FeedIndex
Filter: infrastructure  view all


Venue took a detour north into the periphery of greater Los Angeles to drive across, through, and back again over the San Andreas Fault, a slow motion crash between continents. Rocks roil like rough seas in an engraving by Hokusai, a great wave of planetary energy curling stone into ribbons and bending whole landscapes toward the sky.



Though several guidebooks exist for would-be fault explorers, the San Andreas is not the giant, Grand Canyon-esque crack in the ground of our James Bond-fueled imagination. For most of its length, indeed, the fault is only visible through its traces: offset streams and channels, ridges, scarps, discontinuities, sags, and even mudpots.

The Palmdale Road Cut—a 90-foot slice through lakebed sediments that have spent millions of years being squeezed and torqued by the fault's slips and shear—is thus a rare window onto geologic force, frozen in motion.

The drive itself is very easy, heading up the 14—the Antelope Valley Freeway—from Los Angeles, where, just north of the junction with Avenue S, there it is: the San Andreas, inadvertently peeled open and revealed to the world by road crews as they blasted through rock to make the freeway.



The easiest way to visit on foot, we found, was to exit there, head up to the nearby Pelona Vista Park, and leave our car in the parking lot.

Then—admittedly trespassing, so please beware should you try this yourself—it's just a short, uneven walk down a well-worn network of trails and skirting some ineffectual, sagging barbed wire to overlook the freeway, where you can stand above this artificial chasm between continents as if in a Casper David Friedrich painting.



You can look down at and listen to cars droning by, seemingly unaware of their regal surroundings.

If you don't know what you're looking for, you could drive though this extraordinary spot without ever knowing what you've missed.



Standing amidst this wonderfully detailed incision, cut straight through the arid scar tissue of continental jostling, it has the feel of a tectonic amphitheater—more stunning than anything at Delphi—oracular in its revelation of how the earth moves, heaves, and behaves, the planet always rushing toward future arrangements that geologists can only try, approximately, to predict.



Immeasurably massive forces strain upward, bulging the ground itself and reducing a million years' worth of sedimentary accretion to dust and gravel. Small rocks pop out from cracks and roll down the hillside, where plants struggle to grow along the dry and irregular terrain.



Hopping back in the car, Venue continued to drive the fault, passing the California Aqueduct, a megastructural monument to water, another of the powerful natural forces whose movements have redesigned the state's landscape wholesale.



About forty minutes southwest of Palmdale, two tiny signs, all but literally in the middle of nowhere, stand on the side of a road so uncrowded we passed only one other car the entire time we drove on it, announcing the fault's subterranean presence.



Here, the fault spreads out into a broad and picturesque valley—



—where the signs marking this geologic feature look both absurd and suitably poetic, as if tourists from all over the country or world might, just might, come to California in search of its signature geologic landmark.



We pulled over here to walk around for a while, at a small bend in Pallet Creek Road, taking pictures and wandering up the nearby hills. A ruined farmhouse of some kind stood off the road to the north, and the wind picked up considerably as we looked over the vista.

The weather began to change and the looming masses of clouds blowing down from the San Gabriels seemed to mimic, in their own convolutions and shapes, the weird geologies we knew were below us somewhere, an earth layered like a deck of cards that, at any moment, might reshuffle themselves in a coming earthquake.

Oddly enough, there is a Benedictine monastery built right here on the Fault: the coincidentally named St. Andrew's Abbey, where, of all things, the monks specialize in ceramics, molding and firing the crumbled clay of a tectonic fault into objects.

There is something truly remarkable in this notion—whether or not the monks, in fact, use local clay—of transmuting the negative space of a fault line into positive things with mass that you can hold and look upon, as if extracting material objects from the void and turning this vulnerability into a generator for new forms yet to come.

Top image: Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, via Wikipedia.
On a visit delayed by a long stretch of rain the day before, Venue drove east from downtown Los Angeles to visit the Puente Hills landfill—the nation's largest active municipal dump—near the city of Whittier.



An astonishing and monumental act of landform construction, Puente Hills is scheduled to close in October 2013, to be replaced by the much larger and geographically far more remote Mesquite Regional Landfill, two-hundred miles southeast in the Imperial Valley.



As we approached the site, the scale of the landfill became more clear, and the rhythm of its expansion was also evident in the traffic all around us, as dump trucks bumped and rumbled down the highway off-ramp, all on their way to add mass to the trash mountain looming on the right side of the freeway, blocking the sun.



