This image of Eleanor O’Hanlon in Dartmouth Castle Tearoom is my personal favorite; the photo speaks volumes to me. It was made in 2003 after a long walk along the English coast and through the castle on a mizzly day. This coffee lover will admit there is nothing quite like a pot of tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam shared over a fantastic ocean view on a rainy day.
But there is also the incredible Eleanor whom I met at Devon’s Schumacher College in a course called Animal Magic taught by the likes of Jane Goodall, Rupert Sheldrake, Francoise Wemelsfelder, and Colin Tudge. Although the course opened my eyes wider, late nights in the library with Eleanor were even more informative.
It was there three of us would meet long after everyone else was abed—Eleanor (an Irish nature writer and conservationist living in London), Ursula (a belly dancing Viennese psychiatrist), and me (an American park ranger)—along with whomever else could match our late-night habit —occasionally a Danish veterinarian, a Polish zookeeper, a Belgian dairy farmer. We retrieved the wine bottle from behind the woodpile; lit a fire in the immense, dressed-stone fireplace (parts of the building dated to the 1300s); wove human-sized nests of multitudinous cushions; and settled in for a wine-fueled chat. My favorite part was when Eleanor told Irish folktales.
And my favorite tales were of Ireland’s boy warrior, Cú Chulainn and his training with its greatest warrior Scáthach, because Scáthach was a woman, and Eleanor was, and is, a Storyteller. How I wish I had recorded those nights in front of the fire! Eleanor’s magical voice! If truth be told—and this is between you and me—I think Eleanor is Scáthach!
And now we get the next best thing—a book from Eleanor, and a fabulous one it is. In Eyes of the Wild Eleanor not only describes her encounters with whales and bears, wild horses and wolves, and the scientists and wardens who watch and watch over their dwindling numbers, but she goes further. I told you the story of Eleanor of Schumacher because during those moments I was not a 40-something, grieving, orphaned (I had lost, the year before, both parents to the Great Beyond and a boyfriend to what? indifference?), anyway, I was not a somewhat lost soul, I was a warrior learning to fight with a barbed spear on a fierce North Sea island—such were, and are, the power of Eleanor’s words. Eleanor takes us beyond an animal in an environment and beyond even ourselves to the one thing that binds us all. And she takes us there by telling stories of things that are, and things that are not. I cannot do her book justice. I have loaned two copies to friends, and the books have yet to come home. Hopefully, they are on their own warriors’ journeys.
When the mother surfaces next she comes close enough for me to reach out and touch. I run my hands along the skin of her side, which feels indescribably smooth, as though the texture has been endlessly refined by the washing of the sea. Her flesh is firm and cool beneath my hands. Through the physical contact with her body a sense of the expansive dimensions of her being opens inside me like soundings from some vast interior sea. As the depth of the meeting grows, it becomes an opening through which something entirely new keeps pouring—a wordless sense of connection with a greater life.
Turning onto one side, the whale gazes up at me through the water; looking down into her dark eye, ringed with folds of skin, I meet the lucid and tranquil gaze of an ancestor, one of the ancient ones of the earth. I feel her taking me out, far out, of thought and linear time, beyond the limited concerns of my ordinary mind, into a profound sense of meeting with another being, whose consciousness is not separate from my own…
Eden, I think, is not simply a mythical place, or a metaphor for original innocence, or an outworn and divisive religious symbol. Eden is a state of being, and we are free to return every time we know ourselves again in deep communion with the rest of life.
When I was a kid, my British mother insisted we take down the Christmas tree before New Year’s Eve saying, “its bad luck to have an old tree in the new year.” This year, in contravention of Medieval European superstition, I have left my lime-green tinsel-branched tree standing. Although I consider myself a neo-pagan, atheistic heathen, I do celebrate Christmas. I do so to honor the multi-millennia human instinct to worship sun, trees, and planetary motion. But this year, I too, bow to trees.
Christmas trees, historically, came from this same impulse. Although Christmas-tree history was long ago mislaid amid myriad dusty files, we know the ancients venerated trees. From Roman evergreen boughs hung during the winter solstice Saturnalia festival to the pine, spruce and fir branches draped above windows and doors worldwide to deter witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness and the like, people have long sought reassurance in mid-winter’s conifer green.
