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Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*

Susannah Sayler
Edward Morris

What is a river? This is not a question we ask every day because it seems superfluous. Certainly, a river must be a flowing body of water of a certain size. Call it a river or a creek, but one way or another, flowing is the essential thing. Yet, what if a given river does not flow per se but is pushed and pulled mechanically? Or what if the flowing that defines a river is arrested and controlled through dams, canals and machine technology? What if the river no longer moves with inextricable desire towards a specific place like an ocean or a lake, but rather is widely dispersed into various uses? What if a river is wholly owned and apportioned the moment it comes out of the ground? Does all this change the essence of a river? Is it even still a river?

These speculative questions, for which the arts are particularly well suited, assume real significance in a state like present-day California that depends entirely on technological control of rivers for its prosperity and very survival. Seeing a river in California for what it is now—namely water-put-to-work—can abet a number of other vital inquiries, such as: if water in the state is essentially a resource or even a commodity, who owns it and how are these owners positioning themselves for the water shortages of the future due to climate change and population growth? How is the current regard for water connected to California’s murderous, colonial past,[1] and what can we gain from such an understanding? And/or how can California avoid its seemingly inevitable fate of privatized water markets, unreliable access to clean water for the poor and profound income inequality? Such questioning “prepares a free relationship” towards the issue, to quote Martin Heidegger. It reveals and opens. It renders something that appears universal, absolute and given—in this case our extractive attitude toward water and farming—as contingent and therefore mutable through political activism and civic engagement.

We make this particular connection to Heidegger despite all his baggage because he provides a number of indispensable analytic tools for perceiving what is really at stake with environmental issues, not to mention his inventive and evocative vocabulary. Further, an encounter with Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of rivers proved transformative to our own art-activist project Water Gold Soil. As artists working with the medium of landscape photography, we first looked towards what is visible in the land in order to represent the drought issue in California. A reading of Heidegger and other research then provoked us to consider what lies behind what can be seen. A key thought sits in Heidegger’s before-and-after comparison of the Rhine River found in “The Question Concerning Technology”:

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant…. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station…. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.[2]

Seeing the way “a river in the landscape” can actually be more fundamentally defined by its economic uses (power supplier, tourism and recreation site, irrigator) became the presiding impulse of our own project. Accordingly, we photographed the transition from the wilderness incarnation of this water flow in the Sierra Nevada to its first damming, and then on to its increasing subjection to rationalization and canalization, and finally to its dispersal in various end-uses, primarily agricultural. The most basic goal of the photography and the video we took was simply to reveal the “river” as economic rather than scenic—and by “river” here, we mean both our particular water flow and by extension all such “rivers” in California.


Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video installation, 17 min, TULCA Art Festival, Galway, Ireland. Voiceover text: “From this point on the water does that flow. They pushed it along with pumps. They extracted it from the Delta, and moved it into two canals. One headed for the big cities and one headed to the desert farms. The water commodity.”

This may seem obvious, but the productiveness of this enterprise became evident when an environmental organization giving us an award requested that we put more images of “beauty” and “wildness” into an exhibition of our work. Indeed, the typical maneuver of photographers working on environmental issues is to show a particular landscape as pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of protecting, or else to show “damage” to the land caused by the impurities of pollution and industrialization. However, such obsession with purity, which has historically motivated the environmental movement in the United States, deadens an adequate response to issues like climate change or water rights in California. In both cases, sufficiently powerful animus and solidarity must derive from a heightened sense of both the dangers and opportunities. Urgency comes from care for and protection of life, social justice, empathy, economic opportunity and restoration of the sacred. Each  of these themes came together in Standing Rock.

