Roderick Coover, Larry McCaffery, Lance Newman and Hikmet Loe explore the question of how desert ecologies are shaped through creative expression and actions. They consider, among others, how works by Edward Abbey, Robert Smithson and William T. Vollmann offer models for engaging ecological questions through writing and art.
Roderick Coover, Larry McCaffery, Lance Newman and Hikmet Loe: A Dialogue about the Desert.
Roderick Coover, Larry McCaffery, Lance Newman and Hikmet Loe: A Dialogue about the Desert.
This conversation occurred in November 2009. Temple University doctoral candidate Alanna Miller assisted in the transcription and editorial process.
Following upon the release of his Unknown Territories project, an interactive documentary project about how writing and images shape interpretations of the Western landscape, Roderick Coover invited literary scholars Lance Newman and Larry McCaffery and art historian Hikmet Loe to explore the question of how desert ecologies are shaped through creative expression and actions. Their conversation goes on to consider how works Edward Abbey, Robert Smithson, William Vollmann, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, among others, offers models for engaging ecological questions through writing and art.
LARRY MCCAFFERY: Most people probably think of the desert in terms of its emptiness, but my own sense of the desert is really quite the opposite. Part of this ecstatic sense that so many people talk about when describing their response to the desert has to do with the fact that when you remove trees, buildings, billboards, highways and all the other encumbrances from your line of vision, your consciousness becomes overwhelmed by the sheer abundancy of what you’re encountering. Suddenly you look out and you’re not seeing 10 yards ahead of you, or 100 yards, or even a mile, but maybe 20 miles or more. There’s so much incoming data, but so little in the way of a framework that allows you to contextualize this data, that the mind short circuits. So, yes, on the one hand the desert is empty of civilization - it forms a kind of mental frontier where all the projects of civilization run into the ground, where all this excess of signification, of intention and pretension in culture is drained away. But that absence allows you to experience directly something far grander: the desert as this vast aesthetic spectacle. For me, anyway, this sensation is literally mind-expanding.
LANCE NEWMAN: As a person who came from the deep South where one can rarely see further than a hundred yards because everything is flat and the trees are about a hundred feet tall, when I came to the desert, what really got my attention was a strange combination of intimate spaces, where my visual focus was very close on an individual insect or the grain of a particular kind of rock, and being simultaneously aware of those limitless vistas Larry describes. There’s something about the tension of having those two kinds of visual experiences at the same time that really captures that space for me.
HIKMET LOE: I grew up on the east coast and have lived out west mostly since 1981. At first, the desert to me was too much. It was too big and too expansive. There was too much for me to take in visually because I was very used to the much smaller mountains of Pennsylvania where I had grown up. The longer I that I’ve been here, the more that I’ve found that there’s a sort of melding of the psyche into the landscape. I now can’t get enough of the desert because, as expansive as it is, it allows me to feel sort of an interior expansiveness. The spaces, the sudden weather that’s part of them, the very minuteness of tiny little flowers, along with this overall sense of absolute bigness, all are part of my psyche now. I’d never known how to articulate that until I discovered artists, such as the 19th century artist Paul Cézanne and the 20th century artist Nancy Holt, who had written about this phenomenon of being one with the landscape. Their thoughts have influenced how I can, not only think about the desert, but be in the desert. Walking in the desert for me, there’s a profound stillness I feel, like I could be there forever, and I could exist through it forever. And then, all of a sudden, something abrupt or jarring will happen that’s a very natural phenomenon, such as weather or being face to face with one of these jagged mountain ranges, and then it takes on a totally different feeling. Sometimes that feeling can be scary, but then that’s also part of being in the desert.
RODERICK COOVER: Deserts can be deadly and scary places; I think that comes across in the works of Edward Abbey. The encounter with a dead man, with an animal in the wilderness, or just with a ravine or a mountain face can create a shock in contrast to the apparent sameness. These events dislodge the mind- spaces that can set in during long periods of continuity. Writing may take on a similar form as this desert experience in which one sees the same sort of rock or cacti for a period and then, very suddenly, an event or idea dramatically breaks that pattern - a kind of natural intervention, I suppose.
NEWMAN: There’s a great moment in Abbey’s essay “The Great American Desert” where he’s circumambulating Navajo Mountain on the north shore of Lake Powell. He’s having one of those long walks that’s interminably the same, the way you describe, Rod. He then makes a short climb, and, in the middle of nowhere, in a space where he thought there had never been another human being, he comes across an arrow sign that’s made out of rocks in the dust that’s been there for centuries. It’s packed in sedimented dust. This conflicts with the conventional way of thinking about these deserts as inhuman spaces, as spaces empty of human inhabitants - the ultimate wildernesses in the way that wilderness is defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Really, that’s an illusion. One of the things that you learn after years of walking in deserts is how to see the record of human inhabitation of those spaces. This segment in Abbey’s work also expresses the idea that walking in the desert is a form of improvisation.
