As I take my daily brisk walk, my mind turning to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s injunction to exercise, I daily move between the many signs posted outside houses in my neighborhood congratulating graduates of the Berkeley CA public high school my daughter attends or Oakland’s School of the Arts and Tech, I finish among million dollar homes sporting yard signs that congratulate graduates of elite private schools, I am regularly reminded of the shifting divides of public schooling across America in the most blasé of ways. But the deeper divisions between schools and families seems to widen in terrifying ways as the coronavirus pandemic continues, but the nation has made no clear preparation to supplement what school networks offer, as if those who can afford the private tutors, off-site education, and private educational services are alone provided with continuing education, as other scramble to make up the gaps school closures create.
The status of education–and of school closures and now school reopening–became a sort of political football. Despite the readiness of a switch to remote learning and online platforms of education, school closures echoed a cartography of abandonment, in unforgivable ways: if closures were born of necessity, and disorientation before the pandemic’s spread. And the levels of insecurity that have been fostered in the desire for mitigation may remind us that the problem of COVID-19 has been a crisis of public education, as much as a lack of frontline workers’ protective equipment–PPE–or adequate testing.
To be sure, the many functions that schools now provide across the social spectrum of the United States–meeting nutritive needs; offering social and emotional support and providing models outside the family for structuring time; minimal levels of health services–go far beyond being quantified by educational standards: by a magic trick of tests and quantification, government may have reduced education to metrics that erased their value as sites of community from the Bush administration, and led them to be sacrificed with deeper costs than many have registered. Without metric to tally schools’ dividends to students and communities, we omit the crucial educational role of instructing about coronavirus comportments–from regular hand washing to social distancing to mask-wearing, to bridge some of the enduring divides that have endured in the nation, with coastal “elites” donning masks more than the “heartland” of an expansive non-urbanized midwest.
Is not the deep and tragic failure to not “educate” the nation to mask-wearing, sustained since the first cases of the coronavirus reached our shores, suggested the only the initial hot-spots where infections ravaged communities in the New York tristate area, Seattle, the Imperial Valley and coastal California, and central Texas are sites of mask-wearing, with Chicago, Detroit, Denver, the southwestern border and coastal southern Florida and Tallahassee. Only a fifth of the time or less were all five people who might meet at a large part of the nation likely to be wearing protective masks.
Why is such a paucity of mask-wearing continuing save an absence of public health education? There is a predictable if terrifying congruence with areas that were themselves, by the proxy of underserved medical communities Mitchell Thornson mapped, also by a Mapbox distribution of commute-based health centers, rather than by counties, to suggest the sites most vulnerable to disasters such as viral infections: even if the promise of a complete count of infections recedes, the inhabitants of some 300 counties underserved by federal health services suggests fault lines of future sites of vulnerability, that may accentuate with continued school closures.
These steep inequalities of health care suggested a very broad difference in those able to weather and sustain COVID-19, to which the Trump administration seemed blind. School closures created insecurities for American families was perhaps not different from globally, but they lacked any support network: social support had withdrawn to schools in the United States more than other nations. The lack of any narrative of the sudden closures, and interruption of human contact and resources that followed, were deeply disorienting. And the lack of oversight from a government that one expected, perhaps with little grounds, to provide a sense of purpose and oversight in an unprecedented health crisis was, unbelievably, punted to the states, and from the states to local school boards, utterly unprepared to cope or plan–as admittedly, even are many medical specialists and health professionals–with the scale of a pandemic.
It seemed like a charade of government effectiveness; Secretary DeVos shifted from leniency, lack of coordination, to steadfastness concealing unprecedented circumstances. And the recent possibility that private schools and sites of instruction will be allowed to open their doors, while poorly funded public schools serving adjoining communities, if sometimes distinct demographics: whereas public schools that serve up to 90% of American children–just short of 51 million (50.8) by federal projections–open for restricted hours if at all, private schools possess the needed funding for on-staff epidemiologists, thermal scanners, and additional teachers–as well as often enjoying more space.
The Emoji Icon Index tells at that on Instagram, the story of a skyrocketing use of the 😷 emoji from early March, as the. Face-with-Medical-Mask rose in use in parallel to the icon of the virus, but a plan for schools, quickly shuttered in China, was not imagined, as wishful thinking prevailed.
While our nation is prepared to react to the novel coronavirus by high-level cabinet meetings to bail out airlines after summoning executives or the bail out of banks, school are evidently far lower down the list. If Donald Trump prioritized cabinet-level meetings on bailing out the airline industries to ensure the Dept. of Treasury provided passenger airlines $25 billion, cargo haulers $4 billion, airports $10 billion and airline contractors $3 billion as industry lobbyists demanded to recognize a 95% reduction of passengers in response to the epidemic, saw meeting with executives to work out that deal worth the time of health officers and coronavirus response team–
–while he saw no similar body of school executives with whom he might meet in one room around a glistening desk with nametags, mugs of coffee and glasses of water. A past President of the P.T.A. of an Alameda CA public elementary school was familiar with reduced funding of California’s public schools since rollbacks on property taxes, smarted at the clear contrast of inability to prioritize public schooling as part of our national infrastructure. Is it not most probable that the very corporate structure of the airline industry provides a more familiar set of faces to interact earning high incomes, unlike the leaders of the dispersed structure of public schools, or community voices, that Trump is so much more apt to dismiss and neglect?
Or is it that the nation is ready to sacrifice the public schools that are less likely to have the funding, save in wealthier districts in Durham, NC or Charlottesville, VA, echoing lines of a deep class divide? Not only were private schools prepared to devote attention and benefited from technological resources to transition to online platforms in the Spring, but are able to use larger buildings and reduced class sizes to benefit the children who attend them, while the aging ventilations systems of older buildings of public schools lie on the other side of a technological divide that plagues the nation.
To be sure, there are deep discrepancies–informing the Mapbox Upshot map, of which one might be rightly suspicious given the potentially unsound sampling practices based on the interviews conducted by Dynata, both in the United States and globally, based on 250,000 survey responses between July 2 and July 14; the surveys administered by a firm boasting to provide businesses with a sense of global trends of consumption able to reorient businesses and advertisers to “re-opening,” but while showing vast expanses with relatively lower incidence of a group of five wearing masks–
–fails to acknowledge a rift among state governors who recommend masks, rather than require mask-wearing–or the considerable role that mayors have consistently played in advocating mask-wearing, if they often appear over-ruled by governors who have been filling the absence of federal policy: the looses of “recommendations” in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Kansas and the Nebraskas meant that only in some cities, where mayors had advised protective measures, was mask-wearing adopted, creating a terrifying prospect for the pandemic’s future.
When Fauci addressed the question of health disparities between race, he reminded the nation stoically that “we are not going to solve the issues of health disparities this month or next month . . . but what we can do now, today,” the voice of reason was probably far less reasonable for many, who had already tuned out, before he described the need for social distancing that was, in fact, a privilege for many. The mottled nature of northeastern communities the Dynata found in its interviews suggested an uneven terrain of mask-wearing policies, even in the Tristate Area, dictated by individual choice–and underscoring the lack of regional or federal policies.
The social topography of crowding, of second homes and of gardens or access to parks that was revealed in the Bay Area made us think in practical terms to egregious inequities that were perpetuated by sustained lack of investment to resolve pronounced racial disparities in health came as COVID-19–and the uneven landscape revealed as the coronavirus tore through communities where it was contracted in the United States. The revelation of inequalities was striking, as it suggested how communities experienced it quite differently, and the question of access to education–and access to remote education–cut across social divides in profoundly different ways.
The almost purposeful pronounced lack of master narrative in confronting COVID-19 was long apparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a future as rosy as the marble atrium of Trump Tower, even when the figures didn’t add up. It was akin to Trump’s 1993 proclamation, after huddling with bankruptcy lawyers to obtain new lines of credit, having had “the most successful year I’ve had in business!”–he reprised in a compulsive act of boosterism over the next decade, and continues to rely upon in the pandemic.
