America in 3-D

Channel Island National Park. Photo: NPS

There is a canyon on the island of Santa Rosa, just off the California coast, where the wild flowers, trees and animals appear strangely mannerist – they are distorted by their isolation from their fellow species on the mainland. There are uniquely evolved versions of miner’s lettuce, Indian paint-brush, cream cups, deerweed, California fuchsia, golden yarrow, woolly blue-curls and the native thistle just now flowering alongside Island live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss, which grow between ancient lichened rocks. In pools left by the tumbling creek, now mostly dry, tadpoles await their metamorphosis into Island frogs. Along the trail, overhung by both oaks and holly leafed cherry, Island foxes have left their scat and can sometimes be spotted, almost engulfed in dry grasses visible only as grey and russet shadows amidst the stalks, hunting their prey, the tiny Island deer mouse.

Ten thousand years ago, an Island pygmy mammoth might have lurched down the canyon and stopped to slurp at the tadpole soup before moving on to grind the dry grasses between its powerful mandibles, ever watchful of the surrounding chaparral where its only predator, a Chumash Indian, might be waiting for an opportunity to unleash his atlatl in one more instance of the relentless hunting that led to the species’ extinction.

It is here, in the Northern Channel Islands, sometimes known as America’s Galapagos, that there exists the opportunity to glimpse the next America. The Islands are contained within the country’s least visited National Park – where concerted efforts at restoration have begun to reverse the damage caused by over a century of sheep and cattle grazing and the careless introduction of non-native pigs and rats. The canyon of which I write is sufficiently steep to have been inaccessible to these marauding non-native herbivores.

Like the pygmy mammoth, the Chumash are long gone, but some relict mainland populations retain aspirations to repopulate the islands, for it was on these lands that their tribe’s American story began. Legend has it that there appeared a rainbow bridge that led them across the channel and onto the mainland. Those that fell off the diaphanous span into the ocean below became dolphins.

The triple-threat of deglobalization, deleveraging and depopulation (3-D) as described by Ruchir Sharma, the Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley, in a piece in the current Foreign Affairs (and elsewhere in his on-line publishing-empire), suggests there may be an opportunity for the kind of re-wilding originally proposed by Dave Foreman and newly elaborated by William Hawes (CounterPunch), as the economy slowly darkens and tunnels back into the past. Population, global trade and global borrowing statistics are being rewound as I write. Can humanity and its natural environment wait out the reversal of several centuries of the damage mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism and now neoliberalism, have wreaked upon them?

The Channel Islands represent a strange example of these regressive but ultimately welcome trends: ranching has long been banished, its human and animal populations removed; fishing is prohibited in several sensitive areas and the native ecosystems are undergoing restoration. Politically, the Park is administered by a Federal bureaucratic fiefdom, the National Park Service, and a non-profit, The Nature Conservancy, which purchased the western half of Santa Cruz island after its owner abandoned fractious negotiations with the Park Service. Visitation is by permit enforced by paramilitary park personnel (they pack 9mm H&K P7M13 pistols), and its waters are patrolled by the Coast Guard, ever vigilant for drug-running ghost boats – purpose-built, high powered, all fiberglass, stealthy Picuda, which, lacking all navigation aids (the better to be invisible) sometimes mistake the western shores of the islands for the deserted coast line north of Santa Barbara, their intended rendezvous location.

The Islands rise up out of the ocean just beyond the Santa Barbara Channel, a vast gorge that runs parallel to the coast and is as deep in places as the Grand Canyon and which has always kept the islands separate from the mainland – even before the melting of the ice, more than ten thousand years ago and the dramatic rise in sea levels. During the last Ice-Age, the islands were one, known as Santa Rosae, an expression of the plate tectonics which birthed the transverse ranges that penetrate far into the mainland from west to east, across the lower half of the State. Now, with the Pacific having risen some one hundred meters over the last ten thousand years, only the mountain peaks remain above water where they are protected by cliffs, rocky beaches, almost constantly crashing surf and the aforementioned paramilitaries.

Looking back to the mainland, brick shaped vessels ply the shipping channel – giant constructions of containers and Korean-made tub-like hulls delivering the best of Asia to a big box store near you – their navigation route identical to the path of migrating hump-back and grey whales that they bump, brutalize and sometimes kill. Voyaging midway between the Islands and the mainland they represent the visible edge of America’s vast tangle of transportation infrastructure, its lines broached only by pleasure craft, Island ferries and fishing boats – most notably squid jiggers, manned by nocturnal fishermen who lure the giant cephalopods with bright lights into their basket nets and contribute to California’s largest sea-food export. 3-D may reduce both demand from Japan for California’s squid and our lust for the cheap goods from the Celestial Empire now desanctified as the Workshop of the World. It may also reduce the commercial jet traffic that plies the California coastal skies, criss-crossing or laterally connecting centers of population around the Pacific Rim.

Just across from the northernmost island of San Miguel lies Vandenburg Air Force Base which sprawls over Point Conception on California’s central coast. It is here that the 30th Space Wing is charged with launching military and commercial satellites, and stands ready to fire intercept rockets to take down missiles launched from North Korea. Its role may only expand as nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia rise in concert with the disruptive impacts of 3-D. The base is on lands rich with significance for the Chumash people and is reputed to be the site of ‘The Western Gate’ from whence Chumash souls ascend to Shimilaqsha, the western land of the dead. Now satellites are launched over the ocean in order that they assume the requisite north-south Polar orbit and may fall safely into the Pacific if their launch fails. (Situated on the westernmost point of California’s mainland, its beaches, like those of Santa Barbara, face south). While it might be argued that the U.S. Air Force are good stewards of the notional Western Gate and other sacred sites on their base (they maintain a full-time archaeologist on site), the ironies of the land’s current functions are almost overwhelming.

Both the Federal and private stewards of the Channel Islands also attempt to preserve remaining sacred sites, but decades of ranching have mostly destroyed the fragile remnants of native culture. Many other coastal Chumash sites are overseen by the various branches of the armed forces, the State’s largest landlord, where sacred power spots vie for psychic preeminence with the brute force of the military’s death culture.

The intensely braided global entanglements of the West Coast, along with the rest of the United States, will not give way easily. The depopulated Channel Islands represent comparatively neutral space, largely unencumbered by economic and political interests where the environment may recover sooner rather than later. On an altogether different timescale, a long term economic decline may be mirrored in a slowly devolving civilizational infrastructure on the mainland offering interstitial opportunities for a revival of the natural world.

An up-welling of privatization, militarization and a decline in democratic institutions as Federal authorities fragment into powerful semi-autonomous paramilitaries such as the A.T.F. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the U.S.C.G. (U.S Coast Guard), the D.E.A. (Drug Enforcement Agency) and, Heavens to Betsy, even the N.P.S. (National Park Service), will likely accompany the social, economic and political disruptions of 3-D. It is a dystopian vision, but even on California’s Northern Channel Islands, rocky bastions of the re-emergence of a pristine wild environment, it is already foreshadowed.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at