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The West, from Above

May 11, 2013

flight to Californai may  2013Recently, I took a plane to California.  I am not a big a fan of air travel; the idea of walking into a tin can in on one side of the country and stepping out on the other seems all wrong to me.  However, the chance to look out over the land – the same landscape that I drove across one year earlier – from 30,000 feet, is an enticement.
Perfectly patterned 1 mile squares and corresponding pivot irrigation circles extend across the flat plains like some infinite game board.  Entire drainage systems play out in one glance: gullies lead to streams which lead to rivers like the roots of a tree or the veins beneath our skin. Wrinkles and folds evolve into chains of mountains, which rise and fall like the waves on the ocean; which, I will see by the end of the day.  From the air one sees that the Rockies are not just one long chain of mountains, but many, cradling broad basins between ridges.  If the pioneers could have seen this, it is doubtful they would have ever left St. Louis. The west is vast and unforgiving, full of dark emptiness at night, and lacking the usual detritus of civilization.  At least that is my memory of it .

 flight to Californai may  2013      flight to Californai may  2013

Now, I see a new kind of pattern: lines and blotches like some skin disease, the scars of some parasite. Regularly spaced rectangular flags connected by straight and winding lines, crazy, every which way, on hills, valleys, near towns, and in the dark patches of wilderness.  These are the well pads, pipelines and service roads of the oil and gas industry.  Once recognized, you see them everywhere.
Whereas the circles and squares of agriculture seem benignly purposeful, the work of an architect; the new patterns seem random and senseless, the work of some cockroach who has wandered through wet paint.  They irk me because I know what they are and they violate my memory of the open land  that I have crossed many times since childhood.  Around me in the plane, all shades are drawn and eyes are glued to flickering screens. Am I the only one seeing this?

flight to Californai may  2013                 flight to Californai may  2013

Nearing San Francisco, a singular recognizable form emerges: Half Dome of Yosemite Park.  It was here that the controversy over Hetch Hetchy Dam gave birth to the environmental movement (a controversy still unresolved). I could not resist tapping the kid in front of me, whose shade was up, exclaiming, “look, there’s Half Dome!”
We are a nation becoming ignorant of the beauty we need to save. The wilderness of the west has been equated with freedom, ultimate beauty and even God. Now, that same freedom has devolved into a license to destroy for personal gain. Perhaps, in accordance with the views of the 19th Century American Romantic painters, it is nature that will prevail, healing herself with time, and we who are transient.

flight to Californai may  2013

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