But long before December ensnared our imaginations with pine scent, trees enchanted people. European ceremonies performed today from dim memory—May Pole dances, Jack O’ The Green ceremonies, English tree dressing, Green Man Festivals—speak to a long history of arboreal reverence and respect—respect, that is, for trees that escaped the ax. Because, for as long as we have esteemed trees, we have felled them.
Humans clear-cut prehistoric forests worldwide as soon as they figured out how—stone axes, bronze, iron, steel—our technologies ever more efficient. Woodlands retain only a tiny roothold on once vast territories, and the trend has always been downhill. Except. Except for three small periodsin human history when forests, joy of joys, vigorously rebounded.
We know forests convalesced AD 200 to 600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750 because ice cores record plummeting CO2 levels during these periods. Of the CO2-absorbers—oceans, trees, and intact soils—only regenerating woodlands account for this change. The next question is, of course, what revived these forests? The answer isn’t very pretty, but gives us hope.
Just before each restoration, massive pandemics—smallpox, bubonic plague,typhus, cholera—decimated human populations, in some cases by ninety percent. Dogs nosed along empty town lanes. Farms stood deserted. Within fifty years, agricultural lands reverted to the wild. Trees long cropped by pigs, horses, cows, and farmers sprung from the soil. Everywhere the forest returned.
Now you know just how much I love nature, but I find great comfort in William Ruddiman’s research. It means we have a chance; something I have doubted for a long time. After a pandemic, people: burned less carbon, cut fewer trees, and, in their own absence, accomplished immense forest rejuvenation. Let’s see: burn less carbon, cut no trees, and recreate forests. We can do that! And I’m not talking about miserly, Ebenezer Scrooge forests; I’m talking majestic, obese, enormous, heroic, gigantic, native forests!
So, to echo Michael Pollin’s omnivores advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”); I offer: “Plant trees. Anywhere you can. As soon as possible.” It’s time we worshipped trees again.
Artist Angela Palmer’s Trafalgar Square project, Ghost Forest: ten massive tree stumps from what remains of Ghana’s tropical rainforest. The exhibit sought to raise public awareness of connections between deforestation and climate change.
This image haunts me.
I couldn’t help but think how immense forests once stood not only in the Amazon, but where London now stands. Although I understand we must assist other countries with avenues to prevent deforestation, we too have obligations: to reforest our own denuded lands. The Ghost Forest is everywhere beneath our feet.
I was thinking again this morning how odd a beast is art. An idea springs into one’s mind, rolls about in there like a sandstone block in a flash flood until sufficiently rounded, then has to be arm wrestled onto the page, honed and sanded and polished until the thing somewhat resembles a lumpy, almost distinguishable, marble. And for what?
I think, for the artist, there is a certain relief in that the nagging thing has been ectomized, and a definite let down in that it appears not quite in the way envisioned or hoped. Art is a concrete approximation of an ephemera, and not always a close one at that. And then there is the this-matters-to-me-I-hope-it-matters-to-you thing. I’ve blogged about this before. One sends something into the Universe, and the damn thing doesn’t bother to write home. Has this thing that struggled to be born made the slightest difference? Does it matter to anyone? Does it need to? Well, of course, it doesn’t, but one hopes…
Which brings me to the two latest Postcards from the Universe, one in the form of a winning contest entry (and a nice little check), and the second in the form of a real, live person who wants to use what I’ve written to talk to other people. I love it when that happens. Art lives.
Here is my winning entry in the Z-Arts! Writing Contest, Adult Non-fiction Category, and a nice note from a Zion National Park guide: “I’ve read through the winning entries and am so impressed with the quality of the writing. Thank you to Z-Arts for organizing this annually. I found one of the writings really poignant and would like to contact the author, Greer Chesher, to see if I can get permission to use his writing in one of my interpretive programs. Thank you so much!”
The contest theme was Canyon Voices. You can read all the winners at the Z-Arts! website.
