Taking care of mom, hardly leaving the house for shielding as much as a terrible unrelenting heat. Starting work at 6 am latest to speak to people in the UK, so can’t even go walking when the temperature might make that possible. Until today. A drive out to near where we used to live. A walk with Cat Mountain almost always in view. Not living there still feels like a hole in the heart. An impossibility. For all the talk about modern mobility and all my own mobility, this is still where I am anchored. A piece of my heart still in that adobe house. The wind still carrying me amidst the deer, coyotes, rabbits enjoying the sun, the cactus wrens and towees and gila woodpeckers and roadrunners and threshers and this host of wild things making the desert such a vibrant place of life.
Mark, Julie and I on New Year’s Day, snow on the Tucson Mountains, seeing quail, coyote, deer. Taking these as tokens of the year ahead, even the dead tarantula curled up in the middle of the small wash. Working to ignore the unsustainable arrogance of wealth mushrooming across the desert in the form of giant block houses. I hope my year is full of wilds and family and love, some writing, some working to change the world.
Mark, Julie and I had our first great walk of Christmas holiday ought eighteen up in the Catalina foothills (directions here), with flowers blooming everywhere in such a wet winter. It was beautiful. We went off trail a bit and I had forgotten how much I loved that, but we did pay for it in blood and Mark’s new typology of stabby things, hooked stabby things and barbed stabby things. Also, sore muscles.
Masanobu Fukuoka…I have now read his first book, One Straw Revolution, and his last, Sowing Seeds in the Desert. There is such a distance between eastern and western ways of knowing and thinking, I like how provocative it is to explore the spaces between them. I like how this book sets them in dialogue. Reading Fukuoka reminds me of seeing the Dalai Lama talk at the LSE — they seem so idealistic, they speak using familiar words but in such different ways, seem so removed and unworldly and thus so easily taken advantage of by a capitalist system that thrives on co-opting everything and turning it into profit. Yet really, seems to me their points are needle sharp in deflating the engorged balloons of western, capitalist ways of knowing and valuing. If you listen.
It also, of course, resonates so much with indigenous systems, with permaculture, with struggles for biodiversity and tradition as against monoculture and many another relationship between generations and the land they are connected to.
From the editor Larry Korn, who also helped bring the first book into the world:
The most conspicuous of the cultural difficulties is that the Japanese way of telling a story or developing a complex argument is different from the approach that is generally taken in English. In Japanese, the author typically begins with the theme or the point he wishes to make, then he offers an anecdote or an argument that helps to take that story or bolster the point before returning to the theme, which is restated. Then the author goes on another loop, again returning to the theme. One might say that these side stories or arguments form the petals of a flower with the theme as its center. (xxx)
In Western writing, however, the linear is preferred. The character arc. The beginning ramping up to a climax and then a tidy conclusion. Even in our non-fiction.
There has never been a generation like the present where people’s hearts are so badly wounded. This is true of every are of society–politics, economics, education, and culture. It is reflected in the degradation of the environment, which comes about through the material path humanity has chosen. Now we have the ugly sight of industry, government, and the military joining forces in the struggle for ultimate power. (14)
I don’t know that this linear thinking can be blamed for our current world, but it is part of the larger pattern I think. Curious that old certainties about cause and effect, our capacity to know everything, so many simplifications are being increasingly challenged by new thinking in biology — and this sounds remarkably like the kind of thing Brian Greene writes about in terms of new directions in physics:
Time does not simply flow mechanically in a straight line in a fixed direction. We could think of time as flowing up and down, right and left, forward and backward. As time develops and expands, multifaceted and three-dimensional, the past is concealed within the instant of the present, and within this instant of time is concealed the eternity of the future. (26)
All made of the same things, connected at the base like a chain of islands whose tops are above the ocean
In the past, present, and future, the true disposition of nature is toward abundance for human beings and for all species. Therefore the question should not be “Why are there too many people?” but rather, “Who has created the scarcity into which they are born?” And then, finally, “How can we heal the earth so it can support future generations?” (42)
On the equality and interconnectedness of all things…
Plants, people, butterflies, and dragonflies appear to be separate, individual living things, yet each is an equal and important participant in nature. They share the same mind and life spirit. They form a single living organism. to speak of creatures as beneficial insects, harmful insects, pathogenic bacteria, or troublesome birds is like saying the right hand is good and the left hand is bad. Nature is an endless cycle, in which all things participate in the same dance of life and death, living together and dying together. (43)
It is in using massive interventions to destroy parts of the cycle, with very little understanding of it and driven by motives of profit, that we have arrived at the point of destruction. This lack of holistic understandings is endemic, seen in many a western method for solving things.
