Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

by Marc Reisner
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Dramatic and Literary Elements

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2170

From the first chapter to the last, Marc Reisner pulls his readers into his extensive and thought-provoking research on the exploits and consequences of water depletion in the West in his classic environmental treatise Cadillac Desert . His pulling is done subtlety, like any great storyteller. Reisner involves his readers...

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From the first chapter to the last, Marc Reisner pulls his readers into his extensive and thought-provoking research on the exploits and consequences of water depletion in the West in his classic environmental treatise Cadillac Desert. His pulling is done subtlety, like any great storyteller. Reisner involves his readers so completely that most won’t notice his techniques. They may only note that the thick book, which is packed with historical, economical, and statistical facts, is one of the easiest nonfiction books to read. It is engaging, suspenseful, and even comical. But Reisner never loses his focus. He is an environmentalist concerned about the land that he loves. He is also very much aware that facts and figures don’t tell the whole story, don’t compel people to action. Therefore, Reisner employs dramatic effect. He fills in the gaps between the statistics and historical facts with the excitement of a novel, the spectacle of a Broadway play, the thrill of an Academy Award-winning movie, while simultaneously exposing the story that surrounds the misuse and abuse of some of America’s grandest rivers. It is through his dramatic techniques that Reisner slowly draws the reader more deeply into the information that he has painstakingly gathered.

The book begins with Reisner recounting a personal experience of flying over the vast western deserts. This account gives the reader a literal overview of the remaining chapters of the book, and by using a personal style, Reisner invites his reader in. He gives the story a face, allowing the reader to identify with it. This is not just a story about the desert and the rivers that flow down the face of the earth, it is the story of that desert and the rivers as seen through the eyes of a very intelligent and sensitive man. By using this technique, Reisner gives his story not only a narrator, but a reference point to which the reader can return when the comprehensive details become too overbearing. That reference point is introduced to the reader as a very uncomplicated man—someone who flies tourist class and takes an aisle seat without grumbling when he would much rather sit next to a window. He is also a man who obviously loves history. He knows a lot of facts. He recognizes the landmarks, is aware of the people whose lives are affected by those landmarks, and he’s anxious to share all his accumulated stories. He is also a tease. He hands out tidbits, like someone tempting a wild animal to eat out of his hand. He mentions names like John Wesley Powell, telling the reader that Powell knew something that no one else seemed to know, but he relates only part of the story, as if saying that he, Reisner, also knows something that others don’t know. He hints that there is a great drama building up at the Mexican border, as well as in California, Arizona, and Colorado. He talks about unrenewable groundwater supplies that are drying up, freshwater rivers that are turning to salt, and great rivers of water that are being forced to run uphill. Then he states that maybe these are not unusual things. Maybe they do not spell out a doomsday scenario. Maybe everything will work out all right. But of course, as the dramatist, as the storyteller that he is, his readers are put on edge, knowing that it is exactly the opposite of these sentiments that Reisner believes. Reisner is, of course, baiting his readers, coaxing them to turn the page.

Reisner begins a history of the exploration of the West by telling stories of some of its most interesting characters, none more so than Jedediah Smith whom Reisner describes by saying ‘‘no explorer in the continent’s history was more compulsive and indefatigable’’ than this wild mountain man. The story about Smith reads like a script for an adventure movie starring a leading man who combines the on-screen personalities of Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone. Smith is too big for real life. He had to have been invented. No one could have accomplished as much as he did, outsmarting death at least a dozen times. But Reisner didn’t invent anything in retelling Smith’s story. He just dug up the facts and presented them as any good novelist would. Reisner must have known how compelling Smith’s story was. Reisner, himself, must have been drawn to it and then found some place to stick it in his book. And it works so well. What a great distraction. What a great device to use, to keep pulling that reader along.

