Stories from the Silence

The richest stories erupt from invisible places. A tale about society & our development – told through a narrative photostory of one of California’s most unseen spaces.

“You’re going to see a lot of things today that don’t make sense. You’re going to see a lot of things that make you ask, “is this illegal?’ And the answer is yes.”

It had been a few years since my last school field trip – but from what I remembered, they didn’t typically start in this way. But as we stood in the cracked, dusty road, staring across a confused landscape of bleak disarray, these were the words that started our day.

Standing in the heart of Kern County with members of U.C.S.B.’s Environmental Studies program, we listened to the local activists speak. While our purpose was to examine pollution and injustice through a “toxics tour” of the local community, our day began here – alone, in an empty parking lot, surrounded only by desolate fields and a vacant horizon.

This wasn’t like the field trips I remembered from childhood – back when a bus-full of “are we there yets” abruptly silenced as some recognizable destination manifested on the horizon. Because even as we exited the school vans, I found myself repeating this same question, wondering how a three-hour journey to a very significant “somewhere” looked a lot like the middle of nowhere. But what appeared empty and desolate on the surface was actually rich with substance and significance. Beneath the illusion of nothingness erupted a story about growth, justice, and communities removed from our world’s visions of development. Because although the region wasn’t physically abandoned, a deeper, more pervasive form of abandonment haunted the space – and out of the desolation, a rich story began to unfold.


Standing alone in the epicenter of open space, this is where the day began: in an empty parking lot, shared by a community park and shooting range. Climbing out of the van, this was my first impression of Kern County: green grass and park benches, serenaded by the occasional detonation of explosive gunfire. It’s as confusing as it sounds; deafening gunfire isn’t typically what you’d imagine hearing while playing with your children in the park.

But on this day, it didn’t seem problematic – because there was nobody in sight. The activist explained that this park, located miles away from sprawling suburbia, was one of the community’s only green spaces – yet it remained as empty as its vacant surroundings, because the nearest residents lived 20 minutes away. The activist then pointed in nearly all directions, listing endless sights of toxic undertakings – oil fields to the East and West, fracking, giant factory farms – the list went on.

It was a starting introduction to the day and a strong preview of the stories to come. Less than five minutes into the day, so little made sense. It was the kind of setting that usually makes you pause in brief confusion before continuing on to a better place – but while we’re often taught to dismiss such absurdity, this is the time to ask more questions.


Food.

Leaving the play-turned-shooting grounds, we plunged into the agricultural heart of Kern County towards a story with enough depth to consume our entire day. This journey started at a place called “Green Acres” – an industrial farm used to grow feed for the region’s booming dairy industry. Don’t be fooled by the name – what sounds like the name of a wholesome family farm looks more like the last thing standing in the aftermath of the apocalypse. As a field came into view, a tattered metal archway materialized on the horizon – a jumbled array of missing letters trying to spell out “Green Acres.” Potholes littered the cracked road. Piles of mysterious dust scattered the area. The whole ordeal radiated a serious post-apocalyptic, abandoned-theme-park-vibe, the dystopian aesthetic so strong it almost didn’t seem real.

In fact, “Green Acres” looked browner than it did green – which we soon learned made perfect sense, because the enormous farm is a pile of shit – literally. Still struggling to take in the absurd, ghastly allure of the strange place, our group leader explained that counties from all over California – Los Angeles County, Orange County, Ventura County, and more – transport and dump 5 tons of bio-solid waste at Green Acres, every single day.

5 tons of waste per day – dumped right across the road from the community recreation area that nobody knows about, poured into the fields that feed our cows and later become our beloved Inn n’ Out Burger. 5 tons of waste, trucked from all over the state of California, to reach its final destination in the fields of our food – how could this be real? The company that owns Green Acres claims their field isn’t contaminated because it’s “treated” – but we’ve all heard that one before. How does one “treat” a pile of waste that grows in size by 5 tons every day?  If it’s so safe, why are only cows allowed to eat it, and not people?

While the company insists its great shit experiment doesn’t affect our food, cause for concern is in the air – literally. Because when it comes to the air in Bakersfield, there’s a lot of cause for concern – featuring pollution so uniquely horrendous, I’m fairly certain there are new chemical elements waiting to be discovered in the air. And while much of this pollution comes from oil, gas, and agricultural spraying, it also comes from the region’s thousands of dairy cows eating low-quality, shit-plastered food.

