vast and miniscule scales and temporalities.

However, potential does not necessarily translate into actuality. While this can be true in any situation, it is doubly so in the landscape. Whereas the programmatic capacity of buildings is reasonably predictable, predetermining the usefulness of a landscape in advance remains an imprecise art.[25] Buildings have doors and roofs with which to encapsulate and regulate the activities of their occupants. Landscape, on the other hand, is less obliging; think of landscape in terms of the vagaries of the weather upon which it is beholden, or in terms of the indeterminate flow of the rivers that run through it.

Fluid horizons: “View of Sacramento City as it appeared during the great inundation in January 1850 / Drawn from nature by Geo. W. Casilear & Henry Bainbridge. New York : Lith. of Sarony c1850.” Source: California State Library, image in the public domain.

The landscape’s inherent uncertainty can be extended to humans, who often do not adopt landscapes in the way in which planners intended. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the preponderance of poorly designed public spaces (in California and elsewhere) that fail both functionally and expressively. Yet even with the best intentions, landscapes can fall flat. In this context, expecting landscape parliaments to routinely perform as places for actual discussion could backfire. The weight of expectation could create intimidating spaces that people completely avoid, unwittingly adding to the existing trove of empty amphitheaters.

Instead of pressuring landscape things to be routinely parliamentary from the outset, perhaps their role needs to be initiated in more down to earth terms. Positioned more humbly, landscape Things would principally seek to simply collect people in situ, essentially drawing each of us out of our internet of things and into the shared world of Things. Once drawn—like moths to a lamp—into the public realm, we are more likely to participate in, and engage with, the issues (or things) that concern us all.

Drawn together: groups around bonfires on Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Image credit: Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris, reproduced with permission.

From this unassuming basis, in certain situations where particularly potent matters of concern converge on the ground, contemporary landscape Things might emerge. While there is a great deal of indeterminacy involved, we can assume that these Things are unlikely to leaven on Capitol hills. Just as legislatures and issues are not progressing, forums and gatherings are not aligning. The forums that govern Californians are fixed at the center, on the hill, while the gatherings that matter dig in at the edges, in the fissures. It is here that shadow landscape parliaments are at most likely to be at home.

Given that they are not tied to the conventional apparatuses of federal, state, or local governance, to which other scales might landscape shadow parliaments extend? And, in addition to Friendship Park, where else in California might these reimagined landscape shadow parliaments (Things) be dispersed? As nature and politics increasingly converge, perhaps Things might draw within their horizons each of the world’s 867 bioregions, ten of which intersect with California.[26] Or, across the Sierras, perhaps Landscape Parliaments might grip onto the salty banks of the overdrawn Mono Lake, stripped of inflows that are gravity-fed southbound along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Or, as traditional zoological gardens become less and less defensible, Things might colonize the naturalistic habitats of decommissioned animal exhibits in San Francisco zoo.

Drawn to the edge: Sunken City, Sn Pedro, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Or, perhaps the position of Landscape Parliaments might be calibrated to sea level rise projections: not safely on higher ground, but at the waterline near vulnerable communities such as East Palo Alto, to be intentionally inundated as a wet-feet reality check on rising tides. Or, find niches amidst the fragmented ruins of the aptly named Sunken City near Long Beach, where buildings and streets slumped into the Pacific Ocean. Or, ride the precipice of vanishing ground, by convening Things on the concrete pads of recently demolished buildings atop Pacifica’s rapidly receding cliff line. Or, inhabit the new ground that results when landfill is decommissioned, such as that of the Albany Bulb wasteland that protrudes into the tidelands of San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore.

By gathering Californians together within the contours of these settings, Landscape Things might help us to recall the gravity of the things that matter, nearer to where they matter.


Notes

[1] Editorial, ‘Australians Roll Down Lawns of Parliament House to Protest Against Fence’ (17 December 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-38349994.

