“Homestead is where the art is.”

April 30, 2009

Symbiotic tensions

Filed under: Art, Culture, Events — magicgroove @ 12:03 am


The recent Jackrabbit Homestead listening event at the 29 Palms Historical Society on March 28, 2009, included talks given by two homestead devotees, cultural geographer Jacob Sowers and myself, Chris Carraher, Wonder Valley resident and artist.  The JRHS Website now includes the text of the talk I gave as well as an essay by Jacob.

Jacob Sowers, an assistant professor at Missouri State University’s Geography, Geology, and Planning program, writes, “When I first encountered Wonder Valley, I felt that it was on the edge of civilization. After participating in everyday life and speaking to numerous residents, however, I have found that Wonder Valley is actually an overlap of conflicting types of place identity held in a complex tension.”   His essay, Wonder Valley: Place and Paradox, is based on his dissertation research, Symbiotic Tensions of Wonder Valley, California: The creation, maintenance, and unpredictability of an Existential Ecotone and discusses the cultural geography of Wonder Valley landscape.

Over the next decade as I traveled to other communities both foreign and domestic for both study and pleasure, I came to realize that Wonder Valley’s place identity had yet to be duplicated.  At first glance, Wonder Valley’s landscape looked disarrayed and chaotic but many times I have found that at first glance our eyes deceive us. Although the Wonder Valley was indeed unusual, over time I began to recognize that this supposedly chaotic place did have an unexplained order. This place is unusual not because of its disorder, which can be expected in a rural desert landscape. Rather, Wonder Valley is unusual and thus a place of interest because it presents some type of order where one would more likely expect chaos—the desert is the ultimate manifestation of empty space, and thus many times portrayed as the antithesis of place and dwelling.

You may read the rest of Jacob’s essay here; downloadable audio of Jacob can be found on the JRHS Website in the Stories and Audio Tour sections. 

My own talk on the 28th discussed the homesteads as addressed through my artwork.   Like Jacob, I also examine Wonder Valley as unexpected community in this passage:

The name of this particular piece is Small-Tract Homestead Act; cabins; full moon; deed to my home [above]This is a sort of schematic night scene in ink of a full moon over a horizon, and laid over is a grid in vermilion ink scattered with small cabin icons—not unlike the cabin we saw earlier.  With this piece we’re no longer viewing the homesteads as isolated objects but rather in relation to one another, as well as in relation to the desert in which they lie.  And there is tension in the relationships.  An artificial, right-angled grid has been imposed over an unsuitable landscape.  But at the same time the grid ties us all together, wilderness, empty cabins, habited cabins.  The piece holds my own sense of unease at my participation, yet nevertheless acceptance of my condition—this is my home, and my community. 

The full text of my talk, Home:  Finding Our Place,  is on the JRHS Website here; I’m also included in downloadable audio  in the Stories and Audio Tour sections.

April 11, 2009

“Out of the Mouth of Boards”

Filed under: Festival, History, Literary, Shack Attack — magicgroove @ 7:16 am

Twentynine Palms resident and member of the Desert Writers Guild Nancy J. Knight contributed a story to the Homestead Cabin Festival Show ‘n Tell in February 2008 at The Palms in Wonder Valley and has kindly agreed to let us reprint it, below.  All rights reserved.

Out of the Mouth of Boards

By Nancy J. Knight

 Homesteading in the High Desert – Morongo Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Wonder Valley , and other outlying areas probably began in the late 1800’s, but really began to pick up after WWI and WWII, when veterans hoped the dry climate of the desert, would be a cure-all for the many affects they were suffering from the wars.  There were a lot of conditions that had to be met to qualify as a homesteader, and if you did, the government gave you a one quarter section of land – 160 acres – for about $16.00.  Later, there was some five acre parcels of land called the “Small Tract Act of 1938,” which was, as I understand it, free.  All you had to do was to make the required improvements on the land, and it was yours.

He said:  “Listen, Martha baby, I know you don’t want to leave your family and friends (cough-cough).  And I know you’ll miss the shopping, your garden, and the morning newspaper, but Baby (cough-cough), with all that clean, fresh air in the desert (cough-cough), and the natural beauty to behold, I know this move is the right thing to do (cough-cough).”

The cabin-to-be-built-someday said:  “Why people want to leave their nice, warm homes, beautiful landscapes, comforts and conveniences, beats the heck out of me!  After they get here, there may not be any material to build me, so they may have to live in a tent, an abandoned cabin, or maybe even a cave.  I don’t think the missus is going to like that one little bit, but I can say it is beautiful , and there is a lot of clean, fresh air in this here desert!”

Homesteading was not a piece of cake.  You had to build a “livable” house, and usually an outhouse, in the first year.  There was no electricity, no plumbing, and no running water. Then other improvements had to be made in the following years.  Some committed souls survived, but for most others, the harsh desert life just was not to their liking, and they left.

She said:  “I swear Harold, when you told me the desert had clean, fresh air, I didn’t expect hurricane force winds and sand blowing all over everything!  Why just today, I washed clothes and laid them on some boulders to dry, and that mean, old wind blew them away!  They’re probably – probably…well who knows where by now.  And…and you told me it was beautiful.  What’s so beautiful about sand and rocks? And there aren’t even any trees, except those ole spiny things if you want to call them trees. I just hate this awful ole place!”

