NONFICTION | The Great American Land Gluttony
The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man's job to square the circle.
-- Charles Olsen, Call Me Ishmael
I recently went on a pilgrimage to Roswell. From the southern part of the state I passed through hours of uneventful country: the Jornada del Muerto Desert and the White Sands ranges were reckoned desolate enough for the atom bomb tests. Then, on my return, suffering from a bad case of highway hypnosis on Route 62 in the titanic wing of West Texas, I had an epiphany.
I recalled a Bourdain episode in which a man claims if you ask a Japanese child to draw their house, they begin with jagged W's, for mountains constrain all their views. But an American child divides their page with a horizontal line, to represent endless expanses. I had not truly appreciated American space until Route 62.
It wasn't just the flatness—it was how much of it there was. Napoleon once said that "quantity has a quality all its own." As I drove, I could not stop turning my head to face south. It was the kind of view in which the curvature of the earth can be discerned, the kind in which multiple types of weather can be happening at once—it was a Lion King view. Clouds drifted so low I had the urge to puncture them with a slingshot.
Every few miles the wire fence along the road parted for a gate and a cluster of mailboxes. Dirt roads proceeded from each gate and vanished into the horizon like a study in parallax. I drove by Stewart Ranch, Sunset Ranch, and Serena Hills. On my right, someone had erected a wooden shack with a Coke machine on the slatted stoop. This was Hudspeth County, which seemed accurate. Then I saw a billboard that said "Ranches For Sale" and something turned over inside me.
I think I was primed, from the hours I spent at the UFO Museum's Research Library, to perceive hidden strings of our cosmic superstructure. But it occurred to me that growing up in a place like Texas could shape our brains; that pioneers constantly fixing their eyes on distant ranges might have induced the optic nerve to secrete an American enzyme that powered their slaughter to the coast. Certainly we crave land at a Jungian level, and have agreed on it as the prime condition for victory. Even the Jacobins among us envy the sale of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars. We've internalized the Protestant work ethic sequence: if we get good grades, then a degree, a career, a family, a towering credit score, and endure forty hours a week through a thirty year mortgage, we are promised the eternal solvency of home equity.
But recent economics -- student debt, insufficient housing, financial crises -- have altered the parameters. The American Dream of the twenty-first century is a sleep paralysis: we're trying to wake up, but there's a subprime monster on our chest.
I live (sorry, rent) in the Bay Area, where NIMBY "activists" and young IPO millionaires are just the most recent coalition manipulating supply and demand to deny housing to everyone else. Some of us satisfy our unrequited lust with HGTV, which I understand is a channel on which devout and gorgeous models dressed as farmhands fetishize the chores of real estate. Going to open houses is now a tourist activity. My friend and his wife visited from pricey Bethesda and allowed me to show them one Californian beach before insisting we spend the rest of the afternoon looking at properties in Sausalito, for fun. This is what the new verb "adulting" means: to playact respectability.
I'm guilty of benefitting from rent control, but like most, I despair of ever owning a house here. I'm in cryo-stasis: two advanced degrees and gainfully employed but unable to graduate from peeling IKEA end tables and coin-operated laundry -- the same overeducated stagnation that one might have found in Kafka's Imperial Austria. But in West Texas, the For Sale sign set the bar to full adulthood low, at only a few thousand dollars. I could step outside onto MY lawn and stare out at MY view, which is of itself. My name would be inked in a ponderous dusty register at City Hall.
It wouldn't matter that "ranch" means "land just good enough to park your RV on." My dog would never know a leash. I could throw a Frisbee as hard as I wanted, so hard my elbow would ache. At night I would see the galaxy. This is the prospect that flashed before me on Route 62.