MCCAFFERY: Yes, it’s become almost a cliché that when you’re out hiking in the desert you need to open yourself to improvisation rather than to have a specific destination. This approach is essential because the desert has a way of mocking just about any goal-oriented behavior. You see a hill in the distance that looks like an inviting destination for lunch, but by lunch time the hill mysteriously seems farther away than when you began; meanwhile, you’ve been struggling to get across all these washes and slot canyons that weren’t visible when you started out, and so on. Now this can be pretty frustrating if you’re a goal-oriented person, like I used to be, but it can also be very liberating. So at a certain point, you realize that you should forget about the hill and check out one of the washes. Thoreau used the term “sauntering” to describe something similar to this in his essay “Walking”; it also reminds me of the process of urban meandering that Baudelaire used the term “flâneur” to describe - wandering around the city becomes a way to experience it from a fresh perspective. I know my friends think this is a little strange, but I usually don’t bring a map or even a cell phone when I go out hiking. I’m happiest when I don’t see other people’s footprints. Of course, there needs to be some balance here - it’s also easy to get lost if you’re meandering in the desert. So you need to be aware of where you are, so you’re not going to lose your car or you can find your way back. But at the same time, you have to allow yourself to let the landscape dictate the path for you.
COOVER: In our conversations with him for the Canyonlands project, Abbey’s friend Jack Loeffler noted more than once that Abbey would talk about this experience in terms of the difference between awareness and intelligence. In navigating in the desert, you need a bit of both. Walking in the desert constantly offers a set of choices and one needs to be aware of the signs in the moment, and paths usually aren’t really visible. This makes his experience quite different from hiking along marked trails and wooded mountain tops. Walking becomes a creative experience and, in a way, it becomes a readerly process, too.
MCCAFFERY: Absolutely. And, I think this notion that the desert experience involves a readerly or aesthetic component comes forward in the Unknown Territories project too. One of the things I most enjoy about hiking in the desert is to leave myself open to that sense of the desert’s deceptiveness that almost everybody talks about. One of my great joys out here is to find an area that doesn’t initially look very interesting and then go off into it precisely because I’m almost certain this area is going to surprise me. It’s understandable that many people find this deceptiveness to be scary or intimidating, but to me it’s one of the desert’s most fascinating features - because it results in constant experiences you can’t anticipate.
COOVER: Yes, nature offers surprises and so do humans. Deserts, which seem so devoid of life contain all sorts of traces of other human activities. There are some very destructive marks and blisters on the landscape, but isn’t there also a quite remarkable legacy of humans in the desert where they’ve made very conscious interventions in very innovative ways?
LOE: Artists have created a legacy of art and interventions in the desert and on the land, especially the artists who were involved in the earthwork movement here in the United States in the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s, such as Nancy Holt who I mentioned earlier, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and certainly Robert Smithson, who were very interested in the desert’s vastness. For them, it was a sublime surface, a blank canvas that they could literally write on. Many of them developed processes of writing on the desert floor to leave their sign. If an artist used a device such as motorcycle, as Heizer did in 1970 to “draw” on a dry lakebed in Nevada, the mark or signal was lesser and would go away; but sometimes it would be something more permanent, such as the Spiral Jetty that Robert Smithson created in 1970 along the north shore of Great Salt Lake.
COOVER: How do those kinds of works relate back to the existing signs of the desert?
LOE: Land artists working out west didn’t create art to plop into the landscape - there was a lot of research and forethought that went into determining the place’s history and meaning and how it would be reflected in their art. In the case of Robert Smithson, we have an artist who was very interested in geology, archeology, geography, and Native American history. He’d done a lot of research on this area Utah before he’d come here, and he knew of the different signs and different pictographs that Native Americans had used created throughout Utah. He didn’t have a particular destination prescribed idea for the shape of his works until he got there. That certainly was what happened with the Spiral Jetty. He wanted to have the particular landscape dictate what the particular work would be, then the idea of spirals and Native Americans and the roundness of the whole space and the roundness of the lake and the mirror of the lake - all of that then fit in together. And, the spiral goes back to Native American marks that had been here already. It’s interesting that he had spent some time here in Utah, created the Spiral Jetty, and then, after that, continued spending a lot more time in Utah, bought investigating parcels of land out on the West Desert, spent a lot of spending time down in Moab, working on a unrealized bid to turn Bingham Copper Pit into a large-scale work of art as he began to focus on land reclamation projects. So, he probably would have continued working out here, in some way, if hadn’t died so suddenly, particularly as his focus turned towards the ecological and the idea of the artist and geologist/ecologist working together.
MCCAFFERY: There’s always something very poignant about this need people have to make their marks in the desert - to leave behind some indication that you’ve been there amidst all this inhuman immensity. And that’s true whether or not you’re talking about someone carving their initials on a rock or these large- scale installations like Spiral Jetty and the geoglyphs that Native Americans left behind near Blythe or in Imperial’s Yuha Desert. I feel the same way when I’m out walking in the desert and come across markings that aren’t strictly “artistic” - old Indian trails, bits of clothing, rusty nails, or an old board that’s all that’s left from an abandoned house. These are also marks, traces that speak to us about the lives of people who once were here, speaking to us in a kind of secret language. Of course, these traces accumulate in a city as well, but maybe because they’re so less common they seem more mysterious somehow when you encounter them in the desert. They signify the presence of human beings but also the impermanence of everything, the hopelessness of ever leaving behind anything that is truly permanent.
NEWMAN: One of the examples of that desire to leave a mark is the Tree of Utah, which is a sort of gigantic, kitsch monstrosity alongside Interstate 80 between Salt Lake and Wendover put up by an artist named Karl Momen in the 1980s.
