Sayd Randle is an environmental anthropologist and a freelance writer. A PhD candidate at Yale University, her work explores the cultural politics of climate adaptation in the American West. She lived in Los Angeles in 2014 and 2015, conducting ethnographic and archival research on urban water provision in Southern California. Working with water engineers, planners, and activists, she gathered data on L.A.’s ongoing efforts to “relocalize” its precarious water supply. In addition to her dissertation, she is using this material to write a popular book about the hidden histories of L.A.’s waterscape. Her research has been supported by grants from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology, and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. Her scholarly work has appeared in numerous edited volumes and refereed journals, and her essays have been featured on The Awl and Sage Magazine. She also holds degrees from Williams College and the University of Cambridge.
SAYD RANDLE ON dreams of the new world:
I’m committed to drawing critical research into broad cultural conversations, and I see dreams of the new world as an exciting example of this kind of work. Joining this project to lead research and interviews, my job was to seek out stories and histories across the U.S. West to capture both structuring social trends and particular lived experiences. Trained as an ethnographer with deep ties to the region I found the process of working on this piece both familiar and constantly surprising, pushing me to understand the West in new ways.
This work was always meant to be a story about the frontier in the U.S. West, but not necessarily a frontier story. Those tend to require erasure, elision, and forgetting. Long-peopled lands must become “empty” for explorers to chart and pioneers to settle. Resources and fortunes-to-be-made need to be foregrounded, the physical risk and environmental destruction of extraction obscured. They’re also marked by an unflagging orientation towards the future, focused on questions of what comes next rather than towards the future, focused on questions of what comes next rather than mediations on what came before. We meant to do something different, excavating both the dreams and ghosts of a frontiers past. The aim was to build a piece heavy with the weight of history, a work that shed light on the many ways that people living different frontiers have marked (and continue to shape) the region.
To develop the work, we sought people and places and documents, bringing our questions about aspiration and desire and memory and forgetting. Our research drew us to people and places whose frontier-ness was immediately legible. We talked to the charismatic Mars rover designer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and gawked at the drilling rigs docked off the Port of Houston between deep sea excursions. But keeping the erasures of frontier-thinking in mid also drew us to less obvious stories and landscapes. Last November, we walked down Memphis’s Beale Street, seeking traces of a man we’d been reading about for months. Robert R. Church had once owned many of the lots on this thoroughfare. Born into slavery in 1839, Church began life as a free man in Memphis is the city’s first Black saloon proprietor in 1866. Before long, he was a very wealthy man and a symbol of new possibilities for the city’s Black residents. Today, the Memphis landscape bears limited marks of Church’s legacy, and few Memphians know his name – a typical form of frontier erasure.
Living in a frontier-minded place, it’s easy to find oneself in the thrall of the possibilities of the next form of boundary-pushing. Today’s technological, scientific, and extraterrestrial frontiers come wrapped in promises of a future unlike any we’ve seen before, the good life glittering just around the corner, The stories here allow us to both appreciate the heady excitement of such dreams and consider then as part of a familiar pattern.