When the specialized Western medicinal approach is used, the question of what gives life and health to the whole body and mind is put off. In other words, modern Western medicines puts the human body ahead of the human spirit. This separation is a starting point for emotional anxiety among people today. (44)
Fukuoka keeps them together:
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating the actual desert is actually the same thing. (47)
This is all talking about land and spirit and some of us (not me, especially not any more) will be rolling their eyes. But this understanding of the capitalist economy, the ‘Money-sucking Octopus Economy’ (50) as he calls it, is interesting, it definitely breaks things up in a different way than I am used to. At the heart of the octopus? politicians and the military-industrial-government complex. The legs?
- maintenance of the transportation network
- control of agencies administering transportation
- supervision of communications
- establishment of an economic information network
- education and administrative advising
- control of financial institutions
- control of information
- control of citizens’ personal computers and registration (53)
I like this list, it’s funny that control of land and resources is not on it.
There is nothing I don’t agree with about consumption and our economic model though:
I have often said that value does not lie in material goods themselves, but when people create the conditions that make them seem necessary, their value increases. The capitalist system is based on the notion of ever-increasing production and consumption of material goods, and therefore, in the modern economy, people’s value or worth comes to be determined by their possessions. But if people create conditions and environments that do not make those things necessary, the things, no matter what they are, become valueless. Cars, for example, are not considered to be of value by people who are not in a hurry.
Economies that aim at production and consumption of unnecessary products are themselves meaningless. (51)
Yet that is our economic model of development. And it is all about control and the marketing of products — whether luxury goods or Monsanto’s technologies:
When I went to apply for a visa from the Somalian government, I was flabbergasted when they told me that any kind of instruction that agitates the farmers and encourages them to become self-sufficient would not be welcome. If such activity went too far, they said, it would be considered treason. (76)
Colonial agricultural policies…Big money into big damns, big irrigation, drawing water from aquifers leading to salinization of land, cash crops, ending nomadic cultures resulting in massive stress on one area of the land and damage to a culture and a people, national parks that its former indigenous residents must leave, and suddenly go all the way around in their movements. The are sudden insights, like the ways that the irrigation of water in high dikes controls the people who surround it, cuts them off from free movement and free access to water. And it puts blame where blame is due:
I started with the recognition that the causes of desertification in most areas are misguided human knowledge and action. If we eliminated them, I believed that nature would certainly heal itself. (87)
It examines the real costs of our current agricultural practices of GMOs, monocropping and etc — Fukuoka writes ‘Agricultural “Production” is Actually Deduction’ (88):
If you really count all the inputs of cost to the environment, mining and fossil fuel extraction, construction of machinery, damage from cash crops etc, we have the most inefficient agricultural systems possible…
It is not just in Africa that these problems exist.
About half of the land in the United States is, or is becoming, desert. I felt that the expanding American desert was at least as great a problem as the deserts of Africa, but most Americans seemed totally unaware that their country is becoming more arid. (123)
We don’t talk about those kinds of things, but it threatens the communities, like New Mexico’s acequia farmers, most likely to offer hope and the capacities to sustainably grow food in increasingly arid condition.
I do like that he toured the US saying this kind of thing:
Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe. (129)
This philosophy is a very particular way, very Japanese way of embracing the world, of changing it.
When people are released from the idea that they are the ones who have created things and have abandoned human knowledge, nature will return to its true form. The rebirth of nature is not simply a return to the primitive, it is a return to the timeless. My method of natural farming aims at liberating the human heart… (140)
I loved this final quote, partially a reminder that even if we are not the ones who love land and roots as farmers, we still can live in sustainable ways. But mostly it is good to encounter — to know — that radically different ways of being are still possible in this world:
I still remember the words of an Ethiopian tribesman who at first rejected my ideas of natural farming. “Are you asking me to become a farmer?” he asked. “To be attached to the soil and to accumulate things are the acts of a degraded person.” (52)
New Mexico (and Colorado’s) acequias are communal irrigation ditches — from another book I brought with me, though never did start reading on the trip. I later discovered the wealth which we drove through unknowing:
the gravity-driven, earthen-work irrigation networks handed down from late antiquity–remain the pivotal material basis and ecological precondition for the existences and sustenance of a four-hundred-year-old bioregional culture. (58)
They emerged out of the tortured history of the Southwest before Anglos arrived, out of the land grants and the traditions of Iberian settlers borrowing from the moors, as well as indigenous farming practices. There is such an amazing richness and melding of very different traditions here, but all connected to living in arid lands. From another article by José A. Rivera, found online here that gives more of the historical background.
Acequia technologies and irrigation methods employed by the Hispanic settlers in the new province were melded from diverse sources. Historians agree that these antecedents included the irrigation practices common to the arid regions in the south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, Castilla and Valencia, based on traditions from the Roman period; the superimposition of Arabic customs and techniques during the seven centuries of occupation of Spain by the Muslims from north Africa and the Middle East; the influence of Pueblo Indian agriculture as observed by early Spanish explorers and expeditions; and the irrigation horticulture of Mesoamerica brought by Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish caravans along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, hispano irrigators of the upper Río Grande revere water and treasure it as the foundation of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor in spatial and landscape modification.
In a roundtable discussion also presented in the reader, Devon Peña gives a concrete example from a newer study of 8 specific farms:
The oldest one was founded before the Oñate Entrada [the first Spanish explorer’s entry], it is part Indian and they have probably been there for a thousand years, but now there is intermarriage between the San Juan Pueblo family and the Chicano family, so that land has been worked for over a thousand years and yet they have a six-foot soil horizon, and no plough pan: the hydrologist on our research staff says that the gravity-driven earthen work irrigation system … actually create soil, rather than destroy soil, especially when it is a multigenerational art form. (18)
Art form is exactly what it is.
Back to Peña’s examination of how the acequia sits within the landscape in the specific article:
The acequia irrigation system is based on the use of water released by the gradual melting of winter snowpack…The capture by humans of this renewable energy, like beaver works, concentrates ecological processes that expand the riparian life zone, creating new habitat and movement corridors for native flora and fauna…The patchy long-lot mosaics and wetlands resulting from subirrigation are renowned examples of anthropogenic wildlife habitat. Other important ecosystem benefits of the acequias include the maintenance of water and soil quality and the preservation of agrobiodiversity through heirloom seed-saving. (58)
The acequia is a profound accomplishment because it exemplifies the possibility that local cultures sometimes fulfill “keystone” functions in eco-systems by providing habitat for numerous species of native flora and fauna. (59)
He quotes Nazarea (1999) as describing this mosaic as “an almost compulsive need to link up and connect’, yet another example of networks, interconnectedness, emergence. All these things I am become more and more obsessive about.
This map from the New Mexico Acequia Associations shows that much of our drive from Chama to Pecos Ruins at least was through lands managed by the patchwork of local acequia associations along the Chama and the Pecos rivers.
On the Rio Arriba acequias, :
The acequia is a communally managed institution that is organized under the authority of local customary practices…the acequia as a civic institution for local self-governance has emphasized three normative principles: (1) the use value of water to the community, (2) mutual aid, and (3) cooperative labor. (60)
Here they were organised into the Sociedad Protectora Mutualista de Trabajadores Unidos, the Protective Mutualist Society of United Workers, SPMDTU. This is broader than the acequia associations and continues in many land-grant villages, there is actually a resurgence of it in Antonito, which made me happy to hear. (68) Here are fields and sunflowers we passed on the train:
I love this description of how farmers organize memory through landscape, one cannot be separated from the other:
During the field research, the farmers began to narrate memories that were clearly organized according to a set of cognitive maps — mental pictures of their home places. (64)
I loved also the use of James C. Scott’s idea of métis, or local practical knowledge — again knowledge intimately bound up in a physical landscape. Peña writes:
…métis has technical and sociocultural dimensions. The practical knowledge in a given locality is not the sum of local knowledge a community creates to produce a range of right livelihoods located in place. Métis inclusdes knowledge related to expressive oral traditions and these nearly always encompass moral and not just technical qualities. (72)
So we move from acequias in the landscape and the greater region, to the ways in which acequias contribute to the making of place:
The acequia is not just a sustainable, regenerative, and renewable irrigation technology. It is a political and cultural institution that intersects with the place-centered identities and environmental ethics of the local community. The acequia is the material and spiritual embodiment of people making habitable places. But it is not without its antithesis in the degradation of homeland by the forces of modernity and maldevelopment. (61)
Maldevelopment — I like that word. Because of course there are no great profits to be made from these systems, and they are very much under threat. Peña goes on to describe the attempt to carry out the massive logging of contested lands in the Sangre de Christo mountains — exemplary of how greed works. Behind it all, showing how history continues to resonate through the landscape:
Zach, “Junior”, was the second generation owner of the Taylor Ranch and a direct descendant of President Zachary Taylor, himself notoriously well known to us as the army general who led the war against Mexico in 1845-48. (62)
The logging of tens of thousands of acres has immense effect on traditional irrigation systems dependent on managing the regular melting of snow over a period of months, yet anglo-American law and tradition finds it hard to encompass such things.
