July 09, 2017

Photo Essay: Militarizing the Marshland

The human race has always found a way to weaponize nature. And as a result, it always seems like we humans are fighting against nature rather than working with it.

And what we've discovered we can do with the fruits of the land and see is just baffling sometimes.

You could carve a stone into an arrowhead. That's pretty basic. You could even take it a step farther and add secretions from a poison dart frog to make it deadlier.

But did you know that you could make gunpowder out of algae?

Well, not exactly gunpowder—but a "propellant" called cordite that was meant to similarly be a low explosive (as opposed to a bomb) but without all the smoke of traditional firearm ammunition.

And, more precisely, a type of algae that you can harvest from California's abundant, underwater kelp forests.

During the shortages of WWI in the early 20th century, that's exactly what happened at a kelp factory located at "Gunpowder Point," now part of the San Diego Bay Sweetwater Marsh, a unit of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

From the nitrate-rich giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera, which was ground up, liquefied, and then fermented to create "kelp liquor"), the processing plant on a 30-acre tideland produced potash, which is used to make cordite.

The plant was owned by the biggest of the 11 California kelp companies in 1916, The Hercules Powder Company—and its 1000+ employees were on the job around the clock and arrived to work on the "Potash Special" trolley from the E Street station in Chula Vista (then known as "Potash Junction").

After the seaweed processing plant closed in 1920, the area later transformed into the nation's largest cottonseed warehouse for refining oil products, owned by San Diego Oil Products Corporation.

After a 1929 fire, the land reverted back to nature, shifting its focus from industrial to agricultural.

But many of the relics remain.

And there's something ominous about this place...

...but maybe it's just the energy that the crew for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes left behind after they shot their B movie there.

You won't find any members of the deadly nightshade family there today...

...but you will find large swaths of the invasive ice plant, which chokes the water and nutrient supply from all the neighboring native plants, killing them off.

The main use for Sweetwater Marsh now is as the location of the Living Coast Discovery Center, an aquatic-leaning zoo of sorts...

...where pretty much the only "attacks" you'll see are at feeding time when the green sea turtles munch on romaine lettuce and broccoli...

...and in the beavertail cactus, where giant spiders take a spin around their prey.

The snowy egret might pick a fight with the night heron...

...but otherwise, the ruddy duck takes a snooze in the shadows...

...the black oystercatcher sidles up to the corner of the cage...

...and the white-faced ibis preens itself.

The real action, however, doesn't happen in the "Shorebird Aviary" or even "Raptor Row"—but just outside a side door, around the corner from the observation deck.

There, you'll find an entire row of cliff swallows' nests...

...where actual swallows fly to and fro...

...and pause to take a peek out to the outside world...

...while babies wait eagerly for a snack to arrive...

...cheeping in wild anticipation.

At Mission San Juan Capistrano, our tour guide told our group that we wouldn't be able to take a photo of a swallow even if we wanted to because they flit around so quickly (and seemingly erratically). He said our only hope was to start shooting video and to wait.

But that turns out not to be true, if you find enough nests at the right time of year and the right time of day, as I did in Chula Vista.

Let's hope people leave them alone.

Further Reading:
Chula Vista kelp factory helped win World War I San Diego Union Tribune
Gunpowder Point History — South Bay Historical Society

Related Posts:
Basking in the Gloom at Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Photo Essay: The Lost Lake of the Owens Valley
Photo Essay: Jewel of the Missions, Shelter for the Swallows

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