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Char Miller

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 18, 2006
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2338 and 2339

Please note that numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in San Antonio, Texas and it’s February 16th, 2006. We’re on the Trinity University Campus and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Professor Char Miller, who is a member of the history department here and Director of the Urban Studies program and has made a focus of learning and teaching about environmental history. And he’s considered quite an expert in a number of areas, but in particular, the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot and the history of San Antonio.
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CM: Right.
DT: There are many more things we’ll probably learn about, but I thought that might be a quick introduction. And with that, I wanted to thank you for spending time with us.
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CM: Oh, my great pleasure. It’s a—it’s—I’m—I’m humbled and honored and I don’t belong in this vast company, but I’ll—I’ll take—I’ll give it a thought.
DT: Great. Well, thank you. Let’s start in your early days, childhood, and see if there were some experiences you can recall that might’ve suggested that you would go in this direction, whether it was being a teacher or being a student of environmental history and of conservation in the United States. Any thoughts there?
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CM: Yeah, I—I—I’d—I think anyone in my distant past, that is, my childhood, would be just stunned that I became a teacher. I was such a pain in the classroom that I would then get around on the other side of the desk, I think, would of befuddled people. But at least in retrospect, for me, thinking about what I have focused on over the last 20 years or so of my academic life, I would—I would sort of point to two physical places, spaces that were really very important to me at the time, which I knew were important to me at the time and which I focused on and felt deeply about, which in time, have become
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metaphorically the things that I continue to study. The one—one of which is that I grew up in a—in a small community called Darien, Connecticut, which is a suburb of New York City, a bedroom community. All of the fathers in the 1950’s and 60’s rode the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad into New York and came back out, like a tide rolling in and out on their way into their work—their employment in the city. But for the families, we also did a lot of traveling back and forth to New York; it was about 45 miles or so in on the train. And I have to confess, some of my earliest memories was rattling
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along that dark, dank and dirty train, because I don’t think they ever cleaned them, but absolutely loving the magic of getting on a railroad and steaming into New York City, but only through the backsides of towns. Stanford, Connecticut, Portchester, New York, working our way down through Westchester County and into the city itself before you disappeared underground to come out at Grand Central Station. And it was not only magical; it was, for me at the time, a realization that there were cities. I lived in a suburb and there were—this was a very different kind of thing and it—and it was dark and it was
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grim and it was dirty, but it was also absolutely fascinating and vibrant in ways that, you know, eight years old, twelve years old—ultimately I went to NYU for a year and reveled in the—in the life of Greenwich Village, which my parents had moved away from in the late 40’s. So I felt I had missed something, I think. And my sisters got a better deal than I had because they got to grow up, at least in part, in that environment. But New York absolutely was—as it still is—this maniacal, fast moving, dramatic community and I couldn’t wait to get there. It was—it was that much fun. But the flip of that was every
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summer, we would go to Martha’s Vineyard Island off of Cape Cod and then for much of that time, we’d also spend a lot of time on Chappaquiddick Island, which is an island off of Martha’s Vineyard, or it was an island. It’s now connected. And there you got the reverse of what we just had. Not dramatic, not vibrant, but slowed, bucolic, pastoral vacation. A place where you played in sand and ran up and down beaches and threw yourself into the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean and loved every moment of it. And so I
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had a very charmed life, in that respect. I mean, my family’s life was not so charmed, but the physical places that we inhabited were and I think that combination of—of sort of almost nature and clearly urban have been very much the two poles of my scholarly life and, in many ways, the sort of things that fascinate me still.
DT: Maybe you can bring us even further up to date and talk about your training. I mean, here you’re a PhD in history. How did you get there and were there stops along the way, people, classes you took, experiences you had that might have encouraged you to take the route through environmental history, which I think is still a very young field.
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CM: Well, it is a young field, so young that there was no one doing it when I went to graduate school and then no one doing it really when I went to college and certainly no one when I was in high school raised those kinds of issues. And as I mentioned before, I was a pain in the ass in the classroom, so frankly, I didn’t—really didn’t matter what I was being taught, I wasn’t really listening. Certainly in high school, that was true. But—but—but there were formative forces and—and people who mattered enormous to—enormously to me in terms of communicating one’s life within the academy. That is, the—the thinking life, which for me didn’t really take off until I was a senior in high school. I had gone away to boarding school in northeastern Connecticut, lived in a remarkable physical landscape that was as much a farming community as it had been in the late nineteenth century. In fact, they probably had even fewer people in that
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landscape than—than it did a—a century earlier. So we got to roam up and down hills and—and spend a lot of time in nature, but I don’t think I spent a lot of time thinking about being in nature. I was more interested in killing frogs, I suspect, than actually studying frogs, as our poor biology teacher found out. But—but my senior year in high school, I destroyed one of my knees playing soccer and suddenly realized, well, you know, you got this other muscle that you haven’t spent a lot of time training called a brain. It might be nice if you spent a little time with that and—and my life really started
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to turn at that point in terms of my understanding that academics, I wasn’t actually that bad at it. I mean, it—one could never have told that by looking at my grades prior to that point, but there was—there was a kind of intrigue with learning that I hadn’t really experienced before. And spent a year at NYU, realizing even more deeply that, although that would not be the place that ultimately I would graduate from, the fact of NYU and the fact, most especially, of New York City in 1970, 1971, when it was—it was an astonishing place to—to live. I mean, the Fillmore East was alive and well and there was
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remarkable music to be heard all over the city, which is why I don’t think I actually did a lot of studying. But—but that there were these kinds of experiences that were available on the streets of a place that I still found to be fascinating and got involved in politics in—as—as one did in the 1970’s with SDS and other organizations as they were organizing workers on the campuses and demonstrating at various places, which is another reason why—sorry NYU—I didn’t really spend a lot of time in class. That was
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formative and it was a way in which I think my small story matches up with a much bigger historical force that was taking place at the time. And from that, I dropped out for a year, worked in various jobs in Boston and ultimately in Maine. But the moment I walked into my first job making fries in a—in a Kenmore Square dive in Boston, I realized although I hadn’t really taken advantage of college, I was not going to do this the rest of my life, that ultimately I would get myself back to school. And so even as I was
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doing this work, I was applying to schools and most especially to schools in California because, after all, that’s what you did in the early 70’s. You went to California, you remade yourself. So I ended up at Pitzer College in the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, where they were, in fact, doing environmental studies and were working on urban issues in ways that I had not really encountered before. And there was a coterie of teachers in that campus, which actually contains four other colleges, Pomona College and a series of others, that I kept interacting with people all over who really began to help me understand the link between one’s academic interests and the broader world in which
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those academic interests flourished. And so I had political science teachers and actually a historian who was an urban historian who began to help me understand that my interests in both of these fields, in politics and environmental issues and urban society, blended brilliantly with Los Angeles, which was then, as now, a remarkable automobile landscape. And there was this episode when I drove out to LA from Boston, my car broke down in Yosemite of all places, and I had to hitchhike to my new school. And I
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had a ride—got a ride immediately with an 18 wheeler, a truck driver who was coming down 395 on the eastern edge of the Sierra who—and I—this isn’t nostalgia, I actually have this remember—remembrance of a conversation in which as we’re driving, he’s talking to me—he talked to me about what it was I was looking at. And I had never seen the west before. I did not understand what I was looking at. I was fascinated by the Sierra and then as we penetrated into the maze of Los Angeles freeways, I mean, here was a guy; he was like a river man. He was skilled at sort of navigating these concrete
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concourses as they ripped through Los Angeles. I mean, I got this remarkable small moment in which I realized I was very lucky to be at that place at that time and I cannot say that that was an epiphany. I didn’t go, well, this is what I’m going to study. But in retrospect, it was part of the piece that got me to the point where graduate school made sense to me, that becoming a teacher actually, to some extent, made sense to me although I didn’t really understand what that meant. But what I did understand is that these were people who spent their lives studying issues, that they were convitted—con—committed
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to their students. And Pitzer was a very small place, about 700 students. And they were, therefore, committed to me in a way that I found magical and wanted to be that kind of person. And so graduate school, in some ways, was an attempt to get at issues that I thought mattered, but which I thou—also thought could then communicate to wider audiences, not just my peers within the academy, but also to the community.
DT: Today we sort of talked about three or four communities, New York, Darien, Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown, Chappaquiddick, and then over to the Sierras and down into Los Angeles. Can you also put us in that timeframe? You were talking about the late 60’s to early 70’s, this time of great ferment and new ideas politically and socially. Did any of the sort of general context of the times influence the way you started to think about the environment?
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CM: Oh, there’s no question. There’s no question that there’s a link, but I mean, as there is for all of us, sort of the link between self and society, between biography and community and how these two things intersect. And for me, it was multiple, but New York always played a part in that. It’s not just the intellectual ferment and the political uproar that happened, though that was important. There was also a sense that one needed to study things that mattered to the communities in which you lived. And so at Pitzer College, which is a social science environment academically, there—that was one of the
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central things that were—was hammered into us as students, that really what you learned here, whether you’re studying sociology or history or political science or—or any of the other disciplines, has a value in the educational realm. But it’s real value, like John Dewey would argue; ideas mean nothing unless they’re put into action. And it’s the action component that Pitzer, as a place, and I think the 1960’s and 1970’s as a time, were very much bound up with one another. And so for me, it’s been a wonderful
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convergence of my individual quests, whatever they may have been, set within an academic environment that trained me to think about them in various ways. And then the possibility of thinking, as the 1960’s also helped us understand, that the environment mattered enormously. And keep in mind, in 1964 is when the Wilderness Act was signed. The late 60’s, early 70’s is when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were created and signed. When the National Forest Management Act was done in the 1970’s and a host of other kinds of legislations that emerged, meaning that the broader culture
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got it. This is when everybody starting reading Aldo Leopold’s remarkable book, Sand County Almanac, which was published in ’49 but nobody really read it until the 1960’s. John Muir got a new life in the 1960’s, a much bigger life than he had had at any other time in his life, which he would’ve been dead, after all, 70 years or so, 60 years or so. So this is a moment in which there is a conception that the human place on the planet, Earth Day, let’s call it in 1970, that all of this is now possible. And there’s silly me, sort of coming up to—coming up to age in—in that environment. I don’t think it’s a real shock that this became the thing that I fixed on but it’s tied to other individual and idiosyncratic
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things. Everybody went through that time, but not everybody became an environmental historian. Everybody went through those times but didn’t have the same kind of political resurgence that happened. And so part of it is about who you are when you are there and why you’re cued to those kinds of things. And it helps to know that my father and I had a tempestuous relationship. When I went left, he went right and—and I think that’s part of what’s—what—what—as you dig into people’s lives, you get a feel for—for that process.
DT: You mentioned your father. Were there also professors or mentors or peers that you had? You talked about places and the times, what about individuals? Did any of them suggest things to you?