The enclosure of the commons, the fencing of the land to prevent locals from exercising their traditional use rights, becomes an act of violence because it deprives people of their liberty. The barbed-wire fence is invoked as a symbol of the loss of an open landscape that was once an undisturbed part of the community’s identity. (65-66)
There even exists a fascination with the materiality, the physical artificial of barbed wire itself. I doubt anyone not from the Southwest knows just what an art form was made of vicious wire meant to divide. This board is from the mining museum in Los Cerillos, but Tombstone’s courthouse museum once had a whole room dedicated to it, and I have seen them in a number of other places:
Still, I love that acequias continue the fight to exist — to read more you can start with the New Mexico association. I love that throughout New Mexico the boundaries of old land grants are marked. My dad must have worked to support acequias when he was working in Taos back in the 70s, I wish I could ask him about that now. He used to bring in food and supplies in to at least one of the land grant occupations during that time too. I was born in Taos, I know it doesn’t connect me in too concrete a way to these things, but it is a connection of the heart.
[Peña, Devon (2002) ‘Endangered Landscapes and Disappearing Peoples? Identity, Place and Community in Ecological Politics,’ pp 58-81 in Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans and Rachel Stein (eds) Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.]
Before leaving Tuba City, we went to the museum right next to our hotel, one of my favourite stops on this trip.
The Navajo Interactive Museum shares some of the Navajo’s own history. It is the first place I have ever been that does not try to whitewash the history of conquest. It does not shy away from how people were killed, enslaved. It tells of the forced march, relocation, return. The immense loss. Grief. It shows how much has been saved, how custom and belief are not things of the past but of the present. It shared versions of the creation. Methods of weaving, the sheep that are the sources of wool. The building of hogans and some of their spiritual meanings. It is divided by the four directions, reclaims history for its own people, and offers it as a gift to us.
From one of the signs:
Indigenous languages are holistic, fluently expressing intrinsic human relationships with everything. Navajos believe that their language is a spiritual gift from the Holy People, for it connects them directly to the entire universe. It is a language of webs and motion, relationships and process, not of nouns and objectivity.
I have been thinking so much about language and patterns of thought, the limitations of science and how perhaps it is built into the English language itself. Spanish too, but just knowing two languages helps you understand language’s limits. There is still so much I cannot express, I wish that I had been honored to speak such an indigenous language. It is not hard to see why conquerors would work so hard to destroy language, it is so intertwined with culture, with worldview. It is always a place of strength and resistance.
Next door was a small museum in honour of the Navajo code talkers, the men who joined the US army and used their language to keep our transmissions from the Japanese. The whole text of the ‘Navajo Code Talkers Act‘ was on the wall, and it surprised me. I have put in bold the things I never though the U.S. government would say out loud, and we circle around language…
(1) On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared by Congress the following day.
(2) The military code, developed by the United States for transmitting messages, had been deciphered by the Japanese and a search by United States military intelligence was made to develop new means to counter the enemy.
(3) The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to support the military effort by recruiting and enlisting 29 Navajo men to serve as Marine Corps radio operators; the number of enlistees later increased to over 350.
(4) At the time, the Navajos were second-class citizens, and they were a people who were discouraged from using their own language.
(5) The Navajo Marine Corps radio operators, who became known as the Navajo Code Talkers, were used to develop a code using their language to communicate military messages in the Pacific.
(6) To the enemy’s frustration, the code developed by these Native Americans proved to be unbreakable and was used extensively throughout the Pacific theater.