Spend enough time in the UFO Museum's Research Library and you'll learn much about Mars. In the 19th century, Giovanni Schiaparelli assigned idyllic names like Elysium and Hellas to blurry spots in his telescope. Although these albedo features were just radiological illusion, these names persist in modern "areology." Surely NASA has already selected ideal spots for future Mars colonies. But in the struggle to survive that hostile planet, what will be our relationship to the land? To the nine-mile high Pavonis Mons? Or the Valles Marineris, four times as deep as the Grand Canyon?
We might extrapolate from our terrestrial history. In the remote Colorado Plateau lies a small bronze disc. People drive hours out of their way and pay to see it. It is called Four Corners, because it marks the point at which four states meet: Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. It is a quite innocuous monument, and I hate it. I hate it because it dignifies artificiality. If you believe, like I do, that a people's respect for their land is measured by its cartographic complexity, then four squares intersecting is a sacrilege.
To explain: human presence on a land over time leaves a sediment. Tocqueville calls it "that instinctive, disinterested, and indefinable feeling which binds a man's heart to his birthplace." Vine Deloria calls it "historical arrangements of emotional energy." It is what makes Jerusalem, Teotihuacan, Kyoto, Delphi, and the Aran Islands sacred and haunted. These are places the ancients called the "navels of the earth."
Now, the modern Western relationship to land is a legal one. "Who owns it?" determines who will live on it, what will be built on it, what will be taken out of it, how filthy it will get, and who will be its neighbors. Historically, only violence changed ownership. War, then, is best defined as a symptom of land. Boundaries on maps, ratified by treaty, are the scars of war.
But before examining America, we must start with the Old World. The body of that whole continent is that of a martyr. If the Polish Corridor, Jingzhou, and the Neva River are holy, it is because of their centuries of wounds. It's a perverse system: the more men that have died on a battlefield, the more men are incited to fight for it. This is Passchendaele Syndrome, Verdun-itis. Deloria's sediment covers Europe in spades, though its soil is blood.
The counties of England have ragged edges; there are no straight lines on the Isles. They use waterways as their borders, which is not exactly natural, but rather another side effect of war. Consider that cities are not constrained by rivers, which in peacetime are permeable barriers. Chronic armed conflict forges them into military fronts, which become permanent political borders. Countless huscarl skirmishes defined Kent and Sussex, names that have persisted for a thousand years -- this old bloodshed consecrates their boundaries. Perhaps this is why football hooligans seem to be enacting ancient feuds.
The Old Town of Edinburgh, beset by invaders, built ramparts on a hill and heaped successive societies within them, creating dark warrens of closes and the gorgeously swung avenues of Victoria and Cockburn, on which each storefront and pub boasts centuries of lore. The tactical constraints of the hill sanctified it. Whereas the New Town, built after the Act of Union rendered moot defensive considerations, is a neatly combed Enlightenment project. In the New Town, you are merely disoriented; in the Old Town, you can get truly lost.
Revolutionary France flirted with a checkerboard redistricting intended to break up the inefficient généralités. This was a proposal to pave over the sediment in the name of Enlightened rationalism, a fever dream that prefigured Four Corners. When I lived in Chicago, I learned the Midwestern habit of slicing thin-crust pizzas into a grid. Three quick slashes, rotate, three slashes more. They call this the "party cut."
Right out of the gates, America "party cut" up the land, too. Maps from just after the Revolutionary War illustrate the speculative greed of the liberated colonies, their prospective latitudes elongate like stars in hyperspace. The war was followed by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (for fifteen million, a steal) which, fueled by bad-faith treaties with native nations, allowed us to transform the Transmississippi into America's Breadbasket, named for the unlimited, free part of dinner.
