Tag: Environment


What is a River in California?

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Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*

Susannah Sayler
Edward Morris

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,[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]

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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.[8]

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.”[9] 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. [10] 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.

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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,[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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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.”[14] 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.”[15] 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.

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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.”[16] 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.”[17]

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.”[18] 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).[19] 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.”[20]

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.).[21] 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[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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.”[25]

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.”[26]


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).

[1] 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).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.

[3] 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.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[5] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].

[6] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[7] Ibid, 297.

[8] Jay Lund, “What’s Next for California Water?,” https://californiawaterblog.com/2011/02/23/whats-next-for-california-water/, (23 February 2011). This history is obviously told in far greater detail in many other places, notably Norris Hundley Jr.’s definitive The Great Thirst: Californians and Water—A History, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[9] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 77.

[10] 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).

[11] 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.

[12] 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).

[13] For example, see http://pacinst.org/publication/human-costs-of-nitrate-contaminated-drinking-water-in-the-san-joaquin-valley/.

[14] 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.

[15] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister, 25.

[16] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.

[17] 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.

[18] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.

[19] 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.

[20] “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.

[21] Chapman, A History of California, 64.

[22] Ibid. 65-66.

[23] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 32; anyd https://pacificahistory.wikispaces.com/Portola+Expedition+1769+Diaries

[24] John A. Sutter, “The Discovery of Gold in California,” Hutchings’ California Magazine, November 1857, accessed 24 May 2017, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/gold.html.

[25] Karl Marx, ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’ [1842], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 262-263.

[26] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister,” 29.


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 River represents 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.


Copyright: © 2017 Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. 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/


Wendell Berry in California

Matthew D. Stewart

“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[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7] 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.”[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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.”[11]

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.”[12]

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.[13] He has attempted to trace influences; however, and it is therefore easier to discuss his relationship with Californians rather than California without conjecture.

Steve Rhodes_Mount Tamalpais State Park

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.[14] 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.[15]

Less difficult to elaborate is the influence of another Californian, the novelist, essayist, historian, and founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, Wallace Stegner.[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18] Stegner knew he belonged to his region, shaped by its history for good and for ill.[19] Among American writers, Berry thought Stegner was the first of significance to make that commitment to his region.[20]

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?”[21]

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.[22] 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.[23] Because his father chased booms throughout the West, from Saskatchewan to Washington to Utah, Stegner was from a region more than a place.[24] 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.”[25] 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.[26] 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.”[27] 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.’”[28]

Mt Tamalpais 18 via Flickr user Tom Hilton.

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.[29]

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.[30] 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!”[31]

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.[32]

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.”[33] 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.”[34] 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.”[35]

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.” [36] 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.”[37]

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.”[38] 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 C Guy Mendes_full

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.

[1] “Restoration and Conservation” talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdFMKbVjwq0.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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 Newark for the Ivy League (New York: Scribner, 2015) as an escape and return narrative illustrates this point more concretely.

[5] I am grateful to Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn for suggesting this phrase.

[6] Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” Poetry, January 2001.

[7] 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.

[8] Berry, The Long-Legged House, 190.

[9] 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.

[10] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1996), 123-130.

[11] Wendell Berry, Remembering (New York: North Point Press, 1988), 51.

[12] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 38.

[13] Berry, Imagination in Place, 4-6.

[14] Mary Berry Smith, “My Mother’s Making of an Agrarian Home,” Edible: Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, June 2011.

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] 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).

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

[20] 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).

[21] Berry, What Are People For? 54-55.

[22] Ibid, 49.

[23] 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.

[24] 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.

[25] Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings, 211-12.

[26] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 87.

[27] Berry, Imagination in Place, 125.

[28] Ibid, 15-16.

[29] Bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[30] Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[31] Berry, The Hidden Wound, 109-110.

[32] 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.

[33] Ibid, 109-110.

[34] Ibid, 62.

[35] Ibid, 109-110.

[36] Ibid, 133.

[37] Ibid, 61.

[38] 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.

Copyright: © 2017 Matthew D. Stewart. 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/


Illusions and Perversions in California’s History of Preservation

Andrew Seles_Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore via Flickr user Andrew Seles.

Nathan F. Sayre

Laura Watt’s catchy title, The Paradox of Preservation,[1] 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.[2] 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_Stefan Klocek

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[3] and an ecologically incoherent, environmentalist fetish.[4] 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.

m01229_The Point Reyes shipwreck

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_Ross Mayfield

Point Reyes Oyster Farm via Flickr user Ross Mayfield.


[1] Laura Alice Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[2] Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

[3] Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[4] 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 Group and the Future of the Western Range; Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest; and The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science.


Copyright: © 2017 Nathan F. Sayre. 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/


Pokémon Go, an Unnatural History: Reflections on race, privilege, and access to augmented nature

Bryan B. Rasmussen

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.”[1] 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,”[2] 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.[3]

Later, though, like the Lake poet William Wordsworth,

…when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood[4]

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,”[5] which he borrowed from the Romantics who insisted that “nature be your teacher.”[6] 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,”[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.” [10] 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.”[11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.”[15] 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.” [16] More directly: “I might die if I keep playing.”[17]

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.[18] 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.”[19] 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.”[20]

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.[21]

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”[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] 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.”[29]

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.”[30]

Instead of pristine wilderness, minorities have had to content themselves with whatever nature experience cities might offer,[31] 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.”[32] 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.”[33] 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.”[34] 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.”[35]

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.”[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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.

Unnatural History

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.[40] 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.”[41] 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.”[42] 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, augmented relationship 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.[43] 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.



[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (orig. 1966, reprint, Vintage, 1989), 131.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Sean Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals while searching for digital ones,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-pokemon-go-real-animals-20160711-20160711-snap-story.html.

[4] William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Longman, 1807).

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (Boston: James Munro, 1836), 19.

[6] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.” Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (London: 1798).

[7] “Gotta name them all: how Pokémon can transform taxonomy,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, 19 July 2016,  http://www.nature.com/news/gotta-name-them-all-how-pok%C3%A9mon-can-transform-taxonomy-1.20275.

[8] 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.

[9] “Gotta name them all.”

[10] Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “2 California men fall off edge of ocean bluff while playing ‘Pokemon Go,’” Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-pokemon-go-players-stabbed-fall-off-cliff-20160714-snap-story.html. “Man Stabbed While Playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ But Continues Playing,” ABC7 News, 15 July 2016. http://abc7.com/news/pokemon-go-player-stabbed-keeps-playing/1428184/. Feliks Garcia, “Pokemon Go Gamer Crashes Car Into Tree in New York,” Independent 14 July 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/pokemon-go-car-crash-new-york-a7137261.html.; “Pokemon Go teens stuck in caves 100ft underground,” BBC News 15 July 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-36805615. Last accessed: July 17, 2016; Veronica Rocha, “‘Pokemon Go’ players find corpse in San Diego Park,” Los Angeles Times 15 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-diego-dead-body-pokemon-go-20160715-snap-story.html; Andrea Peterson, “Holocaust Museum to Visitors: Please Stop Catching Pokemon Here,” Washington Post 12 July 2016,. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/07/12/holocaust-museum-to-visitors-please-stop-catching-pokemon-here/.

[13] The following gives handy list of such incidents involving the game: http://www.syracuse.com/us-news/index.ssf/2016/07/pokemon_go_dangerous_every_crime_accident_death_shooting_linked_to_game.html#0.

[14] Adam Hamze, “Police body camera shows Pokemon Go player mistaken for bank robber.” Vice News, 26 July 2016; https://news.vice.com/article/police-body-camera-shows-pokemon-go-player-mistaken-for-bank-robber; “Florida teens, mistaken for thieves, shot at playing Pokemon Go,” BBC News, 17 July 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36818384.

[15] Kohler, Landscapes 6-7.

[16] Omar Akil, “Warning: Pokémon GO Could Be A Death Sentence If You Are A Black Man,” Huffington Post, 12 July 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omari-akil/warning-pokemon-go-is-death-sentence-black-man_b_10946826.html.

[17] Ibid.

[18] 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.

[19] Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789), reprinted (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.

[20] Ibid., 45.

[21] 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.

[22] White, 158-59.

[23] Ibid.

[24] In fact, bird migration was a major source of controversy: some theories said birds migrate for winter, others that they hide (Introduction, White, xxii).

[25] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[26] 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.

[27] 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.

[28] 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

[29] Rott, “Don’t Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To,” All Things Considered, 9 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/09/463851006/dont-care-about-national-parks-the-park-service-needs-you-to.

[30] Rott.

[31] 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.

[32] Damon Nagami, “Los Angeles Launches #BioDiversifyLA to Protect Region’s Rare Biodiversity.” 25 April 2015, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/damon-nagami/los-angeles-launches-biodiversifyla-protect-regions-rare-biodiversity.

[33] Rory Carroll, “LA, a surprise nature hotspot, is home to one of the biggest biodiversity studies,” The Guardian, 14 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/14/los-angeles-biodiversity-nature-study-natural-history-museum.

[34] County of Los Angeles Public Health, “Parks and Public Health in Los Angeles County,” May 2016, http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/chronic/docs/Parks%20Report%202016-rev_051816.pdf.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Emerson, “Nature.” See for example the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks.

[37] Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, 13 August 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.

[38] Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini, “Pokémon GO is changing how cities use public space, but could it be more inclusive?” Urban Institute, 5 August 2016, http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/pokemon-go-changing-how-cities-use-public-space-could-it-be-more-inclusive.

[39] Allana Akhtar, “Is Pokémon Go racist? How the app may be redlining communities of color,” USA Today, 9 August 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/09/pokemon-go-racist-app-redlining-communities-color-racist-pokestops-gyms/87732734/.

[40] “The Ultimate Game Freak,” Time, 22 November 1999, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html.

[41] Anne Allison, “Portable monsters and commodity cuteness: Pokémon as Japan’s new global power,” Postcolonial Studies 6 (2003): 388.

[42] White, 24.

[43] 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.

Copyright: © 2017 Bryan B. Rasmussen. 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/


Photography and Public Lands: Seeing Yosemite

Hetch Hetchy

Stone trail work at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

A review of Nancy Robbins, A Sense of Yosemite, with essays by David Mas Masumoto. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Conservancy, 2016.

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.

Tuolumne Meadows_1843_16x20 copy (2)a_2000While 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.

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.


  • All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.

Reviewed by Jai Bashir, Ayja Bounous, Casey Clifford, Bianca Greeff, Dan Hohl, Kailey Kornhauser, Brooke Larsen, Kathleen Metcalf, Maya Silver, Francesca Varela, and Josh Wennergren, graduate students in the Environmental Humanities writing seminar, University of Utah, taught by Stephen Trimble. Trimble’s publications include, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (UC Press), The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press), and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands (Torrey House Press). Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah.

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/


The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies

Gary Reger

“Night falls quickly in Los Angeles,” observes the narrator of Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), “as in the desert which it once was.”[1] “The desert” looms over much fiction set in Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to Bret Easton Ellis’s decadent rich of Less Than Zero (1985) or the quasi-future city of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope (1996). The desert figures powerfully too in non-fictional treatments of the city, like Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)[2] or Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990). These invocations of the desert might strike a positivist geographer as strange. The Los Angeles basin is not arid enough to count as a real desert. The greater Los Angeles region lies nestled in the clasp of mountains: the Santa Monicas north and west, beyond which lurks the little paradise of Santa Barbara; the San Gabriels, just north of the city, which link up, across Cajon Pass, with the towering San Bernardinos, culminating at their east end in the 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio; to the southeast, the basin-and-rangy ridges of the Santa Anas; and, beyond the Perris valley, the San Jacintos sheltering Palm Springs, with the Santa Rosas to their south. Beyond those mountains—north of the San Bernardinos, east of the San Jacintos—the great Mojave and Colorado deserts roll across an arid countryside all the way to Las Vegas, and beyond.

