For several years, television and computer screens showcase California fire footage, especially during summer months. Flames burn miles of wildland while firefighters battle the advancing front. Aircrafts spew great plumes of orange retardant that descend on the rising smoke. Red and crimson-gold flames light up the night. The news is part of an ancient story. For over 350 million years, wildfires have been shaping and rejuvenating forests, grasslands, and shrublands. New science indicates that imperiled wildlife such as the California spotted owl can greatly benefit from large, natural, wildfires.
The American West experienced about 30-40 million acres of wildfires each year through the drought years of the 1920s and 1930s. That is well over the 10 million acres that burned in 2015, the over 8 million acres that burned in 2017, our biggest fire-years in recent decades. Scientists are discussing predictions about the potential for the increasing size of wildfires due to climate change, while the new science is throwing light on a crucial question: how can we protect the forests that are California’s legacy?
While most scientists agree that fires provide multiple ecological benefits, scientists debate the high value of natural wildfire as opposed to prescribed wildfires. The emerging science shows that prescribed burns, typically designed to burn the forest understory outside the fire season, cannot provide the suite of ecological benefits provided by natural wildfires.
In Spring 2015, I followed a team of scientists through one ‘burn’ after another. The 2013 Rim Fire had burned through the path ahead, and affected over a quarter of a million acres of forest, conifer plantation, scrubland, and meadow—most of them within Stanislaus National Forest. Some 80,000 acres of Yosemite National Park also burned.
The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks.
The Rim Fire was initially declared to be the largest fire on record for the Sierra Nevada, described as “a catastrophe.” By May 2014, the Forest Service drafted an Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), proposing logging operations to clear-cut over 40,000 acres across parts of Stanislaus that were now dominated by blackened, dead trees called ‘snags.’ The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks. Written soon after the fire, the DEIS also documented little plant regeneration in the burned soil. The plan was to remove the snags and then spray a cocktail of herbicides to inhibit the growth of natural shrubs, and install conifer plantations. Operations were to begin in the summer of 2015.
In June 2015, the scientists on the path ahead of me were Dr. Derek Lee and Monica Bond—a husband and wife team with an abiding interest in the fate of spotted owls after wildfire. We hiked through the soon-to-be-removed burn areas west of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite National Park. Much of what looked dead was really alive. Overhead, ponderosa pine branches were roasted to the color of dark toast—looking otherworldly in the bright blue morning glow. Dr. Chad Hanson, leader of our walk, pointed out new pine needles, emerald-greens peeping out through the layers of burnt brown. Like the tree overhead, thousands of mature, charred pines were in the throes of ‘flushing,’ bursting with new growth. New oak leaves were rising from the ground where their parent tree once stood. We had to watch our steps. The forest floor was alive with seedlings of pine, fir, cedar, lupines, saffron-bright wallflowers, and, in more remote patches, Clarkia australis, farewell-to-spring flowers, among the rarest of ‘fire followers’ in Stanislaus.
Just after the Rim Fire DEIS was released in 2014, a friend offered to fly me there in his Cessna. Below, Stanislaus National Forest looked like a rolling patchwork quilt—bright green expanses, great swaths featuring a blend of green and brown, and patches of darker, more severely burned forest. For the first time, I could see variations within the burn.
Large wildfires that burn through unlogged forests burn with a natural mix of low, moderate, and high severities, levels I could distinguish from the aircraft. Low severity burns through the forest’s understory, leaving over three quarters of the treetops green. Tree trunks are scorched around their base, and over 75% of all the trees remain alive. Moderate severity burns more intensely—with anywhere between one and three quarters of all the trees surviving the fire. High severity burns hottest; flames torch the tree crowns. Over 75% of all the trees burn into ‘snags,’ or standing dead trees—scientists call these areas ‘snag forests.’ High severity may range between 15% and 40% of the total area burned, and can be higher in areas that have been previously logged and turned into plantations.
Evergreen Lodge California Spotted Owl sitting in a part of Stanislaus National Forest that burned with low-severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. A few minutes after the photograph was taken, the owl flew to a snag within a high severity area, and foraged there until well after dusk.
Photographs taken immediately after a wildfire can be misleading. Following the Rim Fire, the Forest Service estimated a record 35% high severity fire in the burned parts of Stanislaus National Forest, since most of the trees looked dead. One year after the fire, a second survey brought the high severity number down to 19.9%, less than half of the earlier estimate, and well within the range of high severity observed in historic wildfires within mixed-conifer forests of the American West. Given a year, many trees were showing signs of life, new greens mixed in with the browns and blacks.
While I was flying over the Rim Fire in 2014, dedicated Forest Service field biologists were deep in the throes of surveys for California spotted owls across the post-fire forests below. The owls are recognized as sensitive species by the Forest Service. The biologists detected a record thirty-three pairs occupying historical owl territories. Most were living close to patches that had burned with high severity. Their surveys marked the beginning of a groundbreaking study.
Spotted owls are known to favor old growth forests, remaining faithful to territories they use for nesting and roosting year after year. They are growing increasingly rare across the state. I had assumed they would be long gone from the burn. But Bond had a different story. In the late 1990s, she joined a demographic study of spotted owls that had begun in the mid-eighties. Bond used fifteen years of data to see if owls were inclined to return and breed in their old stomping grounds after a wildfire had swept through. The study included four sites in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern California.
“I discovered to my surprise that the Forest Service typically did not survey for spotted owls in heavily burned areas,” Bond said. “So we actually had very little data from forests outside our demography study sites. There was an assumption, ‘of course, the owls aren’t going to be there.’”
Bond and her colleagues conducted long-term spotted owl research in post-fire forests that had recently burned one or more well-established spotted owl territories. The study included the three subspecies: northern spotted owls (listed under the Endangered Species Act), based in the forests of northwestern California, California spotted owls in San Bernardino National Forest, Southern California, and Mexican spotted owls in New Mexico and Arizona.
Once the records were compiled, the team was in for a second surprise. All across the burned forests, they found the owls “fared well after wildfire.” The year after each fire, most returned to the same, now burned, territories they had occupied before, remained with the same mates, and reproduced with remarkable success—comparable to their lives before each burn. Essentially, the raptors were thriving in undisturbed burned forests.
“That first study got my creative juices flowing,” Bond admitted with a chuckle.
News about the results hurled a big question at managers and at the public, essential owners of our national forests and national parks. Do burned forests have value? The question is heavily burdened with a fact of our time. Severely burned forests are routinely clear-cut in “salvage logging” operations.
2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest where a snag and sprigs of new growth, pines, cedars, and firs frame the ground nest created by a pair of Townsend’s solitaires.
A decade after Bond’s first study, she and Lee teamed up with other scientists for a second, spanning eleven years, this time focusing on California spotted owls being surveyed by Forest Service biologists. By this point, and after scrutiny from conservation groups, the agency had begun surveying heavily burned areas for owls prior to salvage operations. The research team compared burned and unburned habitats up and down the state, from Lassen National Forest in the southern part of the Cascades Mountain Range to Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierras. Their results told a similar story: spotted owls were continuing to occupy burned territories at the same rates as unburned territories, thriving in burned forests after wildfire. Subsequent studies revealed that the most productive, higher-quality territories were still occupied even when the owls’ entire core area burned at high severity. Post-fire ‘salvage logging’ caused the owls to leave in what scientists call “territory extinction.”
The abundance of growth springing up after fire attracts all manner of squirrels, voles, shrews, mice, and gophers—all high quality food for raptors like the owl. Witnessing the prolific growth of the burned forests she studied, coupled with the vibrant small mammal life Bond was no longer surprised at the quick return of California spotted owls she and her colleagues found. Wildfire brings the forest’s own fertilizers back in contact with soils, and the rapid pace of natural regeneration draws in the animals.
“As long as there are trees still standing for the owls to swoop down from, they can use these burned areas for foraging,” she told me.
Walking through the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus National Forest, Bond and Lee asked themselves similar questions about the fate of resident California spotted owls. It was a hot spring and the mosquitoes too were evidently doing well. Once we were quiet and watchful, the air grew full of bird sounds. Woodpeckers drummed on bark. Lazuli buntings, seed-eating birds the size of sparrows, chittered as they eyed me from a blackened snag. Lazulis are on a long list of ‘fire birds,’ developed by Dr. Richard Hutto, a distinguished ornithologist. At the top of his list are black-backed woodpeckers, another bird rare to California.
Early morning Sunday, 14 June 2015, biologist Tonja Chi woke me up. “Follow me.”
Half an hour later we were driving through Stanislaus National Forest along a road southeast of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite. We parked and crunched into an adjacent forest that had burned with low severity, immediately adjacent to a high severity part of the burn. Tonja walked with her eyes pinned to the ground. Not twenty minutes later, I discovered the logic. She was eyeing splotches of ‘white-wash,’ chalky white raptor scat under a large cedar tree. Looking up from the scat, she pointed to a limb high in a fir tree that was charred to about knee level, and alive. Two pairs of wide eyes were trained on us. Backlit by the rising sun, the fledgling California spotted owls looked haloed with fiery down feathers. The larger of the two fledglings stood about seventeen inches tall, the height of an adult. They moved their heads in circles, curious. Tonja found the male parent less than a hundred feet away, nodding off to sleep after a night of hunting and feeding his young.
By 2016, two independent teams had reported California spotted owls reacting to wildfires in completely different ways—one negatively, and the other positively. Gavin Jones and his colleagues reported dramatic declines in owls one year after a ‘megafire,’ the 2014 King Fire, which burned over 98,000 acres in Eldorado National Forest. Meanwhile, Lee and Bond had worked with Forest Service data from Stanislaus National Forest, and found the owls were making a good living for themselves in the burn one year after the Rim Fire. Their discoveries pointed in the direction of the earlier work. Within the forty-five historical owl sites in the Rim Fire forests, the probability of a site being occupied by owls was 92%. These were the highest California spotted owl occupancy levels ever found anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, counting landscapes that had not experienced recent fire. Spotted owls were even settling down close to high severity burn areas.
Because the Jones study in Eldorado National Forest pointed in the opposite direction of most previously published work, it piqued much interest. Bond and Lee examined the trends and realized the California spotted owl population in Eldorado had been steadily declining for decades before the King Fire, partly due to intense logging and forest-thinning efforts on both public and private land. The trend of the population decline lined up perfectly with the lower number of owls after the fire, indicating that the fire itself was an unlikely cause.
2016 image showing clear-cuts in Eldorado National Forest that burned in the 2014 King Fire. Shortly after the clear-cutting, these areas were sprayed with herbicides to inhibit the growth of shrubs.
Now Bond and Lee joined Hanson to pore over the field-based data with care. They realized the study had considered approximately half the King Fire area. Within that half, five spotted owl territories had been reported as “extinct” due to the King Fire, when in fact those pairs had disappeared by 2011 or earlier—well before the King Fire began to burn. A single owl and another pair were reported as gone when they had in fact moved a few hundred meters away, within their existing territories. Two other pairs of owls that were present in post-fire areas went unreported. When the results were considered along with all the data that had been excluded from the study, the owls showed an overall trend of preferring undisturbed post-fire habitat rather than avoiding it – which was consistent with all the previous long-term studies. Puzzled, the team alerted the authors, the editor of Frontiers in Ecology, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, with a package of ground-truthed data.
But their alerts came in on the heels of major logging efforts. Assuming the snag forest patches within the King Fire area of Eldorado National Forest were of no use to the spotted owls, or other wildlife, the Forest Service systematically removed those patches in the spring and summer of 2016. Working on similar assumptions, managers in Stanislaus National Forest followed their original plans and began clear-cutting snag forests within the Rim Fire area, citing the Jones study as part of their justification.
Snag patches within the King Fire areas of Eldorado National Forest are largely gone, and they continue to be removed from the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus. Thousands of conifer seedlings per acre, which were sprouting up from the fire-enriched soils, have been squashed under equipment within the clear-cutting footprint—along with the native wildflowers, morel mushrooms and other native fungi. Snags that served as homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife have disappeared from Eldorado and from much of Stanislaus.
The husband and wife team and others could no longer explore longer-term effects of the Rim Fire on owls in Stanislaus National Forest. “The old paradigm—a lot of what we once thought—isn’t right,” Monica reflected. “Our spotted owl studies showed us: species that rely on old growth forests can also thrive in severely burned forests.”
Scientists standing along the new frontier of knowledge agree that natural wildfires are the ancient agents of change, with high severity fire being a key component. Fire typically chars the outermost layers of trees, and leaves the interior intact, valuable. Hanson calculated the economic losses and gains from logging efforts across post-fire habitats. The revenue gained from selling burned wood ranges between $15 to $20 million per year. A conservative estimate of costs to taxpayers ranges between $50 million to $100 million. And there are inestimable costs to the wild.
Attempting to work with fire, agencies like the National Park Service have routinely set low severity fires that primarily burn the forest understory. An increasing number of studies indicate that natural wildfires, with their distinct blend of low, moderate and high severity, offer greater ecological benefits. Well over a hundred peer-reviewed papers have spoken volumes about the benefits of wildfire, the high biodiversity of post-fire forests, and their history in the American West and other parts of the world. A growing number agree that post-fire ’salvage logging’ has disastrous consequences.
“The overwhelming diversity and superabundance of native plants and animals in severe burned forests tells us that this kind of fire is natural,” Bond says. “Not only is it natural, it’s necessary for western forest ecosystems.”
Fire science is still relatively new, and the current management practices are geared towards fire suppression in the wild. Modern fire suppression efforts began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Smokey the Bear came into being in 1944, warning against forest fires. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton agreed to a ‘salvage logging rider.’ The rider trotted in on the back of an anti-terrorism bill, and was passed into law—allowing for massive logging and related post-fire operations across burned forests. In addition, many fuels reduction projects began thinning the forests in attempts to decrease their potential for high severity wildfires. Recent studies suggest that most fuels reduction projects within forests selectively remove mature trees and do little to decrease high-severity wildfire. Current level of fire suppression efforts need to be more focused.
During 2016, Chi and I revisited the area where she had found the young owls in 2015. Just a few hundred meters away, swaths of post-fire habitat were gone. We could not find the owls. May 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $70 million grant to the State of California—to remove most of the remaining snag forests within the Rim Fire Area of Stanislaus National Forest. The wood is to be burned by the biomass industry, to produce energy and pollute the air above Yosemite with emissions, a process which Congress is hoping to define as renewable, though burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal. And yet there is hope—as forests and wildlife continue to thrive with the natural wildfires that shaped their evolution—that the management of our public forests will someday catch up with the science.
Yosemite Highway 120 Entrance 2, Autumn colors appear in a part of Yosemite that burned with moderate severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. The burned pines above now thrive.
 S. H. Doerr and C. Santin, “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371 (2016): 0345.
 M. L. Bond, R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, et al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” WildlifeSocietyBulletin 30 (2002):1022-1028.
 Douglas S. Powell, Joanne L. Faulkner, David R. Darr, et al., “Forest Resources of the United States,” General Technical Report RM-234 (Fort Collings, CO: United States Department of Agriculture, 1992).
 In California, the fire season extends through the summer and fall seasons.
 US Forest Service, “Rim Fire Recovery (43033): Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS),” Stanislaus National Forest, R5 MB-270, May 2014.
 Chad T. Hanson and Malcolm P. North, “Post-fire survival and flushing in three Sierra Nevada conifers with high initial crown scorch,” International Journal of Wildland Fire 18 (2009): 857-864.
 Roy Buck, personal communication, 30 May 2017.
 Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, “Letter to the Forest Service,” 11 January 2016.
 Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California.” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236.
 M. E. Seamans and R. J. Gutierrez, “Habitat selection in a changing environment: The relationship between habitat alteration and Spotted Owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 109 (2007): 566-576. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Findings on Petitions to List Species in California and Nevada” 17 September 2015.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Bond, M. L., R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, at al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002): 1022-1028.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” Journal of Wildlife Management 73 (2009): 1116-1124.
 D. E. Lee and M. L. Bond, “Previous year’s reproductive state affects spotted owl site occupancy and reproduction responses to natural and anthropogenic disturbances,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 307-319.
 D. L. Lee, M. L. Bond, M. I. Borchert, and R. Tanner, “Influence of fire and salvage logging on site occupancy of Spotted Owls in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains of southern California,” Journal of Wildlife Management 77 (2013): 1327-1341.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Collard B. Sneed, Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2014).
 Gavin M. Jones, R. J. Gutiérrez, Douglas J. Tempel, at al. “Megafires: an emerging threat to old-forest species,” Frontiers in Ecology (2016): 301-306.
 Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236..
 M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119 (2017): 375-388.
 John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” 29 August 2016. Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” April 2017.
 United States Forest Service, “Rim Fire Project Decision,” August 2016.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Interview with Dr. Chad Hanson, 11 August 2016, Big Bear City.
 Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, et al. “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere 7 (2016): e01255.
