Russell's Blog

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Travel notes (part 1)

Posted by Russell on December 28, 2008 at 2:54 a.m.
After almost fifty-some hours riding the train, I have a few impressions worth sharing. I had a lot of time to think, and a lot of things to think about, so I'm going to break this up into a couple of posts.

I expected to get a great deal of work done in that time, and I accomplished absolutely none of it. Not a single jot. I basically spent the whole trip either looking out the window, or happily asleep. There is just too much to look at; breathtaking snow-capped mountains too numerous to name, scores of towns and a dozen cities, the vast arid emptiness of New Mexico, lonely volcanic prominences rising from Euclidean flatness, knots of green trees rioting in pocket valleys bracketed by sterile sun-blasted volcanic rocks, and the profane, hideous pointlessness of Texas cities.

The trip was a grand tour of the majestic beauty of our country, and an industrial colonoscopy showcasing a great deal of what is wrong and twisted about its economy.

I will spare you my gasping about mountains and trees. I lack the skill with words necessary to even crudely sketch such things. You simply have to see it. Instead, I'll tell you about the ugly and fascinating things I saw. They leave me truly awed.

The first thing that struck me was the vast and penetrating impact of exurban development.

It was heartbreaking to see just how much of the land is already destroyed. In California, luxury homes and golf courses fill every level patch of ground from the outskirts of incorporated Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Tuscon and Phoenix have similar, lower-budget penumbras of sprawling exurbs stretching two hundred miles in every direction. In the space between the outskirts of Palm Springs and the outskirts of Tuscon, people are busily making preparations to link these two cities with a continuous smear of houses. I was relieved to notice that many developments in the margins seem to be abandoned. One of them was nothing but rain-swelled chip-board and wind-tattered Tyvek nailed to dozens of identical frames. I regret that the photos didn't turn out.

That isn't to say that I don't have sympathy for the lives and fortunes that are suffering as a result of the economic pestilence that ruined these ventures, especially the craftsmen and laborers. But the fact is, nobody should be building out there. America's natural spaces should be treated like places of worship. Look at these houses huddling at the foot of this mountain:

These are money changers in the temple. I'm not against money changers in general, but they shouldn't ply their trade in my temple. Actually, this is quite a bit worse than the New Testament parable. The money changers could be thrown out and the sacred space restored. After the developers are thrown out, millions of their innocent dupes remain.

As beautiful as it is, this land is both exquisitely fragile and damn miserable to live on. Fragile because there is so little water, and miserable for its looming and contrarian propensity for devastating floods. Fragile because of the trophic poverty of the nutrient-starved ecosystem, and miserable for its tendency to erupt in sudden racing conflagration. Fragile because of the extreme sensitivity of the wildlife to disturbance -- a few scattered bottle caps have likely doomed the recovery of the California condor -- and miserable for the tendency of the wildlife to apply claws and fangs and venom to pets and loved ones. Fragile for the delicate balance of commodity prices and labor market conditions that make inhabitation possible, and miserable for the stress and strain of living on the knife's edge of financial viability, and doubly miserable when the distant rumbling of our global economic system brings your financial house crashing down on your head.

The only way most people can be comfortable in this kind of place is to obliterate it. Suck dry the aquifers, poison coyotes, shoot the mountain lions and the red-tail hawks, pave the chaparral, relocate factories and office buildings and depots from the distant city, blast and grade the mountainsides for drainage ditches and flood control swails, murder the night with the eyewatering glare of sodium vapor floodlamps. Then what have you got? Just another hot, boring place.

Yes, we can inhabit these places. Such is human ingenuity and power that given sufficient amounts of dynamite, concrete, oil and steel, we can probably live anywhere we can reach. We can blast and pave and bulldoze and burn any landscape to suit our purposes. The great challenge of the 19th and early 20th was to learn how to do these things on the scale required by the lethally difficult lands of the American West. A hundred years ago, life in the Mojave desert was so hardscrabble that few of even the most intrepid adventurers bothered to attempt it. Today, we build full-scale replicas of Scottish seascapes on which we play golf.

The great challenge of the centuries to come will be to abstain from exercising this power, and instead develop better enterprises in which to invest our blood and treasure.

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