Cultural snobbery aside, Los Angeles is no desert.[3] By the standard definition of geographers, deserts receive annual rainfall under ten inches (c. 254 mm); Los Angeles’ average yearly accumulation of about 14.77 inches (c. 375.2 mm) situates the city safely out of the arid fold. Of course, interannual variation is considerable; across the 139 years for which records exist, Los Angeles has experienced a desert-level shortage 39 times, or about 1 year in 3.5. Anton Wagner insisted many years ago that microvariations abound; although the semi-arid steppe climate of the Köppen-Geiger BS classification predominates, topographical variation, coastal influences, and the sea all conspire to impose different climatic regimes across the broad LA basin.[4] Sober observers have known that Los Angeles isn’t desert. Los Angeles occupies, Carey McWilliams observed, “this fortunate coast walled off from the desert by the great arch of mountains….”[5] But the pull of the image is powerful, and fiction need not be bound by the strictures of the geographer. For many writers LA is a desert, not only metaphorically, but also in physical fact. LA as desert clearly has had deep meaning, literal or metaphoric or both, for writers seeking to evoke something of the feel of the city.[6] The desert carries multiple, sometimes opposing valences, both derived in western thinking from tropes in the Hebrew Bible. It is on the one hand a space of austere purification, where sins are atoned and the purified can see the face—or at least, hindquarters—of God, and on the other a vile, useless wasteland; other tropes come out of, or are related to, these two oppositions.


These two valences, I suggest, may explain, in part, the pull of the desert in writing about LA. On the one hand, the desert out east or north, the Mojave of Huxley’s Antelope Valley home or movie stars’ Palm Springs, may represent an escape from LA to something “realer” or “purer” (and see already the contrast between corrupt Hollywood and revivifying country in The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs [1923], although his rural setting is the mountains, not the desert[7]). Clay of Less Than Zero may be seeking something like this when he turns in memory to family time in Palm Springs (though in fact his family there is as corrupt and nihilistic as his life in Beverly Hills, as in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park [1955]). On the other hand, seen as plopped down in a desert, LA can be figured merely as the gaudy disguise of a desert wasteland, ready to reassert its hideous uselessness and, in fact, unable to foster anything genuine (“nothing means anything here,” is the refrain of The Nowhere City)—watered by stolen moisture, it is but an urban Imperial Valley, a faked landscape.[8]

These two topologies stand in dialectical opposition to each other. They demand from a writer a representational choice: is the relation of Los Angeles to the desert one of geographic distance and distinction, such that they occupy two different spaces that only come into conjunction through the movement of characters (whether physically or mentally) or the invasion of the space of Los Angeles by the desert itself or its representatives (the Santa Ana winds, in particular); or is the relation one of superposition, of a Los Angeles on a desert, a unique ecological and ideological phenomenon such that its intrusion into LA may come at any moment, in any place, here but not here, or indeed may shape the whole personality of the city by an invidious but invisible and irresistible presence below the surface? In what follows I would like to explore the play of these tropes, and others, in some fiction set in Los Angeles. Obviously far too much has been written about the city to treat even a modicum of this fiction,[9] and the themes I hope to elucidate hardly exhaust the ways the desert has been used in stories about LA. (I have left film and television completely aside.) But I hope that even such an incomplete, fragmented, and selective exploration may contribute to how we understand the ways the presence of the desert has shaped writers’ conceptualizations about this complex, alluring, frightening city.

 The desert in the American imaginary

Broadly speaking, American ideas about desert space derive from tropes deeply embedded in the Bible. These tropes do not form a coherent picture of desert space; rather, they facilitate a multiplicity of attitudes, some contradictory. In brief, biblical tropes frame the desert first as a blasted, dangerous place, abode of demons and death, abandoned by God. But the biblical desert also figures as a space where one can meet God, like Moses; the desert can be a visionary place. The biblical desert can also be a ground of testing and purification, a necessary preliminary to entrée to the Promised Land; or it can be a refuge, a safety zone for people escaping persecution or simply seeking a godly life. Finally, the desert can be a landscape of redemption: both for fallen people and as a ground that, with care and God’s help, can be made into—or returned to a preexisting—paradisiacal state, a garden in the desert. This cache of tropes served Americans to help make sense of the deserts they encountered as they moved into the arid West. To them was added, in the early twentieth century, by reaction, an insistence on desert beauty: a view that fed into the environmental movement around wilderness preservation.[10]

 First topology—the desert out there

The first topology is the desert out there: beyond Los Angeles, to the east and north, the desert one must cross and endure to reach the Promised Land, and to which one may escape or be exiled, whether to find a place of purity and cleanliness opposed to the corruption that has overtaken the Promised Land, or to serve out a punishment and (hopefully) find redemption. This desert sends its demonic emissaries into the city, borne especially on the Santa Ana winds.[11]

One important and complex role the “desert out there” plays is as a barrier or escape hatch. This theme links to the biblical tale of the Israelites’ passage through the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, an analogy so blatantly apt to the travails of overland immigrants who suffered the Mojave and Colorado Deserts to reach California that it became a cliché. Desert as barrier or boundary pairs nicely with the Pacific to the west, thanks especially to the long trope of ocean as desert. So in 1897 Frank Norris bracketed San Francisco as between: “to the west the waste of the Pacific, to the east the wastes of the desert.” As another put it, “[t]he blinding blue desert of the Pacific….” Remember (“Mem”) Steddon, heroine of the 1922 Souls for Sale, takes a madcap drive with another actor along the coast highway, north of Hollywood, “‘on the rim of the world’ with desert on one side and the whole Pacific sea on the other.” Rose, the main character of Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea (1979), meditates on the boundaries of LA, desert and sea; Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) begins with a lapidary reference to “the black desert, beyond reach of Los Angeles.” The “long haul across the deserts” prevents good theatrical companies from playing Los Angeles, and passage over the desert—by airplane—brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon out of the rest of the country and into the inimitable LA.[12]


For a Forty-Niner like William Manly, whose exploits in escaping Death Valley in 1849 and then returning to rescue immigrants stranded there were immortalized in his autobiography, those deserts were a challenge and a test, but they can also serve LA as a protective barrier or a release valve, a safety hatch. The hero of Steve Erikson’s Amnesiascope longs for a thousand-mile wide Mojave to keep crazy eastern evangelicals out of his city. Later, he escapes Los Angeles through that same desert, which, he hopes, will reclaim as its own during his desert passage the “evil spirits” that have bedeviled him. Rose of Lithium for Medea finds in the desert beyond Los Angeles her refuge, her escape, a desert theme found much earlier in John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Indeed, for Mem of Souls for Sale crossing the desert west to east marks a return from the unreality of Los Angeles, that “terrifying city” (yet, simultaneously, “a restoring fountain of health and hope and ambition”), to a realer, and certainly duller, world; indeed, departing, “[s]he had a little of the feeling Eve must have had as she made her last walk down the quickest paths of Eden toward the gate that would not open again.” Mem’s train is even figured as the serpent. The two days it spends passing through the desert—a space which, Mem admits, “had its charms” and stands for the world she has left: a long, level vista of “dead platitudinous levels [that] made going easier,” for “[p]latitudes were labor saving and you went faster and safer over them.”[13] This desert is simply a metaphor for the life Mem left behind, stultifying and ambitionless, cramped, ruled by a rigid father, for the fountain of hope and happiness she found in her Hollywood successes.

In John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977), Desmond Spellacy is exiled to the desert in Twenty-Nine Palms outside Los Angeles in permanent penance-making after he’s caught up in scandal. Priest and advisor to the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Des had a long relationship with Jack Armstrong, one-time pimp and later corrupt contractor who did most of the building work for the Church. In an act of revenge by Des’s dishonest policeman brother Tommy, Armstrong is framed for the gruesome murder of Lois Fazenda, the “Virgin Tramp”—based on the actual “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947.[14] In Dunne’s dark vision, everything and everyone in Los Angeles is both corrupt and not what they seem: police detectives work as bagmen, nice girls service their bosses in back rooms, upstanding married barbers like to shave prostitutes’ pubes—and kill them.

The desert by Twenty-Nine Palms doesn’t know this corruption. To a parish priest trying to fix his car, Tommy conveys the trick of adding pepper to a defective carburetor learned in the used-car business. Parishioners’ problems run to dysfunctional bowels and young nuns vocationally confused; Des’s housekeeper avers “she had never been in a man’s room alone”—unlike virtually every other woman in True Confessions. (Tommy’s wife, Mary Margaret, is chaste, but she’s also insane.) For Des, the twenty-eight years he spends in desert exile (a little joke on the name of his desert town) provide an opportunity to reflect on his sins, to recognize the role played in his life and career by his lust for power and control—sins far worse than those of the flesh, as Des’s former confessor had known. The Egyptian desert fathers knew this too—they struggled against sexual desire, but were perfectly aware that, as sins go, it was hardly in a league with pride, power, and arrogance. It is living in the desert that helps Des not merely to see his own sinfulness—he has already been thinking about it throughout the novel—but to confront it and, as it were, make peace with it. This would have been impossible in Los Angeles; the contrast between the desert out there and the city could not be greater.[15]

The desert’s proximity, in other words, offers some writers about Los Angeles a convenient locale for the performance of contrition for sins committed in, and often abetted by, the city. In deploying the desert in this way, writers are playing right into that powerful trope of “the desert” in western imagination, the desert as a locus for punishment and expiation. It seems not excessive to propose that the degradation of Los Angeles, depicted in so much of the fiction set in the city as worse by orders of magnitude than that of other cities, should be counterbalanced by a harsh environment suited, in this conceptualization, only to wear away the accumulated filth of the sinful soul. Polar opposites on the moral and environmental meter stand shoulder to shoulder, ready on the one hand to foster husband killers, daughter rapists, and all manner of unspeakable human atrocity,[16] and on the other to redeem, through suffering and deprivation, the souls so befouled.


Another powerful contrast between desert and city plays out in John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Here the articulation between desert and city runs through the figure of Camilla, the object of Arturo Bandini’s lust, envy, anger, despair. Her sometime boyfriend Sammy, a would-be writer whose stories Bandini trashes, lives out in the Mojave Desert 150 miles from Bandini’s Bunker Hill hotel. Camilla moves back and forth between Sammy’s desert shack and Bandini’s dark urban landscape, but she is, in fundamental ways, in her sexuality, her shamelessness, linked to the desert, not unlike another desert woman, Barbara Worth of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The ironies in Ask the Dust are more subtle than in Dunne’s novel, for Camilla’s behavior violates—apparently—rules of “civilized” behavior—she sleeps around, she smokes pot, she returns to an abusive boyfriend—but in many respects she is a more genuine person, truer to herself, than Bandini and his city. In the end she abandons herself to the desert, walking off into the Mojave and vanishing over a ridge; her body is never found, and Ask the Dust ends with the startling image of Bandini inscribing a copy of his first book to her and heaving it out into the desert—an admission at once of love, loss, and defeat.

This external desert can, of course, invade Los Angeles, too. In Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) its desert dunes blanket the concrete of the city streets, like Sahara sand concealing the monuments of ancient Egypt; indeed, in this post-apocalyptic LA, the desert has spread everywhere. In The Day of the Locust (1939) Nathaniel West’s narrator Tod Hackett, gawking at a speaker at the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” muses that he “was probably just in from one of those colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts…. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome.”[17]

 The howling Santa Anas

Perhaps no dangerous desert intrusion into Los Angeles has resonated more with many of its writers than the Santa Ana winds, emblem of “the terrible hot season from June to September when a fiery wind blows from the desert and the sky turns blood red.”[18] An early version of their impact appears in On the Lot and Off, the last novel of George Chester and his wife Lilian Chester, published in 1924:

Shrieking and moaning, the wind swept in from the desert to take its eerie part in the life of Hollywood, to wield its mysterious influence on the fourth or fifth or whatever largest industry in the United States. It was one of those summer days rare to the Pacific coast, but poignant, when through the yellow sunlight there sift vague phantom shapes of impalpable dust which bite the skin and smart the eyes, and are the prickling forerunners of a three-day withering heat from out of the very heart of the vast shadeless inferno up yonder in the waste places. It was such a day as lowers the vitality and depresses the spirit and sets the nerves on edge, and when vitality ebbs and depression reigns and nerves are aquiver, both men and women do things which they might otherwise not have done; so no one knows what tremendous extent of folly and of tragedy might be chargeable to this same shrill, shrieking, moaning, sobbing wind from the deadly desert.[19]

The Santa Ana winds act more or less as a deus ex machina, for they effect the dénoument of the plot by driving several characters to actions they might otherwise have abjured, even sometimes against their own best interests.