(7) The Navajo language, discouraged in the past, was instrumental in developing the most significant and successful military code of the time. At Iwo Jima alone, the Navajo Code Talkers passed over 800 error-free messages in a 48-hour period.
(A) So successful were they, that military commanders credited the code with saving the lives of countless American soldiers and the successful engagements of the United States in the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa;
(B) So successful were they, that some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow marines whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy; and
(C) So successful were they, that the code was kept secret for 23 years after the end of World War II.
(8) Following the conclusion of World War II, the Department of Defense maintained the secrecy of the Navajo code until it was declassified in 1968; only then did a realization of the sacrifice and valor of these brave Native Americans emerge from history.
I am unsure what the U.S. government has done since then to grant full, respectful, honoured citizenship or to encourage the speaking of indigenous languages, but I suppose medals were something. It would take a few years before other tribes were honoured for similar roles, the Comache and Choctaw among them, in WWI as well as WWII.
We drove and drove, Northeast, out of the red rocks towards New Mexico. We passed Black Mesa, and the Peabody Company’s coal mine — another reminder of exploitation, another form of resource extraction.
EACH YEAR PEABODY COAL COMPANY PUMPS MORE THAN 4,500 ACRE-FEET OF PRISTINE NAVAJO AND HOPI DRINKING WATER FROM THE “N-AQUIFER.”
Peabody uses this pristine water supply simply to mix with crushed coal-called “slurry.” This “slurry” is then pumped through a pipeline over 275 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.
With every breath we take, 50 gallons of pristine ground water has just been pumped from the dry lands of northeastern Arizona. On Black Mesa, home to the Hopi and Navajo people, more than 300 gallons of potential drinking water has, in the last 10 seconds just been mixed with crushed coal. In the time it took to read these sentences Peabody Coal Company pumps over a thousand gallons of the cleanest groundwater in North America, simply to transport coal. Today, Peabody Coal pumps more than 3,600 acre-feet (equivalent to 4,600 football fields, one foot deep) per year of pristine water from the Navajo Aquifer.
You can find out more on the Southwest Research and Information Centre site. These beautiful lands are also be exploited for their uranium, in summary of the report on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation from Brugge and Goble:
From World War II until 1971, the government was the sole purchaser of uranium ore in the United States. Uranium mining occurred mostly in the southwestern United States and drew many Native Americans and others into work in the mines and mills. Despite a long and well-developed understanding, based on the European experience earlier in the century, that uranium mining led to high rates of lung cancer, few protections were provided for US miners before 1962 and their adoption after that time was slow and incomplete. The resulting high rates of illness among miners led in 1990 to passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
You can read and listen to more on Democracy Now’s program ‘A Slow Genocide of the People’. Even now people gather to stand against another exploitation of the earth and threat of contamination for land and water — the North Dakota pipeline.
In North Dakota, indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River. More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, which was launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
I wish I could be there too. Instead I am here, writing. We drove onward. It looks pristine, but corporations are poisoning this land.
A sea of crushed metal, old cars left here.
Up to the ‘Aztec’ ruins. Midway between Chaco and Mesa Verde, this was an incredible Anasazi construction, planned and for the most part built within a very short time. Labelled Aztec because that’s all people apparently knew of indigenous cultures building in stone, too ignorant or racist to ask its real name. The National Park Service did try to give a ‘balanced’ history, but such radically different ways of seeing the world sit uneasily next to each other. There could be nothing too critical of the role archeology has played in the mythologizing of western expansions, nor of those expansions, nor the disrespect of native histories. A disrespect that stems from their attempted destruction. But it was good to hear native voices here, and the contrasting ways of seeing.
This is a place that feels good, a place left to the ancestors before white men arrived, like Chaco, like Mesa Verde.
It’s construction is beautiful, full of details. The corner openings:
Stones rolled smooth from the river
And other bands of decoration:
Once standing three stories high
This wall traces exactly the path followed by the sun during the summer solstice
It is a beautiful place. To see with eyes open and with eyes closed. The ground story of storage rooms still stand
They open into other rooms, a mat left behind is still here, hundreds of years old.
From archaeology we see the map of the whole. Almost all of it built between 1100 and 1130, which is amazing. Then slowly added to.
This map shows its symmetries, though it cannot explain their meaning.