The dauphin Jared had not only used a spilt infinitive, but a split reality, a divergence destined to make the Presidential Election about COVID-19, whose malevolence is hard not to say: as the growth of rates of infection by the novel coronavirus most rapidly grew in the United States, claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success,” even as the rates of infection from the coronavirus may have by mid-March grown greater in the United States than any place in the world, as escalating infection rates would continue to elevate the United States far beyond other nations. The manifestation of symptoms of COVID-19 grew two weeks after contracted, and by late March through late June, they had risen above all other nations.
Yet no clear plan for school closures had emerged on a national level in the United States, and denial at the danger of the infection’s growth dominated. Vice President Pence adopted similar talking points, in a few months, taking it upon himself to bestow premature congratulations that “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” in a mismatch evident to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground.
If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations. It is as if life or death matters were open to public debate: rarely have reactions to an infection been able to be received so clearly along partisan lines. While reaction to COVID-19 were long cast in partisan terms by the President, our Fearless Leader of Little Empathy, as far overblown, the surprise was perhaps that even as the data grew, and the exponential growth of infections in American cities began, the decision to announce Shelter-In-Place directives in hopes to “flatten the curve” shuttering non-essential businesses with increased fears of overloading public health facilities.
Faced by drastically uneven hospital bed capacities in individual states, reflecting existing fears of hospital bed capacities for intensive care units or floor beds, and deepening fears of needs to add increased beds across the nation, to confront a major public health emergency. Using different scenarios of increased needs for beds based on infection rates, a relatively moderate need for beds: infection of a fifth of the population in six months would compel expanding existing capacity for beds in multiple western states already hard-hit form infections, like Washington and California, east coast states, including Massachusetts and New York, and Midwest’s like Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, and many pockets of other states, including Louisiana. Actual fears of such an impending emergency of public health emergency —
–grows even sharper if one allows oneself to imagine an expansion of infection rates to 40%–not unheard of for the highly infectious novel coronavirus–over the same six month period:
1. Even as “Shelter-in-Place” measures sought to staunch the spread of infections across the nation, the uneven nature of the measures adopted by state governors, mayors, and counties suggested a fragmenting of the nation, as the governors of many states reacted to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders or stay-at-home directives by declaring their separate rule of law, in the words of Alabama’s Governor, “we are not New York state, we are not California–right now is not the time to shelter in place.”
Yet if the confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus seemed concentrated in preponderance in Louisiana, California, and New York, the virulence of its transmission was far more widely distributed, Philip Bump created a simple overlay to show, and the readiness of imposing measures of restriction were often resistant to accept school closures, or shuttering bars and restaurants as a means to restrain the virus’ spread.
Such choropleths are poor indicator of concentration and dispersion of infection, or of the “hot-spots” early watchers of the novel coronavirus hoped to isolate, folks commuting from counties of identifiable outbreaks created an immediately far more complicated map of viral dispersal, often crossing state lines and state jurisdictions at the very start of March, as work commuting alone bled from 34 counties into 1,356–even into Mississippi!
Despite some a lone call the President impose a national shelter-in-place order, but the response of asking for a collective sacrifice would be hard to imagine. But the animosity that Trump revealed to any governors who tried to impose a policy of social distancing has intensified a new sense of federalism, as the increasing opposition that President Trump has directed toward Governors who have responded with attempts to enforce social distancing led, mutatis mutandis, to a new call for “liberating” states from social distancing requirements, President Trump announced April 21 that “We are opening up America again,” with great content, heralding an “opening” across twenty states comprising two-fifths of the nation’s population, if partial reopening are only slated in eighteen states.
But how could one say that the need for social distancing was not increasingly important, in a nation where health care is not only not accessible to many, but that hospital bed capacity is uneven–and would need to be ramped up to serve the communities–
–but that many areas are distant from ready testing, diagnosis, or indeed the ability for easily accessible health care? What is COVID-19, if not a major wake-up call for disparities in public health and medical access?
–and many regions suffer severe health care professional shortages, that have been obscured in the deep shortages of health professionals, according to Rural Health Info, who have revealed these gaps in the following infographic, but many towns in each county remain difficult to get to hospitals in time in cases of emergency or need.
2. The legitimacy offered to “re-opening” states for business channeled a rousing sense of false populism across the nation, courting possible onset of a second wave of infections by easing llocal restrictions on social distancing–although testing is at a third of the level to warrant safe a transition, several governors claim “favorable data” to justify opening shuttered businesses. But when @RealDonaldTrump retweeted an attack on public safety measures against COVID-19 that were enacted in California and other states to slow airborne viral infection that labeled the closures of bars, restaurants, and theaters as revealing local states’ “totalitarian impulses” in the face of COVID-19, as having effectively “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons” and flagrantly abrogating constitutional rights and natural liberties: the endorsing of a tweet of former judge, Andrew Napolitano, of an open “assault our freedom in violation of Constitution” demeaning sheltering policies as”nanny-state rules . . . unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance,” inviting the sort of social disobedience, encouraging the stress-test on our nation that the pandemic poses be generalized?
While the calls to prevent violations of the U.S. Constitution have grown in recent weeks from March to April, it makes sense to question the validity of an eighteenth-century document to a public health emergency–or to abilities to respond to a zoonotic disease of the twenty-first century. Never mind that such arguments ignore the reserving of rights of state governors in the U.S. Constitutions Tenth Amendment to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants of their territory, is the ability to manage state health not a calculus for public health officers, rather than a partisan debate? There is a despicable false populism and rabble rousing in decrying “nanny-state rules” as “unlawful and unworthy of compliance,” and covers for “assaults on freedom” as a Lockeian natural right. Yet in retweeting such charges and denigrating policies of social distancing as “subject to the whims of politicians in power,” President Trump perpetuated the notion that medical consensus was akin to an individual removed from public concerns. In doing so, Trump echoed the opinion of a member of his own Coronavirus Economic Advisory Task Force, Heritage Foundation member Stephen Moore, to protest “government injustices” echoing false populist calls to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from decrees of Democratic governors. As Moore called for further protests, opening a group, Save Our Country, dedicated to agitating for the reopening of states, out of concern for the “abridgment of freedom” of sheltering in place.
The call to arms over a rejection of social distancing emphasized the translation of the pandemic into purely partisan terms, and echoed the partisan resistance to the states-right discourse of a rejection of health care, using the panmdemic to divide the nation along party lines.
3. The weekend before SIP was announced in the East Bay, my daughter’s High School suspended, and I snuck out in the mask-free days for a Monday morning coffee at my favorite café, where my friend Mike caused some consternation in line by ordering through his black 3M facemask. The mood was survivalist and grim, but we stopped outside our local Safeway, as if to provisions before an impending lockdown, looking for half-and-half. Staring me in the eyes, Mike said with some resignation that the massive mortalities in northern Italy were our future in a week at most, as the spreading waves of infections migrated crosscountry, approaching in something like a delayed real time; the question was only when “It’s gonna happen here.”
What was happening across the Atlantic Ocean was trending not only on social media, but was being attentively followed by epidemiologists like Dr. Cody, apprehensive of the state of development of pubic health across the entire East Bay.