Long ago, I lived in what were then the wilds of New Mexico. Only an hour from Santa Fe, the Pajarito (Little Bird) Plateau’s thick ponderosa forests concealed from the unsuspecting world not only the Los Alamos National Lab, but native tribes, their ancestral tufa-built homes, and living traditions. My best friend, a young native runner from nearby Jemez Pueblo, was the second-youngest son of a man old even then. One afternoon, sharing a bowl of posole and deer meat scalded with more red chili than my Michigan-bred mouth had ever encountered, my friend’s father told me how, if a hunter does things right, the deer will offer itself to the hunter. Puzzled, I took a much needed break from my tongue-blistering to look his way. He, looking at the floor, continued, “when the animal gives its life for the hunter, he should be there, breathe in the deer’s last breath, give thanks.” I looked from him to my friend, unsure if this message was meant for me or his son. “If you don’t honor this gift, it will be taken. The deer won’t come.” He rose then, headed out, but before leaving reached into a pottery bowl next to the door, pinched a bit of its powdery contents between weathered fingers, and nonchalantly tossed it into the corner fireplace. The pollen offering streaked golden through filtered light. I sat motionless, silent, eyes wide.
This memory returns unbidden as I sit beside southern Utah’s Virgin River watching pollen, the color of sunlight, puffed brightly by the wind. It is as if the trees, knowing we’ve forgotten how to honor the land, do our work for us, without asking. A perpetual offering. Overhead, Canada geese honk their way downriver, sounding like ungreased wheels or a swinging door’s rusted hinges. Yellow warblers call from riverside willow winding down like a spun dime. Unexploded cottonwood pods swell and cliffrose flowers unfurl beyond our hearing. Fish swim, owls glide, rodents burrow, microbes reproduce—so much of this canyon’s daily life goes on beyond our keenest perception. Yet where would we be without it? Our physical and other-than-physical lives depend on so much we cannot see, smell, or taste, on the canyon’s unheard voices.
But perhaps, in ways still beyond our understanding, we can feel them. Richard Nelson, in his book, The Island, wrote, “As time went by, I also realized that the particular place I’d chosen was less important than the fact that I’d chosen a place and focused my life around it. Although the island has taken on great significance for me, it’s not more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentile or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which is bounty is received.”
Gibbs Smith said in his book, Blessed by Light, “the Colorado Plateau chooses its people.” Although not from here, these writers remind us of our place, of what we forget to hear; they toss the pollen.
U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass wrote, “Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks. It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relations of people’s imagination to the land, or beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation.”
Four influential people speaking, writing, changed the world. But it took a century. We don’t have a century to protect what’s left. But we do have thousands, millions of people who can be influential, if we speak of what the land tells us. Barry Lopez wrote, our job “…is to undermine the complacency of how most people relate to the landscape.”
The canyon speaks for itself, but quietly and of paintbrush in bloom, the drip of springs, the shockwave of rockfall. It’s ours to speak in a language the canyon can’t, to beings who may not hear. The canyon cannot protect itself. Only we can do that. We are the canyon voices. Are you one of the chosen? Do deer offer themselves? If you are lucky and this place proffers itself to you, the question becomes, what will you do with this gift? Speak.
Fire on the mountain, catastrophic to man, of passing annoyance to the mountain. I Ching
The day after Yarnell, I restocked my tiny travel trailer with evacuation’s irreplaceables: 23 filled journals, my British mother’s 19th Century sepia photographs of people and places long gone, a painting of my heart’s companion, Bo the Adventure Dog, now-deceased. In an enthusiasm of labor, I also fixed the flat on my horse trailer, bought a new spare, finished the dangling wiring, and loaded the hay rack. I stowed a five-gallon water can, full, in the trailer bay, along with saddles, halters, bridles, and whatever other costly-to-replace gear I could manage. I put the horses’ favorite treats in the mangers and set the incentive stick on the wheel well. I should have done all this the day before Yarnell because this is fire country and because I knew it was coming. Just last week I’d said, “It’s gonna burn this year, and burn big.” And then, forgetting, I went home, propped my feet in my small home’s sweet air-conditioning, and basked in the green, irrigated oasis that is Rockville, Utah. But it could, just as easily, have been us.
Yarnell, Rockville, a thousand other small towns throughout the West, remote and compact, aggregated in the only places possible: Rockville where water and irrigable land drew farmers in 1860, and Yarnell where water and gold drew miners in 1865. People stayed long beyond the initial impulse, living a modern life on antiquated townsites, disengaged from original purpose and desert reality. Yarnell, bigger than Rockville, has more than three streets and three times the population, but like most Western towns both grade from watered trees and gardens to brittle, boulder strewn hills with few exit routes where, even in good years, meager precipitation nurses a scruffy fire-prone forest of sage, blackbrush, juniper, scrub oak.