The purity paradigm continues to grip the environmental community, but so long as it does it will jeopardize its efficacy. For such an interest in conservation, preservation, and beauty, tremendously understates the danger of our current ecological crisis and renders the ecological crisis the sole province of a privileged class. Here too Heidegger can be of some assistance, albeit with significant caveats. Heidegger’s description of the hydro-electric plant in the Rhine comes amid a larger discussion of what he identified as “the supreme danger” to mankind. This supreme danger presents itself to Heidegger first in the guise of “modern technology.” Modern technology for Heidegger differs from what precedes it in that “it puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored.” Heidegger terms this essential aspect of modern technology a “challenging forth,” which he contrasts with the gentler “bringing forth” (poiesis) of older technology. Poeisis, of course, is also the mode of the arts (i.e., poetry), the significance of which we explore below. In this connection, Heidegger contrasts the impact of a wooden bridge over the Rhine to that of the hydro-electric dam per the above quotation. The wooden bridge brings forth place, dwelling, cultivation of the land; whereas the dam challenges forth the river to yield energy that might in turn be used for industrial processes.[3]

To understand how this is not merely a nostalgic, wistful call for a return to a past primitivism, we must understand exactly what is so unreasonable about the demand Heidegger identifies that modern technology puts to nature. The danger here is not the loss of an attribute of the river we might call beautiful or the imposition of a stain on its purity that can ultimately be restored through effective advocacy; rather, the danger lies in the complete transformation in the nature of the river within a means-ends order. It has become, in Heidegger’s terminology, a “standing reserve.” The river is not alone. In a world dominated by modern technology, Heidegger writes:

Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a furthering ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve.[4]

Another way of saying this is that within the challenging forth of modern technology everything becomes a resource, or as Heidegger writes elsewhere “something is only through what it performs.”[5] Heidegger gives a couple of other examples besides the transformation of the river. He contrasts a windmill with coal power. Whereas with the windmill things “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing,” with coal “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out” with the result that the “earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as mineral deposit.”[6] He also contrasts older farming techniques with industrial agriculture, emphasizing the lost values of care and maintenance, words which together we might call by a different name—sustainability.[7]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. The pipes depicted here in the right channel of the video are part of infrastructure originally built to support gold mining by regulating flow in the South Fork of the American River. The same infrastructure was later re-purposed for irrigation agriculture and suburban development. Voiceover text: “Pipes followed as if demanded by logic itself…. But the pipes were kept hidden, tucked away. So that a faucet could appear like a stream.”

By this logic, in order to answer the question, “What is a river in California?,” we must first answer the question of specifically what that river is used for, what it performs. It is not enough simply to observe that it is technological in some generic sense. Of course, a given river in California might have various uses. (It is illuminating in this regard to examine Bureau of Reclamation spreadsheets showing just who owns each acre foot of water in each river.) Notice, however, how Heidegger articulates the usage of the river in terms of a system: the water moves the turbines, which moves machines that create the electrical current, which in turn moves along cables to be stored and distributed. The underlying logic of the challenging forth is that it is extracting and storing energy with the purpose to further something else, namely some industry.

We chose to follow a water flow toward its end use specifically in the industry of large-scale agriculture because this is the dominant industry governing much of California’s water infrastructure. Jay Lund, one of the leading experts on water in California and editor of the California Water Blog, describes the system of water management in California, as follows:

By 1980, a vast network of reservoirs, canals and exploited aquifers transformed California. This system was largely designed to support an agricultural economy envisioned in the latter 1800s, which greatly exceeded the gold mining economy it replaced.[8]

In this single concise quotation, you have all the elements of our project: Water, Gold, Soil. The “agricultural economy” (i.e. soil) is the descendant of the gold mining economy, and both were entirely dependent on water—agriculture for obvious reasons, and gold because not only was gold first found in the rivers, but water in the form of sluices and later water cannons was essential to mining operations.  As Norris Hundley writes of the gold mining industry in California: “they built hydraulic empires of dams, reservoirs, flumes, ditches, pipes and hoses. All this in turn required knowledge of advanced engineering principles, now introduced for the first time on a large scale in the West and later used to build other great public and private projects.”[9] In addition to the technological confidence and infrastructure, perhaps a more important legacy of the gold mining industry on the agriculture industry that supplanted it was the legal framework for how to regard ownership of a river in the first place. [10] In particular, the notion that one could claim a right to some water simply being the first to put it to some vaguely defined “beneficial use” originated in California with the Gold Rush. The havoc wrecked by the mixing of this “prior appropriation” right with other sorts of rights (namely riparian) has been well documented.