LOE: Yes, this work of sculpture (I would not call this land art) is seen by millions of people every year; it is the most highly visible work of art in Utah, which I find rather shocking because no art agency or organization in Utah oversees this work - it’s managed by the state’s Division of Facilities and Construction Management. We have this artistic work on the land that projects vertically into the sky, contributing little to a deeper understanding of the land (Bonneville Salt Flats) around it.
COOVER: What do these works say about the concept of wilderness? Landscapes are dotted with signs, objects, abandoned shacks and trash.
NEWMAN: Wilderness is defined as a space where human beings visit and leave no visible marks, right? So, motors and any other kinds of machines are forbidden in wildernesses and most human structures are removed. But, there’s something about the desert that compels people to leave a mark. Aside from massive structures built by the official artistic cultures, there’s also an amazing culture of regular people marking the desert in different ways. For example, where the road goes across an old salt flat on Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, people write their names with rocks. Another example that comes to mind is on Route 50. Highway 50 in Nevada is the loneliest road in America. There’s a tree that I’m sure is famous in a completely underground way. It’s an old, dead cottonwood that’s got probably two thousand pairs of tennis shoes in it. You know how people in cities tie the laces of their shoes together and then toss them over a telephone line, right? Well, it’s the same thing. It’s this dead cottonwood hung with two thousand different pairs of tennis shoes. So, there’s this bizarre culture, also, of middlebrow and, perhaps even lowbrow markings.
COOVER: Thinking back to Powell’s first trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1969, the crew find markings by a boatman named Ashley at some site where a boat went down some thirty or forty years earlier. Then, a few miles later, they decide they should make their own markings in case something happens to them, too. So, there’s a long list of people leaving marks and objects. But it seems like there’s a big difference between that kind of intervention in the landscape and the kinds produced by industrial development and tourism. There’s something very powerful about the individuals leaving very particular marks that relate to nature and something else that’s going on, like The Tree of Utah.
MCCAFFERY: This was one of the things about the period that Abbey was working in, back in the ’60s and ’70s when the Moab area was beginning to be overrun. Almost everybody who loves the desert feels a sense of protectiveness. It’s the same kind of feeling you have when you come across a new band or a new writer you really like - somehow it seems less special if you know millions of other people have already discovered them. I mean, it’s fine to occasionally come across a shoe or an old tin can out in the desert, but when there’s thousands and thousands of these shoes or cans, you feel overrun. Selfishly, you don’t want the hordes ruining this landscape.
COOVER: That’s a very tricky position, isn’t it? That the person who’s there has a right to it that other people don’t. And, yet, if everyone comes it’s a big mess.
MCCAFFERY: Exactly. I know that ever since I first discovered Anza-Borrego, I’ve felt almost guilty about bringing my friends out here. I always tell them, “Enjoy the experience - just don’t bring anybody else!” But people have been arriving from back east and finding themselves in this empty place and wanting it to preserve it and not wanting it overrun all along. That was obviously something that Abbey was struggling with his whole life.
COOVER: Yes that’s true. In his later books, he would go so far as to make up names of places he was writing about just so that people wouldn’t try to find the destinations - which got some people really lost. It might be a good moment to pin down what are the differences between the kind of limited intervention that we’re talking about and what happens when lots of people come? What are the characteristic differences? For example, it seems to me that there’s a big difference when one builds roads. There’s a big difference when landscape is altered to accommodate crowds. However, there’s also a paradox: if you don’t do that and crowds come anyway, a desert landscape is transformed into a big dust track or sand-bowl. Throughout the Western deserts you see vast areas that are over-run by all-terrain vehicles (A.T.V.s) and transformed in ways that won’t transform back.
LOE: This same paradox is inherent in land art - what does it mean to build an earthwork in the remote West only to have scores of people visit the work, which I’m not opposed to, and damage it, which is confounding to me. I’ve seen people taking a pick-ax to the Spiral Jetty to take a large rock from the work home with them.
MCCAFFERY: This came up repeatedly in that recent Ken Burns documentary about the national parks. There’s a struggle that’s been going on almost from the beginning of the creation of parks: on the one hand, trying to realize that democratic ideal of making these places accessible to everyone, and, at the same time, realizing that in the process of doing that one can easily destroy what’s special about it.
COOVER: Doesn’t this also begin with the ecological change that happened with the construction of dams along the Colorado River? It’s all about ways of perceiving the desert. The construction of Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and the other dams along the Colorado River and its tributaries allowed for the creation of cities nearby in areas not necessarily suited to supporting large populations. Not only does this put a drain on natural resources, but now that the people are here, they want things to do and places to go to. Visiting the Canyonlands, for example, becomes a quick trip on a highway as opposed to a rare journey. As Abbey argued repeatedly, that ease of access is part of creating the mindset that the deserts are primarily entertainment experiences; this mindset is entrenched in the growth of many of the desert tourist industries, off-road vehicle sales, and park planning. Struggles over land use therefore tie into perceptions of what is valuable about these spaces.
MCCAFFERY: You can see this in the debate occurring right now about land use in the Anza-Borrego Desert that creates a real dilemma for desert-lovers. There has been an application to build a fairly large solar power plant out here. It’s a green technology that would allow Borrego to become independent in terms of its energy sources, but installing these solar panels would also use a lot of water and impact the environment. So the local people in Borrego, including the ecologists and the nature-lovers are split right down the middle. Sure, we all want green power - we just don’t want these projects going up in our backyard.