As questions about the disastrous air quality inevitably surfaced, the community activist explained how the region’s “Super-Dairies” have contributed to havoc in the skies. Fed poor-quality food from industrialized farming operations, paired with the other unideal conditions of factory farming, the region’s dairy cows produce extra ammonia in their urine, releasing ammonia emissions into the air. It makes the air noxious, condensates into acid rain,  and unleashes the great Bakersfield smog – leading to high rates of respiratory illnesses and malaise. In Kern County, 1 in 5 children suffer from asthma.

As we listened to the community members speak, the air reeked with the stench of shit from half the state of California. But the absurdity was going strong, and couldn’t possibly end there – and as our group leader pointed across the street to an adjacent field, the story of Green Acres carried on.

Beside the industrial-scale shit-show at Green Acres sat a familiar neighbor: Whole Foods. The hailed “green” grocery chain operates a field across the street from California’s dumping grounds, growing carrots and other vegetables for human consumption that they’ve proudly marketed as “organic.” Noting the short distance of separation entailed by crossing the street, my mind paralyzed in disbelief, the activist began to talk about flooding. I noted the mysterious pools of water that seemed to be everywhere, the Earth flooded even on a day with no rain. And I wondered how an “organic” farm was underway across the street from the dumping site of 5 tons of feces, everyday – and how we could grow human food across the street from a field deemed too toxic for human consumption. In that moment, I felt fully prepared to hurl a lifetime’s worth of eating from the Whole Foods salad bar.

This is not the story we hear as we peruse the colorful aisles of the grocery store, especially in nature-saturated, bourgeois hippie establishments like Whole Foods. As inconsistencies emerge in the story we’re told, we see that we’re faced with two competing visions of one reality – and our perception of the “truth” depends on which side we see. It’s no accident or coincidence that spaces like Green Acres and the surrounding agricultural emptiness look so barren and insignificant. The myth of a healthful, abundant food system cannot flourish if we see these backstories of toxic development and disrepair – and the feeling of “unimportance” we experience as we drive by, our urge to dismiss such vacant spaces, results from very deliberate, conscious efforts to make these places invisible.

We need to be wary of where we are told to look. Because so many of the things we hail as “working” are merely illusions, manipulations of systems that are failing us, and the people most affected rarely get an opportunity to speak. This was our goal that day – to look directly into the places our society has told us to disregard, to plunge past the veil of unimportance that disguises such important truths. It’s not often that we are taught to think in this way, because oftentimes, asking deeper questions reveals truths about our society that we might not like. But we have an obligation to question – we cannot settle for shallow understanding.

Seeking further sight of places made un-seen, we climbed in the vans and left Green Acres behind – but as we carried on, our agricultural upheaval wasn’t over. Not long into our drive down the long, empty road, we pulled over alongside a field that appeared so empty and irrelevant, I thought someone needed to relieve themself. On a normal drive passing by, that would be the only plausible explanation. But what appeared to be just another open field turned out to be a very important site – and quite possibly the most important thing we saw all day. Underneath the sprawling green grass was the entire region’s supply of agricultural water – privatized and owned by one company, buried beneath the Earth in an enormous waterbank. Looking across this field I had labeled as totally irrelevant, we were literally staring at the foundation of Kern County’s agriculture – all of the water, contained beneath one massive field.

I guess you never really know when an inconspicuous field might contain such a gripping, important story – or when it contains the entirety of water used to grow our food. As our group leader explained, this giant supply of water is owned and controlled by the “The Wonderful Company” – the area’s dominant agriculture business, boasting a name as alluring and misleading as their neighbors at “Green Acres” – and it turns out, they operate in a similar way.

Siphoning off and privatizing the region’s water as it trickles down from the Sierra Nevada foothills, The Wonderful Company has domineered complete control over the water system, robbing small farmers as their industrialized farms flourish and take over. With the consolidation and focused control of the region’s water supply, small family farms have gradually disappeared, crushed by the manipulation and dominance of this so-called ‘wonderful’ company. During the drought, the company refused to sell their illegally claimed water altogether – scamming farmers with fake “paper water” certificates and orders that never went through. Looking around, the absence of people suddenly made sense – and the quiet emptiness became loud with this story of corporate domination and forced removal.