They have reconstructed the great kiva here, I am not sure about entering such a place of ceremony without ceremony. Without invitation. So I didn’t take pictures, but I did give thanks to be there. With mum. They are wonderful sacred spaces.
Several of them, along with the large central one, are surrounded by smaller rooms. I have never seen this before.
I didn’t love the small museum as much as the one in Tuba City, but the pottery was beautiful (so much here, as in the other NPS museums, on loan from far away. Pottery and artifacts taken away as property by the institutions who sponsored digs, I do not understand how they do not see this as a living place to which things still belong). Apart from the maps of the place itself, the trade routes were also wonderful:
From here we continued on and on, up to Chama. A good day.
We drove out to the desert, Dan, Julie and I — not far enough perhaps, but away from street lights under the great sky so full of stars. I know there are more, I fill in from memory all those that are visible further away from the fierce glowing of the city. But we were far enough.
More stars than I have seen in a long time. The wide stream of the milky way and the seven sisters a little way above the horizon. Always my favourites, the way they cling together just above the earth. Orion too, stamping across the sky.
The air was heavy with creosote and moisture, fresh and life-smelling after the rain. The sound of crickets and the calling of frogs and toads. A great meteor arced across the sky and we watched its vaporous trail slowly disappear. Only a handful left such trails, none so wide and strong. Almost the way I used to draw them when I was little, a star with childish lines showing its movement from left to right, just like this one.
Funny that they didn’t all move in the same direction, didn’t all cluster in one small section of sky. Didn’t fall at regular intervals. Some were short fragile lines of light, a blink and they were gone. Others felt solid, stretched long. Amazing to think of a comet so far away carrying such flaming masses of rock and metal along with it, ratcheting around the earth one more time and once again flinging them off in its wake.
Each light a molten mass hurtling through the emptiness of space and burning into nothingness as we watch.
It felt so good be out there, staring up. Clouds crept slowly, feathered around so that the sky felt curved, like a bowl full of stars. The clouds spread thin, ragged, flattening the sky through their framing. It felt as though I were staring up through water.
The occasional sounds of laughter from a house party, getting high and watching the pretty lights. Rumbling of cars.
A brief staccato of barks and a howls from towards the foothills. A very distant howl far to the southeast. I wonder if the coyotes know the stars are falling.
A fluttering of moths against my face.
It felt good to feel small, part of this bigger thing. Felt good to connect with others, sky-watchers, across space and through time.
I wished many things…
Tucson’s everyday architecture sprawls across the desert in dusty houses and apartments, it feels utterly different from anything on East Coast or Midwest U.S.A. As much as it feels utterly different from anything in Europe.
When I go home now, I am ever more struck by just how sprawling it is, how much space lies between homes, how many empty lots there are, how much unused land. How small and boxy the houses are, yet how I like those better than newer developments — they are not pictured here because we only drove past them, tracts and tracts and tracts of them where houses never where before. Huge boxy houses that fill as much of the lot as they can manage.
I am struck by how in older neighbourhoods, so many of the newer houses look more like bunkers than anything. How much colour improves things, but can’t improve everything. How much I hate the fake look of expensive corrugated iron and false painted gaps in the plaster showing false adobe bricks. People trying desperately hard to make their boxes interesting, but doing it in a way that shares a terribly kitsch vision of the Southwest and a terrible sameness. Like the vigas that emerge from both sides of the house so you know half at least are false beams and carry no weight.
Everything false in its conformity to some southwestern idiom, a moving target from howling coyotes with neckerchiefs to kokopellis to the next culturally appropriated fashion that lies in wait. I don’t know what that means for us.
Strange too, just how many mobile homes will never again be mobile, despite the themes of wolves running wild, freedom. How lots with 5 to 20 of them have become housing integrated with all the other kinds of housing, a regular patchwork. I never much questioned mobile home parks further out in the desert where I used to live, or those lonely settlers perched in areas without services. But here in mid-city, how exactly did it happen here?
It struck me how streets look so much the same, one after the other. They are charmless really, and this is how we have chosen to build them. Charmless as a whole, but at the same time in my mother’s neighbourhood between Pima and Speedway, Swan and Columbus, there are some wonderful old houses you know people constructed themselves when this land was first subdivided, their uniqueness invisible unless you look hard. There are even a few lots here and there filled with almost natural desert where the old house is hidden somewhere back there behind it all. If you want the real, it is old faded wood with paint peeling, tiny houses with their big porches often screened in, dusty collections of assorted junk in the yard. Probably they were here before anyone else, definitely here before air conditioning. Back when porches were essential things. These lots stand as they were, refusing to believe the city has grown around them.
