Start watching
Tending Nature show poster

Tending Nature

Start watching

Southland Sessions

Start watching

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching

City Rising

Start watching

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement and Special Events teams.

Into the Forest Primeval: Taming the Sun, Building a Hill

"Freeway Entrance." North of Lancaster, CA. 2012. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
"Freeway Entrance." North of Lancaster, CA. 2012. | 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.

If you take one of the alphabet avenues of Lancaster, California and drive straight east, you enter the forest primeval. The Joshua trees (yucca brevifolia) go out in all directions. Their regular spacing is cut by the straight avenues of asphalt and matching straight cross streets named by numbers and directions: 20th Street East, for instance. Civilization superimposes real grids and virtual grids upon the land wherever human activity has occurred.

Here east-west roads are called avenues and north-south roads are called streets. The city is essentially on a perfect grid. The traffic signals are coordinated by a central processing facility at the Civic Center.

The good news is that Lancaster is trying to ameliorate the lack of imagination in street naming. 10th Street East is now called Challenger Way in honor of the shuttle of the same name.

This day the air is heavy with visible dust and suspended particulate matter. The Joshua trees loom spiny and twisted out of the dismal air. It is easy to imagine a dinosaur prowling about.

One crossroad is marked with roadside memorials. Something terrible has happened here. The crosses vary in size, style and make-up but all have Hispanic names on them. Burned-out prayer candles with Our Lady of Guadalupe or other saintly figures and religious icons testify to vigils for those lost. They demonstrate that this crossing of two straight lines with extended visibility is still very dangerous. These memorials stare defiantly from the corner hillock on which they are perched. Below them an obscene diagram has been spray-painted on the cement face of drainage pipes. The dry cistern is full of desert detritus. Old cigarette packs, plastic containers, bleached newspaper pages with forgotten headlines and all sorts of wrappers mark the area as one of discard.

Not far away the futuristic towers of a solar plant stand sentinel to this forest primeval. The sun peeks from behind the lenticular clouds that announce the wind. These meteorological signs are both spidery and shaped like piled plates in the sky. The wind has already begun. Wisps of dust blow by. At the moment the sun is insipid and offers little power to this giant solar apparatus designed to capture its energy.

"Sierra SunTower Generating Station." Lancaster, CA. 2010. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
"Sierra SunTower Generating Station." Lancaster, CA. 2010. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

There is a tower that is like an Iranian minaret in appearance. Other skeletal towers rise in a pattern around it. The project overview explains dispassionately: "The Sierra SunTower facility is based on power tower CSP (concentrating solar power) technology. The plant features an array of 24,000 heliostats divided between four sub-fields that track the sun and focus the energy onto two tower-mounted receivers. The concentrated solar energy boils water in the receiver to produce super heated steam. The steam is piped to a reconditioned 1947 GE turbine steam turbine generator, which converts the energy to electricity. The steam out of the turbine is condensed and pressurized back into the receiver. It takes up eight hectares or 20 acres of an arid valley of the Mojave Desert at 35 degrees north latitude on private land."

The Sierra SunTower, a proud green energy over-achiever, has won many awards. Its builder trumpets that it reduces CO2 emissions by 7,000 tons a year, equivalent to planting 5,265 trees, removing 1,368 automobiles from the road, or saving 650,000 gallons of gasoline. Still the air smells industrial and metallic here. The plant can be seen through a sturdy chain link fence. A still pond of water reflects it all. Then the wind ruffles the surface and all shimmers out of sight.

On the near horizon looms a hill that is being excavated by trucks on roads spiraling methodically in a rising circle. Wait! The trucks are adding to the hill, not mining it for mineral wealth. This is a man made hill striving to become a mountain: the Lancaster Landfill & Recycling Center. It is a 276-acre ziggurat of garbage and waste right in the middle of our forest primeval.

Upon closer observation, the site has helpful signage. The management is proud of its modern technology. The landfill is designed to allow disposal of non-hazardous solid wastes. All collection sites are constructed with a composite liner and leachate collection system. The leachate collection system gathers wastewater that is generated by the overlying municipal solid waste.

The facility's website goes to great lengths to assure the visitor that it is very safe. We are leaving behind us a monument to waste and garbage that grows daily taller and wider. Every opportunity is being taken to recycle, reclaim, repurpose and isolate our waste into wastelands. Here there is also a growing ruin of a landfill as a monument to how we live.

I want to stop and hike to the top. I want to plant an American flag like our astronauts did on the moon and claim it for our national pride. I don't. Instead I circle the landfill outside the chain link fence in my car and drive into the Joshua tree forest primeval in the swirling dust of another windy day in east Lancaster.

I jump on the freeway and go home.

"Forest of Power Lines - Avenue K & 90th St. West," pinhole exposure. Lancaster, CA. 2010. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
"Forest of Power Lines - Avenue K & 90th St. West," pinhole exposure. Lancaster, CA. 2010. | 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.

Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

Support Provided By
Support Provided By
Read More
Pacific Division Officer Hoskins tries to pry open the door of a truck involved in a accident that left the driver and passenger locked in the overturned vehicle. | Joseph Rodriguez

'90s Photos of LAPD Reveal a City in Pain

Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs of the LAPD in 1994 is a deeply personal, political act that still resonates in today’s political climate.
Carla Jay Harris "Sphinx," 2019. Archival pigment print. Two panels, 40 x 30 in. each. The work features a beautiful Black woman wearing a dark blue dress kneeling down in a golden meadow under a starry sky and bright orange sun. | Courtesy the artist

Now More Than Ever: The Need for Alternative Cultural Spaces

Learn more about the spaces filling the holes left behind by the historically white-centric L.A. art world.
Aerial view of Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" ab s11

Stretching Out into the Community: Five Key Watts Artists Who Helped Shape American Art

Meet the core artists who were the vanguards of the West Coast edition of the Black Arts Movement: Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge and Jayne Cortez.