The American West is a land transformed by an immense network of water projects that cannot be indefinitely maintained. When will this land accumulate too many people (and salt) and lose too much water (along with the accompanying salmon and trout) to continue maintaining the present industrialized paradise? Marc Reisner explored this question in depth in his superb book Cadillac Desert. This book reminds me of Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian War because even though Cadillac Desert focuses on the history of water development projects in the American West it reveals the essential (and fatal?) political flaw of the American republic, which is based on the all-too-common human failing of short-sightedness in self-interest.
The following books and videos can help one appreciate the natural history of our Cadillac Desert, and both its allure and potential danger to so many.
Desert Solitaire, A Season In The Wilderness
Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a wry, witty and poetic evocation of life in the high desert, immersed in unbounded nature and remote from civilization. It is as if Abbey had tried to conjure up for himself the sense of John Wesley Powell’s experiences on the Colorado River a century earlier. Beautiful, but I suspect today only an unrepeatable echo of the past.
Cadillac Desert, The American West And Its Disappearing Water
1986, revised 1993, Penguin Books
ISBN 978-0-14-017824-1 [paperback]
A masterpiece of Thucydidian timelessness, a tomogram of the American republic taken from the West. Read it [the videos are not enough].
Cadillac Desert, Water and the Transformation of Nature (1997), an American four-part documentary series about water, money, politics, and the transformation of nature. The film chronicles the growth of a large community in the western American desert. It brought abundance and the legacy of risk it has created in the United States and abroad. The first three episodes are based on Marc Reisner’s book, Cadillac Desert (1986), that delves into the history of water use and misuse in the American West. It explores the triumph and disaster, heroism and intrigue, and the rivalries and bedfellows that dominate this little-known chapter of American history. The final episode, is drawn from Sandra Postel’s book, Last Oasis, (1992) which examines the global impact of the technologies and policies that came out of America’s manipulation of water, demonstrating how they have created the need for conservation methods that will protect Earth’s water for the next century. This recording [of the series] comes from old VHS tapes, and the quality is messed up in places. But, it is nearly impossible to find copies of the original series anymore. Just a single copy of the first episode is for sale on Amazon, and the guy selling it wants $1000!! Or you can watch it here for free 🙂 [thanks jkoomjian]
Episode 1, Mulholland’s Dream (part 1)
All subsequent segments of video for the entire series can be linked from here. Also, all the video sequences are listed at jkoomjian’s video grid at:
Episode 1 is divided into 9 segments of 8 to 10 minutes (90 minutes).
Episode 2, An American Nile (in 6 segments, 1 hour)
Episode 3, The Mercy Of Nature (in 6 segments, 1 hour)
Episode 4, Last Oasis (in 6 segments, 1 hour).
Introduction To Water In California
(California Natural History Guides, 76)
2004, University Of California Press
ISBN 0-520-24086-3 [paperback]
All the details about the water systems of California, from the mountains (Nature) to the taps and irrigation pipes (Man).
The Making Of A Continent
text and photographs by Ron Redfern
1983, Times Books
ISBN 0-8129-1617-4 [big beautiful paperback]
Ron Redfern used photography to tell the story of the geologic history of the North American continent. His book accompanies a six-part series of one-hour television programs broadcast in 1986 [I think expanded from a 3-part series with episodes 4, 5 and 6 from 1983]. I was fortunate to make VHS copies from TV broadcasts received with an aerial in 1987 and 1988, which I would aim just so for best reception, that requiring I climb onto the roof of my house repeatedly to aim the antenna before each broadcast. This is my favorite TV series, of which episode 4, “Corridors of Time” is my favorite hour of television. The photography, graphics and narration of the video series are all fascinating. Ron Redfern’s text in his book is very good also, informative and engaging. Episode 2, “The Rich High Desert,” describes the Ice Ages and shows some of the geologic and climate history related to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, and Episode 4, “Corridors of Time” is about the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, whose shameless exploitation for irrigation Reisner recounts in detail. One source for the video series, on DVD, is shown next.
The Making Of A Continent
The complete 1983 BBC/WTTV Chicago co-production chronicling the birth and development of the North American continent. All six hour-long episodes are packed into 2 dual layer All Regions DVDs.
Epi. 1: Collision Course | Epi. 2: Rich High Desert | Epi. 3: The Great River
Epi. 4: Corridors of Time | Epi. 5: Land of the Sleeping Mountains | Epi. 6: Price of Gold
Episode 6 of The Making Of A Continent is about California, and the following items all describe features of the state (also note Introduction To Water In California, above).