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CM: Oh, you know, there was. There was a political science professor who just recently died, Lucien Marquis, who was—at Pitzer College, who embodied for many of us, I think on that campus, the kind of rich, intellectual, engaged life that one could lead if you were only half that good. He was a European emigrate to the United States, Jewish intellectual who came to the United States in the 1930’s, joined the U.S. Army and went back and in—and on D-Day, carrying War and Peace. Now really, how roman—more romantic can you get than that? And knowing that story of—of a very conscious and
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deliberate attempt to not only be that intellectual, but be engaged in some of the great struggles of that generation really caught my attention and, in our generation, struggles. And it seems to me that one of the things, as I was just telling to my students today, that one of the reasons why I’m so fascinated with the 1930’s is that many of the people who became influential in my life really lived through that period of time as young people did. And so here I was in the 1960’s and 70’s, fastening on people who thirty years earlier had been sic—you know, 18 and 19 and 20, and were doing really remarkable things and they became very influential. Dan and Helen Horowitz, who taught at Scripp College, but
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who—Scripps College, who I studied with a lot in terms of American History, were people who helped me understand that the past is alive. And your obligation is not to enter the past as this present, but to chuck that as best you can and try to gain that kind of empathy and understand that human beings have always struggled. They’ve also tried to work through and conceive of the—of the lives that they led in ways that mattered to them. And our job as historians is to figure out how they lived and how they reached the conclusions that they reached and made the human beings that they became, which on the
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one hand, is about other people. On the other hand, it’s about us. It’s really the historian trying to crawl out of their skin and crawl into the skins of someone else and through the biographical enterprise which I adore and I think I adore because of the possibility of getting out of yourself and into someone else, but also coming back out and trying to contextualize them. Why did they think that that? Who did they read? What did they listen to? What were their influences? Try to figure out why they lived the way they lived. And some of that is about place. Why Melville wrote the way Melville wrote is
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framed not only in his own inner dynamics, but also the outer world that he operated in. Why Emerson and especially Thoreau, who I was deeply attracted to in that day, why did he go walking all of the time? Why did he see in the walk, the journey, a storyline? Now some of that’s old. Everybody tells stories through journeys, so did the Greeks. But some of it was very peculiar to the place that he lived in, along the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, along Concord itself as a place. In the—in the ferment of the 1830’s
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and 40’s, which all—looked awfully much like the 1930’s at some—1830’s and 40’s, which awfully looked like the 1950’s and 60’s in some ways. And so there are all of these linkages, but you understood that people lived in communities. Those communities had lives that you tried to understand and that helped me understand the place where I lived. Because if your obligation is to figure out them, it turns out you have a reciprocal obligation to figure out your own self and the places which matter to you.
DT: I guess the history professor’s job in a way of sort of transplanting the experience and lessons of the past is very much like his own teaching to the next generation of students.
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CM: Right, right.
DT: Now the next step in your life, I guess, would be to go to Johns Hopkins, is that right? Any influences there that you could point to?
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CM: Actually, there were influences and I hate to say this, but some of it was negative. I think part of what I learned in graduate school was the broad, liberal education that I received in high school and college ended and you became a specialist. And the first question that was asked of me when I walked onto that campus and actually went to a
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party hosted at the home of Stanley Fish, one of the great literary critics of our time who was then at Hopkins. And I walked into this house, a lovely house, mo—wonderfully academic house, books everywhere, and he—and he asked me, although he was in a different department and, you know, introduced himself and I didn’t have a clue who he was. He said are you an Americanist or Europeanist? And all of a sudden, I had to decide what I was. And I thought I was there to study history, although I was there really to study American history and I realized in that question, that I moved from college to
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graduate school. That that question mattered in a way that had never mattered before and that really, not only was the focus American but what kind of American and what time are you working in and who are you going to study with. And Hopkins is unusual in this respect. You were accepted not by the department, but by the individual professor with whom you’re going to work. And through Dan and Helen Horowitz, who were intellectual historians and cultural historians, which is what I was interested in that time, I was linked up to Kenneth Lynn, one of the—a great literary historian of his day. And so
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I was accepted in the program by Lynn and studied with him, although I would study with others as well. He was my central advisor and guide. And he was a cantankerous soul, not a happy man in many respects. He, by genealogy—intellectual genealogy, had been a student of Perry Miller, really one of the preeminent literary critics, literary historians of his day. And so came out of Harvard having studied with Perry Miller and taught at Harvard for a very long time. His own biography is like many of his generation.
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He got wrapped up in the Civil Rights movement and went to teach at Federal City College in Washington, to leave Harvard to go into the real world, in effect, and to teach students. Found that that was a tremendously difficult job as a white man in a black school and ultimately migrated to Hopkins. But he was a fascinating intellectual because he also believed deeply that the intellectual’s life was also public and wrote staggeringly amounts of material. But a lot of it was aimed at the trades, not just simply an academic audience. And loved to fight—oh my God, he loved to fight intellectually. And I got my
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experience in that. You’d—you’d enter into—into—as Hopkins has—you have—there’s an American and European seminar, in which all graduate students had to present papers that they gave to all other graduate students and all other faculty. So the swords were out, the daggers were sharp and there you were at 21 years old presenting to people who were 50, who had been through this route and knew the skills that you would never have. And so they used their graduate students as wedges against one another and so came after you in a way that was really kind of hostile, but all—and put you on the edge of your seat
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at every single moment. But there was an intellectual feistiness about that that was also kind of attractive. You know, college, I had been dealt with in kid gloves. They loved me, I loved them. We were all pals. These guys weren’t pals of anybody. And so part of what I was fascinated by it on the one hand, and on the other hand, recognized I never, ever, ever wanted to be in that kind of environment. That that’s not where I thrived and it’s not where I thought I could do the best by—by those who would become my
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students. And it was interesting when I ultimately got a job interview here, the man I replaced, a wonderful historian, a wonderful man by the name of Phil Daetwiller, who had been involved in the Journal of American History and deeply involved in the Journal of—of Southern History, which was then at Rice, where he had taught for a number of years. His first question to me was are you like Kenneth Lynn? Because he knew his reputation and understood that and understood by his question I did, that he was telling me that this is a different place, which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted a place
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not unlike Pitzer and not unlike Pomfret School, where I had been in high school, where it’s small, it’s intimate, it’s face and face and you’re working directly with students. I didn’t actually know that I was going to love it, but I knew that that’s the kind of environment I needed to be in. I’ve come to love it and come to adore it in ways that I am also astonished by, but—but there were—you start to do these intellectual biographies and follow the sort of psychological links between folks and it’s clear to me, the coming out of Pomfret and going to NYU, which at some level was a mistake because Pomfret
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had 700 students and NYU had 20,000, that that was really the wrong move for me. But it helped me see that it was the wrong move and so Pitzer was then the logical place to go, in some sense, as in California even more so. And from there through Dan and Helen Horowitz and another wonderful intellectual historian by the name Robert Davidoff, whose brother had studied with Kenneth Lynn. I mean, there were these kind of connections that made it possible for me to go to Hopkins and see there what it was I didn’t want to be.
DT: I can see from your family tree, both in terms of places, making the full loop to the northeast to LA, back to the mid-Atlantic, now down to Texas and then also with the people that have influenced you. Maybe we can return to this thought about place. You came to Trinity and you came to what was a new city to you, but a very old city to Texas and to the southwest, San Antonio. Maybe you can talk about your first impressions of being, not so much at Trinity, but being in this town of San Antonio, which was quickly becoming a large city, and maybe some of the history of the city. How it came to look the way it does and have the problems, environmental issues it has today?
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CM: Well, I—I must say that part of what’s been fascinating to me, writing about this community through Deep in the Heart of San Antonio and other—other me—venues, is reminding myself, remembering what it was that I felt when I arrived here. I’d actually spent a year in the University of Miami in Coral Gables, my wife and I, and we had our first child there and it’s when the Marielista flotilla came in and Castro emptied his jails and, all of a sudden, Miami Vice, the TV show, was nothing like Miami vice on the streets. I mean, there was gunplay everywhere—literally down the block from us, rousting out drug dealers and stuff. And so my ambition to stay in Miami was curtailed rather rapidly by the sort of violence on the street and the craziness of that community. And when I saw the job in San Antonio—because I had a close friend who was teaching here—it made sense to me and—but I knew nothing about this place, to be honest. My
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wife and I had actually come through San Antonio probably five years earlier, arrived very early in the morning on the train and spent a morning walking around San Antonio and had breakfast when the Saint Anthony opened for breakfast and thought it—you know, this is an interesting little town, but you know, had no sense that this was a place that we would ultimately return to. But when we arrived, I have to tell you, that having grown up in the northeast and lived a por—a part of my time in Los Angeles, I was
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utterly unprepared for the physical nature of this landscape and for the social ecology of this community as well. Unprepared, in part, because it wasn’t humid like the northeast is. It wasn’t green like the northeast is—even though there’s trees here and wonderful grasses, I don’t mean that. It’s just a very different feel and a very different texture. And it rained like crazy in ways I’d never experienced. I’ve gone through hurricanes, I’ve gone through all sorts of really remarkable storms, but I’ve never seen a south Texas thunderstorm quite like what we ex—experienced here. And I had, during my interview,
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this remarkable moment which was an epiphany, in a sense. I was having dinner with one of my colleagues, All Kownslar, one of my future colleagues, a great Texas historian himself, and we were leaving from a restaurant in Alamo Heights and driving back to campus and wh—one of those great lightning shows that only south Texas can produce, with rain coming down—not in whiteout conditions, but close enough that I was a little on edge in the process because this was something I never knew—and Allen turns to me as we’re going down past the Olmos Dam on Olmos Drive and he says, now one of
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the things I want to warn you about, when it rains like this in south Texas, never drive through a low water crossing. I look at the dam and I’m looking at Allen and I’m thinking isn’t that what I’m in right now? Aren’t we below water level in a sense? And—and—and yet, I didn’t know what a low water crossing was. I mean, there was a whole vocabulary about this place that made no sense. While the thunder was crashing and things were falling all around us, I suddenly realized I was in a totally bizarre
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landscape. And in a sense, that’s been useful for me—actually crucial for me to realize I didn’t know what I was looking at and I had to learn it. The second piece to that story is that we bought a home in Ol—what’s Olmos Park and bought it sight unseen. Friends who were here said look, we’ve seen this house, it’s about to go on market. We’ll even put down the earnest money, but you’re going to really want it because it’s a mile from campus, you can always walk home and be with your family for lunch, it’s a really fabulous place. So we said what the heck, why not? But then we got, through the
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purchase, the documents—the historic documents of that community attached to our bill of sale. And in them were documents that were befuddling. Described the covenant of the community as it was arc—orchestrated in the 1920’s, in which it detailed not only what lots were for sale and for what cost and how much money each house must be at a minimum, but it also articulated who could live there. African Americans—Negroes, Mexican Americans—Mexicans could only be in Olmos Park if they were chauffeurs, cooks, domestics, gardeners. And we turned—you know, my wife and I are reading this
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going are you kidding me? What have we—what have we walked back into? And so we turned to the title company and said we’re not buying this house. This is impo—you can’t live in a place like this. It’s utterly illegal. And the title agent said don’t worry, these are historic documents. They went out in the 1940’s when Truman signed a fair housing document and that triggered my attention as an historian. Thought what am I buying myself into? And then the third piece of that is in Olmos Park, which is the—one of the first designed automobile suburbs in San Antonio and it’s really the first, has no
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sidewalks. It’s curvilinear streets. When you get in there, you get lost and for five years I was lost. And I couldn’t figure out that physical landscape, which tells you how slowly I learn. So I finally talked to the person from whom we bought the house and I wrote him a letter and said okay, you’ve got to explain the streetscape here because I don’t get it. And he wrote me back this wonderful note saying the whole point of the streetscape is once you get in, you can’t get out. So strangers don’t come in. It’s repulsive in that sense. I mean, that’s not the word he said, but it repels you in a way. And that suddenly
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opened my eyes to the rec—to understand that streetscapes and urban landscapes, suburban landscapes served particular functions, implicit and explicit, and I needed to pay attention to it. And so one of the first pieces I wrote, coauthored with my colleague Woody Sanders, was about Olmos Park, a suburban bastion, a suburban enclave, and from that has come everything else in a sense, linking—that sort of puzzlement about a historic document has led to a much larger career that was accidental, to be honest. I
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never expected to be writing about this city and its community and its fascinations. I was interested in the place but never thought it would open up in the ways that it had. And so once—rainstorm and one historic document has produced a career that I could never have anticipated.
