The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.

Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.

Crossing the ‘Borderwall’: Projectiles

Depending on your intake of current event news, the wall—existing and potential—between the United States and Mexico has been a staple feature of this administration’s diet. Among other things it’s divisive, unrealistic, and up for debate on how it will be funded, but author Ronald Rael looks at it in a completely unique way: as an architect, as a citizen, and as someone who grew up occupying the borderlands himself. Ciudad Juárez-based journalist Judith Torrea describes his new book as “astonishing and magical: a realm where the absurdity of a wall is transformed from obstructive and negative to an affirmation of shared humanity.”

The below excerpt appears in a section of the book entitled, ‘Recuerdos/Souvenirs’, which proposes unsolicited counterproposals, both tragic and sublime, for the existing wall along the border.

Automobiles carrying people and drugs are not the only things traveling through the air over the wall. During the Middle Ages, with the rise of fortified castles and city walls, the catapult became an essential tool to launch objects and even bodies over protective walls. It was also a time when the cannon became a standard method of breaching walls. With the catapult’s and the cannon’s shared history of launching humans through the air, it is unsurprising that these medieval technologies would resurface in reaction to the anachronistic security barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among the projectile launchers created to hurdle the wall are catapults, used by drug traffickers to hurl marijuana and other contraband over the borderwall. Packages of marijuana are bulkier than heroin or cocaine and therefore more difficult to smuggle hidden in vehicles or carried by hand. The catapults confiscated by Mexican authorities are built upon trailers that can easily attached to a truck, making them very portable. These “pot-a-pults,” which can be as tall as 9 feet, are constructed with steel and a strong elastic band and can hurl marijuana bales weighing approximately 4.4 pounds each. These borderland trebuchets have been discovered in use along the Arizona-Mexico border near the cities of Naco and Agua Prieta.

More powerful are the cannons used to launch packets of marijuana over the borderwall into Calexico, California, from Mexicali, Mexico. These homemade cannons are fashioned from plastic pipe and makeshift metal tanks containing either compressed air (produced by an automobile engine) or encapsulated compressed carbon dioxide. These cannons have been known to fire thirty-pound canisters of marijuana up to 500 feet. Thirty-three such canisters, fired out of one of these cannons and valued at $42,500, were recently discovered near Yuma, Arizona.

So, have people also been launched over the wall? An episode of the television program MythBusters tested the theory that in addition to drugs, immigrants themselves were becoming human projectiles and being flung two hundred yards across the border into the United States. The show constructed a human-sized slingshot to see if it was possible. The tests involved the launch of a mannequin over a fictional U.S.- Canadian border and used a chain-link fence topped with razor wire to mark the border—a vision clearly inspired by the U.S-Mexico wall. And although the MythBusters team was able to propel the dummy 211 feet, it was concluded that it didn’t seem possible to launch humans accurately enough to ensure their safety.

Although there is no evidence that migrants are being launched over the wall, human cannonball David Smith Sr., who holds the distance record for being shot into the air (201 feet, in 2002), is the first person whose launch by cannon over the U.S.-Mexico borderwall has been documented. Although it is illegal to enter the United States from Mexico except at an official port of entry, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar granted Smith permission to cross in this unconventional fashion. So, in 2005, with passport in hand (which he waved to the crowd before blasting off from Tijuana, Mexico), he sailed over the wall and landed squarely in a large net awaiting him in San Diego, California.

When Smith was asked why he did it, his reply was simple: “I did it for the money—I get paid!”

Selections from ‘Recuerdos’ were read aloud by the author to UC Press staff earlier this spring (watch a short video from that talk), and we’ll be sharing excerpts here in the coming weeks.

Learn more in recent features on Borderwall as Architecture in The Architectural RecordThe London Review of Books, The New York Times, and a podcast produced by UC Berkeley’s Berkeley News.

Ronald Rael is Associate Professor in the departments of Architecture and Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Earth Architecture, a history of building with earth in the modern era that exemplifies new, creative uses of the oldest building material on the planet. The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum have recognized his work, and in 2014 his creative practice, Rael San Fratello, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York.


Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism


The mainstream media’s recent angst and hand-wringing about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore that the media themselves have often been purveyors of bogus tales and dubious interpretations.

“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are documented in my book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently.

The book examines and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated. Think of them as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as a fact for years. Decades, even.

