Monthly Archives: July 2016

Book review: Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner 1993)

Did you know that the longest waterway in California is man-made? Did you that there’s a 300 mile, $4.7 billion, canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson? Did you know that Tennessee’s Tellico Dam was deemed economically unsound even when it was 95% built, but it was still completed? Did you know that two bureaucracies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, basically waged a war of influence in the west, building scores of unnecessary dams along the way? Over the objections of republican and democratic presidents, western congressmen pushed water projects, trading them like currency, trying to tame the west.

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert exhaustively covers water management in the west from the late 1800s until its publication in 1986. A brief addendum brings the reader up to 1993. Along the way, he details the good (hydroelectric power surpluses for manufacturing during WW2), the bad (taxpayer subsidy of billions of dollars to wealthy corporate farmers) and the ugly (the failure of the Teton Dam eliminating a valley).

Cadillac Desert encapsulates the ways that US government goes bad when we let ideology stand in for sound economics. It’s a tale of bipartisan conspiracy to fund impractical projects for special interest groups. It’s a tale of ecological Manifest Destiny; if rain doesn’t follow the plow, then sheer spending will irrigate the desert into a new Eden. Cadillac Desert is one of those rare wonderful nonfiction books that reframes the world; I finished reading a week ago and I’m still thinking about it, processing it. Any American knows the term porkbarrel; Cadillac Desert reveals the gears that turn it out. It’s a tale that ought to inspire bipartisan furor—billions of dollars spent ruining pristine rivers and driving people from their homes to subsidize often ill-conceived farming endeavors. Farmers in Wyoming subsidized by millions to grow crops that eastern farmers are paid not to grow. But Cadillac Desert makes clear that water projects, at least until 1986, remained treasured in the south and west, even as they court various ecological calamities.

Reisner convinces the reader of these substantial political accusations through example after damning (damming?) example. He details the manipulations and lies that brought the Owens River water to LA via an aqueduct that had to be built with mules. He details the divvying of the Colorado River water, and the projects dreamt up by Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona simply to maintain claim on those apportions, leaving practicality as an afterthought. He describes the unbuilt Colorado Narrows Dam, which was opposed by the state engineer and water lawyer; it was thought to be in danger of collapse, unable to provide water as claimed, likely to damage ecological sites in Nebraska, and it was still almost built. It would have been five miles long and cost $500 million. For various projects, he describes the ecological effects, the hydroelectric production, the salinity challenges, the water table challenges. Several times, he describes beautiful rafting rapids that have been lost forever, buried under reservoirs. He argues that the best dam sites were all occupied by 1960, and all projects built after that have been increasingly unprofitable, pushed by local interest, horse trading, and bureaucratic power games.

So what about since 1986? Reisner’s afterword brings the reader up to 1993. He suggests that the public appetite for projects had waned. I’ve done my own reading trying to understand sentiment in the following twenty three years.

I don’t know how to compare water project lust in 2016 to 1986 or 1950. Today’s projects seem less federal. As a new westerner, Cadillac Desert was an essential read. For those further east, water management is still a nexus of bureaucracy, pork barrel politics, and ecological damage. For the dams we have today, there are questions of maintenance, updating, or removal. Like our under-maintained bridges and highways, dams are one more massive bill to pay, even if we build nothing new. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, though over twenty years old, is still important and thought provoking in a lot of ways.

 

Writing prompt: Junk Food Day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Junk Food Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)


The priest reached under the alter. With reverence, he placed three relics before the congregation. Antonia craned to see. She could see them through the plastic, bright yellow and emanating well-being. The packages were adorned with ancient symbols and decorations. Though these decorations had smudged and flaked in places, the contents remained intact. It was through the bountiful blessings of the Hostess goddess.

“Behold,” the priest said, “these relics have passed through the generations to us. And today, we shall share these Twinkies in Holy Communion.”