In years past clockwork monsoons relieved summer’s drought, and lightning sparked cleansing fires. Regular burns consumed light accumulations of downed wood and autumn debris, moving slowly through desert grasses, pine needles, and spiny oak leaves. But settlement brought fear: for 150 years fires were doused, wood accrued, and fires turned wild. Increasing summer temperatures, precipitation’s slow dwindling, shifting monsoons, and stockpiled combustibles fuel wildfire’s new ferocity. The last two decades’ combined controlled-burn acreages are small consolation in a West ready to burn. There isn’t much to be done except pack the trailer.
This, if and when it comes, will be my fourth evacuation: twice for fire and once for flood, though I didn’t leave that time, choosing to stay in my darkened town where my horses stood, heads hanging, in improvised day-glow-orange emergency blankets, fetlock deep in mud. It was December and after more rain than I’ve seen in all my desert years, belly-heavy, gunmetal clouds rested like slipped lids far below Zion Canyon’s redrock lip. Upstream, the sodden, earthen dam on Short Creek threatened, and I didn’t know where to take the horses. I do now.
Today, men dressed in crinkly nomex, fire-crew green and yellow, mill about the town fire station, waiting. No one speaks of Yarnell. In this town where everyone has worked, knows someone who has worked, or now works for fire, the 19 are not mentioned. No one says, “Did you hear…?” No one says, “What do you think…?” We all know. It’s as if, like freshly provisioned fire packs sitting by front doors and riding in pickup beds all over town, the news is almost too heavy to carry.
This summer I cannot irrigate, sprinkle, or haul enough water to keep my garden alive. Tomatillos wilt, honeysuckle stunts, pasture grass browns. Having livestock ups the ante: dead grass means hungry horses, costly hay, a more serious evacuation. My tenuous connection with Rockville’s past beats a bit more true, but I can buy my way out of a drought, shop my way past failed crops; I can leave.
Today the acrid smell of smoke fills the canyon, the sun’s odd eclipsed light. The world throbs orange haze. A fire south near Las Vegas, someone says, or north near Minersville puffs signals on strong, hot winds. I look to the travel trailer, askew in the yard, my “I-can-only-pull-one-trailer-at-a-time” plans thwarted by the latest flat. I planned to move it to a friend’s house deep in the Big City’s irrigated green, leaving me free to deal with the horses’ panic and mine. I hate evacuation’s grab-everything adrenalin confusion, the irritating nag of something forgotten. As evening settles, storm clouds grading violet to blue-black thicken over the canyon. Do they bring rain’s release? Lightning’s fire? Slickrock’s flood? Evacuation?
One of reading’s delights is that one will discover a Great Book. Great Books are defined by the individual, not the mob, and each person’s Great Book List will vary by personal idiosyncrasy. I’m listing books as I find them, and will probably, at some point, add my All Time Favorites, books some of you have taken on, including Waterlog by Roger Deakin, Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, and Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg. Perhaps I’ll even explore here some books that set my way of thinking, and which may be awfully personally eccentric like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, William McNeill’s Plagues and People, or William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum.
However, one of reading’s job hazards is that one finds a Personally Great Book, reads it with relish, and then it ends. I hate it when that happens.
My latest disappointed-it-ended book is actually two books and a “long-form” piece, all by Alexandra Fuller. Her first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, details her upbringing in then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe during the 1970’s Civil War with an absolutely crazed and wild mother driving her to school with an Uzi sticking out the jeep window; her second, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is a prequel exploring her insanely bizarre mother’s upbringing in Colonial Kenya; and the long-form piece Falling, the story of her husband’s nearly fatal horse accident and their subsequent divorce (Alexandra’s not the horse’s).
I loved Alexandra’s writing, and the ways her stories overlapped mine: crazy mother, crazed upbringing; horses; the outdoors; being far from doctors, cities, and other people; a British family background (are all ex-pat British mothers crazy?); the importance of place. Parts of the books were jaw-dropping astonishing, and parts laugh-out-loud funny. I was so sad they ended—reading them was like inhabiting a world. Luckily, unlike Roger Deakin, Alexandra is still alive and we can hope she publishes more.
