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Upon first reading about it, Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello–a structure he himself designed and that he filled with strange devices, such as a room-sized clock that partially disappears through the floor, and a collection of paleontological artifacts, including mastodon bones—sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.


Amidst this symmetrical house of complex moving walls and shelves, hidden servants' passages, and meteorological equipment, the early days of a nation destined to become the United States were given a speculative, scientific air, where the European Enlightenment met the giant, extinct species of the New World, and an unmapped landscape creased with unearthly rivers meandering always further outward through endless plains and distant mountains.

Described that way, Monticello sounds not unlike "Solomon’s House," a fabulous scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian science fiction tale, The New Atlantis.


The Invisible College or the House of Solomon, Teophilus Schweighardt,1618, via.

Solomon’s House, we read, is a kind of super-observatory, a temple of science inside of which natural philosophers manage vast, artificial landscapes and operate complex machines, in spatial scenarios that rival anything we might read about today in Dubai or China.

Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use there: "We have... great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors... We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation... We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions... We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made..."

Thus, hoping to encounter a kind of Solomon's House of the early Americas, built by a U.S. President, its walls filled with mysterious devices and its rooms lined with old bones and fossils, with maps of unknown frontier lands greeting every visitor in the entrance hall, Venue went out of its way to visit Monticello, on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia.



Alas, in reality, Jefferson's house is interesting, but by no means the steampunk-like fantasy of para-scientific insights, moving walls, and secret passages that at least one half of Venue was giddily—naively?—anticipating.

As it was, Venue arrived in a foggy downpour after a long drive across the state, arriving just in time for the final tour of the day, on which we were the only people.


The start of Jefferson's 7-Day Clock, in the entrance hall of Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


The clock continues through the floor.


This wind direction indicator is connected to a weathervane on the roof.


A revolving service door. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Of course, Monticello does, indeed, have the famous clock that stretches down from the foyer all the way into the cellar, where the passage of time is marked by painted lines on the structure of the house itself; and there is the garden outside with its mysterious lost roads.

But there is also the mundane reality of a house stocked with old furniture and fancy porcelain, and the understated historical fact that it's, in fact, deeply misleading to refer to anything here as a servant's passage, when it is now so widely known as to be satirized in pop culture that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner and the people walking around through hidden doors and tight corridors from room to room, remaining out of sight whenever possible, weren't employees but human possessions.



The lower jawbone of a mastodon, displayed at Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In the end, there were the old bones, maps, and artifacts from the expedition of Lewis & Clark; but we did not spend nearly as much time there as we thought we might, and instead continued, while the rain continued to fall, on our way north to Washington D.C.
A landscape painting above Penny Boston's living room entryway depicts astronauts exploring Mars.

Penelope Boston is a speleo-biologist at New Mexico Tech, where she is Director of Cave and Karst Science. She graciously welcomed Venue to her home in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where we arrived with design futurist Stuart Candy in tow, en route to dropping him off at the Very Large Array later that day.

Boston's work involves studying subterranean ecosystems and their extremophile inhabitants here on Earth, in order to better imagine what sorts of environments and lifeforms we might encounter elsewhere in the Universe. She has worked with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) to develop protocols for both human extraterrestrial cave habitation and for subterranean life-detection missions on Mars, life which she believes is highly likely to exist.

Over the course of the afternoon, Boston told Venue about her own experiences on Mars analog sites; she explained why she believes there is a strong possibility for life below the surface of the Red Planet, perhaps inside the planet's billion year-old networks of lava tubes; she described her astonishing (and terrifying) cave explorations here on Earth; and we touch on some mind-blowing ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, including extreme forms of extraterrestrial life (such as dormant life on comets, thawed and reawakened with every passage close to the sun) and the extraordinary potential for developing new pharmaceuticals from cave microorganisms. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •


The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island, courtesy the Mars Society.

Geoff Manaugh: As a graduate student, you co-founded the Mars Underground and then the Mars Society. You’re a past President of the Association of Mars Explorers, and you’re also now a member of the science team taking part in Mars Arctic 365, a new one-year Mars surface simulation mission set to start in summer 2014 on Devon Island. How does this long-term interest in Mars exploration tie into your Earth-based research in speleobiology and subterranean microbial ecosystems?

Penelope Boston: Even though I do study surface things that have a microbial component, like desert varnish and travertines and so forth, I really think that it’s the subsurface of Mars where the greatest chance of extant life, or even preservation of extinct life, would be found.

Nicola Twilley: Is it part of NASA’s strategy to go subsurface at any point, to explore caves on Mars or the moon?

Boston: Well, yes and no. The “Strategy” and the strategy are two different things.

The Mars Curiosity rover is a very capable chemistry and physics machine and I am, of course, dying to hear the details of the geochemistry it samples. A friend of mine, for instance, with whom I’m also a collaborator, is the principal investigator of the SAM instrument. Friends of mine are also on the CheMin instrument. So I have a vested interest, both professionally and personally, in the Curiosity mission.

On the other hand, you know: here we go again with yet another mission on the surface. It’s fascinating, and we still have a lot to learn there, but I hope I will live long enough to see us do subsurface missions on Mars and even on other bodies in the solar system.

Unfortunately, right now, we are sort of in limbo. The downturn in the global economy and our national economy has essentially kicked NASA in the head. It’s very unclear where we are going, at this point. This is having profound, negative effects on the Agency itself and everyone associated with it, including those of us who are external fundees and sort of circum-NASA.

On the other hand, although we don’t have a clear plan, we do have clear interests, and we have been pursuing preliminary studies. NASA has sponsored a number of studies on deep drilling, for example. One of the most famous was probably about 15 years ago, and it really kicked things off. That was up in Santa Fe, and we were looking at different methodologies for getting into the subsurface.

I have done a lot of work, some of which has been NASA-funded, on the whole issue of lava tubes—that is, caves associated with volcanism on the surface. Now, Glenn Cushing and Tim Titus at the USGS facility in Flagstaff have done quite a bit of serious work on the high-res images coming back from Mars, and they have identified lava tubes much more clearly than we ever did in our earlier work over the past decade.

Surface features created by lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Twilley: Are caves as common on Mars as they are on Earth? Is that the expectation?

Boston: I’d say that lava tubes are large, prominent, and liberally distributed everywhere on Mars. I would guess that there are probably more lava tubes on Mars than there are here on Earth—because here they get destroyed. We have such a geologically and hydro-dynamically active planet that the weathering rates here are enormous.

But on Mars we have a lot of factors that push in the other direction. I’d expect to find tubes of exceeding antiquity—I suspect that billions-of-year-old tubes are quite liberally sprinkled over the planet. That’s because the tectonic regime on Mars is quiescent. There is probably low-level tectonism—there are, undoubtedly, Marsquakes and things like that—but it’s not a rock’n’roll plate tectonics like ours, with continents galloping all over the place, and giant oceans opening up across the planet.

That means the forces that break down lava tubes are probably at least an order of magnitude or more—maybe two, maybe three—less likely to destroy lava tubes over geological time. You will have a lot of caves on Mars, and a lot of those caves will be very old.

Plus, remember that you also have .38 G. The intrinsic tensile strength of the lava itself, or whatever the bedrock is, is also going to allow those tubes to be much more resistant to the weaker gravity there.

Surface features of lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Manaugh: I’d imagine that, because the gravity is so much lower, the rocks might also behave differently, forming different types of arches, domes, and other formations underground. For instance, large spans and open spaces would be shaped according to different gravitational strains. Would that be a fair expectation?

Boston: Well, it’s harder to speculate on that because we don’t know what the exact composition of the lava is—which is why, someday, we would love to get a Mars sample-return mission, which is no longer on the books right now. [sighs] It’s been pushed off.

In fact, I just finished, for the seventh time in my career, working on a panel on that whole issue. This was the E2E—or End-to-End—group convened by Dave Beatty, who is head of the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [PDF].

About a year ago, we finished doing some intensive international work with our European Space Agency partners on Mars sample-return—but now it’s all been pushed off again. The first one of those that I worked on was when I was an undergraduate, almost ready to graduate at Boulder, and that was 1979. It just keeps getting pushed off.

I’d say that we are very frustrated within the planetary and astrobiology communities. We can use all these wonderful instruments that we load onto vehicles like Curiosity and we can send them there. We can do all this fabulous orbital stuff. But, frankly speaking, as a person with at least one foot in Earth science, until you’ve got the stuff in your hands—actual physical samples returned from Mars—there is a lot you can’t do.

Looking down through a "skylight" on Mars; image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twilley: Could you talk a bit about your work with exoplanetary research, including what you’re looking for and how you might find it?

Boston: [laughs] The two big questions!

But, yes. We are working on a project at Socorro now to atmospherically characterize exoplanets. It’s called NESSI, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. Our partner is Mark Swain, over at JPL. They are doing it using things like Kepler, and they have a new mission they’re proposing, called FINESSE. FINESSE will be a dedicated exoplanet atmospheric characterizer.

We are also trying to do that, in conjunction with them, but from a ground-based instrument, in order to make it more publicly accessible to students and even to amateur astronomers.

That reminds me—one of the other people you might be interested in talking to is a young woman named Lisa Messeri, who just recently finished her PhD in Anthropology at MIT. She’s at the University of Pennsylvania now. Her focus is on how scientists like me to think about other planets as other worlds, rather than as mere scientific targets—how we bring an abstract scientific goal into the familiar mental space where we also have recognizable concepts of landscape.

I’ve been obsessed with that my entire life: the concept of space, and the human scaling of these vastly scaled phenomena, is central, I think, to my emotional core, not just the intellectual core.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Manaugh: While we’re on the topic of scale, I’m curious about the idea of astrobiological life inhabiting a radically, undetectably nonhuman scale. For example, one of the things you’ve written and lectured about is the incredible slowness it takes for some organisms to form, metabolize, and articulate themselves in the underground environments you study. Could there be forms of astrobiological life that exist on an unbelievably different timescale, whether it’s a billion-year hibernation cycle that we might discover at just the wrong time and mistake, say, for a mineral? Or might we find something on a very different spatial scale—for example, a species that is more like a network, like an aspen tree or a fungus?

Boston: You know, Paul Davies is very interested in this idea—the concept of a shadow biosphere. Of course, I had also thought about this question for many years, long before I read about Davies or before he gave it a name.

The conundrum you face is how you would know—how you would study or even conceptualize—these other biospheres? It’s outside of your normal spatial and temporal comfort zone, in which all of your training and experience has guided you to look, and inside of which all of your instruments are designed to function. If it’s outside all of that, how will you know it when you see it?

Imagine comets. With every perihelion passage, volatile gases escape. You are whipping around the solar system. Your body comes to life for that brief period of time only. Now apply that to icy bodies in very elliptical orbits in other solar systems, hosting life with very long periods of dormancy.

There are actually some wonderful early episodes of The Twilight Zone that tap into that theme, in a very poetic and literary way. [laughs] Of course, it’s also the central idea of some of the earliest science fiction; I suppose Gulliver’s Travels is probably the earliest exploration of that concept.

In the microbial realm—to stick with what we do know, and what we can study—we are already dealing with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny things that are devilishly difficult to understand. We have a lot of tools now that enable us to approach those, but, very regularly, we’ll see things in electron microscopy that we simply can’t identify and they are very clearly structured. And I don’t think that they are all artifacts of the preparation—things that get put there accidentally during prep.

A lot of the organisms that we actually grow, and with which we work, are clearly nanobacteria. I don’t know how familiar you are with that concept, but it has been extremely controversial. There are many artifacts out there that can mislead us, but we do regularly see organisms that are very small. So how small can they be—what’s the limit?

A few of the early attempts at figuring this out were just childish. That’s a mean thing to say, because a lot of my former mentors have written some of those papers, but they would say things like: “Well, we need to conduct X, Y, and Z metabolic pathways, so, of course, we need all this genetic machinery.” I mean, come on, you know that early cells weren’t like that! The early cells—who knows what they were or what they required?

To take the famous case of the ALH84001 meteorite: are all those little doobobs that you can see in the images actually critters? I don’t know. I think we’ll never know, at least until we go to Mars and bring back stuff.

I have relatively big microbes in my lab that regularly feature little knobs and bobs and little furry things, that I am actually convinced are probably either viruses or prions or something similar. I can’t get a virologist to tell me yes. They are used to looking at viruses that they can isolate in some fashion. I don’t know how to get these little knobby bobs off my guys for them to look at.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Twilley: In your paper on the human utilization of subsurface extraterrestrial environments [PDF], you discuss the idea of a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms,” and how to plan to find life when you don’t necessarily know what it looks like. What might go into such a guide?

Boston: The analogy I often use with graduate students when I teach astrobiology is that, in some ways, it’s as if we are scientists on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and we are trying to write a field guide to the birds of Earth. Where do you start? Well, you start with whatever template you have. Then you have to deeply analyze every feature of that template and ask whether each feature is really necessary and which are just a happenstance of what can occur.

I think there are fundamental principles. You can’t beat thermodynamics. The need for input and outgoing energy is critical. You have to be delicately poised, so that the chemistry is active enough to produce something that would be a life-like process, but not so active that it outstrips any ability to have cohesion, to actually keep the life process together. Water is great as a solvent for that. It’s probably not the only solvent, but it’s a good one. So you can look for water—but do you really need to look for water?

I think you have to pick apart the fundamental assumptions. I suspect that predation is a relatively universal process. I suspect that parasitism is a universal process. I think that, with the mathematical work being done on complex, evolving systems, you see all these emerging properties.

Now, with all of that said, the details—the sizes, the scale, the pace, getting back to what we were just talking about—I think there is huge variability in there.

Caves on Mars; images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS.

Twilley: How do you train people to look for unrecognizable life?

Boston: I think everybody—all biologists—should take astrobiology. It would smack you on the side of the head and say, “You have to rethink some of these fundamental assumptions! You can’t just coast on them.”

The organisms that we study in the subsurface are so different from the microbes that we have on the surface. They don’t have any predators—so, ecologically, they don’t have to outgrow any predators—and they live in an environment where energy is exceedingly scarce. In that context, why would you bother having a metabolic rate that is as high as some of your compatriots on the surface? You can afford to just hang out for a really long time.

We have recently isolated a lot of strains from these fluid inclusions in the Naica caves—the one with those gigantic crystals. It’s pretty clear that these guys have been trapped in these bubbles between 10,000 and 15,000 years. We’ve got fluid inclusions in even older materials—in materials that are a few million years old, even, in a case we just got some dates for, as much as 40 million years.


Naica Caves, image from the official website. The caves are so hot that explorers have to wear special ice-jackets to survive.

One of the caveats is, of course, that when you go down some distance, the overlying lithostatic pressure of all of that rock makes space impossible. Microbes can’t live in zero space. Further, they have to have at least inter-grain spaces or microporosity—there has to be some kind of interconnectivity. If you have organisms completely trapped in tiny pockets, and they never interact, then that doesn’t constitute a biosphere. At some point, you also reach temperatures that are incompatible with life, because of the geothermal gradient. Where exactly that spot is, I don’t know, but I’m actually working on a lot of theoretical ideas to do with that.

