High & Dry: Altered Landscapes of the Human Spirit

Fossil Falls, CA
Splitter and finish product screens at Red Hill Quarry. Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

Looking around the severely disturbed countryside, the mine foreman sees beauty in the landscape. He is harshly altering and deconstructing it with giant land-moving trucks chewing away at what’s left of several, now indistinguishable, small cinder cones. The “product” is excavated, moved, sorted, piled, sized, bagged, and shipped to be used in cement bricks and baseball fields among many other things. It is a versatile product.

Ben Boyd is the manager of Twin Mountain Rock Venture, LLC who oversees and runs the mine at Red Hill, the cinder cone volcanic area off Highway 395 between the Owens Valley and Indian Wells Valley in California. He is a lively, roughly handsome man with a shaved head, muscular features and a vital personality with off color jokes to match. He calls his crew of miners the “dirt boys.” They look up to him. Mining cinder is a dirty job. This summer when Osceola and I stop by, it is a very demanding, overheated, physical job. 

Fossil Falls, CA
Dirt road and power lines (color) at Red Hill Quarry. Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

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We are now living in the Anthropocene: the era of the human-made world. No landscape is untouched by human intention; unaffected or unaltered no matter where you look. Although this idea of the Anthropocene has been kicking around for more than two decades, the agency in charge of determining geological eras, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, is slow in moving. Author James Purdy writes, “It is still pending: stratigraphers are well acquainted with geological rates of motion.”

Even in the national parks like nearby Death Valley National Park, there is little pristine land: that is land unlived in or undisturbed by human enterprise. What landscape aesthetic do we use to find the beauty in these new human-altered landscapes? 

Osceola and I see large piles of sorted cinder, a long serpentine set of connected conveyor belts with erector set (or maybe tinker toy) superstructures carrying the product for processing. Boyd indicates this is much better than the giant loaders with all their polluting flatulence that periodically scrape, transport, and push the material at the far end of the clanking conveyors.

Fossil Falls, CA
BLM SE100 marker and puffy clouds. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

Osceola is scouting to match an active crater in Fiji that will be part of a big commercial. They will need a volcanic area to portray a base camp. It cannot have any plants for two reasons. One reason is that active volcanic areas are generally barren, devoid of even the hardiest vegetation. Second, the desert brush will not match any of the tropical plants in Fiji. Matching shots from a tropical island with desolate high desert landscapes in the Mojave is somehow ironic to me. Osceola has been doing this business for a long time. It’s what the landscape can be made to look like rather than what characteristics and context it actually has that counts.

As he works, I sit on the edge of the pit that drops down several hundred feet below my dangling feet to a small oval floor. The land here is torn, ripped open, gutted. The walls are made of reddish brown rock laced with finer cinder. The area has been totally desecrated by mining processes. That word “desecrated” is rife with judgment however. I wonder what one hundred observers from nations and cultures around the world would say on the subject of this landscape’s “beauty.”

Fossil Falls, CA
Dry lake bed with sunset behind Red Hill (location still). Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

I am struck by the color, the rough, sharp lines of rock. My eye traces the contrasting curvo-linear edges of the moving cinder “dunes.” The pattern of a cyan sky pocked with tropical cumulus clouds moving in seduces my perceiving brain with tantalizing iterations. A traditional Southwestern monsoonal flow is coming in from Mexico. Thunderstorms are likely to rise out over Death Valley. Philosophers are struggling now to define and understand ways to evaluate the beauty of these landscapes of the Anthropocene. Many points-of-view and systems are being proposed to understand the aesthetics of the altered landscape.

Ben assures us Red Hill itself is protected from being dissected and hauled off. Is that because it has a “beautiful” symmetry attractive to the human eye that it should be protected? If the Anthropocene landscape is totally identified as being altered by human action, then a new and different aesthetic is coming into play. Aesthetic evaluation of what constitutes a beautiful landscape is complex and now, as most landscapes become “altered,” aesthetic analysis must come up with a new set of criteria.

Terry C. Daniel writes in the abstract for his essay “Whither scenic beauty?” about visual landscape quality assessment in the 21st century. The “history of landscape quality has featured a contest between expert and perception based approaches… Both approaches generally accept that landscape quality derives from an interaction between biophysical features of the landscape and perceptual, judgmental processes of the human viewer.”

Fossil Falls, CA
Old excavation pit and Sierra Nevada mountains. Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff. 

As I look out on these sanguine red-textured dunes, the sweeping, extended land forms, the deep jagged black and rough surfaces (malapai) and white, ragged cliffs (pumice surfaces), I see the beauty that Ben has indicated is here. This land has been ecologically raped, but done according to government regulations. However I see an amazing deep aesthetic beauty created by human interaction with the natural landscape.

I am stunned, even shamed that I see beauty here even as I saw it in the Salton Sea’s opalescent light. I realize an Anthropocene altered landscape aesthetic will be enormously different from the pristine, virgin landscape that American photographer Ansel Adams fixated on as the pinnacle of environmental beauty. “Whither scenic beauty?” indeed.

What does this altered landscape truly say about the human spirit that abides here? High & Dry is embarking on an on-going investigation into the connections between humanity and the transformed landscapes that are our legacy.

Fossil Falls, CA
Hydraulic shovel and utility pole at Red Hill Quarry. Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain visit desertdispatches.com or the project's Facebook page. We welcome your questions and comments.


Top image: Red Hill Quarry's main production pit and maintenance shop. Fossil Falls, CA. 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.


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