Altered landscapes offer hope in the Anthropocene

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Two California lakes. One, the Salton Sea, a festering manmade disaster in the desert southeast of Palm Springs. The other, Tulare Lake, a phantom lake, once the largest west of the Mississippi, dried up by agriculture in the southern San Joaquin Valley, now a vast flat expanse of monotonous farm fields.

Not the first places one might expect to find hope in the Anthropocene--this new epoch that scientists say we are now living in, a period in which the human imprint on Earth has become so pervasive and dominant that it will leave a distinct mark on geological strata in deep time.

stringfellowsaltonsea.jpgtularelake.jpgBut a gritty, tenacious kind of hope ran through a public conversation about these "altered landscapes" at the Autry National Center on Saturday, featuring photographer Kim Stringfellow, a chronicler of the Salton Sea and surrounding desert, filmmaker Christopher Beaver, who has just completed a documentary about Tulare Lake, and writer Eileen Apperson, whose great-grandparents were of the generation that last saw Tulare Lake and who now would like to see it restored.

There are two typical responses to altered landscapes such as the transformation of California's Central Valley from a maze of wetlands and swamps into a kind of vast, orderly factory for producing food and fiber, the richest agricultural region in the country. One reaction is amazement and pride at what human beings can accomplish, transforming entire landscapes to make survival in an arid landscape not only possible, but to produce enormous wealth as well. The other reaction is regret and even shame in the face of what has been lost and may never be recovered.

These two responses also characterize the often diametrically opposed views that people bring to the Anthropocene. On the one hand, the optimists say, isn't it amazing what human beings have done while becoming the dominant force on Earth? We can now manage the planet. Let's do so wisely. On the other hand, the skeptics respond, what hubris! The path forward is not more human domination of the planet. Look what we have wrought. We must organize an orderly retreat to ensure room for nature.

But the conversation at the Autry showed there is another way to understand these altered landscapes, the hybrid landscapes of nature, the built environment, and culture that characterize so much of California and the world. And that is through understanding their complicated histories--and through them our own histories--which can lead to a strange love of these altered, damaged places, as the kinds of places where we will and must begin to think about the future.

As Eileen Apperson said of her family in the San Joaquin Valley, "Each generation saw a different landscape, and they would alter it in their own ways." Her grandparents grew alfalfa for sheep and her own generation brought subdivisions and strip malls. But now they are beginning to see some restoration and preservation of natural areas in the valley, in little pockets among the row crops, orchards, and dairies. Apperson tells this story in her book, Pattern of the Land: The Search for Home in an Altered Landscape.

For Kim Stringfellow, author of Greetings from the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905-2005, the Salton Sea shows that we need to think about even the most marginalized and blighted landscapes as areas we need to protect. A huge agricultural sump, the Salton Sea was dismissed as unnatural because it was created by an engineering mistake until people realized that "wildlife will take what it can get," she said. "Animals don't know the difference between pristine and manmade," she said of the birds that depend on the lake on the Pacific Flyway. But the lake's ecosystem is collapsing as the water becomes hyper-saline. Somehow a new future must be imagined and then created for the Salton Sea.

The history of Tulare Lake shows "how quickly we can alter the land" if we put our minds to it, said filmmaker Christopher Beaver, whose documentary "Tulare: The Phantom Lake" includes a rare photograph of the lake around 1910, with water stretching as far as the eye could see. "In 40 years, it was gone," said Beaver. He compared the trajectory of California's altered landscapes to a railroad yard in Fresno, with different tracks leading toward different futures, some leading to more dams, another to tunnels through the Delta, yet others toward restoring the San Joaquin River and even Tulare Lake. "We can make choices," he said. Take the LA River, he added, which winds by the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. "Wow! Does that look different than 10 years ago."

Note: "Altered Landscapes" at the Autry National Center was co-presented by Boom: A Journal of California. The fall issue of Boom focuses on "Thinking with Nature: A Century Beyond John Muir."

Top photo of the Salton Sea courtesy of Kim Stringfellow. Bottom photo of Tulare Lake from "Tulare: The Phantom Lake," a documentary by Christopher Beaver.

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