In fact, I’m starting a book for MIT Press that will explore some of these ideas. They wanted me to write a book on the cool, weird, difficult, dangerous places I go to and the cool, weird, difficult bugs I find. That’s fine—I’m going to do that. But, really, what I want to do is put what we have been working on for the last thirty years into a theoretical context that doesn’t just apply to Earth but can apply broadly, not only to other planets in our solar system, but to one my other great passions, of course, which is exoplanets—planets outside the solar system.

One of the central questions that I want to explore further in my book, and that I have been writing and talking about a lot, is: what is the long-term geological persistence of organisms and geological materials? I think this is another long-term, evolutionary repository for living organisms—not just fossils—that we have not tapped into before. I think that life gets recycled over significant geological periods of time, even on Earth.

That’s a powerful concept if we then apply it to somewhere like Mars, for example, because Mars does these obliquity swings. It has super-seasonal cycles. It has these little dimple moons that don’t stabilize it, whereas our moon stabilizes the Earth’s obliquity level. That means that Mars is going through these super cold and dry periods of time, followed by periods of time where it’s probably more clement.

Now, clearly, if organisms can persist for tens of thousands of years—let alone hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions of years—then maybe they are reawakenable. Maybe you have this very different biosphere.

Manaugh: Like a biosphere in waiting.

Boston: Yes—a biosphere in waiting, at a much lower level.

Recently, I have started writing a conceptual paper that really tries to explore those ideas. The genome that we see active on the surface of any planet might be of two types. If you have a planet like Earth, which is photosynthetically driven, you’re going to have a planet that is much more biological in terms of the total amount of biomass and the rates at which this can be produced. But that might not be the only way to run a biosphere.

You might also have a much more low-key biosphere that could actually be driven by geochemical and thermal energy from the inside of the planet. This was the model that we—myself, Chris McKay, and Michael Ivanoff, one of our colleagues from what was the Soviet Union at the time—published more than twenty years ago for Mars. We suggested that there would be chemically reduced gases coming from the interior of the planet.

That 1992 paper was what got us started on caves. I had never been in a wild cave in my life before. We were looking for a way to get into that subsurface space. The Department of Energy was supporting a few investigators, but they weren’t about to share their resources. Drilling is expensive. But caves are just there; you can go inside them.

So that’s really what got us into caving. It was at that point where I discovered caves are so variable and fascinating, and I really refocused my career on that for the last 20 years.


Lechuguilla Cave, photograph by Dave Bunnell.


Penelope Boston caving, image courtesy of V. Hildreth-Werker, from "Extraterrestrial Caves: Science, Habitat, Resources," NIAC Phase I Study Final Report, 2001.

The first time I did any serious caving was actually in Lechuguilla Cave. It was completely nuts to make that one’s first wild cave. We trained for about three hours, then we launched into a five-day expedition into Lechuguilla that nearly killed us! Chris McKay came out with a terrible infection. I had a blob of gypsum in my eye and an infection that swelled it shut. I twisted my ankle. I popped a rib. Larry Lemke had a massive migraine. We were not prepared for this. The people taking us in should have known better. But one of them is a USGS guide and a super caving jock, so it didn’t even occur to him—it didn’t occur to him that we were learning instantaneously to operate in a completely alien landscape with totally inadequate skills.

All I knew was that I was beaten to a pulp. I could almost not get across these chasms. I’m a short person. Everybody else was six feet tall. I felt like I was just hanging on long enough so I could get out and live. I've been in jams before, including in Antarctica, but that’s all I thought of the whole five days: I just have to live through this.

But, when I got out, I realized that what the other part of my brain had retained was everything I had seen. The bruises faded. My eye stopped being infected. In fact, I got the infection from looking up at the ceiling and having some of those gooey blobs drip down into my eye—but, I was like, “Oh my God. This is biological. I just know it is.” So it was a clue. And, when, I got out, I knew I had to learn how to do this. I wanted to get back in there.

ESA astronauts on a "cave spacewalk" during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Manaugh: You have spoken about the possibility of entire new types of caves that are not possible on Earth but might be present elsewhere. What are some of these other cave types you think might exist, and what sort of conditions would have formed them? You’ve used some great phrases to describe those processes—things like “volatile labyrinths” and “ice volcanism” that create speleo-landscapes that aren’t possible on Earth.

Boston: Well, in terms of ice, I’ll bet there are all sorts of Lake Vostok-like things out there on other moons and planets.

The thing with Lake Vostok is that it’s not a "lake." It’s a cave: a cave in ice. The ice, in this case, acts as bedrock, so it’s not a lake at all. It’s a closed system.

Manaugh: It’s more like a blister: an enclosed space full of fluid.

Boston: Exactly. In terms of speculating on the kinds of caves that might exist elsewhere in the universe, we are actually working on a special issue for the Journal of Astrobiology right now, based on the extraterrestrial planetary caves meeting that we did last October. We brought people from all over the place. This is a collaboration between my Institute—the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, where we have our headquarters—and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The meeting was an attempt to explore these ideas. Karl Mitchell from JPL, who I had not met previously, works on Titan; he’s on the Cassini Huygens mission. He thinks he is seeing karst-like features on Titan. Just imagine that! Hydrocarbon fluids producing karst-like features in water-ice bedrock—what could be more exotic than that?

That also shows that the planetary physics dominates in creating these environments. I used to think that the chemistry dominated. I don’t think so anymore. I think that the physics dominates. You have to step away from the chemistry at first and ask: what are the fundamental physics that govern the system? Then you can ask: what are the fundamental chemical potentials that govern the system that could produce life? It’s the same exercise with imagining what kind of caves you can get—and I have a lurid imagination.


From "Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments," P. J. Boston, R. D. Frederick, S. M. Welch, J. Werker, T. R. Meyer, B. Sprungman, V. Hildreth-Werker, S. L. Thompson, and D. L. Murphy, Gravitational and Space Biology Bulletin 16(2), June 2003.

One of the fun things I do in my astrobiology class every couple of years is the capstone project. The students break down into groups of four or five, hopefully well-mixed in terms of biologists, engineers, chemists, geologists, physicists, and other backgrounds.

Then they have to design their own solar system, including the fundamental, broad-scale properties of its star. They have to invent a bunch of planets to go around it. And they have to inhabit at least one of those planets with some form of life. Then they have to design a mission—either telescopic or landed—that could study it. They work on this all semester, and they are so creative. It’s wonderful. There is so much value in imagining the biospheres of other planetary bodies.

You just have to think: “What are the governing equations that you have on this planet or in this system?” You look at the gravitational value of a particular body, its temperature regime, and the dominant geochemistry. Does it have an atmosphere? Is it tectonic? One of the very first papers I did—it appeared in one of these obscure NASA special publications, of which they print about 100 and nobody can ever find a copy—was called “Bubbles in the Rocks.” It was entirely devoted to speculation about the properties of natural and artificial caves as life-support structures. A few years later, I published a little encyclopedia article, expanding on it, and I’m now working on another expansion, actually.

I think that, either internally, externally, or both, planetary bodies that form cracks are great places to start. If you then have some sort of fluid—even episodically—within that system, then you have a whole new set of cave-forming processes. Then, if you have a material that can exist not only in a solid phase, but also as a liquid or, in some cases, even in a vapor phase on the same planetary body, then you have two more sets of potential cave-forming processes. You just pick it apart from those fundamentals, and keep building things up as you think about these other cave-forming systems and landscapes.

ESA astronauts practice "cavewalking"; image courtesy ESA-V. Corbu.

Manaugh: One of my favorite quotations is from a William S. Burroughs novel, where he describes what he calls “a vast mineral consciousness at absolute zero, thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

Boston: Oh, wow.

Manaugh: I mention that because I’m curious about how the search for “extraterrestrial life” always tends to be terrestrial, in the sense that it’s geological and it involves solid planetary formations. But what about the search for life on a gaseous planet—would life be utterly different there, chemically speaking, or would it simply be sort of dispersed, or even aerosolized? I suppose I’m also curious if there could be a “cave” on a gaseous planet and, if so, would it really just be a weather system? Is a “cave” on a gaseous planet actually just a storm? Or, to put it more abstractly, can there be caves without geology?

Boston: Hmm. Yes, I think there could be. If it was enclosed or self-perpetuating.

Manaugh: Like a self-perpetuating thermal condition in the sky. It would be a sort of atmospheric “cave.”

Twilley: It would be a bubble.

ESA astronauts explore caves in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–R. Bresnik.

Boston: In terms of life that could exist in a permanent, fluid medium that was gaseous—rather than a compressed fluid, like water—Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter made an attempt at that, back in 1975. In fact, I use their "Jovian Gasbags" paper as a foundational text in my astrobiology classes.

But an atmospheric system like Jupiter is dominated—just like an ocean is—by currents. It’s driven by thermal convection cells, which are the weather system, but it’s at a density that gives it more in common with our oceans than with our sky. And we are already familiar with the fact that our oceans, even though they are a big blob of water, are spatially organized into currents, and they are controlled by density, temperature, and salinity. The ocean has a massively complex three-dimensional structure; so, too, does the Jovian atmosphere. So a gas giant is really more like a gaseous ocean I think.

Now, the interior machinations that go on in inside a planet like Jupiter are driving these gas motions. There is a direct analogy here to the fact that, on our rocky terrestrial planet, which we think of as a solid Earth, the truth is that the mantle is plastic—in fact, the Earth’s lower crust is a very different substance from what we experience up here on this crusty, crunchy top, this thing that we consider solid geology. Whether we’re talking about a gas giant like Jupiter or the mantle of a rocky planet like Earth, we are really just dealing with different regimes of density—and, here again, it’s driven by the physics.

ESA astronauts set up an experimental wind-speed monitoring station in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA/V. Crobu.

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a tectonics class that one of my colleagues at New Mexico Tech was giving, which was a lot of fun for me. Everybody else was thinking about Earth, and I was thinking about everything but Earth. For my little presentation in class, what I tried to do was think about analogies to things on icy bodies—to look at Europa, Titan, Enceledus, Ganymede, and so forth, and to see how they are being driven by the same tectonic processes, and even producing the same kind of brittle-to-ductile mantle transition, but in ice rather than rock.

I think that, as we go further and further in the direction of having to explain what we think is going on in exoplanets, it’s going to push some of the geophysics in that direction, as well. There is amazingly little out there. I was stunned, because I know a lot of planetary scientists who are thinking about this kind of stuff, but there is a big gulf between Earth geophysics and applying those lessons to exoplanets.

ESA astronauts prepare for their 2013 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA-V. Crobu.

Manaugh: We need classes in speculative geophysics.

Boston: Yeah—come on, geophysicists! [laughs] Why shouldn’t they get in the game? We’ve been doing it in astrobiology for a long time.

In fact, when I’ve asked my colleagues certain questions like, “Would we even get orogeny on a three Earth-mass planet?” They are like, “Um… We don’t know.” But you know what? I bet we have the equations to figure that out.

It starts with something as simple as that: in different or more extreme gravitational regimes, could you have mountains? Could you have caves? How could you calculate that? I don’t know the answer to that—but you have to ask it.

ESA astronauts take microbiological samples during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Twilley: You’re a member of NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Could you talk a little about what that means? I’m curious whether the same sorts of planetary protection protocols we might use on other planets like Mars should also be applied to the Earth’s subsurface. How do we protect these deeper ecosystems? And how do we protect deeper ecosystems on Mars, assuming there are any?

Boston: That’s a great question. We are working extremely hard to do that, actually.

Planetary protection is the idea that we must protect Earth from off-world contaminants. And, of course, vice versa: we don’t want to contaminate other planets, both for scientific reasons and, at least in my case, for ethical reasons, with biological material from Earth.

In other words, I think we owe it to our fellow bodies in the solar system to give them a chance to prove their biogenicity or not, before humans start casually shedding our skin cells or transporting microbes there.

That’s planetary protection, and it works both ways.

One thing I have used as a sales pitch in some of my proposals is the idea that we are attempting to become more and more noninvasive in our cave exploration, which is very hard to do. For example, we have pushed all of our methods in the direction of using miniscule quantities of sample. Most Earth scientists can just go out and collect huge chunks of rock. Most biologists do that, too. You grow E. coli in the lab and you harvest tons of it. But I have to take just a couple grams of material—on a lucky day—sometimes even just milligrams of material, with very sparse bio density in there. I have to work with that.

What this means is that the work we are doing also lends itself really well to developing methods that would be useful on extraterrestrial missions.

In fact, we are pushing in the direction of not sampling at all, if we can. We are trying to see what we can learn about something before we even poke it. So, in our terrestrial caving work, we are actually living the planetary protection protocol.

We are also working in tremendously sensitive wilderness areas and we are often privileged enough to be the only people to get in there. We want to minimize the potential contamination.

That said, of course, we are contaminant sources. We risk changing the environment we’re trying to study. We struggle with this. I struggle with it physically and methodologically. I struggle with it ethically. You don’t want to screw up your science and inadvertently test your own skin bugs.

I’d say this is one of those cases where it’s not unacceptable to have a nonzero risk—to use a double negative again. There are few things in life that I would say that about. Even in our ridiculous risk-averse culture, we understand that for most things, there is a nonzero risk of basically anything. There is a nonzero risk that we’ll be hit by a meteorite now, before we are even done with this interview. But it’s pretty unlikely.

In this case, I think it’s completely unacceptable to run much of a risk at all.

That said, the truth is that pathogens co-evolve with their hosts. Pathogenesis is a very delicately poised ecological relationship, much more so than predation. If you are made out of the same biochemistry I’m made of, the chances are good that I can probably eat you, assuming that I have the capability of doing that. But the chances that I, as a pathogen, could infect you are miniscule. So there are different degrees of danger.

There is also the alien effect, which is well known in microbiology. That is that there is a certain dose of microbes that you typically need to get in order for them to take hold, because they are coming into an area where there’s not much ecological space. They either have to be highly pre-adapted for whatever the environment is that they land in, or they have to be sufficiently numerous so that, when they do get introduced, they can actually get a toehold.

We don’t really understand some of the fine points of how that occurs. Maybe it’s quorum sensing. Maybe it’s because organisms don’t really exist as single strains at the microbial level and they really have to be in consortia—in communities—to take care of all of the functions of the whole community.

We have a very skewed view of microbiology, because our knowledge comes from a medical and pathogenesis history, where we focus on single strains. But nobody lives like that. There are no organisms that do that. The complexity of the communal nature of microorganisms may be responsible for the alien effect.

So, given all of that, do I think that we are likely to be able to contaminate Mars? Honestly, no. On the surface, no. Do I act as if we can? Yes—absolutely, because the stakes are too high.

Now, do I think we could contaminate the subsurface? Yes. You are out of the high ultraviolet light and out of the ionizing radiation zone. You would be in an environment much more likely to have liquid water, and much more likely to be in a thermal regime that was compatible with Earth life.

So you also have to ask what part of Mars you are worried about contaminating.

ESA teams perform bacterial sampling and examine a freshwater supply; top photo courtesy ESA–V. Crobu; bottom courtesy ESA/T. Peake.

Manaugh: There’s been some interesting research into the possibility of developing new pharmaceuticals from these subterranean biospheres—or even developing new industrial materials, like new adhesives. I’d love to know more about your research into speleo-pharmacology or speleo-antibiotics—drugs developed from underground microbes.