The Public Health Officers in the region had been haunted by the vision, alerted by the tangible fears of the Santa Clara Public Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody. That very day, Cody was convening the coming early Monday morning, gripped by a sense of panic for a need for action, as the public drinking festivities of St. Patrick’s Day loomed, and as Chinese health authorities curbed travel and cancelled New Years celebration, even if its airborne communication was doubted, in hopes to contain an outbreak that still seemed centered in its largest numbers in Wuhan province–
4. It was if we were watching in real-time image the global ballooning of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area feared was on its way to Silicon Valley, or the entire Bay Area, as the virus traveled overseas. The lockdown that had begun in northern Italian towns in a very localized manner from late February when a hundred and fifty two cases were found in Turin, Milan, and the Veneto, had, after all, only recently expanded to the peninsula, filling Intensive Care Units of hospitals or transforming them to morgues. Although elegant graphics provided a compelling narrative, with the benefit of retrospect, that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late,” the interactive story of a “delayed” shutdown after the February 24 shutdown of sites of outbreak within days of the first identification of an infection in Milan, across two “red zones” around Italian cities, and the March 3 cordoning of larger areas.
The reluctance to impose a broader shutdown over the northern economy created a tension between commerce and public health that led to a late ‘shutdown’ of the movement across the peninsula by March 10 to prevent infection risks, haunted by public health disaster.
Fears of the actuality of a similar public health disaster spreading under her nose led Dr. Cody to convene a quick check-up with local public health officers to see if they registered a similar alarm, and what policy changes were available across a region whose populations are so tightly tied. And the need to convene a mini-summit of Public Health Officers to take the temperature of willingness to recommend immediate public policy changes was on the front burner, as one looked at the huge difficulty of containing the outbreak in Italy–often argued to not have been responded to immediately enough, but revealing a full public health response that the Bay Area might not be able to muster, as Italy’s hospitals were flooded by patients with infections and was on its way to become the site of the most Coronavirus deaths.
Vivid fears a growth of COVID-19 filling the hospitals and emergency rooms after St. Patrick’s Day–an event for a far larger audience contracting the aggressive virus–led Dr. Cody to arrange a group call among the Public Health Officers in San Matteo and San Francisco early Monda. Dr. Cody had broad epidemiological training was rooted in an appreciation of contagious disease–including contagious diseases outbreaks like SARS, H1N1 influenza, and salmonella, and had worked on planning for public health emergencies and completed a two yer fellowship in Epidemiolgoy and Public Health, managing E. coli outbreaks as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with CDC. Fears “crystallized” quickly of a scenario of similarly exponential rise in case loads making Silicon Valley a new epicenter outbreak of an epidemic overwhelming the public health services. As she quickly contacted Public Health Officers in San Francisco and San Matteo, to contemplate a response, by March 8, a lockdown in all Lombardy and other states was declared, as COVID-19 cases multiplied, in a chilling public health disaster replicating the lockdown in China.
In contrast to the uncertain public health numbers from China, as the city’s airport, highways, and rail stations, images of massive mortality from health care disasters in Italy were haunting and suddenly far closer in space, even if cases of viral infection were already reported in each province, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan–revealing a global pandemic that linked place to a global space in ways difficult for some to get their minds around. The honesty that came out of Italy was an alarm.
The Bay Area health authorities were looked with apprehension at the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, after the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19 in the region: Dr. Mirco Nacoti had just published an eye-catching account of the catastrophic conditions of Ospedale Pap Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo that weekend, describing the levels of general contamination of caring for COVID-19 patients, for whom over two thirds of ICU beds were reserved, and filled a third of 900 rooms in thd peer-reviewed NEJM Catalyst; he described phantasmagoric scenes of a hospital near collapse as patients occupied mattresses on the grounds, intensive care beds had long waiting lines and with shortages of both masks and ventilators, and poorly sterilized hospitals became conduits for the expansion of diseases. The clinical model for private care incapacitated, as patients were left without palliative care; a surge of deaths in overcrowded wards overtook China’s community-based clinics at such higher death rates of 7,3% Italian doctors plead felt incapacitated by the surge of cases overflowing at intensive care units from March 9-11 as a model for mass infection, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The desperation of a staged re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Pietà of L’Espresso were a few weeks or so off. While the spread of infections in our region had not yet begun, ant eh below photoshoot by Fabio Buciarelli did not appear until April 5, we were still formulation the desperation of confronting the ravages of disease we lacked time to develop any reactions, processing current or impending mortality rates.
The danger of trusting scientific modeling, or data, and fostering deep suspicions of trusting data on confirmed infections, or modeling that suggested the danger of failing to practice social distancing.
5. Decisions to “shelter in place” promised to “slow the spread” of COVID-19 transmitted widely in group settings, and able to create a public health disaster in the Bay Area, and was quickly followed by Santa Cruz county. After the growth of cases in Santa Clara county–whose rates of infection doubled over the weekend to 138 as of Monday–the absence of a any national restraining order save a suggestion to social distance, as Seattle cases of infection had grown to 400–and some 273 cases of infection had appeared over th weekend, despite limited testing availability.
The clear eventuality of a public health disaster, after a directive closing bars, night clubs, and large gatherings, as well as many school closures in San Francisco and the East Bay–where my daughter attends Berkeley High, whose doors shuttered on March 13; Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor entertainment on late Sunday night, as Gov. Newsom encourage all elderly to self-isolate immediately. The 6.7 million in the Bay Area early agreed on the need for a “shelter in place” order as a basis to control the spread of COVID-19 that had been discovered in the region on March 16, 2020, anticipating the nation by some time.
The closure of all non-essential businesses in the seven counties sprung from the epicenter of Santa Clara county–Silicon Valley–but included affected a much larger area of commuters, no doubt, across an interlinked region of commuting far across the northern state to twelve other counties.
The cases in Italy would only grow, creating a textbook case of the exponential expansion of illness that killed a terrifying number of physicians in hospitals on the front lines against its expansion, as the arrival of medical supplies and medical viral specialists from China increased the logic of the lockdown as a response to its spread.
The evident stresses on the health care system of Lombardy, where a terrifying number of physicians on the front line contracted the virus and died, in the wealthy region of Lombardy, distanced the disease whose effects were projected or distanced onto China, and provided a clear scenario that Cody understood could be repeated, with even worse consequences, in the crowded population and limited health facilities of Santa Clara County: her own close ties to public health authorities in Italy made the exponential growth of cases from February 21 across the peninsula seem a preparatory run-through for a future disaster, as China was sending increasing medical supplies and specialists to Italy in a global story as a pandemic was declared in China March 11; northern provinces were declared under lockdown March 8 quickly extended to the nation, as a spike in 1,247 cases were found on the previous day.
When Cody urgently alerted San Francisco Public Health Officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, to discuss the fears of a new epicenter of COVID-19 spread in Silicon Valley, they did not start by contemplating their authority to issue a legally binding directive to shutter businesses in the region. But as they discussed consequences of the exponential increase in Santa Clara County and the greater danger of facing an analogous overwhelming of pubic health hospitals as in Italy, haunted by a danger of a similar scenario overwhelming public health, and Cody’s tangible fear, Aragón floated the idea of a shutdown, acknowledging their authority of acting without permission of governors.or mayors or county supervisors; the call touched on a series of calls to debate options, including the most dramatic — a lockdown order–which seemed the only certain means to enforce isolation and social distancing haunted by the image of the increased diagnosis of COVID-19 across the Italian peninsula that would indeed only be publicly released March 18. Two days later, Governor Newsom expanded the policy to the entire state; the time lag meant that by late April, almost half of all infected with the novel Coronavirus in California were found in Los Angeles County, and were facing the prospect of overloading its public health system and hospitals.
The influence of the health care provider Kaiser Permanente was unseen, but the preventive agenda of the health provider can be seen in a sense in the shadows of this quick consensus among six Public Health Officers. But the qyuick defense of the decision–soon followed by dozens of states since–suggests the prominence of Kaiser Health Care in the dynamic of emphasizing preventive health care, and in anticipating epidemiological spread. Cody’s brave insight into the fact that northern Italy provided a rehearsal for the public health disaster, shifting from the ban on mass gatherings to a concerted effort to isolate millions, was less apparent to the nation.
President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.
The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–
–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.
