n September 2018, an international group of scholars and artists gathered at the University of California (UC) Davis to analyze our relationships to “everyday militarism.” As the hosts, we wanted to introduce our guests to the beauty of our campus through a walking tour of the campus Arboretum. Ducks and herons nest along Putah Creek which meanders along the south end of our sprawling university, surrounded by both California native plants and foliage brought from around the world. In our initial research into the Arboretum’s history, we came across two sentences in an old issue of the official UC Davis Magazine. The article casually noted the closure of the entire campus during World War II and its transformation into the Western Signal Corps School, an active military base and training school for radio and radar technicians to be deployed to the Pacific Theater. The paragraph concludes
Instead of students gathering to study or relax, the arboretum was a setting for soldiers creeping through brush and under the old oak trees along Putah Creek. Explosives were tested in the arboretum's waterway.

Image 1: Explosives going off in Putah Creek. Source: UC Davis Special Collections.

So much is hidden in these two short sentences—the image of soldiers hiding and bombs going off amidst an otherwise sublime landscape, the university’s declaiming of responsibility through the passive voice—which open up a myriad of questions of the legacies of colonial, imperial, and racial violence hidden in plain sight, in sites we visit every day for work and pleasure. Based on this initial research, we organized what has become an ongoing project, the Militarized Arboretum of UC Davis Walking Tour. We have now led the walking tour three times, for almost 200 participants: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and visitors. A larger public event and an online “virtual tour” are in the works. 

Here we aim to learn from, not about, a place where we have spent countless hours during our academic training—yet which is rarely considered beyond its botanical significance or natural beauty, let alone a subject worthy of theorizing. We conceptualize our walking tour methodology as an embodied approach to the archive, both a research tool and a pedagogical approach which allows us to carry our archives as we move through campus and beyond. Here, we visit a few sites on our tour: the Arboretum as both a wild and cultivated space; the militarized infrastructure that stretches from the UC Davis campus to sites beyond; and the possibilities still hidden in plain sight, whether in archival boxes or the landscape itself.  

The Militarized Arboretum

Arboreta are botanical gardens, consisting of diverse plant collections to be used both for ongoing study and also for recreation and leisure. Knowles Ryerson, founder of the UC Davis Arboretum which opened in 1936, explained why he chose Putah Creek for the garden, saying, “I had always been interested in plantings; and here was a chance to do something along the creek on campus… It was the one natural feature we had” (Ryerson, 1977). On our walking tour, we ask our participants, what did Ryerson mean by singling out Putah Creek as the “one natural feature” on campus?

UC Davis was founded first as a satellite of UC Berkeley and known as the “University Farm” in 1909, then as the affiliated but separate University of California College of Agriculture in 1922. Only after World War II did Davis become its own university in the system, in 1959. As a public, land-grant university, the University of California has always been a site of both “ambiguity and conflict.” (Goldstein, Paprocki, and Osborne, 2019, 674) Founded in the midst of the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 created land-grant institutions (one per US state). The founding mission was ostensibly to embody “progressive values” by conducting social and economic research, particularly around agricultural development, for the public good, and by training new generations of civic leaders. Yet in order to secure the vast land needed for horticultural and agronomic experimentation, land-grant institutions were sited in rural areas, on land sometimes only recently and always violently wrested from Native Americans, particularly in the American West. 

UC Davis sits on P’atwin (Southern Wintun) land. The dispossession of California Indians from their land is based on a racialized, capitalist understanding of property, one which associates specific agricultural practices—measurement, orderly rows, specific crops and technologies—as productive “cultivation” for maximum yield and surplus accumulation (Fields, 2017; Bhandar, 2018). Spanish and Anglo colonists refused to recognize California Indian practices of managing oak stands, chaparral, and wetlands in the Central Valley. California Indians were themselves not seen as fully human, but instead viewed as “part of nature.” Thus when Ryerson arrived in Davis in 1933, he saw Putah Creek cutting through the midst of the orderly, cultivated plots of southern Yolo County, and both admired the riparian habitat as a pristine “natural” wilderness and one whose nature could only be preserved through improvement. The “wilderness” of the Arboretum would serve as a perfect setting for the Western Signal Corps field training, a stand-in for the dense foliage of the Pacific Islands where more people were being displaced, yet one that was also securely embedded in the US “continental empire” and therefore, already tamed (Karuka, 2019). 

