Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion‘s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.
I’d never considered reimagined infrastructure until I tripped over it. I was a college student with a double major in history and backpacking, and the short lull before classes in September found me descending the Wilderness Trail, following the Pemigewasset River through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We’d spent the past four days high on windblown granite, hiking through sleet that bounced off our rain shells. This part of the trail was flat and the weather friendly, but the mountains were still with us as the early light filtered yellow through the birches.
It all felt very Morning in Narnia until, a few steps after hitting the trail, I crunched my big toe on…was it a tree root? It was not. It was a railroad tie. Looking farther down the trail I saw hundreds of them, like shipwrecks emerging from the water at low tide, and it became clear that not long ago, there had been no Wilderness Trail here, but a train track.
The train, I later learned, had carried timber for J. E. Henry’s logging company. Mr. Henry’s men pretty well cleared out the north woods, and by the 1940s his abandoned tracks ran down naked hillsides through chopped-up valleys to suddenly desolate sawmill towns. How could a place like Lincoln, New Hampshire, survive with no trees to cut? The answer, as anyone who’s been there now knows: tourists. In the 1950s and 1960s the forests grew back, the ski business got huge, hikers swarmed into the mountains, and the rail bed offered the perfect route for a trail into the newly wild Pemigewasset country. Lincoln reimagined its infrastructure. And when I say its infrastructure, I mean its whole existence.
Fast-forward to 2013, and America’s infrastructure is aging like J. E. Henry’s railway. Several weeks ago I reflected, as I stepped up to a water fountain at a San Francisco Giants game, that the stream burbling out of the spout had begun as an alpine glacier high in the Sierra Nevada. But that water has been running through that same infrastructure system since 1934, when Babe Ruth was hitting home runs. From our seats we could see the Bay Bridge, which is a little younger—it opened in 1936. The highway we took to the game was built in the 1950s, when Eisenhower was president.
Our fading infrastructure supports an incredible world. Look out your window. It’s everywhere, so complete and so subtle that it’s almost magic. Light when you press a button, hot clean water when you turn a knob, fresh fruit in January. We shift people and water and food and waste and ideas across continents as easily as we trade cards in Settlers of Catan. Most of the time, I don’t even notice it. Do you?
This is the world that we’re remaking. It’s the Anthropocene era, and human beings are changing the planet on a geological scale. It’s nothing new—consider the logged-out White Mountains—but in the twenty-first century we’re beginning to understand our power, and how to wield it. America has learned a lot since the days of J. E. Henry. We’ve found that our creations come with costs—to the environment and the climate and the community—that President Ike and Babe Ruth could barely have imagined. The whole situation worries people, from earnest environmentalists tallying up food miles to your crusty uncle who growls that We Used To Build Things In This Country. And they’re both right, but they’re both wrong.
Your uncle has it a little bit backwards. It wasn’t so much that we used to build things in this country; this country used to build things around us. We all got Eisenhower’s highways and Roosevelt’s dams and Texas’s oil: the same infrastructure, pretty much everywhere. Where I live, in Santa Cruz, California, the strawberries come from nearby Watsonville. When I visit my mother in New Hampshire, the strawberries still come from Watsonville. And of course, this creates environmental problems—Orion readers know that story. Now we’re starting to realize that relying upon the same infrastructure in New Hampshire as in California works about as well as wearing the same clothes in both places—some days it works fine, but in the long term, we’ll need to adjust.
And we are. Arizonans are taking a hard look at their grassy lawns and their red rock mesas (and their water bills), and beginning to allow their front yards to revert to desert. Seattlites are channeling the rain instead of watching it wash down the pavement to the ocean. Mainers are eating their own produce and drinking their own milk. The new infrastructure is natural and efficient, crafted with texture and creativity and a close understanding of regions and landscapes. We are building things in this country.
My history major (the backpacking part wouldn’t fit on my diploma) made me wonder about the history that’s being made now, and after college I set out to find it. How will we live on the landscape, and how will the landscape live with us? I moved through nine states, all over the country, in towns from Seattle (metro-area population of 4 million) to Foresta, California, (17 folks at last count). Each place has shown me a little bit of the answer as people build their communities and invent their future.
For the next two years, in this space, I’ll explore the new world of reimagined infrastructure. I’ll walk through prairie gardens and eat urban berries and feel the breath of new windmills on old ranches. You ought to come with me. Pull on your hiking boots. Step lightly over the railroad ties. Watch the horizon.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.