Reisner also fills in the details of the life of John Wesley Powell, whom he briefly mentioned in his introduction. He introduces Powell with this sentence: ‘‘John Wesley Powell belonged to a subspecies of American that flourished briefly during the nineteenth century and went extinct with the end of the frontier.’’ The immediate response to this sentence is: What is Reisner talking about? What does he mean when he uses the word subspecies? What is he inferring when he says that this type of American is now extinct? Reisner is, of course, leading the reader once again. He knows that these questions will pop up in the reader’s mind. He knows that if he can put these questions into the reader’s consciousness, the next logical step is for the reader to seek out the answers. And Reisner is ready with the answers. He wants the reader to understand, to share in the passion that has driven Reisner to dig into the history behind the facts in order to answer his own questions. Reisner has dug up a lot of material. If he doesn’t include his readers in the dramatic details of how he found the material, the reader might become overwhelmed or worse, bored with the mountains of information. So Reisner colors his information with not only interesting characters, and fantastic stories, he also phrases his writing in such a way that even the more mundane pieces of information come alive. He engages the reader with dramatic affect. He stirs the reader’s imagination. And he engages the reader’s curiosity with statements that conjure up questions that scream out to be answered. Like a great mystery story writer, he first gives his reader, not the answers, but the clues.

Next, Reisner offers intrigue, as exhilarating as any contemporary spy thriller. He tells the story of the birthing of the two great cities of California: San Francisco and Los Angeles. But he tells their stories by exposing the motives behind the men who molded the cities’ futures. He uncovers tales filled with ferocious competition, unforgiving revenge, and insatiable greed. He refers to one of these founding fathers, William Mulholland, as a modern-day Moses, who ‘‘instead of leading his people through the waters to the promised land, he would cleave the desert and lead the promised waters to them.’’ As Reisner states, Mulholland, along with Fred Eaton, are popularly credited with stealing the waters of the Owens River, which lay 250 miles east of Los Angeles. Without this river, Los Angeles would have dried up a long time ago. But to tell the story of how Mulholland and Eaton carried off this feat, Reisner doesn’t simply use a running narrative, he adds dialogue. The reader feels that she not only is being told a story, she is in the room, listening, as this deal goes down. ‘‘We want the deed back,’’ says one man. ‘‘What do you mean?’’ answers another. ‘‘The deed by which your city is going to try to rape this valley,’’ comes the retort. At this point, the reader has got to be thinking: Does this sound like a good old western movie, or what?

As for Reisner’s sense of humor, it comes through—for example, when he begins chapter seven with the following sentence: ‘‘When Emma Dominy, writhing and shrieking, finally evicted her son Floyd, the doctors dumped him on a scale and whistled.’’ This is not typical writing for an environmental essayist, but it is an example of Reisner’s wit, and also of his talent as a storyteller. Details of government usurping, wasting, or otherwise destroying some of the most dynamic and pristine rivers of the West is not easy reading. To counter the frustration and anger that Reisner’s reportage might stir, he breaks the tension, as Shakespeare himself was known to do, with comic relief.

Floyd Dominy ends up rising, at an accelerated rate, to a powerful position in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency whose responsibility it was to build dams, reroute rivers, and help plan and support irrigation projects in the desert. In referring to Dominy’s climb up the ladder inside the bureau, Reisner writes: ‘‘His [Dominy’s] strategy was simple. He would settle in a branch [of the Bureau] with a weak man as chief and learn as fast as he could. Then he would flap up to the ledge occupied by the chief and knock him off.’’ According to Reisner, Dominy was not only big at birth, he was big in ambition. ‘‘Dominy had the instincts of a first-rate miler. He could pace himself beautifully, moving on the margin of recklessness but always with power in reserve. He knew when to cut off a runner, when to throw an elbow, when to sprint.’’ Here is another literary device that Reisner uses well to set up the sense of drama. Reisner brightens his writing with metaphors. He does not always rely on single word modifiers like competitive, ambitious, or ruthless. Rather, he draws a picture using words. He shows the reader what Dominy’s ambition looks like; he describes it with imagery.