“Jere Lipps of the UC Museum of Paleontology & Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley explores California’s enormous diversity of geology, landforms, and biology which has been shaped by more than 200 million years of seismic activity. Series: “Uniqueness of California” [9/2005] [Science] [Show ID: 9522]” A one hour lecture (narration accompanying still and video visuals) from 2005, mainly about the San Andreas and Hayward and Calavaras fault systems, both their formation and present dangers.
A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate
2003, Penguin Books
Peggy Vincent writes (on December 14, 2003, link below): “Marc Reisner’s last book, dammit. What a great guy Marc Reisner was. He wrote A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate as he was dying of cancer, and it’s not just a benchmark of California’s environmental history but also a profound and emotional valedictory effort. Living as I do within ¼ mile of the grumbling and growling Hayward Fault, I found Reisner’s projections of the cataclysmic effects of the Big One to be more than unsettling. Those of us who are priviledged or doomed to live in this glorious state cannot fail to take heed of the picture he paints of the likely events surrounding our upcoming tectonic hiccups, belches, and sneezes. The book is divided into 3 sections. The first retells California’s environmental history from the era of Junipero Serra’s mission system right up to our own freeway system. The middle section deals with the fundamentals of plate tectonics. But it’s that 3rd section that looks forward to (shudder) a hypothetical eruption of the Hayward Fault in 2005 that is most gripping. Yikes. Sayonara to a great environmentalist and author.”
“A Dangerous Place” by Marc Reisner [Salon book review]
5 March 2003
“Plunged into the Bay? Smothered in the superstore? Californians may have forgotten about their looming apocalypse, but eco-journalist Marc Reisner’s final work is here to remind them.”
Geologic History Of Middle California
(California Natural History Guides: 43)
Arthur D. Howard
1979, University Of California Press
Arthur D. Howard’s little book on the geologic history of California from King City to Point Arena from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada Mountains is now out of print, replaced by Doris Sloan’s 2006 book (following). However, though more recent work has made some of Howard’s dating and sequencing of events a bit less accurate, his effort to give one fluid pocket-book sized narrative of 230 million years of California’s geologic history, for a popular readership, a noble and very engaging work. His numerous pen-and-ink (and watercolor) illustrations and perspective cutaway diagrams, especially his incredibly detailed, scaled high-altitude view of the entire territory under consideration (Figure 1, Physiographic diagram of Middle California) are just endlessly fascinating. The sixteen photographs of geologic features are all interesting and beautiful. I wish this book had been revised for greater technical accuracy given present knowledge, but with as few other changes as possible. It was a gem.
Geology Of The San Francisco Bay Region
(California Natural History Guides, 79)
2006, University Of California Press
Doris Sloan’s book is a fat pocket-book, encyclopedic, profusely illustrated, describing the San Francisco Bay Area from Gilroy to Gualala from the Pacific Ocean up to the Central Valley, taken as seven regions (Marin County; San Francisco; The Bay and The Islands; The Penninsula: Coast, Redwoods and Bay; The South Bay; The North Bay; The East Bay). Detailed descriptions (and illustrations) are given for numerous locations within each of the seven regions. This book is a vast collection of detail logically organized and tightly packed. It is ideal as a guide book for visits to many points of geological and naturalist interest in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Roadside Geology Of Northern California
David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman
1975, Mountain Press Publishing Company (Missoula, Montana)
Alt and Hyndman’s book is a guide to the geology that you can see while traveling along California’s highways. The book divides the territory under consideration (north of San Francisco) into four regions: the Coast Ranges, the Sierra Nevada and Klamath mountains, the Great Valley, and the Cascades and Modoc Plateau (volcanic). The geology along highways running through these regions is then described in some detail with text, diagrams and photographs. This is a nice book to have as a passenger on a roadtrip in Northern California.
California is a modern paradise of uncertain water supply and shaky ground. Our best collective survival here must depend on a wider sense of appreciation of the land and each other.
24 February 2020
“The Making of a Continent” videos are happily now on YouTube:
The Making of a Continent, #1: Collision Courses
The Making of a Continent, #2: The Rich High Desert
The Making of a Continent, #3: The Great River
The Making of a Continent, #4: Corridors of Time
The Making of a Continent, #5: Land of Sleeping Mountains
The Making of a Continent, #6: The Price of Gold
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