 Morgan W. Tingley, Viviana Ruiz-Gutiérrez, Robert L. Wilkerson, et al., “Pyrodiversity promotes avian diversity over the decade following forest fire,” Proc. R. Soc. B 283 (2016): 1703. Dominick A. DellaSala and Chad T. Hanson, eds. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix (The Netherlands: Elsevier, 2015).
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Curtis M. Bradley, Chad T. Hanson, and Dominick A. DellaSala, “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent- fire forests of the western United States?” Ecosphere 7 (2016): 1-13.
Maya Khosla is a Wildlife Ecologist with Ecological Studies and has written in Flyway, Yes Magazine, Humansand Nature, and other journals. Her work has been collected in Keel Bone (Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize) and Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek (non-fiction). Her new book of poems is forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers Press. Searching for the Gold Spot is her new film.
It is a Saturday evening in April and Celerina Chavez is making albondigas—Mexican meatball soup. In a heavy pot, the soup simmers gently, sending the smell of carrot and cilantro throughout the house. With an oven mitt, Celerina lifts the hot lid. “The soup needs more water,” she says.
On the tiled bench beside the sink sits a large container of purified water, the five-gallon kind found in office buildings. Smaller bottles of water sit on the table, ready to drink with dinner. Celerina fills a pitcher from the five-gallon jug and pours a dash into the soup. She stirs it, then tastes it. Dinner will be ready soon.
Earlier that afternoon Celerina and her husband Bartolo made the trip from their home in Arvin to the Costco in Bakersfield. Every week they drive more than twenty miles to buy bottled water in four heavy pallets. Tomorrow, Bartolo will go to Arvin’s water district to use his two tokens, provided by the city, and refill that five-gallon jug at a purified water station.
They cannot drink the water that runs from the faucet.
Arvin is one of more than ninety public water systems across California having water contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane, or 123-TCP. The chemical originated as a by-product of two soil fumigants, D-D made by Shell Oil and Telone from Dow Chemical. These products were used heavily in agriculture from the 1940s until they were discontinued in their original formulation in the mid 1980s. During that time, however, they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the wells that most of the Central Valley relies upon.
Kern County is the most affected in the state. While Bartolo and Celerina have lived in Arvin, a town in Kern, for more than twenty years, they only discovered their water was contaminated three years ago. Before that, they and their three children unknowingly drank the contaminated tap water.
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?” Celerina says in Spanish, her and Bartolo’s native tongue.
Bartolo Chavez leads the way through his three bedroom home to the bathroom. There, he turns on the shower and lets the water run. It is warm but not hot enough to be steamy. The overhead fan whirrs. They are cautious about bathing too—short and cold showers are routine in their household, although not in others.
“The warmer the water, the more dangerous,” he says. “In the community, the people do not know that.”
For more than twenty-five years the State of California has classified 123-TCP as a known carcinogen. Yet the chemical was only regulated earlier this year. July 2017, following a public and stakeholder comment period, the State Water Board set the maximum contaminant level for 123-TCP in drinking water at five parts per trillion. With the contaminant at this concentration, communities still have an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those with uncontaminated water, but that risk is less than one case per 100,000 people. It comes as good news for communities across the Central Valley, many of which have 123-TCP concentrations of more than seven parts per trillion, meaning higher cancer risks.
“This new health-protective regulation for 1,2,3-TCP is a victory for all the Californians… seeking to secure for themselves and their families what most of us have the luxury of taking for granted—the basic human right to safe drinking water,” said Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center in a press release shortly after the announcement.
But treating water is also an expensive undertaking and the burden of cost may be placed upon consumers who live in smaller water markets and already pay higher rates. Because of this, many public water utilities, including Arvin’s, have filed lawsuits against Shell Oil and Dow Chemical for damages. Most complaints claim the products’ problems outweighed the benefits and that the companies failed to disclose 123-TCP as an ingredient.
“We have internal documents that show they [Shell and Dow] knew from a very early point in time that 1,2,3-TCP was in the products and not doing anything to help the farmers but yet, it remained,” said Jed Borghei, an attorney representing Arvin’s public water utility.
Some, such as Clovis, have already received some recompense, settling a lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2016 for $22 million.
Treating the water also takes time—anywhere from a few months to a few years. Meanwhile, residents of affected communities, like Bartolo and Celerina, still shoulder the burden of procuring clean water.
“It is something good they are going to do,” Bartolo said of the regulation prior to its adoption. “But they need to act fast because if they wait more time, that is more harm to humanity.”
 From video interview with Jed Borghei of Robins Borghei LLP, conducted by Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin, 26 April 2017.
Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist who reports on agricultural communities, environmental justice and inequality. Her work has been published in Bay Nature, Misadventures and Flint Mag. She is a former Harper’s Magazine intern and current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @AllyBergamin.
Briana Flin is a Bay Area-based multimedia journalist interested in culture, immigration and social justice. She’s produced stories for Rewire.org and Oakland North and her work has been shared by PBS. She’s currently a new media student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @BrianaFlin.
Like many so-called “boomerang” millennials, I found myself returning to the Central Valley to set down roots after living away for a decade. Looking at my hometown with new eyes and a burgeoning career as an urban anthropologist, the subject of change in insular Fresno and its spatial politics can be hard to swallow. More so, crisis conditions from the statewide drought had been an alarming yet helpful framing mechanism in which to visualize the physical and communal stratification of Valley life.
Water, or more specifically its absence, has helped shape the built environment of urbanization in Fresno. Such deficit thinking has continued to be a driving force in setting policy and placemaking practices in the City of Fresno, even as the city currently pursues an effort to revitalize its aging infrastructure to meet twenty-first century economic demands. Most interestingly, the production of an imagined future by groups of non-state actors eager to stake their claim on the community is where memory and planning intersect, sometimes painfully.
As much as the Central Valley’s agricultural interests have long positioned themselves as the major economic base for the region, the drought has revealed the lingering dispossession caused by such uneven concentrations of wealth. Regional concerns echo those claims of dispossession, highlighted in the media coverage of dry, unincorporated areas feeling the worst effects of the drought. A 2015 example of this was in the especially hard hit region of rural East Tulare County, where a humanitarian crisis occurred due to major water shortages and a lack of stable infrastructure. Yet it is the City of Fresno and the process of urbanization where such discourses of cultural deficit meet an engaged social placemaking through practices of memory and a general rethinking of the politics of space.
My ethnographic scholarship uses the recent five year drought, and the inequality it has made visible across different cultural platforms of space and place, to understand the Central Valley as a culture of historic extraction, be it natural resources, labor or public space. This social memory of dispossession is exemplified in the ways that nonstate actors in the City of Fresno, and the greater Central Valley, seek to revise social-spatial projects. Specifically, the push to stake a grassroots claim in the revitalization of the inner urban core of downtown Fresno, as well as the reimagining of space in and around the city, is part of this new project of place that small-scale community organizations are using to highlight the sunshine and noir of urban change. My use of the term “urban,” in a region known for its rural life and agricultural economy, is deliberate; “The urban is not a unit, but a process of transformation unfolding in diverse sites, territories and landscapes.”
The subject of water is never far behind when discussing land use policy and the Central Valley’s built environment. Changes in the conceptualization of these two resources—water and space—are the mechanisms of new social projects happening in Fresno. Through the application of a theoretical framework borrowed from urban geography, Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city,” the twin issues of water and space are helpful for their potential to assist in making these projects of social construction manifested.
The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley. Two key case studies are the focus of my analysis that convene the spatial politics of place with the histories of dispossession that have become part of the collective social landscape.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley.
Water and its infrastructure needs in the Central Valley were made material in the dry fountains along the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. From initial private investment to haphazard public enjoyment, the fountains once stood as beacons of modernity, offering shoppers a spot to linger as they returned to the revamped “cool” of 1960s urbanism chic. The fountains, all twenty-two of them, were in Fall 2015 mostly dried up and filled with trash or repurposed as planters. Refilled and drained at random, their visible deterioration echoed the nearly empty space of the Mall’s decaying Mid-Century Modern infrastructure. “Emptiness” remains a relative term. In the perception of the mainstream shopping public of Fresno, a lack of middle class shoppers present reads as evidence of emptiness, as ‘empty’ despite the “hundreds of people, mostly of color and of lower socioeconomic status, who walked the Mall each day.” Illegibility, of both a new kind of patron, who is not the white middle-class consumer benefiting and partaking in gentrification processes, and the natural resources like fountains and trees through which water flows on the Mall is inscribed in its initial problematization.
The Fulton Mall’s fountains, part of the initiative to find local artists who could help curate the space for a 1960s consumer base, and their removal as not representing the natural conditions of the Valley environment exemplify the different conceptualizations of public goods and a changing vision for the future. This decline, tracked for decades by The Fresno Bee daily newspaper and local business community newsletters, is part of the contestation of space and place that is underscored by the recent drought conditions that made water a necessary but insufficient condition for change in the Central Valley imaginary.
Blackstone Avenue is another dispirited infrastructural legacy, once the “center of town” where commercial interests were centered below Shaw Avenue away from the civic institutions of the city’s downtown. Similar to how rural space in the Valley has been divided up and intensified throughout the twentieth century, the commercial space on Blackstone has transitioned from retail to a concentration of auto and auto-service related enterprises, owned by non-residents who are seen by many within the transitioning neighborhoods around the central artery as the cause of urban blight that bleeds southward towards the neglected downtown. Both the Mall and Blackstone Avenue are the foci of revitalization efforts by government functionaries led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s “I Believe in Downtown” campaign and community nonprofits who seek to tie physical revitalization with social transformation through engaged electoral participation and economic investment. The phantom force of water—its accessibility, disappearance, ties to nature as key to physical improvement and regulation as part of the broader technologies of power overlapping in downtown—is always present as part of a larger discussion of resources that have helped reproduce histories of dispossession and extraction that leave “ordinary cities” like Fresno a contested social terrain.
California, as a product and site of cultural production, is an outward-facing entity that valorizes a mythic, encrypted self-narrative of opportunity envisioned by generations of booster elites eager to develop the American West. California’s “sunniness” is coupled with its inherent noir, a hidden power phenomena that keeps its less desirable yet essential parts in shadow. The Central Valley is where those dual forces of noir and sunshine intersect, where the issues of urbanization and historical patterns of rural settlement coexist uncomfortably within the California project. An area east of the Coastal Range that includes the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, from Bakersfield to Chico, the Valley has always been socially embattled when not ignored as a political backwater. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south, and even more acutely of west from east, from urban coast from the agricultural valleys… was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.” As Gerry Haslam has argued, the Central Valley serves as a liminal cultural space, the “Other California,” left out of a Southern California-centered focus on economic opportunity and cultural production:
I began to look more closely at the physical environment and saw things I should have noticed before. Just north of where I had grown up, I realized, lay a maimed environment, the bed of the largest freshwater lake in the West, now dried, plowed and irrigated: What had happened?
This naturally-occurring ecological event has intensified to unheard-of costs to human development. The statewide drought was deemed a disaster in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and subject to federal intervention by 2015. The drought’s slow burn into the collective consciousness of those not in the business of agriculture has helped unearth some of the more human disasters and longstanding internal contradictions that make explicit the social constructions of place that re-emphasize the Valley’s history as a land of physical and social dispossession and struggle for cultural significance. The research agenda that informs this work is part of a broader focus on the anthropology of Fresno’s downtown redevelopment that informs my preliminary dissertation research on the cultural construction of urban space. Over the course of the last two years, I attended public meetings at the state, city and regional levels (Fresno City Council Meeting, 4 and 27 February, 2014; State Workshop on Water, January 2015; Kings River Irrigation District Board Meeting, August 2015) on urban redevelopment and water policy, as well as conducted unstructured and semi-structured interviews with informants working on these two issues within the city. One key part of this preliminary ethnographic analysis has been the data collected through fieldnotes from participant-observation efforts. I worked on projects, went to meetings and attended special events with various community organizations working outside the confines of political campaigns or government office.
Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies.
The theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” can be used to understand California’s historical spatialization and put the recent water crisis into socio-political context. Henri Lefebvre, the primary member of the Marxist revival in mid-twentieth century cultural geography scholarship, argued that the city’s inherent benefits—social, political, and economic—were made possible by the diversity of people, opportunity and intensification of space and development. These social and economic resources found in cities should not be hindered by privatization as a phenomenon in a city available for public benefit, including the surrounding areas. This call for keeping some things, like economic markets and open urban space, public and publicly-administered was positioned squarely against the creeping privatization and divestment of public resource management that cities sought to systemize in the latter half of the twentieth century. Public goods, Lefebvre argued, were the only things not made into commodities for exchange by the economically-privileged few who gained the most from capitalism’s structural inequities. This idea was part of his more general discussion of the social production of space as something categorized and made into physical and representation modes for the organization and stratification of human development. Thus the built environment, and policies of land use and production, are part of this codification and reinscription of capitalistic social organization, where space makes some welcome and bars others from its production.
City/farm, urban/rural—the dispossession of space and the extraction of resources for a global market is a process that the Central Valley has always taken part in despite competing concerns over growing urbanization and the political economy and industrial concerns of agriculture. A recent focus on water is one of many historical cycles of political attention and eventual obfuscation. Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies. For the last decade, signs along Highway 99 shout slogans like “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” vilifying the names of those legislators who vote for more environmental protections that limit industrial water use. This geographic division of resources and power are part of the political project of the state’s dualism; a shiny attractive Coast and a shadowed hinterland in complete symbiosis, the city’s “contado” that Gary Brechin wrote, “feeds the people,” yet remains unknowable.
Decades of benign neglect of water in the form of a lack of regulatory processes across the Central Valley has led to the depletion of groundwater from local water tables. Water meters that measure and charge for home water use are recent additions to the utility bills of Central Valley residents, a factor that historically increased the illegibility of its importance in the daily lives of residents. This lack of attention, given that other urban areas have for decades worked on multiple levels of governance to limit and control water use, poses questions about water’s centrality and value in Valley life. Was there a simplistic feeling of material abundance in the landscape, or rather, did power elites controlling the development of the Valley landscape see little need to quantify the use of water even as urban areas like Fresno started to compete with industrial agricultural operations for finite material resources? These type of questions about the relationship between the material conditions of Valley life ask questions that efforts like urban revitalization and placemaking seem to want to answer, the social response to physical and natural droughts.
This water crisis, similar to the “urban crisis” of the 1960s in its self-creation mythology, has afforded the social space in which different alternative imaginings of place and the politics of belonging can be articulated. Several groups have taken up the charge of not letting a crisis go to waste, using different but significant points of entry to discuss dispossession in urban form. The role of activism around issues of equity and resource distribution, the special relationship between space and water, development and history, has been ripe for discussion. At a regional level, dry wells in East Tulare County, south of Fresno, have highlighted the lack of infrastructure and muted governmental response to the physical needs of a largely poor community of Latinos. This inattention has spurred efforts by local organizations and non-state actors like the Valley Water Center and California Rural Legal Assistance to organize a disadvantaged community and link their concerns for the continuation of life in a culturally cohesive yet politically unincorporated part of the county to larger variables about representation and engagement in the formal political process. “All local residents should participate for, although corporate boards elsewhere may control the deeds to much land here, they do not know the call of a dove or the chill of river water slicing from the Sierra Nevada or the dawn smell of a freshly mown alfalfa field.” Countering the power of a decentralized planning regime and decades of developmental policy that are exclusive by their very nature is used as the mechanism by which the historiography of the Central Valley organizes its major themes.
The contestation over the revitalization of the Fresno Fulton Mall is where urban space and its complicated place in the cultural imaginings of place are centered in this analysis. An aging twentieth century pedestrian center in the heart of downtown Fresno, the history and cultural narrative of the Fresno Fulton Mall is contentious. Recent efforts to revitalize the three-block area as part of a national post-recession movement to gentrify deindustrialized urban areas, as well as a nod to the market demands of cities’ endless search for tax revenue, have frayed the tempers of longtime denizens who seek to preserve the space according to its ethos of Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.
This project is personal to me, challenging the division between emic and etic approaches to anthropological study. As one born in Fresno and gone for over a decade, the place-memory of home still retains meaning for me, especially in the older areas like the Fulton Mall that are untouched by urban redevelopment. Marx Arax understands this as part of returning home: “The stakes always seemed higher [in Fresno] than when I was writing about L.A. The reasons were obvious in one respect—it was my home—and yet I sensed a deeper explanation that had to do with how we as a society related to place…. It has been a messy affair, but I am still here, trying to put my finger on this place.” As the world urbanizes and the process of urbanization takes varied forms that go beyond the simplistic dichotomies of rural vs. urban, suburban vs. urban, the Mall has become meaningful to me and a new generation of citizen artists, activists, and planners.