Not all of Reisner’s dramatic devices are used on people. He also gives the reader a dramatic vision of the Colorado River in his chapter called ‘‘An American Nile (I).’’ Reisner does not use personification, per se (personification in this case would mean attributing human qualities to the river). However, he does paint a majestic picture of the Colorado, referring to its strength (before it was all dammed up) as being capable of flipping a small freighter. He states that if it suddenly stopped flowing, most of southern California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming would have to be evacuated because people would be dying of thirst. He writes that it ‘‘grows much of America’s domestic production of fresh winter vegetables’’ and lights ‘‘the neon city of Las Vegas.’’ The way Reisner writes about the Colorado makes the river appear as a once powerful and, although currently enslaved, benevolent goddess. By defining the Colorado in this humanistic way, when Reisner is able to turn his story to the details of how much the river has been abused, the emotions of the reader are brought to the surface. This once-grand dame is now the ‘‘most legislated . . . and most litigated river in the entire world. The river is so used up that by the time it reaches the Gulf of California, it is no more than a ‘‘burbling trickle.’’ To many environmentalist, the Colorado has be come the symbol of ‘‘everything mankind has done wrong.’’ To the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, however, the river is a ‘‘perfection of an ideal.’’ How can the reader not feel empathy for the Colorado when Reisner paints this image of the river as a dethroned goddess, who has been caged with dams and had her life-blood drained from her veins.

Why does Reisner use literary and dramatic devices in his writing? It could just be that he is a good writer, and things like metaphor, humor, and personification come to him naturally. But in the last chapter of his book, Reisner talks about abstraction. He says that it’s not easy to get people to think about ecological disasters like the ones that the United States might be facing for having built huge cities, like Phoenix and Las Vegas, in the middle of the desert, or Los Angeles on land that does not have enough water to support its huge population. He says it is hard because these kinds of issues remain abstractions. People don’t like to think of catastrophes. In the heart of Las Vegas, on the strip, a passerby can look to either side of the road and see huge water fountains spewing. People don’t see the need for water conservation. They don’t see that an earthquake could destroy the great aqueducts that deliver water to their kitchen taps in Los Angeles. So Reisner has written a book that is part play, part novel, part motion picture. He has used metaphor and humor to help put a face, an image, on the abuse of the great waterways of America. Because without that face, no one may have seen it.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Cadillac Desert, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Romanticism of American History

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1495

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert operates more as a ‘‘call to arms’’ than a solid historical analysis of plumbing the Great American Desert. This is not to undermine the incredible array of research mustered by the book or to question Reisner’s conclusions. However, it is worthwhile to notice how the book functions well enough to convert its critics and work as a ‘‘cult classic’’ of environmentalists; the deployment of an aesthetic technique combined with the creation of an exclusive genealogy support the militant fear of technology of radical environmentalism. This is unfortunate, because Reisner’s interpretation of history supports recent Marxist reconceptualizations of democratic technology development. Reisner’s aesthetic technique uses qualities of doom and fantasy. First, Reisner’s text does for the history of the water problem in the West what the novels of Edward Abbey do for the environmental imagination. Secondly, his choice of John Welsey Powell as founder of the West without mention of Josiah Gregg highlights the author’s bias; a genealogy based on Powell will be elitist and critical. Further, Reisner wants activists to become more involved with technical matters like water policy through an understanding of water history, but he leaves little space for imagining that the West has become precisely what its inhabitants wanted— for good or ill. And finally, any acts performed to question water policy—like the Watterson brothers struggles to save the Owens Valley—continues the same history of struggle to live in a desert.

Throughout the book, Reisner has nightmares about the impact of dams and water diversions on the environment. His descriptions of the dams and the environments they destroyed are excessive. After relating the side effects of dams—the loss of beauty, the salting of the earth, and poisoned ducks— Reisner’s description of dams as ‘‘Frankenstein’s monster’’ becomes more than rhetoric. Having put the problem in those terms, Reisner imagines what might happen should ‘‘one crude atomic bomb’’ destroy the Glen Canyon Dam and liberate Lake Powell. Such a suggestion must be contextualized within the ideology and action of environmentalists. As Russell Martin writes, in A Story That Stands Like a Dam: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, six masked people broadened the political repertoire of Earth First! by virtually cracking the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam had come to signify, according to Martin, the destruction of the West and had, he continues, spurred Dave Foreman to organize the militant group Earth First! Their stunt was to evade security at the dam in the spring of 1981 to crack it—the six saboteurs unfurled ‘‘300 feet of tapering plastic meant to resemble a crack.’’

