Ginger Strand / Jasmine An

Infrastructure of the Dream | Ginger Strand / Jasmine An


Ginger Strand spots the dirt driveway off the side of the Theodore Roosevelt highway and seconds later she’s pulling her little Prius into a U-turn. I hold on to my seat as we bump over potholes and ridges. “Hopefully we don’t get stuck,” she says, only half joking, as she maneuvers the car cautiously down a steep hill. At the bottom is our target, a small, boarded-up building next to a few Eiffel tower-esque transformers surrounded by a chain-link fence. We get out of the car and Strand peers through a crack in the boards, pointing out the two generators nestled into the floor before directing my gaze upwards to the ceramic discs crowning the transformers that provide insulation between the small hydro-plant and the power lines. This is not the first time in our short acquaintance that Strand has pulled over to examine a roadside dam. Our expedition from her home in New York City to the Wildbranch Writing Workshop in upstate Vermont and back has provided plenty of diversions for a writer who spent several years of her career devoted to hydro-infrastructure.

Strand moved several times in her childhood but grew up primarily on a small farm in the middle of rural Michigan. She then attended Kalamazoo College, a small, in-state liberal arts school. While at Kalamazoo, she studied away for a semester in New York City, following her interest in writing by working as an editorial intern with the Paris Review.  After graduating from Kalamazoo, she returned to the East coast to earn her Ph.D. in English at Princeton with the goal of becoming a professor so she could have a writing career. However, during the process of two postdoctoral fellowships, one at Columbia and one at Princeton, Strand says she realized that “teaching was not going to leave me time to do the writing I wanted to do.” So she left academia and began to make her living as a full-time, freelance writer.

Strand considers herself a “writer of narrative nonfiction, and a little bit of a cultural critic.” Strand’s first book, Flight, was a novel set in rural Michigan. Then her fascination with infrastructure surfaced in a road trip she took with her partner, Bob. They made it a point to see all the hydro-infrastructure, dams, canals, locks, and reservoirs that they could. Inventing Niagara, Strand’s second book, was sparked during that road trip, and published in 2008 after extensive research on the hidden history of the iconic falls. Her latest book, Killer on the Road, which came out in April 2012, tackled another piece of iconic American infrastructure, the interstate highway system. “Infrastructure is like the dream of society,” says Strand in a 2008 interview with Orion Magazine. “It’s like a culture’s dreams made visible. It says something about the kind of world that we want to live in, and at the same time, it tends to be invisible.” Strand’s books make infrastructure visible. She challenges us to think of infrastructure not as happenstance but rather: “a decision that the nation made to support a certain kind of lifestyle.” In addition to her books, Strand is a contributing editor at Orion Magazine, and she has also been published in Harpers, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review, The New York Times, and This Land.

Even though she is a contributing editor to Orion, which is known for its strong nature writing, Strand does not consider herself a “nature writer” and her appreciation for infrastructure and human manipulation of the environment means that she does not always take the “standard eco line.” Infrastructure and human interaction with the environment is something that should be “looked at with open eyes.” In her words: “I think it should be an ongoing process of asking, is this infrastructure still representing what our dreams are about?” Strand uses her writing as an investigative tool to piece together the unknown, hidden, and oft-ignored stories behind great engineering feats like Niagara Falls and the Interstate Highway System. This includes the mention of the environmental costs, but she also encourages us to appreciate the nobility present in a beautiful bridge or reservoir. In her Orion interview, Strand says, “If it’s the infrastructure we want, we ought to celebrate it because it is a form of community action.”

Through her writing, Strand shows us the delicate balancing act that each of us must confront in our own lives and as a culture. She reminds us of the echo across time created every time an aquifer is emptied or a pipeline put in place.  In an e-mail, Strand wrote to me that she finds her work revolving around the themes of “how culture gets made, human hubris vis a vis nature, weird science, our impulse to remake the world, and of course, our old friend, death. We all write mostly about death.” And that makes perfect sense. The Panama Canal, Niagara Falls, the Interstate system are all, in a way, attempts at immortality. Society’s frozen dreams cast in stone, steel and reinforced concrete remind us that while our individual lives may be a fleeting presence on this earth, our decisions and our infrastructure will outlive us.

Jasmine An is a student at Kalamaoo College, studying english, psychlogy and creative writing.  Spring 2013 at NYAP, she's interning with Poetry Society, the Geurilla Girls, and the Bureau of General Services Queer Division.