With the Marfanistas
When we headed out from Austin to West Texas the Thursday before the summer solstice, the Saharan dust cloud was still lingering over the landscape. The heat was grim enough, loading up the car on another record-breaking triple-digit June day that felt even hotter than the thermostat would have you believe—August temps burning up May humidity. The weird haze explained by the meteorologists, without evident alarm, as a gigantic cloud of sand from the North African desert that had been blown across the Atlantic, only added to the intuitive sense that we were preparing for a family vacation during the slow-motion end of the world. We did not share any of these sentiments with our adorably excited three-year-old daughter. In part because we thought, by heading to our own high desert for the long weekend, we would be escaping the dystopian ozone of the late Promethean city.
But as the vistas opened up before us, no matter how far we went, the cloud was still there. From the paved-over Blackland prairie up into the Hill Country above the dried-out Edwards Aquifer, past the long miles of thirsty trees into the scrubby brush and rocky land that precedes the Transpecos, it hung there between the mesas and along the horizon like an unseasonal summer fog, a fog you knew was air pollution, an air pollution that somehow combined the ecological ravaging of North Africa by the earliest human pastoralists with the Anthropocene atmospheric hangover of the long twentieth century that has yet to end. One of the towns you pass through on that route is called Ozona, so named for the quantity of open air. When we reached the big wind farms beyond Iraan, many of the windmills looked broken, and the others looked exhausted from their efforts at a cleaner energy production that might get us out of this mess without having to turn off the a/c.
When we finally left the interstate in Fort Stockton, the ruins of the old military outpost of the conquerors shared the roadside with a Mad Max-worthy collection of Covid-vacated motels and C-stores. But once we got south of there, the cloud finally was behind us, and as we dropped down into the wedge of the Chihuahuan Desert that reaches into Texas, we found the greenest scene of our journey, a normally lunar landscape alive with desert plants in bloom, just days after some good rain. The enigmatic signs by the road marked our arrival in the Sierra Madera Astrobleme, which only when we arrived at our destination for the night did I learn was a giant crater left by a prehistoric meteorite. When I looked up from my phone, the dead white buffalo over the bar looked like it might once have known the real answers about the deep past and our ecological future, even as it made me think of the only good Ted Nugent song.
Out there along the path of the ancient trading route that connects Texas with the Pacific Ocean, the skies are dark and the nights crazy quiet except when the trains blow through without slowing down, blasting their horns and jostling metal on metal like giant robot sandworms. Mostly they carry containers filled with unknown goods bound to predetermined destinations in the global supply chain, but on occasion I have seen mile-long trains loaded with military armor, once outside Donald Judd’s old house in the middle of the morning, and another time while waiting on the hood of my car for the appearance of the Marfa Lights. It makes you wonder what other dark and dangerous cargo is carried through the remote leagues of the American desert.
At daybreak my daughter and I went for a wander about the little town named after the Plain of Marathon by the ship captain turned railroad surveyor who helped found it. We saw a road runner, and followed a trail down by the railyard that led us to an octagonal relic rung with Italian cypress trees that looked like it might have been the temple of some redneck Olympian, or a rail baron replica of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. Something about it provoked my daughter’s juvenile intuition, and she insisted we turn back. We needed to get to our final destination anyway, the town named by a railroad executive’s wife after a character in The Brothers Karamazov.
My wife and I had kind of given up on Marfa after our last trip there in 2016, when we took visiting friends from New York for a long weekend and got the feeling its astonishing achievement as an insanely remote global arts destination had turned it into a playground of the very rich (as evidenced by the private jets lined up at the tiny airport north of town, and the characters on parade through the bar of the swank new hotel that had erased one of the best bookstores I had ever visited, even as it pretended to preserve it) that had mostly lost the clock-liberated cool we had both long enjoyed. Most of my travel in the intervening years related to work promoting my books, and on our actual vacations during the Trump years we preferred to leave the country. But last weekend one of our international friends brought us back for an unlikely opportunity to see him raise an anarcho-communist Mexican revolutionary flag over Donald Judd’s house. Two of them, in fact.