The Mexican Cession in 1848 (again for fifteen million plus a quick war, another bargain) and the discovery of gold in California accelerated westward annexation. The 1862 Homestead Act authorized land runs, during which the government stopped even bothering with treaties and stole land outright from Choctaw, Seminole, and Cherokee tribes, party cutting it up into counties like cartoon teeth, and promptly overfarming them to dust. We kept the old native place names -- Schenectady, Shickshinny, Milwaukee, Chattanooga -- hoping some residual sediment clung to them. A shame we didn't think to keep around the natives themselves. This culminated in the Dawes Act of 1887, which parceled out even the "reserved" land, in order to decisively assimilate the Natives to the West. The imposition of private property law onto communal Native land resulted in grotesque situations like the one outlined in Hodel v Irving:
Tract 1305 is 40 acres (160,000 square miles) and produces $1,080 in income annually. It is valued at $8,000. It has 439 owners, one-third of whom receive less than $.05 in annual rent and two-thirds of whom receive less than $1. The largest interest holder receives $82.85 annually. The common denominator used to compute fractional interests in the property is 3,394,923,840,000. The smallest heir receives $.01 every 177 years. If the tract were sold (assuming the 439 owners could agree) for its estimated $8,000 value, he would be entitled to $.000418. The administrative costs of handling this tract are estimated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at $17,560 annually.
If you decide land can be bought, it follows that it can also be stolen. And it's impossible to revere stolen land, especially when it seems unlimited, when your eye is unrestrained by ranges or hostile Apache skirmishers. It's why the term annexation is so correct. We treat our land like extra room: a walk-in closet, a modular classroom, the second half of a two-car garage that we fill with junk. Our American contributions to architecture are the strip mall and the rambler house; Nordstrom Rack, Filene's Basement, Sak's Off Fifth. Suburban sprawl is the corollary to Manifest Destiny. HGTV is the belated attempt to give it all dignity.
We spent the 19th century reducing the Transmississippi by wagon and rail. It was merely something to be traversed, like the space between the Earth and the Moon. If Congress could have sutured the gold-bearing parts of California directly to the banks of the Missouri, it would have. This indifference appears on our maps as straight line. Today, the term "flyover state" informs its synonym "square state." If one gazes down from cruising altitude, one sees that they are not only polygons in the macro, but also the micro. What seems at first like resolving pixels turns out to be perfectly uniform farms and ranches, as if Piet Mondrian had been Secretary of Agriculture. Four Corners is a monument to expedience, not reverence.
If Europe's wars were a symptom of land scarcity, we suffer from land obesity. Our inflamed land is spawning empty McMansions, factory farms, rivers choked with Superfund sludge. The disconnect between us and our land is terminal.
Oscar Newman, an architect and city planner, arrived at the same diagnosis. Studying a St. Louis housing project in the 1970's, he teased out design elements that seemed to produce or suppress what he called "defensible space."
The [Pruitt-Igoe] project was designed by one of the country’s most eminent architects and was hailed as the new enlightenment. It followed the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects. Even though the density was not very high (50 units to the acre), residents were raised into the air in 11-story buildings. The idea was to keep the grounds and the first floor free for community activity. “A river of trees” was to flow under the buildings. Each building was given communal corridors on every third floor to house a laundry, a communal room, and a garbage room that contained a garbage chute...
The elevators, laundry, and community rooms were vandalized, and garbage was stacked high around the choked garbage chutes. Women had to get together in groups to take their children to school and go shopping.
Newman too derives our inverse correlation between expediency and respect. Maximizing pedestrian and vehicular throughput through "enlightened" design creates "semipublic" spaces. This is the worst middle ground between ownership and sanctity; it is entitlement without responsibility.
But despite the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe project as a whole, Newman noted certain aspects of design that succeeded:
Where only two families shared a landing, it was clean and well-maintained. If one could get oneself invited into an apartment, one found it neat and well maintained—modestly furnished perhaps, but with great pride. Why such a difference between the interior of the apartment and the public spaces outside? One could only conclude that residents maintained and controlled those areas that were clearly defined as their own. Landings shared by only two families were well maintained, whereas corridors shared by 20 families, and lobbies, elevators, and stairs shared by 150 families were a disaster—they evoked no feelings of identity or control...
Still, even if one believes Newman's theory, its very name -- defensible space -- evokes a mere rearguard action in a scorched Earth retreat. Loyalty to a landing is the most we can muster.