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Voiceover text: “They first discovered Gold near this place on the American River, setting off a worldwide hysteria that has been treated comprehensively by Brandt and others.”

However, Lund leaves out half of the equation. The other major driver of water infrastructure development in California was, and continues to be, real estate development and speculation. This story has been comprehensively told in Norris Hundley’s The Great Thirst and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument can be made that agriculture in California is itself simply real estate investment in disguise. With a Heideggerian flourish we might say (as we do in a video piece that is part of our project): “Water spread over land by wind and rain transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.” Many in addition to Hundley have recited this history,[11] which in broad brush strokes looks like this: the government wrests away land populated by Native Americans and grants it outright to large corporations, including railroads and oil companies; the companies market the land to settlers who begin to farm it and increase its value under lease agreements; the same large landowners then successfully lobby the government for massive, multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure projects, cynically invoking the Jeffersonian image of the small farmer (this includes the San Luis reservoir, which is the hub of the water flow in our Water Gold Soil project); the construction of these projects is granted under the agreement that the large landowners will sell off their land into smaller parcels to support small business and families; this sell-off is never done and the military-scale federal investment in infrastructure is thereby translated into direct real estate gains by the large owners. Studies have shown the deleterious effects of corporate farming on communities, as the owners of these lands get rich while the people working on them are mired in some of the country’s most dire poverty.[12] In the ultimate irony, many communities within these farming districts (known perversely as water districts) completely lack access to any water at all, or else are subjected to poisonous levels of pollution.[13]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Irrigation in Westlands Water District. Voiceover text: “Water spread over land by wind and clouds transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.”

Here we approach the crux of the argument and an identification both of what is valuable and vexing about Heidegger. For Heidegger, if the reduction of the natural world to a standing reserve is the danger, then the “supreme danger” is the reduction of humans themselves to the status of this standing reserve, as with the laborers of the Central Valley most obviously, but, in fact, as with all of us living within a world defined by modern technology. This reduction of nature, labor and all people to a standing reserve is a function not of technology itself but what Heidegger calls the essence of modern technology: enframing (Gestell). What sort of thing is enframing? One is tempted to call it a worldview, an orientation, a theory, a way of representing the world, or even an ideology, but Heidegger scrupulously avoids these sorts of epistemological terms—a fact that accounts for much of the difficulty of his text. For him, enframing is not simply a way of seeing things. It is itself generative as a mode of revealing the world, a mode of existence. Enframing reveals by ordering, framing, putting things into boxes.  Enframing alters what is actual, not just how we see the actual. Under the sway of enframing, objects, and ultimately human beings themselves, turn into a mere function of their instrumentality.

However, while enframing is not itself a way of seeing, it is, paradoxically, both the by-product of and the necessary condition of a way of seeing, which Heidegger calls out as “modern mathematical science.”[14] Perhaps a helpful way of understanding the enframing concept is to see it as that force within “modern mathematical science’s” way of seeing that is productive of being—the binding force between epistemology and ontology. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” Heidegger writes, and this “theory of nature prepares the way not just for modern technology but for the essence of modern technology [i.e., enframing].” Heidegger emphasizes that this occurs at a particular time in history—that is to say, something else came before. With an ecological dynamic, culture, in all its myriad modes of representation (scientific, artistic, conversational, etc.) is produced by, and in turn, propagates this ontological enframing force. Heidegger lays down the marker between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages: “What actuality is in Durer’s picture ‘The Columbine’ is determined differently from what is actual in a medieval fresco.”[15] Indeed, there is something crucial about this transition. The creeping ooze of enframing spread over the entire world as we moved through the epochs labeled the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity and indeed Post-Modernity (which, we understand as neo-liberalism by another name). The story of enframing’s creep is the story of colonialism, and it is also the story of our project in which documentation of a given “river” is both real and allegorical. Our assembly of images and words is representational of an actual water flow at a given point in time, but also of the broader historical trajectory of the Age of Extraction. California is an interesting case study in the epistemo-ontological creep of enframing because it is so compressed and so stark.

