New Desert Monuments

Last week the President of the United States, Barack Obama, officially designated three new national monuments in the California desert: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. The designation of 1.8 million acres of land is the result of ongoing efforts by California senator Dianne Feinstein.


Feinstein has for a decade worked to protect land left out of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that preserved nearly 7.6 million acres, including designating Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national parks and creating the Mojave National Preserve. President Obama designated the new national monuments using the 1906 Antiquities Act that authorizes presidents to create national monuments on federal land to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.”

More about the work of Feinstein and other organizations that helped to create the new monuments is available at the Wilderness Society. The Los Angeles Times also has an overview of the story: “Volcanic spires and Joshua trees: Obama protects 1.8 million acres in California’s desert.”


High and Dry Project

In the first unit of this class we talked about the high desert, the region of California the writer Mary Austin described as “the land of little rain.” You will also recall that Phillip Fradkin spends some time talking about the Owens Lake in The Seven States of California. He describes the ambush and massacre of the native Paiutes in 1863 near the lake shore. As Mary Austin wrote, “The Paiutes has made their last stand on the border of the Bitter Lake; battle driven they died in its waters, and the land filled with cattle-men and adventurers for gold.” 

The writer and historian Christopher Langley and the photographer Osceola Refetoff are documenting the natural and cultural history of the region with stories and images of the past, present, and future legacy of human enterprise in the California desert.


Assembled rocks symbolize the nest of a snowy plover (Photo cedit: Christopher Langley).

Their High & Dry Project exploresthe myth of California’s deserts is charged with human hope and inextricably tied to that most American ambition: the pursuit of freedom and happiness.” As they go on to say, “Iconic images of these arid lands are part our cultural DNA, essential to our collective understanding of the West and to our assumptions of what it means to be an American:

Against these grand ideals exists a loose patchwork of struggling communities, military-industrial compounds and vast open spaces; long a refuge for loners, dreamers, and broken spirits. In the near future, immense wind and solar projects will likely dominate many areas, transforming the landscape in ways that are complex and irreversible.

The artist Perry Cardoza has also been at work exploring and interpreting the region. Off Highway 136 in the Owens Valley, just north of Owens Lake. This example of Earth Art is described in a recent article by journalist Christopher Langley, “Perry Cardoza’s Land Art Project.” 


Concept drawing of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1) for CDMSmith/LADWP (Photo credit: ArtBound)


Wandering and Wilderness

Wandering and Wilderness, Venturing and Roaming: A Natural and Cultural History of Mountaineering California’s Sierra Nevada

The tendency nowadays to wander in the wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil’s spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in the whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in the deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness.

—John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

Among the things that explains California is the lifestyle of people who live there. There are many lifestyles, of many different peoples, in urban and agricultural landscapes, as well as in rural deserts and in uninhabited areas. There are cultures and subcultures, associations (like “laid back”), and people’s lives who are inextricably linked to California’s mountains—shepherds and ranchers, park rangers, scientists and snow surveyors, ski area operators and employees, fishing guides and resort owners, state and federal government employees, “ski bums” and mountaineers, to name just a few. There are individuals and communities determined by the economic engine of tourism as well as the cultural privileges of recreation. There are different experiences.


Dusk Jacket for Clarence King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

At the turn of the twentieth century John Muir claimed that “wandering in the wilderness has the potential to enrich our lives. Although recreation can be associated with the idea of a “vacation,” defined as avocation, Muir talks of the experience as “re-creation,” a returning to something that is missing from (or has been diminished in) “civilized” human life . Might one way to approach California, then, be to explore the experiences of people who have made the mountains their home, or to trace the history of people who were drawn to and have explored the mountains of California?

For Phillip Fradkin, the interest of the Sierra Nevada is the stories of the passes and the opening of a route to the Pacific coast. The early passages—including the Donner Party, the Stevens Party—give way in this narrative to the promise, greed, and violence of the California Gold Rush, the transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. This narrative includes the stories of the native peoples who had for generations lived in and traveled across the mountains, the Chinese immigrants (“Celestials”) who labored on the railroad project, the emergence of the Anti-Chinese Leagues, and the Mexican Americans who lived and worked on the Western slope. And then there is the coming of the automobile and the completion of highway 40 in 1926. As the historian George Stewart explains, “the keynote for whole area has been transportation” (qtd. In Fradkin 109).

