The most striking passage in the Owen's Lake chapter is this:
"Once natural, California is now thoroughly artificial. Perversely, only in places as heavily regulated and mechanized as Owens Lake is there any semblance of what the territory might have been like before settlers arrived. In a strange gift, Los Angeles has preserved the open rural landscape of Owens Valley, re-creating the void where by all right we shouldn't expect to find it."
This realization is fundamental to understanding this type of landscape and, in a twisted way, puts Owens Lake in the same class as landscapes like the site of the Chernobyl accident and the Korean De-militarized Zone. In areas so contested, so degraded that no human inhabitants will venture there, new super-resilient ecologies can finally find space to establish themselves.
And yet these places hold a magnetism for us because we have done that. We might say they places are degraded. But that is a value judgment (which Varnelis warns against- LA will not abide our judgments, evidently). For the organisms flourishing there now- at Owens Lake it is brine flies and microbes- it is an improved place. But we get to make value judgements; that's how we changed Owens Lake in the first place.
[William Vollman: "Shall we go explore the waterways of
Southern California together? What...? No?]
At FASLANYC, we believe that places like this are best approached and understood through mythology. In the book introduction, Varnelis states that "infrastructure is the only theology that really took hold in the American West." And he's right. Infrastructure is a theology; better yet a mythology- a repository for cultural beliefs and aspirations wherein the landscape itself is personified and becomes an actor in a dialectical relationship with the culture, informing it and being formed by it.
On that note, TS Eliot's The Wasteland springs to mind. It was crafted around the time that Los Angeles began drinking Owen's Lake, and though it sprang out of the decimation and disillusion found in Western Europe after the Great War it is relevant here because it elucidates the complex and fragmented morass that we have made of our greatest ambitions (for a good explanation why, see Nick Mount's recent lecture on the topic on Big Ideas, the Canadian equivalent of TED talks). John Ralston Saul offers insight into the complexities of bigness in the Americas (specifically Canada) here, which might also be useful.
But to bring it even closer to home, it seems best to jump back into William T. Vollman's latest macabre offering- IMPERIAL- to better understand the theology of Southern California. It's fascinating and boring, weighty and full of mirth, and it offers a detailed look into the deceptions and ambitions, the work and the lies that made the American West, or at least Southern California. So I've pulled some quotes, and I'll let him take it from here:
- Once upon a time, which is to say on Saturday, June 22, 1901, the Imperial Press and Farmer, in vast dark letters which march vertically down the front page, partially occluding the boxed and centered notice, WATER IN THE TOWN OF IMPERIAL. Tuesday, May 15, 1901, the headgates of the Imperial canal were opened: WATER IS HERE
- ... and yet, in the end, what word could be more American than "Imperial"? Half a century after Emerson's hymn to possession, a successful senatorial candidate advises us: There are many things to be done- canals to be dug, railways to be laid, forests to be felled, cities to be built, unviolated fields to be tilled, priceless markets to be won, ships to be launched, people to be saved, civilization to be proclaimed, and the flag of liberty flung to the eager air of every sea.
- With our magnificent water system (the pure fresh water coming from the mountains of Wyoming) and with our unparalleled drainage, which carries all undesirable matter toward the Salton sink, we need have no fear that our lands will not become better and better as the years go by.
- It is the destiny of every considerable stream in the west to become an irrigating ditch- Mary Austin, 1903
- A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary. A boundary is not that at which something stops, but as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.
- The Los Angeles River was the greatest attraction. It was a beautiful, limpid little stream, with willows on its banks... That recollection is furnished by none other than William Mulholland, soon to be Riverine Emperor of South California.
- Ten thousand people from the east have been brought to California during the past two weeks by the railroads, on colonists tickets... It is predicted by the railroad companies, that this influx will continue.
The railroad companies, God bless them, are correct. (Good thing Los Angeles has secured options on the Owens river water, amounting to about 25,000 inches.)
- He went on: But when I get too close to people, they always want me to do it their way. And then it looks like I want to do it my way. And most of the times, their way is right. But I still like to do it my way.
- Don't worry; that funny taste is temporary. The Los Angeles aqueduct will carry ten times as much water as all the famous aqueducts of Rome combined.
- Bring me the sunflower so that I might transplant it into burning fields of alkali... - Eugenio Montale, before 1982.