Landscape is the material home, the language of landscape is a habitat of mind. Heidegger called language the house of being; but the language of landscape truly is the house of being; we dwell within it. To dwell— to make and care for a place is self expression. Heidegger traced that verb in High German and Old English; in both, the root for “to dwell” means “to build.” In German, the roots for building and dwelling and “I am” are the same. I am because I dwell; I dwell because I build. Bauen—building, dwelling, and being—means ‘to build,” “to construct,” but also to “cherish and protect, to preserve, to care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the mind.”
Anne Whiston Spirin,
The Language of Landscape
What a busy time. The time for this packet went by quickly, ten of the days were spent in a surprise trip to Texas helping to convince my in-laws that their dementia has gotten to the point they can no longer care for themselves or their house. While that was its own cue for an existential crisis in all their children who gathered to make it happen, the almost three thousand mile drive each way through the western US was mine.
As a historian of the early 20th century Western United States I have to confront the Dust Bowl, its environmental and its human impact. Kern County California was one of the primary places for refugees from the drought that hit the prairies of North America in the 1930s. Today it is the center of its own drought.
This part of California is, by nature, relatively arid, only made fertile by the damming of the Colorado river by the Boulder/Hoover dam and the water treaties signed by western states in the 1920s. These treaties were signed, of course, before anyone expected the explosive growth of the cities of Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas or the 3 million acres that would eventually be under irrigation in California alone. Water rights from this reservoir were also negotiated during one of the wettest periods of its geological history, skewing the calculations of available water for any given period.
As we were driving through the area I couldn’t help but notice the bright green patches of orange and olive groves alternating with clearly dead orchards and abandoned land. Nearing the southernmost portion of the valley, I saw storm clouds on the horizon. It wasn’t the badly needed rain however, it was a muddy colored wall, close to the ground. It was a dust storm, the like of which I had only read about in the archives. Even at 80 mph it took us almost half an hour to reach the edges, and once we entered it we went from perfect visibility to less than a quarter of a mile instantly.
Immediately we felt cut off from the world, vague orange spots of headlights in the distance, just a brightness in the haze in place of the sun. This is why they fled, all those thousands. It wasn’t just seeing family and cattle starve to death, it was the earth trying to bury them day by day, storm by storm. Now I understand why living in tent colonies in the rainy Pacific Northwest or even paper-walled shacks in the Michigan winter was looked upon so fondly; at least the very earth itself wasn’t conspiring to make all traces of their lives vanish.
It reminds me again that its the perspective of the migrants, the workers, that has yet to be understood within the context of their times. In so many other venues the perspective not of 1980s feminism remembering either some golden age of women’s empowerment or antique barbarism, or of nostalgia for a dimly remembered and glorified war time home front that never existed. This history of the lives of workers needs to be understood in terms of where the workers came from, how their lives changed and what they would become.
Although the rest of the trip was taxing, there was less that was directly relevant to my work. I am always struck, however, by the impact of landscape on individual and group character. I had no epiphanies driving into the amazing sunrises over mountains in California and New Mexico, I think those happen just to remind us that each day starts in peace and beauty if we let them. Other distinct types of terrain did remind me that community culture doesn’t always come from the people; these were the Mojave Desert and Western Oregon.
The Mojave Desert is not as stark, but it is in someways one of the most bleak landscapes in the world. It is something that doesn’t belong, somehow, on the North American continent in this time. Sparsely vegetated, rock strewn flats interspersed with high, jagged, harsh mountains:
If a landscape could be somehow ‘monotheistic,’ this is it. The landscape here is similar to the interior of the middle east. The solitary feeling because of the vast expanses, the feeling of insignificance imposed by the looming mountains, it is no wonder that YHWH is a single being, omnipotent and vengeful. Contrast this with the Zoroastrians view of Ahura Mazda as unequivocally all good. Persia’s landscape ranges from arid and semi-arid with a small area of what had to look like paradise to people surrounded by the inhospitable mountains. The divine is all powerful, but yet does not neglect to provide pockets of grace.
After my trip I felt relief at entering the Coast Range of Oregon. The mountains are no less light than those of the Mojave, but they are continuous, with few plaines, only valleys. The Cascades are green, year ‘round. Throughout Western Oregon crops are possible in all seasons, the air off the Pacific, clean, no dust devils or unrelenting storms. The migrants away from Oklahoma in the 1930s and 40s surely felt safe here, even in tents and campers, still not knowing if food for their children was a certainty. The geography here shelters and nurtures, it does not try to bury lives.