Unreal Nature

July 7, 2017

That Place Where the Water Was

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… the wind was blowing harder, through the canyon and all across the Mojave.

This is from the ‘At the Dam’ by Joan Didion found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rusts and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds of thousands of miles from where I am.

[line break added] I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon and sometimes by the ominous outlets to unused spillways, black in the lunar clarity of the desert light. Quite often I hear the turbines.

… I used to wonder what it was about the dam that made me think of it at times and in places where I ounce thought of the Mindanao Trench, or of the stars wheeling in their courses, or of the words As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Dams, after all, are commonplace: we have all seen one.

… The bronze sculptures at the dam itself evoke muscular citizens of a tomorrow that never came, sheaves of wheat clutched heavenward, thunderbolts defied. Winged Victories guard the flagpole. The flag whips in the canyon wind.

… But history does not explain it all, does not entirely suggest what makes that dam so affecting. Nor, even, does energy, the massive involvement with power and pressure and the transparent sexual overtones to that involvement. Once when I revisited the dam I walked through it with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation. For a while we trailed behind a guided tour, and then we went on, went into parts of the dam where visitors do not generally go.

[line break added] Once in a while he would explain something, usually in that recondite language having to do with ‘peaking power,’ with ‘outages’ and ‘dewatering,’ but on the whole we spent the afternoon in a world so alien, so complete and so beautiful unto itself that it was scarcely necessary to speak at all. We saw almost no one. Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed. The gratings on which we stood vibrated.

[line break added] We watched a hundred-ton steel shaft plunging down to that place where the water was. And finally we got down to that place where the water was, where the water sucked out of Lake Mead roared through thirty-foot penstocks and then into thirteen-foot penstocks and finally into the turbines themselves. ‘Touch it’ the Reclamation man said, and I did, and for a long time I just stood there with my hands on the turbine.

… When I came up from the dam that day the wind was blowing harder, through the canyon and all across the Mojave. Later, toward Henderson and Las Vegas, there would be dust blowing, blowing past the Country-Western Casino FRI & SAT NITES and blowing past the Shrine of Our Lady of Safe Journey STOP & PRAY, but out at the dam there was no dust, only the rock and the dam and a little greasewood and a few garbage cans, their tops chained, banging against a fence.

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