On the Lot and Off has a potboiler of a plot, but the central thrust is just the efforts of the protagonist Izzy Iskowitz to gain control of his own motion picture studio. For this to happen, many unpredictable, evidently impossible things must occur, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that do the trick. So, for instance, the winds cause the owner of the Producer and Distributors Trust Company to place his wholly incompetent son Tennyson in charge of the bank at the very moment that the financially toppling Sam Black of Luna Pictures is begging for an extension on his loan:

but at that moment an exotic gust of wind from right out of the blistering pit of the dust whistled around the corner and between the classic gates and through the leaded-glass windows of Sam Black’s office, and smote him hip and thigh and blue-tipped nose with such an excruciatingly shivering blast that he yelled into the phone—insulting Tennyson and sealing his fate.

Later, in a crucial move in his plans, Izzy gets his boss David Schusshel to buy Luna, and again the wind is key: “On a cooler, less enervating day, David might have withstood…. But outside howled the desert wind, and through the screens there blew a steady stream of hot, enervating air, and David’s resistance was low; and he fell.” And Prudence Joy, the actress Izzy loved but could not marry, in thrall to a no-good husband and desperately in need of money, swallows her pride and begs Izzy for advice, sitting in his office “perfectly motionless while that gale from the desert shrieked and moaned and shrilled its mournful dirge outside, while the stinging heat which came from it seemed to dry up the very life in her.” The winds are determinative—except for Izzy, who’s immune to their effects.[20]


The Chesters don’t call their “desert wind” specifically the Santa Ana, but that’s clearly what they meant. In any case, these winds then howl through much subsequent LA fiction, especially what evolves into the noir detective story in the hands of Cain, Chandler, and others. Chandler’s own most famous description of the Santa Anas, which appeared in 1939 in the story “Red Wind,” has taken on an emblematic role, thanks in part to Joan Didion’s citation of it in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” Two years later Earl Stanley Gardiner, writing under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, cooked up an even more “extraordinary two pages” on the winds:

In the spring and late fall southern California has peculiarly violent desert windstorms known as “santanas,” sometimes called “Santa Anas.” For hours before such winds start, the sky will be clear and dustless. The air will be warm, listless, devoid of life. The details of objects can be seen with startling clarity. Silk or rayon garments will crackle with static electricity.

Then suddenly a blast of wind comes sweeping down from the east and north, a hot, dry wind which churns particles of dust so fine they filter between dry lips, grit against the surfaces of teeth. As a rule, those storms blow for three days and three nights. Those sections which are protected from the wind itself nevertheless feel the dehydrating effects of the dry, hot air. People’s nerves get raw. They are listless and irritable. Perspiration is sucked up by the dry air so the hot skin becomes gritty with dust.


One look at the star-studded sky, and I knew a santana was coming. Stars blazed down with such steady brilliance the heavens seemed filled to overflowing. The air out of doors seemed as close as it was in the study—warm, dry, devitalizing air that made one’s nerves stand on edge.


When I had finished the third chapter, the wind struck. It struck with the force of a solid wall. The house swayed with the force of that first terrific gust. All over the place I could hear doors slamming, could hear people running, and the sound of closing windows….

My nerves are always on edge during those windstorms.[21]

The effect of the Santa Anas—both the physical impact of dusty, obscured vision, a “dryness [that] is fairly stinging, like a slightly sour amphetamine,” and the psychological disorientation they bring—match well the mood of noir; “the evil,” Norman Klein notes, “is still in the atmosphere.”[22]

In Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), it is “one of those icky desert winds we call the Santa Ana” that sparks “real drama” in the plot, “that very important element labeled by [Gidget’s high-school English] teacher Glicksberg as the ‘clincher’ or climax.” Gidget has earned herself a back-handed invitation to a luau on the Malibu beach, despite warnings that it would be an “orgy” (a word she has to look up in the dictionary). During the party “a creepy wind was blowing… like something coming right out of a furnace.” This Santa Ana, rushing down from the mountains and the desert and out to sea, turns back on the land and whips sparks carelessly spread by the revelers onto the sagebrush beyond the highway, fanning up a great roaring brush fire. The desert-spawned fire serves as a blatant metaphor for Gidget’s own raging but misdirected sexuality, for in the confusion, as police and fire trucks swoop down to contain the blaze and enlist the help of the partying surfers whose drunken carelessness caused the fire, Gidget cannot get home and ends up seeking shelter in the Kahoona’s beach hut. On his return he insists that it will be impossible for her to pass the cordon of police cars and fire trucks before morning; she can, he offers, sleep in his bed, while he takes the chair. Gidget, out of a mix of guilt—after all, he’s exhausted, having just spent several hours battling the flames while she dozed in his hut—and desire, voices a daring invitation: “‘Maybe you’re not comfortable in that chair. There is room enough in the bed for both of us here.’” He accepts, and Gidget reckons “this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now it would happen. He would make me a woman.” Instead, like the sudden rains that had just doused the brushfire, the Kahoona douses Gidget: “‘[W]hen it happens between you and a man it must be beautiful…. And it must be all for love, Franzie.’” (He uses her real name—a marker that this is serious.) “‘The time must be ripe. When the time is ripe—you’ll know. You’ll be trembling the way you tremble now—but it’ll be right. This isn’t.’” The desert brings a whirlwind of endangered virtue; luckily, a good patriarchal figure is there to protect Gidget from herself.[23]


In one of the “tales” called “Sirocco” in Eve Babitz’s collection Slow Days, Fast Company, her narrator[24] repudiates the trope of the evil Santa Ana winds. “From earliest childhood,” she insists, “I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds…. Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.” As with Gidget, the Santa Anas spell for Babitz’s narrator a potent sexual compulsion—but unlike with Gidget, there’s no “grown up man” around to hit the brakes. The narrator recounts two experiences, both connected with her “just friend” William, both involving other women, both prompted by the Santa Anas, however much she “hate[s] blaming things on the weather.”

The first, narrated with a certain coyness, revolves around an Italian named Isabella Farfalla, “bored with the ancient decadence that her own country provided” who, “like the Santa Anas” “was a devastating force… it was her nature to interject chaos at the very time things had about ossified.” At the opening of a new club Isabella and the narrator engage in some heavy petting:

“You two really looked beautiful,” William sighed about me and Isabella, “kissing each other like that.”

“Well, at least we looked beautiful,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Maybe you really like women better,” he suggested. “Maybe that’s been it all along.”

“But what does one do with women?” I said, imagining at once exactly what one would do. “It was probably just the Santa Ana,” I said.

“You never kissed me like that,” he replied.

Her second experience came later, in October: “It was a Sunday and the Santa Ana had been afoot since the night before. It was so dry that the bougainvillea, picked, would embalm in the heat and last forever like Japanese paper flowers.” She gets a phone call from a friend, Day Tully, and invites her over; in the Santa Ana aridity Day’s “brown hair crackled from the lightning in the air.” The narrator suggests a walk to William’s; Day agrees, but cautions: “I hear this wind changes people into maniacs.” Indeed—soon after arrival at William’s and the consumption of “freezing-cold, green jigger glasses of vodka,” the narrator

was the first to pounce. What I wouldn’t do with Isabella, who knew what she was doing, I now smoothly instigated between Day and William and myself. Passion from boredom and vodka flashed through my veins, passion and fanned curiosity toppled us, Santa Ana-ed, down upon William’s bed. Only not William. I wouldn’t let William touch me, and we almost tore poor Day in half.

For Babitz’s narrator—or shall we drop the pretense and just call her “Eve”?—the Santa Ana madness brings happy release: “if we didn’t have the Santa Anas,” she concludes, “how straight we would all be.”[25]


In her celebration of the Santa Anas as a blatant catalyst for sexual experimentation Babitz plays a field she has mostly to herself. But the underlying trope remains the same; there’s no questioning of Day’s observation that the winds change folks into maniacs—they do indeed for Eve too, and fundamentally, she’s really no different from Gidget: both open themselves up to sexual experience under the influence of the winds, both indeed welcome the cover the Santa Ana mania grants to do something they have been wanting for a long time. And neither sees anything wrong with what they want—the swirling desert invitation to sexual adventure outside the bounds of marriage or heterosexual coupled conformity.

The Santa Ana winds, then, bring in the desert: a dangerous, unpredictable, socially destructive or disruptive force of nature. They are emblematic of the “dangerous desert” trope that sits at one of the two poles of desert imaginary discussed above. Corrosive, corrupting, disorienting, debilitating, the winds block thought, dissolve morals, wreak devastation; they are, so to speak, Satan and his desert demons embodied in a howling rush of air.

 The second topology—“underneath it all” [26]

The second topology clashes with a beloved trope about Los Angeles: that it is a paradise, an Eden set in a bedizened landscape; as such, the city becomes a sort of “Ellis Island of beauty” where people flock to join the American dream. This is the LA of the promotional literature churned out by the ream by California boosters in the nineteenth century (and in the recent series of California tourism ads starring celebrities) in which Los Angeles figured not as desert but an Edenic landscape, a paradise on Earth: “if not the original Eden, then a simulacrum that excelled the model.” Berthold Brecht, writing in his journal during his sojourn in LA, saw through the falsity, or so he thought—through the glittery surface of palm trees and hydrangeas, Art Deco office buildings and iconic hamburger stands, Hollywood back lots and ribbons of freeway: “as for culture: it decays unbelievably fast (like California’s artificial flora, planted on desert ground, when not watered),” for “all this greenery is wrested from the desert by irrigation systems, scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” Or, as Eve Babitz remarked, a propos a graffito, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”[27] This works, of course, because of an environmental trope about Los Angeles itself: that it sits in an arena of bountiful good health, beneficent climate, and easy living. Many years ago Carey McWilliams encapsulated this trope in a few lapidary pages of Southern California he called “The Folklore of Climatology.” Boosters like Samuel Stoney, writing in 1889, believed they’d “found a Paradise on Earth” where “lungers”—sufferers of tuberculosis—found relief, flowers and fruits proliferated, and the only fear possible enervation from living in paradise.[28]

This trope developed early in the city’s history. A proleptic Los Angeles as paradise appears already in Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, retrojected deep into the Spanish past. He imagines a trio of Spanish soldiers perched on a hill, enchanted by the scene below:

The plains and rolling hills had discarded their mantle of green and donned their sere robes of summer. Gazing toward the sun, which had now marked the first segment in the circle of its journey, plains, hills, forests, lakes, rivers, valleys, and towering mountains in a splendid panorama met their wondering vision. To the rear of where the three warriors sat… lay in silent beauty the shimmering waters of a beautiful lake sheltered from the rude blasts of the ocean by a rampart of kind and protecting hills. To the left for leagues could be traced the serpentine windings of the river…. Obliquely to their rear and looking southward to the sea the waters of the Porciuncula [River, later the Los Angeles River] swept by like a silver stripe in a ribbon of green, shaded by the umbrageous white-armed sycamore and the more verdant cottonwood, under whose protecting shades gamboled countless herds of deer and antelope, while still beyond are to be seen rocky islands in the ocean posted like knights in armor guarding the portals of Paradise.

One of the soldiers, shaking off his bedazzlement at “this vision of beauty,” thanks his commanding sergeant for “shar[ing] with us this foresight of Paradise.” It is, of course, the site of the future Los Angeles, chosen by “our Blessed Lady, the Angel Queen” herself.[29]

Standing in fervent opposition to this happy talk is what J.U. Peters has called “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” well represented by Dunne’s True Confessions. This Los Angeles of corruption, violence, fornication, debasement, and falsity Peters traces to the city’s decenteredness, its agglutination of suburbs, a “spatial disorder” that “suggests a deeper spatial implication: the jarring and dehumanizing shock of sudden displacement which the characters in many novels undergo.”[30] Indeed—but another contributor to this condition surely is also the “false tinsel” that lurks below: “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” and remains part of “this western desert.”[31] Remarkably similar language in novel after novel evokes the desert qualities of the Los Angeles scene: its “hot sun” in True Confessions or the “hot dry air” of Less Than Zero; the “parched and arid heat of Los Angeles” in See’s Golden Days, a “heat like a flat pan in the High Desert.” In Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan the Englishman Jeremy Pordage first perceives LA as “mountains—ridge after ridge as far as the eye could reach, a desiccated Scotland, empty under the blue desert sky.” Ross MacDonald’s cynical Lew Archer sees LA simply as “an urban wilderness in the desert.” And when an economic recession grips the film industry, “[t]he garden of Los Angeles had reverted to the desert.”[32] Not, be it noted, a desert, but the desert: the desert that had always been lurking there.