DT: You know, I think it’s interesting when you say about Olmos Park because it sounds like it was a neighborhood, a landscape that was generated by cars and I think some of what you’ve written about San Antonio suggests that the entire city was created in some way by transportation infrastructure, by the Galveston-Harrisburg and San Antonio railroad and then trolley cars and then later cars. Can you pull us through that?
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CM: Well, that’s what interesting about the story about Olmos Park is that, as an automobile suburb, I suddenly realized why it was unusual. It’s located along the northern edge of the city, along Hildebrand Avenue. It was a tax haven; it was beyond then the city limits in the 1920’s. That made me realize that there’s a politics to development, which I knew about in the abstract, but hadn’t really thought through on the ground. And as I started to think about that automobile suburb which had leaped the line, I realized that there were other suburbs now well inside the city—Montevista, Tobin Hill, Beacon Hill and places like that—that were framed around a different form of transportation, the trolley car that ran up along San Pedro Avenue and then along Fredericksburg and other communities. And so in effect, what you see me doing
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intellectually is going downhill, going back into time. And so from the car, you went to the trolley. But then you start to follow the trolley back into the central core and you realize this wasn’t built by the trolley. This was built by a foot pede—by a pedestrian city, literally a walking town. And I think part of what I came to understand and started to write about was the layers of transportation that shaped this city over time that we have basically covered over. Each generation as it’s added its layer has dropped ground on top of the other one, so we don’t really see its predecessors in quite the same way. So that as
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people buzz around this city or Austin or Dallas or Houston in their car, they’re also running archeologically on top of the older city that was once there. And you can find them, you can find those old streetcar lines in Houston and Dallas and Austin and here. You can see it in El Paso, but you have to be attuned to it. What you can also see in San Antonio and El Paso more so than in the other places is the Spanish town that existed here even earlier. And that part for me has been really very exciting to uncover. I’ve leaned heavily upon lots of other colleagues who’ve done far more work than I have on
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this. But it’s helped me understand how you can move from walking to streetcar to automobile and, in that process, find a history, a human history framed around transportation, but that has dramatic implac—impact on who lives where, who they interact with, how they interact with them, how they see them. What’s the felt experience that each of them has in a particular place and time? And that’s been wonderful both to write about, but also to teach for my students, that they have to pick up those—those
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spades, in a sense, those shovels and start digging back in time to see that. And I teach a class called The City in History and—and I—and I tell them I have a very simple goal. And the goal is simply that they will no longer drive a car in the ways that they drive a car. That they will see things in ways they’ve never seen them before, that the windshield becomes a screen. Not just a thing that you’re looking out and looking for that traffic jam that’s up ahead, but all of a sudden, you’re seeing the buildings on the side and then when you get down into Main Avenue in Houston, which you may do
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constantly, you’ll never look at that again in quite the same way because that was a streetcar line. That was a different place and you may be navigating it in a car, but what you’re looking at are the—the—the remnants. In some cases, the—the monuments of another age and you need to recognize that that’s the case. And that, I think, is how you build place perception. The concept that place matters is to recognize that it matters over time. And for this community, it seems to me to see the various missions, to look at San Fernando Cathedral, to understand the Alamo not as a battlefield, but as a mission that’s
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in relationship to other missions that created through those acequias, those irrigation ditches, arable land that was then producing foods and crop for the—the city and for those missions and for the soldiers that protected all of them. Suddenly what also happened for me was the realization that the historical narrative that I grew up with, a narrative of Western expansion, only works in part. So I grew up in New England. For me, all history went from East to West. My graduate education reinforced that. I’m
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studying with Kenneth Lynn who studied with Perry Miller, who was one of the great colonial historians, who rearticulated the Pur—Puritan experience. All history flows East to West because that’s how the Puritan understood themselves because they were reading the Old Testament. They were reading the Hebrew Bible as they’re coming across the North Atlantic so everything is an expression of this migration. They’re just the new Israelites entering into the wilderness to make it Canaan. Well, okay, that’s great. But
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when you get to San Antonio, it’s about South to North. It’s a totally different narrative and those missions help us understand that. That those Imperial Spanish are moving up across the Chihuahuan desert into South Texas on their way to East Texas. Well, that’s going in the wrong direction. That’s going south, west and east and I had to start to reorientate—reorient myself, physically and historically, and that’s one of the—for me, one of the great things about living in this town is that everything changed. It forced me to rethink how you tell historical narratives. And in the Southwest, it matters enormously
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to understand that it’s not just east to west which happened. That’s what those railroads are about. They’re about the west interacting with the east. But it’s interaction with a south-north empire, with people who were here long before the Anglo’s got here. And the third clash, which I didn’t really understand until I started reading anthropology about South Texas, which is a north-south flow, of the Lipan Apache moving across who’ve been pushed out of their hunting grounds by other native peoples, moving into South Texas at the exact same moment that the Spanish are crossing the Rio Grande and
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coming in. And so you’ve got clashes of cultures right here that had nothing to do with Puritans, had nothing to do with Andrew Jackson moving west, had nothing to do with the Mexican-American War, but all predated it. And that’s why, for me, this has become such a rich field and really quite an exciting one because it jumbles everything I thought I knew.
DT: And why did they meet in San Antonio? What is special about this particular place?
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CM: What’s special about San Antonio that the Lipan Apache recognized, that the Spanish recognized and that the Payaya and other native hunter-gatherer people recognized is a flow of water. And if you think about the Lipan Apache moving south and the Spanish coming north, they both have to have water. No one survives without water anywhere, but in the landscapes where I had come from in New England, water’s everywhere. There’s a lot of rocks and there’s a lot of water and so you don’t really have to look very hard for it. In the Southwest, you have to look for it and what everybody is looking for is water. But what they’re really looking for are trees because trees on the horizon demarcate water lines. So if you imagine either the Payaya or other hunter and gatherer bands moving across through the live water networks that are flowing out from, what they don’t know is the Edwards aquifer, bubbling up in—from these limestone caverns and creating the Frio and cuate—creating the Neuces and creating the San
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Antonio and Como and the Guadalupe and the—and the Colorado. They’re in a—they’re in a veritable paradise. All they have to do is wrap around the edge of the Edwards Plateau and they have everything they need. The fish that they need, the wild grasses that they can consume, the fish that are swimming in these waters, the pecans that they feast upon. Well, the Lipan Apache are coming down and they don’t want to do that, they want to do other things but their water and they’re using these waterholes in effect, as are the Payaya, as places to live. To go from one place to another. Well, imagine the
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Spanish coming north. They have to have water or there will be no mission. And the first thing Captain Domingo Ramon and others wrote about when they came up out of the Chihuahuan and entered into this landscape and they saw the San Pedro Springs and they then encountered the San Antonio River Springs around where Incarnate Word University is today, they looked at that water and they started to calculate, like good military engineers. How big a city can we build here? Quarter a league wide? Half a league wide? And they already are thinking, as the Spanish did, of creating acequia, creating a different kind of landscape. And so one of the interesting things for me is how
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human beings interact with the—with nature. What do they do when they see it? How do they think about it? If you look at the hunter band and gatherers here, they utilized that resource, but they didn’t channelize it. They don’t build canals, they don’t build irrigation ditches. Their peers in Arizona were, but not this group. It’s the Spanish who import the whole notion of irrigation into San Antonio and who will take those hunter-
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gatherer bands of people, convert them to Catholicism and also to agriculture. So the move is double. You move from your nomadic, semi permanent establishments along these rivers and you turn them into sedentary peoples who become agricultural framed around water supplies that you don’t just tap out of these resources, but that you manipulate and move. And so the Acequia Madre that runs past the Alamo on the east side of the river and the other irrigation ditches that those Indian converts would build, 50 to 70 miles of those ditches, flowing along San Antonio’s rivers suddenly made it
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possible for a community to be built here. And that’s what the Spanish utilized. They managed water in a way that allowed them to create a town. And so, in effect, they create the possibility for San Antonio then to grow around the exact same resource which we’ve been mining ever since and managing ever since, for better or for worse, to go from a town of a couple of thousand to now a town of one point four million. It’s still in the same landscape. It’s essentially still using the same resources. We’ve just gotten a lot better at extracting that resource and also posing the same dilemmas that they
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understood in the eighteenth century, which is this is a finite resource. It’s a resource you have to manage and, therefore, you have to manage your behavior or otherwise you’re in trouble.
DT: We’ve talked a little bit about the infrastructure, of transportation. We’ve talked a little bit about water. And then you touched on something interesting, wild grasses, the grains. I’ve heard people talk about San Antonio and all these towns that ring the Edwards Plateau—San Marcos, Austin, Waco, Temple—that they’re also there because they were along the Blackland Prairie. Can you talk a little about what that…?