Built to much fanfare in the early 1960s, the Mall became one of the first open-air pedestrian malls at the beginning of the suburban mall era. Anchored by J.C. Penny and other major department stores, the mall was the first major site of concentrated consumerism in Fresno, and attracted shoppers with its park-like setting. The choice to redevelop an already urban space was deliberate—planners including the nationally-recognized planner Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Fresno, already in decline as citizens moved northward. Its success at the time of its opening in 1964 was quickly overshadowed by the creation of newer enclosed malls like Manchester Center in 1969 and Fashion Fair Mall on Shaw Avenue in the 1970s. As fewer shoppers came downtown, the Fulton Mall became a place where community events were held in Mariposa Plaza, the largest of the open areas in the three block mall setting, and a free speech stage was created as a commemoration of the site of a labor protest in the 1920s.
The turn from the Mall’s original plan as a place middle-class residents shop into de facto parkland for the urban poor was due to unimpeded and steady decline, as the vast majority of the major department stores left in the 1980s. The Mall’s genesis speaks to a planning ideology of another era, and contemporary proposals that seek to either crystallize its history or revamp it altogether manifest the competing pressures of real estate and community memory that counter each other within the sphere of Fresno planning politics. As it stands today, the Mall is under construction to be transformed into Fulton Street, reopening late 2017. The approved proposal to open the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic and add over a one hundred parking spaces was stymied by a lawsuit filed by supports of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which sought to keep the Mall a pedestrian-friendly place and thus were behind the unsuccessful push to get the site registered as a California Historic Landmark. As such efforts indicate, the mall serves as a place of nostalgia and distinction for many Fresnans despite its diminished state. The DFC utilizes the ideas of walkability, the need for the preservation of democratic public space, as well as green space in an urbanizing world, as the emotional pleas of an underdog argument bent on mobilizing the affective nature of place attachment. The death of several trees by lack of water oft-rumored to be a coordinated effort by the city to encourage blight and make its case for redevelopment stronger, echoing a similar fight over changes in a historic Central American urban space discussed by anthropologist Setha Low:
The sense of loss in these stories is not with the place itself, but with the decoration and social participants, yet the stories communicate a sense of place attachment that has been disrupted physically, but not in memory, by ongoing social change.
The emotionality and use of memory in the argument for preservation touch on issues of aesthetics, in the access to public art and environmentalism, representing the interests of the denizen-activists of the DFC. Decidedly white, upper-middle class and college-educated, very few members live near Downtown and the Mall and most don’t visit its businesses and services. The Mall, to them, is understood as parkland and a place where public art can be enjoyed. The cost and prestige of the public art, led by some of the artists themselves, are often highlighted in the materials produced by the group. The transition from mainstream consumer sites like J.C. Penny to smaller, local retailers as well as the administrative offices of county agencies that cater to a largely Latino audience has been an uncomfortable one. The racial politics of space are deliberately softened by the social memory of postwar prosperity that centers on white consumers. As part of a series of events to mark its fiftieth anniversary of operations in 2014, a local filmmaker created a film that made the Mall its main subject. “We certainly don’t need more botanicas,” one woman commented during a Q&A session after viewing the documentary. Screenings and a series of walking tours were hosted in 2015 and 2016. This was also a response to the walking tours that are offered by a competing business association centering the Mall in a discussion of urban blight, focusing on future development plans in 2017 for the space that include private real estate.
Another significant project of place where space and water play a central developmental role is the A Better Blackstone neighborhood redevelopment project, northward in Fresno’s central core area. Blackstone Avenue serves as Fresno’s High Street, its central North-South conduit that shuttles people into and out of downtown, paralleling the main Highway 41 that intersects with Highway 99, the Valley’s main site of passage. Its demise has been well-documented, echoing concerns for a better investment of place:
No place with even a modicum of self-worth would allow such a disgrace, much less right down its spine. I venture it’s more complicated than that—and more simple. I doubt that anyone in City Hall actually planned on disfiguring Fresno this way. The Boulevard more or less developed, downtown to river, a century of progress, without any countervailing force ever saying “no.” In the process, its belief only got replicated.
A programmatic arm of a local nonprofit giant, A Better Blackstone is a multiyear project that is both ideational and outcome-specific. “We have come together to imagine what it would look like for Blackstone to thrive once again.” In its first months of work, the program sought to collect data on every business on the avenue itself as well as initiate direct contact with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, no small feat.
At a community event called “Imagine Blackstone,” Summer 2015, local residents were asked to participate in this reimagining, both the possibilities of place in the central district and the realism of its current state of neglect. A photovoice project led by staff was displayed, and viewers were asked to stop and get their event pass stamped along a curated path of projects related to city services, civic education and spatial imagery. A fully stamped event pass meant free tacos and drinks on the hot August tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Pop-up parklets, like those trumpeted by urban civic leaders as solutions to the limited public space of gentrifying cities, were created using rolled up Astrotrurf and DIY park benches. Asked to take the lead on this exhibit display twenty minutes before the gate opened, I gamely tried my hand at curation and was assigned a twelve year old assistant who worked the scotch tape. There was a clear agenda of engagement that was being asked of participants by A Better Blackstone staffers: we as volunteers were tasked to stimulate conversation by asking how Blackstone is popularly and individually conceptualized (“bad” and “ugly” were common answers), and what, if any, factors could improve the thoroughfare (“Trees!”).
Methodologically and logistically, these conversations were happening on several fronts: Participants at the event wanted to know what photovoice as a method was, and second, why did all these photos matter to the redevelopment of their neighborhood? An ethnographic research methodology used by visual anthropologists, photovoice is both empirically sophisticated and immediately accessible. A photovoice project is typically a carefully administered elicitation of visual data collection through initial discussions of themes about a certain phenomenon, then cameras given to those involved as subjects. The ensuing photos and captions are pulled together to gain understanding of one’s emic view of the world-made material by the photographs, and narratives captured that expand discussion on the community-developed central theme in the user’s own voice. Here, local students and their parents were asked to take photos of their neighborhood around Blackstone Avenue that they deemed were either positive or negative depictions of local life, and then asked to write down why they chose those photos, describing them in their own words. Central Valley water, as ever, was omnipresent as a thematic core of the project yet hidden behind an understanding of issues that made it seem only tangential to the goals of placemaking and revitalization. Dead trees, stagnant canals and broken curbs were the problems of infrastructure cited by many participants in their commentary. A lack of water, and lack of nature, or rather, its re-envisionment as pop-up spaces of temporary comfort on the hot summer tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary were evidence of the creativity that such spatial deficits could engender.
Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
The activism and organizational engagement of A Better Blackstone on issues of space are central to what Michel De Certeau understands as tactics used to make sense of urban planning regimes by residents looking to exert spatial agency in a complex spatial arrangement, and to a larger extent, is “tactical urbanism” in action. The bottom up, self-directed work of A Better Blackstone functions in a liminal space—quasi-governmental due to its close relationship with regional arms of government and public orientation as part of a forty year-old nonprofit, yet privately-funded by larger state and national foundation grants for goals that center on social justice and the promotion of public health.
Imagined landscapes were the goal of “walking audits” of the corridor during the hot summer months. Strollers were pushed by volunteers up and down the street in an effort to collect data and physically embody the imagination of what could be. Infrastructure needs were documented in great detail; wheels stuck in concrete cracks were photographed as evidence of infrastructural neglect. The search for shade in 100 degree temperatures was a constant reminder that nature had been categorically eliminated on Blackstone Avenue. A 10 a.m. walk in August 2015 found two groups of mothers directed in both Spanish and English by A Better Blackstone staffers, upon whom seeing the ten feet of shade found near a bus stop north of Olive Avenue broke out into happy exaltations. Apparently shade is a historic vestige in vehicle-centered planning. Open irrigation canals that crossed the city were noted for being concentrated in older, now poorer parts of town, brimming with dark fast-moving water that seemed to tempt in the summer heat.
The role volunteer groups, political organizations and nonprofit service agencies play in the discussion of urbanization has proved the singular counterweight in the face of the capitalist political economy of city leadership forced to play an unending game of growth liberalism. Whether the aims of the ten year A Better Blackstone project will be fulfilled is an ongoing question, but the actions taken by its leadership and that of the Downtown Fresno Coalition to fight perceived threats of spatial inequality are indicators of deep place attachment by historically overlooked groups. The attachment reproduced by socially-ascribed memory implicitly ties place as the physical bearer of culture within the production of space. Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
Water is the phantom subject of interest that spurs political movement on space and place in Fresno and throughout the broader Central Valley. The planning regime that produced the Fulton Mall, and the modern effort to revitalize it amidst calls to preserve its significance as a site of history and social memory for many city residents are cyclical development projects that further the production of space, as all states must be productive in the highly privatized spatial project that is the Central Valley. Yet it is this same planning regime that has created the blighted Blackstone Avenue, where water’s disappearance in the form of trees and urban nature are also felt. Understanding the social response to urban physical intervention is my ongoing effort to capture ethnographically the process of change and renewal that stem from these issues of place attachment, and from within a historical framework of deficit that has subsumed conceptions of the Valley for so long. Through the distribution and rethinking of water as a central resource, a human right rather than a commodity, a naturally-occurring resource to be redistributed by humans, its role in reshaping Fresno as a political project and cultural production makes visible the fault lines across which denizens and their institutions must negotiate. For me, it is the price of coming home.
All photos taken by Sydney Santana.
 James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
 Neil Brenner and C. Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal Urban and Regional Research 38 (2014): 731–55.
 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso Press, 2012).
 Henry Delcore, “Pedestrian Survey,” Institute of Public Anthropology, California State University, Fresno (2010).
 Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action (New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
 Irwin Altman and Setha Low, Place Attachment: A Conceptual Inquiry (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 23.
 Yi Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974).
Dorie Dakin Perez is doctoral candidate in political anthropology and urban history at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on the cultural meaning-making of urban space and public policy as cultural change. Previously, she worked for the State Legislature and the Google X Self-Driving Car project. Her work can be found at www.dorieperez.org.
Editor’s note: Over the past seven years, Boom has focused much of its attention on water in California. In 2013, commemorating the centenary of the Los Angeles aqueduct’s opening on 5 November 1913, our previous editor Jon Christensen and others spent some time reflecting on water and L.A. And so it’s no surprise that we’ve come back to it now. California’s life will be forever intertwined with the innovative use of water for its existence, which is perhaps as relevant for Los Angeles as anywhere. Here we sit down with Jon Wilkman, the author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), which received the Historical Society of Southern California’s Martin Ridge Award for Best Book of California History after 1848, and was also an Amazon 2016 Nonfiction Book of the Year.
Boom: You published a book recently, Floodpath, which has been optioned for a television mini-series by Joel Silver Productions. You also gave a recent talk on this at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, and earlier this year published an article in Southern California Quarterly. What brought you to this subject of water in California history in the first place? And specifically in Los Angeles?
Wilkman: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from the ruins of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, fifty miles north of downtown L.A. and northeast of Santa Clarita. But like many Americans, Californians, and even Angelenos, I had never heard of the disaster that killed well over 400 people. In the fourth grade I built a Spanish mission model, but there had been no classroom mention of the St. Francis Dam when I graduated from North Hollywood High School. As an elementary school kid, heading north on family vacations, we passed the Cascades, the concrete chute that disgorges water from the Owens Valley. When I asked what it was I was told, “That’s where our water comes from.” After college in the Midwest and the beginning of a career as a documentary filmmaker in New York, when I returned to Los Angeles in 1978 I rediscovered my home town, and especially its often overlooked and underappreciated history. I was hooked. While developing a public television series, “The Los Angeles History Project,” I ran across Man-Made Disaster: The Story of the St. Francis Dam, a 1963 book by Ventura County historian, Charles Outland. That set me and my late wife Nancy on a 25-year-long quest to document and tell the story of the St. Francis Dam in a modern context. As early as 1990, we began to videotape interviews with eyewitness and survivors. Some of them are included in Floodpath, and can be seen in a short film I made to promote the book.
Boom: Most people who are not historians may probably know the name Mulholland from the 2001 David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive; many Angelenos will have even driven the winding road with the same name. But who was William Mullholland and why does he matter today?
Wilkman: There would be no modern Los Angeles without William Mulholland. Some City of the Angels bashers might say no modern L.A. wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but Mulholland’s life and legacy are larger than life and Shakespearean in their rise and fall. An Irish immigrant to Los Angeles, he started as a ditch-digger in 1878, became a self-taught engineer, and in 1913 was responsible for the completion of the 233-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct, at the time, the longest in the world. With this great achievement, and others afterward, came legendary status and over confidence that led to the misjudgments that caused the failure of the St. Francis Dam. To me, his biography is filled with insights into the growth of Los Angeles, and even the United States, and warnings and lessons that have never been more relevant.
Dirt via Flickr user John Davey.
Boom: The leading L.A. writer David Ulin wrote a piece in Boom a few years ago, under the same title as Mullholland’s infamous phrase, “There it is! Take it!” highlighting both something of a wild ambition as well as an exploitation, what some have referred to as L.A.’s Original Sin. But could you tell us what the innovation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct meant for Los Angeles at the time when it opened? What did it also mean for California and the world?
Wilkman: To get to your question in a roundabout fashion, aside from a widespread lack of knowledge about the full extent of Los Angeles history, there’s a long tradition of “noir L.A.,” which I believe originated in a 1920s east-coast-based belief that Los Angeles was somehow an unjustified urban aberration, built on fraud and shallow values—certainly not a “real” city like New York, Boston, or even San Francisco, where hucksterism and chicanery were considered colorful, not foundationally sinister. Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home. Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre. To make a fresh start, I can’t think of any better story for a deep dive than the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam.
Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home. Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre.
“There it is! Take it!” is often cited as the short speech that encapsulates a legacy of quasi-criminal usurpation that’s the history of water in Los Angeles—as you say, L.A.’s “Original Sin.” The facts, as they tend to be, are multi-faceted. Mulholland’s five words occurred at the end of a longer less punchy oration, interrupted when water from the Aqueduct began to flow, and eager Angelenos rushed to dip tin cups into the city’s man-made river. The classic film noir, Chinatown, draws upon the mix of truth, half-truths, and conspiracy theories that followed. The business insiders who hugely profited by early investments in the San Fernando Valley had lots of power and influence, but at the time funding for the Aqueduct wasn’t assured, and unlike the plotting of Chinatown, they didn’t have to con other Angelenos by dumping water to fake a drought (something Mulholland would have never allowed). As we know from recent history, droughts were regular and real and the vast majority of the city’s citizens believed more water could benefit everyone in Southern California, as it ultimately did. Former city engineer and mayor Fred Eaton, representing Los Angeles as well as himself, indeed used surreptitious tactics to conceal his true intentions when he convinced Owens Valley farmers and ranchers to sell land with access to the Owens River. Even if the water was purchased, sometimes at inflated prices, not “stolen,” it was an unprecedented transfer of resources from one region to another in an era of small town localism. In the context of the Progressive politics of the day, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, the acquisition was justified as providing “the greatest good to the greatest number.” But for the residents of the Owens Valley, the results had damaging and long-term ecological and economic consequences. They fought back with a water war that continues to this day. In the process, Valley activists repeatedly dynamited the Aqueduct, then, and even now, seen as a heroic act of defiance, although others might consider it terrorism. For Los Angeles, with water available beyond the elusive Los Angeles River, nearby independent communities were willing to be annexed to greater L.A., quenching thirst and irrigating crops. As a result, the city grew from forty-three square miles in 1913 to 442 by 1930. Combined with opportunities for trade, made possible by a new man-made harbor, which opened in San Pedro in 1907, by 1920 Los Angeles was poised to become the preeminent economic center of California, and eventually an important world capital.
Boom:Obviously, the dam no longer exists, and your book and recent article accounts for these things in some detail, but can you briefly tell us what happened with the tragedy on 12 March 1928.
Wilkman: Construction of the 200 feet-tall arched concrete St. Francis Dam was officially completed on 4 May 1926. Over the next nearly two years, as the reservoir was slowly filled, cracks and leaks appeared. At first they weren’t a source of concern because such fissures are common with concrete dams as they cure and settle. When they happen they are patched with caulk. Despite this, on the morning of 12 March 1928, St. Francis Dam watchman Tony Harnischfeger was especially anxious when he discovered leaking water that appeared to be filled with soil, a sign the foundations of the dam might be dissolving. He called his boss, William Mulholland, who, joined by his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, drove from Los Angeles to investigate. When Mulholland examined the leak, he said he saw it running clear. It became filled with soil only after it encountered construction debris lower down. Convinced the dam was safe, Mulholland and Van Norman returned to Los Angeles. Only hours later, shortly before midnight, with no warning the St. Francis Dam collapsed catastrophically. In forty-five minutes the St. Francis Reservoir was empty and 12.4 billion gallons of water were rushing west through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley toward the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away. In between, thousands of people in towns like Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula were sound asleep. With downed telephone lines, it would take more than an hour before warnings were issued. To some, they never came. Well over four hundred died.
Boom:What did that disaster mean at the time, for Mulholland, for Los Angeles, and California?