When we finally reach the Pacific, we find the annexation has spilled out onto the water. The three of us touring open houses in Sausalito came across an opulent cuboid houseboat chained to a pier. It had two floors decked out in a sea green, Cape Cod way. The second floor had an inset reading nook with lots of natural light, and rain was hitting the window in a perfect way.
We learned that in Sausalito the term "houseboat" is eschewed in favor of "Floating House Structure." There must have been two dozen FHS's down that pier alone, many of them well over a million dollars. Someone had named theirs the "Pied a Mer," an excellent emblem of "property for no reason."
The fourth open house was a three bedroom carved into a steep hill overlooking the water. I walked in and felt like I'd caught the flu. Some walls were fuschia, and others crimson. The lights were off and the realtor had the heat on full, which was giving me an unpleasant tickle in my throat. One of the upstairs rooms contained a bed ceremonially positioned in the center of the room, with a gorgeous view of Belvedere and Tiburon. Next to the bed was a glass nightstand with a black-and-white photo of an elderly couple. It was as if I had entered the James Joyce story in which a priest has just died.
The realtor was shifting back and forth nervously. He seemed grateful when we appeared, as if we had interrupted a chorus of Latin whispers from behind the hideous wallpaper. He told us that the seller was not dead, but a GP in San Francisco, and this was his third home. He was almost never here, which explained the outdated decor. He didn't think the property tax was worth it any longer. The house and the land it occupied were just line items on his bloated tax return.
A news van was parked down the road, and a reporter was interviewing neighbors. Recent heavy rains had dislodged a house further up the hill and it had slid down and crashed into another one. A pile of ruined red timber poked out of the mud. Incredibly, nobody was seriously hurt.
I asked the realtor about it and he said he knew the man who owned the top house, who had to hear about the mudslide over the phone. He, too, lived elsewhere.
A real estate record was broken in January 2019: a four-story penthouse at 220 Central Park South was purchased by a Chicago billionaire for $239 million, who will use it as "a place to stay when he's in town." Since it's not his primary residence, he will avoid NYC income tax.
This is what appalls us: not the prices of the houses but their vacancy. It's the logical but sociopathic conclusion to the party cut: why not take more slices, wrap them up and bring them home from the party?
Back to Vine Deloria's prescient 1973 book God Is Red:
Thousands of years of occupancy on their lands taught tribal peoples the sacred landscapes for which they were responsible ... the vast majority of Indian tribal religions, therefore, have a sacred center at a particular place, be it a river, a mountain, a plateau, valley, or other natural feature... Thus, many tribes now living in Oklahoma, but formerly from the eastern United States, still hold in their hearts the sacred locations of their history, and small groups travel to obscure locations in secret to continue tribal ceremonial life.
This is what we’re missing. This is not a New Age appeal to conservationism; I’m not sure that what we have done to our land can be undone. It is rather a premonition of our Martian future, which I glimpsed behind the For Sale signs in dusty Hudspeth County. I know what Mars will look like in five hundred years. The enlightened class will "terraform" it -- we will make it look like Earth. We will pave over Hellas and erect tenements on the Elysian plain. There will be no wonder, only mileage. And in a thousand years, we will leave Mars a square ruin, too.
De Tocqueville, A. (2003). Democracy in America (G. Bevan, Trans.). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1835).
Deloria Jr., V (1992). God is Red: A Native View of Religion. North American Press. (Original work published 1973).
Newman, Oscar (1996). Creating Defensible Space. Institute for Community Design Analysis, https://www.huduser.gov/publications/pdf/def.pdf.
C.D. Frelinghuysen is a writer and doctor in Oakland, and has fiction published in TERSE., Limehawk, Gone Lawn, DUM DUM Zine, Flapperhouse, and JMWW, the latter of which was selected in the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2018.
Photograph by Joshua Case on Unsplash