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CM: Yeah, it’s been—and that also is something that’s been fascinating to me, to recognize that ecos—ec—ecological zones, the layering of those zones matter when people enter into them and start to think about how to manipulate them and utilize them to their advantage. And so San Antonio was on the convergence of—as almost five and may be actually five, in which you have the Edwards Plateau, which is the end of the Great Plains, just immediately to our north, where the coastal plain then begins. You have the Blackland Prairie and little fingers of which come into this place, in part because that’s the nature of this landscape. You have also above us a line we don’t see, which is
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the 99th, 100th parallel or so, which is really the dry-wet line within the United States and it’s largely to our west, but now we know whether it’s El Niño or La Niña determines where that line is. And so we’re currently, in 2006, in a La Niña situation, which is a dry period. And so that western dry line has actually eastward and San Antonio was encompassed within it. And when we get an El Niño, it—I mean, the fascinating thing is that it moves. This is not a static thing. And so the line, in effect, above us is fluid, but what that means is whether we get water or we don’t get water and that depends on the eastern Pacific, ten thousand miles away, which is not stuff we tend to think about. And so everybody has been living within it, we just didn’t have the words to describe it. But,
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so Waco and Temple, Austin and San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio and, to a degree, Uvalde, which is in a sense within this landscape also—all of them are framed within local, particular and peculiar ecosystems that then are framed around, shaped by, influenced through ecosystems that are so far away from us. Water temper gradi—water temperature gradients matter enormously. We just don’t see it. And so for this community, whether we’re wet or dry, whether we’re in a drought or we’re in flood conditions is shaped by lots of forces over which we have absolutely no control. And
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that again is something that the Spanish recognized, that the Payaya recognized and that we have also recognized over time. So here are two other ways of thinking about it. If you take these hunter-bath—gatherer bands of people and you ask okay, where are their semi permanent homes? Well, if you go up into the Olmos Creek watershed, you can find them but they’re stepped up on limestone plateaus. They’re up and away from the flood basin because they knew about floods. And the floods that ripped through the Olmos Creek valley, as they ripped through Austin, as they ripped through San Marcos
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and the like, they know that these waters can be really dangerous. They got up and out of their way. The Spanish didn’t know that and if you look at where they built, even though they’re building on high ground and the Alamo is on more high ground, or higher ground, than other places in the downtown corp. In 1819, the—what we call the first century flood, ripped through San Antonio and destroyed this city. Built in a flood basin, set between the river and San Pedro Creek and then with its acequias that added additional
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water sources. And you look at what happened and you read the letters that were describing that flood in 1819 and you realize that they realized at that point this was a dangerous ground. The moment the floods disappeared, they rebuilt in the exact same place and one could say you idiots. Why did you do that? But you understand that they had to do it. They had to build within the watershed because that’s where they got their water from. And so now they recognized in 1820 to 1821 that that watershed, that flood basin was a dangerous place, but they had no other choice. And so the city, by the way in
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which the Spanish developed it, has ever since lived within those two constraints, in effect. We have to live in the watershed. It’s also a place that it can be—lead to great damage and—and a large number of death, which every ten years or so, we experience as one blockbles—blockbuster flood after another scoured through the Olmos Creek Valley, came through the Westside creeks and tore through the built landscape and took away people, animals and ruined lives.
DT: I guess some of this flood and drought is difficult to control, but maybe you could talk about the way the urban form of San Antonio has grown and been shaped by efforts to channel the San Antonio River or to harness the Edwards aquifer for water supply?
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CM: Well, the—the two are parallel in some ways. The—the desire to find those water supplies and mine them to an extent that made it possible is tied to the same river system, and thus, the aquifer, that produces and channels floods that will rip this city apart, and did so periodically. The community until the late nineteenth century didn’t know the links between them and that becomes interesting. Everybody knew San Antonio flooded. They even knew where the floods came from. They knew that flood control was possible; they just didn’t want to tax themselves to defend themselves. It’s a low tax city, always has been. It wants to build on the cheap and that’s one of its central dilemmas
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still. So in 1865, after a big flood destroyed the downtown core, the citizens of this ten to twelve thousand people town met together to talk about what to do. And the resolution was build a dam where the current Olmos Dam was located. They don’t do it. They don’t do it until the 1920’s because they didn’t want to raise the money—that is to say, tax themselves to def—to build this object that would’ve, in fact, prevented them from suffering floods in the 70’s and the 80’s and the 90’s and then the early part of the 20—twentieth century. That same notion was tied to the fact that their water supply in the
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1860’s and then through the 1870’s was still the San Antonio River because they don’t know about the aquifer as being the source of that. It’s still the acequias that the Spanish had laid down in the eighteenth century. So they’ve got a problem. They’ve got flood problems and they have water problems. And the water problems were that they don’t have really good water supply. Yes, the river flows, but periodically, the river dries up. They don’t control it, they don’t know how to deal with it, but they’re doing what they can. And the reason they can’t really solve the two issues is that they don’t have the
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technology yet to do so. Why don’t they have the technology? Because San Antonio in the 1860’s and 70’s is a frontier town. It’s not until the railroad blew through this community in the 1870’s—the late 1870’s, 1877, in particular, that they had the means by which to haul in heavy technology, the pumps and the pipes, that would allow them now to suck water out of this river and—and spread it around the town in ways that the Spanish could never have done. They built irrigation ditches, but that’s all they could build. They couldn’t build beyond that. Now with piping systems, and George W.
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Brackenridge is the leading investor in this process, building a water pump system not far from this room, in fact, on the San Antonio River, recognizing that it was possible to generate income, to generate development around the movement of water. That water could now determine where people lived and now they could live in different places. And one of the different places they could live is high ground. And so the water supply system that was constructed in the late nineteenth century tied to the development of streetcars that were tied to this new railroad system allowed residents to start to go up
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into the hills. Along Tobin Hill, ultimately Monte Vista, in time, Beacon Hill. Places that emphasized high ground—Tobin Hill, Beacon Hill, Monte Vista, Government Hill, Denver Heights—they’re all articulating high ground. But only certain people can afford the high ground and so what we’re also seeing in the late nineteenth century is a city that’s moving from a pedestrian, foot traffic town to one that some people can ride the rails, the trolley lines, up into these hills. And so one of the ways in its sort of gross
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measure, the whiter you were, the wealthier you could be. The wealthier you were, the higher ground you occupied, which meant you flood least. The browner you were, the darker you were, the less income you had, the lower your house was within the watershed of this community and therefore the more likely you were to drown in a flood. It’s—it’s not a very subtle measure on articulating, but in effect, what the city is starting to do is to shake out along class lines, to shake out along ethnic lines and the consequence is also to find yourself in harm’s way when the rains came down heavily. And in 1921, we saw
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how this happened. In September of ’21, the second century flood destroyed San Antonio. It ripped down Broadway—what was then called River Road—and took out the central core. But it also swept through the west side barrios, where upwards of 50 to 60 residents would then die. And the fascinating thing about that flood is the reaction to the flood. This is the first time since 1865 that people said well, we really ought to build a dam, but this time they actually built it and they invested four million dollars in the construction of the Olmos Dam which has done ever since what the dam was designed to
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do—defend the downtown core, the central business district, from flooding. And it’s done a really good job at so doing. The same time the city released the four million dollars to build that dam, they released six thousand dollars to take the brush out of the channels and riverbeds and creek beds on the west side. The inequalities in spending are a reflection of the inequality of this city and this flood, not unlike what we’ve—have currently witnessed with Katrina, was a way by which you can see the racial and seg—
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divide. The economic segregation that was beginning to happen in this city that’s then framed around a third piece of this puzzle then occurred. When you built the dam in 1921, it was going to have a road across it, opening up land on both sides for development, for automobile suburbs. Olmos Park was then created on the basis of that, on very high ground—high ground behind the dam, by the way, so that if the dam ever broke, you’d still be safe. It’s sort of Contour Road, which is literally called Contour, was built to be above the hundred-year century line—flood line so that it would always
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be above it. And when we had even bigger floods subsequent to that, it has remained on high ground, so they did a very good job in locating that community. But it also tells us that that kind of racial, social and economic segregation was literally built into these landscapes. What that meant though equally was that who got water, on what basis was that water distributed, was also framed around class. Because George Washington Brackenridge, the great water investor in this community, is going to go to those folks who can pay for it. So those on the west side, you would walk to one spigot to find your
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water. Those on the north side, which were the largely white and middle class citizens of this town, and even those who lived beyond the city, got their water from free—for pipes that were piped up along their streets to them. So it—water is a way by which we can see lots of things unfold in this town. Where the economic and social divides are located are also framed around water distribution. And the capacity for people to get free and good water depended on who your parents were and what color their skin was and what kind of income they had.
DT: Maybe we can resume with your discussion about Colonel Brackenridge and it seems like one of the unusual aspects to the water system’s roots in San Antonio is that it began as a private investment oriented, profit oriented enterprise and I was curious how that might’ve shaped how the city grew, who got water service, who didn’t?
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CM: Well, I think one of the things that’s interesting about how water is managed, in whatever society is, is who’s doing the managing? Who’s deciding who gets and who doesn’t get? Under what conditions and does that change over time and, if it does, what does that help us understand about the place? And so if you look—if you start with the Spanish who are the first managers of water, water was a public resource, publicly managed and framed around the needs of the public, which are contentious. I mean, the moment you set up an irrigation ditch and you’ve got access points to it, who gets to open
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up the ditch to flow the water? You had to control people’s behavior and people cheated all of the time. So you had ditch masters literally sort of patrolling—or they should have been patrolling. Apparently, they didn’t do much of it. That—that helps you understand that this was a communal property, this was a communal resource and however badly done, it was nonetheless done for the broader community. Jump forward a bit in time,
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that system fell apart in the late nineteenth century because it did not produce enough water for an ever-growing, larger city. But the city didn’t want its own city water board, for example. And so the question was how are you going to develop water supplies if the city, which does not want to tax itself—I mean, they were rigorous about that. The Germans in this town were violently opposed to taxation. They like clean water, but what they thought was that let’s take what was once a public use—ule—utility, turn it over to private hands, in effect—and that’s where George Washington Brackenridge
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comes in. He owned the bank, he owned the newspaper and it turns out he owned the water company and he had the cash to invest in this community’s water supply, which he then did through his pump house and through gravity feed systems that fed water all over the place. He also created the water—the fire hydrant system for the city, which he rented back to the city for 25,000 dollars a year. This is in the 1880’s, that’s a ton of cash. What’s striking though is that Brackenridge thought the city should’ve built its own system and never did. He thought the city should own the water system. It never
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did. He was really willing to give it away, basically for no money. He thought it was a public utility that the shitty—the city should have and it wasn’t willing to take it. So the irony is that public investment was minimal. Private investment had to stand in for this public activity that should’ve taken place. And so oddly, although everybody in the city complained about Brackenridge, they weren’t willing to tax themselves to create the thing that Brackenridge created for them. So it’s a very complicated story in that respect.
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However, what that meant was that the city, for a period of time, well through the 1950’s and early 1960’s, still thought of water as a public—as not a pr—public utility but as a kind of private resource. You got the water if you would pay for the water main. It wasn’t the city’s job to bring water mains to the west side, to the barrios. If they could afford it, they could get it. But they had to be able to pay for it and the theory was consistent with sidewalks in this town. If you wanted a sidewalk, you individually paid for it. Collectively, we didn’t do that, which is why people walked around in mud
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because they weren’t willing to tax themselves for a public utility like a sidewalk or for the water mains. What that meant was—or—and what it did was to reinforce the discriminatory practice in this town about who got water and who didn’t. The poor didn’t get water. That also meant the poor didn’t have flushing toilets. So what did the poor use? They used pit toilets. By the 1940’s, there were upwards of 40,000 pit toilets in this town that people could count. There were probably infinitely more numbers than that. Well, what does that mean? It means that the groundwater supplies within this town are
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basically effluent full, which means that for a ci—a community—neighborhoods on the west side and, to some extent, the east side—es—east side and south side, in particular, you don’t have running water, so you can’t wash your hands. Use pit toilets so that you’re, in effect, compromising qu—water quality that you might have at the surface level that you’re able to tap into. If you can’t wash your hands, we all know about the nature of diseases as they’re passed. And so what you looked at with San Antonio was
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not only that you don’t have water, but you have a very sick town. Diarrhea is the norm here. Dysentery was the norm here well through the 1950’s. Tuberculosis, which can be resolved through the cleaning of hands to some extent, that is, the passage of it—the passing of it from one person to another—was eight to ten times the national average in San Antonio. So this is not only a very poor town, it’s an under watered town and it is, therefore, a very sick town. And that, it seems to me, is a legacy that we have only
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started to attack. We only started to attack in the 1960’s and don’t really begin to attack it in all of its measures until the 1970’s.