Continue reading “Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News”

Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism

by Shauna Pomerantz, author of Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism with Rebecca Raby 

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Over the last decade we have seen a lot of hand-wringing about girls thriving in school while boys fail, and consequent policy recommendations to shift classroom materials to better meet boys’ needs.  Various scholars have been critical of these generalizations and policy proposals. Given the extent of these debates, what does your book, Smart Girls, add to this conversation?

Various researchers and commentators have rebuffed the universalizing arguments that we have seen over the past ten years, arguments that point to ‘successful girls’ and ‘failing boys’ as evidence that we now live in a post-feminist era where girls thrive and we should worry about boys’ achievements. However, despite widespread critiques that complicate and contextualize the idea that girls are ‘taking over the world’, we continue to see news headlines and popularized books pitting girls and boys against each other, as if gender is a stand alone category disconnected from many other social issues. At the policy level, these concerns are shape school curricula and lead many to assume that we no longer need to worry about girls in school.

In the face of these generalized arguments, we wanted to talk more deeply and contextually about the lives of smart girls in schools today. We wanted rich data that got at the everyday challenges that diverse smart girls, and boys, negotiate in school. We wanted a book that was based in the North American context, and that would be accessible to many readers so that a wide range of teachers, parents and young people themselves could engage with our participants’ stories and reflect on the challenges that girls still face in spite of claims that feminism – and girls – have ‘won’. If girls are doing so well, we asked: why do some girls dumb down? And how do dynamics of gender and smartness continue to play out within peer cultures, especially when smartness does not always sit easily with popular forms of femininity, and in a context where gender inequality is certainly not over. We wanted to talk to smart girls about how they handle being labeled ‘nerd’ or ‘loner’, how they deal with the ‘Supergirl’ drive for perfection and how their negotiations of academic success and peer culture are shaped by ‘race’ and class. We also wanted to learn from smart boys about their experiences in school – and how their challenges are similar to, and different from, those of girls.

The end result is a book that foregrounds young people’s stories about different smart girls’ lives. We hope that these stories and our reflections on them will further shatter common and troubling generalizations about girls’ success that continue to inform educational policy.

In talking to many smart girls and boys, you suggest that it can be hard to be smart while also fitting into popular masculinity and femininity.  Why is it difficult to be both smart and popular?  And how is it different for girls than for boys?

With shows like The Big Bang Theory, it can feel like ‘geek chic’ is in and that popular peer culture has expanded to make room for bookishness. And for some of the young people we talked to, being smart was indeed ‘in’, particularly if they were certain kinds of girls, with supportive groups of friends and going to inclusive schools. But we also heard many stories that indicated a continuing tension between popularity and academics.

Across a variety of schools, girls carefully negotiated their academic identities and many felt that often they had to choose: play down their smartness in order to be attractive (especially to boys) and popular, or sacrifice popularity in order to thrive academically. Girls sometimes found they could also balance out their smartness by being conventionally pretty and nice. Boys also faced challenges: while girls would downplay their smartness, boys did not want to be seen as trying too hard and would counter their studiousness by being funny and athletic. We noticed that girls were often rewarded for how they looked, and for being passive and demure, while boys were more likely to be rewarded for being active subjects who were extroverted, athletic and funny, patterns that reflect and reproduce gender inequality.

While post-feminism posits that we are now beyond sexism, numerous forces, statistics and incidents tell us otherwise. Dominant and hierarchical gender practices endure across society and in the school, which is reflected in much of our data. At the same time, post-feminism thrives as a discourse: in many of the interviews where young people talked about experiencing or noticing gender inequality, they also stated that gender inequality did not exist.

Other scholars have argued that a focus on ‘successful girls’ versus ‘failing boys’ neglects to consider other important social divisions around things like class and ‘race’. Is this something that you found too?

Yes, many researchers have suggested that there is far greater academic diversity within gender categories than across them and that this diversity is linked to significant class and ‘race’ inequalities that permeate North American society. In our book we highlight how class and ‘race’ were powerful forces in the lives of our participants. Class was a significant source of advantage for many of the young people we talked to, often in ways that they did not acknowledge. It shaped the school they were going to, the resources that supported their academic success, and the resources to help them negotiate gendered peer cultures. Class was also used to bolster privilege and exclude others, a pattern that was particularly evident to our working-class participants.

Similarly, ‘race’ emerged as a central feature in definitions of academic success, particularly in relation to the problematic stereotype of the ‘smart Asian’. This stereotype was used to reproduce the narrow idea that being ‘too smart’ is not only anti-social, but also the mark of a cultural outsider.

Shauna Pomerantz is Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part and the coauthor of Girl Power: Girls Reinventing Girlhood.