Wilkman: Mulholland was obviously devastated by the collapse of the dam he’d built in San Francisquito Canyon. He never really recovered, personally or professionally. Although he refused to accept independent engineering accusations of inadequate safety measures and faulty decision-making, probably believing a dynamite attack was to blame, he nevertheless took full responsibility. “If there was an error of human judgment, I was the human,” he said, adding, “The only ones I envy about this thing are those who are dead. “Aside from the tragic loss of life, the St. Francis Dam disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the future of water infrastructure in California and the American West. Plans for Boulder (Hoover) Dam were caught in a Congressional crossfire between those who believed in private enterprise and advocates of government support for new dams and hydroelectric projects. The failure of a city-built concrete dam near Los Angeles seemed to confirm that public agencies weren’t up to the task. In the end, a compromise between public and private interests allowed for the construction a series of dams that transformed the American West and Southeast. To put the matter behind as soon as possible, Los Angeles, without acknowledging blame, rapidly made restitution for loss of life and property damage. Most important, California established a dam safety regulation and review system that became a model for other states, and even countries overseas.
St. Francis Dam wing dike, courtesy of The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr.
Boom:Knowing what he knew after the disaster, what do you think Mulholland could have done differently? If he knew and had today’s technology, what would be different with what he did?
Wilkman: There were plenty things Mulholland could have done at the time. To start, building the dam in a less treacherous geological environment. I don’t think Mulholland’s culpability can be excused by a lack of modern technology. The latest explanations blame a massive landslide as the initial cause of the failure, a situation some have said couldn’t be discerned by geologists in the 1920s. In fact, after the collapse, ancient landslides at the dam site were clearly identified in 1928 by a Stanford geologist. Mulholland’s failing was hubris. He believed he knew best and didn’t consult others. Even if he included the latest safety measures in his design, most engineers believe the geology of St. Francisquito Canyon doomed the St. Francis Dam. Too often, though, the disaster is treated as an anomaly—the work of a self-trained engineer and arrogant old man. However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.
However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.
Boom:This Spring and Summer our levees were tested with both the Delta levees and the canals. Kingsburg had flooding of a resort, along with the Delta’s Treasure Island, Van Sickle Island, among others. Much of California actually sits in flood zone areas. My hometown of Tracy does, in the Delta region. And while I knew that Tracy had its problems, I didn’t realize that one of them was its low-lying situation until Kevin Starr pointed it out to me. But add to this our dams that sit above many communities—Lake Isabella above Bakersfield, Oroville Dam, Folsom Lake, and many others. Our infrastructure is also in need of great repair. What do you think California needs in terms of its water infrastructure repair?
Wilkman: I am not an engineer, so can’t respond with specifics. As I indicated in my previous answer, regular and adequate maintenance is essential. That certainly appeared to be an issue with Oroville, along with some design weaknesses. Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of dam infrastructure in America a grade of D+. Yet even in the best of circumstances, unprecedented acts of nature can be overwhelming, as sadly proved recently in Texas and Florida. Preparation for the worst is always a good strategy, including avoiding construction in known flood plains, but sometimes even that isn’t enough when flooding, as it was in Houston, is the greatest in a thousand years.
Boom: What do you think is the future of water in California? How do you envision us better reckoning with it and its power. Should we be more aggressive or more conservative toward it? In short, more technology, or more work with nature? And of course, there’s no indication that there will be any less people in California in the foreseeable future. What sort of things worry you about the future of California water infrastructure? And what sort of things should we as Californians and also our civic and governmental leaders be thinking about that we and they are not currently doing?
Wilkman: I read an interesting statistic while researching Floodpath. In 2015 Los Angeles consumed less water that the city did in 1970, and L.A.’s population was a million more. In the aftermath of the recent drought, I don’t know if that’s changed for worse or better, but it shows there can be hope if we adopt effective regulations and technologies, as well as enlightened lifestyle expectations. Again, I’m a filmmaker and historian, but from what I know, efforts to work with nature, not attempts to remake or ignore it, are what a lot of thoughtful engineers and social planners are thinking about. New technology, sure, but also conservation programs, including capturing what rain we get for local reuse or stored in natural aquifers, not just uncovered concrete-lined reservoirs. Establishing resource allocation policies that deal with urban and agricultural needs is obviously vital too. Certainly there’s no excuse for the citizens of California to be ill-informed about the challenges we face. No matter what some political leaders at the highest national level may believe, the effects of global warming are real and they’re not going to wait for the next election for us to act.
Jon Wilkman is a native of Los Angeles and graduate of Oberlin College. A documentary filmmaker and author, his films have won numerous national and international awards. Books include Picturing Los Angeles and Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America on the Making of Modern Los Angeles. He is currently working on a new book, Screening Reality: How Real World Moviemakers Reimagined America.
Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*
What is a river? This is not a question we ask every day because it seems superfluous. Certainly, a river must be a flowing body of water of a certain size. Call it a river or a creek, but one way or another, flowing is the essential thing. Yet, what if a given river does not flow per se but is pushed and pulled mechanically? Or what if the flowing that defines a river is arrested and controlled through dams, canals and machine technology? What if the river no longer moves with inextricable desire towards a specific place like an ocean or a lake, but rather is widely dispersed into various uses? What if a river is wholly owned and apportioned the moment it comes out of the ground? Does all this change the essence of a river? Is it even still a river?
These speculative questions, for which the arts are particularly well suited, assume real significance in a state like present-day California that depends entirely on technological control of rivers for its prosperity and very survival. Seeing a river in California for what it is now—namely water-put-to-work—can abet a number of other vital inquiries, such as: if water in the state is essentially a resource or even a commodity, who owns it and how are these owners positioning themselves for the water shortages of the future due to climate change and population growth? How is the current regard for water connected to California’s murderous, colonial past, and what can we gain from such an understanding? And/or how can California avoid its seemingly inevitable fate of privatized water markets, unreliable access to clean water for the poor and profound income inequality? Such questioning “prepares a free relationship” towards the issue, to quote Martin Heidegger. It reveals and opens. It renders something that appears universal, absolute and given—in this case our extractive attitude toward water and farming—as contingent and therefore mutable through political activism and civic engagement.
We make this particular connection to Heidegger despite all his baggage because he provides a number of indispensable analytic tools for perceiving what is really at stake with environmental issues, not to mention his inventive and evocative vocabulary. Further, an encounter with Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of rivers proved transformative to our own art-activist project Water Gold Soil. As artists working with the medium of landscape photography, we first looked towards what is visible in the land in order to represent the drought issue in California. A reading of Heidegger and other research then provoked us to consider what lies behind what can be seen. A key thought sits in Heidegger’s before-and-after comparison of the Rhine River found in “The Question Concerning Technology”:
The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant…. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station…. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.
Seeing the way “a river in the landscape” can actually be more fundamentally defined by its economic uses (power supplier, tourism and recreation site, irrigator) became the presiding impulse of our own project. Accordingly, we photographed the transition from the wilderness incarnation of this water flow in the Sierra Nevada to its first damming, and then on to its increasing subjection to rationalization and canalization, and finally to its dispersal in various end-uses, primarily agricultural. The most basic goal of the photography and the video we took was simply to reveal the “river” as economic rather than scenic—and by “river” here, we mean both our particular water flow and by extension all such “rivers” in California.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video installation, 17 min, TULCA Art Festival, Galway, Ireland. Voiceover text: “From this point on the water does that flow. They pushed it along with pumps. They extracted it from the Delta, and moved it into two canals. One headed for the big cities and one headed to the desert farms. The water commodity.”
This may seem obvious, but the productiveness of this enterprise became evident when an environmental organization giving us an award requested that we put more images of “beauty” and “wildness” into an exhibition of our work. Indeed, the typical maneuver of photographers working on environmental issues is to show a particular landscape as pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of protecting, or else to show “damage” to the land caused by the impurities of pollution and industrialization. However, such obsession with purity, which has historically motivated the environmental movement in the United States, deadens an adequate response to issues like climate change or water rights in California. In both cases, sufficiently powerful animus and solidarity must derive from a heightened sense of both the dangers and opportunities. Urgency comes from care for and protection of life, social justice, empathy, economic opportunity and restoration of the sacred. Each of these themes came together in Standing Rock.
The purity paradigm continues to grip the environmental community, but so long as it does it will jeopardize its efficacy. For such an interest in conservation, preservation, and beauty, tremendously understates the danger of our current ecological crisis and renders the ecological crisis the sole province of a privileged class. Here too Heidegger can be of some assistance, albeit with significant caveats. Heidegger’s description of the hydro-electric plant in the Rhine comes amid a larger discussion of what he identified as “the supreme danger” to mankind. This supreme danger presents itself to Heidegger first in the guise of “modern technology.” Modern technology for Heidegger differs from what precedes it in that “it puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored.” Heidegger terms this essential aspect of modern technology a “challenging forth,” which he contrasts with the gentler “bringing forth” (poiesis) of older technology. Poeisis, of course, is also the mode of the arts (i.e., poetry), the significance of which we explore below. In this connection, Heidegger contrasts the impact of a wooden bridge over the Rhine to that of the hydro-electric dam per the above quotation. The wooden bridge brings forth place, dwelling, cultivation of the land; whereas the dam challenges forth the river to yield energy that might in turn be used for industrial processes.
To understand how this is not merely a nostalgic, wistful call for a return to a past primitivism, we must understand exactly what is so unreasonable about the demand Heidegger identifies that modern technology puts to nature. The danger here is not the loss of an attribute of the river we might call beautiful or the imposition of a stain on its purity that can ultimately be restored through effective advocacy; rather, the danger lies in the complete transformation in the nature of the river within a means-ends order. It has become, in Heidegger’s terminology, a “standing reserve.” The river is not alone. In a world dominated by modern technology, Heidegger writes:
Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a furthering ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve.
Another way of saying this is that within the challenging forth of modern technology everything becomes a resource, or as Heidegger writes elsewhere “something is only through what it performs.” Heidegger gives a couple of other examples besides the transformation of the river. He contrasts a windmill with coal power. Whereas with the windmill things “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing,” with coal “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out” with the result that the “earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as mineral deposit.” He also contrasts older farming techniques with industrial agriculture, emphasizing the lost values of care and maintenance, words which together we might call by a different name—sustainability.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. The pipes depicted here in the right channel of the video are part of infrastructure originally built to support gold mining by regulating flow in the South Fork of the American River. The same infrastructure was later re-purposed for irrigation agriculture and suburban development. Voiceover text: “Pipes followed as if demanded by logic itself…. But the pipes were kept hidden, tucked away. So that a faucet could appear like a stream.”
By this logic, in order to answer the question, “What is a river in California?,” we must first answer the question of specifically what that river is used for, what it performs. It is not enough simply to observe that it is technological in some generic sense. Of course, a given river in California might have various uses. (It is illuminating in this regard to examine Bureau of Reclamation spreadsheets showing just who owns each acre foot of water in each river.) Notice, however, how Heidegger articulates the usage of the river in terms of a system: the water moves the turbines, which moves machines that create the electrical current, which in turn moves along cables to be stored and distributed. The underlying logic of the challenging forth is that it is extracting and storing energy with the purpose to further something else, namely some industry.
We chose to follow a water flow toward its end use specifically in the industry of large-scale agriculture because this is the dominant industry governing much of California’s water infrastructure. Jay Lund, one of the leading experts on water in California and editor of the California Water Blog, describes the system of water management in California, as follows:
By 1980, a vast network of reservoirs, canals and exploited aquifers transformed California. This system was largely designed to support an agricultural economy envisioned in the latter 1800s, which greatly exceeded the gold mining economy it replaced.
In this single concise quotation, you have all the elements of our project: Water, Gold, Soil. The “agricultural economy” (i.e. soil) is the descendant of the gold mining economy, and both were entirely dependent on water—agriculture for obvious reasons, and gold because not only was gold first found in the rivers, but water in the form of sluices and later water cannons was essential to mining operations. As Norris Hundley writes of the gold mining industry in California: “they built hydraulic empires of dams, reservoirs, flumes, ditches, pipes and hoses. All this in turn required knowledge of advanced engineering principles, now introduced for the first time on a large scale in the West and later used to build other great public and private projects.” In addition to the technological confidence and infrastructure, perhaps a more important legacy of the gold mining industry on the agriculture industry that supplanted it was the legal framework for how to regard ownership of a river in the first place.  In particular, the notion that one could claim a right to some water simply being the first to put it to some vaguely defined “beneficial use” originated in California with the Gold Rush. The havoc wrecked by the mixing of this “prior appropriation” right with other sorts of rights (namely riparian) has been well documented.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Voiceover text: “They first discovered Gold near this place on the American River, setting off a worldwide hysteria that has been treated comprehensively by Brandt and others.”
However, Lund leaves out half of the equation. The other major driver of water infrastructure development in California was, and continues to be, real estate development and speculation. This story has been comprehensively told in Norris Hundley’s The Great Thirst and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument can be made that agriculture in California is itself simply real estate investment in disguise. With a Heideggerian flourish we might say (as we do in a video piece that is part of our project): “Water spread over land by wind and rain transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.” Many in addition to Hundley have recited this history, which in broad brush strokes looks like this: the government wrests away land populated by Native Americans and grants it outright to large corporations, including railroads and oil companies; the companies market the land to settlers who begin to farm it and increase its value under lease agreements; the same large landowners then successfully lobby the government for massive, multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure projects, cynically invoking the Jeffersonian image of the small farmer (this includes the San Luis reservoir, which is the hub of the water flow in our Water Gold Soil project); the construction of these projects is granted under the agreement that the large landowners will sell off their land into smaller parcels to support small business and families; this sell-off is never done and the military-scale federal investment in infrastructure is thereby translated into direct real estate gains by the large owners. Studies have shown the deleterious effects of corporate farming on communities, as the owners of these lands get rich while the people working on them are mired in some of the country’s most dire poverty. In the ultimate irony, many communities within these farming districts (known perversely as water districts) completely lack access to any water at all, or else are subjected to poisonous levels of pollution.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Irrigation in Westlands Water District. Voiceover text: “Water spread over land by wind and clouds transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.”
Here we approach the crux of the argument and an identification both of what is valuable and vexing about Heidegger. For Heidegger, if the reduction of the natural world to a standing reserve is the danger, then the “supreme danger” is the reduction of humans themselves to the status of this standing reserve, as with the laborers of the Central Valley most obviously, but, in fact, as with all of us living within a world defined by modern technology. This reduction of nature, labor and all people to a standing reserve is a function not of technology itself but what Heidegger calls the essence of modern technology: enframing (Gestell). What sort of thing is enframing? One is tempted to call it a worldview, an orientation, a theory, a way of representing the world, or even an ideology, but Heidegger scrupulously avoids these sorts of epistemological terms—a fact that accounts for much of the difficulty of his text. For him, enframing is not simply a way of seeing things. It is itself generative as a mode of revealing the world, a mode of existence. Enframing reveals by ordering, framing, putting things into boxes. Enframing alters what is actual, not just how we see the actual. Under the sway of enframing, objects, and ultimately human beings themselves, turn into a mere function of their instrumentality.
However, while enframing is not itself a way of seeing, it is, paradoxically, both the by-product of and the necessary condition of a way of seeing, which Heidegger calls out as “modern mathematical science.” Perhaps a helpful way of understanding the enframing concept is to see it as that force within “modern mathematical science’s” way of seeing that is productive of being—the binding force between epistemology and ontology. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” Heidegger writes, and this “theory of nature prepares the way not just for modern technology but for the essence of modern technology [i.e., enframing].” Heidegger emphasizes that this occurs at a particular time in history—that is to say, something else came before. With an ecological dynamic, culture, in all its myriad modes of representation (scientific, artistic, conversational, etc.) is produced by, and in turn, propagates this ontological enframing force. Heidegger lays down the marker between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages: “What actuality is in Durer’s picture ‘The Columbine’ is determined differently from what is actual in a medieval fresco.” Indeed, there is something crucial about this transition. The creeping ooze of enframing spread over the entire world as we moved through the epochs labeled the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity and indeed Post-Modernity (which, we understand as neo-liberalism by another name). The story of enframing’s creep is the story of colonialism, and it is also the story of our project in which documentation of a given “river” is both real and allegorical. Our assembly of images and words is representational of an actual water flow at a given point in time, but also of the broader historical trajectory of the Age of Extraction. California is an interesting case study in the epistemo-ontological creep of enframing because it is so compressed and so stark.
Enframing II, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches. Appropriated image from United States Geological Society with permission.
Yet, in the final analysis we make quite different hay than Heidegger out of this recognition of enframing’s historicity. Heidegger’s primary concern throughout his work is Being, by which he means the essence of human existence. We will not follow him into these considerations, which are dense with thorns, except to say this overarching concern of Heidegger’s leads him to consider the “supreme danger” of enframing as bearing most importantly on man’s ability to continue to live as he essentially is—in all his aloneness and glory. This preoccupation of Heidegger’s, seeped in a brew of human exceptionalism and a pursuit of pure origins along with some other rather dubious notions, creates what seems to us like two blindingly obvious aporia in his questioning concerning technology, namely a consideration of agency in the development of enframing’s challenging forth, and relatedly a consideration of class and regional distinctions among the humans of this world. Who pushed forward the challenging forth of nature and labor that fell out of enframing like destiny? And who can stop it? In several places, Heidegger’s questioning brushes tantalizing close to Marx—for example in his observation that the challenging forth of technology is invested in “driving on to the maximum yield and the minimum expense”; or in his description of humans becoming a standing reserve, which seems to harken to Marx’s analysis of alienation. However, Heidegger does not pursue a material, economic understanding of what is threatening about the enframing phenomenon. This leads to a very nebulous conception of its origins and import, as well as to a misunderstanding of the ways in which we can engage in overcoming it.