[End of Reel 2338]
DT: Where we dropped off before, you laid out how there are these pretty major inconsistencies and fault lines that run through the city of San Antonio, dividing rich from poor and white from brown. And although these go far back into the nineteenth century, I think they’ve become more and more clear as the years go by and maybe you could talk about where we were in the 1930’s in San Antonio with that situation.
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CM: Well, I think the dividing lines were always there and I think, for me, as an—as…
DT: Could you resume, please?
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CM: Yeah, I think part of the thing—one of the ways of thinking about the—the controversies that were going to explode in the 1960’s and 70’s in San Antonio is not only are the politics framed around environmental issues and public health issues, which are always tied to—to the—the—the physical space that human beings occupied, but they’re also tied politically to events that had preceded it. So if we return to that flood of 1921 and think about the devastation that occurred and the inequitable reconstruction of San Antonio that followed, that’s one of the pivot points, it seems to me, in identifying
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for those on the west side just how inequitable this situation was for them. When the Red Cross arrived to help San Antonio reclaim itself, they built tent communities for whites, they built separate tent communities for browns, they built third separate communities for African Americans. Already sort of—you can see the segregation playing out even in the rescue efforts that had been developed, and rightly so, to sort of reclaim this community.
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There were claims in the press—national, not local—responding to what had happened that the flood actually gave the city a chance to do something that it had refused to do before, which is to sweep out the barrios, rebuild those landscapes and make it more habitable for the poor and the dispossessed in this town. That didn’t happen. They not only rebuilt the barrios in the sort of decrepit ways that they were, but the flood control channels were not changed. The fact that these folks were not, therefore, on sewer systems and water supply systems only exacerbated the problems that would develop.
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And it was an—it was nature, or a product of nature, that brought this to bear in the 1930’s. San Antonio in the 1930’s was one of the capitals of the pecan shelling industry in the whole of the United States. The same crop that the Payaya and other hunter-gatherers had feasted on along this area became one of this region’s natural resources, in effect, that were then shelled and sold around the country to go into pecan pies and into—into kitchens around the country. Well, because of the Depression, the pecan shelling industry, which had been using machines to crack those shells, decided that hand labor
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was even cheaper, which tells you had bad things were and they began to hire large number of Hispanics working on the west side in big shelling factories, where they got brown lung from all of the—the cracked shells that you inhaled as you worked in it. So not only are you working with hands that are not washed, but you’re working in an environment that is—that is deleterious to your health. Plus you’re making virtually nothing because of this. This is how they gouged out their profits on the labor of very
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cheap labor coming up out of Mexico in the aftermath and the aftershocks of the Mexcian-Amer—Mexican Revolution. So the west side is filled with poor people working at very tough jobs that are seasonal and, therefore, not yearlong in terms of their income, in a landscape that is de—not designed to make them live long and healthy lives in a city that is segregated against them. Out of that combination of factors, a young woman Emma—Emma Tenayuca—and a labor organization emerged to try to break the hold over this community by giving them political representation on the one hand and
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better contracts on the other. But with that—out of which would come a better life—presumably a better life. It was crushed. This is not a town that liked labor unions; it was not a town that liked black or brown labor unions and especially a brown woman leading the charge who happened to be a Communist. Oh my God, she had every sin possible in the 1930’s. And so through mob violence that was orchestrated, the police stood back and let them attack her and her peers. They crushed this political system and rushed her out of town and also ruined the political career of Maury Maverick, Senior,
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who was then mayor of this city who was supportive of their cause. Well, that pieced together with the environmental inequities that occurred in this town helps give birth to in the—in—during World War II and in the—in the post World War II era, an emergence of a Chicano, though not called that—the Mexican-American labor movement and political movements that ultimately will reach their crescendo with the creation of an organization called COPS—Communities Organized for Public Services. Please note those last two.
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We call it COPS but we forget what it was targeted to—public services—water and flood control, most of all. But to get that required a political system that would be responsive to your plea and the City of San Antonio was not. In the late 1940’s, an organization that would become known as the Good Government League, a north side, white middle class and businessman’s organization, took control of this city’s politics. They ripped up its previous city’s charter and created a charter that created city council district—a city council that was framed around at-large elections. Well, the north side by this time,
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which was growing in size, volume and, therefore, in votes, was able to elect at-large districts. The full city council, with the rare aberration who managed to get in from the east side or the west side, but often they were Good Government League appointees, in effects, who ran on the same position. What that political machine did was to argue for the development of this city—the creation of a medical center in time, a university—the University of Texas at San Antonio and took those public assets and threw them to the north side where their land speculator supporters were located, who would benefit from
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this process, where their communities of white middle class and upper class citizens were located, which would benefit from these various assets. Left behind in this rush north were the west, south and east sides. Poor black, poor brown, poor—poor white, who were not receiving the public resources and the public assets, who don’t necessarily have flowing water, who don’t, therefore, have toilets, who don’t have very good flood control. And so the fight in the 60’s and 70’s over these public resources and services is
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an attempt to break this new political machine, the Good Government League, and its hold over the public fisc, over the treasury of San Antonio. The way you did that was to use outside political power. You do it through the federal court system and the key to this is understanding the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’64, written about black protests in the South, have a dramatic impact in the southwest for Hispanics who see this is a document and a legislation and now a law that’s going to enable them to enter into the political system also and gain a voice. And the utilization of that national law in the local arena of San Antonio is through COPS and other organizations that sue through the
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Justice Department, arguing that at-large districts violated the provisions of the Voting Right legislation of ’64 and ’65. This had been challenged in Richmond, it was challenged in Atlanta about black rights and now it was challenged in San Antonio. And effectively, the Justice Department told the City of San Antonio, look, Richmond lost. Atlanta lost. Why do you think you’re going to win this? Don’t go after this, you’re going to lose. And the city, in effect, said well, what do we do? And, in essence, the Justice Department said you got to change your city charter. You have to create district-
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based city council so that you have one person, one vote representation. The moment that happened in the late 1970’s, all of the city’s politics changed and COPS started to demonstrate what you could do with grassroots political power, transforming the environment in which the poor lived. First thing they went after was flood control and taking the city’s treasury and in using that funding to give to the west side the thing it had
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never had, which is the ability to channel flood waters away from their homes, in effect, to elevate them above the watershed. The other thing that happens is now flood—water mains start to go out. Water is now a public resource, it’s not a prevat re—private resource that could be distributed at will, in essence, to those who could buy it. It now becomes a public resource. So you no longer have, as in the Kenwood district just to the north of the downtown core, a Hispanic neighborhood next to Olmos Park, where people had to walk a mile or more to a spigot to pick up a bucket of water that they would then
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walk back to their homes, their shotgun homes. That starts to change. You now have new streetscapes, you have new flood controls, you have new water mains that are starting to be built and it’s federal money that’s doing it, framed around a new political device, which is free and open elections—what a shock—that transformed this city. And it’s in that that you finally get restitu—restitution, in a sense, for decade long inequities framed around the ’21 flood, framed around the political inequities of the 1930’s that were ultimately resolved with the emergence on the west side of people like Henry
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Cisneros, Henry B. Gonzalez, all of whom, please note what they did. They’re involved in housing, they’re inflawed—involved with water, flood control, streetscapes. These guys were infrastructure oriented and there’s a reason why—because there was no infrastructure on the west side and they were going to wrest that out of the control of white power brokers and bring it to the west side.
DT: Through telling this story, you mentioned a couple of things that are intriguing about how, certainly in the 60’s and 70’s and then maybe even into the 80’s and 90’s, despite some of the changes in the way the council was made up and the city was operated, that the city continued to invest its resources sort of strategically to benefit the north side. UTSA is one example. I guess, the hospital, some of the tax arrangements and annexation arrangements with, I guess it would be, the PGA Village, most recently, and then a lot of intervening developments as well. Can you talk about how those came to be?
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CM: Yeah, and actually the way to talk about that rearrangement of the landscape and the sort of focus on the north side of public assets is to go back to an earlier issue that we raised, transportation. The key to understanding the modern development and the modern city that came out of these developmental forces partly is about floods to be sure and partly about the distribution of water. But for me, really the way the s—the—the story can be framed around the spine of a road. Highways—where do they go? Well,
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the first highway went north, just like the first streetcar went north. And so over the last 150 years, we have been building upon that sort of infrastructure in a way that then forces and leads development to go ever farther northward. And so two forces, one of which is I-10 as it arcs along the north and west side of the city, as well as US281 that pulls out of the downtown core, runs up to the airport and then streaks out up into what is now sort of
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developer’s heaven, out beyond Loop 1604 and out towards Route 46, which to my mind, is really the third loop of San Antonio. We’ve got four—Loop 410, Loop 1604 and then you have 46 coming out of New Braunfels. I mean, it’s a massive landscape that has been developed in a mere 40 years. You do it by streets, by freeways and automobiles that then bring people out and then you bring all of the public resources to those people to serve their interests, which involves annexation because you want to attach those fleeing middle class citizens and their incomes. But most especially, you want to capture the
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malls that are at the intersections of all of these freeways—1604, 281 and 410. Every one of them creates this sort of economic activity that the city then wants to capture in terms of its tax receipts. So we’ve got a mechanism for growth that expands over time and what that does is to create the possibility for additional development, leapfrogging farther out. And so the PGA Village, which you referred to a moment ago, a landscape of golf courses and hotels and housing, framed around Loop 1604 and 281 and I10 and this whole new sort of suburban development, 15 miles out of the downtown core, in some
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cases, even farther that that, is predicated on the decades of development that looks just like it, but was closer into town. And so we’re seeing, in effect, copycat development that’s now taking over the hill country that poses another natural and environmental dilemma. You’re building right on top of the recharge zone of the Edwards aquifer and what very few people actually talk about, which is even more important, the drainage zone that feeds that recharge zone that allows the water to slide in and then go because
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this is a karst aquifer that’s recharged by intake coming in off of the surface. We have done something that the Spanish couldn’t imagine doing even though they also lived in a way, as we do, in a precarious position dependent upon a ground source for water. San Antonio is the largest city in the United States that is almost exclusively dependent upon a single source of water supply. And so there is our dilemma. We live in a landscape that’s pr—predicated upon whether there’s a La Niña or El Niño, so wet or dry, and we exacerbate that swing by building on top of the very resource that makes it possible for us
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to build on that resource. And so we are fouling our own nest, an insight that has been very difficult for us as citizens to really comprehend what it means because we want to live in the hills. They’re pretty. We want to live in the new houses because they’re a little cheaper. We want to live near those new malls because I guess they’re better than the old malls which were better than the downtown core which was better than some other predecessor. In effect, we’re—we’re on this constant march to find that new, new place that is somehow more beneficent than the old place that we had once moved to because it was the new place. And there is this process in San Antonio, like Houston,
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like Dallas, like Tucson, like Phoenix, like Denver, like Portland and Seattle because they’re all the same in this regard. We’re looking at an American western development framed around expressways, automobiles, suburban subdivisions and the shopping centers that wrap around all of them. And you can only get to any of them through the car that allows you to navigate that concrete landscape. All of these cities are confronting
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the same exact problem and those of us that are within the sort of semi-arid, arid landscape are going to confront it in a harder, more difficult way as Salt Lake and Tucson, Las Vegas and San Antonio and Tue—and—and Phoenix and LA not only swell in size and continue to swell in size, but because of those ever larger populations, because of the nature in which those populations exists, an arid—in some cases, desert—landscape. The pressures on water are going to escalate the whole of this twenty-first century and so here is what, for me, is the pressure point that they all have to address.