Yet this is only one component of the story beneath the field, and inevitably, another question quickly surfaced – why, in one of the most productive agricultural centers in the nation, was the most valuable resource being stored all in one place? It was a disconcerting feeling, realizing my food security dwindled down to this one empty and seemingly insignificant space where ten minutes earlier, I thought one of my classmates was going to take a piss. The concern multiplied as our group leader pointed across the horizon – because while Kern County remains one of the leading producers of vegetables in the nation, it is also the site of tremendous fossil fuel extraction, encircled by some of the largest drilling and fracking operations in the state. To our west, oil and gas fracking was underway.

While you’d expect companies to use caution while extracting so close to our fields of food, fracking operations in Kern County are governed by the same logic underpinning the region’s fields of feces and weaponized parks – it’s completely absurd. Fracking in general produces tremendous amounts of toxic wastewater – which companies in Kern County manage by digging pits, and dumping it into the Earth. Sometimes, it’s encircled by cement casing that gradually erodes over time – leaving this heavily contaminated wastewater dangerously close to our aquifers and groundwater. It’s peculiar rationale, dumping toxic waste into the Earth, adjacent to a pit that contains literally every drop of water used to grow our food.

“What is the logic here?” the activist asked.

It was so deeply irrational and absurd, it almost seemed intentional. Such absurdity could not possibly sprout from the absence of thought – this nonsense takes creativity.

There’s more. While fracking wastewater is typically something you’d want to keep as far away from your food and water as possible, here in Kern County, some companies embrace a different attitude. Water in Kern in expensive and scarce – and despite the toxic metals and fracking fluids siphoned from the bowels of the deep underground, citrus companies like Cuties and Halo use the produced water to irrigate their crops. They simply dilute it with fresh groundwater and call it good – to them, this is resourceful, but to us, it is unsafe. Because looking around, we know there is nothing “resourceful” about water management in Kern County – and if being resourceful and efficient was a key priority, just about everything we’d seen that day would go down differently. Our group leader told us that sometimes you pick up an orange, and actually smell the crude.

It’s surreal how standing in one place for fifteen minutes revealed so much about the state of California’s industrialized agriculture. While the tale we commonly hear is one of productivity and success, the one we heard today evoked a different reality – about air pollution and an asthma epidemic, resource theft and water crisis, the oppression of small farmers, and the erosion of community unity and resilience in the wake of corporate consolidation and control. Listening to the stories of community members working in the fields, we heard first-hand accounts from people crop-dusted with arsenic and poisoned by pesticides. The reality was inconceivable – Injustice and absurdity permeated nearly every aspect of food production.

As we left Kern County’s agricultural fields behind, gravel from the tattered road thundered against the van. Passing the toxic fields of Green Acres, the stolen water, the spaces once inhabited by a rich variety of independent, small farms – I thought about the decrepit road we’re on, and the theoretical one we’ve embarked on together. The path of development we’ve chosen, in which our waste poisons our food, and our food poisons our air, in a brutal self-sabotage invisible to everyone except the local communities that are forced to deal with it. Traveling down this road, the view out the window is not an alluring sight – but we have opportunities to embark on a road that is so much better.

By this time, we were less than an hour into our field trip – and I felt maxed out on seeing things that, in the words of our group leader, “didn’t make sense.” But as we carried on from the ghastly archway to Green Acres, the secret underground waterbank, and the mysterious fields, a deeper story emerged from the landscape’s quiet desolation. Every cracked road, the absence of people and life, the prevailing emptiness – it looked like nothing, but was all because of something.

As we left the sprawling agricultural scene for the heart of northeast Bakersfield, these stories brought life to the quiet, strange surroundings as we saw the great water project in action. Giant water canals wove alongside the road, as bulldozers and giant water pipes littered the ground in abandoned disarray. Our drive through the remainder of the agricultural lands was littered with so much industrial junk, I couldn’t imaginatively comprehend what it all was. Everything had an abandoned quality to it – perhaps serving as a metaphor for the region’s abandonment from public eye. While the community suffers from this resource robbery and ill-development, we take what we want – food, energy, wealth – and walk away. Like how we take from the Earth, and just walk away. It’s the same exploitative thinking.

Energy.