Heidegger never forged an explicit political philosophy but expressed that a revolution in thinking was needed to avoid the tragic subjection of humans themselves to the status of a standing reserve. We do not normally think of Heidegger as an activist, but in the Introduction to Metaphysics he states: “we dare to take up the great and lengthy task of tearing down a world that has grown old and of building it truly anew.” He had an exalted view of both philosophy and art in this process. In fact, it was to these activities alone that he ascribed any real power. The world had to be re-created through a heroic exertion of complicated thought, embodied best in poetry. Heidegger was silent about how this deep thought might be conveyed to the citizenry and how in turn it might lead to concrete changes in policy or political systems. Not surprisingly, this giant lacuna in Heidegger’s thought resulted in personal exhaustion and disillusionment, such that he ultimately declared in an interview with Das Spiegel: “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor” because “the greatness of what is to be thought is [all] too great.” Heidegger broodingly concluded that only “God can save us.”
Taken as disillusionment on Heidegger’s part, this spirit all too commonly results from detaching the abstract work of world creating (via worldview changing) from the concrete work of political activism aimed specifically at agents of the danger. For there are indeed agents. Could not the mysterious ecological relation that Heidegger describes between the scientific mode of representation, enframing, the challenging forth of nature (and labor), and finally the transformation of the world into a standing reserve be more reductively described as the application of modern science towards making money? Does he not overlook the crucial ingredient of greed as the dominant driver of certain (though not all) humans and the force that adds the unreasonable challenging forth of nature (and labor) to enframing? The development of exploitative economic systems arose out of an ability to systematically demarcate and make predictions (about how to build a ship and navigate, about how to build a dam, about how much water is needed to get a certain size crop, about where gold might be, about how to make an equivalent exchange, etc.). Heidegger shows how the self-perpetuating logic of this system alters our worldview, cuts off pathways to the sacred and defeats humility. Yet, by failing to ascribe agency in the process, he concludes that “Human activity can never directly counter the danger.” This flies in the face of actual gains that social movements can and do make all the time, even as this more fundamental work of culture changing happens in the background. Shout out to: Cesar Chavez, to 350.org, to anti-fracking movements in New York, to dam-removal movements and their successes on the Yakima and other rivers, etc.
To state it simply, there are two fronts to changing the world: changing ideology (i.e., ways of seeing and representing); and changing material conditions. As such, the work of poets, artists and thinkers is symbiotic with the work of activists, not isolated a la Heidegger; it is on this level that we think of our work as art-activist. A poetic way of seeing the world—defined here as an investment in non-rational consciousness and empathic understanding—is absolutely required for an effective activism, not only because it opens up a new relation to the world, but also because it restores enchantment and inherently combats the challenging forth of enframing with the alternative form of revealing articulated by Heidegger as the bringing forth of poiesis. However, poetry/art do not happen in a vacuum and no real change can be achieved there without changes in material conditions, which is what Heidegger fundamentally missed. Once again, the phenomenon is an ecological cycle, a dialectic.
We believe in the role of the artist as historian, specifically in this sense of the art-activist who contributes to a transformation of worldview. To represent a river in California, our job is to show not only what it is now, but to represent its now-ness as a form of (avoidable) destiny—here again Heidegger is instructive, for he speaks of enframing and also poiesis not just as modes of revealing, but as modes of destining. History arrives, and it is always arriving. It is not unearthed intact. The image is the tool by which we convey this. As Benjamin said, “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” This is the mode of the artist as historian.
With respect to California, we have found it illuminating to stare at a blank outline of the now-iconic shape that forms the boundaries of the state. That shape, which owes its Eastern contour to the desire to capture as much gold-harboring land as possible, has become one of the primary images of our project. It reflects all the capriciousness and violence, even absurdity, of political borders. These lines were drawn in 1849, the year after gold was discovered in the state. How was this same land understood before the lines were drawn? What was a river then? Is there a clue there to what it could be now?
11 October 1849, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print, 18 x 22 inches. Title refers to the date that the state legislature formally adopted the boundary lines of the State of California.
The creation of that shape we now know as the borders of California was an arrival, not an inception. The destining started with the Spanish lust for gold, which animated their colonial adventures. Some believe the very word California was invented by a Spanish fiction writer named Montalvo in the early 16th Century. Montalvo gave the name “California” to a fantastic land of desire and gold in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (published in 1510). In this book, the inhabitants of California were all-powerful women who ate men after laying with them in order to bear children. There was gold everywhere. The women wore gold harnesses and hunted with gold weapons. Montalvo called it California because it was a caliphate, a land of infidels. Yet, he also placed the territory “very near to a side of Earthly paradise.”
This was fantasy, but fantasy transforms fact. Ten years after Montalvo’s book was published, the colonist Hernan Cortes wrote a letter to the King of Spain from present-day Baja California, in which he purported to confirm the nearby existence of just such a place as Montalvo described (earthly paradise, lots of gold, only women who ate men, etc.). Cortes was likely angling for continued investment in his colonizing enterprise, but it is telling that he thought his report would be both enticing and sufficiently credible to his benefactor. Not long after Cortes’ letter, maps begin appearing with Montalvo’s word “California” labeling some of the lands Cortes colonized and after a while this became the accepted name of the region. Montalvo’s fantasy reified.
However, when the first Spanish mission entered into the territory of California more than two hundred years later in 1769, it was not the word “oro” (gold) that appeared obsessively in the diaries of its leaders, but the word “aqua.” Nearly every day that was their primary concern. They hunted down rivers. They had to hold water before they could hold gold. On 24 January 1848, everything came together when some other colonists found gold laying around in the American River. The mass hysteria that followed produced the near extermination of the Native people and rapid industrialization.
Of course, this gold had been sitting in the rivers all along but the Native Americans did not value it. Seeing value in gold is a purely imaginative exercise and dependent on a given worldview (enframing). John Sutter, the owner of the land on which gold was found on California, remarked without apparent irony that:
It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold.
One is reminded of Marx’s paradigmatic, if racially tinged, account of the commodity fetish and the absurdity of a materialist theory of value: “The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it, and then threw it into the sea.”
There is a paradox at the core of history: how do we see the present as a destining, as the seemingly inevitable outcome of past events with all the gravity that implies, and at the same time see that very destining as contingent and therefore as mutable? This sort of maneuver requires a negative capability that is not the province of science, including history performed as science, but is the province of art and myth. When we ask, “What is a river?,” we would do well to attend the poet, as Heidegger recommends. Paraphrasing Holderlein, Heidegger gave this answer to the question before us:
“As a vanishing, the river is underway into what has been. As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming.”
Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners, unknown photographer, c. 1851. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.
The Nisenan Maidu name for the American River was Kum Sayo, meaning Roundhouse River, referring to a structure that the Nisenan Maidu used for dances and other ceremonies. This building was the center of a Maidu community. A particularly large and important roundhouse was located at the mouth of the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River, in the vicinity of this highway bridge. Other roundhouses could be found all along the American River. The domesticity implied in the Maidu name for the river contrasts with later names applied by European colonists: The River of Sorrows; Wild River (so named because of the ostensibly “wild” nature of the Maidu living there); the River Ojotska (a phonetic rendering of the Russian word for hunter); Rio de los Americanos (named for the American trappers that had begun to use the river).
 See Benjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.
 These ideas are developed more fully in other Heidegger writing on rivers, most notably in Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, trans. William McNeil and Julia Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) and “Build Dwelling Thinking” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), esp. 330-339.
 Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.
 Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].
 Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.
 See Hundley, The Great Thirst, 86, but there is also an extensive literature on this crucial question. To cite just two important examples: Donald J. Pisani, Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), and more recently, Mark Kanazawa, Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
 General accounts can be found in Hundley; see also Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Monclair: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978); Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005). In our project we focused particularly on Westlands, an understanding of which we owe to in part to: Lloyd G. Carter, “Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty,” Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3 (2009): 5-42, http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/gguelj/vol3/iss1/3; and Ed Simmons, Westlands Water District: The First 25 Years, published by Westland Water District itself in 1983.
 See Goldschmidt, As You Sow (referenced above) and see also the work of Dean McCannell, which updated the legendary Goldschimdt study, and also the work of Paul Taylor (Dorothea Lange’s collaborator). An unpublished but excellent dissertation by Daniel J. O’Connell brings much of this work together: In the Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2011).
 It is hard to overcome thinking about causality in linear terms (which is itself a by-product of enframing). However, as ecological thinking is a thinking of relationships, it is also a thinking that dissolves linear causality in favor of cycles and dialectical relationships. Heidegger was perhaps more ecological than even he realized as his style of writing is cyclical.
 Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.
 Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai 1976): 193-219, trans. W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (n.p.: Precedent, 1981), ed. Thomas Sheehan, 45-67.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.
 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 5; and Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 59-65.
 “Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal” from García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, Seville, 1510, as found http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/california-its-naming-heritage, 7 July 2016. See also the argument for the Persian origin of the term from Kari-i-farn (“the mountain of Paradise”), suggested earlier by Carey McWilliams, in Josef Chytry, Mountain of Paradise: Reflections of the Emergence of Greater California as a World Civilization (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 13-15.
Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris use photography, video, writing, and installation to investigate and to contribute to the development of ecological consciousness. Their work has been exhibited in diverse venues internationally. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media about climate change and other ecological issues. They teach in the Transmedia Department and are part of The Canary Lab at Syracuse University.
This essay is part of the artists’ larger Water Gold Soil project, which brought them to California late 2014 to document drought conditions as part of the ongoing A History of the Future project. Water Gold Soil: American Riverrepresents a river in present-day California. Yet, the river represented by Sayler/Morris hovers between the real and the allegorical and their time perspective shifts between the past, present and future. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media.
“We ought to love our own states and our own home places better than any others. That is our duty. But to love our own places is to recognize—or it ought to be—that other people love their places better than they love ours. This, too, is our duty. If we love our places, if we recognize that other people love their places, then maybe it is also our duty to refrain from bombing or in any way harming any place. Our own or anybody else’s. So I am speaking here as a Kentuckian, as I should.”
—Wendell Berry, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, 25 September 2010
At the age of 24, the farmer, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry packed up and left Kentucky for California to join the creative writing program at Stanford in Palo Alto. What he did not pack for the journey was plans to return to Kentucky. Berry had absorbed the notion that homes—particularly homes in the dying rural communities of Middle America—were for leaving, and that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Berry would later dispute this received wisdom in several essays and limn the contours of it in his fiction, but it took him careful reflection to get to that point. From the distance of several decades, these reflections are surprising to revisit since he is so closely tied to his place and has been since 1964. But what if Wendell Berry had just stayed in California like countless Americans before and since?
In a national literature marked prominently by restlessness, roads, and waterways, Berry has written eloquently about placed people, about those who have returned home or never left. Some American escapes have been romantic adventures, some desperate necessities, and some have been both. If the American past has encouraged and even demanded a national literature filled with stories of escape, at times making a romance out of a necessity, Berry has tried through his writing to open up possibilities for an American future that includes not just escapes but returns. Escapes may be riveting, but, whether the perception is accurate or not, an escape implies something deficient about the place and people that caused it. Escapes are not just adventures but fractures.
By rendering wholly, concretely, and imaginatively one place, Port Royal, Kentucky, through both history and fiction (“Port William” in his fiction), Berry has imagined for his readers the possibility of families, communities, and places that make a return more fulfilling, more joyful, and possibly even more romantic than an escape. But he has not just lectured Americans about why they should return to their places, as he did to his. His story is not simply about a return. It is about building places that inspire returns, where duty and desire coexist. He has lived and imagined a return to a place worth preserving; he has practiced an art of return. As readers of his work know, this is not because his place is better than other places, but because it is his, by both birth and choice. To care for a given place does not demand the denigration of other places: “There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”
The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places. In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”
But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.
Berry admired The Odyssey, and he wrote movingly about it in The Unsettling of America. Focused attention on the allusions to California in his work and then the work that he did there suggests that California as Calypso’s Island comprises his primary relation to the state. Remembering is the most vivid example.
In the turning point of the novel, the protagonist Andy Catlett finds himself restless in an ugly San Francisco hotel room. To escape, he goes for a night walk through the city at 4 a.m. His restlessness is the consequence of two festering wounds. One started with a literal wound. Andy had mangled his hand in a farming accident, it was amputated, and he has been withdrawing into himself and away from his family in his sadness and anger. The other is his lonely opposition to industrial agriculture and the economic justifications for it, exacerbated by his participation in an agriculture conference earlier that day.
Andy’s walk through dead-of-night San Francisco is marked by heightened interiority and intense moral panic. He is completely inside himself, and surprised by any sensory perceptions. He sees the people around him as souls. They occasionally speak to him, puncturing his interiority but only briefly. His wanderings lead to a pier, “the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water,” and Andy realizes that he is free, that he could forsake Kentucky, his troubled marriage, and his farm that he can no longer work independently. He could just reside in San Francisco and no one would find him. But this possibility begins to look more like the “freedom” of an astronaut cut off from the shuttle, careening away through zero gravity: “All distance is around him, and he wants nothing that he has. All choice is around him and he knows nothing that he wants.”
As morning breaks into this dark night of the soul, he is remembered into Port William through his past and begins again to choose. Port William will not let him spiral into space. He sees that he has no meaningful future without his past, and it is his recollections of specific people and places that bring his mind back into his body and enable him to act. Though he cannot replace his amputated hand, he is remembered in every other sense of the word.
At the risk of turning Berry’s character into Berry himself, it is reasonable to guess that Berry saw his own experiences in California similarly. His past grew hazy, his future weightless. Being outside of his place pushed him outside of himself. “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” published journal entries from his 1968-1969 visit to Stanford, grant some historical weight. After a midnight walk across a golf course, he wrote, “I have become, in a very cool, knowing way, hungry to be at home again. I want back the clear, exacting sense of myself that I only get from being at work there on my writing and on the place itself.”
But even if this is the dominant relation, it is not all that can be said about Wendell Berry in California. Berry himself has acknowledged the “necessarily confusing” difficulty of tracing influences in a writer’s life, or any person’s life. He has been surprised by much of what he has written. He has attempted to trace influences; however, and it is therefore easier to discuss his relationship with Californians rather than California without conjecture.
Mount Tamalpais State Park via Flickr user Steve Rhodes.
Among the Californians who influenced him, one stands above all others: Tanya Amyx Berry, to whom he has been married for over half a century. She was born in Berkeley in 1936, where her father was doing graduate work, and spent her early childhood there before her parents made their own return to Kentucky in 1945 so her father could take a position at the University of Kentucky. It is a fool’s errand to attempt to untangle the mutual influences between them in relation to their respective places, but from his published letters to the California poet Gary Snyder it is at least evident that Berry enjoyed developing his own affections for places, such as Mount Tamalpais, that were special to Tanya in her childhood.
Less difficult to elaborate is the influence of another Californian, the novelist, essayist, historian, and founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, Wallace Stegner. By awarding Berry a fellowship to attend the creative writing program at Stanford, Stegner opened the first possibility for him to leave Kentucky. But by being a regional writer who cared about his region, Stegner also opened for Berry the possibility of return (he also eventually suggested Berry for a position at the University of Kentucky, materially enabling his return in 1964). Stegner’s writing about his region went further than the standard creative writing program advice to “write what you know.” Though Berry did not really comprehend the lesson until after he had returned to Kentucky, Stegner had taught Berry how to be a regional writer who gives rather than takes. Stegner was a regional writer “who not only [wrote] about his region but also [did] his best to protect it, by writing and in other ways, from its would-be exploiters and destroyers.” Stegner knew he belonged to his region, shaped by its history for good and for ill. Among American writers, Berry thought Stegner was the first of significance to make that commitment to his region.
Berry contrasted Stegner with “industrialists of letters” who mine “one’s province for whatever can be got out of it in the way of ‘raw material’ for stories and novels.” In this, fiction is not simply harmless entertainment. Berry wrote, “I would argue that it has been possible for such writers to write so exploitatively, condescendingly, and contemptuously of their regions and their people as virtually to prepare the way for worse exploitation by their colleagues in other industries: if it’s a god-forsaken boondocks full of ignorant hillbillies, or a god-forsaken desert populated by a few culturally deprived ranchers, why not strip-mine it?”
In his reflection on Stegner, Berry writes that Stegner’s primary means of teaching was by “bestowing a kindness that implied an expectation, and by setting an example” and it seems that Stegner’s regionalism taught Berry as he was learning by his own efforts to become a generous regionalist himself. Being a few steps past Berry in the effort, Stegner proved to Berry that it was possible.
The point requires extrapolation beyond their writings, but it might even be the case that Stegner’s example almost shamed Berry into writing from his region. Despite similarities in style, sentiment, artistic range, and theme, their life histories were as different as are their native regions. As a reader of his work, Berry knew that Stegner’s regionalism was forged in a rejection of his father’s rootless wanderings across the West against his mother’s protestations, an experience embodied most vividly in his fictional account of his childhood, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Because his father chased booms throughout the West, from Saskatchewan to Washington to Utah, Stegner was from a region more than a place. Stegner found sensual comfort in the effects of aridity of the West, the ochres and parched whites under brilliant blue skies, but he had to choose a place to make a home (Los Altos Hills) since, like many deracinated Americans, he did not inherit one.
Berry’s sensual identification with the Appalachian forests of Kentucky was and is as keen as was Stegner’s with high desert plains and mountains, but Berry also had generations of stories and people awaiting his return. His regionalism was in part borne out of a renewed appreciation of his past as a moral resource. Though he was honest regarding the conquest of indigenous land and the institutional violence of slavery that accompanied his ancestors’ settlement in Kentucky and thereby made it possible for him to be a multiple-generation native Kentuckian, Berry valued these tangled roots too much to discard them. He had left several generations of family and friends to attend Stanford.
Stegner’s whole nuclear family had died just after he turned thirty and he barely knew any relatives or anyone else who had any recollection of him as a child. His past was contained almost exclusively in his own mind. There were no attics or relatives to remind him of it, to spark long unvisited memories, or to confirm hazy details. Perhaps Berry respected Stegner’s attempts to build a place despite his deracination; by observing Stegner’s efforts to find, keep, and respect a particular place over one lifetime, Berry then realized how rare and precious was his own generational rootedness to Kentucky and Appalachia. It was another of Stegner’s gifts that implied an expectation.
By Stegner’s own admission, and despite the example that Berry drew from his work, Stegner did not understand Berry’s attempt to write from Kentucky and in fact attempted to persuade him to stay on at Stanford following a visiting faculty appointment that Berry held in 1968-1969. Stegner thought Berry “owed it to [him]self and [his] gift to stay out where the action was.” “Fortunately,” Stegner wrote, in a retrospective article in 1990, “I got nowhere.” He was among the many of Berry’s admirers who thought he would be overwhelmed by his commitment to farming or underwhelmed by the intellectual companionship of his fellow Kentuckians and that the result would be the waste of a rare literary talent.
But Berry thought there might be “another measure” for his life than his literary output alone. He did not believe in Yeats’ choice between the “perfection of the life, or of the work,” a “fictitious choice” that “does damage to people who think they can actually make it.” He refused the choice by returning to Kentucky, and has reaffirmed it since then: “If anything I have written about this place can be taken to countenance the misuse of it, or to excuse anybody for rating land as ‘capital’ or its human members as ‘labor’ or ‘resources,’ my writing would have been better unwritten. And then to hell with any value anybody may find in it as ‘literature.’”
Mt Tamalpais via Flickr user Tom Hilton.
The visit to Stanford did not persuade Berry to stay there full-time, but it did provide him with the opportunity to reflect on the racial injustice that inflamed protests on the Stanford campus and the rest of the nation in the late Sixties. It seems that his observation of racism and race in California allowed him the distance to reflect on racism in Kentucky. It is here that it might be easier to think about how California influenced him as a place.
The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.
Berry describes the incidents that motivated him to write The Hidden Wound in the book’s “Afterword,” written for the 1989 edition. While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause. In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”
Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.
He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”
Berry’s essay was an attempt to acknowledge but transcend the double-binds that choke so many discussions of race, both then and now, by eschewing abstractions and turning to actual people and actual places. His thought was grounded in the assumption that “it is good for people to know each other.”  Berry’s essay includes an extended reflection of his love for a black man, Nick Watkins, and a black woman, Aunt Georgie, both of whom he knew in his childhood. He acknowledged that his relationship to them, including an understanding of their perception of and care for him, was always limited by segregation but also by difference in age, as well as the amount of time that had passed since they’d known each other. He had no way of knowing what they thought as he wrote the essay and was responsible in acknowledgement of his limitations, but he also knew that he loved them and that their example in his life was a “moral resource.”
For hooks, this is one of the most important insights of the essay, the acknowledgement that “inter-racial living, even in flawed structures of racial hierarchy, produces a concrete reality base of knowing and potential community that will simply be there.” These relationships can then serve to challenge the more common reality in which “all that white folks and black folks know of one another is what they find in the media, which is usually a set of stereotypical representations of both races.” What both Berry in the essay and hooks in her appreciation of it emphasize throughout is that places need holistic care: the inhabitants need to be open to each other and to strangers, and need to be sensitive to the limitations of the cultures and the flora and fauna that sustain it.
Berry’s reflections on his experiences in California are notable for what they are not and might very well have been—an exercise in distancing himself from his home for its racism or a rejection of the metropolis and retreat into jingoistic provincialism. Many in this situation choose, and then despise the rejected option. Berry chose Kentucky, but he chose a Kentucky that he both loved and sought to improve. He looked for his own native resources and tried to use them to their full potential.
If Berry’s return from California is more significant than his time in California, his call to make ourselves and our places worthy of returns and open to them is one abstraction that should not be limited by place. Berry has helped us imagine these returns as possibilities, and as possibilities that are meaningful and good. Not all of us can or even should return to our places of birth. But all of us—Californians, Kentuckians, Americans—should build places that make returns welcome, joyful possibilities.
Wendell Berry, photograph by C Guy Mendes, provided by Counterpoint Press.
The author would like to thank Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Eric Miller, Robert Corban, Katie Stewart, and the editors and reviewers from Boom for their thoughtful comments on this essay.
 Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill,” The Hudson Review 21 (Winter 1968-1969): 604-605. “A Native Hill” was republished in The Long-Legged House (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003). Berry also discusses his reflections on his return to Kentucky in The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989), 65.
 See Wallace Stegner’s “Living Dry” and “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecoeur” in The American West as Living Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987).
 Grace Elizabeth Hale examines the “romance of the outsider,” most prominent among white American men, and its historical significance in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). She highlights the fact that escapes and rebellions are, to some extent, not an option for many Americans. Neither are returns, in many cases. Reading Jeff Hobbs’ The Brief and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newarkfor the Ivy League (New York: Scribner, 2015) as an escape and return narrative illustrates this point more concretely.
 I am grateful to Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn for suggesting this phrase.
 Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” Poetry, January 2001.
 Wendell Berry, Imagination in Place (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010), 2. When he has written about other places, he has tended to write about their agricultural practices more than any of their other qualities. See for example, “Tuscany” in Citizenship Papers (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 175.
 Some shorter pieces have been written away from Kentucky as well, such as “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” included in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 36-55.
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1996), 123-130.
 Wendell Berry, Remembering (New York: North Point Press, 1988), 51.
 Mary Berry Smith, “My Mother’s Making of an Agrarian Home,” Edible: Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, June 2011.
 In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry writes of Mount Tamalpais, “it was a place very important to Tanya” and that after he lived in California, it “became an important place also to me.” Chad Wrigglesworth, ed., Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 245. Snyder is another Californian whom Berry has written to and about, and whose influence on Berry and vice versa deserves more recognition than it receives in this essay. The collection of letters is a good place to start.
 Stegner had a fraught relationship with California, but it was the place he chose to make his home, and he lived there from 1945 until his death in 1993.
 Mark McGurl has examined the influence of creative writing programs in the United States in the twentieth century in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
 Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 55. In a review of McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand discusses the negative reactions of ethnic minorities whose cultures are revealed by ethnic minorities in creative writing programs largely for the sake of outsiders or what Menand calls “literary tourists.” The New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” 8 June 2009.
 This theme occurs throughout Stegner’s work. One of the best places to explore it is in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1990), 127-138.
 Berry lists the regional writers that most inspired him in Imagination in Place, some of which predate Stegner, such as Sarah Orne Jewett. It is perhaps Stegner’s commitment to protecting his place more than his sense of belonging that led Berry to argue for his uniqueness (pp. 4-5).
 Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943). A cogent historical account of his childhood is found in “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 3-21.
 Stegner discusses his sense of where he is from most extensively in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” which is included and contextualized helpfully in Robert C. Steensma, Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 61-70.
 Included in The Long-Legged House, 75-88. Berry’s pacifism and willingness to take an unpopular stand in his home institution suggests that he did not need to go to California to “experience” the Sixties.
 Hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, 182-83.
Matthew D. Stewart is a PhD candidate in History at Syracuse University. His dissertation explores the intellectual history of the modern American West through the career of Wallace Stegner. He was a scholar-facilitator for the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council’s Summer Teacher’s Institute, “Wallace Stegner and the Consciousness of Place,” and is currently a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York.
Point Reyes National Seashore via Flickr user Andrew Seles.
Nathan F. Sayre
Laura Watt’s catchy title, The Paradox of Preservation, doesn’t do her book proper justice. What she terms a paradox is more accurately a contradiction: because landscapes are never static but “actually dynamic, continually shaped by social forces… and similarly affecting the forms those social forces take” (p. 5), they cannot be preserved but only managed. Moreover, it is the politics of land management, rather than any paradox, that makes the case of Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) so important. The changes that have occurred there in 50-plus years of preservation, Watt argues, have been “invisible to the public” and “invisible to the managers, who present them to the public as part of what was originally preserved” (p. 5).
This may seem paradoxical, but in the first instance it is some combination of error and deception—if it must alliterate, perhaps perversion is a better word than paradox? We are dealing with a case of collective illusion, akin to the “conspiracy of optimism” that Paul Hirt diagnosed in the Forest Service, but perpetrated in the name of wilderness rather than timber production. Anyone who wonders why rural agricultural producers are so suspicious of environmentalists, or who thinks that ranchers’ complaints about the federal government are nothing more than paranoid delusions, needs to read this book.
Watt opens her account with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision, in late 2012, to terminate the lease that permitted the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to operate in Drake’s Estero, an estuary situated within a designated “potential wilderness” in PRNS. She closes by likening the “absolutist environmental organizations” (p. 233) that opposed the oyster farm to the militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. But cows and ranchers, not oysters, are the primary focus of Watt’s book, which grew out of her doctoral research at UC Berkeley. (Full disclosure: Watt studied with a former colleague of mine, although she was not a student in our department.)
Point Reyes is one of a handful of national seashores administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but created in places and for reasons quite different from national parks. In 1962, when the enabling legislation for PRNS was passed, the entire peninsula was private land, descended from a Mexican-era land grant that had been finagled into Anglo hands a century earlier. Point Reyes comprised some two-dozen ranches, encircled by a rugged and supremely scenic coastline, all within easy driving distance of the booming San Francisco metropolitan area.
Point Reyes via Flickr user Stefan Klocek.
PRNS was antidote to and offspring of post-war urban sprawl. Congressman Claire Engle claimed in 1958 that public acquisition was the only way to protect Point Reyes from subdivision and development. This was untrue, Watt explains, but also self-fulfilling: speculators seized the opportunity to buy land and demand inflated prices from the federal government. This reinforced a vicious cycle: prices climbed, values rose, property taxes increased, and estate tax exposure exploded. Park Service Director George Hartzog positively exploited the situation by asking Congress to allow his agency to develop home sites to help offset acquisition costs. Congress demurred, but the ranch owners eventually agreed to NPS acquisition in exchange for long-term leases to continue ranching, seeing it as their only way out of the property and estate tax traps they had fallen into. In short, the NPS played “the major role… at Point Reyes, both in pushing to establish the park in the first place, and in driving the threat of development, thereby creating its own justification for acquiring the ranches” (p. 95). If it happened today, scholars would call this a land grab.
Watt portrays PRNS as both relict and bellwether of larger trends. Fee simple ownership gave the NPS ultimate authority over land use and management, even if private uses—including cattle grazing, dairy production and the oyster farm—were grandfathered in and protected by explicit legislative testimony as well as long-term leases. Shortly later, a backlash against perceived government encroachment on private lands and property rights helped propel the Reagan revolution, and in other parts of the country the NPS devised alternative models that permitted more private lands to persist within or around parks. But at Point Reyes the older paradigm held, and tensions mounted over the decades.
Many scholars have critiqued “wilderness” as a tool of colonial exploitation and an ecologically incoherent, environmentalist fetish. Watt adds an intriguing wrinkle to this literature, arguing that the original intent of both the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 statute that created the category “potential wilderness” was to prevent federal agencies from building new roads and developments, not to eliminate previously existing private uses and activities. She shows how an evolving alliance of NPS officials and environmental groups inverted this intent and turned the potential wilderness designation against ranchers and the oyster farm. Only forty percent of the land area devoted to ranching in 1962 remains in that use today, and roughly half of the built environment inside PRNS—including at least 170 buildings—has been demolished. By omission and commission alike, the NPS has worked to produce “the invisibility of the working landscape” (p. 142) in favor of “the appearance of hands-off, ‘wild’ nature” (p. 158, emphasis in original). As Watt pointedly puts it, “the authentic past is that which the authorities have chosen to preserve” (p. 21).
By the 1990s, PRNS and NPS officials viewed the dairies and ranches of Point Reyes as doomed anachronisms, destined to go out of business and thus unworthy of consideration. This again proved both false and self-fulfilling. The ranches persevered and even thrived in the marketplace by going organic, shifting into value-added products, and tapping into the Bay Area’s flourishing local “foodie” scene. But PRNS decisions regarding wildlife—especially the tule elk, which was (re)introduced to various parts of the peninsula in mysterious, seemingly duplicitous ways—depleted the ranches’ forage base, which could void their organic certification by forcing their cattle off of the native pastures. As leases came due, NPS negotiations for renewal or extension were capricious, ad hoc and divisive, further undermining the ranches’ viability.
The Point Reyes shipwreck via Flickr user m01229.
Many of the details of this history are difficult to sift and reconcile from the tangle of conflicting memories, interviews, media stories and NPS documents that Watt assembled in her research. No doubt there are PRNS officials who might dispute some or many of her claims. Suffice to say, first, that Watt’s 20-year effort is undoubtedly more disinterested, sustained and thoroughgoing than any others, and second, that the “official” story has long since passed into a twilight zone of bureaucratic doublespeak and face-saving evasions.
When Watt returns to the battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, in her final chapter, it functions as an indirect or proxy validation of her larger interpretation. Starting in 2006, the NPS blamed the oyster farm for various environmental damages. “None of these claims have stood up to scientific scrutiny” (p. 189). A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the PRNS had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information” (p. 189) in evaluating the oyster operation’s effects on Drakes Estero, and the Interior Department’s own Office of the Solicitor “found five NPS officials and scientists guilty of violating the NPS Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct” (p. 191) by among other things withholding relevant material and data from the oyster company and the National Academy panel. In short, the credibility of the NPS and PRNS is severely compromised.
Ultimately, Secretary Salazar admitted that he shut down the oyster farm simply because commerce and wilderness are incompatible, not because of any scientific data (p. 199). “A long tradition of cultivation has vanished—in exchange, more or less, for a label, since the estero was already managed as wilderness… environmental activists have sacrificed the relative wild for an idealized one” (p. 213). And in so doing, they have been complicit in many of the same mendacious and duplicitous tactics that they habitually ascribe to big industry.
Watt correctly notes that this outcome is “increasingly out of step” with larger trends locally, nationally and globally, which uphold the value of agriculture, collaboration and heritage. “The NPS needs to recognize that residents have a different relationship to place than do visitors, and particularly that working the land, especially over generations, creates a unique connection that should be respected and incorporated into management practices” (p. 220). Instead, the NPS has “sacrific[ed] their needs to the illusion of pristine nature” (p. 5) and succumbed to environmentalists who “confuse a sense of shared national heritage with actual ownership and control” (p. 23).
In July 2017, a settlement was announced in a lawsuit, brought by environmentalists against the NPS, challenging the ranches’ leases in PRNS. The agreement provides five-year lease extensions to the ranches, during which time the NPS must assess the effects of grazing and formulate an official management plan. There is every reason to suspect that five years will not be enough time for the assessment and planning tasks—after all, the NPS has been pledging to do these very things for more than 30 years. But it is more than enough time for everyone involved to read Laura Watt’s book.
Point Reyes Oyster Farm via Flickr user Ross Mayfield.
 Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).
 Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
 William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7-28.
Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of Geography at the University of California Berkeley. He specializes in the history and politics of rangeland conservation and management. His books include Working Wilderness: the Malpai Borderlands Groupand the Future of the Western Range; Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest; and The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science.