Image 2: A Western Signal Corps soldier crouches in the bushes of the Arboretum; a building can be seen in the far background. Source: UC Davis Special Collections.

The colonial nature of the Arboretum expands beyond California, troubling a domestic and foreign divide in US imperial geographies. As profiled in his official UC obituary, Ryerson built the arboretum with California native plants and also on a collection culled from his years of work around the world with the USDA Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introductions. Before he took the job at Davis, he traveled to Palestine with the “Committee of Experts” led by former UC professor Dr. Elwood Mead; serving as the horticultural expert to advise Zionist agronomists on how to develop their agricultural settlement program. While the campus was shut down during World War II and immediately afterwards, Ryerson worked for the US military on developing agricultural research stations in the South Pacific and served as an adviser in the creation of the new US imperial governments in Guam and Samoa.  

However, despite settler-colonial violence, Patwin and other California Indian peoples and their lifeways persist on the land, a point reinforced at the Native American Contemplative Garden in the Arboretum. P’atwin elders and UC Davis Native American Studies fought for the recognition of California Indian presence after construction at the massive Mondavi arts complex across the creek uncovered interred P’atwin remains. The Contemplative Garden showcases California Indian botanical cultivation, and a memorial to the P’atwin people who were held captive at Mission Solano. A virtual walking tour of the Arboretum from a P’atwin knowledge of the land theorizes what this place means from an Indigenous cosmology. Originally, Native scholars,  community members, and allies conceptualized the Contemplative Garden as part of a series of icons and markers around campus aimed at “disrupting the settler grammar” of the campus (Goeman, 2014). However, the university pushed this plan off, and currently the Contemplative Garden stands alone, hidden even to those who walk or jog through the Arboretum on a daily basis. A second marker was finally unveiled at the Mondavi Performing Arts Center in late 2019, announcing the presence of the P’atwin village at the site, and keeping open the unfinished project of recognition and reparations. 

Image 3: The P’atwin plaque at the Mondavi Performing Arts Center bordering the Arboretum. Source: Gabi Kirk.


UC Davis, founded as the agricultural extension of the University of California system, produces knowledge that is both site-specific and abstract. However, since the end of World War II, the university has shifted its focus away from local agricultural output and experiential learning in favor of processes for agricultural improvement. The campus laboratories and fields now serve not as a distinctive garden with unique crops, but more as a universal medium to optimize for better and higher yield. The success of this approach means that the university cultivates methods that are exported globally. Thus, UC Davis innovations— from the genetic to the ecological to the technological—end up on the kitchen tables and in the wine glasses of the nation and, increasingly, the world.

Not coincidentally, this shift in emphasis to process and mediums can be discerned in the Signal Corps’ commandeering of the campus 75 years ago. The mission of the Signal Corps is to produce signals and information, resonances and emanations, and to define medium as the substrate for communication. The abstraction of messages into new technologies—radio and radar—disavowed spatial limitations and privileged linkages across discrete locations.

The Army opened the Western Signal Corps School at Davis in close proximity to the Signal Corps Replacement Center at Camp Kohler, north of Sacramento. The campus was useful for a variety of obvious reasons: in addition to its convenient location to an existing Signal Corps base, the dormitories, classroom buildings, and recreational facilities transitioned easily from housing students to housing soldiers. In fact, such amenities (“hot and cold showers, soft bunks, and airy classrooms”) stood in stark contrast to wartime conditions, leading the military to lament that Davis “left the soldiers…not entirely ready for the physical hardships in theaters of war.” (Thompson and Harris, 1991, 525) 

The infantrymen, mechanics, and officers were not the only ones who faced a rough transition. The US military sought to make terrain orderly and productive, but met with mixed results on the ground when leaving California’s Central Valley for the dense rainforests of the Pacific. For the Army’s “harvest,” in place of plows, “the campus became an exercise ground for stringing telephone systems across open fields, setting up battlefield communication centers, and learning to infiltrate behind enemy lines.” (Scheuring, 2001, 67) For as we noted, the Signal Corps conducted both munitions testing and radio field tests in the extensive Arboretum, evidently with the hopes that the California semi-arid oak woodland would be an adequate substitute for tropical rainforest in the Pacific Islands. 

