Lost Homelands

Ruin and Reconstruction in the 20th-Century Southwest
Audrey Goodman

"Out of a ruin a new symbol emerges, and a landscape finds form and comes alive." -J. B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time

As photographer Edward Weston and his companion Charis Wilson drove along the old Butterfield stage route through the Colorado Desert in the spring of 1937, they discovered two signs. The first was a familiar warning posted by the Southern California Automobile Club:


Then, near the Carrizo creek some distance ahead, they found a handwritten sign attached to a wooden cross stuck in the sand: "Carrizo May 17 37/Please help sick man at Carrizo Station/Resp Geo T Edwards" (California and the West43). It was still May 17, 1937, so they returned to the creek and finally spotted "the feet sticking out." The feet belonged to an unknown man from Tennessee with worthless coupons, sewing implements, a Minnie Mouse spoon, a bag of rolled oats, and a fishhook in his pocket, dead in the desert before his time. Wilson recalled,

We stood a long while looking at him, only the creek running below us making a soft sound in the hot silence of the desert afternoon. I had never seen a dead person, and had supposed it would somehow shock or upset me. And since we had seen buzzards circling up the creek, I had been preparing myself for the kind of thing the books describe when a man goes crazy of thirst, tears off his clothes, hurls himself on the ground gasping for mirages, and finishes, an unspeakable sight. But this man had died so quietly and easily it was hard to convince myself he was really dead; I kept expecting to see his chest rise and fall in gentle breathing. (California and the West 43)

Weston took several pictures of his body and his head while Wilson "copied the name and address of his people" (44), written in pencil on a scrap of paper, and wondered what had lured him west. She speculated that since he had clearly been unprepared for the desert, he may have expected instead the bounty that California commonly advertised: "avocados and oranges and dates growing all over the place" (45). Having seen his last, intimate possessions, she suddenly felt he was "so small and shrunken and lonely I couldn't just stand there looking at him" (44). The corpse's actuality was too intense for a sustained and direct encounter; as Wilson's retreat shows, such scenes of death and ruin require art's mediation.

The visual and written documents produced from this encounter in the Southwestern desert reveal the power of ruins to prompt many kinds of meditation: on the sources of the region's imagined attraction, on the personal history of this unknown migrant, on the significance of the body, and on the capacity of photography to sustain such decisive moments. On this trip, funded by a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the duties of producing art and meeting the daily demands of the project were split between Weston and Wilson, his California muse, lover, chauffeur, and keeper of the trip's typewritten journal (fig. 1).2 They coauthored California and the West (1940), a book that calls equal attention to Wilson's narrative commentary and Weston's carefully conceived, meticulously printed images. Wilson explained the difference in their perspectives as: "My viewpoint tended to be literary; his was essentially pictorial" ("The Weston Eye" 117). The first perspective privileged social narrative, the second the aesthetic arrangement that only later came to be incorporated into larger stories about the meaning of the West.

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