The Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner: Summary of First Two Chapters Book Review

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In his introduction Reisner opens by describing his observations from the window of an airplane as he crosses the western United states. Traveling 9 miles a minute he observes the pockets of light dotting the otherwise bleak landscape signifying the presence of human civilization. The congregation of humans into some of the largest cities in the world over the landscape which Resiner is reflecting upon would not have been possible had it not been for the large scale irrigation projects that occured in the wake of the Mormon civilizations success in bringing water to what is known as the great desert of America. He then goes on to address the false sense of security and purpose held by many surrounding the American western territories due to the christianization and the greenification of the west.

The reality is that despite the massive long term irrigation projects across the west, only a territory the size of missouri has been truly “greenified”. Additionally the water which has “greenified” this territory is largely drawn from underground aquifers which are valuable remains from the ice age however their total depletion is not far into the future as water has been withdrawn much more frequently than it has been replenished. Out of all the dessert civilizations in human history only one has been sustained through time. That Civilization is Egypt whose irrigation system vastly differs from irrigated lands elsewhere.

The great Native American civilizations that once inhabited the southern American continent, almost all lived in desert terrain and all met their downfall. The direct cause of these civilizations decline is unknown to historians but the fact that they suffered from drought is undisputed. Even if drought wasn’t a direct killer, it is certain that salt was. When one irrigates, the soil becomes depleted and the salt content increases substantially, the starving of vegetation and dehydration of man inevitably lead to death, decline, and the collapse of societies once great.

Unfortunately this phenomenon is not isolated to ancient civilizations and continues to plague man even in the present day. In order to survive in desert habitat humans have manipulated the environment on a massive scale so much so that rivers have been constructed to run in reverse and water has been redirected thousands and thousands of miles yet still it is not enough to support the growing populations in urban areas and cultivated lands. Just about every aspect of American civilization is dependent upon water and the movement of it to support human civilization.

Chapter 1: A Country Of illusion

This chapter opens with the beginnings of American exploration in the west.The first explorer Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled the west in search of gold for the Spanish king in 1539 but found only barren westland inhabited by meatless natives. His failure to discover the large quantities of gold in this land led to the establishment of the idea that the western territories were wastelands that only a fool would conquer and so the territory was largely left alone. After the louisiana purchase in 1902 by Thomas jefferson, the land was once again explored further.

The accounts of Lewis and are largely inaccurate because of the out of ordinary weather conditions present in the west. In their traveels, they were amazed by the diversity and the beauty they encountered however they had embarked on this expedition during the wet season of a particularly rainy year leading to the false perception that the west was to be prosperous and fruitful when in fact the contrary was true as determined by General Zuberon Pike. He determined the entire purchase to have consisted of barren wastelands, The Great American Dessert. The settlement of the west was entirely due to the presence of beaver furs and the intense demand for Beaver pelt hats by the consumer population. This demand sparked the early civilization of many western towns notably illinois and Denver Colorado.

The generation of men who grew up during the settlement of the frontier such as Abraham Lincoln and James Powell, were influential in the exploration of the remaining territories (texas nevada, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New mexico) marked as unexplored. James Powell led an expedition across this great american desert via the Colorado River because travel by land was much too arduous. On his expedition he saw lands that not even natives had visited and traveled along extreme rapids and his survival alone is very impressive. In 1865, the American Planes were befallen by abnormal quantities of rainfall which “turned the prairies green.”

Of course to a people who saw themselves as chosen by god, this change in the weather was no coincidence rather a sign that god wanted them to further expand their dominion across the entirety of the American west. From this belief and heavy marketing came the phrase “Rain Follows the Plow” and thus an extreme migration of people occured into the great west leading to mass environmental degradation, the desolation of the buffalo populations and the movement of natives off their lands to make way for whites.

Chapter 2: The Red Queen

Before Los Angeles became what it has today, San Francisco was the glowing star of the then West Coast. Owning a superb natural harbour, as well as having been the site of many gold discoveries, San Francisco quickly drew a large population to its valley. Los Angeles by comparison was home to Natives and Mexicans and viewed largely as a slum. LA owes its success to its reputation as a haven from prosecution. The Mormons in particular found that if irrigated efficiently, Los Angeles could be made fertile and the climate was suitable for an extremely large variety of seed.

Thus peoples were drawn from across America to this little mesopotamia. As the city grew the need for water in the future was foreseen by self made engineers notably Henry chandler, and Fred Eton. Many intellectuals at the time failed to connect the annual flooding of LA to its inherent lack of water. Fred Eton and William Mcculloch however saw that the lack of rainfall for the majority of the year severely dried the surface soil and thus when rain did fall, little to none was absorbed back into the underwater reservoirs.

This reization caused them to advocate for forest conservation to increase the water supply long before this idea was accepted by the public and they were for the most part labeled as crazy. Additionally due to the rapid increase in population, their efforts were for the most part combated by an ever growing demand for water. Reflecting on their failure, Eton and Mcculloch turned to the idea that Los Angeles would have to somehow source its water from elsewhere and thus they turned their sights on the Owen Valley River 233 miles away at an elevation far above LA which would eliminate the need for water to be pumped up stream.

The idea that Los Angeles acquired this water illegally is a fallacy and in fact the rights to the water were obtained through legal measures. However they were sketchy. Mccullough schemed to buy up lands along the Owen River from the public. Unknowing of the end plan they accepted his generous offers. Later the project garnered support by promoting the issue as life and death in many of los angeles’s papers particularly Harrison Gray Otis Es LA Times.

After being voted upon by LA citizens, the project had to be approved by congress because the infrastructure would have to bypass a lot of Government owned land. The bill proposed by an associate of Mcculloch sought to give the project any means it deemed necessary in order to reach LA. The mayor of Owen Valley proposed a compromise which Mccullouch accepted and then went above his head with an appeal to President Roosevelt himself who backed Mccullough fully and ignored the mayor entirely. The result was a prospering of LA county and the demise of the Owen Valley Civilization.


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The Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner: Summary of First Two Chapters Book Review. (2021, Aug 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-cadillac-desert-by-marc-reisner-summary-of-first-two-chapters/

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