The Los Angeles desert frames Gavin Lambert’s 1954 novel The Slide Area from the first pages. Introducing his Los Angeles, Lambert’s narrator—a Hollywood script writer—stresses the city’s “impression of unreality”, reinforced by the “neurotic” “behavior of the air.” In fact “nothing belongs except the desert soil…. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has that terrible dusty brilliance.” The city rests on “land dried and crusted into desert… a quagmire under a hot sun”; it is, he insists, “difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert” where “buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert” and a motel stands “solitary in the desert of its parking lot.” Lambert isn’t completely consistent in seeing LA as built on a desert, for sometimes he remarks on the role of the “gritty mountains” in separating the city from “the dry Mojave desert” and he starts and ends his tale with electrical storms “near Palm Springs… out over the desert.” The predominant theme, though, is certainly Los Angeles as desert, and the desert fact of the city, its aridity, original emptiness, sterility, shape the stunted lives of the novel’s characters. The link is explicit in Lambert’s description of his friend Mark’s beach house after he has left for the South Pacific: it presents “[a] little desert of emptiness and stillness that people seem instinctively to avoid.”[33]

This theme is especially prominent in See’s Golden Days. The protagonist Edith Langley grows up “in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles.” Returning after a sojourn in New York, she imagines LA as a plant in the desert, its extension from downtown “a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Desert vegetation is tough, thorny, resistant to drought and abuse, but likewise not easy to approach—perhaps, in contrast to Edith’s initial impression, not so easy to live with. The house she buys on her return is tucked deep up Topanga Canyon, the “Old Canyon,” which “[s]ome people say… is the desert part”—although, in fact, “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” Yucca grow, taller than Edith’s daughters; there are rattlesnakes, neighbors warn, and Edith later watches two boys wrangle over possession of a three-foot long snake—but surely no rattler—that had unwisely slunk into the neighborhood market. The Canyon bakes in 120 degree heat, and, like all southwestern deserts, is subject both to flood and fire. The desert of LA impinges even on Edith’s wardrobe, as she switches from flannel shirts to silk blouses, “raw silk” being, she supposes, “the flannel of the desert.”[34] In other words, the desert does not simply frame See’s LA, offering a counterpoint out east, or north, over the passes, to serve as a locus for redemption or despair; the desert is LA, and living in the city becomes, for See’s protagonists, an adaptation to a desert world. In ways both blatant and subtle, the desert compels her characters to react to it—be it by shedding flannels for silk (the same projected persona, a different skin) or, eventually, by adapting to a nuclear-devastated landscape, a final act of desertification performed on a desert wasteland.[35]

While the deserts of Los Angeles barely inflect Aldous Huxley’s first LA novel, in his second novel written in California and set in Los Angeles, Ape and Essence (1948), the desert does not merely serve as a setting, but plays a central role in both plot and message. Two screenwriters, Bob Briggs and Huxley’s narrator, discover a rejected script in the slush pile submitted by a certain William Tallis. Intrigued, they travel out to see the author, a recluse living “on the southwest fringe of the Mojave desert.” Huxley draws a contrast between the “tough ascetic lives of the desert” and the cottonwoods and willows along irrigation ditches, “clinging precariously… to another, easier, more voluptuous mode of being.” Huxley’s desert outside LA immediately invokes the tension between the city itself, which can only exist by importation of water and thus promotes a morally corrupt way of life (already evident in the scripts Bob and his partner paw through), and an ascetic, and so purer, desert life—a framing that evokes also the role of the desert in Dunne’s True Confessions. Then, as Bob and the narrator approach Tallis’s house:

Out there, on the floor of the desert, there had been a noiseless, but almost explosive transformation. The clouds had shifted and the sun was now shining on the nearest of those abrupt and jagged buttes, which rose so inexplicably, like islands, out of the enormous plain. A moment before they had been black and dead. Now suddenly they had come to life between a shadowed foreground and a background of cloudy darkness. They shone as if with their own incandescence.

I touched Bob’s arm and pointed.

“Now do you understand why Tallis chooses to live at the end of this road?”[36]

Tallis’s script imagines a Los Angeles in 2108 after a nuclear war has devastated the United States. LA, “the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town… what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland…. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” The plot of Tellis’s movie revolves around the arrival in Southern California of an expedition from New Zealand that includes a botanist named Poole. Captured by the gang that rules the ruined city, he meets a young woman named Loola; they fall in love, but strict eugenics rules imposed by the gang forbid their relationship. Eventually Poole and Loola escape into the desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north for a supposed paradise where love is free and children can be conceived; to do so, they seek refuge and invisibility in the “enormous expanse of the Mojave desert,” the desert beyond the desert of Los Angeles.[37]


Thus the desert plays a multiplicity of roles in Ape and Essence: it is at once the “desert underneath,” the ecological reality of Los Angeles concealed—only temporarily, and always precariously—by an overlay of water and fakery; it is that ecological reality not created but simply revealed by the nuclear bombs that stripped away the “false tinsel”; it is a more genuine ecology “out there,” where Tallis lives and through which Poole and Loola escape; it is refuge.

Perhaps we are invited to imagine a better LA had its desert never been gussified with Hollywood falsity, or perhaps the desertified Los Angeles tyrannized by the Archimandrite and his acolytes is what it deserves. In any case, the “natural” desert is clearly the better place, even if it is tough and unforgiving. Poole and Loola, in the end, must serve an apprenticeship of suffering and purgation during their desert trek north, sore feet, little food, and thirty miles and more of painful walking. It is the desert as test, another desert sojourn to reach the Promised Land—California, love, happiness, children. Ape and Essence, then, may stand for a type—prefigured almost presciently in Philip Wylie’s 1943 short story “The Paradise Crater,” which government officials feared represented a leak in the Manhattan Project—scenarios of the Los Angeleno apocalypse, especially those predicated on nuclear annihilation, which evoke a return of the repressed when the LA underlying them has been figured as masked desert.[38]

In After the Bomb (1985) young Philip Singer, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend Cara survive a thermonuclear blast over LA because they happened to be lounging in an old bomb shelter in the brothers’ back yard. The book tells the story of Philip’s efforts to save his badly burned mother while moving through a ruined, post-nuclear landscape. The desert of After the Bomb bears, however, two valences, opposite and ironic. On the one hand, that Santa Ana which launches the plot adumbrates the desert-like destruction of the hydrogen bomb to come; on the other, it, and the desertification of the bomb itself, strip away the falsity of Los Angeles: Philip’s apparently omni-competent brother Matt proves hopeless, clueless, and almost useless, while Matt’s girlfriend Cara, whom Philip had hoped to snag for himself before his brother lured her away, now sees who’s really reliable in an emergency. In the end Matt’s redeemed, more or less; whether Cara will switch brothers remains undisclosed. But fundamentally it’s the falsity of the LA world that’s worn Philip down in his ordinary life that’s stripped away by desert wind and desertifying bomb—LA both invaded and revealed.[39]

The fundamental falsity of the desert materializes—deceptively—in its mirages, and Los Angeles is all mirage. So when Paul, a protagonist of Lurie’s The Nowhere City, drives through an LA cityscape “for once swept clear of smog by the desert winds”—the Santa Anas, as Lurie’s allusion to the season makes clear—“[t]he city shimmered in the dry, warm air, every detail sharp, but all colors bleached out by the intensity of the light, like a mirage.” Paul fears lest this mirage “wasn’t the harmless decorative sort, but one of those false visions that hover just above the horizon of the desert, luring travelers on to exhaustion and despair.”[40] So too people: in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940) “Helen Grayle”—in fact Velma Vanelto—started life as a sexually promiscuous chorus girl, but after eight years has succeeded—it seems—in burying her sordid past. The reinvented Helen is a “true product of Los Angeles, a city of resplendent surfaces”; she is “a figment, inspired by a culture that glorifies illusion….”[41] That is to say Helen is a mirage: that deceptive, fatal emanation of the desert, a confection of shimmering air with no more tangible reality than a passing breeze. This image suits perfectly Hollywood, that emblem of Los Angeles in so much fiction, whose primary function (that is, aside from coining profits for its studios) is simply to deliver a gullible public confected falsity as if it were something real.

Some final ruminations and unanswered questions

The whole congeries of desert imagery and Los Angeles fiction was captured succinctly in an essay by Charles Crow, who, evoking Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, writes of

the desert, that vast and troubling presence which most Angelenos would like to ignore. The paradox of Los Angeles, geographically, is that it is both a seacoast and a desert city…. [T]he ecology of the city is so fragile that it cannot hope to survive very long; at some point that aqueducts that are its arteries will fail… and the city will disappear…. The desert, lurking in the east, is the city’s doom. Out of the desert blow the Santa Ana winds, drying the hillsides and spreading the brush fires…. Deserts have always been places of prophecy and truth-seeking, and the message of this desert, “the hard empty white core of the world,” is annihilation, nothingness… [a place where] a man walked into the desert seeking God and was killed by a rattlesnake.[42]

Which is not to say, of course, that the man in question failed to find God; he may just not have found the God he thought he was looking for.[43]

Desert redemption, desert evil, the desert out there, desert demons borne into town on the Santa Anas—desert barrier, the desert below, the desert remade in nuclear annihilation, desert truth, desert falsity, abhorrence, fascination, attraction—so many deserts shape the city, in its fiction; without the desert, indeed, there is no fictional Los Angeles. Before we conclude, however, it behooves us to consider, briefly, some non-fictional treatments of Los Angeles, for the desert tropes—whether “out there” or “below”—seem often less prominent in such works. A certain tension between Los Angeles as desert and not-desert features in Mike Davis’s two dense and remarkable books about the city. The earlier City of Quartz (1990) starts with a tour of the desert ruins of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, which he calls explicitly “desert”; here and there in the book the notion recurs, although without much emphasis, yet with implicit approval. Everything has changed in Ecology of Fear (1999), which begins with a stark rejection of the desert trope as a self-serving notion designed to justify the continuing theft of water from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. Instead, the Los Angeles region is seen as a Mediterranean climate—although, again, Davis sometimes reverts to the possibility of desert resurfacing or desert invasion, as when he notes that the last 150 years have been “anomalously mild, and therefore atypical”; the desert, we are warned, encroached on what is now Los Angeles during the “epic drought periods” of the Middle Ages. This Mediterranean trope—which we also touched on above in a passage from Harold Bell’s book—is abundantly clear in the booster literature of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, in which Southern California in general is a land of abundant good health, sunshine, and pleasure. Much of this literature figured Southern California as “our Mediterranean”—a view captured explicitly in the title of Peter Charles Remondino’s 1892 encomium, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions.[44]


Of course, Davis is right in Ecology of Fear, as were the old-time boosters: Los Angeles sits not in a desert but in a Köppen-Geiger BS climate, a steppe, as we noted at the start of this essay, and as Glen M. MacDonald argued cogently in a recent contribution to Boom.[45] Why, then, have the desert tropes of “out there” or “underneath” exercised such a magnetism on so many writers of fiction about LA? I have no definite answer to the question, which would require a much longer discussion than can be accommodated in a few words at the end of this essay. It does seem to me, however, that at least three drivers may be at work.

First, there is moral coding. Since LA is so often figured as corrupt, decadent, and unnatural, the desert, whether a space “out there” or a hidden underbelly to the city, can be figured as a moral opposite. The long-standing trope of desert redemption and purity, seen perhaps most blatantly in True Confessions of all the books studied here, can then serve as a space of purgation and moral repair. This moral opposition, however, can work in another way too: the desert can come into or rise up from underneath the city and sweep away its corruption, sterilizing an urbanscape subject to vile putrefaction. So Ape and Essence, much of the “LA holocaust” literature, Golden Days, and even Watkins’s recent Gold Fame Citrus.

