Environmental History on the Rails

by Joshua McGuffie With summer drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Albany, Oregon to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’d never taken the train for such a long trip, 28 hours each way. On such a long trip landscapes pass by, fixed in their space but […]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

September 15, 2014

by Joshua McGuffie

McGuffie1 With summer drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Albany, Oregon to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’d never taken the train for such a long trip, 28 hours each way. On such a long trip landscapes pass by, fixed in their space but transient in the rider’s experience. Each moment on the train creates a snapshot of the land. Being a rider is significantly different than being a driver on the interstate – not having to worry about truck traffic frees the mind to wander. As my mind wandered, four snapshots of human interaction with the passing terrain leapt out at me.

The trip starts in Albany, Oregon. Seat of Linn County (‘The Grass Seed Capital of the World’), Albany quickly gives way to the rural Willamette Valley. Sheep, hay, and grass seed accompany the rider all the way to Eugene. In Oregon’s third city the tracks turn southeast to climb the Cascades through the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. The transition from an agricultural landscape to a logging landscape is abrupt. Evergreen stands of varying ages blanket the landscape along with clearcuts and a web of logging roads. The Willamette played a part in the bitter spotted owl and old growth forest controversies. But, to a layman’s eyes on the train, the forest looks like a forest, not an historically controversial landscape. In this case, the train delves into the depths of environmental conflict but also shrouds it with the trappings of a scenic landscape. One hundred years ago, Einstein used the train to teach physicists the hidden truths of relativity. Today, as the train runs through the forest, it teaches us the often hidden truth that aesthetic beauty can obscure the extent of human alteration to an ecosystem.


McGuffie2Day slides into night somewhere before Klamath Falls, Oregon. The next morning, past Oakland, the train gives a glimpse of one of the Bay Area’s unsung industries, the salt ponds that dominate the shallow, southern end of the San Francisco Bay. Hidden from drivers on the 880 and 680 freeways, the train cuts right across the ponds. Acres and acres of salt flats extend out into the bay. Most of the industrial salt ponds represent former tidal wetlands. Just like in the Willamette National Forest, unique topography created an opportunity for industrial use of the land. Today, some of the salt flats are being restored to wetlands, by US Fish and Wildlife and state agencies – industrial space transformed into habitat for native flora and migrating birds. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is probably the only place in the heavily urbanized Bay Area that allows sport hunting of waterfowl. From the train, then, the south Bay is a complicated landscape marrying industry, preservation, and recreation. And all this hidden in plain sight at the foot of Silicon Valley, whose massive wealth incentivized the San Francisco 49ers to leave their home on the peninsula and relocate just south of the salt flats to Santa Clara.

FMcGuffie3rom the San Francisco Bay the train trundles down the Salinas Valley, whose scenery John Steinbeck brought to life in so many of his short stories. Like the Willamette Valley, the Salinas brims with farmland. But food crops define this landscape. Lettuce, radishes, strawberries, and sundry other delights line up in neat rows on either side of the tracks. During the September harvest migrant workers, in hunched-over clusters, dot the fields. Here it is clear that agriculture has had the power to not just change the landscape, substituting deep-green, irrigated cropland for sage-green, native brush, but to blur political boundaries. Mexican flags proudly fly from car antennae, truck beds, and houses in the small towns that dot the valley, reminders that California has only been in the US for about 150 years. Multiple growing seasons, multiple languages, multiple cultures flourish in the Salinas Valley’s rich soil.

As the train moves south, food crops give way to grapes, heralds of California’s recent wine boom. Vineyards invade hill slopes, pushing irrigation from valley floors up to the edges of the Central Coast’s steep oak woodlands. McGuffie4Like the food crops growing on the floor of the Salinas Valley, and in the lowlands south of San Luis Obispo, these grapes are luxury crops. The valley yields fresh vegetables that can be shipped across the country so that consumers can buy lettuce in Buffalo, New York in January. The hills yield wine that can complement a summer bbq or a winter roast. Of course, this intensive, year round agricultural machine requires water, a fickle resource in this part of the world.
By the time the train approaches Paso Robles in the southern Salinas Valley and then drops down the Cuesta Grade to San Luis Obispo, agriculture is joined by one of California’s most historically important resources, oil. Though the bulk of California’s oil was likely extracted in the last century, nodding donkeys continue to pull oil out of the uplifted Miocene marine assemblages that flank the San Andreas Fault. Until 1998, the Department of Energy administered the massive Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve, to the east of where I took the photo. In the largest single privatization of federal land in US history, the reserve was sold to Occidental Petroleum. Wherever the land might yield a resource, authority has always been at stake. Willamette National Forest and Elk Hills stand in contrast to each other, sometimes Federal administration defines the landscape, sometimes private ownership.McGuffie5


Interesting though onshore oil is, oil off California’s coast stars in the state’s environmental history. When the train crosses Vandenberg Air Force Base, offshore oil platforms begin to dot the horizon. These derricks run from north of Point Concepcion down past Santa Barbara to the Ventura shoreline. Made infamous by the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, offshore oil extraction became a rallying point for the nascent US environmental movement. The aesthetic value and health of the seascape came into direct conflict with resource extraction. Offshore oil competes with logging for pride of place as a catalyst for environmental protest in the late 20th century.

Twenty-eight hours on the train is a long time to wonder at the glimpses into history that passing landscapes offer. How to make the sights into a coherent story? Certainly the declensionist narrative presents itself. The train runs through landscapes that have had their flora and fauna logged out, the earth has literally been salted, and oil has washed up along the gorgeous Pacific shore, covering cute marine mammals and birds. On the flip side, a solid dose of the frontier narrative might incline a rider on the Coast Starlight to marvel at all the ways we have made the land work for us. Somewhere between human despair and triumphalism the land must have something to say for itself, inasmuch as it is dynamic and never entirely under our thumb. However one might try to make sense of these landscapes, seeing them from the train offers a distinct view. The train’s history has so much to do with forming the history of the western US, perhaps its novelty can continue to inform us as we try to understand the he land.


(All photoMcGuffie6s taken by the author)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

CATEGORIES: Agriculture Environment Graduate Students

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *