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.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more….
– Macbeth (c. 1605), Act V, Scene 5, Line 23, Shakespeare
We are all going to die — every last one of us.
We leave everything behind as a kind of tally of how we lived. We leave our children, our thoughts, our possessions, our garbage, our beliefs and especially our bodies: the blood, gristle and bone.
We leave everything we had, made, earned or stole behind. If judging is called for, we are judged by what we leave behind. We will never know just what that is for we will be gone. If there is awareness after we die, our attention will be on where we are going, not where we have been.
Those before us: individuals, families, communities, tribes, states, nations and even empires have also left everything behind. Then the question while we are still alive is what can we learn from what has been left behind from before us? Nowhere are these instructive legacies and endowments more exposed than in the California deserts.
Our lives are short. When compared to the landscape around us — the mountains, rivers, rocks, sand, volcanoes and earth fault disruptions — we are the proverbial mayfly. Given the brevity of our mortality, we swell with pride or shutter from embarrassment about what we have done to our home. The global impact of our human endeavors has been given a name: the Anthropocene.
This dispatch and video accompany our exhibition “High & Dry: Land Artifacts” at the Museum of Art and History (MOAH) in Lancaster, California. The exhibit explores the meaning of things we leave behind in the desert and what they tell us about who we are as a culture. Incorporating many of these infrared photographs with historical objects from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition opens May 12, 4-6pm and runs through July 15. Visitors are encouraged to bring a single, meaningful item to leave in a time capsule for future generations.
Examples of artifacts in the desert are the soda ash plants that formed an industrial necklace around Owens Dry Lake in Inyo County, California, now a gigantic reclamation and dust mitigation project undertaken by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). From a ruin perspective, the former Kaiser plant is perhaps the most fascinating.
From a distance, the Kaiser Soda Ash ruin is diminutive. Its angular and geometric silhouette entices the inquisitive vision of the attentive traveler speeding by on Highway 395. At high speeds, seeing the turnoff is tricky. When you come up to the ruin, the stillness of the concrete forms, varied in size, shape and unknown in purpose, beguile the imagination. The setting spreads out to the east in a gaping vista. The playa of the dry Owens Lake, not far from Cartago, California, dances and shimmers in the heat, its mineral crust of trona effervescent like diamonds in the refracting desert light.
The Kaiser soda ash factory remains enthralling because the workers were inexplicably drawn away before the structure was fully demolished. The ruin has eight rhomboid concrete prisms in two rows of four each. Two of these forms are molded together, poured separately but abutted. They have buttresses, which support the last two prisms, for unknown reasons. Holes pierce these prisms for either steel or wood supports or pipe connections.
There are four cement frames filled with broken bricks marked by mortar. To the north are what appear to be giant pedestals — geometric mushrooms with square, thick caps and substantial stems. Some are upright as intended. Others have fallen on their side and can’t get up. Octagonal holes are cut into solid walls. Everywhere rebar rest like twisted bones once coupled to the machinery now long gone.
Is Kaiser more a ruin or a wasteland? We celebrate ruins and denigrate wastelands. I would argue that wastelands are the denigrated ruins of modernity. With horror or despair, we stare at the wasteland, matching within us our loss of hope, faith and love. The wasteland mocks and reflects the futility of our failed cultural, social, and economic endeavors. Today, we watch as disintegrating trailers and transitory dwellings inevitably make way for massive solar utilities, themselves undoubtedly becoming ruins in turn as our energy economy evolves.
I kneel before an automobile grill of a totally imploded, rusted car that now grins like a lipless death's head at the Kaiser ruin. The teeth are metal, sunk into the jaws. They are long, sickly yet arrogant. It is a Cubist Picasso sculpture of a head. Can a photograph conjure meaning from the wastelands, the mines, the dead factories and the weathered crosses all drained of vitality by the cruelty of life in the desert?
Besides our feelings of wasted resources in these wasteland landscapes, an additional source of anxiety is the sense of decay of our cultural heritage. The landscape evolves from ruins that show cultural balance and continuity to rust that announces waste and disillusion. Any aware person is worrying about the limited future of natural resources, the expansion of pollution and the instability of social and political structures. As with car wrecks we drive by on the freeway, it is difficult to avert our eyes from the wasteland. We are irresistibly drawn there, our staring eyes at least. There is a macabre beauty that sings to our soul of our true situation. So, it is with the wasteland. It is about hope and the loss of hope. We fear we are in decline. It is a personal and a collective fear.