He recited an incantation, said to be the words of an ancient “commercial,” or a spreading of good will. Antonia recognized some of the words, like “fun for the whole family,” but others, like “snackalicious” were beyond her. The ancient civilization had been so advanced. Her father said they couldn’t have been human, or that they must have had the help of clever aliens. The ancients had built mysterious temples thousands of feet high, and roads hundreds of feet wide that extended beyond the farthest known horizon. Today, they knew so little about the ancients. But on holy Junk Food Day, they tasted the Twinkie and rejoiced. The priest went around, slicing off bits for the devoted.

 

Science fiction worlds and the ancient west

After visiting Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, I read archaeological articles about the region. For a region so full of artifacts, we know little about what life was like. We don’t know what their social structure was. We don’t know why they came to the region around the year 900 or why they left around the year 1300. We think the canyon wasn’t fully occupied most of the year, but archaeologists debate whether the region’s role was more economic or religious. We aren’t even sure if the region could sustain agriculture. There’s plenty of speculation, but little certainty. Events that already occurred can be almost as shrouded and mysterious as the future.

I tried to imagine life at the height of the Chaco culture. Science fiction can be about the extrapolations of technology and travel, but its emotional core explores the human response to extraordinary worlds. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the human response to extreme cold and unusual gender dynamics. A Canticle for Leibowitz explores the response to apocalypse, the assignment of blame, and the attempt to rebuild within poisoned ashes. The Wind-Up Girl looks at human response to bioplagues and the biomechanical future.

Imagining life at Chaco Canyon is arguably more alien than science fiction. Science fiction is written for western audiences with western lifestyles. (This is not a criticism—science fiction is fiction first, and sociology study somewhere down the list.) The social hierarchies are familiar. We quickly understand what is considered important and unimportant. The motivations of characters in science fiction are often less alien to me than customs on our own planet. Russians often find smiling a sign of foolishness. Japanese salespeople so dislike saying “no” that they will ignore the question rather than give such a rude answer. These are tiny examples of different outlooks on life, shadows of structurally different mental organizations. These are cultures extensively connected to my own, living with the same technologies and the same global events. Our very language biases our ability to conceive of and express concepts. Ursula LeGuin explored this concept in The Dispossessed, but of course it is still in English.

By comparison, Chaco Culture is almost Martian; it’s 700 years gone, it was isolated in a draconian environment, and even the statistics of their society are now matters of speculation. But we can infer that they found rhythm and certainty in the sky. They made the Sun Dagger and they aligned so many of their buildings to the patterns in the sky. Reading archaeology felt like holding sand; the very question of whether or not the people grew corn on site was a debate waged hotly across decades. But I could look up at the sky and see their sky.

But even the sky we look upon isn’t their sky. Our planet wobbles like a top, and because of that, our window into the stars slowly shifts. Today, the north star, Polaris, is less than a degree from celestial north. (A degree is about the width of your finger when held at arm’s length.) In the year 1200, Polaris was 5 degrees from north. In 900, it was 6.7 degrees from north. We know the sky that they saw, but it’s different than ours. Add in light pollution, planes, and satellites, and it’s very different.

Unlike the stories of time machines, Chaco won’t ever give full answers. In science fiction, we imagine peeling back the fog of both future and past. The lack of answers is really the motivation, though. Science fiction is an expression of human response to things we can barely imagine. It’s an act of exploration, and Chaco reveals how much there is to explore.

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A map of how the celestial north pole moves with time. I never realized how briefly Polaris had been close to north.

Western Ghost Towns: St. Elmo, Colorado and Chloride, New Mexico

The west contains amazing variety. You can see lava fieldsslot canyons, and dunes of white sand. There’s 400 years of Spanish history, and thousands of years of native history from multiple cultures. Artifacts in the hills and deserts of the west will stay put for a long time. The Animas River Spill led to coverage of abandoned mines in the west, remnants of the 1880s mining boom. This article at least suggests 150,000 abandoned mines, 4,000 of them uranium mines. On a happier note, many of the old mining settlements survive in some form today.