[2] Gregory Cowan, ‘Collapsing Australian Architecture: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy’, Journal of Australian Studies 25/67 (2001): 30–36.

[3] Henry Belot, ‘Parliament House’s Iconic Grass Lawns Blocked Off by New Security Fences’ (11 September 2017), http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-12/security-fences-shut-patrons-out-parliament-house-grassy-slopes/8896074.

[4] Agust Gudmundsson, ‘Tectonics of the Thingvellir Fissure Swarm, SW Iceland’, Journal of Structural Geology 9/1 (1987): 61–69.  Richard Beck, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes 10/5 (1929): 149–153.

[5] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Liminality, Seasonality and Landscape’, Landscape Research 30/2 (2005): 259–271.

[6] Here I draw on Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in: Albert Hofstadter (trans.), Poetry Language Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 161–180, at 173.

[7] See Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, ‘Urbs in Rure: Historical Enclosure and the Extended Urbanization of the Countryside’, in: Neil Brenner (ed.), Implosions / Explosions (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2014), 236–259.

[8] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Heidegger, Latour and the Reification of Things: The Inversion and Spatial Enclosure of the Substantive Landscape of Things–The Lake District Case’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 95/3 (2013): 251–273, at 256.

[9] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Route Fittko: Tracing Walter Benjamin’s Path of No Return”, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 70–75.

[10] In the current epoch that Paul Crutzen famously labelled the Anthropocene, human activity is permanently recorded in the geological record. Paul J. Crutzen, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft (eds.), Earth System Science in the Anthropocene (Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer 2006), 13–18.

[11] Here I draw on Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[12] Here I draw on Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 4–31. Bruno Latour, ‘A Cautious Prometheus?’ Keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

[13] The public landscape is not limited to the bucolic countryside or the protected wilderness. Today it also includes the burgeoning urban landscape: the streets, the parks, the appropriated interstitial spaces, the postindustrial wastelands, the cultural precincts, and even the external surfaces of buildings.

[14] The archaic verb dispark means to ‘divest a park of its private use’ by ‘throw[ing] parkland open.’ Charles Talbut Onions (ed.), The Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 530.

[15] This is a reference to the Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head), that persists in the psycho-geographies of Berliners long after the fall of the concrete Berlin Wall.

[16] This is a reference to the spontaneous airport demonstrations that followed the Trump administration’s January 2017 Muslim travel ban.

[17] For a site-specific mapping of an Occupy site, see Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder, ‘Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action: Surveying a Hypercity Built of Granite and Asphalt, Algorithms And Information’, Places Journal (September 2012), https://placesjournal.org/article/occupying-wall-street-places-and-spaces-of-political-action/.

[18] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Thin Parks / Thick Edges: Towards a Linear Park Typology for (Post)infrastructural Sites’, Journal of Landscape Architecture 6/2 (2011): 70–81.

[19] For in depth explorations of the Mexico/US borderlands, see Michael Dear, ‘Imagining a Third Nation: US-Mexico Border’, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 46–55.

[20] For a distinctly theological perspective on the California border in relationship to California citizenship, see Jason S. Sexton, ‘Borders and Barriers: Citizenship in California’, in Kirsteen Kim and Alexia Salvatierra (eds.), Los Angeles as a Global Crossroads: Migration, Transnationalism, and Faith (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 131–150.

[21] The return of border walls has revived some decidedly medieval devices for their circumvention in the form of ladders, catapults and tunnels.

[22] On the cultural impact of the whole earth image, see Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World (London: I.B. Taurus, 2008), chapter 1.

[23] As defined by The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[24] See James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[25] See Karl Kullmann, ‘The Usefulness of Uselessness: Towards a Landscape Framework for Un-activated Urban Public Space’, Architectural Theory Review 19/2 (2015): 154–173.

[26] As classified by the World Wide Fund for Nature, bioregions are ecologically and geographically distinct areas.

Karl Kullmann is a landscape architect, urban designer, and Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning, University of California, Berkeley.