I love that kind of stubbornness.
I didn’t take pictures of all or even most of it, I didn’t quite know how. And some of these are from up along the Rillito where Columbus dead ends into it…the rich people’s homes conquering the hills, but an awesome old round stone house sits up there too. It’s not as fun taking pictures of what is resolutely non-picturesque, but I am going to try it more often, try harder. How else to capture the meaning of a place, this everyday dust and space that sits alongside all those beautiful things that people are proud of here, the gracious and historic buildings, the places we go to wonder or to relax. The desert. Yet none of this compares to the desert, and I am sad to think that this sprawl of wood and brick and purple-painted bunkers is what destroyed so much of it.
Until my friend Michael Harris gave me a copy of this (who has himself written a great American novel, The Chieu Hoi Saloon). Then I realised I had been encouraged to read John Shannon’s Jack Liffey detective novels by Michael and of course Gary Phillips, and I will now, I will. Mike Davis is a character, Ivan Monk pops up in there, they explore L.A. in ways that I love.
But that’s another series…this is a whole different thing. Compare it to Steinbeck or John dos Passos. It reads relatively quick for being so monumental in subject, a history of a century of American struggle over land, work and rights. A history of what was perhaps really at stake in the red-baiting that led to the destruction of so many lives, as well as the tangled relationships between socialism and working people in struggle.
It starts in the Owens Valley and ends there…there could be no better place. I wrote about it in a long ago blog post, it impressed me so profoundly. I was driving up through there with my friends Beverley and Jose, on our way to see Mono Lake. I knew something about the water and how it was stolen by LA (think Chinatown) but nothing prepared me for this landscape.
I found out that the people who farmed here had organised, had fought back, had dynamited the damn. They filled me respect.
Their saga is the first in John Shannon’s novel, wrapped in a narrative frame of a foreign journalist caught up in the search for redemption and the family histories of a friend of his, a third generation fighter who is no longer quite sure what he is fighting or how. It allows a step back from the intensity of the stories, a perspective Americans rarely get on histories Europeans rarely see. A clever conceit that works well for the most part (my only critique is that occasionally this feels confusing, a little labored, but looking back I’m still not sure what I think about it).
What struck me at first was not wealth at all. To grow up in a Europe of social democracy–whatever one feels about the accommodations the dream has made with privilege–and to arrive here suddenly is to be struck dumb by the experience of an entire subcontinent living, apparently, without a particle of social responsibility: the grandiose and tidy bank only a few meters from a trash-strewn lot inhabited by winos. (11)
The first story is that of Maxi Trumbull, fearless reporter covering Owens Valley and standing with the farmers. Her story is about the land and community, the complicated relationships we have with both. The importance of water to survival. The power of the city to destroy the countryside around it. Also, love. Loneliness. Commitment.
Her son is Slim Trumbull, raised in the valley but moving on to organise plants up in Detroit. His story is that of labour, fighting union machine along with the bosses, fighting across boundaries of race and loving across the boundaries of class — though he is less capable of such things than his mother. It is also the story of the gradual disillusion with communism. Something I see so strongly here in the UK, but confess to knowing no one in the US who had been through this:
…all Europeans defined themselves by when they left groups. After Hungary. After the failure of reform. After Euro-Communism. After Paris ’68. After Prague. After Poland. (270)
I discovered that there was a colour for model trains known as Tucson red. This makes me smile.
Her grandson is Clay Trumbell, and he drags the narrator back to where it all started — Owens Valley. Fighting gangsters making porn, investigating the death of a woman and the threats against her daughter. The curious silence of everyone still left. This is more noir, and a curious contrast to the first two but one I like I think. What are we fighting these days? There are no grand narratives any more in the US, no driving ideology. Perhaps he could have chosen Monsanto, Nestle, gentrification and mass displacement…is it only time that makes these struggles feel so different to me?
The mob leaves people just as dead.
A fine book, one you should find and read.
[Shannon, John. (1994) The Taking of the Waters. Culver City, CA: John Brown Books.]