Boston: It’s just waiting to be exploited. The reasons that it has not yet been done have nothing to do with science and nothing to do with the tremendous potential of these ecosystems, and everything to do with the bizarre and not very healthy economics of the global drug industry. In fact, I just heard that someone I know is leaving the pharmaceutical industry, because he can’t stand it anymore, and he’s actually going in the direction of astrobiology.

Really, there is a de-emphasis on drug discovery today and more of an emphasis on drug packaging. It is entirely profit-driven motive, which is distasteful, I think, and extremely sad. I see a real niche here for someone who doesn’t want to become just a cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, someone who wants to do a small start-up and actually do drug discovery in an environment that is astonishingly promising.

It’s not my bag; I don’t want to develop drugs. But I see our organisms producing antibiotics all the time. When we grow them in culture, I can see where some of them are oozing stuff—pink stuff and yellow stuff and clear stuff. And you can see it in nature. If you go to a lava tube cave, here in New Mexico, you see they are doing it all the time.

A lot of these chemistry tests screen for mutagenic activity, chemogenic activity, and all of the other things that are indications of cancer-fighting drugs and so on, and we have orders of magnitude more hits from cave stuff than we do from soils. So where is everybody looking? In soils. Dudes! I’ve got whole ecosystems in one pool that are different from an ecosystem in another pool that are less than a hundred feet apart in Lechuguilla Cave! The variability—the non-homogeneity of the subsurface—vastly exceeds the surface, because it’s not well mixed.

ESA astronauts prepare their experiments and gear for a 2013 CAVES ("Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills") mission in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–V. Crobu

Twilley: In your TED talk, you actually say that the biodiversity in caves on Earth may well exceed the entire terrestrial biosphere.

Boston: Oh, yes—certainly the subsurface. There is a heck of a lot of real estate down there, when you add all those rock-fracture surface areas up. And each one of these little pockets is going off on its own evolutionary track. So the total diversity scales with that. It’s astonishing to me that speleo-bioprospecting hasn’t taken off already. I keep writing about it, because I can’t believe that there aren’t twenty-somethings out there who don’t want to go work for big pharma, who are fascinated by this potential for human use.

There is a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose graduate student is one of our friends and cavers, and they are starting to look at some of these. I’m like, “Go for it! I can supply you with endless cultures.”

Twilley: In your “Human Mission to Inner Space” experiment, you trialed several possible Martian cave habitat technologies in a one-week mission to a closed cave with a poisonous atmosphere in Arizona. As part of that, you looked into Martian agriculture, and grew what you called “flat crops.” What were they?

Boston: We grew great duckweed and waterfern. We made duckweed cookies. Gus made a rice and duckweed dish. It was quite tasty. [laughs] We actually fed two mice on it exclusively for a trial period, but although duckweed has more protein than soybeans, there weren’t enough carbohydrates to sustain them calorically.

But the duckweed idea was really just to prove a point. A great deal of NASA’s agricultural research has been devoted to trying to grow things for astronauts to make them happier on the long, outbound trips—which is very important. It is a very alien environment and I think people underestimate that. People who have not been in really difficult field circumstances have no apparent understanding of the profound impact of habitat on the human psyche and our ability to perform. Those of us who have lived in mock Mars habitats, or who have gone into places like caves, or even just people who have traveled a lot, outside of their comfort zone, know that. Your circumstances affect you.

One of the things we designed, for example, was a way to illuminate an interior subsurface space by projecting a light through fluid systems—because you’d do two things. You’d get photosynthetic activity of these crops, but you’d also get a significant amount of very soothing light into the interior space.

We had such a fabulous time doing that project. We just ran with the idea of: what you can do to make the space that a planet has provided for you into actual, livable space.

From Boston's presentation report on the Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments, NIAC Phase II study (PDF).

Twilley: Earlier on our Venue travels, we actually drove through Hanksville, Utah, where many of the Mars analog environment studies are done.

Boston: I’ve actually done two crews there. It’s incredibly effective, considering how low-fidelity it is.

Twilley: What makes it so effective?

Boston: Simple things are the most critical. The fact that you have to don a spacesuit and the incredible cumbersomeness of that—how it restricts your physical space in everything from how you turn your head to how your visual field is limited. Turning your head doesn’t work anymore, because you just look inside your helmet; your whole body has to turn, and it can feel very claustrophobic.

Then there are the gloves, where you’ve got your astronaut gloves on and you’re trying to manipulate the external environment without your normal dexterity. And there’s the cumbersomeness and, really, the psychological burden of having to simulate going through an airlock cycle. It’s tremendously effective. Being constrained with the same group of people, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the simulation. It’s not as if you don’t know you’re not on Mars, but it doesn’t take much to make a convincing simulation if you get those details right.

The Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah; image courtesy of bandgirl807/Wikipedia.

I guess that’s what was really surprising to me, the first time I did it: how little it took to be transform your human experience and to really cause you to rethink what you have to do. Because everything is a gigantic pain in the butt. Everything you know is wrong. Everything you think in advance that you can cope with fails in the field. It is a humbling experience, and an antidote to hubris. I would like to take every engineer I know that works on space stuff—

Twilley: —and put them in Hanksville! [laughter]

Boston: Yes—seriously! I have sort of done that, by taking these loafer-wearing engineers—most of whom are not outdoorsy people in any way, who haunt the halls of MIT and have absorbed the universe as a built environment—out to something as simple as the lava tubes. I could not believe how hard it was for them. Lava tubes are not exactly rigorous caving. Most of these are walk-in, with only a little bit of scrambling, but you would have thought we’d just landed on Mars. It was amazing for some of them, how totally urban they are and how little experience they have of coping with a natural space. I was amazed.

I actually took a journalist out to a lava tube one time. I think this lady had never left her house before! There’s a little bit of a rigorous walk over the rocks—but it was as if she had never walked on anything that was not flat before.

From Venue's own visit to a lava tube outside Flagstaff, AZ.

It’s just amazing what one’s human experience does. This is why I think engineers should be forced to go out into nature and see if the systems they are designing can actually work. It’s one of the best ways for them to challenge their assumptions, and even to change the types of questions they might be asking in the first place.
While staying in Moab, Utah, and after interviewing Vicki Webster of the U.S. National Park Service, Venue received a dinner invitation on Twitter from a small community arts organization called Epicenter, located just up the road in Green River.



Green River is both tiny and quite isolated; its population is less than 1,000 people and it seems only to be saved from complete obscurity by the 70 highway that cuts through town, putting it a mere five hours' drive west from Denver.

As it happened, however, we had already marked Green River on our maps, following a tip from Matt Coolidge at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, who told us about the town's open-air uranium containment cell. Eager to check out this radioactive landmark, as well as find out how the folks at Epicenter had managed to set up shop in so small a town in so remote an area, we hopped into our car and headed north out of Moab to meet them.




Over a burger at Ray's Tavern, the (more-or-less only) local hangout spot, we heard the Epicenter backstory. The self-described "rural and proud" community arts organization was founded in 2009 by Jack Forinash, Maria Sykes, and Rand Pinson, all graduates of the Rural Studio at Auburn University, which prides itself on its commitment to training architects to create work that responds to the needs of the community, from within the community’s own context, rather than from the outside.

The three designers first arrived in Green River as AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) in 2008. It quickly became clear that the town was both in sore need of community resources, and small enough to allow for things to get done: "at city council meetings," Maria explained, "we can present our ideas, the five people there vote, and we have an answer—we're not dealing with some obscure bureaucracy."

In 2009, with the help of a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant, Jack, Maria, and Rand purchased a former billiard room turned potato chip storage facility in downtown Green River, redesigned the space, and renovated the structure.



From there, Jack, Maria, and a growing team, augmented by visiting Fellows, run an expanding roster of programs and store all the equipment necessary to build a house. Over dinner and beers, they gave us a picture of the town, and their place within it.

"I'm the only 28-year-old in the entire town," said Maria. "We know all 957 people who live here by name," added Jack. Both agreed Green River's was a different kind of smallness compared to the small towns in the South in which they had worked while at college. We learned that are three melon families (growing 32 varieties at sufficient scale that the entire town is lightly melon-scented, come September), that the median income is $21,000, and that the most desired career in a 6th grade survey was that of a cashier—but we also discussed what it means to be rural now, in an era of urbanism.

Epicenter clearly spends plenty of time and energy learning and trying to respond to the particular needs and opportunities of its community, but beneath that lies a broader curiosity as to how rural might redefine itself, and its relationship with urban, to shift from a pervasive sense of decline (Green River's population has shrunk by half since the 1970s) toward empowerment.




After dinner, the team took us to visit their awesomely picturesque headquarters, from which Epicenter runs a range of programs, from painting a Habitat for Humanity house (seen in the photograph above) and fixing leaky roofs to designing a melon marketing campaign and running arts programs and workshops in local schools.

"We've been given both money and moral support locally, but we've also been called communists," said Maria, when we asked how Green River had responded to Epicenter's activities. "The single most successful thing we've done," Maria told us, "is our guide to what to do around here"—a gorgeous, single-edition "Green River Newspaper," created in collaboration with local high-schoolers.



Outside, we poked our heads in a "Caravan of Curiosities"—the taxidermy-filled trailer in which some of the various Fellows funded by Epicenter have stayed. Then we divided up into two vehicles and spun around town on a short mission to see as many Epicenter-instigated art installations as possible.



These were primarily the work of artist Richard Saxton, created during his residency as a Fellow, and took the form of posters tactically installed on or inside of small structures around town, including, in the images below, the old town jail, an absolutely minuscule hut that now serves as someone's lawn care storage garage.




It felt a bit like an Easter Egg hunt, driving around the small but nonetheless somewhat sprawling town to poke our heads into various out-buildings, gatehouses, and garages to see works of art posted up on the walls.

However, the most surreal part of the evening came about midway through the art tour when, at our request, we took a detour to the edge of town to visit Green River's uranium containment cell.



Pyramidal, internally radioactive, and surrounded by nothing but a dilapidated chain link fence, the dark mound of gravel feels disturbingly post-apocalyptic, a minimalist earthwork more temporally ambitious than anything designed by Robert Smithson. The Green River uranium disposal cell is one of more than thirty constructed by the U.S. Department of Energy over the last twenty-five years, to contain the low-level radioactive waste from processing and power plants.

The Green River uranium cell from above; image by CLUI.

As the Center for Land Use Interpretation describes it:

A disposal mound for radioactive tailings, located at the site of a former uranium mill. The mill was operated by Union Carbide from 1957 to 1961. The mill site was bought by the State of Utah in 1988, and the buildings remain, gutted and abandoned. The DOE took over the disposal operations, and built the mound in 1989. It contains tailings, as well as contaminated material from 17 other properties in the area. The mound is 450 feet by 530 feet, and 41 feet tall. It covers 6 acres, and is surrounded by a chain link fence, ringed by signs warning of radioactivity.


We hovered next to its chain-link fence for about twenty minutes admiring its clean geometry, its carefully engineered gravel exterior designed to shed rainwater and provide an inhospitable surface for plant growth. As we took photographs, we talked about the Great Pyramid of Giza and the absurdity of the Department of Energy's Legacy Management Office, whose responsibility these radioactive monuments are. A small, gravestone-like marker announced a radiation level of 30 Curies. We huddled back into our vehicles and returned to town to finish our tour.

As it happens, if you're interested in exploring (and contributing to) Green River yourself, Epicenter is currently looking for new Fellows.



You have until December 14, 2013, to apply.

Water Pipe, Running from Central Arizona Project to Pleasant Valley Development, Phoenix, Arizona (2009). Photograph by Peter Arnold, originally published on Design Observer as part of "Drylands: Water and the West," an essay by Peter and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, whose work focuses on the challenge of drylands design.

Aridity is the defining condition of large parts of the American West. As the first white explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, presciently warned the attendees of a 1893 irrigation congress, there is simply not enough water to go around:

I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.

However, Americans—or, at least, those in positions of power—were unwilling to forego the nation's "Manifest Destiny," and, over the subsequent century and beyond, through to the present day, the arid regions of the West have been "reclaimed" through a series of dams, diversions, and irrigation projects, while the region's limited water has proved endless only in terms of its ability to generate legal fees.

Powell's own prescription, presented in his 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, proposed organizing the government of the region by watershed, rather than state, with citizens of each "drainage district" responsible for administering the resource as a communal property.


John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of the "Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts,” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey. If Congress had followed Powell's recommendations, the governance units of the West would have followed these hydrological boundaries instead of state lines. Via the Aqueous Advisor's blog, where a larger PDF version is available.

Instead, the application of a structure of individual property ownership and states' rights onto a dynamic hydrological system has led to a complex, and seemingly unsustainable, system of water management.

Nevada, home of Venue's parent institution, the Nevada Museum of Art, provides a particularly fascinating series of examples of the ways in which bureaucratic fictions of water rights and allocations articulate a physical reality of endangered Lahontan cutthroat fisheries, controversial inter-basin transfer pipes, and dangerously low reservoirs.


The white "bathtub ring" visible in this panorama of Lake Mead (taken by Kumar Appaiah) shows its lowered level. According to some estimates, the reservoir could drop below the minimum power pool elevation of 1,050 feet as early as 2017.

Curious to understand what the West's water looks like from a legal perspective, as well as to learn why Reno's Truckee River is the most litigated body of water in America, Venue stopped by the office of attorney Ross de Lipkau, author of The Nevada Law of Water Rights, for a quick chat.

Our conversation sheds light on the origins of Western water law in mining claims, the ebb and flow of the water rights market, and alternative water management systems—a vital context for understanding the region's hydrological history, as well as for re-imagining its future.

• • •



Geoff Manaugh: To begin with, I’m curious how you define the users or the constituency of a body of water—and, along those lines, how a body of water itself is defined.

Ross de Lipkau: Today, the jurisdiction of Nevada water is handled strictly by the Nevada State Engineer. The State Engineer has jurisdiction of all waters in Nevada, with the exception being the Colorado River, which comes through Nevada at the southern tip.

Nevada’s water law was first enacted in 1905. Prior to that time, you did it just like the old miners did. When Nevada was settled, homesteaders were basically trespassers upon federal lands who would simply divert water from a creek to irrigate the land they’d taken. In 1866, Congress came out with probably the most important land law of its time. What that law did was affirm and, in essence, bless the activities that had taken place previously. That meant that the mining claims were fine, and the ditches dug by the farmers across federal lands to their irrigated lands were fine, and, with that blessing, that behavior continued.

In Nevada, you simply diverted water from a creek or source and irrigated your lands, no questions asked.


Hydraulic mining near French Corral, Nevada County (c.1866), Lawrence & Houseworth (publisher), Library of Congress.

There were some cases prior to 1905, but they also affirmed prior appropriation. In 1905, Nevada water law came into effect, and what it says, in part, is that all those rights placed to beneficial use prior to the adoption of the water law are fine, but that after 1905, all water rights have to be filed and approved by the Nevada State Engineer.

The result is that we have what I call a dual system: the permitted water rights from post-1905, and, prior to that, what are called vested water rights.

Nicola Twilley: Are the vested water rights all recorded somewhere?

de Lipkau: They’re recorded in the State Engineer’s Office.

Twilley: So people who had diverted water for their own use prior to 1905 had to visit the Engineer, to make sure it was written down.

de Lipkau: Correct. We frequently go to the State Engineer’s Office in Carson City to check his official records. They’re on the computer, but we’d rather see the hard copies when it’s important.