LOE: The windmills that are being put up in Utah are provoking similar responses. On the one hand, they’re green, and we’re going to be able to get a lot of energy from this technology. Some see them as elegant art objects on the land, but other people see them as a huge intrusion. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an easy answer, an easy fix. While we’re on this planet, we’re going to be using this planet. There’s a conflict going on right now related to this in California…the Mojave Desert falls under preservation guidelines as a monument, so the companies that intended to build solar plants and wind farms there are thus far being blocked.
NEWMAN: So at issue here is how the marking of the land or activity on the land conflicts with our expectations about what a desert experience or a wilderness experience should be, right? To what extent is the desert and the way that we experience it a set of conventions that we feel somewhat protective about?
MCCAFFERY: One of the conventions involves the desire to get away from other people - we go to the desert to experience isolation, emptiness and silence. I went on a hike about a week ago up to the top of Coyote Mountain. It is a pretty long hike, but when I finally got up to the summit, there was a large sign, about 50 meters away from the peak that said: “The misanthropy club meets here at 2 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month. All arrivees will immediately be dismissed from the club.” Now of course, that sign was very funny, but it also touches on this misanthropic impulse that undeniably runs through a lot of what desert-lovers have always found so appealing about the desert.
COOVER: Part of that desire is to escape people, but part is also to learn about the desert through an actual experience - a novel thing perhaps in a technological culture. Abbey promoted getting out of one’s car and walking as a means of breaking through the perception of the desert as a kind of movie-image. I think this has political implications for Abbey as a direct means to confront myths about the wealth that dams would generate for the nation, the income individuals could gain in the gold and uranium rush eras, the paradise retirees might find moving to Phoenix, and so forth.
NEWMAN: So, walking is an experience that we see as more genuine and authentic, right? Although, there’s something conventional about that very distinction, something having to do with a romanticism that says that experience in nature is somehow more authentic than the convention-bound historical experiences of towns and other social spaces. To go back even further in terms of cultural history, I think it’s important to mention that that experience has been something that people have been going after - not just in this desert, but in other deserts - for a long time, going back to the desert fathers. They were Christian mystics who fled Rome in the 3rd and 4th Centuries, seeking a refuge from the decadence of the collapsing Empire by submitting themselves to the discipline of living in the deserts of Egypt. In 1960, Thomas Merton published a great little book of their sayings, which became a classic of Southwestern desert literature. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure it was one of Abbey’s favorites. I think you could also make a case that the Hopi and other ancestral Puebloans were looking for a similar kind of landscape that demanded heightened awareness, a landscape where survival required a kind of spiritual and intellectual discipline. It depends on what you think of Frank Waters and his Book of the Hopi, which some people read as reinterpreting Hopi traditions in line with the preoccupations of the people in the 1960s, Abbey’s time. But Frank Waters presents the Hopi as having finally settled on Black Mesa and the desert southwest specifically because it was a landscape that presented them with a series of physical, spiritual, and intellectual challenges that forced them to maintain tribal unity. They saw that discipline as being absolutely necessary in order to maintain their cultural identity.
LOE: Are you familiar with John C. Van Dyke? He was an art historian in the late 1800s, in his 40s and ill, and yet he decided that the desert was where he needed to wonder around be for three years in his life. He had a dog and a pony and himself in the desert, wandering not only to regain his health, but also to be alone in the desert and to feel its beauty every day for years on end. The romantic idea of the desert, but also this idea of hardship, is part of what is so alluring about being here. It’s hard to project onto Van Dyke’s lifestyle while living in a very comfortable city, in a comfortable house. But, being in the desert, there’s always this feeling of, “am I going to be able to survive this environment?” The tests that come along with this environment end up being very attractive for some - certainly for people like Van Dyke and like Abbey. To wander for three years in the desert, knowing that there is no destination except to live in the desert as Van Dyke did, sounds both very compelling and also very foreign.
MCCAFFERY: Van Dyke was a major discovery for me, too. When I first moved to Borrego Springs in the early ’90s, I started reading books about the area and discovered that Van Dyke had written the very first book about the desert. And it was actually right here in the Colorado Desert that he starts off from - near Indio and the Salton Sink area. Like many of these other people who promoted the desert in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Van Dyke was an east coast guy who came west for his health and then found something out here that he didn’t expect. What’s important about Van Dyke, though, is that he offered a very different narrative about the desert than the conventional one: the desert wasn’t this empty canvas awaiting human intervention and reclamation. It was valuable in and of itself - and it should never be reclaimed. The other thing that I find fascinating about Van Dyke is that he was an academic art critic. He brought that aesthetic sense to the desert and attempted to create a kind of aesthetics of contemplation that I find very appealing. Like me, he had spent most of his adult life immersed in the world of art; and like Van Dyke, when I encountered the desert I began to discover that my response to unmediated nature is just as intense as my earlier responses to art and literature.
LOE: There are two British artists, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who walk as part of their craft. The walk is the artwork. The walk is the meditation. It is the endgame and, oftentimes, it’s the utter visceral, and not so apparent, mark that’s left in the process of walking. Richard Long will sometimes walk back and forth on his route, not so he’s destroyed the ground underneath him, but just so there’s a mark that’s been left there of where he’s actually walked and then he’ll photograph the line. He’s walked in the Andes, all through the British Isles, in India, Spain, and across Ireland. The physical act of walking is the artwork. And, of course, a different art piece that comes out through the documentation that chronicles what the art was, how many miles it covered, where it was, and so forth.