A few quotes:
“The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.” Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
“This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in the village. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.’” Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness
And I love, love, love a Katherine Mansfield quote she uses:
“The mind I love must have wild places:a tangled orchard where damsons drop in heavy grass,an overgrown little wood,a chance of a snake or two,a pool that nobody has fathomed the depths of,and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”
I am a firm believer in aprons. Not necessarily the kind meant to keep one clean, but the type with numerous and sundry pockets meant to carry, on one’s person, great quantities of Important Stuff. I have one of the he-man variety firmly stitched of heavy tan canvas complete with thick leather loops meant for hammers and hoof-trimmers, in which I tote paper, pencil, connector bolts for the John Deere, miscellaneous bits of horse tack, my phone, and the indispensable Leatherman® Multi-tool Juice XE6 (pink in my case).
I also have a variety of home—but not kitchen—aprons meant, in actuality, to keep one clean, and cart about the aforementioned valuables. These aprons I make from thrift-store linen shirts and shifts, on which I sew trimmed cuffs and hemmed lengths for the all-important notepad-carrying pockets. This is who I am as a writer: I am never without my notepad and pen. I can easily forget these small, unassuming items, but it’s harder to overlook the bulging apron. It has become my prosthetic brain—easily detachable but increasingly necessary.
When I was a little girl, my mother sewed my first apron, and although I’ve forgotten the color and pattern, I remember the pockets. So practical. She had meticulously machined individual vertical slots for each crayon which, because I’ve always been quite forgetful, I re-filled less meticulously when done coloring. The apron also sported a couple larger pockets for Important Stuff, and a ribbon attached on one end to the apron and on the other to a pair of blunt scissors. I was ready for whatever the day brought. As I am now: I am a writer of little brain who forgets the brainstorm almost before it’s stopped thundering.
Other wardrobe items to which I’m partial are wide-brimmed straw hats (I live in the southern Utah desert of glowing redrock and burning sun); seersucker and linen shirts (heat again); the long skirts of summer (heat yet again—and bugs); tire-tread sandals; industrial-strength hand lotion; and riding boots with spurs. For I also have horses, which explains the need for the aforementioned barn aprons—horses love to wipe their considerable noses on one’s unprotected and welcoming bosom. I also love smocks, and wish I was a painter just so I could wear one.
My British-import of a mother called these practical uniforms, “pinafores,” and just so you don’t assume fluffy aprons mean sweetness and light, know that my mother was a neurotic, abusive mess—as I have been—well, I have been a cowering mess—most of my adult life. All of these things—the redrock desert and all its natural components; horses; my problematic youngsterhood; my war-scarred, disturbed mother; and her very proper Britishness inform my writing in its many manifestations from journal entries to published essays and books.
Because my aprons prevent me from dropping the phone (again) in the stock tank while cleaning it, or the irrigation ditch while watering (also again), my next foray is to create a riding apron. This will keep me from submerging the phone (in a pocket strapped to my leg) in the river while leading the recalcitrant horse, or less expensively but more importantly the notepad along the roadside (so many times I’ve lost count).
In the 1990s, while writing a book on a newly created national monument in Utah and wandering over one million remote acres, I repeatedly asked the photographer, while batting various pockets, my bra and hair (where I clipped pencils) if she had a pen. “Hey,” she’d reply, “you’re a writer, fergodsake; I don’t ask you for film.” From this you may gain two insights: I learned to carry my own pencil and paper, and I’m of a certain age.
I was born in the 1950s when real women wore aprons, and I learned to write. There is still something for me about pen and paper—the hand moving and the eyes following that urges me continue down the page. I can also write anywhere and anytime—battery and cord-less (so ecological). While acknowledging computers’ great benefit (my first editing job came before computers!), I find sitting at my desk locked in one position for days on end editing massive planning documents for the National Park Service (it pays the bills) agonizing. I realize I could join the modern age and use my phone to take notes, but I find, after speaking into a recorder, a great yawning silence (where I expect applause or at least rejoiner) that leaves me speechless.