Some of our surroundings now made sense – but one aspect remained as unexplainable and mysterious as before: oil wells and pump-jacks, placed throughout the sprawling fields amidst farms and open space. The random pump-jack became a common theme throughout the day – next to a house, beside a school, in a farm, on the road – misplacement was commonplace. They were as embedded in the ecosystem as a plant or a tree.

The random occurrence of pumpjacks led us into our next venture, as we followed the trail of oil wells into a neighborhood. Standing in the street alongside several rows of family homes, to our right, stood an unfamiliar neighbor: a giant pumpjack, situated directly within the neighborhood as casually as another building or home. We stood on one side of the street, alongside family homes, a school, and a very loud barking dog, as the pumpjack lingered on the other. Imagine drilling for oil or gas, literally in your backyard.

It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but I was wrong – the disaster had already happened. The neighborhood pumpjack isn’t the only dangerous piece of dangerous infrastructure in the community – connecting this site to pumpjacks in the surrounding fields is a small pipeline, that runs directly underneath a row of homes. In 2014, people living on one side of the street suddenly became very ill. They reported feeling sick, dizzy, and disoriented – but nobody knew why. Eventually, a community-led effort conducted testing in people’s homes, revealing “highly explosive” levels of gas.

As it turns out, the pipeline in this neighborhood isn’t subject to regulation because it’s less than four inches in diameter. Because of its small size, companies aren’t required to monitor and regulate the pipeline – which is essentially to say that, if it falls apart or ruptures, it doesn’t matter and it’s nobody’s responsibility.

This is exactly what happened, leaving families subject to an enormous gas leak and forced evacuation for 9 months. The people living across the street weren’t even told what happened – only when they eventually noted the mysterious absence of their neighbors were they told what had happened.

As this story unfolded, a question surfaced – why, several years later, was the pumpjack still on and in the neighborhood? According to our group leader, the pipeline is inactive – but they have to keep the pumpjack generator on so that it doesn’t explode.

As we observed, the smoggy air bore down with an eerie weight. This wasn’t just the weight of the actual air, heavy with toxic pollution – it was the weight of something else, the absurdity sitting in plaint sight, unquestioned and unnoticed as if our surroundings constituted something “normal.” Pipelines leaking into people’s homes, the unfriendly neighborhood pumpjack, homes and schools barricaded by oil extraction – it felt like standing aboard a sinking ship, about to plunge underwater, while all other passengers remain calm and unaware. And one day, everything might just explode.

As we departed the neighborhood and drove down the highway, we pondered this reality – that to the people who live here, this is normal life. The pumpjacks in their yards and playgrounds, their polluted air, their oppressed health and the invisibility of their struggle – powers a nation. Their chemical-ridden fields, exposure to harmful pesticides, lost jobs and stolen water rights, fills our plates. These polluting and harmful practices are the foundation of our food, energy, and development in modernized society- but when some are forced to sacrifice their health, opportunity, and fundamental wellbeing for the disparate betterment of others, is it really accurate to call this “development?”

As we continued down the highway, the smog thickened. So far, everything we’d experienced had emerged from seemingly unexceptional, quiet surroundings: out of random fields, normal looking farms, empty parking lots, quiet neighborhoods. Now, looking out the window, all we could see was grey.

Suddenly, something emerged below that jolted me from my thoughts. Trapped in this thick embrace of greyness, things just sort of erupted out of the smog in a terrifying way – but brief gaps unveiled an eerie sight. It looked like a planet turned inside-out, a landscape drained of all life, trees and what I assumed was once Planet Earth infested with the presence of something sickening. Through the smog, we saw a barren landscape of endless extraction, thousands of pumpjacks disappearing across a hazy horizon. We had arrived at the Kern River Oil Field, one of the largest oil fields in the state of California, located directly within the community of Northern Bakersfield. According to our group leader, this was only the beginning – hidden beneath the smog was 10 more miles of extraction we couldn’t see.

