view stage two: part two here.

03.18.09 Friday is the vernal equinox. It’s also my anticipated departure date with 90% certainty.

03.17.09 The Passage. Shot and edited today.
03.12.09 Davis Brownlands

When I was growing up in this valley town, a food processing plant stood here. I believe they made ketchup. When the north wind blew it filled our neighbor with the pungent smell of boiling tomatoes. I came back one day after being off in the world for several years and the site had changed dramatically: the buildings were gone. It was like a bomb had gone off and everything over fifteen inches just blew away. What remains is a vast concrete slab with hearty primary colonizer plant species exploiting its cracks.

For some reason, the bulldozers spared a water tower that’s now a favorite hangout for teens looking to escape the prying eyes of parents and law enforcement. The view from the structure’s top is quite lovely and provides a good aerial look at the piles of concrete rubble and twisted rusty rebar.

My first experience with this variety of odd urban void was in Chicago. A large parcel of land, just south of the loop, has been left undeveloped because whatever industrial process was removed left a legacy of contaminated soil that can’t be built upon at it’s current level of toxicity. The high cost of removing and properly disposing of thousands of tons of dirt and debris makes redevelopment a prohibitively expensive proposition.

Spending time in the Brownlands, a term borrowed from the Chicago site, one feels removed and isolated despite proximity to a population center. I also associate being there with exclusiveness: an impression that has much to do with squeezing through a small gap in a fence in order to gain access. The chain-link barrier filters out everyone but the most modestly sized, as well as anyone unwilling to become a trespasser. But the reward is worth the risk. Once inside, it’s possible to observe (up close) the forces with which nature is reclaiming the space: reshaping it according to it’s own vision. The gradual process of ecological succession is a process of healing. Perhaps in patiently bearing witness to its subtleties, we might augment the restoration of ourselves.

03.11.09 Mendocino Coast Revisited

I spent a few days revisiting one of the most beautiful sections of coastline from stage one.
Sarah (whom Joe and I met when we rolled into Fort Bragg on election night) was a fantastic host. We ate well, did yoga, played records, made kombucha, and generally rejuvenated our butts off.

The town of Mendocino has a population of around 1000 and a lot of potential to remain a well-scaled walkable community (if it can maintain its size). The relatively remote location also bodes well for it’s future.

While I was there, this part of the world made waves in certain circles with the introduction of Mendo Moola, a local currency backed by food.

Although there’s not a lot in the way of abandonments or energy infrastructure in a place where the most industrial activity is logging, I did find the world’s happiest fuel tanks and this amazing piece of rotting machinery that had something to do with processing gravel. Imagine it’s the very top of a structure that’s like hundreds of feet tall.

03.11.09 Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station

It was springtime 1975 in California’s Central Valley when billowy white steam clouds first peaked over the rims of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station’s twin cooling towers. Twenty-five miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, in a relatively remote agricultural landscape, sheep were likely the most numerous witnesses to the event. Fourteen years later the billowing stopped and the plant’s generators fell permanently silent.

The incompetence of its operators resulted in cost overruns and a dismal 39% lifetime capacity average. Sacramento Municipal Utility District customers, having watched their rates double as a consequence of such inefficiency, voted to close the plant in a 1989 public referendum (ten years before the expiration date on its operating license). Two decades later, decommissioning operations are ongoing.

While Rancho Seco’s radioactive innards are being carefully removed and squirreled away, its towers watch stoically over miles of rolling vineyards. Their hyperboloid geometry makes them both visually arresting and structurally stable. If SMUD doesn’t get the urge to blow them up in the name of “safety,” they should stand, in something resembling their current form, for many decades. Eventually the freeze/thaw cycle will take its toll, marring their smooth reinforced concrete forms with cracks and crevices. But before they’re reduced to piles of rubble, there will be ample time for them to serve the species that built them in more benign ways. Imagine their potential for cultural significance in a post-industrial world. Maybe they’ll be adapted for practical purposes: becoming shelter, atmospheric moisture harvesters, or enormous above ground caverns for growing edible fungi. Perhaps they’ll gain spiritual relevance as the site of ceremonial gatherings or the endpoint of epic pilgrimages. Or maybe they’ll just stand as monolithic reminders of a deceased civilization’s flirtations with godlike power.

wikipedia page
38°20'42"N 121° 7'19"W

03.11.09 Cosumnes Power Plant

SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) had been eager to make use of its sprawling Rancho Seco property since voters closed the nuclear plant in 1989. While the 2,480-acre site is home to some serious solar installations, the new kid on the block is the Cosumnes Power Plant. Phase one of the combined-cycle natural gas fired plant went online in 2006 and currently produces 500 megawatts of good old-fashioned e-lectricity. Combined-cycle plants are all the rage right now because they are relatively efficient (above 50%) and relatively economical to build ($600 million).