At the entrance to the dump sits the unassuming two-story headquarters of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Basil Hewitt, a public information officer, met us there to escort us up the mountain in his minivan.



Over the next few hours, Hewitt patiently answered our many questions about the site's history, its design, and its impending closure, while good-humoredly tolerating our recurring expressions of awe at just how unearthly a place Puente Hills can be.



The landfill opened in 1957, and was taken over by the Sanitation Districts in 1970. It sits on a 1,365-acre site, half of which is devoted to a buffer zone and wildlife preserve, leaving an area roughly the size of New York City's Central Park to receive one third of Los Angeles County's trash.



Over the past three decades, Hewitt told us, Puente Hills has received nearly 130 million tons of garbage. As Edward Hume writes in his excellent book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, this is a hard quantity to visualize. He offers the following analogies to convey its truly monumental scale:

Here's one way to picture it: If Puente Hills were an elephant burial ground, its tonnage would represent about 15 million deceased pachyderms—equivalent to every living elephant on earth, times twenty. If it were an automobile burial ground, it could hold every car produced in America for the past fifteen years.

What began as a small municipal dump, filling in a canyon on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley (acting literally as "landfill") has turned, over four decades, into a mountain-building exercise.



Hewitt told us that Puente Hills now rises to the height of a forty-story building, meaning, as Hume notes, that if the landfill was a high-rise, "it would be among the twenty tallest skyscrapers in Los Angeles, beating out the MGM Tower, Fox Plaza, and Los Angeles City Hall."

For quite some time, the garbage mountain of Puente Hills has been rising above its surrounding terrain, resembling nothing more than a huge and eerily modern version of an ancient tell—those giant mounds in the Middle Eastern deserts that mark where once-might cities rose and fell, and that now lie bured and broken beneath the sands.

We headed upward in the minivan, stopping to learn how the weigh station worked. Pulled over, we watched as trucks rolled up, paused on the gigantic scale (Puente Hills currently charges $38 a ton), then coughed and belched their way further up the hillside.



As he started the minivan back up, Hewitt made the fascinating observation that just a few years ago, this line of trucks would have been significantly longer, backed up sometimes all the way to freeway off-ramp. Toward the end of 2007, all of a sudden, Hewitt told us, "Puente Hills was like a ghost town. People who had worked here for forty years had never seen anything like it."

From a peak of 1,900 trucks per day in summer 2007, thirty or forty of which would be loaded with construction debris, Puente Hills' traffic decreased to only 400 trucks a day by the end of the year. "When it first happened, we didn’t know what the heck was going on," Hewitt explained. "We're not economists, but, in retrospect, we figured out something was up in December 2007, and all those banks didn't start to fail until fall 2008."

Had the Puente Hills landfill called it back in 2007, when the U.S. was on the verge of the Great Recession, perhaps we'd all be singing the praises of garbology as economic indicator.



From the weigh station onwards, the road bed sits on trash: "You can tell," Hewitt explained, "because trash is not homogenous, so you'll get differential settling, and the road will give you a little of a roller coaster at Disneyland-type ride."



If the bumpy ride was exciting, things at the active dumping site were more chaotic still. Because of the rain the day before, the working surface had become slippery and operations were confined to a "winter day" footprint—a smaller-than-usual area, given grip with a layer of crushed asphalt.

Hewitt, otherwise an extremely low-key and calm presence, became quite agitated as we tried to maneuver between dump trucks, compacting machines, and piles of shredded green waste. "This is not good!" was his repeated refrain, as heavy equipment backed up toward us without warning.

His alarm was justified: in Garbology, Hume notes that eight landfill workers nationwide died in 2010, and that the risk of "drop-off"—the chance that some of the twenty to thirty feet of uncompacted trash that builds up each day could start to slide, tipping them off the edge of the mountain altogether—is omnipresent.



On a normal day, Hewitt told us, the active dumping site at the top of Puente Hills is usually about an acre in area, and twenty feet deep. It's called a cell—not, as Edward Hume writes, "in the prison-block sense, but more akin to the tiny biological unit, many thousands of which are needed to create a single, whole organism." In other words, the garbage pile that the bulldozers and graders push, compact, and sculpt each day, is a landfill building block—a brick in the pyramid of trash that is Puente Hills.