The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.
The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.
The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the
Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”
In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.
The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.
The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.
McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.
The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.
While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.
AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–
–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.
For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–
–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)
Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.
While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.
Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .
Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.
Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”
In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.
Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–
–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.
But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.
The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–
–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.
1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.
The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.
In the visualization of land conversion map in the header to this post, cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City haunt the transformation of landcover across the western United States, as the place-names haunt the five-color map that denote the scope of an absence of open space. From each city, expanses of red leach into the landscape, spreading outwards along patterns of settlement in ways that seem to infect the adjoining counties to register how development cascades to surrounding regions. The image shows the reduction of once-open spaces with the dramatic pace of extra-urban expansion in most western states, whose absence seems to haunt the region that we once knew as the American West, and are departed from it.
The dynamic maps suggest a poetics of loss, both qualitatively objective and evocative of the disappearance of a landscape that no longer exists. Increasingly elegant interactive data visualizations help orient viewers to a changed relation to the landscape of the west over the past twenty years, and the disappearance of what was once a notion of wilderness that have so dramatically retreated over increasingly active real estate markets and dynamics of expansion that allowed such pronounced extra-urban growth over a short period of time. The subject of the maps is not only difficult to process, but complex to navigate over time: if the use of a slider bar helps orient oneself, it also raises question of the historical implications of such a broad retreat of open spaces across western states. If the Old West seems a fixed chronotype to some, it may be that mapping the retreat of open spaces can provide a lens to chose our Romantics, or map the nature of our Romantic tie to the retreating spaces of the past and its landscapes.
But how best to read the landscape that lies beneath them, and the changed experience of the landscape they seek to describe? The stark colors of the data visualization cannot but suggest a romantic relation to place, marked by the disappearance of formerly open lands, and suggestive of a deep change over few years. The multiple levels of time that the maps of The Disappearing West, a web-based map offering ultiple datasets of different sorts of human activity presented by Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress. The elegantly interactive website of land use, showing incursions of open spaces in alarmist red, provide a way to take stock of existing changes and the dizzying pace of the disappearance of opens spaces that may even be cognitively helpful, as the scale of such changes are so difficult to process. The opportunity to examine change on different scales and over time, by use of a slider bar, provide a basis for coming to terms with the increasingly irrevocable rapidity of such changes, and indeed with the inevitable melancholy of the departure of the known world of the past, but provide a deep and irrevocable sense of how our own ability to observe the western landscape is in the process of irrevocable change.
1. Such a sense of irrevocable change was quite violently tried to be stopped when the self-designated cowboy when the out-of-state vigilante Ammon Bundy summoned like-minded ranchers who inhabit another region of the same landscape in Nevada. He summoned the ranchers who viewed themselves as rightful residents of a faded land so that they could seize public lands in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge, without justification, but to assert their imagined rights to open lands. In garrisoning one outpost of the wildlife sanctuary, without much regards to its use, they sought to stake claims to their rights to a rapidly departing map. Their reaction–but one of many to the disappearing west–suggest a point of beginning to see how we might better come to terms with the acceleration of the loss of open spaces over time, and the problems of mapping them onto the region’s powerful spatial imaginary.
For in misguidedly hoping to occupy the refuge’s offices until the United States government “release” any claims to the public lands it has long administered, they seemed to act in hopes to reclaim a landscape increasingly fragmented by overdevelopment and forever altered. As open spaces of the Old West disappear, the staying power of the mental imaginary of open lands have created a tension palpable enough for Bundy and his followers to view federal protection of pubic lands as unjust, and armed with a sense of reclaiming a lost landscape for hunting, they aggressively reclaimed a myth of a sacred relation to the land that they might experience to use firearms freely without impunity in open spaces, and eager to recast protections of public lands as if they were primarily individual restrains.
As if to stage claims to a disappearing west, Bundy sought to reclaim them for ranching and hunting from a very local point of view, resisting a disappearance of the fabled “open lands” that once defined the imaginary of the West for Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher. Bundy and his fellows railed against the government, invoking hopes to restore the conditions of the west, as if removing governmental presence would let a wilderness reserve to revert to wilderness by liberating it from alleged government control: his anti-government animus was evident in his earlier defense of the right of his father, Nevada rancher Cliven, to refuse to pay grazing fees of federal lands. Ammon encouraged a 41-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016 to defend local claims on a national stage–although his anti-government stance was more apparent than his appreciation for the historical loss of open lands across the extent of the western states.
The outpouring of sympathy of resistance of a range of militia to Bundy’s elaborately staged reclaiming the West was a response to a shifting mental geography of the west. But the bizarrely misplaced response of such extreme violence among the Bundy and their followers in the name of reclaiming western lands seemed to act as if it was possible to restore it to a lost landscape of hunting, trapping, cattle ranching seems a geographic dream. If the maps were in their heads, it was so remote from realization to be self-indulgent. Might the interactive format of a web-based map provide a more clear-eyed way of taking account of the rapid decline of open lands across the western United States? Can interactive data mapping of California’s rapid loss of open lands in an interactive format provide a more clear-eyed ability to track their disappearance?
A recent set of two-decade old change in The Disappearing West offer an opportunity to assemble and investigate data on the drastic reduction of public lands and extent of extra-urban growth across the west that seems particularly timely as a way to chart the rapid pace of landcover change in the West in relation to the Bundy brothers’ ill-conceived attempt to the back a mythic relation to the land. The graphic tools it offers call attention to the loss of open lands in our national interior. Indeed, the increased current dangers of dismantling the public custody of remaining open lands may make the website a valuable tool of visualizing and taking stock of the extent of their reduction in recent years–and raise questions about the best ways for preventing their disappearance.
For the dangers to the western lands lie in fact less with the invasiveness of public governments or the extent of government land-holding in western states than the true value of their custodial role in preserving needed habitat and open spaces–the commons of the wilderness, if you will–that are increasingly endangered or lost. The imagined spatial geography that the Bundy clan sought to defend has long vanished, but Ammon and his brother Ryan held a spatial imaginary nourished in a landscape where federal policy, rather than local development, threatens the landscape of the west. Much as their father, Cliven, had evoked the former freedom of a once open lands of the western states once known as the “public domain,” the retaking of a federal wildlife reserve seemed a theatrical reenactment of federal lands as if a wildlife refuge constituted a last stand for defending his family’s rights.
The vigilante group illegally occupied offices of a preserve for birds for month, after intending to remain for a year. They did so in their desire to affirm a departed west, but acted somewhere between a costume party and organized terrorism in a poorly conceived defense of the Second Amendment, dressed in cowboy hats and attracting the support of anti-government militias at whose rallies Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan announced plans to occupy the refuge’s unoccupied offices on the first days of 2016, inviting armed men to sieze them to defend the idea of access to an idea of wilderness long vanished for most. The range of objects sent to them–many including sex toys that made fun of staging claims to masculinity in an isolated cabin–underscored the futility of hoping for a restoration of a rancher’s sense of the wild, by hopes to “open’ 1.4 million acres of the National Forest for logging, conjuring specters of governmental presence in untarnished lands to protest the government’s role in the US West. Their bid to renew the old rules of the western lands by exposing an undeveloped forest to forestry, challenging how the National Parks have preserved remaining isolated areas of a once-forested expanse of wilderness, suggest the need to gain purchase on the scale of the expansion of paved landcover and property development across the western United States.
While their protests were misguided, the Bundy brothers seized state facilities as if they were their natural rights, bulldozing new roads in the refuge, and attracting the attention and support of local libertarian militia until they were arrested as if protesting the death of an earlier rural America and of the once-open west through the issue of federal land-ownership. But the problems of public management of lands have little to do with the disappearance of open spaces across the western United States, if the Bundys sought to defend their ability to graze animals, hunt, camp and live in open lands increasingly curtailed in most of the United States, and even in the western states where few opens spaces remain, but where residents were long attracted to the freedom of their open space and ready to defend what they saw as the impending encroachment on common lands, and lacked much objective relation to the deep exclusion that they felt.