Twilley: Do people ever come along with a water right that they say is vested but didn’t get written down at the time?

de Lipkau: Yes, that happens all the time. In that case, you file a claim of vested right. Then the State Engineer may have a hearing; it may end up in court. Two or more people arguing over and claiming the same water source is a very frequent problem in Nevada.

Manaugh: We’re interested in talking about some of the landmark cases in water rights law. For example, I’m thinking about the ongoing discussion about diverting water from northern Nevada down to the south to help out with Las Vegas and Lake Mead—is that something you’re involved with?

de Lipkau: I used to be involved. What is happening in Las Vegas is a result of that city’s huge growth spurt. Nevada was originally allocated 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River in the United States Supreme Court decision that adjudicated the waters of the Colorado between the different states. In that decision, the Lower Basin states received 7.5 million acre-feet and the Upper Basin received the same, which is fine except that there aren’t 14 million acre-feet flowing in the river. The adjudication was based on 1920 records and those just aren’t accurate to today’s reality.


A graph of historical and projected supply and demand on the waters of the Colorado River Basin published by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in December 2012.

In any case, Nevada receives 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, plus ground water in the Las Vegas basin, which is in the magnitude of 35,000 acre-feet. The water management team of Las Vegas, which I think a great deal of, said that, because of this growth spurt that took place in the late 80s and early 90s, we need more water. So the water district filed under state law—enacted in 1905, as I mentioned, and substantially amended in 1913—a total of 126 applications to appropriate water in three different counties, and in different groundwater basins. There are 254 groundwater basins in Nevada, and they filed in something like twenty of them. They’ve subsequently dropped some of the applications because they were perhaps leading to an environmental situation, or they involved a federal wildlife preserve, or things like that.


Map showing the South Nevada Water Authority proposed pipeline, pumping water from northern Nevada groundwater basins to supply Las Vegas. The Governor of Utah rejected the proposal in April 2013, casting a yet another question mark over the entire project. Map via KCSG TV.

At this point, the State Engineer has granted a series of applications in White Pine County, which is several hundred miles north of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is now in the process of permitting the right of way to bring the pipeline to the city, to commingle the waters with the Colorado River waters and their groundwater sources. The county won’t get any return flow.

Twilley: So some of this water from a different basin will end up joining the Colorado?

de Lipkau: Yes, a certain percentage of the water delivered by the water district goes back into the river via the sanitary waste system. The state of Nevada gets credit for that. So, for example, if they pump 100,000 acre-feet out in any given year, a certain percent—I think it’s fifty-eight—of that goes back and can be repumped. So the 300,000 acre-feet expands, and is actually 480,000 acre feet.

Twilley: I see: the better you are at returning it, the more you can pump.

de Lipkau: Correct. The less outdoor use, the better. That’s why, if you’ve been to Las Vegas, you’ll know there are brand new and even twenty-year-old subdivisions that have no lawns. They call it native landscaping. Lots of rocks, a few bushes and a couple of trees—and that’s it.

In those cases, virtually all of the water is used in the house, and virtually all of the water that is used in the house returns through the sanitary system.


Xeriscaping on the campus of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada; photo by Andrew Alden.

Manaugh: What’s on the horizon? Are there any larger legislative changes that might affect water rights, or any major new developments in Nevada that might cause water rights conflicts?

de Lipkau: I would say no. What happens, for the most part, for new developments, is that you have to renegotiate existing water rights. In Reno, for example, the State Engineer stopped granting groundwater permits in 1975. In order to get water for development, you have to transfer existing rights to a new use. So, if someone wanted to built a 100-unit condominium on that vacant lot out there, they would have to acquire and buy enough water to serve that size of condo, and then they would have to dedicate and give that volume of water to the water purveyor, which is the local water company. That’s how they do it here.

Twilley: Where would they buy that water from?

de Lipkau: They’d likely have to buy it from a farmer. There’s an open market for water rights.

Twilley: Any farmer?

de Lipkau: It’s got to be in the same valley. It can be a pretty competitive market. During the heyday, in 2004—and this will shock you—an acre-foot would go for upwards of $25,000. It could go as high, in an extreme case, as $50,000.

Twilley: The farmers were sitting on a goldmine.


Irrigated farmland in Nevada; photo via a realtor who specializes in transactions involving ranch water rights.

de Lipkau: Yes, they were. Now, it’s more like $6,000, maybe even $5,000. It’s gone down by eighty-five to ninety percent. There’s no market because there’s no development. There are still some mining companies that have had to buy farms to transfer the water to their mining operations, but the market has gone way down.

Now, to give you some context, one acre-foot would probably serve two houses annually. I have a water meter, so I know that I use about half an acre-foot a year. Actually, during the winter, the water meter reads about one hundred gallons a day with just my wife and I—and I have no idea where that goes. During the summer, when you’re outdoors watering—and I don’t have a big lawn or anything—you use a heck of a lot more.

The basic premise in Nevada water law is when the State Engineer sees an application, he’s required to deny it if one of three things is true. He has to deny it if there’s no un-appropriated water in the proposed source supplying the water. In this watershed—Truckee Meadows—all the groundwater is already taken, so he will deny it on that ground. That’s why new development relies on transfers. The other ground for denial is based on whether the granting of the application will tend to impair the value of the existing rights. What that means is that you can’t give permission for a well too close to another well. “Too close” is an engineering call by the State Engineer based on hydrology and the cone of depression. When a well pumps water, it creates a cone of depression as the water above it drains to the pump. If you have too many wells too close together, these cones of depression will overlap and the water level will go down.

The third ground for denial is whether the granting of the application would tend to be detrimental to the public interest, which is pretty much undefined. That third reason, in itself, is very, very seldom used as the sole grounds to deny an application—I can think of maybe three examples in this state.


A rain chart of the United States showing areas with more than twenty inches of rain per year (the minimum required for non-irrigated agricultre) in varying shades of grey, and those with less than twenty in white. From John Wesley Powell's 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Via the University of Alabama.

Twilley: Are there any changes you would like to see in Nevada’s water law?

de Lipkau: I’d like to undo some statutes. The legislature sometimes attempts to add to the water law without an understanding of what the effect is. These new statutes look pretty innocuous on their face, but they are a huge detriment to the intended water user. For example, there’s one new statute that says when you have a trans-basin diversion, meaning that you are planning to move water from one basin to the other, if the amount being moved is more than 250 acre-feet, you have to prepare—or pay for the State Engineer to prepare—an inventory of the basin from which the water comes.

It’s kind of a make-work deal. One little tiny town in Nevada got caught up in that statute, and they’re dead in the water. The State Engineer doesn’t have the staff to go out and prepare this study. It’s happened to mining companies, but they have the $100,000 or $250,000 to prepare this inventory that nobody looks at. It’s supposed to be a snapshot in time, but if the snapshot in time is from the first week in June, and the springs are flowing, it bears no relation if you do it during the last week in January.

Twilley: What was the motivation behind that legislation?

de Lipkau: It was political. I sarcastically say sometimes that the legislature wants to make water when water is not there, because their constituents or their corporate supporters are complaining that the State Engineer won’t grant any permits. Special legislation is sometimes made in an attempt to make him have to grant permits. Or, if there’s a project that people want stopped, like the Las Vegas Water Importation Program, then it’s a case of throwing up as many legislative roadblocks as we can.

That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see eliminated. I’d like to get back to what it was thirty years ago. It would be a lot less political, which would streamline the process and make it easier for the applicant.

Then there’s another statute that I personally don’t care for, which is that’s anybody can file a protest to any application. For example, I can personally file a protest against the next application filed in Elko County, which is three hundred miles away, just because.

Twilley: So any Nevadan can protest any application made in the state?

de Lipkau: No, no—anyone can protest. You can file. It doesn’t make any sense. In my mind, the only reason to protest that application in Elko would be if it’s going to hurt my water right. But it doesn’t have to hurt my water right—I can protest it if I just don’t like it. If I don’t like farming or I don’t like mining or I don’t like development, I can protest, and that will bog up everything for six months or a couple years, and then I can appeal it to the district court, too.

Manaugh: So, in your mind, a protest should only be filed by people who actually have water rights in the same basin?

de Lipkau: Correct. A protest should be filed by someone who has a legitimate standing, to put it in legal terminology.


A detail showing Reno from John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of the "Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts,” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey. Via the Aqueous Advisor's blog, where a larger PDF version is available.

Manaugh: Given the scarcity of water in the American West in general, and thus the potential for future conflict, we’d love to get your thoughts on John Wesley Powell’s proposal for governing the American West according to drainage basins. Do you think that Powell’s proposal has merit?

de Lipkau: I do. Aligning the boundaries of governance units—say, states—with hydrologic units makes a great deal of sense to facilitate coherent management policies. Having a state line go through the middle of an agricultural area that is irrigated from a single drainage basin is a recipe for dispute.

As an example, take the border between California and Nevada, which was finally decreed by the Supreme Court in 1980 after more than a hundred years of conflict, sometimes physical as well as legal. Much of the ongoing contention over the management of Lake Tahoe and the source of the Truckee River could have been avoided if that boundary had followed the Sierra crest line rather than following the 120th meridian right through the middle of Lake Tahoe, as the territory—then State—of Nevada originally proposed.

So I think Powell’s proposal has a great deal of merit—although it might well have resulted in less work for me.


The congressional acts that created the Nevada Territory in 1861, and then the State of Nevada in 1864, provided for a hydrological western boundary at the Sierra Nevada crest line—if the California state legislature would agree to change its existing boundary from 120 degrees longitude. California declined, leading to a variety of interstate water rights issues that persist to this day. Maps via this Tahoe Nuggets article on the California-Nevada border war, originally published in Professional Surveyor, January 2002.

Twilley: Finally, I’m curious about something I was told at Venue’s launch party, which is that Reno’s Truckee River is the most litigated river in America. Is that true? And, if so, why?

de Lipkau: I’d say the answer is yes. An adjudication is the judicial means of determining the relative rights to all the waters of a stream or river system. The Truckee River Adjudication Suit was first filed by the United States in the teens. It was a federal action because the Truckee is an interstate stream, meaning it starts in California, at Lake Tahoe, and it ends in Nevada, at Pyramid Lake.

I’ll give you the short version. In 1926, an injunction was granted and the parties followed the injunction and were bound by the injunction until 1944, when the final decision or decree was issued by the United States Federal District Court. The decree allocated all of the waters of the Truckee River to the farmers in the Truckee Meadows valley, to the Sierra Pacific Power Company, which supplied Reno and Sparks, and to irrigate the Newlands Project.

That was the country’s first reclamation project, and it came out of a piece of legislation authored by Senator Newlands in 1902, which authorized the construction of Derby Dam on the Truckee. The dam split the waters at that point, with a portion going to irrigate the farmland near Fallon, under the control of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District, and the balance going to Pyramid Lake.


Derby Dam, twenty miles east of Reno on the Truckee River, was the first project of the brand new U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation), organized under the Reclamation Act of 1902, which committed the Federal Government to construct the hydraulic infrastructure necessary to irrigate the West. Photo via UNR.

In the 1944 decree, which is called the Orr Ditch Decree, the Pyramid Lake tribe was given approximately 30,000 acres’ worth of water. The Pyramid Lake Reservation was set aside by the president in 1859. Therefore, they had the highest priority on the system.

What has happened over the years is that the tribe wants more water. They want the waters of Pyramid Lake maintained as a fishery, and there has been constant litigation since about 1968. It eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in U.S.A. vs. Nevada. In 1983, the Supreme Court said that the Indians were out of luck and that their rights were fully determined in the Orr Ditch Decree—the litigation that was final in 1944. Ever since then, the tribe has been bringing various actions to put more water in Pyramid Lake and lessen the diversion of water by others, mostly the Truckee Carson Irrigation District.

I suppose the end result that the tribe wants is that the diversion of the Derby Dam be shut down, and all the waters of the Truckee River that are not used upstream left to flow into Pyramid Lake for a fishery.

Twilley: When the original adjudication was determined, why wasn’t the fishery allocated an adequate supply?

de Lipkau: Because, at that time, the fishery was not important. In 1902, in the era of the Newlands Act, farming and opening up the west to agriculture was the primary concern of Congress. At that point, more than one hundred years ago, converting sagebrush lands to productive farmlands was considered to be in the public interest.

Now, people argue that it’s not—that farming is not so good and that the water is better used for environmental and fishery purposes. Pyramid Lake is the end or terminus of the Truckee River. It’s a dead lake, in other words, and the salinity is rising because there’s no outlet and there’s no way to freshen it up. So, through evaporation, water escapes into the atmosphere, and the solids—the salts—stay in there.


Timothy O’Sullivan, "Rock Formations, Pyramid Lake, Nevada," 1867. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection.


Mark Klett, "Rephotographic Survey Project, Pyramid Isle, Pyramid Lake, Nevada (Site #79-33)," 1979/1984–85. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection.

Twilley: When you go through this adjudication process and determine the relative rights of different users to water, is the law written in such a way as to account for the fact that people’s priorities will shift over time?

de Lipkau: As far as changes in uses and their perceived benefits over time, the Truckee River Decree expressly authorizes changes pursuant to law. The language is there to say that the existing law and the existing water right is always subject to change in conformity to future legal determination, and that is true of any legitimate water legislation in Nevada.

Priority, on the other hand, does not shift. The water law follows the mining law. We all know how priority works in mining from our eighth grade civics classes on the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. We learned then, and I relearned much later, that the first person to stake a claim has priority on that mineral resource.

The first water rights case came out of California in 1855. It had to do with miners diverting water out of small creeks to wash the gold out of the rock in sluice boxes. The California Supreme Court said, with no legal authority, that the way to make it fair and to make it work was priority appropriation. That means that the first person who diverted water from the creek had the first priority. The second person who diverted water from the creek had the second priority, and so on. In times of shortage, the last priority cuts off completely, then the next to last, and so on, till the first appropriator—the earliest priority—gets it all. And priority doesn’t change.

Nevada came along in 1866 and affirmed that decision, and so priority of appropriation is also the basis of Nevada’s water law.

Now, a system in which all the users are forced to cut back by a certain percentage is called correlative rights. But that’s not the case here; with the Truckee, it’s strict priority.





On a hot afternoon in Moab, Utah, Venue stopped by the museum collection storage facility for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, to visit a small collection of objects and historical artifacts found within or associated with what are now Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

We spent several hours in the company of curator Vicki Webster, who generously, patiently, and enthusiastically showed us through the collection, from 20th-century Park maps to ancient stone knives, from the eye-popping "bat drawer" and exquisite herbaria to corncob sandals, dinosaur bones, and pieces of pottery collected from the sites of southeast Utah's extraordinary National Parks.



Having just spent the previous week exploring these sites on our own, hiking various trails, visiting Newspaper Rock, and seeing as many of southern Utah's parks as we could, we were already intensely curious about what it takes to administer the natural landscape and the interpretive infrastructure of a National Park, seen from the perspective of collecting, cataloging, and preserving the outdoors.

How are these practices changing over time, we wondered, and what should a collection of artifacts from the nation's most historically and naturally significant landscapes include? How are these objects narratively explained and physically maintained for future generations? Further, how do even the trails themselves function as a kind of museum without walls—and what goes into designing and documenting them?