During a war of global proportions, the Signal Corps was tasked with mastering strategic communication across distances. As forms of “modular media,” radio and radar, being tools of standardized measurement and dissemination, turn landscapes into symbols in order to modularly abstract information about a place. Both string together discrete yet interchangeable units to allow for their use in and across diverse physical environments, creating a seamless and unbroken flow of information. Such technoscientific modularity, used in service of mid-century US imperialism in the Pacific, built upon the earlier global “modular quality of colonial perceptions and policies,” producing and ordering knowledge about landscape and communications (Stoler, 2010, 78). 

Image 4: A page from the Western Signal Corps School memory book, depicting the radio training and research based in Hart Hall. Source: UC Davis Special Collections.

However, overcoming the recalcitrance of a particular ground—its physical topography, the challenges or opportunities geography poses to building infrastructure, and the interactions between logistical structures and local organisms—is not an easy feat. In fact, as Lauren Benton has noted, the “modular condition of empire” often counter-intuitively “render[s] imperial sovereignty elusive” (2010, 299). When engineers and soldiers left the training grounds in Davis, the reality of a “smooth transmission” in the Pacific was anything but:

“While circling the globe, the Signal Corps encountered a variety of problems. [...] To withstand the torrid climate of the Pacific islands, where field wire deteriorated in just a few weeks, signal equipment required ‘tropicalization,’ such as spraying it with shellac, to provide protection from heat, moisture, rust, and fungus. Other tropical hazards included the ants of New Guinea, which attacked the insulation on telephone wires and radio connections.” (Raines, 1996)

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the university also attempted to achieve standardization, which can be seen in the built environment of campus architecture. Generic, modernist architecture pervades the UC Davis campus, symbolically reflecting the positivist assertions that undergirds much of the research undertaken here. On the walking tour, our reading of Shields Library exposes how campus architectural design offered material evidence, via plate glass and aluminum, of a belief in the interchangeability and standardization of knowledge (see image 5). In contrast, the natural world remained safely contained in the Arboretum.

Image 5: Soldiers train in radio technology at the Western Signal Corps School during World War II at Shields Library. Source: UC Davis Special Collections.

In establishing the pursuit of standardized, universal knowledge as the goal, the university cloaked its role in imperialism as insignificant, or even benevolent. Abundant Harvest, the official written history of UC Davis, offers a single remark on the academic research which continued during the Signal Corps School occupation of the campus: “A small research unit in the just-completed chemistry building was engaged in early work on the chemistry of uranium for what would later become the Manhattan Project.” (Scheuring, 2001: 67) The university’s institutional history casts particles of radioactive decay, radio waves, and radar signals as inconsequential because they are invisible, as transformative because they transcend barriers—and in doing so, avoids accountability for its militarization and role in waging war in the atomic age, resulting in the deaths and sickening of hundreds of thousands. 

As scholars and teachers, therefore, we must wrestle with how to track the legacy of the Signal Corps, an Army division that specializes in operating “everywhere” but which does not account for the material damage it inflicts on very particular places. The violent effects of the Signal Corps uncovered by our tour are multiple and linked, yet also specific: from settler colonial dispossession and genocide in California and New Mexico, to US imperial violence across the Pacific. We struggle with how best to excavate and analyze these entangled stories in a way that does not replicate the universal logics undergirding past and ongoing colonial and imperial expansion. 


Unlike official commemorations which claim historical disjuncture  and closure despite lingering violence, our inquiry here into signals, past and present, links multiple colonial, genocidal campaigns. However, it is difficult to find material archival traces of such ephemeral signals.

In contrast to signals, when we research subjects we have an easier time finding archival evidence–-although physical materials may disintegrate,  erode, or calcify. These material remains can sometimes be rejuvenated through the affective pulse of social memory. New stories emerge as we carry our partial archives through the institutional spaces of our daily routines; conversations shift guided by once mundane details now are called poignantly to our attention. Discussions in hallways feature anecdotes that became suddenly relevant to us because our project has become a locus for recognizing the haunting, scant traces that the military unintentionally leaves on our campus—despite its best efforts to obscure these histories.