MCCAFFERY: That almost perfectly describes the impulse that led the great 17th century Japanese writer, Basho, to write many of his famous haiku cycles. He turned his back on urban life, went off on a series of extended walks around Japan, and wrote haikus along the way. So this notion of walking-as-art isn’t just a modern Western notion - for that matter, neither is the back-to-nature impulse.
NEWMAN: There’s something about the desert that encourages us to think about the experiences we have there as being self-contained and structured experiences, the kind of experiences that lend themselves to being called works of art. To what extent do these kind of experiences depend on the form of locomotion, on the way we move through the land? There are lots and lots of other ways of moving through the desert. With the advent of cheap automobiles, the American West was the prime site for summer tourism for the American working class family, and many families have precious stories about the experiences they made for themselves by driving through the desert in station wagons or R.V.s. There are also different kinds of walking. Consider the immigrants coming across the border, near you Larry, from the south, who are having very different experiences about what it means to walk in the desert. And, what about the A.T.V. culture that’s out there at Ocotillo Wells. Why is that particular way of existing in, of moving through the desert inauthentic? From the perspective of the walker, the A.T.V. riders are often thought to be having an inauthentic experience, not playing by the rules laid down by our conventional ways of thinking about proper kinds of experiences and pristine landscapes.
MCCAFFERY: I’ve talked about this with some of the A.T.V. drivers I’ve met at this bar out near Ocotillo Wells that I go to, The Iron Door. For most desert-lovers the belief is that these guys don’t have an authentic experience by just getting on their vehicles and just riding off. And there are some who are like that, but there were a surprising number of A.T.V. riders who at least claimed that’s not really the way they felt. They were on their off-road vehicles and, yes, they were raising clouds of dust and making a lot of noise, but some of these people have been coming out to the desert for generations - their grandparents brought them, their fathers, and now they’re bringing their children. So, they do love the desert - they just like to express their love by driving gasoline-guzzling, loud vehicles real fast in it.
COOVER: It’s true that there are lots of ways to see a landscape, and off-road vehicle drivers, for example, aren’t always in their vehicles tearing up the land. They’re there having barbecues and doing other things, and then, they have their A.T.V. fun too. But, as a form of entertainment, it’s very destructive to the land.
MCCAFFERY: And that’s especially true in the desert. A vehicle driving off-road is going to leave a track that’s probably going to be there for 50 years. Maybe that’s not so obvious in a different type of landscape. Again, we have the fact that everything out here is exposed. Here, you see physical, human interventions whereas in a lot of other kinds of places, such interventions maybe grown over with trees or grass or get paved over within a year or two.
COOVER: This is a good example of the sense of time in the desert: the stuff of humans stays around. At the same time people pass through; in fact, they usually can’t stay. I suppose this includes the experience of migrants.
NEWMAN: Yes. Chuck Bowden has been doing some incredible work about the border for the last decade or so. He has a great book called Exodus/Exodo made in collaboration with a Mexican photographer, Julian Cardona, that presents images of the border region and people moving across the border. It’s incredibly moving work. I spent some time in the Valley of the Moon and walked south into Mexico on a migrant trail, crossing the border at a place where it was really just a few strands of barbed wire. On the other side of the wire was a migrant camp where people would wait until nightfall in order to make their dash to the north. Underneath the greasewood and shrubs were these drifts, almost like snow drifts, of water bottles, one-liter to one-gallon water bottles, all with labels from Mexican bottling plants. There were also just lots and lots of incredibly moving pieces of personal flotsam and jetsam, like a little kid’s backpack with an image of Donald Duck on roller skates on the back of it. At some point, that kid had likely decided this was too much to carry. I remember walking north from there along the Pacific Crest trail and finding, at one point, tucked under the bushes, but folded very, very neatly, a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans with a big American flag logo on the back pocket that somebody had decided they just couldn’t carry anymore. This was somebody’s best pair of pants that they were carrying so they could change into them when they reached their destination, and at some point they decided they had to just set them down, but they folded them neatly before they did. So, the land is marked with an entirely different set of objects that have completely different meanings, because of the kind of experience of walking through the desert that these people are having.
MCCAFFERY: I once walked with Bill Vollmann over Signal Mountain in Imperial County. It was exactly that sensation you’re describing: the trail of water bottles was the most obvious trace, but also all this other material - clothes, backpacks, and so on. Maybe the most poignant of all were the toys, other children’s belongings that you would find there. All this collectively signified the stuff that must have been valuable at some point, but which they decided, ultimately, they couldn’t carry.
NEWMAN: Seeing objects like these challenges the traditional green, desert-walker, desert-rat or environmentalist mindset that we find comfortable, or even invisible. Because from the perspective of the desert-rat or environmentalist, the temptation is to look at those drifts of water bottles, call them trash, and get angry. All too often the next step is a metaphorical leap from that plastic trash to the idea of human trash. Within the southwestern environmental movement, there’s often a hostility and conservatism on immigration issues that’s wrapped up with the kind of misanthropy that we talked about earlier. It grows from the sense of needing to protect the desert from being overrun. But that set of conventions can really put some pretty hard limits on our ability to think clearly about political issues like immigration and the practical situation that people face when they try to walk north in search of work.
