Fence for the Amargosa Desert is made up of 210 glass bottles salvaged from the desert in Rhyolite, Nevada. The bottles hang on a fence adjacent to a barn owned by the Goldwell Open Air Museum. The Fence is activated by the omnipresent wind that blows through the Amargosa Desert, producing sound or lying silent depending on the prevailing weather patterns. It sits on a site looking west across the broad desert plain towards California and the Funeral Mountains that separate the Amargosa from Death Valley National Park. The piece is a product of living and working in the desert as an Artist in Residence at the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
In June of 2010, I left Los Angeles and set out for Rhyolite, Nevada – a ghost town on the eastern edge of Death Valley, just over the border from California. Rhyolite is at the northern end of the Amargosa Desert, sitting at 3,800 feet above sea level on the eastern edge of Death Valley. The broad flatness of the Amargosa is dominated by creosote scrub, a slow growing plant with a small, resinous flower. On the average June day, you can smell the creosote’s musty medicinal sweetness while looking onto a near silent plain eighty miles across the desert with this yellow-green scrub as far as you can see.
Living near Rhyolite in the small town of Beatty, the heat of the day would reach 115 degrees, and I soon learned about the rhythm of living in the Amargosa Desert. Mornings were spent writing, hiking, listening and sketching my impressions of the landscape. This included a practice of taking field recordings to document the local soundscape, although most of my recordings turned out to be nearly silent. If they weren’t silent, then they were ruined by the pervasive wind. Through all of this, I continued to find objects from early mining practices like cans, ceramics, parts of old camp stoves, and glass bottles. These objects were left behind by the residents of Rhyolite, Beatty, and the Bullfrog Mining District.
The town of Rhyolite came into being during the gold rush of the early 1900s. A gold vein was found running in the Bullfrog Hills that soon brought thousands to the Amargosa Desert. The town of Rhyolite grew from a two-man camp in January 1905 to 2,500 people that June. The town grew into a city by 1907 with a population somewhere over 6,000 residents. At its peak, Rhyolite had “concrete sidewalks, electric lights, water mains, telephone and telegraph lines, daily and weekly newspapers, a monthly magazine, police and fire departments, a hospital, school, train station and railway depot, at least three banks, a stock exchange, an opera house, a public swimming pool and two formal church buildings.” When the vein ran out and the stock of the mining company devalued, folks moved on. By 1910, the population dropped to 675 residents, and by 1916 the town was all but abandoned. I was really surprised to find so few buildings left in Rhyolite – but wood is valuable in the west. Much of Rhyolite was disassembled board-by-board, packed onto wagons and moved to the next claim. Other buildings were moved to nearby Beatty to become bars, homes and a schoolhouse. Many of these buildings stand to this day.
I spent much of my time hiking around Rhyolite, walking the land and tracking down old mines. These hikes were pivotal in my understanding of the desert, encountering both the naturally occurring ecology and the altered landscape. In the Amargosa, manmade mountains stand right next to naturally occurring geology. One mountain shows the geological strata organized age by age, while the other is a jumble of crushed stone, one paleolithic generation next to the other. You can hike across each noticing the change of texture underfoot. As you hike further into a site you often find a deep canyon, also manmade. This is where they removed gold from the land. Being an environmentally mindful person, I anticipated a lot of discontentment about the mining in the local area, but rather it became part of a complicated relationship that residents have with their land. I saw large hawks that called these manmade canyons home. During my time at Rhyolite, I grew into a solemn comfort with the desert. Mountains surround the Amargosa, and some stand as artifacts from the mining process while others remain unaltered. No one mountain is more true or present in their patience over the land, permissive to man’s actions. The tracks of trucks that tore through the desert hauling ore have created highways of changed ecology, but the desert is slowly growing back. It seems equally unstoppable as it is fragile.
On the outskirts of Rhyolite near the location of the fence, there were a series of encampments for wayfaring prospectors and more nomadic types. These 100-year-old tent sites compacted the land in such a way that the local flora still can’t grow there. Nearby these camps you’ll find small trash dumps; manmade gulches that have found new inhabitants in jackrabbits, birds, snakes and a variety of lizards that call them home. These impressions on the land are the most humble and intimate marks that I found during my time in the desert. So much of man’s actions in Nevada involve large invasive actions, but the presence of a body resting against the ground has affected the local scrub in such a way that we can still see their imprint 100 years later. I suspect the fence might end up like these sites; an intimate imprint on the land, a crumbling presence, a density of broken glass, a collection of wire tied around bottlenecks.
 “Rhyolite, Nevada.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 July 2012. Web. 31 July 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhyolite,_Nevada>
Video/Audio: © 2012 Chris Kallmyer.
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