2. The loss of open spaces from Arizona to Oregon are far less the result of government policies than the rapid overdevelopment of western lands, and although the spatial imaginary of the Bundy and his followers directed much of their animus to the United States government, they responded to the rapid contraction of the notion of “public lands” that have changed the very image of open space across the western states, which Bundy seems only to understand–quite misguidedly–in terms of the federal policies of land management. If the notion of “the commons” has long departed from the American West, the image of those commons and rolling plains has been far more compromised and challenged by the rapidity of land conversion due to public development and the rapidity of extra-urban growth, which Bundy from the perspective of his father’s ranch may not see–and may even only be able to be entertained from a site such as the Wildlife Refuge where he and his followers holed up and presented the demand that the “federal government will relinquish such control” of the national forest it maintains in a role of stewardship, and allow “ranchers . . . kicked out of the area [to] come back and reclaim their land.”
The imagined intergenerational transmission of property rights in regions never open for ranching could be alleged to be “in accordance with the [U.S.] Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” but the desperate vigilante action was a power-play for national attention with little sustainable logic–especially given the scale at which open lands were lost to private development across the west. Whether the image of the “Oregon Territory” inspired Bundy and his crew, privately held lands (light blue) dominate Oregon far more than the small bits of National Wildlife Refuge (brown) lying in Eastern Oregon–yet Bundy alleged his case lies outside of government jurisdiction, summoning a misguided notion of natural rights to defend his personal right to the land.
3. The accelerated diminishing of green space across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands. Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in land cover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid change of once-rural lands. With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of land cover over eleven western states, the interactive maps The Disappearing West offer a starting point to explore, survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west. Indeed the interactive timeline tracking urban expansion and landcover change offers a different ethic relation to how land ownership has led to the dramatic curtailment of formerly open space.
The progressive development of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend. But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on each state, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways. They help parse the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in land cover equal to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development. The rapid nature of such anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive way as the region’s open spaces are increasingly segmented by roads and transportation routes. But it has brought a fragmentation of open landscapes, driven by the expansion of roadways, overdevelopment and competition for limited resources, that have parcellized whatever protected open lands indeed remain.
The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land. They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that is reduced by a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes. The map is an attempt to depict the scale of this vanishing landscape, by a detailed record of the scale of the contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly way, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.
How can we read this record of disappearing space, save as the emergence of a new set of attitudes to the land? Its flexibility helps take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site, and our increased power to comprehend and try to come to terms with the disappearance of an older landscape that was the focus of such romantic attachment,–and the rate of the recession of that imagined past.
The visualization that can be examined over time and in such striking local detail affords a basis for imagining the terrifying scale of anthropogenic change across the west, with all its attendant problems of wildlife conservation.
The ACLU has explored the expansion of crude techniques used by the FBI in mapping American Communities–in a sort of darker side of the illuminating geography of data amassed in the US Census’ American Community Survey. Much as Senator Jon Tester not that belatedly strove to balance his desire for “law enforcement agencies to use cutting-edge tools to catch criminals and protect our borders” with the appearance that such technologies “potentially violate the Fourth Amendment and represent a significant intrusion into the lives of thousands of Americans,” the ACLU has recently mapped a growing geography of surveilling that the FBI has created in recent years that include the very surveillance devices of dirtboxes which Senator Tester, who has quite staunchly supported citizens’ civil liberties, invited Jeh Jenson of the Homeland Security office and the Attorney General to take time to explain to the country.
Senator Tester’s belief that stricter oversight is needed stems from the “extreme lengths” to which federal agencies have so assiduously cloaked such programs in secrecy, his letter of request about the widespread use of dirtboxes that act as cellphone towers to intercept phone communications by both US Marshals and the US Drug Enforcement Agency may well have stemmed in part from the geography of a widespread surveillance program that the ACLU has started to map in the state of California, but which might reveal both the dissemination of military technologies of surveilling across the nation, and the local expansion of the new level of worldwide surveilling recently focussed on and directed mostly toward areas outside the territorial boundaries of the United States. While we are waiting for Mssrs. Jeh and Holder to respond, the arrival of the scope of the mapping of residents of California–or even those traveling in the state–might well give pause if not raise expectations for the scope of what levels of individual surveilling will be revealed. For the map of degrees of surveillance shows something of a microcosm of the extent of the expansion of surveilling ourselves of the very sort that Senator Tester was so rightly wary that he has promised to his best to publicize should it pose so clear a violation of the US Constitution as seems the case, in an attempt to place them under the oversight of both courts and the US Congress in order to restrict their use.
The maps of surveillance that the ACLU has taken upon themselves to provide is not only “cutting-edge” in its use of tools of surveillance but suggest the degree to which law enforcement agencies actively aspire to something along the lines of precognition of which groups might be likely to commit crimes in recent years–as if in a gambit for the foreknowledge Philip K. Dick imagined pre-cogs helping police apprehend criminals before they commit crimes in Minority Report, but based not on the psychical foresight of “pre-cogs” so much as the statistical prediction of categories of probably cause of criminality or value of surveillance that runs against many of our legal traditions.Suchsnooping for intelligence gathering recalls the sort of racial profiling former which Attorney General Eric Holder (quite rightly) once lent his voice to strongly oppose, following the 2003 DoJ “Guidance on Race”–yet which he incrementally allowed from 2008 for both national security and law enforcement alike. Holder has hesitated to restrict or unmask such activities as an abusive expansion of surveillance over Americans. And he has allowed investigation and surveillance of “behaviors” and “lifestyle characteristics” to be directed at American Muslim communities from New England to Northern California.
These activities have actually continued to expand dramatically over the past decade–including instances of the outright abuse of community outreach programs first initiated to build trust. In a bizarre absorption of such outreach into the apparatus of a tentacular system of state surveillance, the monster seems to have been fed by the deep fears of the insufficiency of procuring further information, and the need to gather it at all costs. In ways that recall the suspension of individual human rights in the use of torture to obtain state secrets–but is directed to monitoring its populations, much as the extraction and mapping of such racial and ethnic data by the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide (DIOG).
Such crude tools of mapping function by a pervasive sense and logic of invasiveness. We are mapped in ways that lack even the logic or ethics one expects from a government service, it appears, as government services aim to create a sort of all-seeing eye for mapping populations, vacuuming up information in an almost paranoid manner. ACLU’s Chris Soghoian has recently disclosed the existence of widespread surveillance program among US Marshalls across the state of California, including a fleet of airplanes flying from five metropolitan airports dedicated to collecting cell phone data and equipped with dirtboxes to do so–since 2007, that parallel the NSA’s programs of surveillance, now known to be concentrated on the Southwestern border of the US by the DEA, Immigration and Customs Agency, Homeland Security Agency, and FBI.
The degree of widespread and almost routine adoption of public surveillance systems by the government across the United States might be best understood as a sort of surveillance of the everyday, ranging from video surveillance, false cell phone towers, or facial recognition software that offer a range of tools to map populations to a degree never known. The new nature of law enforcement mapping may suggest something like a desperation to agglomerate information, and a deep difficulty to hold back on abilities and technologies to extract information on individual whereabouts, and indeed to track persons where they could not be often seen. The ability to map the invisible, and to try to intercept signals that move through the air, transcends whatever notions of mapping to which we might be habituated, cultivating new abilities of collating information that seem deeply intrusive.