COOVER: On the other side, there are many who hold admiration or awe for how migrants and others who pass beneath the radar of conventional life as they move through the desert. It’s the same kind of awe many hold for those who ran the old stagecoach routes that crossed the deserts or occupied outposts. I once biked across the deserts from San Diego to Santa Fe, and I was stunned by the number of solo and homeless bikers and walkers, just making their way across the land. Some rode little children’s bicycles or pulled carts, hundreds of miles from any possible destination and miles even from any water source. All these differing kinds of travelers over time, trying to make it through in a landscape that’s not really easy for humans to survive in. I think of a number of creative interventions that explore this. Take for example, Bill Vollmann boating from Mexicali to the Salton Sea on the New River - what is basically a sewer line dumping stinking, toxic waters from Mexicali and the Imperial Valley into a man-made disaster zone - the Salton Sea.
MCCAFFERY: Yes. Bill did actually two different trips along the New River - infamously known as the most polluted river in North America - wanting to dramatize the water issues in Imperial and the complicated interplay between Mexicali and North America. He was curious about what it would be like to actually be on that river, especially since today nobody goes on that river. Most people don’t want to get anywhere near it really. Well, almost nobody. Bill has several times stood and watched illegals getting into the New River on the Mexicali side to try to cross the border.
COOVER: Taking canal routes, walking old train tracks, and following pipelines one sees other ways the deserts are marked and also connected to distant industrial centers. In this case, Vollmann’s boating creates an intervention that ties concepts together: the border issues, water uses, and the environmental mess. He joins an awful sewage-line to the beaches from which fishermen are launching their boats.
MCCAFFERY: Right. I wonder how aware Abbey was of the paradox that even in his very politically- charged writings, he was also drawing attention to the deserts; and inevitably this was going to lead to more people coming.
NEWMAN: I think that issue of the landscape being overrun is one that Abbey didn’t really think through and become aware of until the mid to late ’70s really. In the 1960s, in the area of Southern Utah around Moab and all the way to Kanab, there were very few, if any, paved roads. So, there was very light traffic. At the time, Abbey and others like him believed that the threats to the land were not coming from tourism; they were coming from mining, ranching, and logging. It was a time when, in the United States, on the left, anarchists, socialists, and other Marxist ideas were much more widely accepted and the concept of intervention had a very specific kind of edge to it and a very specific kind of meaning. To intervene was to interrupt the flow of political history and redirect it in a specific way. For example, Abbey worked as an activist around the Black Mesa defense fund, which was trying to prevent the Peabody Coal Company from destroying lots of land quite near the Hopi mesas. That activism bled over into the writing of The Monkey Wrench Gang, which I think was, in a sense, Abbey attempting to use the form of the novel as a political tool, dissolving the lines between art and his activism. At the same time, he wrote these exciting descriptions of monkeywrenching, which he also called “night work.” His descriptions of ecosabotage inspired the organization of activist groups such as EarthFirst! The novel may still shape some of the art organizations today that combine aspects of activism, intervention and art, such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).
LOE: What you just said about the 1960s, reflects, I think, that people felt a lot freer and took a lot of forms, particularly art forms, into places they had never taken them before. I think part of the allure of the West was that it was big. It was uncharted. You could get permits. Or, you didn’t need permits. We have a very different concept these days of what is allowed, what is acceptable practice and behavior in the wilderness. More recently, CLUI has presented a new model of land art, per se, they are the new generation. Their interest in the land is paramount, except that they are interested in documentation, exploration, exhibition of land use, rather than intervention. They’re not the ones going out there, such as the artists from the ’60s and the ’70s and marking up the land or tearing it down or building it up. CLUI began in L.A. and still has an exhibition center there, but they’re bi-coastal and document land use and intervention all around the country. Photographing, creating a database and turning documentation into an exhibit ends up being their artwork. Two recent exhibits show the diversity of their geographical reach while focusing on land use and the oil industry - an exhibit called “Texas Oil” with photographs and maps and objects and “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline” again with maps and photographs, illustrating human’s use of and intervention in the land. Matt Coolidge, who’s the director of CLUI along with the writer William Fox traveled the entire Alaska pipeline and documented it. They don’t say anything political about what they record, but, maybe, by not saying it, they’re saying it a lot louder.
NEWMAN: That’s really interesting. There’s a big debate in nature-writing, in environmental literature, about this issue of documentation versus polemics. When Rod and I interviewed Ken Sleight for the Canyonlands project, what Sleight said was, “What bothers me is that a lot of the nature writers today don’t get political. They write about nature. They take their classes in nature, but they don’t write about how to go out and defend the wilderness. And that’s a shame that they won’t go out and put their body on the line or even express themselves.” That was all Ken Sleight, who is one of Abbey’s mentors out there in the Moab area and the model for Seldom Seen Smith in Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. So, there are two contrary theories that essentially come down to this: what’s the most effective way to intervene, right? Are you effective if you directly address the political issues and engage in polemics with your audience? That’s another kind of ’60s phrase, right? Polemics. Or are you going to be more effective if you simply show people either the beauty of pristine wildernesses or the incredible ugliness of ruined land?