Not unrelated, perhaps, is the sense of the desert as an escape hatch—a refuge, a place to escape the city, to find a more genuine life, or at least a chance to start over. This driver seems connected with a very powerful sense of the West in general as a place to “start over,” where you can shed old identities and baggage and become a new person; and certainly this notion is fundamentally intertwined with the myth of California itself, as a Promised Land where the new covenant can be struck.[46]

And then there is the simple distaste for Los Angeles as a city—a kind of revulsion that seems to infect an extraordinarily large proportion of literature about the city. Reyner Banham observed some decades ago that Los Angeles “gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences…”, abused by the “pedestrian litterateur who finds the place ‘a stinking sewer’ and stays only long enough to collect material for a hate-novel.” It would be easy to draw up a lengthy catalogue. For such writers there may be no better fate for Los Angeles than desertified obliteration; for, even a desert, repulsive as it may be, is still better than Los Angeles.[47]

This is all rather speculative and certainly incomplete. I have begged other important questions, too. Desert spaces (and the West more generally) have figured often in the American imaginary as emplaced on our continent for the express purpose of “white redemption”: the white male, emasculated or in danger of emasculation thanks to his exposure in urban space to dangerous “others,” especially the racially or ethnically different (not to mention women), may find his hope of recovery of his masculinity by lighting out for the desert, whose harshness tests, refines, and redeems him, themes well explored by Richard Slotkin and David Teague. The “whiteness” of this narrative trope brings up another unexplored question: the degree to which the whole framing of LA and the desert is entirely, or mostly, a white and/or upper-middle class preoccupation. Finally, there is the matter of “nature.” The desert trope carries an implicit dichotomy between urban LA as “not nature” and the desert as “nature.” But of course this whole construction—of the “wild,” the “natural” in opposition to the human “artificial”—has been thoroughly challenged by scholars as diverse in their interests as Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and for Los Angeles itself Jenny Price, in her now-classic essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” In other words, much of the literature I’ve examined here (and no doubt much I have missed) rests and depends on an opposition itself a confected dualism—not unlike the dichotomy of “desert out there” and “desert underneath” that I have suggested form the two topologies of the desert in LA.[48]



  • All photographs taken by and used with permission of Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com). All rights reserved.

[1] Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 12. On The Nowhere City in particular and Lurie’s fiction in general, see Julie Newman¸ Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Susan Watkins, “‘Women and Wives Mustn’t Go Near It’: Academia, Language, and Gender in the Novels of Alison Lurie,” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingeles 48 (2004): 129-146; Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: Suburban Eden and the Fall into History,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 65-67. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, praised The Nowhere City as “the best fictive portrait to capture Los Angeles as it made the transition to supercity.”

[2] In a recent essay, Eric Avila claims Southern California “reads like a subtle case for ecological determinism” (“Essaying Los Angeles,” in McNamara [ed.], Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, 178), but McWilliams insisted on the mistake of seeing Southern California as wholly determined by its ecology; the cult of climate was, for him, “folklore” (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land [Salt Lake City: Peregrine Books, 2010], 96-112): although McWilliams admits that the climate there does indeed change people, he also insists that “the miraculous qualities of the climate were invented, not by the cynical residents of the region, but by the early tourist” (98).

[3] Although some working from smaller circumferences insist in continuing to call it one: most recently Vanessa Friedman, “Dior in the Desert,” The New York Times, 12 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/fashion/dior-cruise-2018-maria-grazia-chiuri.html?smid=tw-nytfashion&smtyp=cur&_r=0 (accessed 20 May 2017).

[4] From data at http://www.laalmanac.com/weather/we13.htm (accessed  19 May  2017). Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Südkalifornie (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1936), 23, gives 379.7 mm as the annual average. On the European settlement-era ecosystems of the Los Angeles Basin, see Paula M. Schiffman, “The Los Angeles Prairie,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 38-51. D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 140, rightly writes, “[T]he Los Angeles plain is semiarid. It’s not exactly a desert.” Of course, with climate change, all bets are off.

[5] McWilliams, Southern California, 110 (originally 1946). See David Fine, “Introduction,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 17, characterizing Los Angeles as “a city almost literally carved out of a desert,” paraphrasing (I suppose) Richard Lehan, “The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 30, for whom “Los Angeles was crafted out of the desert.”

[6] In this essay I leave aside largely the literature treating Los Angeles as an eco-disaster—greedily gulping water from the Owens valley, degrading the sere landscape with acres of cheap, ugly houses, inviting deserved eco-obliteration or sheer decay (say, the now clichéd city of the film Blade Runner) or the eco-collapse of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) or the milder but sadder critique of Waldie’s Holy Land. I do examine some of the literature of nuclear annihilation where such disaster evokes or uncovers desert LA.

[7] And see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Maid (1919), in which Earth’s salvation from Martian domination entails, among other things, the obliteration of Los Angeles; Michael Orth, “Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” Extrapolation 27 (1986): 226.

[8] See many of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), and Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[9] Indeed: sixty years ago Carolyn See catalogued already 500 books set in Hollywood alone and read 300 of them for her dissertation “The Hollywood Novel: An Historical and Critical Study,”  unpublished dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles, 1963), a study more often cited, I suspect, than read (p. 1 for the numbers; 485-516, for the bibliography).

[10] For a thorough discussion of the Hebrew biblical tropes, see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness and the Hebrew Bible Religion—Fertility, Apostasy and Religious Transformation in the Pentatuch,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religion: Spacialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, eds. Laura Feldt, Gustavo Benavides, and Kocku von Stuckard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 55-94; see also Gary Reger, “Making the Desert American,” Cultural History 2 (2013): 167-174, and Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands. History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 23-47.

[11] So, perhaps, the winds were even responsible for the Watts Riots: Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 143-144.

[12] Frank Norris quoted in David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 3; Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), 183 (“blinding blue”), 314 (madcap ride; originally published 1922); Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea [A Novel] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 83; Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 1; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 340 (William R. Gowen, “Hoo-ray! ri! ro! row! roo! rah! Rupert Hughes and his ‘Dozen’,” Newsboy [November-December 1995]:13-16, offers a brief biography; Hughes served with the US Army Mexican Border Service in 1916 [p. 14], perhaps a source for some of the desert images in Souls for Sale?); F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 2003), 18. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 58-61, alludes to the sense that crossing “the great desert” (58) “often functions as a rite de passage” (57), but without developing the analogy to desert purgation in the exodus to the Promised Land; she quotes Dorothy Hughes, Dread Journey (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945), 138, on the three-day trip through a “wasteland.” See does, however, argue that the trip west marks “a period of penance” which “divests [the traveler] of his past and all its appurtenances”; he “metaphorically dies and is born again in the long eerie train trip across the Great West to Hollywood….” In an ironic twist, the Promised Land into which such travelers are reborn is not a land of milk and honey but the locus of “sins… so rarified and vile that in his old life he has perhaps never even heard of them…” (58).

[13] Steve Erikson, Amnesiascope: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 80, 217; Braverman, Lithium, 358-362; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 372-375. William L. Manly, Death Valley in ’49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer (Crabtree: The Narrative Press, 2001), 141, for a classic evocation of the desert as worthless space.

[14] George Pelecanos, “Introduction,” in John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), v. See Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 213-222, for a brief discussion. There have been multiple book-length studies of the case; the most recent is John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015).

[15] Dunne, True Confessions, 340; see Des’s reflections on his fantasies about Mary Ginty, a parishioner whose husband went to prison: “He dreamed about her. That was all. He would awake in a state of arousal, his bedding wet from the nocturnal emission…. The impulses of the flesh were the darkest sins in Tommy’s canon. How wrong he was. Those impulses could be sublimated. Pride was a substitute. Power. The urge to manipulate. Vices that I have in abundance, Desmond Spellacy thought” (191). See, briefly but cogently, Michael Adams, “Sin and Guilt in the Fiction of John Gregory Dunne,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 25 (1984): 156. Timothy J. Meaghan, “Cops, Priests, and the Decline of Irish America: True Confessions (1981),” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 245, sees Des’s exile as situating him in “the desert… the empty space where relationships can be constructed,” but Des’s desert space is not in fact empty: it is full of people and pre-existing relationships.

[16] Husband killer: Phyllis Nirdlinger in Cain 1992 (original 1936); daughter rapist: Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974).

[17] Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 62, 123. Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 2008), 98, suggestively remarks that in the film Blade Runner the city invades the desert, LA “smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.” Curiously, Hughes, Souls for Sale, 70 and 73, refers to a movie being made of Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, whose climax comes with the vicious assassination of the pagan woman mathematician by an enraged crowd of monks in from the desert.

[18] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), 56. Wagner, Los Angeles, 26, calls the Santa Anas “föhnartige Wüstenwinde,” which seems about right; also Didion, Slouching, 218-219. McWilliams, Southern California, 10-11: “desert winds.” On the causes of these winds, see Mimi Hughes and Alex Hall, “Local and Synoptic Mechanisms Causing Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds,” Climate Dynamics 34 (2010): 847-857, and Sebastien Conil and Alex Hall, “Local Regimes of Atmospheric Variability: A Case Study of Southern California,” Journal of Climate 19 (2006): 4308-4325.

[19] George Randolph Chester and Lilian Chester, On the Lot and Off (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924), 267. Briefly Chester’s life and career, Jenny E. Robb, “From the Periodical Archives: Winsor McCay, George Randolph Chester, and the Tale of the Jungle Imps,” Periodical Comics and Cartoons 17 (2007): 249-251. It should be noted that the Chesters’ book is saturated with the anti-Semitism so common in Hollywood novels.

[20] Chester and Chester, On the Lot, 285, 298-299, 275, 268; later, Meyer, Tennyson’s father, violates his own ethics by foreclosing on Luna: “it may have been the enervating wind from the desert” that did it (304).

[21] Raymond Chandler, Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 368 (originally published 1938); Didion, Slouching, 218-219; “extraordinary two pages”: Klein, History of Forgetting, 239; A.A. Fair [Earl Stanley Gardner], Double or Quits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1941), 21-23. Chandler’s famous passage reads: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” As so often with Chandler, a mocking, ironic deflation at the end.

[22] Klein, History of Forgetting, 239, 240. For Joan Didion (White Album, 172), those days when “the wind is coming up” presages the onset of a migraine.

[23] Frederick Kohner, Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 2001), 124, 110 (orgy), 109, 124 and 128, 140-142; Klein, History of Forgetting, 81-83, on LA as “the city burning.” Gidget’s agonized sexual meditations are pretty blatant: “As I was lying in the darkness I felt real alone and helpless like never before in all my fifteen years. There wasn’t enough woman in me yet, and the gidget in me didn’t know how to handle it. Will it always be like this, I thought unhappily, will I always be scared of it and scared of being scared?” (140). Ironically, the Kahoona’s refusal denies Gidget the “climax” she expected. See Ilana Nash, “‘Nowhere Else to Go’: Gidget and the Construction of Adolescent Femininity,” Feminist Media Studies 2 (2002): 348, on the implications of this passage, and in general on the Gidget phenomenon and the patriarchy; but Nash exaggerates when she claims that Gidget never turns to her mother “for support and camaraderie” (352); at least in the first book, Gidget’s mother is the one who divines immediately that her daughter’s problems stem from sexual desire (see their conversation at Kohner, Gidget, 58-60), and her mother sides with her against her father by okaying her date with Moondoggie (91). For a brief account of Kohner’s career, Gerhard Mack, “Frederick Kohner,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band I. Kalifornien. Teil I, eds. John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 762-770; John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka, and Sandra H. Hawrylchak (eds.), Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band 2. Kalifornien. Teil 1 (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 68-71, for a bibliography of Kohner’s work (to 1976). Kohner died in 1986. He does not figure in Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), the most recent study known to me of the German colony in 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and many others; another account in Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 342-396 (Kohner and Gidget, very briefly, at 388-389); see also now Johannes Evelein, Literary Exiles from Nazi Germany (Rochester: Camden House, 2014) on German exile literature more generally. Didion White Album, 210-211, on a 1975 Santa Ana that blew “in off the Mojave for three weeks and set… 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire” and another, in 1978, that fanned a brush fire and “[w]ithin two hours… had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike” (White Album, 222-223).

[24] Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 71-83. “Tales” from the coyly ambiguous “Tales by Eve Babitz” on the title page: while categorized as “fiction,” it is hard to know whether Babitz’s narratives are invented at all, or just lightly disguised recountings of her own experiences.