Techniques of mapping populations have grown in their intrusiveness far beyond the mapping of ethnicities, initially pioneered by men like Francis Amasa Walker, that offered a statistical visualization of the demand for more information than most maps can provide. When Walker mapped the nation’s populations from 1873, as Secretary of the Census, he offered a way of reading national space in new ways for public ends as well, potentially, for the needs of the government. The recent mapping of ethnicity and behavior has of course augmented in detail in order to track individuals’ spatial position over time, as well as to chart patterns of individual behavior. The compilation of such an exhaustive map of spatial position has grown for reasons of security, but meets a increasing interest in reading maps of local populations at a level of detail and crude classification renders Walker’s tools of tabulating the composition of the population something of a precedent for enlisting new technologies of surveillance used to create the appearance of safety and quell fears–although the forms of tracking, intelligence gathering, and remote sensing must have created a broad body of map-readers whose charge it is to interpret the massive range of data that is daily culled.
What has perhaps most radically changed is the studied intrusiveness with which such data is culled–and the precision of ongoing surveillance that it allows by a proxy army of drones. stingray tracking devices that mimic cell phone towers to capture identifying information, cameras of automatic license plate recognition and scanners of facial recognition systems to create a state of surveillance that we are only beginning to map.
The quantities of data that such tools amass is suggested by a survey of the layers of procuring information across the state, recently issued by the ACLU to draw attention to their amassing of data without public notice, which seems to complement the large-scale infiltration of Muslim communities. But it goes beyond them, in suggesting a mapping project that monitors daily behaviors and to target individuals by a battery of technologies which abandon and depart from tools of rendering to collate data human minds could not visualize. These technologies cannot but change how space is experienced–and perceived–even if we lack an image of the results that such surveilling will be able to produce, since the master-map will remain inaccessible to our eyes.
The government money that is directed to maintaining an intensive level of intrusive surveillance of the everyday across the state of California alone has been mapped by the ACLU in interactive form to allow comparisons between levels of surveillance that exist in California’s communities and fifty-eight counties. The map was appositely issued together with both a community guide to resist intrusive surveillance technologies whose use has so dramatically expanded, oriented to different technologies currently used, and its initiation of a statewide campaign against abuses of intelligence gathering that use drones (used in three counties or cities), body cameras (used in thirty-two), tools of facial recognition (used in sixteen) or video surveillance (used in sixty-one–roughly half the number of cities and counties surveyed).
That’s right, the cost of such surveilling of the state? Quite a bit over $18 million.
The number of states and counties using Automatic License Plate Recognition, a particularly invasive mode of monitoring populations on the road that comes at only a slightly lower cost, is similarly quite expansive (fifty-seven), suggesting the broad range of areas that are subject to surveillance in California’s largest cities and (interestingly) Central Valley:
Grouping the technologies, Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state seems strikingly well covered for less than $50 million of your tax dollars:
While Facial Recognition techniques are concentrated in mostly in the Southlands, it augurs a particularly invasive form of individual mapping, whose apparent concentration on questions of immigration may be destined to expand with time beyond the sixteen counties and cities where it is used currently.
Although we have focussed on the technologies purchased by local police in Ferguson MI, we have done so perhaps ignored the spending spree on body cameras by local authorities across the nation. Uncovering the considerable expenditure of some $64 million on mapping the whereabouts of potentially suspicious individuals poses a new level of government invasiveness across the state.
The ACLU has created a specially designed checklist for local governments and authorities across the country to consider, before adopting technology that we associate with the NSA. Such advanced technologies, enlisted as useful without clear oversight practices having evolved or being instituted, or even with public notice being given, have been seem designed to create a comprehensive map that echoes, in microcosm, the state of surveillance we’ve been learning about increasingly this year. Stingray technologies, able to track a person’s location based on cell-phone signals, are a high-precision level of mapping, already adopted in twelve counties or municipalities including by police in Oakland CA, are increasingly widely used by police throughout the United States in fifteen states, the adoption of which can be tracked interactively, if you are planning on Thanksgiving travels and would like to know. (And it’s not only the government that is now in the business of using cellular interception technologies for the ends surveilling, we’ve been recently reminded, lest this sort of snooping only be understood as a top-down activity, rather than a widely available software for intercepting unencrypted calls long considered private by means of a radio scanner.)
ACLU invites members and non-members alike to send email letters, with the subject line “Don’t Map Me or My Community,” to express their desire to help restrict such intelligence-gathering and mapping tools that are regularly based on practices of ethnic or racial profiling, and set new standards for invasiveness. NSA has long been doing this sort of tracking worldwide, but the intrusive mapping of populations across the US has come home to roost.
Surveilling is a backformation dating from the 1960’s from “surveillance.” Its use has, however, unsurprisingly really taken off recently , even if it has crested from about 2000, the omniscient folks at Google let us know . . . and the question that this post might pose is how much it is destined to further grow in common usage.
The mapping of invasive species on land or sea provides one of the clearest ways of visualizing our shifting ecosphere: in mapping of the threat of invasive marine species to coastal ecosystems, Michelle Slosberg developed her marine map of the spread of invasive species in 2011 when an undergraduate at MIT. She did so by mapping sites of high-risk areas of marine “invasions” along coastal waters, geo-referencing data on ballast water of ships to determine the risks of the presence of invasive species that were carried by ships from one ecosystem to another and specific to the northeastern coast of the United States.
The vectors of travel in ballast water are shockingly widespread, and the container ships traveling from China to across the Pacific, or along the Atlantic, increasingly import species accidentally that are rarely noticed until they propagate: the number of harmful alien species mapped worldwide have so grown that some 84% of the world’s 282 marine ecosystems are documented to contain invasive species, and in 2008 coastal regions with harmful alien species were dense in ecoregions in the Mediterranean, in the North Sea, and along the California shore and Hawai’i.
Blue waters note areas where fewer harmful alien species were found to dwell.
The complex vectors of marine migration of alien species have only begun to be mapped, but heighten anxieties about the definition of “national waters” or marine borders, increased by shifting temperatures of ocean habitats and lend new meanings to the maelstrom of modern life:
Fears of the heightened potential of geographic relocation of species by mapping points of transfer paths of airline flights offer by linking regions of similar temperate zones:
The category of the “invasive” redraws spatial boundaries–and inflects taxonomic identifications–to suggest a shifting map of the natural world, combining nature and culture and resisting the stability of a fixed map. But mapping the spread of “invasive species” often charts less an invasion in early stages of development than a process of resettlement, as in this map of wild carrots that flourished after they arrived in our national borders 250 years past, but still classified as weeds in mid-western and north-western agricultural fields:
The wild carrot seems relatively benign, and was introduced at about the same time as domesticated carrots to US farms. But the introduction of eucalypts from New Zealand redefined the Bay Area, where I live, and the exploding trees that are native to Australia–where they are known as “exploding trees” and played such a large role of combustibility in the recent bushfires where they provided exploding fire balls in the air that led to the advance of walls of flame when sustained drought increased the volatility of what became an explosive landscape, a flammability transmitted through the flammable fumes created by vaporized eucalyptus oil.
Australian residents have long called the native species “gasoline trees,” rooting them in an anthropocentric landscape or imaginary, whose highly combustable oils are released in fires, and whose explosions–sometimes sending parts of their crowns to spatially removed sites–create their ability to magnify grass fires into explosive threats of devastating scope, ramping up the danger and scale of the bushfire in what seem spontaneous combustions geographically removed from one another without any predictable pattern. The explosion of euclyptus crowns that can travel fourteen miles in the air increased not only the intensity but geographic distribution of the Australian fires. But the explosion of eucalypts immediately known in the Bay Area was revealed in the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, when the explosion of blue gums contributed some 70% of the energy during the devastating fires that destroyed upwards of 3,000 homes over days, leading to calls to remove the tens of thousands of blue gums and other non-native species from the ridges that had so long seemed to be a part of the local landscape for Northern California residents who had celebrated their health benefits soon after since their arrival in the late nineteenth century. While they soon exploded, the density of thin Eucalyptus crowding once open spaces raise questions of whether they belong or don’t in this landscape–and what sort of roles the eucs have and what they are even doing there.