LOE: The latest postcard that I received from CLUI, is advertising their latest exhibit is called “Urban Crude: the Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin.” The photograph is of an oil rig on a hilltop street that looks like Mulholland Drive. Just by the mere fact of using that photograph as the postcard, I think, is telling. At the same time, they’re claiming they’re not making political statements - rather they claim they are just offering documentation. I find that to be fascinating and pretty effective.
COOVER: In Abbey’s case, there was actually a very direct correlation between performing differing kinds of direct action and writing about what was going on. I don’t think we see that in the same obvious way. There seem to be two very separate camps today. Am I right about that?
NEWMAN: Well, Abbey was there in the 1980s when EarthFirst! unrolled a banner on the face of Glen Canyon Dam, and the banner was a giant crack. That was one example of a long tradition of acts by environmental groups such as EarthFirst! and Greenpeace that may be simultaneously artistic and political; acts that are very much about performance as intervention.
MCCAFFERY: This seems like another example of that fundamental paradox we’ve been talking about that’s involved with the artists who want to protect areas they love and what are the best ways to do this. I know that in my own case, maybe because I was suffering from a major case of academic burnout when I moved out here, I’ve found myself kind of unconsciously resisting the urge to document my experiences in the desert. It’s like the line in Springsteen’s “Jungleland”: “The poets around here don’t write nothing at all - they just stand back and let it all be.” It seems to me that maybe the most effective thing I can do for the desert is just to be quiet. Maybe that’s my misanthropic tendencies coming back to haunt me, although I know that’s an easy way to cop out about not getting actively involved politically. But even as an artist that act of documenting this area that you love and want to protect it also runs the risk of drawing attention to it. And then, unfortunately, the hordes will not be far behind.
NEWMAN: I think one of my favorite early examples of this paradox is William Wordsworth, who popularized the Lake District with his lyrical ballads in 1798. Not long thereafter, in the early eighteen-teens and twenties, the British tourism industry really began to really take off, and the Kendall and Windermere Railway was proposed to carry tourists from London up to the Lake District, so they could see all the places Wordsworth had written about. In his later years, he actually became an activist, opposing the building of this railroad.
COOVER: And I think a similar thing happens to Abbey when he realizes that his polemics against tourism in books such as Desert Solitaire only seem to add to interest in the area, and that interest leads to new roads, parking lots and hotels. As his rage increases, his thinking evolves. At first, he seems to welcome the army of lug-soled hikers as a solution to save the wilderness from more industrial forms of development. But, he soon realizes the dangers that come with increased tourism. At some point the situation crosses a tipping point and doing nothing doesn’t seem viable. So, how can we reconcile the romantic notion of Abbey arriving in the desert with Abbey, the anarchist? Is he in fact a romantic in different clothes?
NEWMAN: Isn’t anarchism just romanticism cubed?
COOVER: Right, and Abbey does describe his fictitious or actual acts in somewhat romantic terms, but this gets to an interesting issue. While he might have performed some acts of sabotage - “field research” as Jack Loeffler called it, or “night-work” - the consequence of these were pretty minor. It’s really the writing that had the most impact. It stimulated people to think about action in different ways and to take note that there were local populations that were not all too happy about choices being made about the land by corporations and government officials.
NEWMAN: Yes, I think Abbey did participate in certain kinds “night-work,” but, for the most part, these were acts of, sort of, performative rebellion that were designed to make people think in different ways. When we interviewed Abbey’s friend, Kim Crumbo, he said: “Yeah, you know, we imagined taking a Wonderbread truck and stuffing all the loaves full of C4 explosive and making a delivery to Glen Canyon Dam and driving it down into the dam. Then we’d tell everybody, ‘Hey, there’s free drinks outside. Head out.’ And then blow up the dam.” In The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey imagined loading a houseboat with dynamite, driving it up to the face of the dam and blowing it up. But, Kim Crumbo made it very clear they never meant to really do it. As he explained, it was always just something to talk about, an imaginary performance, but they were never serious. It was just a way to think and a way to talk. But, one of the things one has to recognize is that many people were taking it very seriously, right? The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired Dave Foreman to found EarthFirst! which was an early version of what would later become ELF - the Earth Liberation Front. What Abbey called “night-work” is now called “ecoterrorism” by the Department of Homeland Security, and there have been numerous incidents involving the burning of houses, the burning of ski resorts, the planting of bombs at Hummer dealerships, and other things like that.
COOVER: I think we need to distinguish some of that from what was in Abbey’s writing. There is a big division within the environmental movement about this and there are some important distinctions made between ecosabotage and ecoterrorism. Most importantly for Abbey, an essential difference between acts of sabotage and those of terrorism was that sabotage was employed to stop violence through peaceful means - and this includes stopping violence enacted on the land by corporations and the government. A fundamental rule was first and foremost to never hurt another person. The goal was to disrupt the machines that caused harm. I think the notion of monkey-wrenching as a peaceful act of protest gets swallowed in the rhetoric of the post 9/11 fear of terrorism. Is that correct?
