The cover of February 1950 issue of Desert Magazine
is a telling departure from previous covers that depict Native Americans, natural desert vistas or plant life. The Hoover Dam looms large as the first “modern” man made structure to adorn the cover of the publications. (Figure 1)
Into the 1950s more depictions of Anglo Americans appeared on the covers alongside the standard primitivist depictions of Native Americans with no incursion of modern infrastructure (Figure 2). These depictions suggest that while the desert may appear inert, the exceptional few who closely and carefully engage the land will be rewarded for their imagination and tenacity. Interestingly, Desert Magazine is the only one that would devote its vibrant color cover to the depiction of agricultural development. (Figure 3)
In a 1952 editorial, Borrego Sun editors framed the town’s commitment to agriculture as vital to Southern California’s future. “In the San Fernando Valley, where a few years ago farms supplied hay, alfalfa, and other feed for dairy stock, the scene is one of constant building and growth. Where the crops of the built-over farmland come from? The answer is before us. It comes from the newly developed desert land in Borrego, Imperial, and Coachella valleys.” Life magazine also joined the choir boosting these desert regions as the agricultural solution the nation had been waiting for. In the July 1948 issue, Life deemed the Imperial Valley the most abundant vegetable garden in the world.(Figure 4) Lush color photographic spreads depicting the valley’s bounty provide an ecstatic alternative to conceptions of desert aridity, thanks to the All American Canal, “the life giving artery of the Imperial Valley.”(Figures 5 and 6) Juxtaposing photographs of the leisurely poolside life of wealthy Anglo farmers and the inadequate shelters given to Mexican migrant laborers. The article briefly nods toward the inequitable nature of the valley’s bounty. (Figure 7)
Historian and novelist Wallace Stegner observed of encounters with the western landscape and settled on aridity as the central mode of understanding this corner of the United States.
Stegner critiques this hubristic impulse to impose an impractical modern or Edenic vision on to a desert ecology. His 1954 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West worked to recover Powell’s unheeded assessment of the Western United States as unsuited for large scale agricultural production given the overall aridity of the land and climate. (Figure 8) It was not until the ecological and human disaster of the Dust Bowl demonstrated what drought meant for farming in largely arid regions that his recommendations were considered. At midcentury, Stegner noted yet another opening in the west with the large scale development of agriculture in the Imperial and Coachella valleys and sought to remind developers of Powell’s unheeded recommendations. The midcentury “recovery” of the desert on the part of expectant investors and self-styled adventurers seeking news spaces for leisure evidences recreates a mythical frontier narrative. Interestingly, the developers harnessing what they saw as the dormant potential of the Borrego Valley did have an avowed stake in preserving and conserving the Anza-Borrego Desert and sought to avoid over development.
Today, the Borrego Springs community is beginning to consider how to shift the local economy and land use away from agriculture. Some former farmland lies fallow and has sparked the imagination of contemporary Borregans. The fallow plots are both an eyesore and a health risk, as Melissa’s blog post explained. A group of naturalists see these dormant lands as a remarkable opportunity to reintroduce native wildflowers in an effort to responsibly re-green the valley floor and capitalize the area’s natural beauty as a potential tourist attraction and enact ecological restoration. How might we compare the scope and purpose of this current attitude about the desert transformation to the imaginative forces that “opened” the desert to development?
Post by Anna Kryczka, Water UCI Graduate Team Member