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Since World War II, the populations of all of these cities have—have grown so rapidly that today, seven of the eleven largest cities in the United States live—or exist west of the Mississippi. So Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles and now San Jose. 1950? LA was the only one of the ten largest cities in the United States that was western. So Saint Louis today has fewer people in it than it had in 1880. We’ve moved west. We’ve moved, in fact, beyond the Mississippi, but that means we’ve moved into a landscape that can actually not sustain us terribly long. So the water fights
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that are going to come are going to be fierce. We thought the nineteenth century was fun. The twentieth century had its own day, but man, the twenty-first is going to be even more fierce because coming at the exact same time, we all think okay, what is the public water supply? That’s what water is. No, it’s not. Which public gets the water? Well, we’ve already had that experience here. Now the fight is does San Antonio take the water from those hill country towns that wa—that hold it? Well, yeah. Course that’s what going to
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happen. Does Tucson do the same thing? It’s already happening. Does El Paso, which is in a very difficult situation, where is it going to get its water from? And does that mean that Ciudad Juarez doesn’t grow in relationship? I mean, how is the—how are we going to navigate this? What is the mediation that’s going to be possible? We’re sitting on a time bomb and I don’t think we quite recognize it because the thing that’s luring us here, the gorgeous weather, the fantastic recreational opportunities are going to continue to lure people here. Who wants to live in New York City with 26 inches of snow? Well,
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sure, some people do, but other, wiser folks figure out that actually living in the sun is beautiful and wonderful. But you get into a problem when you do that and this includes small towns like Flagstaff and Bend, Oregon and Boise, Idaho. They’re growing rapidly with very few resources to sustain them. And that, it seems to me, is going to the—be the dilemma that individually that they will wrestle with and region wide we will have to deal with and, frankly, it’s a national problem, a problem that the nation is ill equipped to address.
DT: This might be a good time to segue into people who’ve thought about these very large-scale land management issues, like Gifford Pinchot, who you’re very, very familiar with as essentially his biographer. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about how prescient he was about these tradeoffs and maybe bring us forward and closer to home as well and talk about how these questions play out in the National Forests of Texas.
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CM: Sure. Well, let’s use water as the way to get to some of these issues and if you think about the late nineteenth century in the United States and the conservation movement that grew up out of that time. Before Gifford Pinchot, who was the first head of the Forest Service, before Teddy Roosevelt, who became the great conservationist president of—of the United States and surely one of the great ones ever, were people like George Perkins Marsh and George Bird Grinnell, who would found in—in—in Grinnell’s case, the Boone and Crockett Club and in George Perkins Marsh’s case, wrote the re—
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enormously important book, Man and Nature. What these earlier figures are doing is trying to understand how an industrial revolution changed human’s relationship to nature. George Perkins Marsh, for example, looked back in time and looked at Rome and at Greece, in Athens and—and said look at these enormously important empires. They all failed. Why did they fail? It wasn’t the lead in the plumbing, which we used to think was it. It was about the natural resources that they consumed so much to the extent that those natural resources were no longer there, or certainly that was his argument. And in
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the 1860’s, he’s worried that the United States was going to do the exact same thing. We’d just be another Greece, only we wouldn’t be as good as Greece because we will have never have gotten to the empire status that Greece achieved because we’re going to consume our resources much faster than that. George Bird Grinnell, for whom we need to thank for Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, whose magazine
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Forest and Stream is—is—is the progenitor for much of sort of Ducks, Unlimited and organizations like that, wrote in 1882 in an editorial that there’s a link between forests and conservation and water supply. No woods, no water. No woods, no game. No water, no fish. That was his mantra and it’s all about habitat. If you destroy the woods, you don’t have rivers. If you don’t have rivers, you don’t have fish and you don’t have game and he’s thinking as a hunter thinks and that’s what the Boone and Crockett Club is in part about. But the resolution is repairing those habitats and that’s an argument
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flowing through George Perkins Marsh that Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot adopt and rigorously pursue. So that if you think about the National Forests that would be created in the late nineteenth century and then that Pinchot and Roosevelt would create in even grander fashion in the early twentieth century so that they got up to about 150 million acres of National Forest. If you take that mantra—no woods, no game, no woods, no water, no water, no fish—and think about the real life application of that model, that’s the National Forest. And if you look at where they’re located, they’re draped along
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mountain ridges. They’re draped along areas that are watersheds. Why? Because the documentation that creates those National Forests has two central key elements to it. The first of which is that these National Forests must serve the continuous needs of the citizens downstream for watershed protection. Some of that’s about flood control, but some of that is also about water supply. The other is timber, which is logical because these are National Forests and so that’s what we focus on. But what we should also focus
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on is what the nineteenth century understood is it’s also about water. And if you strip off the lodge pole pine, if you take out the great redwoods, you take out your own downstream water supplies and you don’t want that. And so what these guys are thinking out, they’re thinking out in grand terms. Foresters imagine a landscape they will never live to see, seventy to eighty years out. And so when Pinchot and Roosevelt are conspiring—and they are conspiring—I mean, trying to figure out how to do this, they’re looking out in time. In effect, if you think about it, what time are they looking
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out to? Ours. They’re imagining our world. We live within the world that they imagined in their heads and so we’re deeply dependent upon the ideas that they came up with and the politics that put those ideas into action. And we owe them a lot because of what they were able to imagine. They don’t build all of the National Forests, but the ones they go after in the west, around Los Angeles, around present day Phoenix, around Denver, around Utah, around Salt Lake City, around Seattle and Portland, if you think about what they were picking, they are picking the water supplies that still supply the
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water to the major western cities. Upwards to 30 to 40 percent of western water supply are shed off of National Forest land. That’s a huge resource. If you go to Atlanta in the east, its water rises up out of the Appalachians, some of which is National Forest land; roughly 8 to 10 percent of all national water supplies come off of those National Forests. These guys knew that. They understood the hydrology which is linked back to the woods which is linked back to why you want a governmental intervention that creates a National
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Forest. Not a local forest, but a National Forest because this is the way by which we resolve those sets of issues. For the American South, these problems came later and so did the National Forests. It’s not until the 1930’s that the National Forests really become a possibility in the South and it’s during the New Deal—the second Roosevelt, not the first—that’s able to do this. And—and if you look at Texas as well as Arkansas and Louisiana and the—and the other southern states, what you’re looking at is land that came into the National Forest inventory that had already been clear cut, chopped out,
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turned into lumber. And because it was the 30’s and because the corporations that once owned the lands didn’t want to continue to pay taxes, as happened in east Texas, they offloaded what was no longer productive land for them onto the federal government. The federal government, in the guise of Franklin Roosevelt, was willing to take the land because they knew that in regenerating that landscape, they would need to hire people to do that work. And so the Civilian Conservation Corps that Roosevelt created, but which, by the way, owes its origin to work that Gifford Pinchot had done as governor of
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Pennsylvania in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and when Roosevelt was governor of New York, neighboring state, watched what Pinchot did and when he became President, asked Pinchot for guidance and the CCC is part of that process. Because what Pinchot did in the 20’s and 30’s was to buy up timberland in Pennsylvania, as he said, to make Penn’s Woods woods again. And the hired unemployed workers to go in and reforest that landscape. Well, Roosevelt takes this model at the state level and applies it
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nationally and where it happened, it turns out, is in the American South, which had been by this time clear cut—much of it anyway. Some of the most valuable land had been clear cut by this point. So the 1930’s in—in East Texas, lumber companies are giving to the federal government at very cheap cost because it’s givi—costing them nothing to get rid of this stuff. The government’s buying for a buck an acre, maybe two to three bucks an acre, devastated landscapes. What do they do? They refurbish it and over the next 20 years, the Forest Service in the west and in the south is regenerating landscapes like crazy
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that had been cut over, that had been gullied from erosion, that had been devastated by floods. They repair that land. It’s one of the best pieces of environmental restoration work you can ever find. It was good work, it was—it was important work, but it was very much involved with the public health. Change the land and you change the people. Serve the land and you serve the people, which is the motto, in effect, of the Forest Service as it has long been. That’s remarkable effort, but what’s interesting about the National Forests in east Texas is because there’s so much rain there, that stuff regenerates
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very quickly. And what happens in the 1950’s and early 1960’s? Who wants that land back now for cheap, please? The very lumber companies that had given it away. The government suddenly had created this real enormous asset, but it’s now within the federal control and inside them are reservoirs. And what are those reservoirs serving? As water for downstream urban civilization—Houston and Beaumont and others. And so they’re serving not only local interests and regional interests, but also the larger public and
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greater good. It’s one of the things that Pinchot said about the Forest Service’s mission. Its job, he said, and he said it variously, but something along this line. We are—our mission—the way we resolve the competition of interest is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. That was a variable, it shifted over time. The greatest good would change over time. And what the south discovered and east Texas discovered is a greater good was served by the presence of those National Forests that regenerated that landscape, that produced those reservoirs. And that also produced the political
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conflict in which they have been enmeshed on questions of endangered species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker and other kinds of things that have emerged ever since. So there’s a long and interesting history around which these forests were framed, but it does seem to me lies with the larger question of whose land is it? How should it be managed? Under what conditions and under what consequence? We’re fighting about it—we’ve always fought about it. That’s actually a good thing. That means democracy is alive and well and when it—when groups like the Sierra Club raise questions about how the Forest
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Service currently is managing that landscape, I’m thrilled because it means that these are still democratically determined initiatives and missions. You don’t always get what you want, fair enough. But you have to fight because it’s the fight that makes it possible for us to move forward and change those missions and change those activities on the ground where it matters most.
DT: I have a question about the National Forests. After they were restored and regenerated, as you say, you had these great stands of the timber and in the 50’s and 60’s, it sounds like the way that they were being cut changed from selective cutting to even-age management and, as I understand it, a lot of the research arguing for that change came from industry funded research. Is that true and what are the consequences for the National Forests, especially in Texas?