Earth First! had read the novels of Abbey. Their favorite was a novel entitled The Monkey Wrench Gang, in which a group of environmentalists blow up dams and assault environmental degraders. Reisner’s inflammatory text must be situated within this context of frustration, which has bordered on militant actions against the government and corporations— the same context as the Unabomber. The West has long viewed the government as predator and protector, predator when times are bad and protector when times are good. With their pioneer heritage, people living in the West pride themselves on having created life in a harsh environment, so acknowledging any degree of subsidy is difficult. This is not to say that Reisner’s work gave rise to environmental terrorism but that the frustrations evident throughout Reisner’s work as he decries any destruction of wilderness arise out of a context of general frustration among environmentalists. His sympathy with that frustration clouds his message. Martin’s evenhanded and removed text is heavily indebted to Reisner’s work in the 1970s, which most likely brought him into contact with Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey. Cadillac Desert does not mention Earth First! or their 1981 stunt. Clearly, Reisner does not advocate violence but he is warning that if the bureaucratic machines are not reformed and water policy changed, then either time or terrorists will wreak havoc on the West.

The situation of Glen Canyon dam allows for a nice segue to John Wesley Powell for whom the dam’s reservoir lake is named. Powell, as Reisner explains, surveyed the West. He proposed a system of settlement similar to those that made the Mormons successful: cooperative, small scale, and sustainable irrigation systems. Sadly, Reisner neglects the part of the story that distinguishes the Mormons as being an exceptional case. Instead, the family heading out to make a claim in the West was probably armed with a technical manual on the art of dry-land farming or read enthusiastic descriptions inspired by the earlier work of Gregg. Dryland farming taught the easterner how to farm drier soils until agricultural settlement would grow large enough to attract the rains. The rains never came and the Dust Bowl resulted, creating a mass of refugees and abandoned homesteads. Those who survived the Dust Bowl and were able to continue to eke out a living due to irrigation were simply trying to live. To suggest that they were misinformed or pawns of water policy does a disservice to their livelihood. It would be more constructive to engage those farmers in a technical discussion that completely changes agricultural practice in the West than to scourge them with having destroyed Powell’s whitewater sport.

Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies was not an instructional manual about farming. Rather, Gregg, a pre-Civil War botanist whose work centered on Santa Fe, wrote about the West as he found it. Gregg’s West is full of wonderful plant life and birds—what Reisner and Earth First! want in the West—as well as the humans making a living. Gregg makes the argument that commerce in the West needs the same protection that the ships on the ocean receive in order to expand America’s trade. Gregg’s request matches most of the other requests from the West for help while desiring independence. Consequently, an uneasy relationship started between the West and the federal government. The westerners have wanted protection so long as they are enabled to do as they wish, but they view the government as a predator whenever it trespasses on their perceived liberty or asks them to pay for services. Reisner, with his focus on Powell, depicts the government as an unwanted predator. The tradition of Gregg, however, views the government as a necessary evil; a force whose protection could help the West prosper.

The focal point of this historical tension becomes the dam, a form of technology requiring sophisticated organization and industrial supports. Dams are engineering marvels made possible by a rich nation capable and desirous of building them. Once constructed on the scale of, say, Hoover Dam, it is nearly impossible to remove them. However, the attitudinal shift from loving dams to monkeywrenching them also reveals a shift in perceptions of technology. Neo-Marxist Andrew Feenberg, in Questioning Technology, theorizes this problem as he reconfigures the site of technology not as a place of tension but as a positive space for democratic participation. Feenberg writes, ‘‘Technological development is constrained by cultural norms originating in economics, ideology, religion, and tradition.’’ Too often, Feenberg continues, technology exists as an ‘‘unquestioned background to every aspect of life.’’ Therefore, to question the background supports is to question the form of life based on that background: ‘‘‘We the People’ are simply not mobilized as a whole around technical issues to a degree that would make a constitutional approach plausible.’’ Reisner would agree with Feenberg; by writing about the history of water policy, he encourages an education of the public about the necessary supports to its lifestyle. While Reisner highlights the dam, the destruction it causes, and the future problems of water policy, he does not go far enough for Feenberg. Questioning the West’s plumbing involves questioning the way of life in America and its reliance upon those dams. As Feenberg says, ‘‘technical design standards define major portions of the social environment . . . The economic signifi- cance of technical change often pales besides its wider human implications in framing a way of life.’’