In the desert things are left behind to tell the story of change, impermanent success and the total failure of human enterprise. Crews began the takedown of the superstructure but gave up at the cement forms, rectangular prisms, pyramids and blocks with pre-made apertures. Exactly why they stopped could have been the difficulty of dealing with so much cement, or because the salvage of materials was of little or no value.
I sit in the ruin until nightfall. The yellow golden light rusts to red, and then slowly fades to dark beige as the Milky Way appears, growing stronger in the darkening sky. The stars wink and twinkle. It is very peaceful.
Looking from these ruins, I see the strange beauty of this opalescent yet desolate landscape that has been savaged because it harbored minerals, water and game. We have been an animal that sacrificed our homeland for what we wanted or what we thought we had to have. We use and plunder the earth without much thought to the repercussions. Yet now we want to restore the damaged landscape, forced by laws, public opinion and the wavering intention to do what’s right as long as it doesn’t unduly erode the bottom line.
Kaiser has set the scene. Now we move on to memorials. The desert is dotted with plaques commemorating events and famous or infamous folks. Although I would argue today we are drawn to forgetting, there is still some allegiance to history, especially if it is odd or unusual.
As you near Trona, a once vibrant mining town, there is a memorial plaque celebrating the brave souls who ventured out of Death Valley looking for water in Searles Lake. The water is so brackish as to be undrinkable. For one of the groups traveling to the gold fields, it is a kind of Donner Party in the desert: no snow, no cannibalism, but significant death.
The memorial states:
NO. 443 VALLEY WELLS - In this area, several groups of midwestern emigrants who had escaped from hazards and privations in Death Valley in 1849 sought to secure water from Searles Lake. They turned northward and westward in despair when they discovered its salty nature, and with great difficulty crossed the Argus and other mountains to reach settlements of Central and Southern California.
In those days, the deserts were a terrible place that had to be endured. Now they are seen as harsh but beautiful, rich in resources and not just made for toxic chemical dumping and nuclear testing. But as the plaque commemorates, the desert can be bitter. It defeats through economic and social factors towns such as Trona, once a thriving settlement extracting valuable minerals from the saline waters.
While some of the remaining residents don’t see Trona as dying, many more have relocated. Nearby Ridgecrest is a prime area with most of the amenities modern life affords. In Trona, a desert wasteland is invading and will eventually swallow up the town, if not the mining operations. Abandoned, now burned out residences stand as warnings that economics is one of the biggest challenges in the deserts. Fiscal concerns are greater than natural forces. Budgetary acumen is as important, more important, than proper clothing, housing, food and water. We learn that from the wastelands and memorials, as well as the ruins.
The mining industry has left many kinds of bones and industrial structures, some old and useless, others still working. A complex of pulleys, conveyor belts and machinery at the Red Hill cinder mine reminds me of an alien parasite sucking at the earth. Up at Cerro Gordo silver camp in the Owens Valley, a mining structure becomes a giant praying mantis. The huge factory at Trona reminds me of a ragtag town devoted to processing soda ash from the lake brine. Carrying borax out of Trona, a train curves out towards the desert horizon.
Infrastructures are laid bare in arid lands. A cylindrical water tank holding the small town of Lone Pine’s water contrasts with the rounded foothills of the surrounding mountains. Of course, water is usually the number one topic in these areas. The big city to the south long ago absconded with the valley's water to quench its thirsty hordes. Silos now scar the landscape, agricultural tombstones marking the dead farms.
Still, there are many signs of faith that residents rely on to get through the dark desert nights. A sign in Trona says “Prayer Changes Things,” just as the modern angular Catholic church seems to await the faithful’s return. Three crosses near Highway 14 in Rosamond proclaim someone’s theological idea, perhaps of the Trinity. Near the Salton Sea, a dead tree is festooned with giant stick nests of lesser egrets and other marsh birds that land, breed and migrate on, reminding us that nature can still prevail.
The arid lands of California are littered with personal artifacts from pioneers, developers, businessmen and tourists. It may start as abandoned garbage or structures, but given fifty years, it can become a protected artifact. Cans and bottles are a collector’s treasure and their market and trade are easy to find on eBay. Also left behind to become artifacts and gain a new kind of repurposed value are tools for mining, ranching and building. These artifacts tell stories, have a rusted yet bemusing lost purpose and a distinct rustic beauty. They are now collectibles.
