Chevron Pipeline Signs:
A Field Guide on “How to Draw the Line”
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Agents in the Landscape
What can a line say about a place? A line can constitute a “long, narrow mark or band,” “a length of cord, rope, wire, or other material serving a particular purpose,” or it can mean to “stand or be positioned at intervals along.” A line, stemming from the Latin linea can also refer to “a mark, bound, limit, goal; line of descent.” But what makes the mark? What entity creates the boundary? The Bonneville Shoreline Trail, a line initially created by a lake in the Pleistocene period, is now maintained by the Forest Service, a federal agency comprised of humans overseeing nonhumans. What once used to be a line made by water lapping against a rocky slope, signifying nonhuman-to-nonhuman interactions, is now marked with telephone lines, and a visible line of development encroaching further into the mountain landscape, signifying human onto nonhuman interactions. Homo Faber, Latin for “Man the Maker,” is the concept of humans able to control their fate and their environment through tools. Like scratches and scars, these marks highlight how humans exist as the dominant management species and how the “shoreline” seeks a resilience reaction. So where does one draw the line? How can one develop a greater sense of attention, specifically towards one’s local landscape and the impact that humans have while living as a species among many?
I turn to semiotics as a method of investigation, excavation, and dissection of the interactions between entities, whether human-to-human interaction, human-to-nonhuman interaction, or nonhuman-to-nonhuman interaction. By creating an alphabetic archive of lines found in place, I seek to highlight the significance of observing such marks and how developing tools of close reading a line can help one to understand the agency of different entities.
But first, let’s talk about language. Why notice language? Is there such thing as language of the land? Can a scratched rock signify punctuation? Can this scratch made by a runner’s shoe traversing the Wasatch tell a story; a sort of hieroglyphic character in a writing system made by a human interaction on the surface of the ground? Or is this scratch evidence of an ancient glacial strike? According to linguistic anthropologist Alton Becker, there are two ways of thinking about grammar. Language is:
If these texts are “learned in action,” as Becker suggests, can observing how one interacts with the land by observing the marks left behind be a version of reading the landscape? If language is the coded structure one uses to communicate, languaging becomes a context-building endeavor, a construction site of “combining, shaping, storing, retrieving and communicating knowledge into a one open-ended process.” So, how does one draw the line? By noticing the lines that have been drawn.
Notes on form: Fossilis (Latin) “dug up”
The Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Utah is an archive of what used to be Lake Bonneville, an ancient lake that once filled the Great Basin. If one were to dig sub-terra, fossilized plants might emerge as evidence of a once watery landscape. A fossil, or “the remains or impression of a prehistoric organism preserved in petrified form or as a mold or cast in rock,” can nod back to a past landscape and bring it into the present state. In honor of fossils, I structure this essay as a stratified document, both in form and content, that contains potential to be “dug up.” By archiving lines in this field guide, I seek to create a living document that morphs with time and space as opposed to observations stuck behind glass, preserved and static. A fossil can also mean “an antiquated or stubbornly unchanging person or thing,” so in this way, I oppose a fossilized document. I mean for its final destination to be unearthed by those who read it. Add to it yourself. Consider this to be the beginning and not the end. So, dig in or, as Stephanie LeMenager states, “Please join us in the effort to distribute and multiply the riches that reside in this dirt.”
What lines are carved in the dirt near you? Returning to the beginning, I ask again, what can a line say about a place? If the way in which we speak is through alphabetic arrangements, lines making letters and letters representing sounds, meaning, context, and coded structures of communication, then perhaps an alphabet can help the voice of a place speak up. Too anthropomorphic? Perhaps. But just as the Bonneville Shoreline Trail is an archive of past life, fossils embedded in dirt and rock, this document begins to act as a container of lines and marked observations about how humans and nonhumans intersect, interact and engage in space together. I turn to my memory, an archive of the past stored in my own fleshy body, to begin an investigation of various types of intersections, exploring how the agency of one body affects the space of another body, whether human or non.
G is for Gas Line:
Should I draw the gas line?
Where does one draw the line?
You can’t see it, but it is there.
Is this real?
~ Tiana Birrell (Spring 2018)
To explore related Sightlines, follow this route.
For further reading:
Alaimo. “Bring Your Shovel!” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 1/1 (2014). doi:10.5250/resilience.1.1.02.
Becker, Alton L. Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
“Fossil” and “Line.” Merriam-Webster. www.merriam-webster.com.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015.