Finally, how might archival practices oriented toward immersive experiences of outdoor landscapes differ from, for instance, the organizational techniques of a librarian, as Venue explored in our behind-the-scenes tour of the Denver Public Library with Wendel Cox?



Webster—a dream guide to this material, as curious about and excited by the collections as we were—told us countless stories of the region's parks. Many of these tales appear below, in the following edited transcript of our day spent behind the scenes of our nation's outdoor heritage, including the surprise natural gas pipeline that runs through Arches National Park and the possible future history of Blue John Canyon where hiker Aron Ralson infamously became trapped for 127 hours.

We were joined by a student named Malia, who was shadowing Vicki Webster for the day in order to learn more about the National Park Service.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: Could you tell us briefly about the room we’re now standing in? At first glance, it seems to be more of an office archive or a storeroom, rather than a museum.

Vicki Webster: And it’s a very full storeroom! [laughs] You can see behind you that these shelves are just full of historic photos—so are these [gestures at shelves]—and they have all now been catalogued. We’ve also got three archival racks that are just about full now. These mobile racks are also almost full. I have a little space left in here, but not much.

The herbarium cabinets are right here, as well; then these specimen cabinets are where most of the archaeological and historical objects are. The archives are in these racks, and some other racks in the room on the other side of that wall. Then we also have map cabinets for oversized documents, drawings, and maps. We’re getting to where it’s pretty close-quarters.

In addition, we have some archival collections stored at the Western Archaeological Center in Tucson and at the Heritage Center in Dolores. We do have a lot—but, twenty years ago, there was really nothing catalogued, in terms of archives.



Nicola Twilley: In terms of the broad categories of collections that are stored here, I guess there would be natural history…

Webster: That’s exactly what I was going to start with, to give you an idea of the different disciplines. I pulled out some samples from each. If you look just behind you here, on this shelf, this is a single sauropod vertebra. When I show this to people I always say: take one hand and put it on your own spinal column, and feel the size of a single vertebra. Now look at this again—this thing is huge. And there’s another one there, and then there are some smaller ones.

A lot of people get really excited about archaeological things that are 800 to 1,200 years old—but these are millions of years old. This is a sign of life millions of years ago. To me, that’s much more fascinating and cool.

We do have these kind of paleontological resources in the collection, all found within the park boundaries. They were brought in from the field precisely because we didn’t want them to be stolen or damaged out there. In fact, we just recently finished a paleontological survey of Arches National Park, so the Utah state geologists have gone out there to a number of sites.



Twilley: Is that the oldest thing in the collection?

Webster: I would definitely say that our paleontological resources are among the oldest things in the collection. As to which one’s the oldest? Is it this particular vertebra? I don’t know. I’d have to look at these with someone.

But that’s really a large part of what I do: managing data. That data management function is critical, even more than having personal familiarity with the collection, so that other people can access the collection as a resource.

A lot of people associate the word curator with a subject-matter specialist, and, certainly, in a lot of museum work, you would have a subject-matter specialist as the curator. But, really, much of the time in National Park Service areas, the museum curator is a manager of the objects and the archives and the data about those objects, much more than a subject-matter specialist.

In some of the historic areas, a place like Gettysburg or the Civil War parks or Independence Hall, you’re more likely to have a historian dealing with the collections. But, in your big national parks, you’re going to have somebody who’s more of a manager than a specialist.

Also, I should say my background is in biology. Everyone thinks that if you’re the curator, you must be an archaeologist, but no—I’m not an archaeologist. I always like to make that little disclaimer, because, otherwise, I get asked a lot of questions where I have to say, “I don’t know, ask the archaeologist!”

Now, back to our discussion of different disciplines. We do have geologic specimens, as well, but not really here in our storage area. Geologists who come to the park to do research will generally take their specimens back to their respective institutions with them. What I do, in that case, is administer loan agreements with them; we retain that documentation and they retain the specimens.



Twilley: Is that a common occurrence? In other words, are there a lot of rock samples out there that came from Canyonlands and Arches, but are now distributed around the country or even the world?

Webster: Well, a lot is a relative term. In terms of Canyonlands, there’s consistent interest in places like Upheaval Dome—a geological formation that’s fairly mysterious. There’s been some speculation that it was formed as a salt uprising, as well as some speculation that it’s the result of a meteorite impact. A lot of geologists have come here over the years to study that specific controversy. This year, we even have some geologists looking at the possibility that it’s the result of a combination of both of those factors—that perhaps it was both a meteorite impact and a salt upheaval—and they’re trying to look at whether that could be the case, and what the sequence of events might have been.

[points at map] There—that’s the Upheaval Dome. You can see, to a geologist, that this would just jump out at you. You’d say, “Hey, this is something strange and weird. What is this? We don’t normally see circular formations like that.” That’s something for which we write research permits almost every year, and some long-term studies have also been done on it.

Twilley: When they take the rocks and you put together a loan agreement for them, do they actually show up with a truck full of rocks that you have to sort through for each loan agreement or can they just take the rocks and go? Do you actually see what they take?

Webster: Well, collecting rocks is illegal unless made by permit—and the permits severely restrict the quantity of material to be collected. It can only be a very small amount.

In terms of your question, I don’t always see it, because they don’t always physically come into the office and bring the samples here, but it is documented and it is catalogued. Each sample is assigned a unique catalog number in our system, and they send me the data. I can then say that you have rock number so-and-so, and here’s how big it is and here’s what it looks like and here’s all the data about it. Because I’m not a geologist, I don’t always understand all the technical data, but I always insist they give it to me for our records.



Twilley: So there’s an inventory here of rocks that have been moved elsewhere.

Webster: Yes. If I want a list of all the geologic specimens that have been collected from Canyonlands and are on loan elsewhere, I can spit that out from my database. Absolutely. Once in a while, the samples will even come back to us—somebody will retire or whatever, and their collection will be returned.

For example, there’s a box right there that’s full of rocks. [turns to box on shelf] These are geologic specimens that were collected from Upheaval Dome. These are called shatter cones and they were collected by one of the researchers who had been finding evidence of meteorite impact. You can see that these are labeled; they have numbers on them. To a geologist, this looks very different from other rocks. In fact, even to a layperson it looks like there’s some impact evidence.

While we’re talking about natural resources, back in the day—this is back in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s—we used to slaughter park wildlife in order to study it. That means that we have a number of bird and rodent specimens and things like that in the collection, as well. We don’t do that so much anymore, as there are many other—and better—ways of studying wildlife without killing it.

But I do like to pull out the bat drawer to show it to people, because the bats are really fascinating to me. [pulls out the bat drawer]

Manaugh: Oh my god.



Webster: We have a variety of bat species in the park. When you’re out camping, and it’s evening, and the bugs are out, the bats start to fly around and catch things, but they all kind of look the same to me as they fly by. I think, “Oh—bat.” But they’re really very different.

We have big-eared bats, Mexican free-tailed bats, little bitty pipistrelles—there have been some pretty thorough bat surveys done here, too. We had an interpreter here years ago who did a great campfire program on bats. She was amazing. She’s one of these really creative, artistic interpreters. She would take a black, plastic garbage bag and get a visitor to stand up in front of everybody at the campground amphitheater, and she would attach the garbage bag to their little fingers and pull it all the way down to their waist, and then she would have the person demonstrate how a bat catches mosquitoes by scooping around and bending over and picking them up and eating them—because they trap the bugs in their wings. That’s what they do. It’s very cool.



We also have an herbarium for each of the four parks. In fact, I don’t know if I explained that there are four National Park Service sites that are served out of this office? This office is called the Southeast Utah group of parks, so we have Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments. Hovenweep and Bridges are to the south of us.

Manaugh: We just went through Bridges yesterday, actually.

Webster: Oh, isn’t it wonderful? What a gem. I just love that spot.

So we do have an herbarium for each of the four parks. And, although we do not have a voucher specimen for every known species—these are called voucher specimens [gestures at cabinets]—we do have a lot, and we’re working on completing the herbarium collection. When our staff is out in the field, they know which species are suspected to grow here and, if they should find one of those, they will collect a voucher specimen.

I don’t know how familiar you are with herbarium collections, but I pulled out a sample for you. A lot of people don’t realize that an herbarium collection is actually useful for a lot of things other than just the identification of plant species. Things like blooming dates can be very important. A few years ago, for instance, I was lucky enough to go to the Smithsonian for a curatorial workshop, and one of the things we got to do was play—it was work, of course, but for me it was play—in the herbarium at the Smithsonian. It was so much fun. For an old botany major like myself, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!

They showed us a study that had demonstrated how blooming dates are now about three weeks earlier than they were, I think, fifty years ago, or whatever specific date they’d been using. They have specimens from year after year over the decades, and the blooming dates are getting earlier because of climate change. So the herbarium specimens are going to be the evidence, another fifty years from now, for how species began migrating in elevation because of climate change. There’s actually a lot of information in an herbarium collection.



Twilley: Are you responsible for mounting them and putting together the display?

Webster: Some of the time. It depends.

We had an ecologist here for a number of years who would press his own specimens and then hand them over to me, newspaper and all, and I would mount all his stuff and label it. Right now we have a person working here who is really good at doing beautiful mounting. She loves to do it. She delivers these gorgeous specimens to me, all ready to go. All I have to do is enter the data.

When I do it, I actually work from a reference book about herbarium specimens, including how to handle them and how to mount them, even how to create a little envelope for the seeds or cones. A lot of it is about making sure what’s visible are the critical parts for identification purposes. Of course, that starts at the moment of collection and at the moment of pressing, but also at mounting time. Some specimens are more challenging than others. Cacti are particularly challenging, as are really long grasses because of their size.

Manaugh: You mentioned that the herbariums would be finished at a certain point. What’s the actual finish line, and how do you judge completion?

Webster: Well, I used the word complete, but I meant complete in the sense of species representation. We have a list. In fact, one of the things I have to do as collections manager is to write a “Scope of Collections” statement that says what is appropriate for us to accession into the collection. That statement includes an appendix that lists all the various plant species that are believed to grow in the park, but for which we don’t yet have a voucher specimen. So, presumably—I don’t know if I’ll live long enough—but, presumably, the day will come when that list will pretty much be checked off.

Twilley: Would you include invasive species on that list, as well?

Webster: Oh, absolutely. We have a large invasive species program here. We actually have an active set of employees whose job is to locate, identify, and get rid of invasive species.



Manaugh: This touches on the border between natural history and cultural history, but I’m curious where things like indigenous but cultivated plants would fit into this. In other words, how do you catalog a plant that is actually an agricultural remnant from an earlier culture, but that now appears to be “natural” to the region?

Webster: That’s a good question. In the mid 70s, there was a group of people from San Jose State University who did a huge research project at Hovenweep. It used to be that the Mesa Verde staff managed Hovenweep, but there was an administrative change and now it’s ours; so we’ve been receiving the Hovenweep collection here in fits and starts over the years.

As it started to trickle in, I was amazed that the herbarium seemed to be collected by the same guy at the same time in the mid 70s, and at first I thought this was really strange. Then, finally, I got enough information about their cultural collections to realize that this massive study done by San Jose State was actually about agriculture, which is why there were so many plant species.

So, yes, in the Hovenweep collection there are such things, definitely. At Canyonlands, there’s a spot where we found gourds that we think were being cultivated, so we have some specimens from there. But the intersection of natural and cultural resources is a fascinating topic.



Every once in a while I think I’ve got to write a book! I’ve got to make notes on all the collections here, because, yes, it’s very interesting.

You know, that’s another thing. Last spring, I hit a landmark birthday and became eligible to retire, so I’m starting to think about the fact that I’m not going to be here forever. This has a lot of repercussions. I’ve had this job for 20 years and, when I walk out the door, a lot of institutional memory is going to go with me. My biggest goal is to make that moment unimportant, from the perspective of the collection—to make it so, when I walk out the door, everything is documented and there are people here who know how to access the documentation, where to find it, and to ensure that it’s not all lost.

Manaugh: Back in the 90s, I interned at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in D.C. It was right at the end of Joe Hickerson’s tenure there; he had been there, I think, since the archive’s founding several decades earlier, and he knew absolutely everything about the place. He knew the contents of random boxes, and even where, on specific audio recordings, you could find specific snippets of old songs—all these things about the collection that were unique to his own memory and experience of the place, including things that really weren’t written down anywhere. But you could tell that some of the staff were in a state of low-grade anxiety as they prepared for his retirement. The institutional memory that goes with that—that goes with just one person’s retirement—can be hard to duplicate.

Webster: It’s true. And, unfortunately, that’s where this place is going to be some time in the next two to three years. I haven’t decided when yet. But, you know, it’s a good feeling to be eligible to retire before you’re ready. Some people have the unfortunate experience of being ready long before they’re eligible—and I’m so thankful not to be there!



Anyway, I also pulled out a drawer from our entomology collection. I pulled this one out because these are underwing moths from Arches and Canyonlands. The entomologist who did this study actually discovered a subspecies of underwing moth that lives only in Arches; as far as we know, he hasn’t found it anywhere else. So, this is an example of a fairly recent study, done in the last decade, under permit in one of the parks, that resulted in new scientific findings and specimens.

Let’s move onto the cultural things. Malia actually asked me earlier if we have any cowboy stuff, because one of the parts of the cultural history around here is from the cattle ranching and grazing era—and, of course, grazing occurred inside Arches and Canyonlands National Parks until the 1970s. That’s not all that long ago.



Manaugh: It’s actually incredible how young some of the parks out here are.

Webster: Especially Canyonlands. We’re still a year and a half away from the fiftieth anniversary. Bridges, though, just had their 100th anniversary in 2008, and Zion just had theirs. In fact, because there were so many parks established around the time of the antiquities act, we’re starting to have a little rash of centennials. Rocky Mountain has got their centennial coming up, I think, and Crater Lake had theirs in ’02.

In any case, when Canyonlands was established—September 12, 1964, is the official date—there were active ranching operations going on and the grazing was phased out over time. That means there were still cowboy camps, because, when the cowboys left, they didn’t take everything with them. They just left it there. Actually, these things here came out of the Cave Spring cowboy camps—so if you were to go down to the Needles, you can actually drive over, park, and walk about one hundred yards over to the cowboy camp, and, even today, there’s still a lot of horse tack and empty coffee cans and stuff like that. There are tables and chairs, and an old stove. This [pointing at object in collection] is just a little bowl that was in the cowboy camp.



Twilley: And how is it that you have this bowl here, but there are still coffee cans out in the field? Why did you collect one and not the other?

Webster: Good question. Back in the 70s or 80s, somebody decided that some of the objects there ought to be called museum property, so they accessioned them into the collection, and they catalogued them, but then they physically left them out there. So, I’ll confess, I used to use that as my excuse to go out in the park once a year to check on them, because I didn’t really join the park service to spend all day indoors. But, then, finally, we had a collections management plan written, and one of the issues it addressed was what exactly we should do with this stuff. After all, when it’s outdoors, we can’t provide appropriate climate control and the objects are vulnerable to theft.