Often groups of people are known through archeological analysis of dumps and abandoned work areas, understood primarily by the refuse thrown out. The Tropico Gold Mine outside of Rosamond, California has one of the biggest time capsules around. It was purposely assembled and sealed in one of the mine’s tunnels. However, the sign on the metal door was stolen. It is to be opened in a thousand years.
It is not uncommon to see areas of the desert littered with broken glass, rusted tin cans, garbage, refuse and trash. Those are some of the names for abandoned material that is deemed to have little or no value. Piles of household objects are left abandoned, particularly useless, scarred, vandalized and discarded furniture that no one would give household room. Particularly common are broken and ravaged recliners, sofas and over-stuffed chairs. They sit in the desert decaying as if waiting for someone to come, pause, sit and watch the desert fill with light, or be concealed in the growing darkness of sunset. But the chairs wait for no one, for that’s who is coming.
Every great society or empire has left behind a network of roads. In time, however, the roads lead to places no longer populated or profitable. Even the best-laid routes will eventually succumb to the dust.
Edward Humes, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, gives us lots of facts about our world in his book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.” He reports that in a year we throw out collectively 390 million tons of rubbish, or “municipal solid waste.” Statistics abound, and they are scary. Many persons carelessly or purposefully dispose of garbage because the desert is seen as a vast, useless dumping ground. Much of our project work to prove otherwise. Hume’s comments, “Landfills are usually thought of, when they are thought of at all, as out-of-the-way places. Nobody really wants to think about what they contain… The material that seeps out of (them), a noxious brew called ‘leachate,’ is so toxic that it has to be contained by multiple clay, plastic and concrete barriers.”
The good news is significant strides are being made from various quarters to address what these brief facts threaten. Just one example in the desert is the giant waste “mountain” called the Lancaster Landfill and Recycling Center. Lancaster is striving to be a “net zero” city with energy saving, green energy production, organized recycling, education and cutting-edge strategies for dealing with garbage. More and more cities across our land are following suit. Meanwhile, the mountain of trash remains the highest land feature in the area.
Continuing research and education on buying less, limiting packaging and eliminating food waste can greatly reduce garbage production by individuals and their families. But carelessness, ignorance and greed in our consumer society push back.
Next to the issue of “garbology” are destroyed landscapes due to waste products from various military/industrial processes. Often ignorance and budgetary needs are responsible. Slowly, ways to clean the desert areas are being found through human ingenuity. The cleanup is expensive, and many companies have not made proper funding preparations to fix the damage they have caused. Solar plants will need to be torn down or totally rebuilt. These costs need to be built in as construction begins. Many county administrations just see the positives of development and fail to take in the eventual costs of deactivation, reconstruction or dealing with toxic landscapes.
One example of the good news is the cleanup of the Whittaker-Bermite Gunpowder Company, a location in the center of Santa Clarita, California. Through the years, this private company developed military armaments as well as fireworks, not realizing until too late the poisoning aspect of dumping perchlorate waste products in the canyons. The pollutant worked its way into the groundwater, ruining the wells in the center of this growing desert city.
Scientists developed practical ways of cleaning the soil using anaerobic (non-oxygen dependent) bacteria to break down perchlorate in sealed cells activated by sunlight. Ultimately chlorine gas is left to almost harmlessly dissipate into the air, leaving the soil not in a pristine state, but to a quality commensurate with future intended uses for the land.
Studying what we leave behind in our desert areas of California reveal many negative consequences, but life there is not without hope. We see by looking at ruins, memorials, wastelands, garbage, personal artifacts and restored landscapes that what we leave behind while discouraging, also challenges humans to rise to their very best natures and develop solutions for previous destruction. The biggest impediment then is greed, expense and the lack of will to address the challenges in today’s deserts.
All of this calls forth individual responsibility. For in the end, it is the single person whether working alone or together in groups that have the final duty of learning from what we leave behind and acting accordingly.
The California desert remains at the forefront of the ecological challenges that face our country and the world. With the de-watering of California’s Salton Sea, we confront an immense dying ecosystem that threatens the health and livelihood of the Los Angeles area and beyond. While a roadmap for its rehabilitation has yet to come into focus, sites like Whittaker-Bermite and Owens Lake offer a glimmer of hope and suggest a path towards redressing the mistakes of past. The land, we are told, is on loan to us by our grandchildren. Today, we are creating its future for generations to come. Our children’s children will read of our success or failure in the traces we leave behind in the sand.
Top Image: Boarded-Up Farmhouse with Watchful Horse - Infrared Exposure - Bishop, CA - 2016