The allure of an archive itself is iterative, and does not cease to do its work once a document box is reshelved. Marisa J. Fuentes has deftly articulated this while tackling the paucity of records related to enslaved women in the Caribbean, explaining that “other knowledge can be produced from archival sources if we apply the theoretical concerns of both cultural studies and critical historiography to our sources.” (Fuentes 2016) While the locations and periodizations are quite distinct, Fuentes’ approach has informed our understanding of the affective, corporeal shifts that comprise the archive of UC Davis’s militarized history while also reminding us of the profoundly intimate imbrications between the multiple locations of US empire.

Image 6: The cork oaks growing outside of Mrak Hall, next to the Arboretum. Source: Gabi Kirk

One such trace emerged while chatting with Dr. Bettina Ng’weno of UC Davis’ African and African American Studies department. After she asked about the tours we had completed earlier that spring, she made an offhand remark that the cork trees on campus were consistently misrecognized and falsely attributed to the study of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. Winemaking research is quite profitable for the university presently, but this omnipresent flora was actually the result of WWII efforts at strategic cultivation. David A. Taylor has explained how “the American cork industry” became “a matter of national security” during WWII as “cork had become an irreplaceable ingredient of modern warfare”, noting that “it was in everything from bomber plane gaskets and insulation to tanks, submarines, cartridge plugs, and bomb parts” (Taylor, 2018: 65).  Both of us had walked by a cork tree and knocked on its oddly percussive folded bark but gave it no further attention. After a quick search, we found ourselves engaging with another tour brochure, this one produced officially by the university. The “Peter J. Shields Oak Grove Self-Guided Tour” contained this otherwise unremarkable caption, nestled among bright graphics, hidden in plain sight on the page: “During World War II, many cork oaks were planted on the UC Davis campus in order to address cork shortages during the war. Today, the cork oaks across campus are celebrated for their unique beauty and large size.” We had found another sublime, “natural” feature to emerge from cycles of occupation and warfare, and another path to take on our future tours. 

The overlapping inseparability of past and present, civilian and military, and progress and destruction are as grooved as the ribboning of cork oak bark. The university both acknowledges and disavows these furrows in its landscapes and its official stories. Fostering the “other knowledge” that Fuentes so remarkably delineates, we can rehabituate how we approach those grooves, and what we make of their depth, their import, and the hollow yet resonant chords they make when we knock on the ridges on their surface.

Other essays from this forum include:

Editors' Letter.  Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site, Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea. 

The Explosivity of Kelp, Javier Arbona

Residue and Restoration: Hiking through Militarized Landscapes, Toby Beauchamp

Selfies and Submarines: The Social Media of Military Recruitment, Stella Maynard

On Landmines and Suspicion: How (not) to Walk Explosive Fields, Diana Pardo Pedraza


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Raines RR (1996) Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Signal Corps. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History.
Ryerson KA (1977) “The world is my campus,” interviewed by Joann L. Larkey. The Oral History Center, Shields Library, University of California Davis.
Scheuring AF (2001) Abundant Harvest: The History of the University of California, Davis. Davis: UC Davis History Project.
Stoler AL (2010) Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Taylor DA (2018) Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Thompson, GR, and DR Harris (1991) The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 through 1945). Vol. 3. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army.

Gabi Kirk is a PhD candidate in Geography with a Designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory & Research at University of California, Davis. Her dissertation project examines how Palestinian farmers and sustainable development institutions in the northern West Bank use agro-ecological practices to challenge normative notions of sovereignty, and the transnational circuits of agricultural and infrastructural expertise between California and Israel. Robert Moeller is the son of a US Army Engineer and currently a doctoral student in Geography at UC Berkeley. His research engages with practices of 'racial hydrology'—the interplay between racial capitalism, settler colonialism, affect, and the geoengineering of water—and how these projects shape historiographical memory in the Sacramento River Valley of California (Maidu and Miwok land).