“The Earth is the property of all. When, millions and millions of years ago, the Earth had not separated itself from the chaotic cluster, which as time passed on, was to dower the firmament with new suns; and when, as the result of gradual cooling, planets became more or less fitted for organic life, this planet had no owner. Neither did the Earth have any owner when humanity was converting every old tree trunk and every mountain cavern into a dwelling place and a refuge from the inclemency of the weather and from wild beasts. Neither did the Earth have any owner when humanity, having advanced still farther along the thorny path of progress, had reached the pastoral period, in which there were pastures whereon the tribe, with herds in common, settled. The first owner appeared with the first man who had slaves to work his fields, and who, that he might make himself master of those slaves and of those fields, found it necessary to take up arms and levy war against a hostile tribe. Violence, then, was the origin of private property in the land, and by violence it has been upheld until our own days.”
— Ricardo Flores Magón, “To Arms! To Arms for Land and Liberty!” (1911)
I met the Tijuana-based writer Pepe Rojo in 2009 when I was a guest at the Festival de México, the books track of which that year focused on Mundos Paralelos—the possibilities of science fiction as the literary avant-garde. We hit it off, and I soon found myself joining Pepe and his colleagues for a series of events in Baja that included a punk reading in a rough bar in Mexicali and a remarkable 2011 intervention at the San Ysidro border crossing in which Pepe engineered a series of events that highlighted the simultaneously creative and repressive opportunities of the U.S.-Mexico DMZ for an audience that included not only interested culturati, but also the hours-long lines of cars and pedestrians lined up to try to enter the U.S. It was the same time as I was developing some of my own ideas about the edgelands of the Americas, and Pepe and his peers had a deep impact.
For the past several years, Pepe and his San Diego-based colleague Grant Leuning have produced a series of installations, performances and writings as the Comité Magonista Tierra y Libertad, riffing on the flags that briefly flew over Tijuana and Mexicali when those cities were liberated in 1911 by revolutionaries who crossed over from Los Angeles, only to be massacred by the Mexican federal army a month later, their flags erased from existence except for a few hazy photos. By making new versions of that flag, and placing it in new locations, usually with assistance from a diverse group of participants that includes known collaborators and sometimes reluctantly enlisted passers-by, the 21st-century Tierra y Libertad project freshly imagines the ideas the flag did and could embody, sparking utopian dreaming without didactics in a world that seems to have lost the capacity to build futures we would actually want to live in.
Last Saturday morning, after driving overland from Tijuana through Chihuahua and visiting other Magonista sites along the way, Pepe and Grant installed two newly hand-sewn Tierra y Libertad flags above the Block, Donald Judd’s residence in Marfa on the site of an old military compound, now maintained as a museum by the Judd Foundation. The event was part of the Agave Festival, an exceptional series of free public cultural programming curated by Tim Johnson and Caitlin Murray of the Marfa Book Co. in collaboration with the Judd Foundation and other community members and stakeholders. The Block has several buildings, including two large hangars Judd used for installations and his library, and an old quartermaster’s office where he and his family lived. That structure has two flagpoles out front from that former use, and the idea of inviting the Comité Magonista to put them to use for the first time in many years was genius. And perhaps more radically provocative than anyone involved anticipated.
It was early—9 a.m. on a Saturday—and casual, as people ambled in and grabbed the free coffee. The curatorial prohibition on photography was suspended, officially or unofficially, and the atmosphere was neighborly, the old house turned museum full of fresh life and community curiosity. Raising the flags on those old and infrequently used poles took two tries, but with some effort the banderas were fully hoisted. We mingled and waited for the wind to give them life, as our daughter learned how to pinch cochineal from the cactus in the garden and paint her hands a bold new color, thanks to the remarkable Jonathan Lujan.
In the afternoon, Jonathan moderated a wide-ranging conversation with Grant and Pepe about their project. They talked about how flags work, marking conquest, land ownership, and time. About Tierra as Earth, not just land. About how to resist the transformation of the world into abstracted pixels, there in a town rapidly being exhausted of its specificity by AirBnB and Instagram. About how to create site-specific works that add to and integrate with place rather than taking from it. About the connection between pleasure and community and resistance to power. About how to live without the indentured servitude of a labor contract. About how the U.S. is the only country in the Americas that’s never had a serious conversation about land reform. About the violence of even a place like Marfa. About imagining what else could be.
They talked about how they expected the conversations in Marfa to be mostly about aesthetics and barely about politics, but found the opposite, in no small part due to the way the writings of Magón feel freshly relevant—a Mexican version of a founding father who even has a subway station in the capital named after him, but whose work remains so radical it is rarely discussed in connection with the national project.