We finally decided that the thing to do was deaccession things that we had documented, and that really could just stay out there in the park, because it’s a place that visitors go to learn about the cattle-ranching era. That means it has value as an interpretive display. For example, there are always a ton of baking powder cans at these places—they seemed to use a lot of baking powder. I think they made a lot of biscuits. Then, some of the objects that did seem a little more valuable, and a little more vulnerable, were brought in. I have a few glass bottles and this bowl.



Manaugh: When you deaccession an object, does that mean it just stays out in the field or do you actually take it out of the archive and return it to the outdoor setting?

Webster: It stays in the field. It was already out there; it had never come in; and, really, it was probably an error of judgment that it had been documented as a museum object at all. If you’re going to call it a museum object, then bring it in and store it properly—or don’t call it a museum object.

Twilley: Can you just document it, but not accession it?

Webster: That’s something our cultural resources people do, but then it’s not part of the museum. It’s documented as a cultural site. It’s monitored. They go out there and photograph it and make notes and make sure it’s not being impacted and so on and so forth. But that’s a whole different function than the museum collection.

Manaugh: I’m curious, if some of those cowboy camps from the 1960s are now considered historic, what’s the timeline for, say, somebody’s climbing equipment or a Nalgene bottle left behind by a hiker in 2010—when would something like that become eligible for accession as an historical object?

Webster: You mean, when does trash become historic? Fifty years.

Manaugh: Fifty years? Is that just a rule of thumb or is there a genuine policy?

Webster: I think it’s in the National Historic Preservation Act—but, yes, fifty years is the cutoff point after which something can be considered historic. I had a little identity crisis when I turned fifty. [laughter] I was like no, no, no. I’m historic.

Manaugh: This is sort of a goofy question, but it seems as though every person we’ve sat next to at a restaurant or coffeeshop around here for the last week has mentioned, at some point, the movie 127 Hours. That took place not far from Moab. As far as “sites” like that go—I mean the slot canyon where Aron Ralston was trapped, and that was documented in the film—is there any sense that a location like that, that people all over the world now know about, should be preserved or marked somehow? In fifty years, perhaps? It’s like the Donner Pass, in a sense—it’s a cultural site where an historic event occurred.



Webster: That’s a good question. [pauses] That canyon is actually right outside park boundaries—it’s not inside the park—so our staff wouldn’t actually be addressing that question. But let’s pretend it is inside park grounds: would it be managed as a cultural site? You know… Certainly, over time, it would become part of the park’s history. But would we mark it, or preserve it?

One of the things I do here is put documentation into the archives. The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City took place not very long after September 11, 2001. The Olympic torch made its debut in the state of Utah under Delicate Arch at dawn in February, where it was very, very, very cold, and the logistics and the planning and the security for that event were absolutely phenomenal because it was so soon after 9/11. So, while that was going on, I was very much in touch with the people who were organizing it, and I was constantly saying: “Remember, I’m going to want the documentation. When this is over, give me your files.” Now, I have a really great little collection about all the planning and the photographs of that day. Even though it was a current event, I knew it was going to become part of the park’s history.

When something’s happening, you need to grab the documentation now. If you let it sit around for ten years, it might just disappear. You know, “Oh well, the guy who did this has been transferred, and he took his files with him,” or “the guy who did that has retired, and he doesn’t remember anything.” That sort of thing happens all the time.

Now, in the case of Aron Ralston’s story, there were park rangers involved in it, because, when he was rescued, our staff was just about to go out and start looking for him. They had been mobilized as part of the search effort. That means that it would be the sort of incident that would show up in the documentation that rangers create, and that might eventually make its way into our archives—or not.

So it’s an interesting question. Would Blue John Canyon, where Ralston was trapped, become considered a cultural site…? Maybe not until a few more decades have gone by.

Ultimately, that’s the sort of decision that the cultural resources program manager makes. Actually, here’s an interesting thing: we’re working on trying to get the site out at Arches where Edward Abbey’s trailer was listed on the national register. You wouldn’t have done that in 1957, when he was living there, but certainly, now, it seems appropriate. It seems historic. By the same token, then, right now Aron Ralston getting himself in a bit of a pickle is an interesting news story—but, twenty years from now, will it be a culturally significant site? I think it’s about how things change over time.

In any case, Canyonlands is about to have its fiftieth anniversary, in September 2014, and I hope that will spur a fair amount of historical research and interest in the park.



Twilley: It was funny to hear you say that you used checking on those camp sites as an excuse to get out in the park. How often do you get a chance to get out in the park, and to what extent are you involved with things like trailside displays or other outdoor interpretive infrastructure?

Webster: I started my career in the Park Service as a park ranger/naturalist and as an interpreter. But, after a long story that I won’t tell, I ended up in curation—so I don’t get out in the field nearly as much as I would choose to, if I had a choice.

There are museum objects on display in several of our visitor centers. For instance, the Needles Visitor center, which is south of us, was built—and the exhibits all designed and installed—in the early 1990s. Maybe ’92 to ’94. When they did that, they did everything right. They had architects design a beautiful building in harmony with the landscape. It’s fabulous. They had our exhibit specialists scour the museum collections for appropriate objects to tell the story that they wanted to tell, and the visitor center incorporated those objects and stories into the exhibits. They had the specialists build mounts and everything. It’s just very well done. I manage those; to the extent that they need any attention, they are my responsibility.

Subsequently, in the twenty years I’ve been here, the Park Service has rebuilt every visitor center except for the little trailer that they use at the Maze. That’s the only one that hasn’t been rebuilt. Every time, they have said, “Oh, we don’t want museum objects on display, because then we have to do climate control and fire and security requirements, and we just don’t want to do that.” Then, every time they’ve finished the building, they’ve said, “Well, we would like that one thing…”

For instance, at Arches there is a meteorite on display that is a museum object. It’s the only museum object in that practically new visitor center. That visitor center is five years old, or six, at the most. It’s a really new facility, but it only has one museum object in it—and that’s a meteorite.

Now, the light levels and the climate control—all that stuff—is not up to museum standards. It is in a secure case, and we do monitor the temperature and the humidity, but the building wasn’t built to the specs that you would have for displaying museum objects today.

Twilley: Working with such a wide range of artifacts, of such different materials and ages, means the environmental conditions must be difficult to manage.

Webster: Right. It’s always a compromise. In this storage room, we try to keep it at 65 degrees and approximately 35 percent humidity—but we have metal objects that would be happier if it were drier, and we have paper objects that would be happier if it were right at 35 percent. But we have to compromise, because we have so many different materials. In a place that’s just archives or just ceramics, though, you can tailor things.

We do have a wide variety of really interesting archaeological materials. I thought I would show them to you in order of material type. Here, we have a lot of lithics—mostly projectile points and stone knives. I pulled out this knife, in particular, because it’s so beautiful. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of stone. When you look at these, you have to think: it can’t just have been utilitarian. They had to have been thinking about the aesthetics of the object, as well.



Twilley: Is that dated?

Webster: It could be. I’d have to look it up. But these two objects are dated simply in the sense that we know what type they are.

I actually know some archaeology here, and I’m going to show it off! These are both Clovis points. Clovis is the oldest-known culture in this region, at 10,000 to 12,000 years old. This one was found out in the Maze District of Canyonlands and this one at the Island in the Sky district.

The way you can tell a Clovis point from some other projectile point is through what’s called a fluke. At the base of the point, you can see an indentation; it almost looks like a thumb depression. That’s diagnostic of a Clovis point. If you’re outside, walking around, and you see one of these, call the nearest archaeologist. They will be very excited.

So these are actually very special, and the only thing from the Clovis culture that’s been found in this area. There could be other stuff; logically, there should be. If there’s anything, then there should be more. But who knows?



Twilley: Is that the kind of thing where people will go back to the site where it was found and mount a full-scale archaeological excavation?

Webster: I think, in both of these cases, that they had already assessed the area and found that these were just isolated finds that had been dropped. There was no real site associated with either one of those.

Now, we also have a number of vegetal objects—for instance, this is a fire stick, so you could drill and make a fire—and we have some sandals in our collection. One thing I’ve learned from the archaeologists is that this very tight, fine weave [showing us a pair of sandals] is older than the looser material. The looser, sloppier material seen in other sandals is actually more recent—and I figure this is a comment on the deterioration of civilization over time. Back in the day they had time to be very careful—and now we have flip-flops. [laughter]



Twilley: Are these shoelaces? [points at what appear to be threads visible on the outside of the sandals] These are pretty great shoes!

Webster: This is just some reed—and these are actually corncobs. Archaeologists will actually study the corncobs and count how many rows they have, because corn evolved and changed its form over time, so the number of rows, and the form of the corncob, can tell you something about the age of the corn.

Finally, I always pull this object out, because it’s fascinating. It’s made from a knucklebone, probably from a deer or a sheep, and it’s been carved into a Bighorn sheep effigy. If you look at it, you can see the hole; that had a string through it. Someone could have worn it, or hung it on something, or attached it to a ceramic object or stick. This was actually found near some rock art that showed Bighorn sheep, interestingly enough.



Ceramics, of course, are another thing we collect across the parks. This is an example of what’s called black and white Mesa Verdean. That would be the later Anasazi pottery, from the era of about 1100 to 1300. The painted pot—which is hiding back there on a shelf—could have been a kiva jar. It’s very fragile. There was probably a lip on it, like this one, and it was possibly found in a kiva. Actually, I’ll show you the shape of it; it’s quite lovely. The corrugated pots were used more for utilitarian things, like cooking. You know, I put it way back there, and now I can’t even reach it to pull it out where you can see it!

Twilley: Oh, I think I can see it. There’s a small soil sample next to it?

Webster: Yes, that would be what was found inside the pot. They pull things like that out and then they can check it for pollen, which can be dated.

Now, I pulled out this little pot so that I can tell you a story about it. This is a Hopi pot from about 1500. I have to look at it first; it always makes me nervous to pick it up. This pot was found with a couple of others—they’re similarly painted, from the same era and site—and those have been down in our conservation center being treated. One of them was full of salt. We have an archaeologist doing a study right now to source the salt and see where it came from, because we had thought that this was the farthest north that Hopi pots have been found. However, her research shows that, actually, there have been two or three sites even further north where Hopi pots have been discovered.

Well, the story of how we ended up with this pot is quite unusual. Back in the 1960s, there were a couple of families who worked at Arches National Park, who were out exploring in the area that we now call the Needles. They were taking a break somewhere, and they looked up and saw this big alcove with a rock slab across it. One of the women said, “You guys can rest, but I’m not that tired, and I’m going to run up there and take a look.” So she scrambles up there, looks behind this big slab of rock, and just starts screaming, “Pots! I found pots!”

There were two big, corrugated pots, three of these painted pots, and a bunch of gourds, along with some juniper bark and some shards—a big collection of stuff. It was just amazing to her. So they all went up there, and they looked at it, and they took pictures, but then they had to decide what they were going to do about it.

Of course, these were Park Service employees and, because of the Antiquities Act of 1908, they knew that they weren’t allowed to collect them. However, it’s the early 60s. The Glen Canyon Dam was being built, and Lake Powell was filling up; as it was filling, it drowned over 2,000 archaeological sites. There were archaeologists swarming all over the area trying to mitigate whatever they could before the lake came up and drowned those sites. There was even a widely believed but unfounded rumor that archaeologists had started breaking the pots they found so that they could ship them out easier and fit them into storage back at their universities.

Archaeologists exploring lands soon to be flooded by Lake Powell, summer 1958, courtesy of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society.

So you have to picture being these people, sitting up in this alcove with this amazing cache of stunningly beautiful Hopi pots, and believing in your heart of hearts that if you were to tell those “rotten archaeologists” about it, they would take a hammer to it all and just ship them off to a university store room somewhere. What would you do?

Well, they decided that the best thing for them to do was take the pots. Of course, the best thing to do actually would have been to leave them there—but they took them. They took photographs of the pots in place. They also had a map, and they marked where they had found them. And one of the people on the trip was keeping a diary, so she also described in detail the whole day and the whole event and everything that happened.

An unrelated shot of archaeologists documenting petroglyphs in Desolation Canyon, Utah, courtesy of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.

Then they packed the pots out, and took them to their respective homes.

Twilley: They took them home?

Webster: They took them home. The woman who initially found the cache, of course, took most of the pots herself.

But, now, fast-forward about 40 years. Her husband has now passed away, she has remarried, to a lovely man; and they’re living in a suburb of Denver. The woman has taken ill, and she knows she’s not going to be around much longer, so she tells her husband: she says, “There’s one thing I want you to promise me. You’ve got to get those pots back to the park.”

So, out of the blue, unbeknownst to us—we had no clue that any of this had ever happened—the phone rings one day and it’s this gentleman. His wife had passed away, and he had something he would like to bring back to the park. He asked if he could deliver these pots she had taken. We said, “Oh, yeah, that would be fine.” We had no idea what they were.

So he wraps them up in some old quilts; he sticks them in the trunk of his car; and he drives all the way over from Denver. He shows up here in Moab, and he takes us out to the parking lot. He opens the trunk of his car—and there are these beautiful pots.

Twilley: Goodness me.

Webster: He very ceremoniously gave them back to the Park, including some of the documentation, which he had brought along with him, and that meant we knew who the other people had been, where they had found these pots, and that we could get in touch with them to find even more maps and photographs. These are actually very well documented—and now we’re able to study them.

So that’s a great little story of how something could have gone horribly wrong, but, eventually, if you wait long enough, decades later it can all come back.

Manaugh: How often does it happen that people feel guilty and actually return things that they’ve taken?

Webster: You know, almost never. But that example was unique—in fact, that whole story is quite unique. Of course, people do pick up flakes or cherts or rocks and stick them in their pockets. But then they go home and they have a car wreck or they break their leg or their house burns down—and occasionally they’ll send the stuff back, saying, “It must be bad juju—I’m sorry I took it.” Of course, what are we doing to do with it? We can’t put it back; we don’t know exactly where it came from. It’s just a sad story all around when people take things out of the park.

Now, sometimes we do use those returned objects for interpretive purposes, because the park interpreters can then say that, when you’re out in the field, if you find something like this, just leave it there. Please! If you really want to touch one, touch this one, which is one that has already, in effect, been ruined. But leave anything else in place. So returned objects do have an interpretive function, but it’s really not a scientific function anymore—because, once the context is gone, it’s gone. It’s been destroyed.

I have one more little story to tell you—and that’s about the object in these boxes. As you leave, and as you’re heading down the hall, look to your right and you’ll see an enormous poster that’s all about this next object I’m going to show you. You’ll see the pictures and you’ll say, “Oh, I just saw that!” and be very excited. This only happened about six or seven years ago.

Some visitors were over in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of the park, where the Great Gallery rock art panel is. It’s a very famous rock art panel. There’s a sand dune at the base of it—and this object was just sticking out of the sand dune. It had eroded out. Fortunately, that day we had a ranger in the canyon. We don’t always have somebody in the right place at the right time, but that day we did. They were able to report it to the archaeologist, and it was brought in appropriately.



It’s a bag made from an antelope leg. See the stitching here? You can see that it was tied off to create separate little compartments. You can also see that there’s fresh rodent chew—in other words, tooth marks from rodents. That means it eroded out of the sand dune and, probably that same night, mice found it, thinking it was a free meal; and the next day, it was discovered by humans. Otherwise, the mice would have been back that night—and we’d never have found this object.

Twilley: That’s incredible.

