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.
The Pacific Ocean was violent this morning. Out across the bluffs from my house, the wind whipped in off Monterey Bay, and I saw a guy surfing waves taller than himself, in places I’ve never even seen waves big enough to ride. Down on the beach, even the gulls were cowed into silence. But the bluffs held firm, knitted together by mats of shiny green succulents. Iceplant, or Carpobrotus edulis, blankets beaches and roadsides up and down the entire California coast, from San Diego to Del Norte County. Now a standard part of life on the West Coast, not many know that these plants are, in fact, part of a long-ago plan for the state’s infrastructure, brought from overseas to protect against the wind and the weather, but now thoroughly out of control.
California was first acquainted with iceplant a century ago, when it was imported from South Africa to stabilize roadsides and railroad tracks. The dryness of the climate (to which California owes much of its appeal and prosperity) also means that the wind and the rain erode the land away. Planting iceplant—cheap, low-maintenance, ornamental—seemed to be just the ticket. But the succulents spread like fire, choking out native species, plenty of which are rare or endangered. It even changes the composition of the soil, adding organic material to what was naturally a dry and sandy landscape with its own specially-adapted plants. Plus, ecology aside, if your car skids off the road into this stuff, you will slide right on, due to the aloe-like composition of the plant, as if you were on ice—hence, I’m told, the name. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests alternative plantings, but it basically throw up its hands, saying the green mats can be controlled only in small local patches. Throughout and beyond California, iceplant is here to stay.
Iceplant dominates a sand dune in Eureka, California.
South Africa, like California, enjoys a Mediterranean climate of warm, dry summers and mild, damp winters. People like to live in places with Mediterranean climates (you don’t see many romantic memoirs about buying a little place in Belarus or North Dakota)—which means that they are jam-packed with alien species brought over for fun, profit, or on accident. This same climate—not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry—doesn’t limit species the way that a desert or a rainforest might. And the result is invasion after invasion. Iceplant is only one of an army of plants, of which eucalyptus and Himalayan blackberry are also members.
The lesson, I would say, is that when we reimagine infrastructure, we have to remember to imagine it all the way through. I’m sure that the original California planner who imagined stabilizing a dry and shifty landscape with iceplant believed he had a pretty nifty idea. And in the short term, he did—iceplant stabilizes the bejeezus out of the bluffs. But now, it is the bluffs.
So it is with some of the other big ideas fizzing around the infrastructural world today. Some people hope to divert water from Canada to the southwest, or to fix climate change by seeding the clouds. Would these things be worth it? That may be a subject for a future column, but in the meantime, let’s take care that our innovations don’t take on a life of their own.
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. Top image via Flickr.com/messtiza.