Lately, I’ve put summers in the service of natural history, something I didn’t get much of as a kid. As much as I protest to friends and family that I do not have summers “off,” academic life frees my summers from the usual workaday constraints. Last summer it was collecting butterflies: easier on the joints than the prior summer’s three-week trek through the Sierra Nevada, but disadvantaged by some unfortunate optics: I’m in my forties, and as Vladimir Nabokov, another forty-something would-be lepidopterist, once noted, “the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.” On one afternoon collecting “expedition” to a city park not far from where I live, I found myself under a dense canopy of riparian willows, in a spot well off the path, damp, and full of litter. I’m in the North Atwater Bioswale, a densely vegetated ditch or gully bordering the Los Angeles River. My dog Amelia, a reluctant assistant, stands close in the somewhat wild place, on lookout for dangers known only to her, while I peer from beneath the boughs for evidence of my quarry, the elusive Western Tiger Swallowtail.
This huge, four- to five-inch “splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail,” is a marvel of invertebrate life. And it is appropriately smug about it, rarely mucking about with us terrestrials. Its massive wingspan allows it to sail at high altitudes for an eternity. Though I’ve spotted a dozen of them, to my consternation I’ve never been able to net one. But patient observation reveals that they do occasionally descend to sublunar levels. Like planes over a landing strip, they drop through the middle and lowest part of the swale that forms a treeless alleyway of dense coyote brush and California gold bush where there are no paths. This alleyway terminates at its southern end in the arboreal grotto where I’m standing, and where the swallowtails go for reasons I have yet to divine.
Positioned in hope of netting one just as it enters, right out of the air, I hear on the path above me two teenagers talking animatedly. They can’t see me but I see them pretty clearly. So there I am, not just a forty-something man with too much unstructured time and a butterfly net, but a forty-something creeper, barely out of view of a pair of teenagers, ducking self-consciously under dank vegetal cover, with a butterfly net, wondering if I could get arrested for this.
It is soon apparent they are arguing about Pokémon Go. They’re in my swale because their phones told them of an invisible, imaginary animal here somewhere, a Pokémon, and they are out to collect it. Overnight, my swale has become host to digital fauna in addition to the analog ones I’m staking out. Suddenly it makes sense why I’ve seen more mothers out with their kids today than in all my previous visits combined. They, like those teens arguing about Jigglypuff or Wartortle or whatever, are looking to net Pokémon. Who knows how many Pokémon are all around me that I can’t see. The place is probably an ark of Pokémon, an illuminated eBestiary of “augmented” nature. And it is clear these players do not pursue their quarry with the same self-conscious shame with which I pursue mine.
The juxtaposition struck me as odd: Me, with net and jangly bag of killing jars, copy of Heath’s Butterflies of Southern California, field notebook, scratched up from clamoring off the path to this spot known mostly to swallowtails and secret pot smokers, sweaty, covered in the ants that rain down from the willows above, and worrying that Amelia might step on god knows what—a used needle? They, inside-kids clearly unused to being outdoors (you can just tell), clutching their Androids, indifferent to the actual fauna all around them, hunting an image superimposed on a digital camera reproduction of a real landscape.
In my moment of discomfort and shame, a host of ungenerous, but not entirely unmerited, arguments came to mind: arguments about the inherent merits of analog over virtual or “augmented” nature; about people not spending enough or the right kind of time outdoors; about being outside not really being the point; about the daily battle for kids’ (and adults’) time, attention, and money. After all, those teenagers that have turned my swale into a GPS data point are little more than the sweaty consumer endpoints of algorithms created by computer programmers (themselves inside-kids, I’d wager) breathing the cool recycled air pumped into their glass and steel San Francisco campus at Niantic, Inc., the corporate origin of digital species. They’re merely extensions of the artificial worlds in which we have largely confined ourselves and, to a greater degree, our nature-deprived children who now suffer from something called “nature-deficit disorder”—journalist Richard Louv’s diagnosis for the disease that plagues our technology-addled modern youth.
Later, though, like the Lake poet William Wordsworth,
…when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood
I found myself suspicious of the ease with which such snarky criticisms came to mind—easy, perhaps because of the enticing moral boilerplate that drives much of our talk about “nature” and what it means to be “in” it. Such notions about nature are as much morally as physically prescriptive: going out in nature is good for you and therefore good. These ideas are old. Louv’s nature-deficit disorder, for example, dresses up American Transcendentalist philosophy in clinical language. It’s a version of Emerson’s prescription that “a nobler want of man is served by nature,” which he borrowed from the Romantics who insisted that “nature be your teacher.” Nature ideals have always contained normative assumptions: about the boundaries between the natural and artificial worlds (nature is “essences untouched by man,” so I guess leaves and things); about what counts as valuable outside time (walking, preferably aimlessly, roughly westward, and definitely not to work); about the right way to be outside (alone, in awe).
And they contain assumptions about privilege and access to nature: not just, are you really outside when you’re playing Pokémon Go?—but should you really be outside? Different people experience the answer to this last question differently. In fact, few would even put that question to a white professional like me, even a silly-looking one with a butterfly net. But those teenagers playing Pokémon Go were Hispanic, as were those mothers with their kids. The issue with Pokémon Go isn’t just the human-computer intersection that challenges what it means to really be outside, it’s the politics of being outside at all. It reminds us how fraught “going outside” actually is.
Lying on my proverbial poet’s couch, I found myself confronting not just the queer, quaint privilege of the scholar-naturalist, but what it means to practice natural history while white. If he’s not careful, the cranky naturalist, lurking beneath damp willows, waving around a butterfly net and some hackneyed nature ideal to justify his disapproval of some teenagers’ digitally augmented outdoor experience, can find himself also policing access to nature—an act historically underpinned by race and privilege. An afternoon’s jaunt to my local park in pursuit of natural history had turned out to be anything but quaint.
Is Pokémon Go Natural History?
Pokémon Go actually sells itself as a kind of virtual natural history. When you first play, you’re greeted by Professor Willow, a stylishly outfitted naturalist-cum-urban explorer who asks for your help in his global research project to collect Pokémon (or “pocket monsters,” in the original Japanese game concept from 1995), mystery animals that seem like the composite creatures in a medieval bestiary, with names—besides Jigglypuff or Wartortle—like Rhyhorn, Horsea, and the coveted Charizard. Like all such franchised worlds, it has a hugely complex and sprawling mythology and detailed rules. But the gist of it is this: Your device shows you a map of your area, which you use to locate a wild Pokémon. When you’re close enough to one, you can select it by tapping it on your screen, and then it actually appears in “real” life—that is, superimposed on the camera image displayed by your smartphone. To catch it, you throw the equivalent of a net, a “Poké Ball,” over the creature. If you’re successful, its information enters your Pokédex, an encyclopedia with detailed information on your Pokémon’s habitat and ethology. Meanwhile, the creature remains inside the Poké Ball while you feed it, or you can train your Pokémon for battle against others at a local “gym,” like a Balinese cock or a Shanghai fighting cricket.
Scientists have been among the first to recognize and exploit the parallels between Pokémon Go and natural history. They suggest that the game might reinvigorate interest in the venerable practices of observing, identifying, and classifying organisms in the form of citizen science. As legions of players armed with high-resolution digital cameras wander out of doors looking for digital fauna, “they are spotting other wildlife, too,” useful data to scientists that study biodiversity. The potential of these players to advance understanding of biodiversity is huge, especially in an era of declining attention to field study in schools and colleges. So-called “digital collectors”—anyone with a cell phone camera—“are fast outnumbering specimen collectors.” Moreover, with “new conservation rules [that make] it harder to collect and transport real species samples,” scientists would do well, they argue, to mobilize the popularity of Pokémon Go.
Ecologist Andrew Thaler says the game has the potential to inspire interest in natural history because it promotes “active, creative, exploratory play that encourages players to interact with their environment.”  Morgan Jackson, a fly-researcher, says playing the Pokémon games as a kid helped spark his interest in biology. “Catching [flies], ID’ing them and figuring out how they’re all related” is, he says, essentially doing “Pokémon in real life.” Maybe “it’s not a cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder,” says Thaler, “but it’s definitely a potential treatment.”
Image courtesy of Colleen Greene.
There are some obvious ironies to Pokémon Go’s thin pretense to natural history. For example, the game’s gladiatorial feature runs counter to any recognizable conservation philosophy. While it’s true that natural history has historically relied on violence to secure specimens, scientists are among the most likely to regard capturing and killing specimens as an unfortunate feature of their discipline, to be practiced with great constraint, not celebrated. In many branches of biology, the practice has wended away from capture and kill and toward observe and record. Furthermore, natural history is just a side-effect of game play, certainly not the point. To call Pokémon Go players “digital collectors” is a stretch. Rather than, say, educating them about the importance of biodiversity survey, or schooling them in good field practice, or even deploying them for the higher purposes of data collection, the game instead instrumentalizes and monetizes its users. Citizen science it is not.
While promoting going outside might seem like the cure for what ails us as a culture detached from the things of the earth, there is a certain cruel spectacle to sending a lot of people outside who are ill-equipped to be there. Nature-lovers’ naive optimism about the benefits of going outside were largely overwhelmed last summer by the media rollout of (let’s face it, much more entertaining) stories about the public nuisance that going outside actually creates. In summer of 2016, within just days of the game’s introduction, the Los Angeles Times reported that two men from San Diego “fell off a bluff” while playing, obviously because they were outside only in the physical sense—their minds were elsewhere. One of them fell 75 to 100 feet (he lived). An Oregon man was stabbed while playing the game after midnight (he kept playing); a New York man crashed his car while driving to a PokéStop. Two English teens got stranded underground in some caves. Three San Diego women stumbled on a dead body in a park. Some others tracked their Pokémon into the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum. Reports like these raise the issue that while the game encourages its players to go outside, it doesn’t provide the tools to thrive—or even survive—there.
Moreover, it’s hard to reconcile Pokémon Go’s promise of exploratory play in the environment with the disproportionate risks of, and uneven access to, that play. Just ask the two Florida teens playing Pokémon Go that were shot at, evidently mistaken for thieves, or the Iowa State football player mistaken for a bank robber. As it has been for naturalists for hundreds of years, being outside entails risk. Naturalists have had to “share the field” with all manner of folks: “hunters, fishers, poachers, trappers, surveyors, tramps, madmen, shamans, loggers, prospectors, bird watchers, bandits, vacationers, herbalists, cowboys, students, con men, true and false prophets, and green terrorists.” So along with similar practices, it only makes sense (and it’s only fair) that Pokémon Go’s “digital collectors” should experience similar dangers.
But Faith Ekakitie, the Iowa State student mistaken for a criminal, is Black. Police justified stopping him on the street because he fit “the exact description of a bank robbery suspect police believed was in the vicinity.” Exact? In the context of the incidents of shootings of unarmed Black teenagers and men, and in particular with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s impossible not to read such statements as anything but the outcome of racial profiling of Black men who have the audacity to simply be outside.
The danger that Ekakitie faced was categorically different than the average Pokémon Go player. He wasn’t just exposed to the greater risks of being outdoors: he was risk itself, and therefore subject to risk containment in the form of police attention that could easily have turned fatal. This highlights the potential for uneven distribution of risk among Pokémon Go players, or playing Pokémon Go while Black. It also highlights the matter of uneven free access to the outdoors. Writer Omar Akil puts it this way: “The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended.”  More directly: “I might die if I keep playing.”
In light of incidents like this, the real question facing Pokémon Go players may not be, are you doing natural history, but, do you belong in the landscape? The question of what to do with people is one with which natural historians have long struggled, often confusing the study of the natural world with the policing of social norms.
Natural History and the Politics of Being Outside
The politics of being outside—in my case, the comparatively low-risk shame of being a working-age male wandering, to any reasonable observer, aimlessly during daylight hours—is in part what drove me to make my natural history hobby conventionally scientific rather than merely quaint. I like to imagine that the pretense of scientific purpose, manifest in the totem of my butterfly net, protects me from the charge of privilege (even as much as being white reveals that privilege).
I chose the North Atwater Bioswale to make a systematic survey of butterfly diversity, accounting for number and kinds of species according to season. I was inspired by an exhibit at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum where I learned that of the 236 butterfly species in Los Angeles County, forty-five make their home at Griffith Park. The North Atwater Bioswale is just across the 5 Freeway and the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park, which is the easternmost edge of the Santa Monica Mountain Range: Can my swale still be considered part of the mountains? What is the ecological relationship between Griffith and North Atwater Parks? What kind of biogeographical barriers do rivers and freeways make? Do butterflies cross freeways?
However, if I’m being honest, quaintness does motivate me. I am inspired as much by modern ecology as by my favorite English naturalist Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century country parson who spent his life documenting the flora and fauna of his native county of Selborne in the south of England. White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), the best-selling book in England after the Bible for 200 years, made local or “backyard” natural history fashionable and inspired generations of naturalists, including Charles Darwin. It provides a prescient model for what we now would call citizen science, that practice of experts outsourcing observations in nature to local amateur field agents (though the expert/amateur distinction did not technically exist in the eighteenth century). White’s book is a collection of his letters to his naturalist friends Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington on local flora and fauna and is famous for its quaint charm, and for the persona of the humble, interested observer, characterized by expressions like this: “My remarks are the result of many years of observation; and are, I trust, true in the whole: though I do not pretend that they are perfectly void of mistake, or that a more nice [i.e., expert] observer might not make many additions, since subjects of this kind are inexhaustible.” His field study might be regarded as among the first to attempt a biological survey, richly documenting the biodiversity of his native county and exemplifying his dictum that “all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.”
I am so enchanted by White’s example of deep natural history that I set out to do my own Natural History of North Atwater Park. I focused my attention on this bioswale on the western edge of the park about a hundred meters wide and running a quarter mile along the Los Angeles River. Devoting myself to an entire county is daunting, but a three-acre urban watershed management park within a dog-walk from my house seems manageable. The swale is teeming with native flora, and is really accessible, crisscrossed with compacted dirt paths and adorned with informative signage explaining what kinds of plants can be found there and what a bioswale even is.
The swale also provides rich faunal habitat. Since I started paying attention, I have observed a bestiary of Los Angeles invertebrates: the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera); the less common Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus); hoverflies, like the tiny Margined Calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus); huge Gray Bird Grasshoppers (Schistocerca nitens) and giant rust-colored Flame Skimmer Dragonflies (Libellula saturate), as big as small birds; and California Mantis (Stagmomantis californica), whose oothecae festoon the willow branches and on which I keep a close eye for signs of activity. And my main interest, the lepidoptera. In just a couple of months, I’ve documented or captured ten species on my rounds: Marine Blues, Gulf Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, Cabbage Whites, Mourning Cloaks, West Coast Ladies, Fiery Skippers, Funereal Duskywing Skippers, Umber Skippers, and, of course, Western Tiger Swallowtails.
Lizards, birds, and mammals, too, frequent the swale—and people. There is the odd dog-walker, but mostly vagrants, drug dealers, and weed-smokers, probably because of the good cover the dense vegetation provides. I know this because of the colorful weed cannisters that adorn the underbrush, and the Toonerville gang’s (Toonerville Rifa 13) tagging of the educational placards. I generally steer clear of people on my afternoon expeditions, partly out of my sense of shame, and partly for fear that people take a dim view of collecting. But people and cultures have always been features of natural history, albeit perhaps the most problematic ones. The shared nature of “the field” puts into relief the social conflicts incurred simply by being outdoors.
White, for example, wrote a lot about the people of Selborne and their habits. Among them, he took special note of the “gangs or hordes of gypsies” that came through his county a few times a year. Like many of the birds that White describes, Gypsies are not native to Selborne, having migrated “from Egypt and the East, two or three centuries ago.” However, despite their long habitation in England, White insists on calling them “vagrants.” Their “family name,” the Curleople, which, though “a little corrupted” from its Greek origins, betrays their origins in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. So does their language, which he characterizes, under cover of academic inquiry, as the “mutilated remains” of their native Greek and, even less academically, as “harsh gibberish” and “cant.”
White marks the Gypsies as “other” not just in their name and language, but in their habits, too: they prefer, he says, to live “sub dio”—that is, under the sun, or outside—eschewing even the “barns, stables, and cow-houses” preferred by other, presumably English, beggars. In delineating between dwellings suitable for animals and living sub dio, White uses the Gypsies to police what it means to be “outside.” Living sub dio makes them neither animal nor beggar, but something closer to pests: they “infest the south and west of England;” they can’t be contained. “Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds,” as reports of them have been returned as far as “the confines of Tartary,” where they “were endeavoring to… try their fortune in China.”
White’s natural history description bleeds into normative racial and ethnic identity politics. For him, natural history patrols the boundaries around Englishness, regulating who is belongs and who does not. Furthermore, in his examination of their language and habits, he marks the Gypsies as rootless, homeless wanderers, severing their ties to their homeland in the Middle East even as he links them to it. They’re left with no legitimate claim to place. In the end, White includes Gypsies as features of The Natural History of Selborne only to exclude them. They represent a kind of “unnatural” history: after all, birds pass through the country during migration, too, but birds don’t carry the same baggage of belonging or nativity that humans do. Humans’ role in nature has historically had more contested significance than the nonhuman.