The resulting "fill plan," designed by the Sanitation Districts's waste engineers and staked out afresh each day, informs the particular topography that the heavy machinery massaging the trash are trying to achieve. Down to its cell slopes and road patterns, the landfill is an entirely managed and manufactured terrain, a shape calculated in advance and then sculpted, incrementally, with every shift of every machine.

Hewitt's description of a mountain-building logic formed of "cells" could not help but remind us of historians Martin Bressani and Robert Jan van Pelt's discussion of 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet le Duc—designer of, among other things, the plinth or artificial hill upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.

Sketch of Mont Blanc by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc; for more on Viollet-le-Duc's mountain-building analyses, from the perspective of a geologist, see Michael Welland's blog Through the Sandglass.

Viollet Le Duc, as Bressani and Jan van Pelt explain, was inspired by the "structural network" of Mont Blanc to develop an architecture based upon crystal forms, employing "lifelong observations into mountain formation" as his chosen method of research.

His sketches are often extraordinary, analyzing mountain peaks, slopes, and even glaciers for their formal, geometric qualities, looking for what he called "the great crystalline system" underlying it all.

Further analytic sketches of Mont Blanc and its glaciers by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Bressani and Jan van Pelt's description of Viollet Le Duc's opening chapter, which analyzes the geological processes behind the creation of Mont Blanc in architectural terms, is worth quoting at length:

An expanded mass of soft granite (protogine) below the earth’s thick surface erupted through the crystalline crust above, producing a domical rock formation sprouting out of a buttonhole-shape slit. As it slowly cooled and crystallized, this gigantic mass of granite progressively shrank and retreated. According to Viollet-le-Duc, the subtraction process followed a very precise rhombohedral prismatic pattern consistent throughout the whole. Mont Blanc thus acts as one huge crystal formation—every edge, every peak and aiguille follows a geodesic structure. The pattern creates a network of cells, a type of formation that Viollet-le-Duc found also at the micro level in glacial formation. This hexagonal configuration, based upon the equilateral triangle, proved the most fundamental and consistent principle of organization within Viollet-le-Duc’s late writings and architecture.

It would seem that a similarly analytic study of the mountain-building logic behind Puente Hills could be done here in greater Los Angeles, treating this astonishingly massive artificial landform as its Mont Blanc: held in place and given shape by methane pipes, geotextiles, concrete roads, and carefully choreographed "cells" of daily growth, and, in every sense, a work of architecture.



Puente Hills' daily construction cycle ends at 5 p.m.—or whenever the daily intake limit of 13,000 tons has been reached, which, before the recession, would happen as early as 1 p.m.—at which point, its machine operators use laser-guided markers to level the top of the mound, and then cover it with a twelve-inch layer of clean dirt and green waste.

That daily blanket, explains Hewitt, stops "vectors" from scavenging—primary rats, but also flies and coyotes—and is what makes Puente Hills a sanitary landfill.



In addition to the active cell, its traffic jam of heavy machinery and dump trucks, and a pile of green waste and clean dirt for the sanitary layer, Hewitt told us of the twin banes of landfill construction: siloxanes, a chemical found in many hair gels, mousses, and conditioners, which pits the equipment, and, surprisingly, tires:

We collect tires, and we have to shred them before we bury them, because we found out if we bury them without shredding them they kind of float up and burst through our cover and our liners.



We step out of the minivan for a moment, making Hewitt even more uneasy, and are immediately struck by the site's lack of stink. It smells like trash, of course, but it's really only as bad as the early-stage rot of a full domestic garbage bag. "In January," Hewitt tells us, "it actually smells really quite nice, because of all the mulched-up Christmas trees."



Nonetheless, Puente Hills is now a sufficiently large landform to generate its own microclimate and wind patterns—with the effect that several gigantic fans and berms dot the edges of the plateau, to keep wind from blowing over residential areas of Whittier.

Meanwhile, what look like large fishing rods stuck into the ground are actually bird deterrents. "In the old days," says Hewitt, "they would just shoot a sea gull in the morning—this was back in the 1960s or 70s. They’d wing a seagull, leave it out, and it would squawk and warn the other seagulls away. You don’t do that anymore."