Webster: What was in the portion that was chewed on by the mice is these little seeds. [we peer inside pouch] These seeds are marsh elder, one of those plants that we have not yet found inside park boundaries, but that we do know grows right outside park boundaries. So those seeds were all stuffed inside that softball-shaped portion of the bag.

Twilley: This whole thing is made from an antelope leg, you said?

Webster: Yes. We had an archaeologist from Flagstaff analyze this, and he determined that it’s an antelope leg. I don’t know how he determined that, but he did. [laughter] If you think about it, though, it makes sense: if you want to make a bag, you start with something that’s already close to the shape you’re looking for.



These three little bags were in this portion here. This stone was lying right on top. All three of these were just cram-packed into that compartment. And these two bags—this one and that one—were empty. This one, though, was very obviously full of something. As luck would have it, shortly after this came in, a woman from the University of Utah who is a specialist in fibers was here to look at our sandals and do some other work for us. So we said, “Gosh, while you’re here, would you open that bag for us?” Because nobody here is technically trained to do that sort of thing. So she was happy to play Indiana Jones for us. It was almost painful to watch her do this, but she very carefully sketched and photographed the knot before she ever touched it. Then she pulled one string—and she sketched and photographed the knot again. Then she pulled another string—and she made another sketch and took a photograph. Then another string… I mean, this went on interminably. We’re all standing there, just salivating. Is she ever going to open it? I don’t remember how long it took; I just remember we all thought it would never end.

Finally, she gets the bag open and we discover that inside are these forty-two little rock chips. Forty of them are a pink chert, which we know comes from an area just north of town—just north of the airport—called the Dubinky Well area. It’s a fairly unusual type of rock, so we sourced it to that location. But the other two were different—one’s brown and one’s clear—and we don’t really know where they came from. All forty-two of these little stone chips were cram-packed into this bag, as well as this little piece of antler.

The archaeologist who analyzed this describes it basically as a toolkit. You have your raw material—your flakes—and you’ve got the cobblestone here to use as a hard work surface. Using that, you could press your flake to make a projectile point, so that you could go catch dinner. If all that failed—if you didn’t catch dinner—here, you’ve got your handy dandy granola to survive on.



Twilley: Those seeds were their trail mix?

Webster: Basically. And this whole thing was their projectile point-making kit.

This object is unusual, partly because it’s so complete and partly because it tells the story of the activities of an individual. Normally, when archaeologists are out in the field studying sites, they’re looking at big-picture stuff: they’re looking at communities, at cultural groups, at community activities, at habitation sites, at entire ways of life. It’s rare that they find an object that tells the story of what one individual might have done. So it’s a fascinating little object.

That’s a kind of the top-of-the-pops smattering of representative objects that we have here in storage at the museum.



Manaugh: Before we leave the room, I have to ask, as something of a map obsessive: is there anything in particular in your map collection that might be cool to see before we go?

Webster: Let me think. The oldest maps we have are probably from the 1950s and 60s. Of course, we have more recently generated maps depicting boundary changes for the park. But, the best map? [pauses] If you’ll follow me—just help me rotate this rack out of the way, because it’s blocking access to the map cabinet—let’s see. Let me find my favorite map. We have a map that shows the original idea of what Canyonlands National Park should have been. We call it the Million-Acre Map. That’s much more acreage than what we actually set aside.

In fact, the story of the establishment of Canyonlands is pretty interesting. It was very controversial. I mean, it was the 1960s. What wasn’t controversial in the 60s, you know? [laughs] Oh, here it is. I knew it was close. The dotted line you see here is the hoped-for million acres.

The original idea for Canyonlands—Bates Wilson and Stewart Udall’s concept of what the park should be—is that it should preserve an entire ecosystem. It should be rim to rim for that ecosystem. But, because of the strong feelings of state and local people, including the fact that they wanted to retain lands available for mineral extraction and grazing, the park was reduced. It’s the same battle we fight today. Just how much do you set aside for recreation and preservation? How much do you set aside to be drilled and grazed? It’s the how much question.



Manaugh: While we’re on the subject, one thing that interests about this region is the relationship between the parks and the extraction industry. I’m curious about what sort of relationship you might have with companies involved in prospecting for uranium or other natural resources, and whether, or how often, they donate things they find to you at the Park Service.

Webster: To be honest, that type of prospecting or exploration doesn’t happen inside park boundaries. When it happens outside park boundaries, it’s viewed more as a potential threat—but your question is interesting, because it comes from a different premise—that extraction could be a benefit, that they could find things.

Right now, our experience is that if there’s oil or gas leasing on or near our boundaries, then there’s a concern about the viewshed and the impact on the park.

Malia: You also have to look at it from the point of view of what’s already been done to the park, and what’s going to continue being done to the park, as well. There are a lot of uranium trails that have gone through Canyonlands that you can’t see anymore, unless you know what to look for. White Mesa was a uranium trail, and now it’s used as the White Rim Trail. And there’s a pipeline that goes through Arches. We don’t tell visitors about it, but it is still maintained by the oil company. We let them come through.

Manaugh: Is it underground?

Webster: Parts of it are underground. Actually, the pipeline has an interesting history. It was built in 1955 and, if you were to look at a map of Arches in 1955, the park was shaped almost like an hourglass. There’s a big area, a skinny area, and a big area, and the pipeline crossed the skinny area. In 1955, they got permission to cross the park because it was only a mile or so across park property.



Of course, now the park has expanded, so it goes through quite a lot of the park. As they do with any gas pipeline, the company will fly over it and look for weaknesses, and, if they detect a weakness, they have to go in with heavy equipment and dig it up and repair it. There’s a huge amount of impact to the local resources. The vegetation is destroyed; there’s soil disturbance; you’re going to have tumbleweed coming in where, before, you didn’t. It has a big impact on the park.

Manaugh: Having read Cato Institute reports, for instance, about how we might privatize the National Park Service, there’s definitely an interest in—

Webster: I have a gut reaction to that. I’ve had conversations with people who honestly believe that a park that doesn’t take in enough money and entrance fees to keep itself operating should simply be closed. I fear that that’s a growing attitude, because of the whole philosophy that the market should drive everything. That’s a philosophy that’s becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, even when it comes to National Parks.

But it makes me nervous, because the parks will only exist as long as people allow them to exist. These are valuable parts of America’s natural and cultural heritage that we, as a society, have decided are worth protecting and saving whether they would survive in a commercial marketplace or not. In my personal opinion, privatizing the function of the NPS—making it profit-motivated, rather than preservation-motivated—could mean losing valuable parts of our heritage as Americans.



Manaugh: I just have one more question, if you don’t mind. I’m curious about the trail itself as a pedagogic experience. There’s the trail as an athletic experience—designed so that you can really get your heartrate up—as well as the trail as an aesthetic experience, featuring the best views and scenery, but then there’s the interpretive trail, where you visit a certain site for historical or even narrative reasons. That kind of trail is really a kind of outdoor museum. As a curator, does trail design, as a form of spatial data management, cross your radar at all—and is there a trail that you think would be particularly great for the park but that doesn’t yet exist?

Twilley: For example, it could be fascinating to have an alternative trail system that actually did take you past the pipeline. I feel that, often, trails are carefully curated to give you what seems like a natural experience, yet the story the trail is telling is inherently artificial.

Webster: That’s interesting—though I haven’t dealt very much with that sort of thing. When I think of trail design in these parks, I think of the trail to Delicate Arch. It’s a fabulous trail, because it was designed by a landscape architect in the 1940s, and I even have his file, which is how I know all this. When you hike up there, you don’t see your destination until you’re really there. It’s designed in such a way that you come around the bend—and, wham, Delicate Arch is right there, in your face, and it is just shockingly magnificent. You can’t prepare yourself for it, and I think he designed the trail that way. In fact, I know he did, because I’ve read his file. It’s very intentional. It’s a beautifully designed hiking experience.

But I know that, once in a while, an interpreter will do a program about the human side of National Parks: the maintenance side or recycling, as we’re really trying to green the parks and get people to recycle. We’ll have occasional programs—but we haven’t dedicated trail space to it. It would be interesting to think about how that might change the park.

Twilley: It might help make people aware that this is a choice we’ve made—that these parks are the way they are because we maintain them like this. They are something that we’ve built—not just something that exists, like putting a fence around a pretty part of nature.



Malia: If you ever go to the Windows section of the park, you’ll see the designated trail—but you’ll also see lots of different trails, running all over. Those are interesting.

Webster: That’s right—the social trails. But it’s pretty rare, now, that new official trails are built. Trail creation is something that tends to happen early on in the life of a park, and not as much as time goes forward. For the most part, people don’t seem to want to mess with the landscape after the park’s been established.



Twilley: Finally, you’ve worked at other parks, right?

Webster: Yeah. I’ve been here for 20 years but, before that, I worked in a bunch of other parks. I was recently travelling with some other old parkies and I was number two for number of parks worked at. I’ve worked at 15 parks total. I worked at the Everglades one winter, and at the Apostle Islands for about two and a half years. That’s in northern Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior. But I’ve also worked at Yosemite, Saguaro, Colorado National

Manaugh: Where are you originally from?

Webster: Well, I’m half Texan and half Californian. I’m an old, fourth generation native-born Texan, but we left when I was 10 years old. I did most of my growing up in the Sacramento Valley, in Davis, California.

I worked in interpretation for a long time. I was the chief interpreter at Whiskeytown in the early 80s, which is also in northern California. Every park has collections that somebody has to take care of—but most of those people are not curators. A lot of the time, it falls on someone in the interpretive division. But I did a lot of museum work. When I was working at Apostle Islands, the park was only 10 years old; I established a museum program and hired people to start cataloguing the fishery, lighthouse, and brownstone quarrying materials. And the same thing at Whiskeytown: I was responsible for the collections there. I worked on the collections at Saguaro, and I did a little in Colorado, as well.

I’ve worked at a lot of parks!


Taking a cue from the provocative approach of historian Annette Kolodny—who suggests in her recent book In Search of First Contact that Algonquin pictographs and even Norse graffiti carved on rocks near the Atlantic coast, in both Canada and New England, should be considered an early example of what is now broadly referred to as "American literature"—it would be tempting to say something similar for Newspaper Rock, outside Moab, Utah, that this inscribed landform is a kind of national literary feature, a mineralogical Moby Dick for the region.



Less a narrative sequence, however, than a multi-generational graphic palimpsest of random carvings—including nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and, sadly, probably twenty-first-century travelers' graffiti, all adding to the historical layers on display—Newspaper Rock nonetheless promises a Rosetta Stone-like moment.

It—or, to be more accurate, the media surrounding this site, including, in an era of blogs, Twitter feeds, and Tumblrs, its charmingly antiquated name—suggests that this should indeed be some sort of monument to translation and contact, an inscribed physical manifestation of cultures predating Anglophone expansion (that is, military conquest) into the complex lands of the southwest.



Having never visited Newspaper Rock before, with its carved wheels, skinned animals, trains of antelope, serpentine geometry, buffalo-headed hunters with insect legs, and horseback riders, the poetic expectation was that a key to the puzzle of inter-cultural contact had been carved here, some mythic insight or moment of wisdom that required terrestrial near-permanence in the form of petroglyphs that scholars have been trying to decipher ever since.

In fact, it's hard not to wish for a kind of Photoshop layers menu, some kind of lensed device or augmented reality that might remove the various inscriptions that have come at different times and, in the process, see who left what where, and why.



Richard L. Bland, an anthropologist with the U.S. National Park Service, writes in a paper for Arctic Anthropology that, "Petroglyphs are a relatively common form of prehistoric communication, in the sense that those who drew the petroglyphs knew what they meant, as no doubt did many of their fellow tribesmen who viewed them."

Unfortunately, however, "The meaning or significance of these images, however, was generally specific to the individual or group that created them. There was never a cross-cultural standardization of symbols and as a result much of the meaning of many petroglyph series has been lost."



There was never a dictionary, we might say, a central database or archive of meaning from which all other petroglyphs were derived. There was no encyclopedia.

The symbols are as much pure graphic design, then, as they are literary expression; they are realized form as much as they are a mere promise of content.



Bland goes on to suggest that the specific petroglyphs he's studied in the Arctic are a form of "hunting magic," a landscape notation with superstitious consequences, but the inscriptions outside Moab seem altogether more casual (perhaps assisted by the fact that they're now found fenced-in at the edge of a state-run parking lot).

In any case, to put more of an emphasis on expectation than on the actual experience of the site, at least half of the Venue team was gearing up to see Newspaper Rock as if coming into the presence of a foundational text, the small print Europeans didn't see upon their arrival on the continent, a grimoire. Or as if visiting Newspaper Rock should be something like visiting the old British Library Reading Room, sitting down amidst a geology of broadcasts, CTRL-S after CTRL-S preserved in rock form—the Earth itself as hard drive.



It is media with a limited range, however—something to come to, rather than something you tune into from afar.

To use an annoyingly timely analogy, it is exactly not a Facebook Wall, exactly not comparable to anything more contemporary—let alone more sacred—than a painted wall sprayed with what soon becomes visual archaeology.



Seen this way, Newspaper Rock is simply graphomania on the scale of an entire landscape. It is a hillside imbued with a hint of literary content and preserved by order of the U.S. government.



Equal parts rock art, literary history, and historically preserved act of vandalism, the monument is now a kind of appendix on Canyonlands National Park, lying outside Park boundaries but acting, nonetheless, as something of an introductory signpost to the writhing and sinuous geological forms to come at the end of the region's old river beds now paved as all-weather roads.



Indeed, amongst many interesting things to consider here is the overlooked narrative genius of road design in the United States—something Venue explores in a forthcoming interview with Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, a history of the U.S. interstate system—which has transformed this site of geological inscription precisely into a kind of entry gate for this most immersive example of the National Parks, casting however minor a spell on tourists driving by.

Grafton Tyler Brown & Co. map of the Comstock Lode and the Washoe Mining Claims in Storey & Lyon Counties, Nevada, published in 1873, via.

Although tourism is now Nevada's largest employer, the state was born from a mining boom in the 1860s, inspired by the discovery of a rich vein of silver ore christened the Comstock Lode.

Extraction still plays a signficant role in shaping the state's landscape and economy: the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology lists 29 gold and silver mines in its 2010 Mineral Industry Census, alongside claims that the state "continues to be in the midst of the biggest gold boom in U.S. history," producing up to eight times as much over the past thirty years as California did during its fabled Gold Rush.


Mine tour photographs by Nicola Twilley.

To get a glimpse of the state's subterranean origins, Venue visited Chollar Mine in Virginia City, which, between 1859 and 1942, yielded enough silver (and some gold) to rank as the third most productive mine on the Comstock. Curiously enough, it's now offered for sale, along with some mineral rights, although our guide assured us that it's much more viable as a tour business than as a working mine, given the flooding in the lower levels, the effort required to retrieve the remaining ore, and the not-insignificant cost of all the impact studies and permits needed to start a mining operation in Nevada today.


Gorgeous U.S. Geological Survey maps of the shafts and tunnels of the Comstock mines, published in 1881. The different colors used indicate each separate hundred feet of depth. From the David Rumsey collection in the Harvard University digital map library.