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Enframing II, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches. Appropriated image from United States Geological Society with permission.

Yet, in the final analysis we make quite different hay than Heidegger out of this recognition of enframing’s historicity. Heidegger’s primary concern throughout his work is Being, by which he means the essence of human existence. We will not follow him into these considerations, which are dense with thorns, except to say this overarching concern of Heidegger’s leads him to consider the “supreme danger” of enframing as bearing most importantly on man’s ability to continue to live as he essentially is—in all his aloneness and glory. This preoccupation of Heidegger’s, seeped in a brew of human exceptionalism and a pursuit of pure origins along with some other rather dubious notions, creates what seems to us like two blindingly obvious aporia in his questioning concerning technology, namely a consideration of agency in the development of enframing’s challenging forth, and relatedly a consideration of class and regional distinctions among the humans of this world. Who pushed forward the challenging forth of nature and labor that fell out of enframing like destiny? And who can stop it? In several places, Heidegger’s questioning brushes tantalizing close to Marx—for example in his observation that the challenging forth of technology is invested in “driving on to the maximum yield and the minimum expense”; or in his description of humans becoming a standing reserve, which seems to harken to Marx’s analysis of alienation. However, Heidegger does not pursue a material, economic understanding of what is threatening about the enframing phenomenon. This leads to a very nebulous conception of its origins and import, as well as to a misunderstanding of the ways in which we can engage in overcoming it.

Heidegger never forged an explicit political philosophy but expressed that a revolution in thinking was needed to avoid the tragic subjection of humans themselves to the status of a standing reserve. We do not normally think of Heidegger as an activist, but in the Introduction to Metaphysics he states: “we dare to take up the great and lengthy task of tearing down a world that has grown old and of building it truly anew.”[16] He had an exalted view of both philosophy and art in this process. In fact, it was to these activities alone that he ascribed any real power. The world had to be re-created through a heroic exertion of complicated thought, embodied best in poetry. Heidegger was silent about how this deep thought might be conveyed to the citizenry and how in turn it might lead to concrete changes in policy or political systems. Not surprisingly, this giant lacuna in Heidegger’s thought resulted in personal exhaustion and disillusionment, such that he ultimately declared in an interview with Das Spiegel: “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor” because “the greatness of what is to be thought is [all] too great.” Heidegger broodingly concluded that only “God can save us.”[17]

Taken as disillusionment on Heidegger’s part, this spirit all too commonly results from detaching the abstract work of world creating (via worldview changing) from the concrete work of political activism aimed specifically at agents of the danger. For there are indeed agents. Could not the mysterious ecological relation that Heidegger describes between the scientific mode of representation, enframing, the challenging forth of nature (and labor), and finally the transformation of the world into a standing reserve be more reductively described as the application of modern science towards making money? Does he not overlook the crucial ingredient of greed as the dominant driver of certain (though not all) humans and the force that adds the unreasonable challenging forth of nature (and labor) to enframing? The development of exploitative economic systems arose out of an ability to systematically demarcate and make predictions (about how to build a ship and navigate, about how to build a dam, about how much water is needed to get a certain size crop, about where gold might be, about how to make an equivalent exchange, etc.). Heidegger shows how the self-perpetuating logic of this system alters our worldview, cuts off pathways to the sacred and defeats humility. Yet, by failing to ascribe agency in the process, he concludes that “Human activity can never directly counter the danger.” This flies in the face of actual gains that social movements can and do make all the time, even as this more fundamental work of culture changing happens in the background. Shout out to: Cesar Chavez, to, to anti-fracking movements in New York, to dam-removal movements and their successes on the Yakima and other rivers, etc.