So today, while waiting for the stock tank to fill, great and trifling ideas come unbidden, and the writer I am pulls paper and pen from my he-man apron wiped with immense muddy noses, and captures fleeting thoughts under southern Utah’s embracing redrock cliffs beside the river’s spring-smooth flow. Because that’s what writers do.
Here is an exchange between the Global Editor of the Atlantic Magazine and myself this afternoon attempting to solicit my professional services for an article they sought to publish after reading my story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy: Rodman trip comes after 25 years of basketball diplomacy between U.S. and North Korea” here http://www.nknews.org/2013/03/slam-dunk-diplomacy/ at NKNews.org
A lot. Years ago I deliniated a time every day to stop everything else and read. I decided that, at 9 p.m., unless engrossed in something endlessly fascinating, I’d head to the arms of my current read. And I’ve been faithful.
The problem is no matter how much I read I’ve discovered a good book is hard to find. I rarely leave them, but I recently walked out on one mid-paragraph. I could stand it no longer! I even flung it across the room, and it by a celebrated author! So here’s only my second post on a really good book I truly loved. It is the only book I’ve ever read that, as soon as I finished, I wanted to begin again.
In 1977 a young woman in her 20s, Robyn Davidson, led and rode her four camels from Alice Springs, Austrailia west to the ocean. National Geographic funded her (a whopping $4000), and she wrote a story for them published in 1978. It took her nine months to travel the 1,700 miles. Although it wasn’t her original intent, she wrote a book on the trip called Tracks.
I know you’re thinking, “Oh, well, of course you liked it. You tried something similar. But I probably won’t find it interesting.” Okay, fair enough. I admit I found her mixed feelings about the trip extremely validating, and her experiences similar–even though my trip was short lived. But the book is very well written, engaging, and NOT WOOWOO! I have become tired of writers involking god or spirituality or some outside power as explanation of certain states. I found Robyn’s take on such experiences refreshing. Here’s a sample:
“…I now had enough to provide a structure in which I could learn to learn. A new plant would appear and I would recognize it immediately because I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the over all pattern, its place. I would recognize and know the plant without naming it or studying it away from its environment. What was once a thng that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, ‘This is a rock,’ I could now say, ‘This is part of a net,’ or closer, ‘This, which everything acts upon, acts.’ When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaires of myself stretched out for ever. In the beginning I had known at some level that this could happen. It had frightened me then. I had seen it as a chaotic principle and I fought it tooth and nail. I had given myself the structures of habit and routine with which to fortify myself and these were very necessary at the time. Because if you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. Survival in a desert, then requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast. It is not a mystical experience, or rather, it is dangerous to attach these sorts of words to it. They are too hackneyed and prone to misinterpretation. It is something that happens, that’s all. Cause and effect.”
Below are my thoughts and answers to questions posed by Utah State graduate student Tori Edwards on southern Utahand Rockville’s sense of place and history of human/landscape interaction. Would love to hear your thoughts and comments.
Tori Edwards: I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale andRockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time.
Greer: That is a big topic! One of the initial reasons for the PioneerVoices Project was to discover if there was a link between early settlers and Zion’s natural environment. Each interview followed the same format, and most questions were about memories of “nature” interactions. The people I interviewed did not recount strong “nature” associations except Evan Cox who seems to be one of those people who feels connected to nature. Although the project’s original intent was to find and expose pioneer nature associations, so little was found that the final book changed to recounting memories of lifeways and family.
I think some of the dichotomy you’re investigating comes from individual differences. People originally came here for a different purpose than they come now. Zion now attracts people 1) who come to tick off another scenic view/American Icon, etc., or 2) have a personal connection with “nature.” The people who came in the 1800s were 1) sent whether they wanted to come or not, or 2) were looking for some place to make a living. The mindset was very, very different. Though things were not as desperate as often portrayed, things were critical (this was not the horrible harsh desert vs. man, but the land still had to provide). A flashflood, a summer without rain, etc., were life-defining. I don’t think, for the most part, from the talks I’ve had with folks, that the area’s beauty was paramount. I think they noticed, I think they appreciated, but I don’t think, unless they had that special nature connection, that they felt what many coming now might feel. Just like in any modern community anywhere—some people connect to the land, others don’t. I did not get the impression Mormonism conveyed land management precepts (and that was a questionnaire question). When all one’s food and livelihood comes from the land, I believe people will do almost anything without regard for what problems it might cause to the “environment,” or even to their own livelihood in ten years.