As the audience joined in the public conversation, you could see the evidence of those private conversations the conference had facilitated, with digressions about economic liberty, the ecological and ethical evils of the cattle ranching that is the real economic foundation of the region, the role the Judd Foundation plays in the gentrification of the town, and the hard questions about what different ways of living we could plausibly try. The community engagement was intense, and even as you could sense the tension at some of the tough questions, you could also see the openness to hard conversations among everyone present.
Later that afternoon, when our daughter awoke from our nap, we did what one does with a kid in any small Texan town: go to the DQ. There were three big Border Patrol trucks parked in the lot, white quarter panels spattered with strands of hot asphalt spun from their tires like stray threads from a Jackson Pollock painting. The agents were inside, along with a couple of Daughters of the Republic who gave my wife the look-over when they saw her Planned Parenthood T-shirt. With a little high desert peyote, we might have seen in that scene the fear and loathing that doesn’t make the Instagram version of Marfa.
Ice cream in hand, we headed up the hill to the town’s one old-fashioned park with a playground, far from the usual tourist destinations. A mixed group of high school kids were busy getting wet with a water balloon fight, which they let my daughter briefly join. We tried out the slides, and then walked over to check out the big empty lot across the street. As we circumnavigated that pioneer homesite gone wild, we took in the view of the town to the east. You could see the Magonista flags over the Block, the slowly curving train tracks, the beautiful mountainscapes along the horizon, and the enigma of the old Godbold grain elevator, all under an implausibly fanciful summer sky.
That grain elevator was built as a storehouse for cattle feed, essentially, one of those temples to the accumulation of surplus that hides in plain sight, revealing the basic model of our political economy for anyone to see. A model of civilization that starts with pastoralism, grows into grain production, and then finds its way to mass production and ultimately mass abstraction. All of them techniques of resource management rooted in control of the reproduction of others—animals, plants, and other people.
The elevator looks like it may be getting adapted to other uses now, and as I took in the crow’s eye vista and thought about the talk, I got excited by the idea of a Marfa that’s as much about politics as aesthetics. Of its potential as a laboratory for fresh, tough conversations about how to build healthier and more just futures, out there in a zone at the edge of American reality that has always been a portal to other possible worlds.
The Marfa lights, we heard later, are thought by the descendants of indigenous peoples of the region to be sentient beings, beings whose population has been rapidly diminishing under the exhaustion of our dominion. You don’t have to believe that to know it tells a truth about what we are doing to the world, or to appreciate the urgency of the kinds of cross-cultural conversations and radical actions it will take to get us to the other side of life in the cloud.
Among the other highlights of the weekend was running into Field Notes friend and neighbor Mishka Westell, who designed the amazing festival poster. We caught a reading by Raquel Gutierrez from her amazing new essay collection Brown Neon. And, while a hangry toddler kept us from attending his talk, we picked up a copy of C. J. Alvarez’s Border Land, Border Water, a history of the border through the physical and electronic infastructure that demarcates it. Had we planned further ahead, we would have attended some of the amazing ecology-focused field trips on the program. Maybe next year.
The Chisos agave, Agave havardiana, was in bloom all around us on this trip, seven-foot stalks flush with bright yellow flowers that filled your senses with wonder. Definitely a plant worthy of its own festival, and a revelation to think of a newly conceived cultural event organized around a seasonal ecological miracle.
As we process the news of Friday’s decision in Dobbs, readers of this newsletter might be interested in another important recent ruling on fundamental rights—that of the New York Court of Appeals In The Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Breheny, holding that an elephant confined in a zoo for forty years has no right to petition for habeas corpus. The dissenting opinion of Judge Rowan Wilson is a masterful work of jurisprudential imagination, and of how to reason our way into the more just world that could be if we could learn to see it. You can read the full opinion here, with that dissent beginning after page 17. Thanks to the visionary documentarian Brett Gaylor for the tip.
We brought our first cases of Covid back from the trip, and it’s been a rough few days, though thankfully our daughter has thus far suffered only mild symptoms. You can blame any long-windedness in this week’s post on the viral haze, and Field Notes will be off again next Sunday.
Have a hopeful week.
I learn so much from you every week Christopher. Your posts are elegiac responses to what is happening around us, and you remain hopeful.
Wonderful Texas story.