Romantic Nature’s Racist Legacy
For White, nature is not only a floral and faunal landscape, but a moral one as well. And natural history is not just a set of practices to study birds and whatnot, but an instrument to assess how different people figure differently in that landscape. It is this idea of nature and the study of nature as a moral enterprise that allows us to draw a straight line between White’s not-so-subtle exclusionary racism and the normative nature/non-nature, inside/outside boundaries made evident by Pokémon Go.
White’s natural history belongs to the late eighteenth-century zeal for nature experience and study that we associate with the likes of Romantics like Wordsworth, who aimed to reveal nature’s “spontaneous wisdom” through poetry. For the Romantics, nature taught important moral lessons. Writers like Emerson imported the Romantics and their European-style nature-worship to America as Transcendentalism, signaling a major shift in modern nature philosophy. Before the Romantics, “nature” in America was mostly a lot of wasteland in between colonial towns on the east coast where wild animals and “savages” could murder you. Majestic American mountain landscapes were then just blights on God’s otherwise harmonious vistas. Nature-worship was viewed as a form of paganism by settlers that were less likely to regard the indigenous people as humans than as (at worst) Satan’s howling demons or as (at best) fauna fit to be the objects of natural history, but not its practitioners. Nature from this moral vantage point ought not be preserved but tamed, along with the natives, to make room for Manifest Destiny: the God-ordained annexation of free land for white settlement and industrial development.
Romantic nature philosophy arrived on the scene at a time when Americans were beginning to contend with new and disturbing realities. First, God-ordained industrial and technological mastery provided the frightening ability to domesticate the fearsomeness of nature by eradicating entire landscapes and the people who lived on them in the pursuit of resources and profit. The real devils were now land surveyors and private landowners and, by extension, civilized town life more generally. Second, our religio-capitalist land-rape didn’t exactly deliver on its promise of moral health and happiness. In fact, to nature sages like Thoreau and Muir, land-rape and moral health seemed at odds. After a century or more of nature exploitation, under the auspices of “improvement,” had driven us more and more indoors, those historical “wastelands”—now safely delivered of their scary megafauna and original inhabitants—suddenly started to look spiritually rejuvenating. So, we drew lines around some big parks, kicked out the rest of the savages, and called the areas “nature.” This is more or less the story of how the wastelands of yore were resurrected as unpeopled wilderness preserves for the spiritual benefit of temporary sojourners in need of respite from the stresses of civilized life. Other less majestic places were left to fend for themselves. Joshua Tree versus the Salton Sea is a pretty striking local example of the consequences of such a binary land ethic, but perhaps more striking is the classic and widespread division between nature and city, which expresses the ultimate in normative nature ideas, that nature is anywhere humans are not.
The Romantic nature ideal allowed for the preservation of unparalleled swaths of pristine national parkland against industrial development and exploitation, but at the same time it left a legacy of uneven access to that same ideal. While the “nature experience” has long been held up as a foundation of American identity, it has also been confined to specific places accessible mostly to whites. For along with eliminating permanent inhabitants from national parks, it helped turn those parks into temporary enclaves of middle-class white leisure-time activity—as places to travel to on family holidays, or as destinations of adventure requiring not only time but resources, such as three weeks during the summer and a few thousand dollars worth of gear to hike the John Muir Trail.
This legacy is today evident in the radically uneven usership of national parks. For example, studies show that whites make up a disproportionately high percentage of visitors, while Black and Hispanic attendance lags far behind. A 2008-2009 study by the Park Service on “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors” found that of National Park visitors nation wide just 9% identified as Hispanic, and just 7% identified as African American. In total, non-Whites were just 20% of all visitors. This despite that minorities account for almost 40% of the U.S. population. An NPR piece from 2016 examined Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, as exemplary of the demographic challenges facing the parks today and found that “The type of people who visit the park don’t reflect the type of people living in the community. Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of the park’s roughly 650,000 annual visitors, less than 2 percent self-identify as Hispanic.”
Hispanic minorities cite the high cost of travel to parks, entry fees, lack of signage in Spanish, lack of shade (too sub dio, I guess), and the overwhelming whiteness of park employees as reasons not to visit. But they also cite cultural differences in the kind of experiences that they expect from nature: Whereas the ideal nature experience promoted by parks frequently borrows on “the solitude and quiet of a John Muir photo,” Hispanics “might want to have a different experience in the outdoors.” Hispanics enjoy nature, not as solitary wanderers above a sea of fog, but as whole families: “I’m going to bring my whole family,” said Oscar Medina, a teacher at a nearby high school: “we’re going to be loud, we’re going to explore.” But “that’s not what’s promoted” in parks that function a lot like museums. The result is the feeling that “this is not our space.” One park ranger observed, “If we’re not being relevant to almost half of the population, then 30, 40, 50 years from now, the park isn’t going to matter to them.”
Instead of pristine wilderness, minorities have had to content themselves with whatever nature experience cities might offer, a form of compromised nature far from the traditional nature of curated parklands. We tend not to revere urban nature with the same degree of ethical care as national parks, despite the fact that from an ecological point of view biodiversity skews higher in urban areas than elsewhere. Scientists regard Los Angeles, for example, as a biodiversity “hot spot.” It “lies within the California Floristic Province, which is globally recognized as one of just thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world—and the only one in the continental United States.” According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, “There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.” But when we imagine ourselves “out in nature,” taking in the landscape from the aerie vantage of mountaintops, we tend not to imagine a landscape crisscrossed by freeways and concrete flood control channels. The reality is that Los Angeles suffers less from a “nature” problem than a perception problem.
But this distinction may be moot, because even in such “compromised” spaces as urban parklands, non-whites suffer the same problems of accessibility as they do in national parks. Urban minorities are more likely to be “park poor,” or to live farther away from public parks. A public health study in Los Angeles from 2016 found that “African Americans and Latinos were more likely than Asians and Whites to live in cities and communities with less park space per capita.” As a result, they were also far more likely to suffer “significant public health implications.” This is evidenced by a ten-year study of more than 3,000 children living in southern California, which found that “those living near parks and recreational programs had lower rates of obesity at 18 years of age than comparable children who lived further away.”
Compromised nature leads to compromised quality of life. Given the higher rates of white children with access to “nature” in whatever form, non-white children are statistically more likely to experience Louv’s nature-deficit disorder. They’re also more likely to live closer to urban environmental hazards, like waste facilities or Superfund sites and so are perhaps less likely to participate in the national myth that our common American heritage resides in our relationship to “places untouched by man.” The ethnic demographics of visitors to national parks, the traditionally park-poor communities of urban centers like Los Angeles, and the “unequal vulnerability” of minority populations to environmental degradation, illustrate that access to nature, in the traditional Romantic sense, is not a right but a privilege of race and class. The reality is that minorities in urban centers are more likely to be the victims of a nature ideal secured by violence, not its beneficiaries.
At the same time, while Hispanics are underrepresented in national parks, they “are slightly overrepresented among Pokémon Go players.” Hispanics makes up 17% of the U.S. population, and only 9% of national park visitors, but they represent 19% of Pokémon Go players. This representation may correlate with the rural/urban divide in Pokémon Go usership: rates of play are much higher in cities than in the country. The game’s appeal to a diverse urban usership is particularly evident in the rates of new players. In one study, “while 34% of all respondents said they never had played a Pokémon game before,” that number was much higher for Black and Latino players (49% and 40% respectively). One interpretation of these figures is that white and non-white players experience the game’s offer of outdoor activity differently. Non-white players may express in their attraction to Pokémon Go a desire for the kinds of outdoor activities that are denied them. Perhaps these figures even reveal a criticism of the uneven opportunities to engage in outdoor activity that confront urban minorities daily as features of their built environment.
However, despite these statistics, some have argued that Pokémon Go simply reproduces the uneven access to and experience of nature that we find in city and national parks. Almost as soon as the game hit its high-water mark of popularity in the summer of 2016, critics revealed that different groups experienced the game differently. For example, Los Angeles-based environmental journalist Aura Bogado points out the striking disproportion of PokéStops and “gyms” in white versus minority communities. Using a Twitter campaign #mypokehood to gather user-generated evidence of the disproportion, Bogado found that there were far more PokéStops in Long Beach, which is about fifty percent white, than in her own majority-minority neighborhood in South LA. She found the same to be true for Chicago, Miami, New York, and Washington D.C. “As the share of the white population increases, PokéStops and gyms become more plentiful,” writes Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini of the Urban Institute, which corroborated Bogado’s findings. In fact, in majority white neighborhoods they found an average of 55 PokéStops, compared to only 19 in majority Black neighborhoods. Furthermore, they argue that racialized public space is built into the game’s design, and in the gaming industry more generally. It turns out that Pokémon Go game designers simply borrowed the mapping algorithm of an earlier game called Ingress, also put out by Niantic. This, argues Bogado, is how environmental racism becomes structural, passed down uncritically from one design to another until the experience of inequity goes from bug to feature.
Some have referred to this “redlining”, a term more typically used to describe minority communities’ limited access to “essential services,” such as access to affordable housing. Is access to nature an “essential service?” What about augmented nature? Pokémon Go promises access to the outdoors, but at the same time reinforces the unevenness of that promise.
How can we resolve this apparent contradiction between the game’s promise, on one hand, of access to the nature experience through the practice of natural history and, on the other, its complicity in the long history of exclusionary environmental racism in this country? One avenue presents itself: the creator of the original Pokemon franchise, Satoshi Tajiri. I was surprised to learn Tajiri attributed his inspiration to a childhood spent collecting insects in the rural countryside around his hometown of Machida, a suburb of Tokyo—a place “full of nature,” a phrase that makes me imagine my bioswale, only much bigger. Bugs fascinated Tajiri—or Dr. Bug, as he was known to his friends. He recalled in a 1999 Time interview being a keen observer of bug life: he possessed intimate knowledge of their variety, habitats, and behaviors. He knew beetles liked to sleep under rocks so he placed rocks under trees at night and would check on them in the morning in order to collect the sleepy beasts. “Every time I found a new insect,” he relates, “it was mysterious to me.”
However, as rural landscape gave way to commercial development, “all the insects were driven away.” Tajiri saw a decrease in insects year over year as trees came down and buildings went up: “A fishing pond would become an arcade center,” which was a particularly ironic reflection given his own professional destiny as a video game designer. When asked if insects gave him the idea for Pokémon, Tajiri said yes: but not just the insects—the loss of insects and insect habitat, along with the accompanying shifts in childhood behavior, from an outside culture to an inside one.
Tajiri built this environmental consciousness into the game, intending it, writes Anne Allison, as a “play-form… to both capture and transmit to present-day kids” his “childhood experiences in a town where nature had not yet been overtaken by industrialization.” Tajiri understood that as a result of these shifts, “people spend more time alone, forming intimacies less with one another than with the goods they consume and the technologies they rely upon.” Most of the games kids turn to demand that users master a degree of complexity that draws them further into the game world and away from the real world, leaving them without the connections to people and environment that can be sources of community, comfort, and health. For Tajiri, going outside meant connecting not just to nature, but also to one another. Natural history-style gameplay becomes a social experience that alleviates the stresses of living under industrial capitalism.
Given that Pokémon was originally imagined as a response to urban alienation, it is fitting that it is more likely to be played in urban locations by the people most impacted by poor access to natural resources. These are the same communities for whom the traditional distinction between nature and non-nature, real and augmented, probably makes less sense as a defining contrast. Historically compromised access to nature may mean that the desire for outdoor experience is not driven by nostalgia for a lost, pre-industrial nature ideal, as it was for the Romantics and Transcendentalists. And so by a curious historical and transnational confluence, urban minority Pokémon Go players in American cities come to resemble more closely the experience not of nature per se, but of the augmented nature captured in Tajiri’s design. Plugging into the smartphone game app, Pokémon Go players become students of a different nature than those in the Romantic school. They become living embodiments of Tajiri’s environmental consciousness, and, to borrow from Gilbert White, some “progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.” The “information” I’m referring to is not White’s natural history: I maintain that Pokémon Go players are not learning much natural history. Rather, I’m talking about progress toward conceptualizing our actual, augmentedrelationship to nature, rather than the imaginary Romantic one we tend to wield, sometimes (charmingly) like a butterfly net, but sometimes (problematically) like police baton. The compromises and contradictions embedded in Pokémon Go players’ experience of the world, I think, better characterize this actual relationship to nature. They remind us that there is no nature without people, and that an untouched nature exists only as an exclusionary ideal.
Understood in the course of natural history, Pokémon Go gives us the means to re-imagine the nature ideal as an inclusive rather than exclusive one. This represents the value of “augmented” nature. Its natural historian, Tajiri, is a postcolonial Gilbert White: rather than using natural history to police boundaries, to deny access and connection, Tajiri designed his game with the intent to dissolve boundaries, to grant access and connection. In doing so, he re-designed “nature” itself. To modify Wordsworth,
“let augmented nature be your teacher.”
My beloved bioswale has been a good classroom for the lessons taught by augment nature: it’s as full of contradictions as it is of native flora and fauna. Its “nature” is propped up by a host of human contrivances. Completed in 2014, it’s a $4 million city planning component of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan to install environmentally sensitive urban design and improve water quality along a 51-mile watershed river that connects thirteen cities and many more municipalities in one of the most densely populated regions on the continent. It employs the latest in watershed design, like native plant biofiltration and permeable paving stones. It’s the result of huge collaboration among multiple city departments. And it lies along the LA River: a concrete flood control channel that was once a naturally occurring seasonal meandering waterway, but which has become perhaps one of the world’s best exhibits of the contradictions of the human-nonhuman confluence. The LA River only looks like an “actual” river (at least where I live in the “Glendale Narrows” portion) because treated wastewater gets dumped into it daily from the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Treatment Plant. This is water that sustains the habitat that provides a home for human and nonhuman animals alike. Anything “natural” about North Atwater Park—in that cranky sense that nature is anything where humans are not—is a total fiction. The park is a work of human art and nature, which, when I think about it, makes me love it more rather than less.
Catching butterflies at this park was never really about living “the nature ideal” as it was a project that combined my need to get outside with my academic interest in the history and practices of science. By disposition, I’m probably a lot like those kids I see with their smartphones: I’m not a born naturalist, like Tajiri, and I’ve never been one to experience nature for its Romantic appeal. I’m frequently detached from the outside, and I use technology as a carrot to lure me there. Alongside my collecting net and notebook and killing jar I have a citizen science app called iNaturalist to photograph species and outsource identifications to local experts. iNaturalist geo-tags my observations and plots them on a Google Earth map for others to see. I sometimes use it like a geocaching tool, revisiting places where others have recorded an interesting butterfly in hopes of seeing one, too.
Like those Pokémon Go players, I need some alluring mission, like documenting how nonhuman animals make use of a three-acre marvel of environmental engineering. More meaningful to me than the question of whether the park is natural or artificial is that it needs a natural history because, to modify White, “that district possesses the greatest value which is the most examined.” Doing natural history in places historically relegated to “non-nature” is a step on the way to accommodating them in our nature philosophy. Perhaps only then might we improve both their quality and the access to them. As a White middle-class male, the question of my access to this park is not much contested. But a complete natural history of the North Atwater Bioswale ought not be limited to its fauna, Poké or otherwise: It ought to treat the experience of the humans who hunt them—the experience of privilege and exclusion alike. After all, these are features of the landscape, as well as its bugs.
 See, for example: Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John T. Anderson, Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 250-56.
 This figure is down from fifty-five in the 1920s. Over ninety or so years, Griffith Park lost nearly 20 percent of its native butterfly diversity—I’m guessing due to habitat loss associated with human development. I would actually have expected a greater reduction, but Griffith Park remains a surprisingly unimpacted landscape in the middle of this metropolis.
 Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789), reprinted (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.
 Turns out “bioswale” is environmental-design speak for a biofiltration system that uses plants, rocks, and soil to capture trash, particulates, and toxins from flood water and break them down before they enter the aquifer or are expelled into the river through an outflow pipe. This water management strategy lies behind the design of the many “pocket parks” along the LA River intended to enhance aesthetics and improve water quality.
 See, for example, Baird Callicott and Priscilla Ybarra, “Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, National Humanities Center and TeacherServe (2009): http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/puritan.htm. See also Evan Berry, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), esp. 102-147.
 See, for example, William Cronon’s now-canonical essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Kind of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.
 National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008–2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR—2011/432
 See for example these 2014 statistics on children living in rural versus urban settings, according to race and ethnicity in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Child Health USA 2014 (Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014), https://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa14/population-characteristics/rural-urban-children.html.
 This includes the DPW, the Bureau of Engineering, Rec and Parks, and the Bureau of Sanitation. It’s funded by California’s Proposition 50 River Parkways Grant Program, and by Supplemental Environmental Project funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bryan B. Rasmussen is Chair of English at California Lutheran University, where he teaches and writes about environmental literature, science and literature, and natural history. He sometimes blogs about these topics at http://www.oxbornbee.org. This summer he’s getting certified to be a California Naturalist and can be found leading nature walks for the Friends of the LA River.
Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.
Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.
Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.
By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.
While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.
As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.
Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.
Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.
The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.
All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.
Copyright: 2017 The Authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/