In the research I did for the Grand Staircase—Escalante book, I found an interesting dichotomy between ranchers interviewed in the 1930s and their modern descendants. At least ONE rancher interviewed in the 30s (WPA, etc.) stated in detail how he realized cattle had destroyed the land. He recounted how his predecessors had found tall, lush grass covering the “desert,” and how without knowledge or seeming concern, they had systematically grazed everything beyond recovery. This may have been because settlers were not familiar with the desert’s fragility. He felt responsible and felt the entire area should be made a national park as it was beautiful and now mostly unusable for much else. (The Escalante area was horribly destitute in that time; it’s amazing people survived there at all).
What I witnessed in Southern Utah when I arrived in the 1980s (and still see vestiges of today) was a total defense of past practices by men who inherited them, regardless of any refuting science. This was saddening as it seemed better land management practices could improve the degradation, and thus, husbandry. But what prevailed was a staunch, unrelenting defense of a total way of life which may have been bolstered by feelings of an assault on community, faith, lifeway, etc. That was when acts of willing destruction of wilderness values and “nature” occurred regularly, and which can still be seen in the strong reaction to environmental groups, restrictions, legal challenges, etc.
By the mid-1900s, I think people also began to realize they could make a living from visitors. I don’t see where that made them more inclined to bask in or preserve the area’s beauty, i.e., no one proposed more preservation, but more development. In researching a Bryce book, I discovered that initially, there was support for creating national parks in Utah from Utahans, but that quickly reversed. There was a fight to create every park in Utah even in the early 1900s. There has long been a sense of “it’s OURS” here, and potential loss doesn’t seem to revolve around destruction of what’s natural, but around loss of potential use. Notice that MOST of those who fought for park establishment (not just here) were not from here. It was often the amazement of new eyes that fueled park creation. It may have been something as simple as long-term habituation that dulled the area’s amazement to inhabitants, and certainly to those born here and for whom a week-long wagon trip to St. George was a looooonnng way. They didn’t really know the rest of the world didn’t look like this!
As to your specific questions:
Tori: “The question is about the pioneers who settled Southern Utah, and their attitudes regarding the environment. I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale and Rockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time. But there are also conflicting ideas I’m trying to figure out: 1) The early pioneers settled the area with the principle of stewardship ingrained into their minds–to take care of the land they were given.”
Greer: From the interviews done on the Pioneer Voices project, I do not believe this to be true, as I’ve stated in more detail above. That was one of the goals of the project, and you might want to scan the interviews to see if I’m misrepresenting this, but as I recall, when asked, people stated there was no land-management guidance from the church. Biological evidence from all over Utah certainly supports the claim that the land was used as much as possible, probably changing it forever.
Tori: “2) The descendants of those early pioneers defend their ancestors, saying they did appreciate the beauty of the area, as evidenced in Pioneer Voices of Zion Canyon.”
Greer: I think again, you are looking at two overlapping ideas: appreciation and preservation. As we know, one can appreciation something and still destroy it. I appreciate an ice cream cone, and now I’m going to eat it! We cannot really know what someone thought, the feelings they had unless they express them in some way. For example, they wrote it down, they said it aloud, they made art of it, they created a monument, etc. So the pioneers may have “appreciated the area’s beauty,” but unless they physically expressed that in some way, we cannot know. One way they might have expressed it was by setting aside a “do not use” area. As far as we know, they did not. But then, it would have been astonishing if they had. If you study the national park idea you’ll realize that Zion was one of the first areas set aside under this “new idea” of national parks. I did a program for the Chicago Humanities Program a couple years back—and Ken Burns has done a similar program on America’s Best Idea—national parks. So the folks in Zion in 1909, when Mukuntuweap was set aside as a monument, had NO IDEA what was going on. The NPS wasn’t even created until 1916; what was this national monument thing?? What it was, was CHANGE, that awful beast, and regulation in a largely unregulated area. You must remember that everyone interviewed from then on looks back from a perspective of knowing what national parks are, what they’re for, and what they represent (both ideologically and financially!). Everyone who has lived here since 1909 or thereabouts has benefitted financially from the park, whether it’s in direct payment for services or in something as seemingly intangible as perpetually high property values.