Further south, the high Sierra rears up and presents a more formidable boundary. The range is only passable by a seasonal road over Tioga Pass down into the Yosemite and then is unbroken by a road until the range meets the desert south of the Owens valley and you can turn right on Highway 178 and motor over the mountains to Bakersfield. What was happening in the close to 220 miles of unbroken mountainous terrain? Who was drawn into the mountains? Why were they drawn into this rugged terrain? What were their experiences like? What were there motivations?

From John Muir’s public advocacy for national parks and the emergence of the organization for which he serves the founding president, The Sierra Club, to the present culture of the Sierra Nevada, outdoor travel, recreation, mountain play is woven into the fabric California’s mountains. Wandering and wilderness, “venturing and roaming,” what might one learn by mapping out a natural and cultural History of Mountaineering California’s Sierra Nevada?

General Resources The Sierra Nevada page on Wikipedia offers a useful portal to resources and a serviceable overview of the range. The Bibliography of California offers a great list of books on recreation, natural history, and human history

Selected Titles What do we learn about human history when we read in the nineteenth century journals and essays of early travels in the mountains?

William H. Brewer. Up and Down California in 1860-1864
Clarence King. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Boston: Osgood, 1872.
John Muir. The Mountains of California. New York: Century, 1894.
Norman Clyde. Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles Through the Range of Light. San Francisco: Scrimshaw, 1971.
Daniel Arnold. Early Days in the Range of Light: Encounters with Legendary Mountaineers. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009.

Selected Explorers and Climbers 1860-1960 Who are the climbers and what brought them into the high mountains of California?

Bolton Coit Brown, Joseph Nisbet LeConte, James Hutchinson, Francis Farquar, Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, Charles Michael, Dick Leonard, David Brower, John Salathé, Alan Steck, Chuck Pratt, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Bill Feuerer, Jim Bridwell, Yvon Chionard, Dick Long, Steve Roper, Galen Rowell, Doug Robinson–there are many, many more

Selected Resources What can we learn from the experiences and written and visual records of those experiences of early climbers in the range?

Eastern California Museum

Norman Clyde
Norman Clyde Exhibit at the Eastern California Museum
Guide to the Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection, 1906-2009 at California Polytechnic State University. The Norman Clyde-Robert C. Pavlik Collection contains the research notes, correspondence, interview notes, vital records, background materials, and secondary sources compiled and created by Pavlik in the course of writing his 2008 biography, Norman Clyde: Legendary Mountaineer of California’s Sierra Nevada.

Organizations and Journals Muir’s legacy is in part carried forth in the environmental organizations and activism as well as the emergence of associations and clubs promoting mountain travel?

The Sierra Club
Earth Island Institute
Yosemite Climbing Association Yosemite Climbing Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting Yosemite’s rich climbing heritage and making it available for public viewing and interpretation.

California Mountaineering Club The CMC promotes mountaineering as a thinking person’s sport. Where climbers bring their collective knowledge, skills, and experience to safely solve problems and minimize potential dangers that exist. We believe the following five general areas represent the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a good mountaineer:

Journalism and the Environment What can the advent of more widely circulated print and web-based publications tell us about outdoor experience, the rhetoric of recreation and play? How do these activities align with Muir’s call for an “awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease”?

California’s Adventure Sports Journal

California Climber A publication specifically molded for the California rock climber. As gas prices skyrocket and international travel becomes more of a burden, we feel that climbers are becoming more interested in exploring local climbing areas. This is why we decided to produce a totally free, seasonal climbing magazine to assist the California climber on their quest for high-quality local crags.

Sustainable Play Sustainable Play is a form of narrative outdoor journalism that advocates for mindful adventure, in keeping with the notion of sustainable development – cultivating wellness through wilderness in a way that preserves the wild for those who follow.

Outdoor Retail and Environmental Ethics The Patagonia mission is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Story of company founding

Maps and Peaks Map of Sierra Peaks

Rock climbing: Free Soloing National Geographic Free Soloing with Alex Honnold and
Free Climb of the Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson

Alpine Ice Skating: Skating the John Muir Trail A sustained drought in the Sierra leads to a new mountain project. Selected shorts from Evolution Basin and the Topsy Turvy Lake


I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

-Gary Snyder. “The Trail Is Not a Trail.” Left Out in the Rain. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986.