After WWII, little by little, growth began to blossom, and by 1947, Joshua Tree had a whopping population of about 550 people!  Small cabins dotted the landscape in the Morongo Basin. I understand there were many turkey ranches in the Sunfair area.  According to some sources, it was estimated almost 500,000 turkeys were there, and it was even suggested the area be named “Turkey Town, USA.”  Well, I guess that didn’t go over, and for unknown reasons, the turkey ranches faded away.  Some say an occasional wild turkey can be spotted.  Gosh, I think I’ve seen some at Wally World in Yucca Valley!

He said:  “Well, Martha, what you think of your new digs?  This sure is a lot better than “tenting” huh?  You were such a sport to put up with it; especially after little Harold Jr. came along, and then later, the twins.  Now I know the outside walls look a lot like the roof, but Bill from down the hill gave me a good price on the stuff.  And look, if you put some yardage up inside, you can partition off three or four little rooms!  How about that?  And look!  You’ve even got a wood   cook stove and little windows so you can look out and see the younguns!  Don’t ya just love it Martha?  Say, I don’t seem to be coughing as much anymore do I?”

She said:  “Yes, Harold I do love it, and I love you for not giving up when I wanted to.  Who could deny the desert beauty … sunrises, sunsets, the little wildflowers in the spring; the little critters that scurry around, and yes, even those spiny old trees have beautiful blooms on them sometimes.  And this land has taught us all to appreciate nature and one another, and many more things that money cannot buy.  Yes, Harold I do love it here.”

Homesteaded cabins were many things to many people.  They were a step up from what they had previously lived in i.e. tents, caves, lean-tos, etc.  As they could afford it, some people added more rooms.  They improved the construction of the cabin to adobe or concrete bricks, or a better quality of wood.  They put in a well, and added indoor plumbing, which also meant not having to go outside to the old “two-holer” anymore.  Others either moved to “larger digs,” or simply left the area.  Believe it or not, some people still live in them, and wouldn’t live anywhere else.  Some folks use them as a week-end retreat to get away from the city.

 But some people were surprised to find that Grandma Martha (on Dad’s side) had left a dilapidated, old, run-down cabin to them in her will … in some god-forsaken place known as the High Desert of California for gosh sakes!  Not only that, but either they had to fix and repair the disgusting mess, or, as deemed by San Bernardino County officials, the most unsightly and more visible by often traveled roads, were going to be leveled and demolished.

The county officials said:  “Look at these ugly, weather beaten, ramshackle shacks.  They’re nothing but eyesores.  What will people think when they come to our area and see these old things?  We must get rid of them, they give a bad impression. And what good are they anyway?  Let’s mow them all down!”

Over one hundred cabins, deemed to be the most unsightly, were razed.  And, although a few of the owners of these cabins did comply with the county’s requests to fix and repair them, most did not – and over 300 cabin owners flattened their own.

As of this writing, only a fraction of the infamous homesteaded cabins were destroyed.  Many still dot the land. Some beaten over the years by sun and wind have only their frames left.  Some are more intact, perhaps a window or two has been broken, and the front door is wide open, and if you look quickly while passing by, you may see an old sofa or a bed.  Sometimes the faded curtains are fluttering in the breeze.   There are still some, who if they had their way, would “mow them all down.”

The cabin said:  “They say that I have outlived my purpose – that I’m no longer needed.  That may be so with some of my fellow cabin mates, but not me.  What?  Am I not entitled to having feelings? I am a part of history.  If only my walls could talk, you would learn so much.  If only you would try to see the beauty in me.  If only you would wonder what happened here.  When was I built?  Who lived here?  Were there children?  What kind of lives did they lead?

If you dispose of me and others like me, what will artists have to paint, or photographers have to shoot, or writers have to write about?  Sure, there are the occasional cabins that though no fault of their own, become involved with some not so nice things.  Sometimes people hang out in them and do drugs, some even make drugs in them, and then there are those who just decide to live there for a while and leave an unsightly mess when they move on.  I can understand why people don’t want these things in the area, but not all of us are like that. Sometimes when people stop to take my picture, I hear them talking, “Mary, it is so peaceful and quiet here (this shouted loudly over the noisy three wheelers that just roared by).  I just love this old cabin.  Why, with a little fixing, we could retire here and get away from the rat race down below (this shouted over the roar of the two four wheel drive trucks that just flew by leaving them in their dust).  And we could sit out at night watch the stars (not really folks, all these houses around here have bright lights on their property that they leave them on all night). Look over there, they’re building more new houses, and look behind us – two more.”  It has really built up around here hasn’t it?  But from the looks of this, they’ll probably tear this old cabin down soon and put up another new house.  Wow, this is getting to be like Orange County huh?”  That’s only some of the things they say.  Some things I can’t repeat.

I only hope that the upcoming generations will have places to go to and to look at, walk around, and wonder what took place there.  It’s too bad big cities and greedy people had to ruin things for us.  Why, I can’t even see my old friend with the pink tiled roof anymore.  I don’t even know if it’s still there.  You’ve heard the expression “out of the mouths of babes …?  If only they knew what could come “out of the mouth of boards.”

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