[25] Babitz, Slow Days, 76 (italics in original); 74-75 (“just friends”); 76 (blaming weather); 79; 78 (long quotation, original italics—“it” because William wants the narrator but she’s refused to sleep with him; so like a man, to find relief in evidence that it’s not his own deficiencies that have turned a woman off); 80-81; 83.

[26] I steal my heading from the title of Traci Lords’ autobiography (Underneath It All [New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003]). Though exploration would take us much too far from Los Angeles and images of the desert, the same trope of “uncovering” the glitz to reveal something else, usually (but not always) sordid, vapid, arid, and sterile underneath, plays out in analogous ways in the pornography industry. Pornography itself relies literally on “uncovering,” by making visible bodies and sexual couplings, but is at the same time a false uncovering, in its meretricious depiction of sex and its urgent need to cover up the abuse, sexism, and violence that accompanies so much of its production. The San Fernando Valley was the epicenter of American pornographic filmmaking in the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s; with the spread of digital photography and cheap, high-quality cameras, the product has been democratized. Still, Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: UC Press, 2012), 224, claim that “[a]ccording to one source, 90 percent of all legally distributed pornographic films are made in the San Fernando valley,” without, however, citing the “source.”

[27] Douglas C. Sackman, “A Garden of Worldly Delights,” in Land of Sunshine, 247, with further references to scholarship of boosterism at 329-330 n. 5; especially notable: Richard Orsi, “Selling the Golden State: A Study of Boosterism in Nineteenth-Century California,” unpublished dissertation (University of Wisconsin, 1973); Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-175 and Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365-414; William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John Findlay (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 117-143; and Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 59-91. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal. Zweiter Band, 1942 bis 1955, ed. Werner Hecht (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 293, entry for 9 August 1941, and 733, entry for 20 March 1945. This theme comes out especially nicely in Liahna Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 109-131. On Brecht in LA, see Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific, 69-147. Babitz, Slow Days, 8.

[28] See Starr, Inventing the Dream, 44-63, for an overview (Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 90-119, on Los Angeles in particular), and Orsi, “Selling the Golden State,” for a detailed study of booster literature. Samuel Stoney, To the Golden Land: Sketches of a Trip to Southern California (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 30, quoted without attribution in McWilliams, Southern California, 98; floral magnificence, 105; enervation, 107.

[29] Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 55-57.

[30] J.U. Peters, “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” in Itinerary: Criticism. Essays on California Writers, ed. Charles L. Crow (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978), 24; see also Babener, “Chandler’s,” 115, and “Chinatown, City of Blight,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 243-244. Lambert, Slide Area, 18, calls Los Angeles “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” Edward Soja, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (Berkeley: UC Press, 2014), 21-23, argues that this view of Los Angeles is now outdated.

[31] Mark Royden Winchell, “Fantasy Seen: Hollywood Fiction Since West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 148 with 166 n. 6; Carolyn See, Golden Days (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996), 121 and 6.

[32] Dunne, True Confessions, 203; Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 67; See, Golden Days, 4 and 7; Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 8: The contrasts between “nature” and “urban artifice” that surface in a few passages (see 10, 60, for example) are never developed. The inspiration for Swan, “his Hollywood novel” (Peter Munro Jack, “A New Novel by Aldous Huxley,” New York Times Book Review [28 January 1940], 2), came from the antics of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies: Franz Baldanza, “Huxley and Hearst,” in Itinerary, 35-47. David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 106-110, on the writing of Swan. J. Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool (New York: Knopf, 1950), 19; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 369. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 178-180, sees artificiality of setting as a fundamental structural feature of the Hollywood novel, though without mentioning the desert (but see also her more extended discussion of the role of climate at 388-402).

[33] Lambert, Slide Area, 15, 16-17, 35, 94, 15 and 211, 52.

[34] See, Golden Days, 4, 6, 9, 121, 10-11, 13. When Edith brings her business partner to be, Skip, home for the first time, her house, lights ablaze, looks “charmed, with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship” (21): a flying saucer touched down, appropriately, in the midst of the desert. On See’s fiction, see Davis, Ecology of Fear, 316-318; Fine, Imagining Los Angeles, 251-255; O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 70-72. In Dunne, True Confessions, 82, Tom complains of his wife Mary Margaret, good Catholic girl: “It could be a hundred degrees with a hot dry wind off the desert and still she would wear flannel” to bed.

[35] See had already foreshadowed this desert beneath in her dissertation, where she wrote of a “parched” geography, “the constant assumption” in the Hollywood fiction she studied “that Southern California is a desert,” indeed a space that, after rain, “as soon as the sun comes out… again turns into an incipient desert” (“Hollywood Novel,” 388, 398, 392).

[36] Huxley, Ape, 17-18. Kerwin Lee Klein, “Westward, Utopia: Robert V. Hine, Aldous Huxley, and the Future of California History,” Pacific Historical Review 70 (2001): 474, makes the important observation that Ape and Essence “aired Huxley’s nostalgia for his lost desert years….”

[37] Huxley, Ape, 62, 202.

[38] On nuclear devastation in Los Angeles’ fiction, see David Seed, “Los Angeles’ Science Fiction Futures,” in Cambridge Companion, 123-134; a brief survey of Los Angeles literature in Davis, Ecology of Fear, 311-318, with a focus on See, Golden Days. For “The Paradise Crater,” see P.D. Smith, The Doomsday Men. The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 294. In The Nowhere City, Paul is awoken at 4 am one morning by terrific noise; “[h]e thought it was, first, a nightmare; then, an atomic war.” But it was just another instance of the constant re-invention of LA: a house being moved to make way for a freeway (Lurie, Nowhere City, 256). “For [Raymond] Chandler,” observes Liahna K. Babener in a trenchant essay, the “falsity is so prevalent that the truth, if it surfaces at all, is neither redeeming nor ameliorative” (“Chandler’s,” 111). If the underlying desert truth of Los Angeles in Ape and Essence be desert, then Babener’s observation becomes chillingly true.

[39] Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1985), 2. Note, of course, the patriarchal trope: “Who will rescue me,” is the real question in Cara’s mind, “when true danger looms?”

[40] Lurie, Nowhere City, 285.

[41] Babener, “Chandler’s,” 120-121. “Helen Grayle” summons up “Holy Grail”—the unattainable object of unending search—and Helen of Troy, destroyer of men through sexual allurement and, in the Odyssey, memory-erasing drugs; Chandler, Stories, 767-984.

[42] Charles L. Crow, “Home and Transcendence in Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 194-195. The embedded quotation comes from Didion, Play It as It Lays, 162.

[43] As indeed Edward Abbey, writing of Datura meteloides, another desert hazard, remarked: “The correct dosage is said to be spiritually rewarding, but the problem is that a microgram too much may lead to convulsions, paralysis and death—also rewarding, perhaps, but usually considered premature” (Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984], 88).

[44] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3-14 (Llano del Rio); 50: “Yet not all Europeans were estranged by either the façade or the desert behind it” (an implicit endorsement, I think); 82-83. Davis, Ecology of Fear, 10-14, 17-18 (Mediterranean climate); 25, 23 (quotations); 202 (LA now bordered by deserts and mountains rather than farms). Peter Charles Remondino, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1892). I am indebted to Boom’s anonymous reader for reminding me of the importance of this literature.

[45] Glen M. MacDonald, “The Myth of a Desert Metropolis,” Boom: A Journal of California 3 (Fall 2013): 86-94; see also https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/05/22/the-myth-of-a-desert-metropolis-los-angeles-was-not-built-in-a-desert-but-are-we-making-it-one/.

[46] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

[47] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), 235 and 243; perhaps Banham had in mind something like The Flutter of an Eyelid, by Myron Brining (1933), or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). Much the same judgment on Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan in See, “Hollywood Novel,” (1963), 39, but of course Huxley never left.

[48] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Also useful: Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” in Land of Sunshine, 220-244. I owe many thanks with this essay. A previous version was presented in Reno, Nevada, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Western Literature Association; my fellow panelists, Joseph William Morton and Sarah Nolan, and our moderator, Tyler Austin Nickl, made this a memorable occasion and contributed many suggestions for improvements. Kate Bergren and Heather Dundas read a draft, offered excellent comments, and encouraged submission to Boom. The anonymous reviewer read the text with remarkable care and sensitivity, and made many suggestions (including bibliography) for strengthening my argument. Any remaining idiocies are mine.

Gary Reger is Professor of History and Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His work on the ancient Greek and Roman economy began with Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos and continues with a project, based on case studies, surveying Greco-Roman economic history, for which he received an NEH grant for 2017-2018. His other main interest is the history of human interaction with deserts broadly conceived across time and space. He has published essays on the southwestern deserts in Extrapolation and Cultural History and has in press a study of Roman reaction to the Sahara Desert.

Copyright: © 2017 Gary Reger. 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/


The Myth of a Desert Metropolis: Los Angeles was not built in a desert, but are we making it one?

Glen M. MacDonald

The question is posed like this. You’ve probably heard it or asked it yourself. Perhaps at a cocktail party. Probably not in LA—but hey, maybe even here in the heart of the folly.

Why on Earth would you build a city for millions of souls in a desert?

Someday, and maybe sooner rather than later, the water is going to run out, and Los Angeles will dry up and blow away.

Alex Prud’homme, author of Ripple Effect: The Fate of Water in the Twenty-First Century, prophesied that Perth, Australia, “could become the world’s first ‘ghost city’—a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.” And, he warned, “similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Los Angeles.”[1] Prud’homme’s description of Los Angeles as a “desert city” has a distinguished lineage. Boyle Workman, a 1930s booster, recalled Los Angeles’ “desert” beginnings when he described the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering. Workman praised “the men who diverted streams into ditches and fed waving fields of grain, vineyards, glossy orange groves and rich gardens that blossomed where once desert brooded.”[2] A 1977 article by the famed aqueduct critic Remi Nadeau was headlined “Los Angeles is by Far the Largest City Ever Built in a Desert.”[3] And nine years later in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,[4] Marc Reisner referred to Los Angeles as being second only to Cairo as the most populous desert city on earth.

The myth of desert Los Angeles suggests that if not for the Los Angeles Aqueduct—and if the city were ever to lose the water that comes from Owens Valley—LA could be Ozymandias: that “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” around which “the lone and level sands stretch far away,” in the immortal words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But is Los Angeles the once and future desert? And should the LA Aqueduct be seen as Mulholland’s greatest gift? Or a curse because it gave rise to an ultimately unsustainable metropolis?

That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before.[5] Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.


Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photograph by Glen MacDonald.

“A very pleasing spot in every respect”

The term “desert” has specific meanings. But how well does Los Angeles fit the bill? According to the venerable Köppen-Geiger Climate System, deserts typically receive less than 10 inches of precipitation a year.[6] Los Angeles gets around 15 inches.[7] However, it is not quite that simple. The real mark of a desert is the ratio of potential evaporation and transpiration (evapotranspiration) to precipitation. This ratio is dependent on temperature, and when the ratio is taken into account we find that a Southwest city such as Tucson, with its high temperatures, is classified as desert despite its average annual precipitation of around 11.6 inches. LA’s higher rainfall and milder temperatures place it in the Mediterranean climate zone. Climatologically, Los Angeles’ sister cities are not places like Cairo but Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, and Athens.

What else defines a desert? Ecologists and biogeographers delineate deserts as regions in which aridity produces sparse and treeless plant cover.[8] Typically, in deserts there is more bare ground than vegetation. Consider the creosote bush-dominated Mojave Desert that extends from Lancaster to beyond Las Vegas. Here we see a generally treeless landscape where creosote bushes often occur at densities of less than one plant for every 100 to 200 square feet of land. Did Los Angeles ever look like this?