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CM: Well, I think part of what we’re—to the do the history of the agency justice, let me quickly back up. If you think about the period between 1905 when it was created, even though there was a Bureau of Forestry before that, 1905’s when the Forest Service was created and the National Forests were created alongside them. For the first 40 years, between 1905 and 1945, basically, the agency was a custodian of the land. Its job was to regenerate, its job was to protect, its job was to add to the inventory and, in the process, begin to rebuild landscapes that had been devastated by railroad companies, mining
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companies, overgrazing and overharvesting. They did a really good job of it, such a good job that by the end of World War II, some of that land was at a point in its growth where it could be then recut. And the question is under what conditions would that be—happen? Part of that is forced by not so much industry, though they would love to get at these National Forests because many of their private holdings had already been cut out in the—in—in the war years itself. Most of the land—most of the wood that went into the
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war effort came off of private property, not public property. But it’s also forced by another energy—energy and drive and we’ve been talking about that. The car, the freeway and the suburb. If you’re going to build housing for the postwar GI vets, for the baby boom that was already underway in the mid 40’s and then exploded in the 1950’s, and you and I are part of that. Where are they going to live? Under what houses they going to live? And at what cost? And it’s the cost that’s key. One of the keys to understand the clear cutting that would become the silvicultural technique that the Forest
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Service as well as private industry embarked upon in the late 40’s and early 1950’s is—the consequence of that was—and the de—desired consequence was to repress, depress wood prices. So you bring lots of wood into market, you drop the price, which means you just dropped the price for a GI vet. Like my parents were both GI’s who could then afford to buy a house in Darien, Connecticut, built maybe not out of a National Forest wood, but built out of wood that’s entering into market which—whose prices are dropping. So some of this is about the sort of social manipulation of the ecom—
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economic structure. So how do you get wood best into that market? You got to completely, but you had to test that and some of that is driven by academic research that is in type, indeed, funded to a degree by industry. Forest schools are, of course, a product of the woods—wood product industry. I mean, there—there is a hand and glove rel—relationship. Some are more so than others. Some were more strictly scientific and less industry oriented than others. But all of them in the 1950’s are producing a great number
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of forest engineers whose job it is to get the cut out and to get it out fast and get it into the market to build those roads, to build those houses, to build this new economy that’s emerging in the l—in the 1950’s and 1960’s. There was very little oversight. They tended to cut and not think about the downstream consequences in terms of erosion and gulleying and the like and, in short, the agency changed. What once had been in a custodial agency no longer was. An agency that once followed Gifford Pinchot’s dictum was shifting that dictum in a way that had environmental consequences that Pinchot
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himself had warned about in the 1930’s in which he came out publicly against clear cutting. He thought it was a bad technique because of what it did to the land. Not that it didn’t get wood product out, he thought that was all good. What it also did was to destroy the land because you just went and just chopped the stuff out and roll it down into that—into—into the market. And he thought, basically, that the agency was becoming—well, he called it lumbermanitis. That it was infected with that disease and he was in opposition of that. But he—he died in 1946 so that voice is gone in opposition and many
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in the profession were—sort of went, whew, thank God he’s gone because he—he was—he was a bad influence on them. That is to say, he was this hectoring voice, kept saying you’re doing the wrong thing; you’re doing the wrong thing. This isn’t public service. This is in the service of other, the handmaidens of industry, in effect. So that sets up a tension for the agency that saw its mission shift in the 50’s and 60’s that’s brought to a startling conclusion when in that same 1960’s, the Wilderness Act of 1964 is enacted.
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Clean Air and Clean Water bills are enacted. NEPA—the Environmental Policy Act is created in which you now have to let other people in on your decision-making. Well, nobody had been in on their decision making before. Suddenly this process is becoming democratized. They’re getting hit by groups like the Sierra Club, who used to be close with the Forest Service but no longer are. In East Texas and elsewhere, they’re finding that the groups that used to be their supporters are now starting to raise questions about water quality. Well, now they have legislation that raises that issue. That are raising
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questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and let’s talk about the Endangered Species Act, which came out in the exact same time. Nobody thought that the red-cockaded woodpecker or the spotted owl was an issue until we have an act that says you know what, species matter. Not just the human species, but all species and we have to think about the consequences of our action. Keep in mind George Bird Grinnell. No woods, no game, no woods, no water, no water, no fish. Other species matter. Their habitats are critical, not just the human one and that logic built into the Endangered
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Species Act now became a—a wedge issue and a hammer that other groups could say to the agency and to the Bureau of Land Management and also to the National Park Service, by the way, hey, you can’t build there because there are other animals that depend upon that space. And that had a tremendous impact on the Forest Service in terms of what it was able to do and what it imagined it was able to do and also internal to its own culture. It had to hire ologists, as they called them. Biologists, hydrologists and the like who
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turned to the engineers and said you can’t build the road there. What do you mean you can’t build the road there? I always build roads there. I’m sorry; you can’t build the road there because the soil won’t sustain it. The de—the debris will destroy this river and if you destroy this river, as Marsh argued, you won’t have any fish. This is salmon country, you can’t do that. So all of these things are interrelated, such that even internal to the agency, there are brawls that are taking place between the engineers on the one hand and the ologists on the other. Well, no surprise, that debate in microcosm is exploding
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outside this agency in and around those lands as timber companies which had depended upon this agency to produce the wood that they did in East Texas and elsewhere are suddenly confronting it—people called environmentalists who are telling them on their property how to run their business because it has downstream consequences. This is why, in East Texas and Louisiana, as well as California, Oregon and Washington, and in New Hampshire and Virginia, we’re seeing a national explosion of debate over environmental issues that revolve around species and water and habitat and also human
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sustainability because the larger object of the debate is can human beings coexist with nature and other species and sustain all of this simultaneously? We’re still having that same fight because we haven’t found the answer yet.
DT: Let me ask you two questions about the National Forests in Texas. One is are you familiar with the efforts by T. Connor and others to get wilderness areas carved out of National Forests?
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CM: Yeah.
DT: And also, second, I think there was litigation that created buffer zones to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker. If you have any input, I thought it’d be great to hear.
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CM: I don’t have a lot of insights about it, and I—but I can frame it in a broader context. The effort to get wilderness lands carved out of National Forests, which rolled back to the Wilderness Act, but actually go back even farther to Aldo Leopold’s early 1920’s arguments about why wilderness mattered was framed around, we have this incredible inventory. Pinchot didn’t think about wilderness in quite the ways that we might, but he helped create this inventory that allows us to think about carving out wilderness. And so the—the Gila Natio—National Wilderness, the first wilderness that
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was created in—in New Mexico, framed around Leopold’s idea, comes out of the National Forest inventory and every other—not all of them, but almost all of them were coming out of National Forest lands. So the effort to do it has this long legacy. So East Texas is very much like other places. It’s also like other places in the political calculation that you make because if you can turn it into wilderness, now other regulations apply. And if you do that, then you clear away this space that will allow
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recreation to take place, but not cutting, that allows other groups to use this in a way that enables us for the Big Thicket, in effect, to reclaim that land by using different mechanisms. You don’t just have to make a National Park out of it, you can turn it into wilderness land within the National Forest, which is—is a viable option and—and a option that’s been taking place in lots of places. So there’s a political strategy that’s flowing here that—that seems to me is also really quite consistent with it—what’s happened elsewhere. And finally in terms of creating buffer zones. That’s hard to do,
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but understandable as a logic, as a political calculation. You want to do it because what you want to do is to protect, as they did in Oregon and elsewhere, species that are endangered. And woodpeckers, they fly. That means you have to create a landscape in which their nomadic movement—their movement, in effect—not so much nomadic, but their movement can coexist with the landscape that you’ve created for them. It’s very tough to do but it’s framed around science. It’s framed around the politics of science. It’s framed around economic development issues that East Texas has been grappling with
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for at least the last 30 to 40 years. And I expect will do so for at least that long still. But the effort to do so, it seems to me, is part of the longer-term initiative on the part of all Americans, which is to figure out how do we live on Earth? How do we do this? And can we do it in a way that’s equitable, on the one hand, that is socially just on the other, and that has an environmental integrity to it? That’s the real dilemma that we face in the twenty-first century. There’s the triple bottom line. Not the bottom line, the triple
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bottom line and part of that bime—bottom line now has to be environmental justice. That’s in justice to the land and justice to those who might be able to benefit from its resources. But that’s what George Perkins Marsh was talking about. That’s what George Bird Grinnell was talking about and that’s what Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt talked about. We haven’t tweaked the language very much but we have to keep arguing on these issues until we’re better able to understand why it starts with the land. That’s what Aldo Leopold said, that’s what Gifford Pinchot said, that’s what Teddy Roosevelt
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said. It’s all about the land and how we live on it and how light we live—we live on that land because the heavier we trod, the more complicated our social problems will be. San Antonio’s a perfect example of that around water, so is East Texas around those National Forests.
DT: This might be a good place to ask you if you want to bring these arguments to the public and frame these whole debates about sustainability, how do you use the press to do that? You’ve been involved in academic journals, both the Trinity Press and more specialized environmental history journals and then also in the sort of lay newspapers of Texas, The Observer and the San Antonio Current and many other publications. What are you trying to achieve through your writings?