It seems the physical smog can serve as a metaphor for a greater smog that haunts us all. These toxic undertakings – these stories of pollution and poison and un-earthly landscapes – underly the fabric of a modernized, industrialized society, but they are uncomfortable truths that oftentimes, we refuse to see. Our profound unwillingness to confront the unsavory dimensions of our society is reflected in our apathy – that we celebrate innovation and progress, but omit backstories that look like this. If we are going to accept the way our society currently functions, we must accept all parts of it- we can’t just pretend that this side doesn’t exist. To ignore or hide from truth is to live in a perpetual smoggy haze, and it is crippling and toxic. if this reality is something we feel the need to dismiss or hide from, then it is time for a change. we need to ask, is our system really serving us, and more importantly, who is it serving ? Conversations about our environment don’t need to be big scary questions about fighting a battle we cannot win, because it’s a fight that starts with us. It’s about questioning our most basic assumptions, and re-examining the way modern society functions in a way that has not been done. We can’t keep driving blindly forward – get out of the car, and start asking questions. while asking questions summoned some difficult realities for my classmates on this day, it also brought remarkable clarity. it’s a freeing feeling when you experience the full truth.

Down a Different Road

Departing down the road we’d driven earlier that day, a striking landscape painted multiple realities. On one side of the road, towered massive McMansions, enormous homes and grandiose establishments, the epitome of excess and luxury. But if you turned your head and glanced at the other side of the street, you’d see a starkly different image: the vacant fields, abandoned pipelines, and leftovers of an exploited landscape. If you looked out one window, you’d see the excessive luxury and product of development – but if you looked out the other, you saw the depleted aftermath of industrial development. It was like seeing two different versions of the same story. And I realized that the version we hold as truth, the reality we see, depends entirely on which side of the street we choose to look at.

For many of us living in California, we see the nice side of the street. We see the development, energy, and prosperity produced by industrial undertakings. We live the myth of California as an environmental pioneer and beacon of health and opportunity for all. But to the communities cast aside as sacrificial victims of our industrialized consumption and development, their reality is starkly different – and we must be open to hearing multiple truths.

To communities involuntarily ousted from visions of development, their reality is less idyllic. It’s one where the pursuit of “modernization” poisons the air, sickens and pollutes; where community unity and independence is strangled by the domination of a few powerful actors. It’s one where ugly infrastructure – gaslines, pumpjacks, giant oil fields – haunt every aspect of everyday life, where the morning drive to work is decorated with ghastly landscapes of toxic extraction. It’s one where food sickens as air breeds disease, where people are so heavily dosed with pesticides that their bodies have acclimated and gone “nose-blind.” It’s a less pleasant reality, that we can choose not to see – but to ignore these truths is to dismiss an important component of the system we’ve accepted, and ignores that the development and luxuries we enjoy are made possible by these enduring legacies of inequity and injustice.

If we disapprove of this dynamic, then something within our system needs to change. The institutionalized vulnerability and marginalization of others occurs through no fault of our own – I don’t think any of us ever intend to oppress or harm others. We all have the right to energy, clean food and water, our health and wellbeing – but do we want to achieve these things in a way that oppresses, poisons, and sickens others? Why not strive for a system that delivers our needs equally and justly – that enhances community unity, participation, and wellbeing – so that development for some isn’t rooted in the domination and exploitation of others?

Kern County, and the other industrial centers of modern society, can be described as what environmental justice scholar Rob Nixon calls “unimagined communities” – people and communities erased from visions of development and progress. Their polluted environments, resource robbery, and institutionalized vulnerability are a necessary means to a better end for other members of society – but when so-called progress stems from the existence of purposefully neglected spaces, is it really accurate to call it “development?”

What we have here is not a depressing story about society that nobody wants to hear – it’s an invigorating opportunity to catalyze real change. It’s a powerful reminder – that we do not face a merely ecological catastrophe rooted in a nature-appreciation deficit – but that the world we’ve constructed is built upon legacies of enduring racism, inequality, and injustice, and we cannot achieve a stable, cohesive, balanced world or healthy ecosystems until we fundamentally change this. Hopefully we can change these unsavory dynamics, and achieve a world where “toxics tours” aren’t even possible, because there’s nothing “toxic” to “tour.”


Field trips may end as we enter adulthood but what should never end is our curiosity and willingness to ask questions. Of all the truths discovered that day, this is the most important. Because we can carry on with life, and just drive by – but you never know what lies beneath an empty field or space of desolation, and as we saw that day, the quietest spaces speak the loudest lessons. Dare to ask deeper questions – because absurdity envelops us in enduring and silent ways, and we cannot continue down an agonizing road paralyzed by silence.

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