Paul Kanter (1941-2016)

This past week the founder of the San Francisco psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kanter, passed away. Kantner was co-founder of Jefferson Airplane the iconic San Francisco countercultural rock band. The band released the album “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” in 1966 and a year later “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” reached a national audience. You can read Kanter’s Obituary at the New York Times


Ed Perlstein/Redferns, via Getty Images

A Ninety-Eight Song Jefferson Airplane Playlist is available on Youtube that includes:

Somebody to Love” (Surrealistic Pillow 1967)
White Rabbit” (Surrealistic Pillow 1967)
High Flying Bird (Live at Monterey Pop 1967)
Wooden Ships (Volunteers 1969)
Volunteers” (Live at Woodstock 1969)

There is also footage of the Jefferson Airplane performing “The Other Side of this Life” at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, a rock concert held in December, 1969, in northern California, between Tracy and Livermore. Additional footage of the concert and the violence and strife that emerged is available on the web.

Interested in learning more? A Resources and Links page pulls together Jefferson Airplane materials from around the Web. The Times page includes articles and reviews, the Jefferson Airplane page at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Jefferson Airplane Home Page. You can also browse the You Tube Music Vault.

Why California?

“California is America—only more so.”
—Carey McWilliams

The writer and journalist Carey McWilliams offers one answer to the question of why California is such a useful window into the cultural history and significance of the United States.


While McWilliams is mostly known for his twenty-year career as the editor of The Nation, between 1939 and 1950 his writings were focused on California. His book California: The Great Exception (1949) is one of the important early works on the cultural history of California. His book Southern California Country (1946) caught the attention of Robert Towne’s screenplay for “Chinatown,” his Prejudice (1944) argued against the internment of Japanese-American citizens during the Second World War, and his Factories in the Field (1939) and North from Mexico (1949) offered a glimpse into the agricultural system in the Central Valley of California and the Mexican-American population in the United States. The writing of McWilliams helped Cesar Chavez in his work supporting migrant farmworkers, including the establishment of the National Farm Workers Association.

Historians of California, including Kevin Starr and Patricia Nelson Limerick, have continued to build on the legacy of McWilliams in their work as well. For more about Carey McWilliams, and his life and writing California between 1939 and 1950, read Peter Richardson, “Carey McWilliams: The California Years.”




What is American Studies?

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.

—James A. Baldwin

American Studies at Keene State College offers students a unique program of study. Each student completes three core courses and individualized choice of courses in American history, literature, the arts, and social sciences to explore the culture of the United States. American Studies is one of the most interesting and useful paths for students preparing to become educators: in elementary education, in the secondary education option in Social Studies, or in professional and graduate school.

What do students and faculty do in American Studies courses? The intellectual work of students and faculty begin with the idea that studying the inherent complications of a culture or a society requires more than a single disciplinary or methodological approach. We therefore draw on a range of materials and forms to explore historical and contemporary American culture, including oral history, writing, film, music, photographs, maps, architecture, food, activities. We study people, politics, economy, environment, science, arts, history, and literature. We read, we think together, we talk about, and we write our way into the American multicultural identity, including its past and present values, conflicts, and experiences. We are committed to studying cultural artifacts, to borrow words from the writer James Baldwin, that “lay bare the questions that have been hidden by answers.”

What are the questions that we ask? Here are a few of the questions that motivate our teaching and learning, scholarship, and collaboration with students:

“Who knew?” How do we have conversations that emerge from everyday American things—those things we don’t really think about—to help us ask questions and understand ourselves in ways we did not already know.

“Where am I in this material? “How does this concept, idea or information matter to me and/or all of us?”

“Who and or what is American? Why do we understand a person or thing as being American?”

In what ways can we see the past as influencing, or helping us to understand, the present?

What is the relationship between the individual/individual identity and culture?

How can we reconstruct and interpret historical, cultural, and political phenomena, events, developments?

How does studying literature and the other arts help us understand the past, the present, and our own lives?

What role do social class, race, ethnicity, and gender play in influencing / understanding culture and society?

What is the relationship between the arts (literature, music, film, etc.) and politics?

How can multimedia expand our notions of literature’s traditional forms and function in society?