To state it simply, there are two fronts to changing the world: changing ideology (i.e., ways of seeing and representing); and changing material conditions. As such, the work of poets, artists and thinkers is symbiotic with the work of activists, not isolated a la Heidegger; it is on this level that we think of our work as art-activist. A poetic way of seeing the world—defined here as an investment in non-rational consciousness and empathic understanding—is absolutely required for an effective activism, not only because it opens up a new relation to the world, but also because it restores enchantment and inherently combats the challenging forth of enframing with the alternative form of revealing articulated by Heidegger as the bringing forth of poiesis. However, poetry/art do not happen in a vacuum and no real change can be achieved there without changes in material conditions, which is what Heidegger fundamentally missed. Once again, the phenomenon is an ecological cycle, a dialectic.

We believe in the role of the artist as historian, specifically in this sense of the art-activist who contributes to a transformation of worldview. To represent a river in California, our job is to show not only what it is now, but to represent its now-ness as a form of (avoidable) destiny—here again Heidegger is instructive, for he speaks of enframing and also poiesis not just as modes of revealing, but as modes of destining. History arrives, and it is always arriving. It is not unearthed intact. The image is the tool by which we convey this. As Benjamin said, “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”[18] This is the mode of the artist as historian.

With respect to California, we have found it illuminating to stare at a blank outline of the now-iconic shape that forms the boundaries of the state. That shape, which owes its Eastern contour to the desire to capture as much gold-harboring land as possible, has become one of the primary images of our project. It reflects all the capriciousness and violence, even absurdity, of political borders. These lines were drawn in 1849, the year after gold was discovered in the state. How was this same land understood before the lines were drawn? What was a river then? Is there a clue there to what it could be now?


11 October 1849, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print, 18 x 22 inches. Title refers to the date that the state legislature formally adopted the boundary lines of the State of California.

The creation of that shape we now know as the borders of California was an arrival, not an inception. The destining started with the Spanish lust for gold, which animated their colonial adventures. Some believe the very word California was invented by a Spanish fiction writer named Montalvo in the early 16th Century. Montalvo gave the name “California” to a fantastic land of desire and gold in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (published in 1510).[19] In this book, the inhabitants of California were all-powerful women who ate men after laying with them in order to bear children. There was gold everywhere. The women wore gold harnesses and hunted with gold weapons. Montalvo called it California because it was a caliphate, a land of infidels. Yet, he also placed the territory “very near to a side of Earthly paradise.”[20]

This was fantasy, but fantasy transforms fact. Ten years after Montalvo’s book was published, the colonist Hernan Cortes wrote a letter to the King of Spain from present-day Baja California, in which he purported to confirm the nearby existence of just such a place as Montalvo described (earthly paradise, lots of gold, only women who ate men, etc.).[21] Cortes was likely angling for continued investment in his colonizing enterprise, but it is telling that he thought his report would be both enticing and sufficiently credible to his benefactor. Not long after Cortes’ letter, maps begin appearing with Montalvo’s word “California” labeling some of the lands Cortes colonized[22] and after a while this became the accepted name of the region. Montalvo’s fantasy reified.

However, when the first Spanish mission entered into the territory of California more than two hundred years later in 1769, it was not the word “oro” (gold) that appeared obsessively in the diaries of its leaders, but the word “aqua.” Nearly every day that was their primary concern. They hunted down rivers.[23] They had to hold water before they could hold gold. On 24 January 1848, everything came together when some other colonists found gold laying around in the American River. The mass hysteria that followed produced the near extermination of the Native people and rapid industrialization.

Of course, this gold had been sitting in the rivers all along but the Native Americans did not value it. Seeing value in gold is a purely imaginative exercise and dependent on a given worldview (enframing). John Sutter, the owner of the land on which gold was found on California, remarked without apparent irony that:

It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold.[24]

One is reminded of Marx’s paradigmatic, if racially tinged, account of the commodity fetish and the absurdity of a materialist theory of value: “The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it, and then threw it into the sea.”[25]

There is a paradox at the core of history: how do we see the present as a destining, as the seemingly inevitable outcome of past events with all the gravity that implies, and at the same time see that very destining as contingent and therefore as mutable? This sort of maneuver requires a negative capability that is not the province of science, including history performed as science, but is the province of art and myth. When we ask, “What is a river?,” we would do well to attend the poet, as Heidegger recommends. Paraphrasing Holderlein, Heidegger gave this answer to the question before us:

“As a vanishing, the river is underway into what has been. As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming.”[26]


Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners, unknown photographer, c. 1851. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.