NEWMAN: I think that’s absolutely right. Sabotage is a fine American tradition, right? It goes back to the coal miners and the railroad workers in the 1870s and to the people on Ford production lines and so forth, right? Throwing a monkey wrench into the works of the machine that’s both destroying nature and oppressing workers, that’s a fine American tradition. Rod, I think you tracked it back to the -
COOVER: - Boston Tea Party: the demonstrative and effective act of throwing the tea overboard. It’s a peaceful, direct and clear statement that is more about the spectacle it makes than the actual effect it will have on a particular place or economy. Filling a bulldozer’s gas tank with non-petroleum substances will stop that one bulldozer. It probably won’t stop the highway being built. It might make building the road a very little more expensive, but mostly it will make news and draw attention to popular discontent. In fact, there is something righteous in this idea of sabotage and similar kinds of intervention that is tied to the romanticization of it we were discussing earlier. A kind of moral righteousness runs through much of Abbey’s writing. I think we see the same attitude in Henry David Thoreau’s work. In Abbey’s case, it seems hard to get others to take notice of the destruction taking place where he is - particularly as there are so few people there. One solution is through spectacle - through writing and art that transcends its location but also refers back to it. That’s true for the artists we were talking about as well.
LOE: Robert Smithson is an interesting parallel here. He built the Spiral Jetty in 1970, and then he died in a freak plane accident in 1973. The two years before he died his artwork and his intent turned very serious because, not only was he interested of course in earthworks as aesthetic objects, but he turned more and more towards the idea that artists had to start becoming ecologists, they had to start working with scientists, and they had to start working with people who had done mining, strip mining, coal mining. So, he spent the last couple years of his life writing to many different companies, including the Bingham Copper Mine to turn disused areas - these areas that had been marked by humans and then marked as waste - into artworks. He saw that as one way that he could make a real serious impact. By writing to everybody and then advertising the fact that he was writing to them, he started to cause a movement in that direction.
NEWMAN: Well, this is total speculation, but it sounds like Smithson and some of the other artists in his cohort, were attracted to the desert mainly because they perceived it as being an empty space. I think you mentioned that they described it as a blank canvas, Hikmet. I wonder if the process of working on that landscape and getting to know that landscape transformed Smithson’s way of thinking about it - if, in a sense, the desert turned Smithson into an ecologist. In this sense, we can almost see that there’s a kind of collaboration between the artist and the site in which the artist can be changed by the conversation. It reminds me of the poet Holly Simonson, here in Salt Lake City, who has been doing work that she thinks of as a collaboration with the Great Salt Lake. She takes poems and paints them onto large sheets of canvas, and then, she takes the sheets of canvas, balls them up and submerges them in the Lake for a few weeks. When she retrieves them, the Lake has edited the poem because many of the words have disappeared. She now has a completely different poem, one that she’s written in a process of collaboration with the Lake. The results are incredibly surprising and alive.
LOE: It starts out as a very subtle process, I believe. Maybe this is just a personal experience but there’s a recognition, at a certain point, that the desert has changed the way that I see the land, how I relate to the land, what is important to me about the land. It’s a process of becoming familiar with and allowing in the terror as much as the peacefulness and solitude and beauty of the desert, and knowing that all of that is okay.
MCCAFFERY: One of the things that happens to just about anybody who spends time walking through these landscapes is that the constant visual exposure of everything around you allows you to recognize the interconnectiveness of the whole system. I feel a much deeper awareness of the webs of connections that sustain the birds, insects and animals that live here - and just how fragile these interconnections are. Maybe this happened with Smithson. One arrives thinking the desert is just this inhumanly enormous, empty place that one could make a mark on. But then, pretty quickly one sees that it’s not a blank slate at all - there’s marking from Indians, travelers, the tracks of animals. It’s much more complicated than you could possibly ever imagine in the beginning.
NEWMAN: That’s what happened with Abbey too, right? I think that Abbey came to the deserts looking for the West of the western movie tradition and found something completely different. He found something that he admired a great deal more than what he thought he was coming out here to see. I think he came out here for a kind of imaginary freedom and, in a sense, he ended up being conscripted by the desert to serve as one of its defenders.
LOE: There was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in May by a staff writer who has been studying the Great Salt Lake for decades. He’s been everywhere, but he’s never been around the Lake and seen the Spiral Jetty nor Sun Tunnels, another earthwork located in Utah, on the west side of the lake. He wrote an article called “Great Basin Art Make Me Mad.” I wrote an editorial on his piece because I thought, what is it that humans have done on the land and what is sort of a tipping point? He thought that humans shouldn’t be at the Great Salt Lake making marks in the land as their art and my counter argument was we have been making marks out here since the Native Americans began to make their marks. As long as we’re here, we will continue to make marks just by the sheer fact of driving around the Lake. We are leaving our marks on the land too for good or for ill. I was much more concerned about the incredible amount of air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley, which makes me mad, and not a piece of earthwork that is made of rock.
MCCAFFERY: I’m reminded of this friend of mine, an autistic guy who lived out in the middle of the Badlands. He was an artist, who lived completely by himself. He gathered junk, and he was constantly making things out of it. He was cleaning up the environment, in a sense, but in his own way, he was trying to express something about the world that he was living in. He wasn’t selling his artworks or anything like that, but there was just something very human about wanting to find a muse that would allow him to give expression to this. As we’ve said, there’s a paradox involved there that I don’t think can ever be resolved.
Some of McCaffery’s interaction with Vollmann is documented in “Expelled From Eden:” (a William T. Vollmann Reader), which McCaffery edited along with Michael Hemmingson.