How has technology changed American popular music? What have been the social consequences of these changes?

How can psychology and psychoanalytic thinking help us understand the individual, the artist, the culture?

In what ways can “American exceptionalism” be understood/critiqued?

Are there characteristic features of American style in language, music, and visual art?

What is the relationship between the mainstream and the margins in the Internet age?

What can the concept of improvisation, especially from jazz, teach us about the social dynamics of democracy in this “great American experiment”?

What views/conceptions/visions of America or Americans (or “the people” or “the folk”) are embodied/expressed in the “folk music revival”? What role did Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and/or the Weavers (and or other people/influences) play?

What do students do with a major in American Studies? Our KSC Alumni demonstrate that an undergraduate degree in American Studies provides an intellectual background and readily transferable skills for a wide range of personal and professional endeavors. Our alumni are pursuing opportunities in elementary and secondary education; business; libraries, museums, and historic preservation; film production; federal, state, and local agencies, both public and private; government and politics; nonprofit organizations; writing, editing, and publishing; international relations and diplomacy; public relations and advertising; and social services. Here are a few examples:

  • Sean Knox (2015) is a Staff Assistant for United States Senator from New Hampshire Kelly A. Ayotte
  • Hersch Rothmel (2015) is Office Coordinator for City Year in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Chloe Edmonds (2014) is a PhD student in International Studies at Georgetown University
  • Alex Wolff (2014) is a student at Suffolk Law school
  • Katie Petz (2012) is a Special Education Paraprofessional in Hollis, New Hampshire
  • Morgan Little (2013) is the front man for the band The Mild Revolution
  • Ryan LaLiberty (2011) is in the PhD program in Communications at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ryan completed a MA in Communications at the University of Rhode Island
  • George Barber (2011) is a comedian, writer, actor, and musician living in Los Angeles, California. George has completed a full length album, acted as a contributing writer for the Evening Show with Peter Murphy, appeared on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and performed numerous shows at the UCB Theater and Improv Olympic West
  • Justin Churchill (2011) is a sports writer for the New England Hockey Journal. He is a regional beat reporter in the American Hockey League and covers the New England Revolution and Major League Soccer
  • Zach Benton (2010) performs and records music in the Monadnock region. His extended play (EP) recording Mister Roberts’ Epiphany was followed by his long play (LP) entitled Fall In. Fall In hit #6 on iTunes’ R&B/Soul charts for new releases in October of 2013. Zach’s most recent single, “Truer Love,” peaked at #3 on iTunes’ R&B/Soul charts for new releases
  • Cate Brennan (2005) is Archive Technician at the National Archives in Washington D.C., and a PhD candidate in American History at the University of Maryland College Park
  • Lauren Morse (2005) completed her Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership and is currently the Assistant Director of the MBA Program at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth




On the first class session of the Spring 2016 semester I asked each of you to write down the associations you have with California. Below is a representation of the terms you wrote down. The frequency of the terms is captured in the corresponding size of the fonts.


This is a small sample for sure, and in no way definitive. But it is an interesting way to represent what thirty students are thinking about the subject of this course as we begin our work exploring the California dream.



What explains California?

This course explores this question through place and bioregion, individual histories and collective narratives of identity and culture, ideals and representation–all of which feed into the “California dream.”


Panama California Exposition, 2015

Students will explore the historical myth and material reality of the Golden State through indigenous cultures and narratives of exploration; waves of immigration and demographic change; the presence of racism and multicultural history and identity; water, orange groves, and agribusiness; cities and suburbia; political corruption and capital crimes; money and Hollywood moguls; technological booms and busts; film, fiction, and fashion; popular music and poetry; sex, drugs, rock and roll; narratives of self-actualization and alienation; the emergence of surfing and skateboarding; skiing, mountaineering, and rock climbing; television, sports, and celebrity culture.

What explains California?


Safeway – United Farm Worker’s Grape Boycott, National City. Herman Baca Papers. MSS 0649. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego


Marie Ueda. 1978 San Francisco Gay Day Parade. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. San Francisco


Page of First Edition of Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain


W.D. Carter. Overland Mail Route to California Broadside. 1866. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley


Herman Baca, San Diego-based Chicano activist, 1979. Herman Baca Papers. MSS 0649. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego


California Grown