The Comstock Lode is legendary not just for the mineral wealth it yielded (an inflation-adjusted $400 million in silver per year, plus another $270 million in gold, at peak production in 1877), but for its role as a catalyst for extraction technology innovation.

As our guide explained, one of the major challenges faced by the miners was an ongoing battle against flooding from below by geothermal waters. When the Chollar Mine teamed up with neighboring mines to sink a new shaft to 3250 ft., they had to pump out 5 million gallons of water per day, as well as construct a special underground cooling chamber by lowering in big blocks of ice and buckets of ice water. Workers would spend 15 or 20 minutes working in the heat, and 15 or 20 minutes recovering in the cooling chamber, back and forth throughout their eight-hour shift.


The odd-looking structure to the right-hand side of the photograph is the head of the Combination Shaft, the deepest ever sunk on the Comstock, and so-called because it was a joint effort between the Chollar, Potosi, Hale & Corcross, and Savage mines.

In response, a 30-year-old German immigrant called Adolph Sutro proposed a wildly ambitious solution — drilling a 4-mile tunnel into the mountain that would use gravity to drain its mines from below, while simultaneously allowing equipment and ore to be shipped in and out at valley level rather than lowered and hauled up and down the mine shafts.

Work began on the Sutro Tunnel in 1869 and it opened in 1878 — but, by then, the Comstock had passed peak production, and improved ventilation and pump technology had already delivered many of the tunnel's proposed benefits. Sutro unloaded his own shares as soon as the tunnel was completed, and while his stockholders lost millions, he moved to San Francisco and became mayor.


The Sutro Tunnel entrance, then and in 2007, via the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey and Rich Moreno.

The Sutro Tunnel has caved in in places now, and its entrance is off-limits, on private land. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable engineering landmark, and the direct forerunner of the large access and drainage tunnels still used by mines today.


Our guide told us this story while we stood 100 ft. underground in a stope — an auditorium-like hollow that had been mined out. Shored up tunnels and shafts led to more stopes, all around and beneath us — some as big as skyscrapers. And, in the second of the Comstock's engineering marvels, all of these underground voids are filled with cubes of heavy girders, arranged in regular grids like a wooden honeycomb inside the earth.


A cross section of Virginia City's Belcher Mine, via the Nevada Historical Society.

According to a 1912 history of Nevada, this "square-set" timbering system was invented by another German, Philipp Desdeheimer, as a modular solution that could be extended in any direction, "so as to fill in any ore-chamber as fast as the ore is taken out."

The unit in itself lies within the scope of a man's arms, but, built up in a series, it filled the vacant spaces left by the removal of the Con Virginia bonanza, hundreds of feet in height, in width, and in length.

The resulting lattice-work of notched timbers, held in place by the pressure of the rock all around them, looks uncannily like the skeleton of a skyscraper, stripped in order to construct its mirror image above ground.


A lumber mill at Lake Tahoe, via.

Indeed, as the miners followed the vein of silver further into Mt. Davidson, more than 100 square miles of old growth pines around Lake Tahoe were clear-cut, with the forest brought underground to replace the minerals. Logging, our guide told us, quickly became the second biggest industry in Nevada, as the territory's newcomers rushed to rearrange its resources.

This gridded timber superstructure, stretching for miles underground, as the rocks whose place it took were transmuted into coin, forms a sort of forgotten Continuous Monument of extraction — a ghost forest built underground, in search of silver.

Thanks to Ronald James, the Nevada State Historic Preservation Officer, for the suggestion. If you think of any sites or people that Venue should visit, please let us know!

"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly fifty large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.


"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood."

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work—a global portrait of the human relationship with water—Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones, film-making, and the future of photography to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

• • •

"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, here seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there’s also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes—landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I’m curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step—that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven’t really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I’ve always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn’t fit into what I’ve been doing.

When I’m photographing these systems—systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general—what’s happening is that I have an idea and I’m trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I’ll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I’ve certainly gone to places like vegetable packaging plants, but then I’m looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody’s refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that’s more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn’t something I feel I can say about that that we don’t usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I’m looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting—but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It’s implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you’d actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.


"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I’m curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven’t filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It’s following the project I’m doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I’ve got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you’re hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I’m taking still photographs of that probably aren’t going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can’t make stills of that are better suited to be filmed—and then there are subjects that can handle both. I’m finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we’re currently working on.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it’s the stills that I’m making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film—to the logic of the film—I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I’m of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.


"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: It’s clear that there’s an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it’s also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works—such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards—the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I’m curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

Burtynsky: I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

I actually have a funny story about this. After spending about six years and two shows on the Rock of Ages quarries in Vermont, I wanted to do a trade with them: a print for some granite slabs to make countertops in my country house up North. I met with them and I brought ten of my favorite pictures of their quarries. Most of them were of abandoned sections of the quarries. So I rolled them all out—and they were big, 40-by-50-inch prints—and the whole board was there. And they were totally silent.

After this uncomfortable, pregnant pause, I said, “So… what do you guys think?” Someone—I think it was the director of the quarry—finally said, “Why would anybody want one of these?” [laughter]

I’d never really had it put to me in that way! I said something like, “Well, because they’re interesting pictures and they talk about our taking of a resource from the land. It’s about that accumulated taking—the residual evidence of that taking—and then nature bouncing back into that void. You can see it struggling back into that space.”

And he replied, “These just aren’t very interesting for us.” Well, actually, he said, “These are a sorry sight for us, because these are places where we can’t get any more stone out of the ground, and we have to go somewhere else. They’re the end of the line for us. We wouldn’t want to have to be reminded of that everyday.”

I asked whether that meant the deal was off, and they said, “Oh, no, you can go photograph the latest thing we’ve found with all the machines still working on it.” And I did. It never entered my oeuvre, but I photographed it and I got the countertops.

Twilley: So the quarry has an “off-label” Burtynsky, as it were?

Burtynsky: That’s right. In fact, eighty percent of what the quarry produced went to make gravestones, so I blew up a big picture for them to take to a monument fair.


"Rock of Ages # 26," Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: The question of access is one I’m really interested in. Earlier, you said it took you three years to set up a photograph of the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, but I imagine it’s even harder to get into places like oil refineries. Have you heard of any responses from the oil industry to your series?

Burtynsky: No, I haven’t. I must say, for the most part, that the oil industry isn’t very enlightened. In most cases, they said no when I asked to come in and make photographs, because they couldn’t see an upside to letting me in. They couldn’t see why. They could only see a downside.

One place I tried to get into is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies ten to eleven million barrels a day, and this one oil field—the Ghawar—is the oil field of oil fields. It produces five million barrels a day. I thought it would be great to have that as part of the project narrative. In terms of scale, Ghawar is it. There is no bigger oil field. Even all the tar sand activity in Canada produces between one and a quarter and one and a half million barrels a day, while the Saudis are able to produce five million barrels a day from one oil field. That one field is four times the scale of Canada’s entire oil sands operation.

Twilley: But they said no?

Burtynsky: They said no. I went through a fairly lengthy process all the way to the very top, where I was talking to the minister of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. They basically said that they might have been interested if I had had more of a focus on the human dimension of oil—the people who work there, and so on. They said they thought it was too detached and impersonal.

Manaugh: To go back to something you said at lunch yesterday, you mentioned that you consciously exclude green and blue from your photographs, and that, for the most part, you don’t like to shoot in summer or at certain times of day. You also mentioned the way that the light during “the shoulders of the day”—early morning and late evening—makes space much more volumetric and filled with shadows, and that, conversely, shooting at high noon from 8,000ft helps minimize shadow. I’d love to revisit that conversation in the context of this interview and hear more about the role of color, light, and shadow in your work.

Burtynsky: I love the tones of browns and grays—I love more neutral tones. That’s why I like going to the desert and working in the desert. I find that green trees and things like that have a tendency to lock us into a certain way of seeing. When I look at green trees on a sunny day, I don’t know how to make an interesting picture of that. We’re familiar with that already.

Instead, I like the transparency that comes when leaves are off and you can look deeper into the landscape—you can look through the landscape. When I did try to make those kind of green-tree/sunny-day pictures, I’d find myself not ever putting them up and not ever using them. Eventually, I just said, well, I’m not going to take them anymore, because they never make it past the edit.

There’s a certain point where you learn from your own editing. You just stop taking certain pictures because they never make it through. Your editing starts to inform your thinking, as far as where you want to go and what you want to look for when you’re making a photograph.

That what’s different about me after thirty years of doing this kind of work—there are a lot of pictures I don’t have to take anymore. I think that’s called wisdom—learning what not to waste your time on!

Twilley: Do you have a ratio, or a sense of how many photographs you take vs. how many actually make it into the final show?

Burtynsky: My ratio has changed over time, certainly. I used to shoot 8 x 10 film, and, with that, my ratio was pretty high—something like one out of six or one out of seven images would make it through. With 4 x 5, because it’s faster and a little easier, which means there can be a little more risk-taking, my ratio would have been closer to one in twelve or one in fifteen. With digital, now, where everything is dematerialized and I’m up in the air, I’m shooting probably one to 100.

Twilley: Returning to the idea of avoiding blue skies and green trees, I was thinking back to your earlier comment about wanting to show us things that we don’t usually get in front of, places and things that are unfamiliar. In a way, green leaves and blue skies are too familiar—that’s the nature we already know as nature.


"Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. Note the extremely rare inclusion of green trees!

Burtynsky: You know it already, so how do you say something new about it? It locks us into a cliché, or a genre of understanding. We immediately understand it, so there’s nothing there.

I just came back from a conference on the future of photography, where we had an interesting conversation around this. One of the curators of a museum in Switzerland had invited students from any art school, anywhere in the world to submit work to be included in a survey of photography of the new generation. The one thing that was consistent in 1,200 submissions was that not one of the students was showing anything that had to do with spontaneity. Spontaneity was gone completely.

There were no pictures with light coming through the glass on the table or a Robert Frank kind of street photograph or a decisive moment photograph—nothing like that at all. It was all very staged and all very deliberate—not photography as the act of seeing the world or reacting to seeing the world, but rather a photography of crafting things in the studio. We didn’t find one that varied from that, which I thought was fascinating.

We were wondering, why this is? In school, are they teaching that all the possibilities for taking photographs of reality and interpreting reality and reacting to reality in a spontaneous way have all been done? There seemed to be a feeling that there is no new narrative that can be found by pursuing that avenue of representation, and that they have to move into creating their own world.

Twilley: Perhaps it’s also a response to the fact that everyone now has a camera on them at all times, and so those photos—those spontaneous shots of decisive moments and everyday life—are, in fact, being taken, but they’ve been claimed, in a sense, by iPhones and Instagram, so students need to do something different to be photographers today, rather than just people with a camera.

Burtynsky: That might be the case—it could be a response to the way that we’re all now awash in images. So how do you define yourself? That spontaneous way of making imagery has become an avenue that the next generation doesn’t see as worthy of pursuit because it won’t yield anything that the world hasn’t already put out there.

I think there is an anxiety about the status of the photograph amongst the new practitioners coming in. I have certain anxieties, too, of course, but, I think because I’ve had such an arc of existing work that I continue to build on as an artist, that I don’t feel as much anxiety about using the real world as my palette or as my template, to draw from. I don’t feel compelled to start staging my imagery or moving away from recording “reality” on some level in order to achieve a deeper subjective experience, and I think it’s because I came out of an analogue, more traditional way of approaching photography. Photography was a way to put a window onto the world and to enter into the world. For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.

Manaugh: I’d like to ask another question about the future of photography. As a writer, something that always catches my eye are stories about how they’re working on an artificial intelligence bot that can actually write a sports recap or a movie review on its own. The idea is that things like descriptions of football games are so formulaic that, in the future, a robot will write it, churning out sentences like, “Quarterback X threw for a certain amount of yards for a victory in the last quarter against team Y,” and so on. In and of itself, this is culturally fascinating, of course—but, as a writer, I am particularly fascinated by what it means for the future of my craft.

From the point of view of a photographer, then, it might seem equally interesting that there are now all sorts of new types of photographic systems on the rise—quadcopter-mounted 3D scanners, drones, and even smart ammunition equipped with cameras that can loiter in an area taking aerial photographs. Simply on a technical level, I’m curious about where you see the future of photography going. Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?

Burtynsky: I’m already doing it.

Twilley: You have a drone?

Burtynsky: Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture.

So I am already using that technology. It offers new ways of entering into places that you would never have considered going—or that you couldn’t even go to—before.

The pictures I’ve been taking of irrigation circles now as part of the water project—that’s something I think would not have been possible to do very easily even just five years ago. It would be almost impossible with film to splice those images together so well and not have it look weirdly distorted or problematic. With Photoshop, and with digital files, you’ve got contrast control, the removal of haze, color filtration, and all of that, so I’m able to do things that, again, were not even conceivable five years ago.

"Dam #6," Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: I’m curious about how you know when a series is done, when you’ve said all you wanted to say about a certain them or topic. For instance, I think you said that the water series will be finished in 2013—but how do you know when to put an end to certain things? Is it that there is literally a checklist of sites you want to get to, or is there a more subtle narrative sense of completion that you’re looking for?

Burtynsky: Well, by 2013, I will have been working on water for almost five years. It’s unlike a lot of my other series, in that I’m not doing any other projects right now. During the oil series, I did a whole series in China, and I still kept doing quarries along the way. I did a lot of other things while pursuing the idea of oil systems, and the kinds of landscapes that come from them.

For this water project, I gave myself a five-year time period and that’s all I’m concentrating on. I’ve dropped quarries and I’ve dropped oil, pretty much—except for the Gulf oil spill, which I saw as this historic-scale, crossover event with oil and water, a moment when the two liquids that I have been pursuing for so long were put into such an unhappy marriage. I thought it was worth the chance to go, to see them both in one place; and I think it worked.

But the 2013 date puts a hard stop on the project. It’s not to say that I won’t ever take more images of water—or, for that matter, of oil—but it’s a chance to consolidate the work, to put a book and movie together, and to put something out there for people to react to and see. I don’t think it means that either oil or water will be closed off the way I closed off quarries.

In fact, it’s interesting that once I move away from a series, I can go by those landscapes all day long and I won’t see them anymore. It’s like I’ve just switched it off. I know it’s still there, of course, and, if I went back, I could still find those kinds of things again; but I don’t look for them anymore. To me, the photographic image is an idea that you put into your consciousness, and then you go out in the world in search of manifestations of it. It’s a very idea-driven process—but that also means than, once the idea is expressed, I don’t necessarily go looking for it anymore. I’ve done it.

"Dryland Farming #7," Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I want to end with a question about where the water project is going next, and, in particular, whether there’s any aspect of water that is proving particularly tricky to capture or perhaps more productive than you originally expected?

Burtynsky: Probably the trickiest bit right now is source: where water comes from. It’s so riddled with clichés. That’s actually where I might end up using film, because it might be able to carry the cliché better than still photographs.

I also gave myself another challenge, which is something I grew up next door to: I’ve been trying to figure out, is there any way I can photograph Niagara Falls without making it a cliché? And I haven’t done it yet. Andreas Gursky shot the Maid of the Mist and it was very postcard-y—but I think he meant it to refer to the postcard tradition. I’m working on it, and I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard. I keep looking at Niagara Falls, thinking, “Great. Now what?”
 
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