It can be hard to imagine what Los Angeles, with its pervasive built and irrigated landscapes, was like prior to Mulholland’s aqueduct, let alone in a state of nature. But glimpses of LA long before the deluge can be found in the written accounts of Padre Juan Crespi who accompanied the Gaspar de Portolà expedition in 1769.[9] Crespi’s descriptions challenge the notion that Los Angeles was a desert. On 2 August 1769, Crespi described what is now the heart of Los Angeles: “The river flows on down nearly at ground level through a very green, lush and wide reaching valley of level soil some leagues in extent from north to south; upon one and the other side of the river, which runs continually onward with a great amount of trees[,] lie very large, very green bottom lands, looking from afar like nothing so much as large cornfields.” Crespi called it “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” He went on to express his views about the potential for European settlement: “And good, better than good, though the places behind us have been, to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water and trees of which it has a good amount as I have related. A grand spot to become in time a good-sized mission of Our Lady of the Angels and La Porciúncula.” Instead of a mission, Governor Felipe de Neve established a civilian farming settlement on arable land that had once sustained the Tongva Indians. On 4 September 1781, a party of forty-four colonists and their military escort founded what was to become Los Angeles. The pueblo was established not in the middle of a desert but where colonists found water, lush vegetation, and good soils.

The Portolà expedition also crossed into the SanFernando Valley, a region generally hotter and drier than the site of future downtown LA. On 5 August 1769, near present day Encino, Crespi found another “grand spot for a good-size mission.” He wrote that “there is no bettering the vast amount of level soil in this valley, dark and friable.” Encino took its name from the Spanish word for live oaks, and Crespi commented on the many trees in the vicinity.[10] “There are a great many walnut trees and white oaks here on the slopes of the mountains belonging to this plain, with a great deal of trees visible to eastward.”

Was Crespi overselling the Los Angeles region? It is not all lushness in his accounts. He does note burned grasslands, coastal sage, and prickly pear cactus consistent with semi-arid vegetation, but he does not describe a desert.

We have other glimpses of early days in the so-called “desert city.” In the nineteenth century, precipitation supported rich range lands and early cattle ranches surrounding Los Angeles, and farmers in the San Fernando Valley produced wheat without irrigation. River water irrigated vineyards, orchards, and market gardens near the pueblo. Shallow groundwater and spring water that collected in the basin’s substrates provided additional water for pumping. A picture from 1863 of a water wheel taking irrigation water from the Los Angeles River against the background of verdant fields and green trees tells the story, as do maps of agriculture in the late nineteenth century. As Crespi had observed earlier, it was “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” The natural local water of the Los Angeles Basin’s streams, rivers, and groundwater allowed Los Angeles to become by 1910 the top agricultural producing county in the entire United States.[11]


Water wheel along the Los Angeles River in the 1860’s. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Water Wars, Real Estate and the Birth of the Desert City Myth

So, where did the “Los Angeles is a desert city” myth originate? Historian Ralph Shaffer has laid the blame on Harrison Gray Otis, the Chandler family, and their use of Los Angeles Times as a propaganda vehicle to secure water and ensure development.[12] However, I think it’s a little more complex than that. In the writings of city boosters during the first real estate boom in the 1880s, one finds no overt reference to Los Angeles as a desert. The following assessment in Los Angeles Times comes from 15 August 1886: “The water supply of Los Angeles is abundant, and while not everything that it should be or can be made, it is better than the water of Boston, Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities.”

There were, however, other forces at work that may have contributed to conceptions of Los Angeles as a desert at the time. The 1877 Desert Lands Act classified as desert those tracts of land that “will not, without irrigation, produce an agricultural crop.”[13] Private citizens could be granted title to such lands if they intended to “reclaim” them through the provision  of  irrigation  waters.  The area  of  Rancho  Cucamonga in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles was a region of such activity, although it is arguably not a true desert either.[14]

Closer  to  Los  Angeles,  the  San  Fernando  Valley  in  the 1880s was explicitly referred to as desert that could be made to bloom with irrigation.[15] Here is one example from Los Angeles Times, on  4  June  1886:  “It  was  said  by  somebody years  ago,  that  the  man  who  made  a  blade  of  grass  grow where none grew before was a public benefactor. What can we say of the man who brings water from the bowels of the earth and causes a fresh, pure living stream to flow where there never was  one  since  the  world’s  creation?  Streams shall break out in the desert, and the thirsty lands become pools of water.” We begin to see the desert city myth taking hold in what would become the greater Los Angeles area, appropriately  enough  in  the  San  Fernando  Valley, where water from the LA Aqueduct would enable urban development in the twentieth century.[16]

The image of  Los  Angeles  collapsing  and  returning  to desert can be seen in a remarkable Los Angeles Times article, “When  the  Desert  Came  Back,”  which  was  published29 May 1927, just twelve years after the aqueduct first brought water to the city. Nathaniel Davis’s ostensible subject was the Roman ruins at Timgad, Algeria, but he used the occasion to warn about the potential environmental collapse of Los Angeles and the need for the conservation of water and surrounding forest lands. Uncannily, his voice can seem to speak directly to us from over eighty years ago about topics starkly relevant today. As many would do after him, Davis employed the desert motif in his plea: “I stood on the heights of Hollywood’s hills and looked seaward and then toward the mountains. It is a stirring panorama, a drama in orchards, steel and stone, and brawn and brain and heart. And I was pessimistic enough to imagine that self-confident Los Angeles had forgotten Babylon, Palmyra, Palestine, China and Timgad. What I now saw was our own beloved land. And I saw sand dunes, sage brush, aridity, stately ruins, idle derricks, desolation.” Much of what has since been written about Los Angeles’ fated return to desert echoes this refrain.


Maps to accompany report on irrigation and water supply, by William Hammond Hall, California Department of Engineering, 1888. Courtesy of davidrumsey.com.

What About William Mulholland?

But what about William Mulholland, the father of the LA Aqueduct? Did he ever subscribe to this view of the desert city? Or use it to sell the aqueduct? In 1905, Mulholland claimed that he originally thought the city would never need water from anywhere else. “Thirteen years ago Fred Eaton first told me that Los Angeles would one day secure its water supply from Owens Valley,” Mulholland told Los Angeles Times. “At that time the Los Angeles River was running 40,000,000 gallons of water daily, and we had a population of less than 50,000. I laughed at him. ‘We have enough water here in the river to supply the city for the next fifty years,’ I told him. ‘You are wrong,’ he said, ‘You have not lived in this country as long as I have. I was born here and have seen dry years, years you know nothing about. Wait and see.”’ Mulholland concluded: “Four years ago I began to discover that Fred was right. Our population climbed to the top and the bottom appeared to drop out of the river.”

The cause was drought. Mulholland’s case for the aqueduct was not built on making a barren desert bloom, but accommodating population growth and providing protection against drought, arguments that have been used to justify importing more water to the city ever since.[17]

In 1907, Mulholland urged voters to support bonds that were critical to building the aqueduct, arguing: “Our population has doubled since 1904, while our water supply has diminished. At times we have faced a veritable water famine.”[18] Drought, of course, was no stranger to Angelenos even prior to Mulholland’s arrival. A devastating drought from 1862 to 1865 eviscerated the region’s cattle-based economy.[19] A prolonged dry spell from 1893 to 1904, coupled with dramatic population growth—the city tripled in size during that period—motivated Mulholland’s quest, not a vision of creating a city in the desert.


MODIS satellite image of the urban area of greater Los Angeles and the surrounding desert. Courtesy of Glen MacDonald.

Myth Made Real?

But are we turning the city into a desert? To see, let’s get a view from on high, above the city, from a satellite orbiting Earth, which gathered data to create an image while I was writing this piece. What has Los Angeles become since the pastoral eighteenth and nineteenth century views we encountered earlier?

Now we see the gray tones of our metropolitan area blanketing the entire Los Angeles basin, San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley to the north, and Inland Empire to the east. The San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, which seem so imposing from the ground and separate us from the true desert to the east, appear like tiny green islands in a sea of city and desert. Indeed, because it now veritably merges with Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, and Palm Springs, it is the growth of the megacity that encroaches upon the Mojave Desert and not vice versa. The cities merge physically and in terms of the daily flows of people, energy, and commerce. Taken as a whole, Greater Los Angeles has grown from its Mediterranean core outward and has merged with the true deserts to the east. The “fertile vales” that once separated city from desert are no more. This image shows a huge city that blends in with vast deserts to the north and east.

That is not all. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, to which Los Angeles has contributed directly, threaten to bring the true desert climate closer to the city’s core. A recent projection of the impacts of climate change shows the city of Los Angeles warming by some 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century, while foothill, mountain, and desert regions could warm even more.[20] At the same time, other models suggest that precipitation patterns are likely to change in ways that will reduce the snowpack in our mountains and diminish our water supply. The result is likely to be increasing general aridity in the Southwest, Southern California, and the Los Angeles region coupled with longer droughts that will tax an already stressed water system.[21] Neither the Sierra Nevada nor the Colorado River are likely to be able to provide the imported water to which we have become accustomed. Unfortunately, the phrase “desert city” could soon accurately describe Los Angeles. As we move further into the twenty-first century, not only are the outer boundaries of the Los Angeles megacity sprawling into the true desert, we are also bringing the desert climate inexorably closer to the heart of the founding plaza of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.

And just so we come to the end of a chapter of our history that William Mulholland began, “There it is. Take It.” Now we must write a new chapter of our history, and in the process perhaps create a new myth for our metropolis.


[1] Alex Prud’homme, “Drought: A Creeping Disaster,” The New York Times, 16 July 2011.

[2] Boyle Workman, The City That Grew (Los Angeles: The Southland Publishing Company, 1935).

[3] Remi Nadeau, “Los Angeles: A City That Water Built,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1977.

[4] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Press, 1986).

[5] Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Vintage Books, 1998); Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?” LA Observed, 10 November 2003, http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2003/11/la_is_not_a_des.php; Glen MacDonald, “Los Angeles Water––Myths, Miracles, Mayhem and William Mulholland,” AAG Newsletter, December 2012.

[6] M.C. Peel, B.L. Finlayson, and T.A. McMahion, “Updated World Map of the Köppen-Geiger Climate Classification,” Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 11 (2007): 1633–1644.

[7] http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/land-based-station-data/climate-normals/1981-2010-normals-data.

[8] Glen MacDonald, Biogeography: Space, Time and Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002).

[9] Juan Crespi, A Description of Distant Lands, Alan K. Brown, trans. (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2001).

[10] In the San Fernando Valley, Crespi describes grandes enzinos y ròblez, meaning large evergreen live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and deciduous valley oaks (Quercus lobata). The neighborhood of Encino in the San Fernando Valley takes its name from this. The modern Spanish spelling for live oak is encina.

[11] Quoted in: J. Cohen, “Agricultural Land Is Growing Scarce: Nursery Plants Are Now the Top Crop in Los Angeles County,” Los Angeles Times, 10 May 1987.

[12] Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?”

[13] “‘Instink’ and Desert Lands: The Act of Congress in Such Cases Made and Provided,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1883; J.T. Ganoe, “The Desert Land Act in Operation, 1877–1891,” Agricultural History 11: 142–157.

[14] “Improving the Waste Places: The Work of Settlers on the So Called Cucamonga Desert,” Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1883; “Cucamonga,” Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1883.

[15] “San Fernando Valley: A Fertile Region with a Prosperous Future,” Los Angeles Times, 25 November 1883.

[16] See for example: “The San Fernando Water Case,” Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1904; “Bright Days in the Valley,” Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1905.

[17] Robert W. Matson, William Mulholland: A Forgotten Forefather (Stockton: University of the Pacific, 1976); Margaret Leslie Davis, Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

[18] “Truth About Owens River: Mulholland Talks to Sixth Ward Property,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1907.

[19] Workman, The City That Grew; Lynn Bowman, Los Angeles: Epic of a City (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1974); Gordon DeMarco, A Short History of Los Angeles (San Francisco: Lexikos, 1988).

[20] A. Hall, F. Sun, D. Walton, S. Capps, Q. Xin, and H-Y. Huang, “Mid-Century Warming in the Los Angeles Region”––Part I of the Climate Change in the Los Angeles Region (UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Peer-Reviewed Report, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6v88k76b).

[21] IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report: Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds. R.K. Pachauri and A. Reisinger (Geneva, Switzerland, IPCC); Glen M. MacDonald, “Climate Change and Water in Southwestern North America Special Feature: Water, Climate Change, and Sustainability in the Southwest,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 21256–21262; doi:10.1073/pnas.0909651107, 2010.

Glen M. MacDonald is Director of the White Mountain Research Center and a UCLA Distinguished Professor. He is a former Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and holds the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Biogeography: Space, Time and Life. His research focuses on climatic and environmental change.


