Friday, March 21, 2014

Cadillac Desert is Lush but Overgrown

Somewhere around the 400th page of Cadillac Desert, the late Marc Reisner's brilliantly sarcastic, extensively researched, unapologetically biased, frequently horrifying extended tirade about the use and abuse of the West's water resources, I realized that everyone in the entire book was an asshole. Except Jimmy Carter. And even he was an asshole by accident.

With the exception of occasional lone gunmen or community spokesmen who stand up to protest the building of an unnecessary or poorly located dam, all of Reisner's characters are, well, assholes. Commissioners of the federal Bureau of Reclamation who authorize huge numbers of lousy water projects; city fathers of Los Angeles who steal a river right out of the Owens Valley; Army Corps of Engineers engineers who battle with the Bureau for the right to construct dams in specific sites. Reisner's goal was nothing less than to write a complete history of all water development west of the Great Plains, of the federal and state agencies who did it, of the rivers and the groundwater they used, and of the spread of civilization made possible by water development, and of everything everybody did wrong in the process. He does this... kind of.

Here are the good parts. Reisner was an incredible, and hilarious, writer, at his best when his tongue was sharpest. The introduction and the first two chapters were absolute stunners. In vivid, excoriating language, Reisner takes us through the ineffiencies of federal subsidies (why are we subsidizing farmers over here not to grow things, and why are we subsidizing water so that farmers over here can grow the same things?), the history of American frontier expeditions through the west (brilliantly captivating) and the story of how L.A. stole the Owens River (insane and shocking, a human tragedy). It's impossible not to be hooked, and it's impossible not to be outraged at the injustices that have, according to Reisner, been perpetuated in the borderline holy cause of making the desert bloom.

This is a great book, in that sense. But if you're going to read it, I recommend doing so over a couple of months. Keep an atlas nearby that shows all the major rivers of the West, and their dams, if possible (my edition's maps are completely inadequate for the level of detail he provides). Read a chapter, walk away for a week, read another chapter. Keep a log, for perspective's sake, where you can pin down Reisner's fluid terminology. A hundred million acre-feet of water sounds like a lot. Is it? Is that a big river, a small river, Colorado's average water consumption? What about money? Is $3 million a lot for flood control? Can you buy a good dam for $500 million? How much more does a 1960s dam cost than a 1930s dam, and why?

There is a reason for all these precautions. Cadillac Desert, brilliant and mayhem-raising though it be, reads like the manifesto of an angry man that it is. It rambles, and it doesn't provide much-needed context, and the tone really doesn't change throughout the book. I said "sort of" above, because Reisner's history of water development is not a complete one. He wanders from state to state, project to project, treaty to treaty, agency to agency, federal to state, dam to dam, without really unifying all of these pieces into a theme beyond, as I said, "everyone is an asshole" or "they're doing it all wrong". He doesn't tell the story of water development in the West so much as he tells a lot of different, smaller tales that all have to do with one central topic. It's more of a short-story collection than it is a polished polemic.

That's the rambling problem, and above it is the context problem. Reisner simply doesn't say a lot about how big a deal each individual project or state effort is, in terms of water; you have to keep track of that yourself. (It's tempting to assume--this was something like a ten-year project--that by the end he knew it all himself well enough not to need a key, and believed the same of his readers.) But the biggest problem here is that everyone is an asshole and everything is going horribly wrong! Reisner is merciless, attacking his enemies' characters right along with the projects they championed, and for him, everyone is the same and every project is bad. There are few stories about things done right, or the benefits that water projects gave. There are few pauses for reflection, summaries (and if it wasn't clear, this is a pretty complex topic) for the reader, recapitulations or places where Reisner points out a theme. It's story and anecdote after story and anecdote, and while they're all well-written, you get numb to it after a while.

If Cadillac Desert were a college essay, it would largely be missing the last two or three paragraphs where you sum up everything you've found and tell the reader what it all means. We're all going to die of thirst or poison our fields with mineral runoff or run out of groundwater or go thoroughly bankrupt or I don't even know what. Every chapter is its own grim prophecy. And maybe they're all true! Maybe this book is absolutely the clarion call we need, but that isn't my point. My point is that by the four hundredth page of reading about how everything is going to shit, it ceases to sink in. You get to the latest disaster-in-waiting and go "Huh." instead of "AAAUGH!" because you've already gone "AAAUGH!" a dozen times already, today! That's why I suggest long breaks between chapters, pauses for contemplation that the book does not contain.

I should caution here that all of this is not a reason not to buy the book. It is very much worth buying, I don't regret reading it, I think it's fascinating and well-written, and some condensed and less one-sided version should probably be in textbooks about the settlement of the West. Or about how domestic politics works (apparently water is king in Congress. Who knew). Although a taxing read, it's well worth your time. For best results, follow the steps above: take it slow, take notes, look things up and get a map.

No comments:

Post a Comment