  • The Nisenan Maidu name for the American River was Kum Sayo, meaning Roundhouse River, referring to a structure that the Nisenan Maidu used for dances and other ceremonies. This building was the center of a Maidu community. A particularly large and important roundhouse was located at the mouth of the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River, in the vicinity of this highway bridge. Other roundhouses could be found all along the American River. The domesticity implied in the Maidu name for the river contrasts with later names applied by European colonists: The River of Sorrows; Wild River (so named because of the ostensibly “wild” nature of the Maidu living there); the River Ojotska (a phonetic rendering of the Russian word for hunter); Rio de los Americanos (named for the American trappers that had begun to use the river).

[1] See Benjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.

[3] These ideas are developed more fully in other Heidegger writing on rivers, most notably in Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, trans. William McNeil and Julia Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) and “Build Dwelling Thinking” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), esp. 330-339.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[5] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].

[6] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[7] Ibid, 297.

[8] Jay Lund, “What’s Next for California Water?,”, (23 February 2011). This history is obviously told in far greater detail in many other places, notably Norris Hundley Jr.’s definitive The Great Thirst: Californians and Water—A History, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[9] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 77.

[10] See Hundley, The Great Thirst, 86, but there is also an extensive literature on this crucial question. To cite just two important examples: Donald J. Pisani, Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), and more recently, Mark Kanazawa, Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] General accounts can be found in Hundley; see also Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Monclair: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978); Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005). In our project we focused particularly on Westlands, an understanding of which we owe to in part to: Lloyd G. Carter, “Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty,” Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3 (2009): 5-42,; and Ed Simmons, Westlands Water District: The First 25 Years, published by Westland Water District itself in 1983.

[12] See Goldschmidt, As You Sow (referenced above) and see also the work of Dean McCannell, which updated the legendary Goldschimdt study, and also the work of Paul Taylor (Dorothea Lange’s collaborator). An unpublished but excellent dissertation by Daniel J. O’Connell brings much of this work together: In the Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2011).

[13] For example, see

[14] It is hard to overcome thinking about causality in linear terms (which is itself a by-product of enframing). However, as ecological thinking is a thinking of relationships, it is also a thinking that dissolves linear causality in favor of cycles and dialectical relationships. Heidegger was perhaps more ecological than even he realized as his style of writing is cyclical.

[15] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister, 25.

[16] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.

[17] Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai 1976): 193-219, trans. W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (n.p.: Precedent, 1981), ed. Thomas Sheehan, 45-67.

[18] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.

[19] Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 5; and Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 59-65.

[20] “Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal” from García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, Seville, 1510, as found, 7 July 2016. See also the argument for the Persian origin of the term from Kari-i-farn (“the mountain of Paradise”), suggested earlier by Carey McWilliams, in Josef Chytry, Mountain of Paradise: Reflections of the Emergence of Greater California as a World Civilization (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 13-15.

[21] Chapman, A History of California, 64.

[22] Ibid. 65-66.

[23] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 32; anyd

[24] John A. Sutter, “The Discovery of Gold in California,” Hutchings’ California Magazine, November 1857, accessed 24 May 2017,

[25] Karl Marx, ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’ [1842], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 262-263.

[26] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister,” 29.


Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris use photography, video, writing, and installation to investigate and to contribute to the development of ecological consciousness. Their work has been exhibited in diverse venues internationally. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media about climate change and other ecological issues. They teach in the Transmedia Department and are part of The Canary Lab at Syracuse University.

This essay is part of the artists’ larger Water Gold Soil project, which brought them to California late 2014 to document drought conditions as part of the ongoing A History of the Future project. Water Gold Soil: American River represents a river in present-day California. Yet, the river represented by Sayler/Morris hovers between the real and the allegorical and their time perspective shifts between the past, present and future. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media.


Copyright: © 2017 Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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