Mailing List

Comprehensive (a few years ago) in island hopping, I toured on the rippling surface above, they say, “folding and faulting geography,” across a coastal divide. It was a tour to arrive at the shore of each of California’s Channel Islands. Or all of the accessible ones. San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands mark an opposition, as active sites of the Navy’s Weapon’s Training, to the rest: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Catalina Islands. The former two military islands raise difficulties of access (at least if you’re not in the Navy). And, finally, Santa Barbara Island is often closed for an 11-month-long Brown Pelican breeding season, and for those who rely on the Park Service Ferry, inaccessible. A storm nine years ago bashed its dock beyond repair, so that, during that one month of the year when Pelicans aren’t fucking and raising their children, you can sail your own boat and swim your way to its shores. And, that Navy-claimed San Clemente Island sometimes hosts fishing trips and, as long as the military is not actively shooting at you, allows you to step on shore. So, speaking of inaccessibility, only San Nicolas Island, with no National Park Service Ferry, nor public access, remains out of reach. 

The photographer Trevor Paglen agrees with this assessment. He’s a photographer who shoots telescopically, concerned with space out of reach. An astrophotography telescope, to image and explore distant regions of space, attaches to his camera. If he zoomed far enough he might hit the limit of our vision. How far can you see before objects begin to blur and break down? He agrees with this assessment when he zooms in at dusk to a brown-orange horizon blocked by a small dark mound. Three images, ambiguously out of focus, render a murky San Nicolas Island, like large accidental exposure. Its form is barely distinguished from the black ocean beneath its shores. The images are difficult to read, so Paglen comes in, at the end of his book, saying that he’s “interested in the limits of the visible world,” and relationships like imaging and knowing. Through his book depicting (or not) places we cannot get to, Palgen pokes at fuzziness and murky boundaries, using words like “epistemological,” “empiricism and imagination” to try to help us imagine our knowledge and unknowledge, and what we can and cannot know. Which is a lot for a photo to bear. 

Paglen’s series of images become abstractions, pointing, through their concrete names, to real-life-places as stand-ins for the unknown, and for what we might never know. (Would it be a surprise if I told you Paglen earned a degree in Religious Studies?) At least, “unknowing” might be how it seems to our coastline perception. A blurry photo becomes (paired with Paglen’s ponderings!) an approximation of a world just out of reach from where we stand on the sands of our mainland beaches. We could stand here mystified. 

And, inland, to the sands with no beaches, near the Mojave Desert’s Kelso Dunes, Andrew and I worked to take pictures and videos of volunteers. Neon vests dotted the shrubby landscape as members of the Wilderness Volunteers pulled up invasive mustard plants hiding in the wrong desert. I wandered around until one woman, bending down to tear up a bundle of the bad plant, paused, exclaiming a desire to swap her hat for one stitched with WV. She took it off, looked at it, and showed it to me. “Another great volunteer organization,” she said. The hat said “Channel Islands Restoration.” She took a look at my hat as I took her photo. “Oh! The Channel Islands! Have you gone recently?” I told her that I had gone to all the islands you could get to with the National Park Service Ferry a few years ago. She said she had worked with the Restoration and had gone to one of the islands. “Oh, Santa Cruz Island? I know they’re doing restoration work there.” No, she said. San Nicolas Island. Invited through a mailing list. “The Navy flew us out!” 

Where a thinker like Paglen images a limit, a woman in the desert proclaims a different testimony. While Paglen’s images mystify what they claim not to capture, this woman proclaims no mystery: only a reference to a mailing list. A mailing list! Someone tell Trevor! And one day, unlike Trevor, I might actually do something about this silly little unknowing and fly, with people who pull up weeds for fun, to the island. Paglen might be good at aestheticizing mystery to the point of belief, but, this woman, unlike Paglen, needs no mystery. She has a hat to prove it.