38°20'16"N 121° 7'27"W

03.11.09 The Earthen Levee as Civilization’s Margin

These two images were taken within minutes of each other on opposite sides of Lovdal Levee. The trapezoidal wall of earth and stone was built to protect Sacramento and other California Central Valley communities from the floodwaters of a periodically swollen Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. On this bright January morning I had pedaled east from Davis and traversed the Yolo Bypass floodplain by way of a 3.2 mile long elevated highway viaduct known as the Yolo Causeway. This time of year (after a good storm) the bypass can be completely full of water, but California was in the middle of a very dry month. I arrived at the Levee in time to witness two very different scenes; specific enough in their implied significance to trigger a moment of clarity.

On the city side was a yellow truck rumbling down the bike path. It had been outfitted with an array of storage tanks, hoses, and nozzles: transforming an ordinary vehicle into a mobile herbicide delivery system. A figure, dressed head to tow in a chemical protection suit, stood on the truck’s modified tailgate directing an unbroken stream of aquamarine tinted liquid onto the “weeds” at the path’s edge. I tried not to breath as the noxious cloud of herbicide mist and diesel exhaust floated past.

The floodplain side is paid far less attention. It’s been designated a “wildlife management area” which really means that (because it’s occasionally underwater) it has little use to humans. But the trees and other plant life, as well as the birds and small mammals that make this area their home, aren’t so much managed as left to their own devices. It seems to be this unsupervised quality of life beyond the levee that attracted the dozen or so human occupants of a small tent village established at the base of the earthen wall.

Mining such an obvious dichotomy for meaning, I began to equate everything on the city side of the levy with industrial civilization. The herbicide truck was the perfect symbol of civilized human’s compulsion to contain and control wild nature; the epitome of the doctrine: what refuses to conform to civilization’s rigid lines must be exterminated or displaced. Here, safe on the inside, I felt the insulation and separateness that keeps us cut off from the rest of the living planet. I felt the fear of the unknown; of what cannot be “managed.”

A levy, in and of itself, is a structure designed to control the flooding that is natural to any river delta. It makes the unpredictable predictable (at least until it fails). In our model it represents civilization’s margin. It is the castle wall: tasked with keeping the messy unpredictable world where it belongs. It is just outside this engineered security that our tent dwellers have chosen to reside. They live without many of the comforts and conveniences most of us are accustom to, but pay no rent, no mortgage, no property taxes, and no utility bills. They come and go as they please with no one looking over their shoulder. They tread lightly on the land and enjoy an amazing view of the wetlands. They got to choose exactly how far from their tenting neighbors was comfortable, working such details out amongst themselves.

The price to live here on the fringe is knowing your place is not permanent. It requires a certain flexibility and mobility; a willingness to let the weather decide when it’s time to move on; to give up control to something larger than oneself. The tent community will have to relocate their homes when the water rises again but the process can’t be worse than getting an eviction notice from the bank that owns your toothpick and vinyl track house.

I’m not trying to glorify or romanticize homelessness. I’m sure that, given the option, they’d trade for a suburban home and a Ford Explorer in a heartbeat. I’d like to think that fact doesn’t diminish the potency of the model they provide. As this country finds itself increasingly impoverished, greater numbers of its citizens will gather at society’s edges, eager to escape the chaos and turmoil of its core. As Dmitry Orlov points out in his recent book Reinventing Collapse, “these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.”
02.19.09 Here's a PDF flier for stage two:

02.15.09 Welcome to the illuminated redesign. Should be up and running properly in a couple weeks so check back soon. In the meantime here's a monologue from a Tarkovsky film:

Nostalghia
Domenico's Speech

What ancestor speaks in me? I can't live simultaneously in my head and in my body. That's why I can't be just one person. I can feel within myself countless things at once.

There are no great masters left. That's the real evil of our time. The heart's path is covered in shadow. We must listen to the voices that seem useless in brains full of long sewage pipes of school wall, tarmac and welfare papers. The buzzing of insects must enter. We must fill the eyes and ears of all of us with things that are the beginning of a great dream. Someone must shout that we'll build the pyramids. It doesn't matter if we don't. We must fuel that wish and stretch the corners of the soul like an endless sheet.

If you want the world to go forward, we must hold hands. We must mix the so-called healthy with the so-called sick. You healthy ones! What does your health mean? The eyes of all mankind are looking at the pit into which we are plunging. Freedom is useless if you don't have the courage to look us in the eye, to eat, drink and sleep with us! It's the so-called healthy who have brought the world to the verge of ruin. Man, listen! In you water, fire and then ashes, and the bones in the ashes. The bones and the ashes!

Where am I when I'm not in reality or in my imagination? Here's my new pact: it must be sunny at night and snowy in August. Great things end. Small things endure. Society must become united again instead of so disjointed. Just look at nature and you'll see that life is simple. We must go back to where we were, to the point where we took the wrong turn. We must go back to the main foundations of life without dirtying the water. What kind of world is this if a madman tells you you must be ashamed of yourselves!

O Mother! The air is that light thing that moves around your head and becomes clearer when you laugh.

view stage one here.
stage two: part one

San Francisco, CA to L.A./San Diego, CA
pre-departure