Reisner’s work has enabled an entire generation of historians to ask new questions about history, though they seldom cite Reisner specifically. Cadillac Desert has enraged and excited a new era of environmentalists. However, neither group has been able to articulate or create a milieu of discussion about the ultimate conclusions Reisner leads to and that Feenberg has articulated—facing the unsustainability of the American lifestyle. Instead, it became a hobby throughout the 1990s to join Earth First! in defense of poster-megafauna, like wolves and bears, while leaving the question of the dam alone. The mid-1980s interest in water, re- flected by Cadillac Desert, meanwhile evaporated so that the Water Resources Act of 1999, as well as extraordinary energy demand, have steadily eroded the responsible Reaganite reforms.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, Critical Essay on Cadillac Desert, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Feedback on Reisner's Ideas for Desert Communities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

When the United States expanded across the continent in the 19th century, its landed empire claimed the arid expanses of the American West. Refusing to accept the limitations that aridity placed on the region, American enterprise used science, technology, and heavy capital investment to overcome the obvious environmental restrictions that ‘‘the Great American Desert’’ placed on agricultural and industrial development. The result was western irrigation, extended ditch water delivery systems, big dam projects, and massive urban growth during and after World War II. The story is impressive.

Some have not been so impressed. John Wesley Powell, in his Report on the Arid Lands of the American West (1878), laid the foundation for a ‘‘desertification critique’’ of western development. At mid-20th century, western historian Walter Prescott Webb offended regional boosterism and local chambers of commerce when he declared in ‘‘The American West, Perpetual Mirage’’ that the West would be forever limited by the desert. Now the most contemporary restatement of this view is found in a highly critical piece of historical journalism bearing the provocative title Cadillac Desert. Like its forerunners, the book asserts that water was and is the key to western development. The West achieved great water projects not by itself but by campaigning for assistance from Congress, finally receiving the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. Herein was the beginning of many a problem for the West and the nation that involved fraud, needless expenditure of monies, and, most distressing, the costly development of cheap (subsidized) water supplies for the rich and powerful.

Marc Reisner’s muckraking view of the career and ambitions of the Bureau of Reclamation in western waters also extends to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies pursued unconscionable rivalries at the expense of the public safety and the public purse. He contends: ‘‘No one will ever know how many ill-conceived water projects were built by the Bureau and the Corps simply because the one agency thought the other would build it first.’’ The story portrayed here is not new. It is just stated in a more strident and certainly less balanced way than scholarly studies that carry the burden of footnotes.

Both the value and the weakness of this book are in its conceptualization. It is commendable to expose careerism, bureaucratic waste, and environmental degradation. But it is also hollow to suggest that man should stand idle in nature’s imperfect world as is suggested by the observation that ‘‘. . . God had left the perfection and completion of California to the Bureau of Reclamation.’’ In this same state the bureau learned its most valuable lesson, in the Owens Valley in the struggle between farmers and the city of Los Angeles: small farmers do not count, but large farmers and growing desert cities are the masters to be served.

Not only do concepts fit the muckraking framework of this writer, so do the personalities of Reclamation, especially the longtime bureau director Floyd Dominy, who is described at the end of his career as ‘‘a zealot, blind to injustice, locked into a mad-dog campaign against the environmental movement. . . .’’ Unlike other works on the subject, the writing in this book makes reclamation history contagious and infectious. It holds the attention of the reader like a newsstand scandal sheet. Reisner decries the sins of the built environment against the natural environment and those who profit from these transgressions in the West. The image of doom for a civilization built around western water projects is as overwhelming as the sands covering the ancient ruins of desert kingdoms. In October 1987, the New York Times ran an announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation that its dam-building days were over and it would become a maintenance organization rather than a creator of new dreams and projects. The announcement makes the material of this book both timely and ominous.

Source: William D. Rowley, Review of Cadillac Desert, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 2, April 1989, pp. 493–94.

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