Instead, the thin monofilament lines hung from the rods disrupt the birds' landing glide. They are often sufficient control on their own, but, Hewitt explained, "When the weather’s bad out at the ocean, that's when all the gulls come inland looking for food." Plan B starts with noisemakers, and ends with what someone flying a remote control airplane to buzz the birds, which Hewitt described as "the coolest job."



The rats are apparently even less difficult to control: Hewitt told us that the District's solid waste research group had "done a study, way back, which found that when they compact the trash they kill about fifty percent of the rats. Then, by covering it, the other fifty percent die from lack of oxygen. They can't survive the landfill process."

After one too many close calls for Hewitt's comfort, we retreated, retracing our steps before taking a side road round to an overlook in the buffer zone.

Standing next to a water trough (the park half of Puente Hills is criss-crossed with equestrian trails), we looked first west over Rose Hills Cemetery, the landfill's immediate neighbor, to the skyscrapers of downtown LA, and then back east to the brown plateau of the active dumping site, and the lush green of the terraced mountain, its contours defined by a spiderweb of white plastic tubes.



Decomposing garbage oozes toxic "leachate" and releases a steady flow of "landfill gas," which is a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases. As a result, both the interior and exterior of Puente Hills are filigreed with a network of plastic pipes—trash plumbing, to divert the leachate from groundwater and collect the landfill gas to prevent explosions and generate electricity.

Hewitt proudly points out the Puente Hills Energy Recovery from Gas facility, or PERG, which generates more than forty megawatts of electricity per day from more than 30,000 cubic feet per minute of landfill gas.



In Garbology, Hume describes Puente Hill's pioneering role in transforming landfill gas to energy:

Back in the eighties, the Puente Hills engineers decided to break with landfill tradition and stop merely "flaring" the gas—the practice of burning it inside a giant torch to keep the raw methane from entering the atmosphere, where it becomes a potent greenhouse gas—and instead put it to use for power generation. They soon ran into the same problem others had encountered when trying to mine energy from landfill gas: Over time, as the trash in the landfill decomposed and settled under its own weight, the pipes would crack, crush, and break. The ingenious, low-tech solution—adopted first at Puente Hills, now employed all over the world—was to use plastic pipes of varying diameters and fit them together loosely, with plenty of overlap, like arms in a sleeve. As the trash mound settles, the pipe sections can move up and down at different rates and angles without damage, yet stay connected.




This gas will continue to flow for another fifteen to twenty years after the last piece of trash is accepted in October this year, which brought us to our final question for Hewitt: What happens when Puente Hills closes its doors for good?



"There's no closing party or celebration plan," Hewitt told us. "No, we’re just trying to save money. We’re going to be in rough waters, because when this landfill closes, we’re going to lose a huge revenue stream."

Nonetheless, work will continue at the site for the foreseeable future. In addition to the power plant, Puente Hills will become the intermodal transit site for the new "Waste-to-Rail" system that will funnel the County's trash out to the new Mesquite landfill — which has sufficient capacity to accept 20,000 tons of trash per day for one hundred years. Meanwhile, the closed landfill will still need to be monitored for leachate contamination or methane drift—a precaution that will have to continue for at least fifty years, according to Hewitt—and, of course, there is the landscaping work to transition this canyon turned garbage mountain into its next reincarnation, as a county park.

Hewitt grimly predicts that most people in Los Angeles County won't know Puente Hills landfill was ever there until it's gone—when the region's private landfill operators take advantage of the gap between its closure and Mesquite coming online to raise their rates.

And with that, we got back in the minivan, slowly winding our bumpy way down from the heights of terrestrial artificiality, back to the sculpted highways of greater Los Angeles, heading west into the city again.


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!
Every day and night, beneath the streets of San Francisco, huge wheels turn, pulling cable cars to their far-flung destinations and back again, as if weaving them across the city in loops.



The cars shuttle passengers up the peninsula's hills and down again, around the city's densely built core, through neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Russian Hill, and the Financial District, riding atop a geometry of iron tracks, underground cables, and spinning sheaves embedded in the streets themselves.



These wheels — and the spider's nest of cables they pull — are free and open to the public for daily visits, courtesy of the surprisingly fantastic San Francisco Cable Car Museum.



An otherwise nondescript brick building at 1201 Mason Street hides a cavernous and open interior that stands all but gutted to make space for these vast winding wheels and the electric motors that drive them.