The danger of labeling an “invasive species” by mapping its lines of incursion is to constitute a category that elided the existence of external environmental influence. But how to chart the undeniable impact of commercial practices or climactic shifts that serve to facilitate the geographic dispersion of an ‘invasive’ species? The piles of perfumed litter that fill the roadsides of many of the East Bay hills, cascading downhill into the road, provide a nice remembrance of nature, but also are undeniably dangerous kindling for future potential fires, releasing oils in the air not only powerful in fragrance but combustible. And the multitude of Eucalypts that we see locally echoes the spread of blue gums and other eucs across delicate habitats across Malawi, South Africa, and Chile, crowding out local species, as in Patagonia; these large fast-growing plants of Australian origin suck up water and cast shade over other plants, and foliage, crowding out other native plants, in ways that don’t create calls for nativism–but biodiversity.
What of the habitats they afford or create? In the East Bay, the euclypts that crowd the hills are improvised shelters and sights of nesting for the elevated platforms that red-tailed hawks take as their eyries, advantageous for their height and stability to allow them to swoop down, and the great horned owl who often succeed them in the same sites of roosting. But the benefits that eucalypts afford these larger predators are cause for worry in themselves as creating imbalances in the delicate dynamic of the biodiversity of any place, as Allen Fish, who directs the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, and has noted the advantages that shelter in tall trees can give to some species over those that, as raptors, occupy more specialized ecological niches: the eucs may often afford the larger avian predators a privileged position to swoop down into the smaller birds such as kestrels, spotted owls, screech owls, saw-whet owls, and and Coopers’ hawks, or even provide habitat for red-tails who will crowed out sensitive species from the grasslands and savannah, including long- and short-eared owls, and barn owls, that provide a fundamental role in habitat. How to map the effects of such invasive species in dynamic ways, as altering the ecosystems we often separate from maps?
Indeed, mapping the species’ ‘invasive’ nature–or even the term “invasive”–effectively renders transparent the identity of the pernicious plant as a bacillus, deflecting agency from economic practices to the collective species labelled nonindigenous; such maps become distorting lenses to foreground effects of a species’ dangerous tendencies to spread over space that remove blame (or responsibility) from the economic or climactic change to locate it in the species it tracks, and indeed flatten temporal change: maps of invasive species prove a perfect example of the strategies for the power of map-signs to reframe the experience of nature illuminated by Denis Wood and John Fels. A classic case is the dangers of rapidly reproducing predatory lionfish through the Florida keys, which having migrated or “arrived” from warmer ocean habitats threaten to destroy local marine life, whose presence can be highlighted, removed from its environment, in a striking map of its marine spread:
This sort of cartographical compartmentalization circuitously brings us to the battle over local eucalyptus trees, conducted largely around the invasive nature of nonindigenous Tasmanian blue gums long rooted in groves in the landscape of Bay Area hills. Invasive species of plants are nonindigenous plants that spread in uncontrolled ways to an area they have never lived and lack predators, creating environmental problems and contributing to the extinction of native species and animals. But how long can a plant be present in an ecosystem and continue to be labelled invasive?
Although airline traffic, like routes of ships, expands the network and increases the speeds at which seeds migrate across the earth, increasing the vectors of moving invasive species by accelerating contact between regions that did not share borders, introduced species–some 50,000 now exist in the United States–is conditioned by the suitability of the environments they arrive–few of which are on the west coast, although the travel of weeds alone cost California at least $82 million per year. The very virulence of terminology to identify plants and animals as invasive–perhaps the biological threats of a postmodern age–has conditioned how we see the landscape before our eyes.
Recent debates around the proposals to clearcut 22,000 non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon reveal a pitched battle in the Berkeley Hills and Claremont Canyon around labelling the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus as ‘non-native.’ Whether or not the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is correctly labeled as invasive is not only a question of fact, however, but reflects how one maps the place of the towering blue gum trees in the landscape they have created and long lived–and how one maps them as signs of fire-risk. The removal of the trees that cover a large part of the hills, especially on the west-facing hills of Berkeley and Oakland, from the environment when mapped for clear-cutting, revises their place in Bay Area landscapes, and the struggle that emerges among environmentalists and planners (or local constituent groups, since the division is not so clear) reveals a battle between landscape and map, or a naturalized landscape of welcoming groves and a firescape dotted with unwanted risks, but also offering transcendent moments of their own.
Many land-owners share deep-running concerns about the fire-dangers created by the branches, shaggy bark, leaves, and seed-pods, all containing highly flammable oils, and explosive proclivities of eucalyptus trees: multiple vectors of encouraging fire-risk have led the tree to be demonized as primary culprits of the disastrous 1991 fire in the Oakland hills that destroyed so much property and claimed 27, as well as forest habitat.
The characterization of the tree as an invasive–and even as a weed–are all rooted in its change on the landscape, as much as unquantifiable expansion of fire risks. None seem greater than the piles of as the bark that, shed, create a dry ground cover that inhibits future plant growth, and raises the specter of quickly igniting kindling that stimulate powerful underdrafts after its combustible oils ignite that would push a wildfire’s growth out of control, as updrafts push flaming bark ahead of the actual fire-front, onto the roofs of nearby houses, at the same time crown-fires spread the canopy of leaves create crown-fires among towering trees that carry the level of flames into the atmosphere. Once their combustible oils ignite, leaves and litter are feared to fuel a raging fire, offering firewood as groves of Eucalyptus themselves explode and ignite. Hence the fears summoned by imagined firescapes expanding by burning crowns and flaming bark thrown by winds that are provoked by those leaves’ presence.
So what are the abilities to contain this vegetation whose vigorous spread seems to obstruct the growth of other plants in the ground area they cover by displacing native plants? Attempts to map areas for their elimination reflect the fears of property owners, recently saddled with newfound legal liability for responsible land management, and responsive to the availability of federal funds to land management in the hope that future fires would not consume the lands they manage or impinge on nearby houses, and create any suits of environmental liability. If causing huge financial damages is hoped to be avoided, the question of legal liability seems to have been the primary factor that motivated further attention from large-scale land-owners as the University of California or regional parks. Already by 1991, the University of California at Berkeley began to clear thousands of “invasive” eucalyptus within the purple section, as part of a larger ten-year plan to remove 25,000 trees from its property–or the grove in the below aerial view in the Claremont Canyon, in projects of “land management” directed to such a reduction of risk.
In December 2009, these plans received a setback as FEMA denied four separate grants to the University of California, Oakland and the park system for $5 million to remove eucalyptus, pine and acacia trees from the ridges above Oakland and Berkeley, but plans to for clear-cutting some 82,000 Berkeley and Oakland trees, a quarter of which lie in the protected Claremont and Strawberry Canyons, to be followed up by 700-1400 gallons of herbicide in land belonging to Regional Parks. Similar interventions clearing eucalyptus encouraged the large-scale project to clear-cut the eucalyptus from the hills–dramatically revising the landscape of the region to be reforested by “native” plants whose seeds may lie buried by eucalyptus litter, and would be re-introduced after careful extraction of each and every blue gum.
The hills were colonized and indeed filled by eucalyptus, and most especially the Australian import of the Tasmanian blue gums, around UC Berkeley’s campus, in Regional Parks that could be said to themselves litter the Berkeley and Oakland hills–Tilden, Wildcat, Kennedy Grove, Anthony Chabot, Lake Chabot, Redwood, and Sibley–where the planting of eucalyptus replaced grasses and wildflowers that covered the region, as in this image of the stately eucs that provide posts for Kennedy Grove.
Yet there is some evidence–not widely acknowledged–that cast the eucalyptus as something of a windshield whose presence in dense groves, by blocking winds, would actually fights wind-driven fire, acting both to break and interrupt the flow of the wind that bears the fire and as a screen to trap flying embers that might be in danger of spreading and starting wildfires.