St. Elmo, Colorado is a beautiful little mountain town with nature and scenery. Its wooden buildings have been preserved very well, and are well-suited to photography.

Chloride, New Mexico, had one of the most excellent and unique museums I have visited. Mr. Edmund at the Pioneer Store Museum has spent decades of his life cleaning and documenting the store and the town history. He gave us a wonderful personal tour for over an hour.

St. Elmo, Colorado

St. Elmo is in a remote valley of central Colorado near the Arkansas River headwaters. We stopped by en-route from Great Sand Dunes National Park to Pike’s Peak. St. Elmo is a quintessential mountain ghost town, with beautiful timber construction, moody skies, and looming snowy mountains. Its population peaked at around 2,000 people. St. Elmo had gold and silver mining (over 150 claims in St. Elmo alone). It was near the Historic Alpine Tunnel, an engineering marvel, built in the 1880s and still the highest rail tunnel in the country. (If you want to see that, that requires some walking.)

When the railroad stopped maintaining the rail line in 1910, the town faded. One family stuck around, and today a lot of buildings survive in lovely condition. St. Elmo has mountain biking, an adorable-looking Bed and Breakfast, ATV trails, and more. Also nearby is Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, which looked inviting.

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Chloride, New Mexico

How can you not adore a name like Chloride for a mining town? Chloride was named for its silver chloride deposits, and was a silver town. At its peak, it reached a population of 3,000 with 9 saloons. (Today, it has 11 residents.) The town collapsed when President McKinley made gold the monetary standard, and silver prices plummeted. Chloride had 42 mines, a crushing plant, and a smelter.

The general store continued on after the mining bust. In 1923, it was boarded up while the son went east to study. He studied physics and moved to California, so the store sat unmolested (except by bats) for 70 years. It is a time capsule rich with history. You can peruse the signatures in the post office book. The museum manager, who restored the building and its contents himself, will show and tell you about the many fascinating items within the store. There are purchase records, old bottles of whiskey, packages of gum, nails, ladies hats, and even a dynamite detonator.

Today, one mine is still active nearby, mining zeolites, which are cool, but a tale for another time.

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The National Parks Passport

Since moving west, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting lots of national parks and monuments. I love the hiking, the photography. I love learning about the geology, the flora and fauna, the history, and the archaeology of the parks. But one silly thing brings me a lot of joy: the national parks passport.

The passport is like a travel passport, but stamps are collected at parks rather than airports/countries. After the initial purchase of the book (about $10), the stamps are free. The stamps are generally located by the ranger in the visitor center. The simplest stamps just have the name of the park and the date. Sometimes there are graphic stamps, and this year, most parks have had 100th anniversary stamps for the hundredth anniversary of the National Parks Service.

Until six months ago, I’d never heard of the passport. I felt like I’d missed so many stamps already. Many friends hadn’t heard of the passport either. Now, walking to the ranger station with my passport, sheepish at my childlike delight, is a part of my park ritual. As of this post, I have 38 stamps from 12 national parks and national monuments. It’s a great way to record travel dates, and a terrific hit of silly endorphins. Most of the national park service sites have the stamps, from national seashores to historic forts to national monuments and parks. North Carolina’s lighthouses have stamps, DC’s memorials have stamps, and the St. Louis Arch has a stamp, to name a few examples. If you have a collecting streak and travel to parks sites, the passport might be a great little friend to you.

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The passport is available in national parks gift shops. We leave ours in the armrest of the car, so it’s always ready to go.

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Some southwestern stamps from Gila Cliff Dwellings and Chaco Canyon. Chaco has a graphic stamp, which is exciting!

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You can by regional stickers separately. Confusingly, there is also a Fort Union in New Mexico, but it was not a trading post. There are stamps for hiking trails and heritage areas, as shown above.