Inside, steps bring visitors up to a viewing platform for a bird's eye view of the loud and clanking operation, amidst rich smells of fuel and industrial lubricants, as if wandering into a scene from a Jules Verne short story.



The museum itself opened back in 1974, and, in addition to the spectacular engine and winding wheel overlook, it holds a series of plinths and display cases located off to the sides, showcasing "various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.



However, it's not until you descend into an underground viewing area to see the the spinning "sheaves" that bring each of the four cable lines back into the building from their channels beneath the streets that the immense strangeness of the cable car system really becomes apparent.

The fact that something so familiar and over-photographed — in an era dominated by notions of urban software, immaterial metaphors of "the cloud," and the very idea of "smart cities" — actually operates by way of shadowy, clockwork mechanical systems so exhilaratingly titanic, analogue, and, frankly, bizarre was an astonishing thing to learn.



Walking down into a cramped and under-lit vault in which it's too dark to take an effective casual photograph, you peer out through thick glass windows onto what appears to be a medieval guild room, a giant's collection of oversized seismic gyroscopes, or perhaps the villain's lair from some as-yet-unmade sequel to Spiderman.

Here, you realize that this hallway, an underground corridor spinning with Piranesian wheels and cables



— actually connects onward to other halls and sheave rooms, and that those, too, are connected by way of subterranean trenches through which tar-covered steel cables are pulled at a steady 9 mph, and that those very cables are then responsible for the constant whirring and machine-like patter one hears coming from grates in the middle of the street on certain routes through San Francisco.



It's as if a huge stringed instrument has been wound through the basements of the city, a singing nervous system that hauls vehicles the size of small buildings up and down fog-shrouded hills.


Engineer Andrew Hallidie's patent drawing for the "Endless Wire Ropeway," as implemented under the streets of San Francisco.

In his classic essay on the prison images of Piranesi, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein writes of chaotic spaces in which architectural fragments, arches, and "broken balconies" constantly "leap" and "explode" beyond their gravitational bounds. He describes a centrifugal space that "whirls off somewhere," as if "in a hurricane, dashing in all directions: ropes, runaway staircases, exploding arches, stone blocks breaking away from each other."

It is in "the nature of architectural fantasies," Eisenstein writes, that such a space might "carry the eye into unknown depths, and the staircases, ledge by ledge, extend to the heavens, or in a reverse cascade of these same ledges, rush downward."

San Francisco's cable car system is a wonderfully mundane "architectural fantasy," in Eisenstein's terms, an everyday piece of urban infrastructure formed by a literally marvelous webwork of cables and tracks that collaboratively strain to pull together the city. It is also the only mobile National Monument in the world.



Even better, the Cable Car Museum remains free to visit. It can be found at 1201 Mason Street, where the Herculean wheels await your wonder.

"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?”


You're looking at something pretty amazing: a photograph of a photograph taken by Edward Burtynsky, one of the world's most celebrated landscape photographers, especially for Venue.

Except that Burtynsky took the photograph using Matt Richardson's Descriptive Camera — our guest device on this leg of Venue's travels — which means that, instead of Burtynsky's carefully selected and composed image, we instead have a short description written by an anonymous worker for a $1.25 reward.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Descriptive Camera works by sending the images it captures off to Amazon's Mechanical Turk jobs board, where anyone, based anywhere in the world, can choose to accept the task of describing it for a fee.

In this case, our lucky anonymous worker saw a brand new photograph by Edward Burtynsky, entered a few lines of text, and then hit send. Back in the bright yellow service staircase of the Nevada Museum of Art, we waited patiently till their description printed out, like a receipt, from the front of the camera.


A quick snapshot of Burtynsky taking the photo in question. We gave him 24 hours to select a subject in the museum, and this was the spot that caught his eye. Photograph by Geoff Manaugh.

And there it is: "A network of pipes, having valves and joints with meters between them." Burtynsky, in someone else's words.

The shooting of this photograph followed a morning of hearing Burtynsky in his own words, in a special lecture at the Nevada Museum of Art on the occasion of the opening of his new Oil exhibition, followed by a fascinating conversation with Venue—our inaugural interview—during which we discussed drones, collective acts of consumption, his deliberate avoidance of the colors green and blue, and the seemingly impossible challenge of making a compelling photograph of Niagara Falls.

We'll be posting the full transcript of that conversation, with images, online here shortly.
 
  Getting more posts...