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CM: I wish I was so conscious of this I had an achievement, a goal in mind. But it is something that has sort of come over time and—and partly it’s about my own intellectual journey. That—that becoming an academic and going into a graduate program that so thoroughly specialized you after having this sort of broad education, I couldn’t wait to get out of graduate school to, sort of like an accordion—expand back out. I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t actually know how that would happen or the venues that that would take place. But one of the things that I learned, even from my very specialized
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graduate program, is that there’s a relationship between what you do in the academy and the broader community in which you live. And I’ve been deeply influenced by that argument and deeply influenced by the progressive era itself, by Roosevelt and Pinchot and the like who argued, like John Dewey, that you can have all the academic ideas you want, but until you put it into practice or try to put it into practice, you’re never going to know whether those ideas actually are valid. That is to say, will it work? And so for a historian, that’s a little difficult because we don’t actually create things that people are all
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that interested in, in a sense. But we can bring a historical consciousness to the local dilemmas and problems and say wait a second. Let’s think about this in the broader run. If we’re having water issues today, has that always been true? And if that’s true, how did they try to solve them and did they solve them in a way that we might pay attention to? And if they didn’t, that’s also good information. Negative results, as any scientist will tell you, is also good information. You know that path didn’t work, okay, let’s try something else. But what’s the venue in which you do that? And so part of what I’ve tried to do, and it’s been partly conscious and I must admit, floundering around. Just sort
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of doing things and from that come other things. I had a wonderful opportunity to work on the Texas Historical Commission on their State Board of Review that looked at historic preservation. Well, I went onto it thinking okay, this is interesting. I’m interested in preservation; so let’s think about this in the built landscape as opposed to the natural landscape. But what I came to understand, sitting on that, being tutored by people who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am and who saw things that I didn’t quite understand, was that when you preserve built landscapes, whether it’s old ranchlands to
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the—in the south of the San Antonio River or the Robert E. Lee Hotel in town—town San Antonio, you’re preserving living, importantly so, environments where people actually still work. So you repair a hotel so that it can live again, so that it’s not a place that has no windows and the—and the pigeons live there. You want human beings to interact, let’s re-create that space. And when you do that, wow, you start to create all this economic activity around that—that puts more people on the streets, that brings more retail there, that actually might solve one of the other problems that I’ve always been
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addressing, which is about suburbanization. Well, if you leave the city behind and it’s this—it’s this kind of a smoking hulk, how do you make it not that? How do you make it a better place? Well, it turns out, as I learned on the Historic Commission’s Boards that you actually can do this by replicating what was there before. And you do it by preservation and then you encourage through incentives—market incentives to get developers to come back and rebuild these places in ways that are close to what they once
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were and also put people on the streets to en—enable to think out this. Well, another way of thinking about that, though I could not have told you this at the time—is that I became engaged in sort of political issues and I wanted to write about them. And so I would write about them and, you know, one of the great benefits of the pre-Web—before In—the Internet emerged and blogging became what it is is that we had an alternative newspaper world that emerged in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. The Texas Observer is one of the great proponents of independent investigative journalism. When I told Lucien
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Marquis, one of my great mentors in college, that I was moving from Miami to San Antonio, he said you got to do two things. First of all, you have to suppor—subscribe to the Texas Observer, which I didn’t know anything about and the other thing, he said, you have to go—read Billy Bramer’s novel, Gay Place, which is about the Observer, but also about Austin. So, like a good student, I said okay and I did that. Well, what I did by so doing was to enter into an intellectual environment that I had no conception before I got here existed. But also the notion that to write as an academic for a public venue, even for
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the tiny subscriber base of the Observer, was actually a good thing to do. It engaged me in political issues that I couldn’t have imagined I would’ve been engaged with before and human beings that are just quite remarkable. But it also did something I would never have predicted, which it made me a much better writer because to write for the public, whether it’s for the San Antonio Express, the San Antonio Current, for the Texas Observer or other venues like this, you have to write in a different way. You have to
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write for people who want to read what you want to write, but they’re not going to read it if it’s an academic treatise. And so my training in writing sort of hit this sort of stone wall. It forced me to stop and say well, what is it that you want to read and how do you want to get engaged with these subjects? And so it actually had this dramatic impact in terms of how I write. But also it had a dramatic impact on how I teach how to write. And so for better or for worse, and it may be for worse, I’m not sure, my students now get a very different kind of writing instruction in my classes than I was able to give them
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before because now the goal is to teach them how to write persuasively. Argumentatively and persuasively and that means a different kind of writing than most scholarship is based upon. It also can be argumentative and it also can be persuasive, but it’s being written to specialists and so you have to write in a certain fashion for them. For the Observer, that’s not true. For the Current, that’s not true and in fact, you have to be much more engaging and so it’s forced me to be a much better stylist than I would’ve thought was possible. And I owe all thanks to the various editors of these places that
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have really sort of schooled me and said no, that sucks. Go write it again. And rewrite it and they say, no, that’s only half bad, rewrite it again. And then—and so that’s also what I teach my students, which is everything you write, you have to constantly rewrite.
DW: Question, as a scientist—he’s a scientist and I guess you’re the first historian by profession in a similar way, in an academic setting that it’s science, if you will. And so we usually ask them a question about what becomes of the conflict internally between advocacy and objectivity?
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CM: Right. Good question.
DW: Because in pure science, you have actual numbers. They point parts per million, it’s one thing to say. But this seems to be like what kind of science do you call that when it’s not just about numbers and measurable…
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CM: Squishy.
DW: Squishy science. And how do you negotiate personally that area?
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CM: Right. It’s a great question. It’s a great question. I think one of the things that comes out of this investigative writing and this writing for a broader public audience is for the historian, it’s a very complicated one, as it is probably for other intellectuals and academics, which is that dividing line between when you advocate and when you analyze and your position relative to those two places where you could go with your work.
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And I think one of the things that I have tried rigorously to do is to make certain that when I write as a scholar that I write as a scholar. That is to say, to make sure all of my documentation is there and even though I might not footnote the thing, that in my files of those documents that I write, those essays and the like, every single one of them contains where I’m getting this material from. That’s in part because that’s what I did and in part because I want that record to be there for others to be able to replicate what I do or challenge what I do. And I can able to say look, this—this is where I’m getting my
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material. The downside to that is that when you advocate a position, you step away from that scholarship and also the sort of quiet academic life that comes with it. I can write in my office, but when you go into public, people write back. They sling their arrows at you in ways that you might not quite accept or want to have. But I think that’s worth it. I mean, I think those two positions are really quite useful, but you have to have that scholarship. You have to be able to have—you have to have it because your—your integrity as an advocate depends upon your capacity to be, frankly, dispassionate about the stuff for which you are passionately arguing. And that’s a weird balance but it’s an
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essential one. And I don’t know that I always balance it well, but it does seem to me that when you get into these debates about water in a city like San Antonio that you have to be able to turn to the water purveyors and to the consumers and tell them both that they don’t have the full story. For those who advocate for development like PGA Village and those thousands who opposed it, that they’re not dealing always with all of the evidence.
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That they are being partisans, which is right because that’s what they’re doing. But my job is not always to be that partisans, it—it’s also to set this within a larger historical context. And so the dilemma for me has been also quite personal in this sense and I’m wrestling with this now, in—in—in terms of do I actually join organizations whose advocacy for certain positions, which I think are perfectly legitimate, may in fact lead them and me to argue in a way that the scholarship disappears or it is not the only point to be made. And it’s hard. To be honest, it’s quite hard and I—I don’t know that I have
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figured out to move between these two things terribly effectively, but I—I know I’m comfortable being in that role, now for the last 15 years or so, of being someone who will—is willing to take the scholarship a la John Dewey and say look, I’ve got to put it into play. And if I don’t put it into play, I’m not being true to the political principles that I also hold and I think that’s important.
DT: You’ve talked a little bit about being a student and then a researcher and a writer, and advocate. How about being a teacher? Do you have a message that’s reasonably general, I guess, that you would pass on about some of the sustainability that you’ve been exploring as a student, an advocate, a writer?
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CM: I think one of the joys of being a teacher, which I wouldn’t have thought when I went into the profession. I knew I wanted to do research, I knew I wanted to write and so I had to teach because that’s part of the package. But I really—I mean, I had great teachers and I had lousy teachers and you could tell the difference, but I really didn’t know what it meant to be a teacher in this respect. That is to say, to be passionate about a subject. To think it is the most—single most important thing in the world, but recognize that your audience doesn’t think the same thing and that really your goal is to pull them into your enthusiasm and—and draw them into you and the interest that you have in it.
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And they may, afterwards, you know, it’s like ephemeral. They’re gone; it’s not there any longer. But for that moment, you’ve got that contact. For that moment, you might be able to convince a student that when they get in their car and drive that they will never quite think about driving in the same way before because they had this class and they had these discussions. It’s a way by which—teaching as a vehicle by which you can shape minds to be sure. But your ability to shape them is only as good as your ability to allow it to set them free, which is to say, you want to give them data, but then you want to say play. This is—this is your information to work with and so if you work with students
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coming out of business administration who happen to take the stray history class, my goal isn’t to, you know, pound in them, you know, really, what you’re doing is wrong. My goal is the—is—is really to get them to see why history matters in the work that they’re about to do. To understand that markets change over time. Well, that’s a historical question. To understand their role as marketeers is framed around the emergence of an industrial and now a postindustrial economy and for them to understand that—that—that
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history is significant in their lives. We actually live within history; we just don’t always see it. So if we want to have more sustainable communities, if we want to have an environment, a natural environment that—in which we build ourselves and are able not to destroy that place, but also not to destroy ourselves, to have economies that function appropriately, then you show them how, in the past, people have struggled with those same issues and have done it better and worse than we will do it, who have done it, in some cases, they don’t even know that was what they were doing and some cases, they
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failed. They failed miserably. They chose the wrong tactic and, as George Perkins Marsh would say, well, look at Athens. Why are there no cedars in Lebanon? Because they blew it, which leads to another point, which is that we are active agents in our own history. We don’t just live in the past that other people created, we are conscious—or we should be. We are politically engaged—or we should be. We should be men and women of integrity and of that, we need to recognize that part of what makes us citizens is not just citizens of a place in which we have a right to vote, but citizens who have an
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obligation to act. And the decisions that we make as teachers, as students, as members of communities are so important to the development of those communities, as a forester would tell you, 70 to 80 years out beyond our own capacity to imagine them. Our grandchildren are what we need to be thinking about. Our great-grandchildren are who we need to be conceiving this world as. And because they’re going to have to pick it up after us. And so whatever debt we owe to those in the Progressive Era, we have to recognize that we have another responsibility to those who live in an era we can’t yet imagine.
DT: And I guess what will carry forward into another era with new people and a continually evolving history is places and I was wondering if we could bring this full circle and you could maybe tell us if there is a special place that you like to visit that brings you some sort of serenity or helps you understand why this stuff all matters to you?
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CM: Yeah. The place that matters to me most is a beach. In part, because I grew up on them. In part, because they are spaces that are vacation oriented, culturally, in a sense. They’re sort of manufactured that way. A beach is a beach, but the way human beings use beaches and imagine them is really where the culture matters. But they’re also middle grounds, which is also why I love them. They’re not the ocean and they’re not really land. They’re somewhere in between. And it seems to me as a symbol and as a metaphor, they’ve mattered more to me than I can actually imagine. There is no better
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time and place for me than to be on a beach in bare feet, and I don’t care if it’s 50 degrees or 40 degrees or it’s 85 degrees and I don’t really care what the beach is. And I don’t care actually if the water is swimmable or not, whether you’re in Northern California and—and you’re a crazy person if you go into that water, I want to be on those middle grounds because it seems to me that’s where I am most alive. And I think that, in some
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ways, is really the human condition. We’re most alive when we’re in those spaces which is not hard ground and not water, but we’re—we’re in the—in that—in that transition zone. And I think intellectually that matters enormously to me. Aesthetically, it matters enormously to me. Climbing mountains, I do, but I’m not all that interested in it. It’s really at that beach where I see these juxtapositions of life and death, truly, really there before you. That seaweed that’s there, that carcass of that sea lion that’s before you, the cl—the clamshells that litter the beaches of New England, those are archeol—
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archaeological, in a sense, and they’re a reminder that, frankly, that’s what we’re going to become. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, that really matters. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but really in—in a—in a language of nature. And if we can grab that consciousness, I’m convinced most days anyway, if we can grab that consciousness, we might actually live in this land in a somewhat better way. In a way that’s more wholesome for the land and for ourselves simultaneously.
DT: I don’t have any more questions, but I wonder if you might have some closing words that you could give us?
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CM: Great. That’s the closing word.
DT: There’s no time left. All right, well, thank you very much.
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CM: My pleasure. It was fun. Yeah, it was lots of fun.
DT: You made it fun.
End of Reel 2339
End of Interview with Char Miller