Water and Los Angeles: What’s Next? What’s the Future?

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Photograph by Matt Gush.

William Deverell
Tom Sitton

Given our ambitions for our recent book, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941—that it will carry readers through documents and ideas back to a river and urban past that Californians must grapple with in order to fully understand the present—we would be remiss if we did not at least contemplate the future of metropolitan Los Angeles in terms of exactly those riparian places and spaces. The future, unknown and unknowable, is nonetheless inextricably tied to what has come before—which roads or paths were taken or not and how the history of rivers moves and shifts and changes course like a river itself.

Los Angeles celebrated, in 2013, the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was an anniversary that prompted a wide variety of responses—from celebration to antipathy and everything in between. For many, the century’s mark passed without notice or care. For some, the moment offered an opportunity to celebrate all that metropolitan Los Angeles had become since 1913, watered in part (in large part) by the snowmelt waters of the Owens River. For others, however, the centennial offered the chance to look again at the “water grab” performed a hundred years earlier. The anniversary meant that Los Angeles, or its municipal Department of Water and Power, was yet again trying to wrap a bold and ultimately imperial play and ploy in adjectives that speak to legacy, growth, inevitability, vision, and ambition.

To be sure, the hundred-year history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is fraught and deeply complicated. Nothing is simple about moving a river hundreds of miles from its bed. It wasn’t simple in 1913, and it is certainly not simple today; and we could say that the matter grows more complex with each passing year. For one thing, there are two aqueducts now, two giant metal straws of cavernous diameter sucking on the melted Sierra snowpack and hustling it southwest to a thirsty global metropolis. Atop all the engineering and physics and hydrology issues at stake—and they are legion—there remain issues of upkeep and maintenance and environmental impact.

That is but the tip of an aqueduct iceberg. Long-simmering resentment and anger in the Owens Valley (especially vociferous there, for obvious reasons, but not only there) about the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct has, as we might have expected, found its way into courtrooms and litigation. Remarkable legal decisions have resulted, in more than one instance, that have altered the perceived, if misleading, simplicity of two big straws stuck into a flowing river. Citing history (as in the case of a once-full, now-dry Owens Lake) and health concerns tying dust to pulmonary and respiratory disease and difficulty, antagonistic individuals and organizations took on the city of Los Angeles and its chief water agency and won a series of important battles and concessions. These amount essentially to Los Angeles leaving water in the Owens Valley or putting some of it back. The city is now responsible for a series of mitigation exercises that is putting water back into the ancient lakebed of Owens Lake, as well as into Mono Lake as a protective measure for the fragile geologic structures within it. Legal action is not likely to abate in the short term, and it is entirely possible that climate-change ramifications (most specifically the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack) will add to the complexities of mitigation and further legal disputes between entities in the Owens Valley, or their proxies, and the city of Los Angeles.

Fig 37 Deverell-Sitton

Dry Owens Lake and blowing alkali dust, 2008. Courtesy of Eeekster (photographer Richard Ellis) via Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is undoubtedly going to play a huge role in determining the future of the Metropolitan Water District’s place in supplying water from the Colorado River to its client entities, with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power being chief among them. As the water district’s ability to draw from the state water project (a largely north-south conduit bringing water to Southern California) evaporates—its allotment has gone down dramatically in recent years— the role of the Colorado River becomes even more prominent. The legal issues attendant on this situation are, if anything, more complex than those in dispute regarding the Owens River, the Owens Valley, and the thirsty giant metropolis far to the southwest.

So, too, is the fate and future of the Colorado River a complex, tangled tale of water, climate change, international treaties, and widespread thirst. Asked to water great chunks of seven states, as well as parts of northern Mexico, the Colorado River watershed is the most important in the United States, perhaps even in North America. Recent onslaughts of drought across the American West have resulted in drastic changes in the ways in which Colorado River water is stored and delivered to a divergent and far-flung customer base of agencies, municipalities, and entire states and nations. By virtue of long-standing agreements, Southern California is entitled to a lion’s share of the Colorado River (always dependent on the annual wintertime Rocky Mountain snowpack on the western slope of the Continental Divide). This legal allotment amounts to over four million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is a standard water measurement: one acre spread with water to a depth of one foot, or three hundred thousand gallons of water). Because the state-to state agreements were formulated in especially “wet” years, and because California threw its considerable weight around back in the early 1920s, when the most important agreements were signed, the Golden State can keep drawing water while states such as Arizona and Nevada will lose water . . . all from a water source that is itself losing water to climate change at a fast (and accelerating) rate.

As drought and climate change alter the snowpack levels from year to year in the Colorado high country, the cities, states, and water agencies will continue to struggle with the consequences. And these consequences will of course affect individuals at every point along the Colorado River’s watercourse. Preservation and conservation efforts will and must continue. These will take many forms, and undoubtedly new innovations will come to the fore. Water restrictions—how much, how often, aimed at what, and at what times—will become more common. Water reuse will rise in popularity—household water will find its way more and more often into outdoor and gardening use. Roofs will be better fit with water catchment devices for rainwater capture. Drain spouts will catch water instead of rushing it off to storm sewers and the ocean. Trees will be planted in places, such as school playgrounds, once covered in asphalt or concrete (trees catch water and hold it around their roots).

Broader innovations will have to be implemented as well. Individual efforts— which will include smartphone technology applied to, for example, household irrigation systems and timing (off it goes when it rains)—will make some difference. But bigger actions, on a statewide or even a federal scale, with regulatory or enforcement teeth, are needed. Water trading between states will rise in importance, and these innovations will have to be carefully modeled and regulated. Water pricing will be intricately related, of course, and it is likely that disparate water costs, which are now the rule rather than the exception, will be leveled out (though allowed to fluctuate in times of relative abundance or relative scarcity). Perhaps most important, the rural-urban divide regarding water use will need to be addressed and hard decisions made, backed up by legislative innovation. Rural users account for most of the water use—by far—across California and the entire American Southwest. Demand is rising in urban centers, but so much water is being used on agricultural crops that the urban demand—however modest by comparison—is not being efficiently met. What kinds of crops are grown, and how they are irrigated, will and must change, lest Southern California face even worse conditions born of water scarcity, drought, and the loose and inefficient “water culture” that has been allowed to develop over the past century.

Environmental awareness and environmental sustainability will go hand in hand with greater awareness of water’s preciousness and scarcity. We think historical knowledge is required in order to gain that kind of critical perspective. One of the key features of changing cultural and environmental attitudes will be simple “river awareness” in California cities, which, at this writing, we can say is growing. Los Angeles is and will be the most important locale for this, and all attention will be focused on the rivers of the Los Angeles basin. Ironically, perhaps (given its puny size in relation to far bigger rivers and watersheds), none will be more important than the Los Angeles River.

The Los Angeles River is the riparian canary in the coal mine of Southern California sustainability. It has, in just over one hundred years, gone from promise to problem and now again to promise in the regional imagination. After 1941, postwar floods, spilling out across the basin, led to more concrete being poured into and up the banks of the river. Still a vital cog in the machine of flood control—the concrete that encases the body of the river is critical to corralling floodwaters—the Los Angeles River is simultaneously the central focus of a great deal of environmental reimagining of green space and greenbelts throughout the metropolitan Los Angeles basin. From biking paths to kayaking and possible reintroduction of steelhead trout, the river is being rethought in very large terms and scales as the twenty-first century opens; much of this is due to the long-standing advocacy and activism of groups, none more critical than the Friends of the Los Angeles River. “Greening” the Los Angeles River, pulling out some of the concrete straitjacket, and becoming more aware of the riparian environment at the very center of a global metropolis of millions of people, is a large-scale effort—of imagination, of money, and of engineering and environmental know-how. Each innovation, each step forward, will further the collective knowledge about rivers and about water, and this consciousness change (from “what Los Angeles River?” to “our Los Angeles River”) can only lead to further benefits in conservation, preservation, and “waterwise” awareness. That path to a differently imagined riparian future will be complicated, with political, fiscal, and hydrological hurdles of daunting scale strewn hither and yon at each step of the way. We suggest optimism about the Los Angeles River, a faith born of diehard grassroots activism and a level of renewed political leadership gazing on a river too-long ignored or expected to provide but a single, flood-control purpose across the landscape it traverses. Perhaps now more than ever, the Los Angeles River is a site of dreams and disagreements, as various constituencies imagine what it could or might become; and as such futures are pondered, so, too, are questions about where the money comes from and who and how people (and nonhumans) benefit from riparian changes large and small.


Photograph by Matt Gush.

This is not to say that the other two rivers are any less important. They are hugely important. But the symbolic burden placed on the Los Angeles River is, especially within the Los Angeles Basin, palpable and magnetic. “How are we doing?” people ask, wondering about water, water shortages, water conservation. And the answer, for many at least, will be found with reference to the Los Angeles River. However, to the north and east, the fate of the Owens River, and especially the Owens Valley, dry and getting drier, will provide additional perspective. And much of that will be colored by controversy: what can Los Angeles do, what should Los Angeles do, as environmental penance for its century-old role in desiccating a landscape? The questions can and will be asked regarding “how are we doing?” up there, up in the Owens Valley. That site, since midcentury, has prompted lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles for water loss and the resulting environmental damage. What can people—through advocacy and activism—claim or insist, and what can various courts or legal decisions obligate the city of Los Angeles to do? These are not issues that will go away, either; on the contrary, as dryness accelerates and snowpacks retreat, these issues will creep up in the headlines and in the lists of imperatives for the region and its populace. We simply urge that such awareness go hand in hand with appreciation of the interlocking histories and meanings of, for example, Los Angeles and the Owens River.

So, too, with the mighty Colorado. Entire careers are forged out of figuring out the dynamic realities of that river’s place in the American West. Where does the river go? Who gets to decide? Which state or agency or nation gets to dip the largest buckets into it? And where to they get to dip? Where do the rights of states come into dialogue or conflict with the rights of indigenous people whose ancestral or reservation homelands sit alongside the river? How does Mexico interact with the various states that, in their thirst, deplete the Colorado so that it now peters out far from its former mouth on the Gulf of California?

Southern California lives because it can take so much Colorado River water to satisfy the thirst of its people and the thirst of what it grows. What happens if that gets shut off, or, more likely, what happens if the flow gets cut back, by law, by drought, by climate change? Major international decisions reached by treaty in the years since 1941 have reduced the amount of water Southern California can take from the Colorado River, in favor of other states, indigenous polities, or Mexico. One thing is sure: the Colorado River cannot supply all the water that treaties or other agreements promise, and this has been true for decades. It carries a great deal of water. But not enough to meet demand, unless that demand is cut by conservation or other water-saving practices. Furthermore, what happens if the region’s reliance upon water from Northern California, by means of the state water project (a “fourth river,” which we do not take up in this book), becomes ever more compromised by state decisions that cut off supplies going to Southern California through the Metropolitan Water District’s systems? Less Colorado River water, less Northern California water—where will those roads take us?

Amid all the uncertainties of rivers and waters, one thing is incontrovertible: the Colorado, the Owens, the Los Angeles: these are not infinite bodies of flowing water. They wax and they wane, they dry up (in actuality, or relatively, in response to wetter years). Legal decisions act as dams, shutting off water that used to go from “here” to “there.”

Arid times have long been upon us in Southern California. And despite having experienced one of our wettest winters on record, drought times loom. Exceptional drought looms. These times may be interrupted by more rain and floods, testing our various technological innovations and water infrastructure. But new rivers will not arise to solve the problems. We are stuck with what we have, and we want Californians to know what we have—what you have—and how we got from there to here, from then to now. This is a history we all share, just as it is a future we must all help to make better.


Photograph by Matt Gush.


This excerpt is revised from the “Epilogue” in, William Deverell and Tom Sitton, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941.

William Deverell is Professor of History at the University of California and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He has written Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, and Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910, both published by UC Press.

Tom Sitton is a curator emeritus of history from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Together, with Bill Deverell he is co-editor of California Progressivism Revisited and Metropolis in the Making, both published by UC Press.



A California Requiem

Dana Gioia

I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.

My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.

I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.

“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.

“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.

“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.

“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere

“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim

“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.

“We offer you the landscape of your birth—
Exquisite and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”


*Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem,” 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016).

Photograph by Matt Gush.

Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.