The decision of UC Berkeley to once more seek needed FEMA funds of $5.6 million to fund for the clearcutting began in 2013, with hopes target an expanse of some 22,000 non-native trees from Claremont and Strawberry Canyon, in order to mitigate fire risks for residents haunted by the devastating firestorm that swept through the Oakland Hills in 1991 Oakland Hills that destroyed some 3,000 homes in the hills. Many residents remember the Eucalyptus as fostering the rapidity with which the flames of the raging fire spread across the hills: as “fuel-productive” trees that produce huge quantities of combustible litter, they are readily labeled high fire risks, and have few protectors. Even though some 19,000 non-native acacia, blue gums, and Monterrey pines have already been destroyed, the destruction of the expansive grove destined to be felled and chipped would potentially end a major protective windshield, but would no doubt reduce how we quantify fire risk.
And the current thinning of Eucalyptus and other invasive species as acacia and Monterrey pine in the regional parks in the East Bay hills, despite the mobilization of a community-based Hills Conservation Network (HCN) to protect them, will cover 2,000 acres, targeting diseased and dying non-native trees as much as converting the region to grasslands, leave a forest spotted with chemically treated stumps where trees once grew.
Native Americans regularly burnt grasses to encourage their growth and spread their seeds, inhibiting the spread of trees. This allowed a massive spread of eucalyptus was so extensive in the grassy hills, where they were planted, erroneously to impede further local grass-fires. The importation of the eucalyptus plant from 1850 was not only for ornamental ends, but to create fast-growing hard-wood forests was originally celebrated–if incorrectly–and presented, strange to say, as a further reduction of hazards of fire that regularly broke out in the grasslands. They were also screens, to be sure, for further construction of residences and houses in the hills, valued as protective natural obstacles for privacy as houses gained increasing density on the hillsides, placing neighbors in greater proximity than they had wanted–and perhaps offering an even more welcome screen during Prohibition for private parties, as the eucs became part of the Northern California atmosphere, viewed largely as benevolent, convenient ways of adding further salubrious greenery.
The arrival of the trees in the Bay Area was spawned by unsuccessful lumber schemes, designed to meet the needed infrastructure and housing materials for the region’s growing population. When the Judson Dynamite and Powder Company first introduced the tree in the 1880s to use their canopies and dense foliage in order to hide ravages of construction and muffle sounds of explosion or construction, the trees’ arrival was greeted in local papers as offering relief from the regular grass fires “that almost every year swept over the hills,” as was argued in the Oakland Tribune–a somewhat common-sense theory that research as now revived, although the argument that they offered wood that resisted burning was openly fraudulent. At any event, the species robustly grew on plantations of trees as Frank Havens’ land company–the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company–planted some three million eucalyptus and Monterrey pine in plantations of 400-900 trees/acre across 3,000 acres in the East Bay, billing the tree as “the most valuable on the face of the globe,” offering hardwood for fences, firewood, shingles, telegraph poles or “ecclesiastical furniture.”
The tree seemed magically powerful not only in the rapidity of their growth, quickly attained huge heights, but the multiplying of trunks from their bases so their wood could be regularly re-harvested: yet as it was realized not to be quite so suitable for milling, and readily cracked, Eucalypt monoculture became jungles able to suck water out of the ground, leading to calls to thin the population that crowded out native species. As the difficulty of combatting its fires became clear, the survival of the eucalyptus became something of an economic dinosaur that had outlived schemes for the sudden profits of crops of wood.
One can map the spread of the species first planted to disguise sites of construction, mitigate disturbing sounds, or create miniature parks or groves, to a mini-industry of plantations. But can one ever map the losses or the density of Eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills? One can hardly call the tree non-naive to the state, given the century-long spread of the mid-nineteenth century arrival across different micro regions and environments from coasts to valleys to foothills to dry desert:
The prime danger that the trees pose to fire is in shedding their foliage, particularly after colder weather: the 1972 freeze led trees to shed some 50 tons of debris per acre, over an expanse of 3,000 acres, creating a tinderbox of bark; the shedding was cleared by federal disaster funds. The 1990 freeze played a considerable contribution to the disastrous 1991 East Bay hills blaze which consumed over 3,300 homes, and led East Bay landowners to work to prevent risks of future fires. Regular clearing in times of intense shedding of shaggy bark–the eucalyptus trees’ “litter”–surely poses a more economic response to the need to mitigate fire risk.
But the characterization of “match sticks loaded with freeze dried fuel” shifted the blame from dead grass, wooden houses, and vacant lots–and points the finger at the invasive tree, and particularly to question its proliferation on public lands. Loni Hancock, then Berkeley’s mayor proposed chainsawing down thousand of these “invasive species” or “weeds,” to reduce the dangers of fire-risk–albeit while creating dangers of soil erosion and changing the habitat. The wide planting of the tree throughout the state not only served needed screens or decorative cover, but valuable fence- or scrap-wood and firewood, given its quick growth.)
The “disorderly” trees that did not clean up for themselves were labeled “invasive” and even identified by the evocative term “unwanted immigrants” that needed to removed from public parks and lands conceals the risks equally posed by landscaping with non-native shrubs or Monterrey pines. Tasmanian blue gums have, no doubt because of their visual presence, coppicing, rapid growth, and towering size been seen as weeds, and also been defended as “native enough”–as residents of over a century and a half–continuing the arboreal personification and obscuring debate.
But to shift from a human-centered approach to the place of eucalypts in our environment, it may make more sense to ask the overall environmental impact of the shedding trees.
Yet the California Native Plant Society deems “native” only species predating European contact, and the concerted efforts of public lands to strip the areas that they administer of fire risk have led to a huge investments of regional park and utilities corporations, no doubt eager to respond to insurance threats, to eradicate the blue gum from the local landscape, labeling it as a tinderbox to be uprooted. A broad range of local authorities who administer parklands–UC Berkeley; City of Oakland; East Bay Regional Park District–have tried to secure up to $5.6 million from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program to mitigate fire risk by a plan to remove tens of thousands of eucalyptus. The group of suspicious non-natives—eucalyptus, Monterey pine and acacia—would be removed in over 1,000 acres, in hopes to expand the indigenous oaks that eucalyptus first replaced.
The 2010 result was to put a mosaic of vegetation management on view:
The 2010 report proposed Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction measures largely administered by the East Bay Regional Park Development:
Or, in the most focussed picture of mitigation in the regional parks of the Oakland and Berkeley Hills:
Yet the classification of the tree as “non-natives” is to some extent laughable–to judge by the crude state-wide choropleth of their spread, which is in many senses a basic counter-map to the final solution of arboreal demolition. Indeed, the demand for their clear-cutting or selective clearing in residential areas reflects a desire to mitigate risks to expensive property, and no doubt lower insurance rates, as much as it reflects a direct tie between the growing risk of fires in California in an age of rising temperatures:
Elwood Cooper, no mere booster of Californian wildlife, wrote in his 1876 Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees, distinguished the value of the trees by noting that they “possess qualities which place it transcendentally above all other plants; . . . rendering localities healthy in which to sleep a single night was almost certain death,” placing on their doorsteps credit for making healthy the environment. Recent recent attack on these non-natives for increasing fire-risk on account of their contribution of dry leaves–or “litter”–to the underbrush may contribute to fires spread by their oil-rich tree crowns and highly flammable litters, but contrast to the majesty of the tree that was once seen as a basis for encouraging local forests.
It is hard to imagine the loss of the trees from the landscape, whose branches hold birds’ nests and whose flowers feed hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, whose groves smell “of camphor and the fog-soaked earth,” in Robert Hass’s organic poetics, themselves word maps of the physical experience of the Bay Area he loves.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!