Tori: “Also, Stephen Mather, who helped establish Zion as a national park, reported that the people who lived there at the time were good to work with, and generally cooperative. If there was animosity, and if Mather believed the settlers didn’t appreciate the beauty of the land, I would think he would have stated so.”
Greer: I don’t. One must consider the source: Mather was an extremely successful business man, a political animal, and a consummate public relations expert. He would not have said otherwise. In that year, he was trying to gain support not only for this park, but the National Park Service and every other national park being created then or in the future, and for unpopular regulations being implemented. This was part of a much larger and more important movement then only just getting started. He had to make the case for this park locally AND nationally. This went, as these things still do, waaaaay beyond the local.
Tori: “Yet, it seems to make the most sense that the idea of the settlers not appreciating the beauty of the area would have originated around the time of the Park being established. The reason I say this is because of a quote in Pioneer Voices (p. 83):
“There was an erroneous rumor that went around for years. You used to hear that ‘the natives, they don’t appreciate the park, we’ve got to get in there and preserve it so they don’t destroy it. They want places to farm, they don’t want a park to look at.'”
Greer: Well, there’s always truths in statements like this, aren’t there? Which truths? There is the truth in the original statement, that people did resent the park, they did want places to farm (remember, it was a totally different economy then), they didn’t see the value in this new-fangled park thing, whatever it was (they had NEVER been to or heard of a national park!). And then there is truth in the idea that some people didn’t have that view. Look up esp. J.L. Crawford’s interview. His mother (grandmother?) sold the farm to the park and moved; J.L. says she both resented (losing the trees she’d planted and nursed all those years) and understood it. And there is truth in a descendant stating previous versions of the story are flawed, “My ancestors did too see the beauty! They weren’t heathens!” (i.e., and thus, neither am I).
I’m unsure your question is the right question, or that there is an answer. I think what we can say with some confidence is that reactions and interactions with “nature” are hugely complex and certainly intertwined. We, as humans with feelings and as animals trying to survive, have intense and often opposed needs from the same plot of land. These needs shift over both long and short time periods: from physical sustenance to the comfort of a known place, a “home,” to a need for adventure and a foe to test oneself against, to the crucible of a nature spirituality and personal regeneration, and not insignificantly, a biotic sanctuary for the other-than-human and a gene pool for the future. A lot of demands from one little landscape!
One last tiny clarification, I do not think the destruction of southern Utah’s natural environment was wanton, but rather an unintended consequence.
The following was published in The Joy of Rockville, a cookbook created to celebrate Rockville’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) in 2012:
Kate Starlings’ fabulous cover painting is, to me, the essence of Rockville. Living in our small town may not always be the easy, temperate, and peaceful life Kate’s image evokes, but Rockville can be that, and more. No matter what may be happening, I’m always glad to waken under Rockville’s azure skies and redrock embrace. In this year of little rain, I’m even happier to see rare skies, the color of a kingfisher’s wing, bringing a “three-inch rain.” When the cloud fleet sails the sky, I know it’s July; when burnt umber cottonwoods crisp the day, and that rare sunset glow lingers on cliffs, I know I’m home. I imagine, though we rarely read it in histories, Rockville’s early settlers felt the same. Hearing the Virgin River rush over rock; wading stone irrigation ditches on a scorching afternoon; eating ripe mulberries full of purple; soaking in star-glow on a dark summer’s night, meant the same to pioneer and current neighbor alike: home.
Rockville changed over its first 150 years, as, thankfully, it has remained the same. Kate’s artwork could have been painted in 1862 or 2012. The canyon’s cliffs remain, and they transform. The Virgin brings nurture and devastation. Some of us are old timers, tracing family lines back to our town’s founding; some are what our much-missed Fern Crawford called “middle timers”; some are just discovering Rockville’s special wonder. But no matter our origin, all of us—long past or newly arrived—write another line in the ongoing story that is Rockville.
The Virgin Anasazi, Southern Paiute, and those even more distant, told stories of our shared home we will never hear. Sooner than we know, the future’s unnamed will come seeking a home and story of which we can only dream. May they find the community, beauty, and abundance all those before them found in this green and lovely place called Rockville.