I Love Lucy in the Springtime


Mr. Baby contemplates what the heck all that white stuff is
Mr. Baby contemplates what the heck all that white stuff is and where it came from. December 2013.

Still snowed in? We missed this one. It hit Cedar and St George but we just got rain—go figure! We deserved to be missed after the December 2013 snow. I drove home in that blizzard–in the dark pulling a trailer full of horse feed (both ways)–and then had to shovel my way into the barn! Gawd! I got stuck (at the barn) with the god-damned trailer full of feed still hooked up, AND the god-damned dog locked the keys in the truck when she (who would not get out in the never-before seen 18″-deep snow) stepped on the all-door lock with the lights on and engine running. Oh fergodsake. I was about to leave her and the whole shebang there and walk the mile home through the knee-deep snow (both ways) when I envisioned her hitting the accelerator, tearing down a fence or two, and leading the horses on a chase through town and down the highway in the dark following her wake of spilled bran and hay pellets. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ. My friend Lynne Cobb says that hearing about my day is like watching an I Love Lucy episode. And I don’t even make this stuff up!

I'm sure I don't know what Lynne is talking about.
I don’t know what Lynne is talking about.

Of course, five days later that snow storm turned truly deadly when it brought down the rock across the street that killed our friends Maureen and Jeff. Now, in the wake of every hard rain or heavy snow, I thank the gods for the moisture to grow grass, and spend alotta time away from the house.


Sky Water

A monsoon gathers from a clear day.

Last week a tropical storm’s swirling clouds uncoiled overhead like a galaxy’s spiral, the only evidence of their passing successive waves of heavy rain. This was a September rain, one that lingered and turned days to jackets and umbrellas, not the usual August afternoon monsoon of suddenly refreshed hikers. A winter storm when great storms hove off the heavy, grey-waved Pacific, desert skies mirror roiling oceans, and mountain ponderosa warm desert adobes aswirl in sea-cast winds.

But today the breeze blows warm, and rain falls from monsoons bubbling off overheated southern deserts. Mr. Harris, taken by the cancer long-ago, used to say that’s where the big storms came from, the big flash floods. Not the west, from out across the Great Basin where the Pine Valley Mountains’ drain a storm’s last waters, but from the south, “Down off The Sand,” he’d say, “Down off The Sand up to Pipe Spring, following the Mail Trail over from Kanab.” He said southern storms were big because they got caught by the canyon, circled around and came in the wrong way. Angry. The biggest floods he’d seen.

Calling its battalions

When I moved to Zion Canyon in the 1980s, afternoon monsoons and summer flash floods were clockwork reliable. Every day about 3 or 4 p.m. the day’s wadded-tissue clouds, inflated by desert-heated thermals and dead-headed by the Troposphere, burst with their accumulated moisture. Monsoons and floods were common in Mr. Harris’ day too, and in the late 1800s, but not so much in the 1990s – 2000s, although this summer has certainly been wet! Whyizat?

Zion sits precisely at the monsoon’s western extent, and when that boundary shifts, summer rains never come. Our monsoon-edge location also means more of our annual precipitation arrives in winter than summer. Canyonlands and Arches, with similar elevations and rainfall, are more centered in monsoon boundary and thus receive their annual precipitation about equally between summer and winter—a small difference with great effect.

Winter’s slow rains soak more deeply into the soil, benefiting deeply rooted plants such as shrubs and trees. Summer rains flash across the soil, aiding shallow-rooted species, forbs, for instance. Thus winter rains create different plant (and thus animal) communities than summer-shifted precipitation. Further, different plant species use water at different times. That way, one species or another will survive no matter when it rains. Ingenious.

But some plants use water only during certain seasons; if rains arrive at the wrong time, these plants ignore it. That’s one reason environments can differ: the seemingly inconsequential difference of when rain falls.

Now for the kicker: scientists anticipate that global climate change will not only shift (is shifting, has shifted) the monsoon boundary, but also has/is/will affect seasonal precipitation. The U.S. Geological Survey states a switch to a drier climate, particularly reduced winter rainfall, will reduce groundwater recharge, lessen perennial stream water, increase strong winds and dust storms, weaken biological soil crusts, reduce plant cover and change species composition, remobilize sand from stable dunes, and increase forest and range fires.

What will this mean for us humans besides having to dust more often? In Zion, reduced winter rainfall will shift vegetation boundaries; different species will invade and replace the Colorado Plateau species we’ve come to know and love. Economic plants such as ponderosa pine (lumber) will survive only in the smaller acreages available at higher elevations; piñon and juniper will die off or move to higher elevations, leaving lower elevations to heat-adapted species, creosote for example. Grasslands will fill not with native grasses, but with such invasive exotics as unpalatable cheatgrass (there goes the wildlife neighborhood). The lifestyle and economy we’ve based on the present regime will change—drastically.

With luck, there will be time for us to change with it—for ranchers to learn new skills, for farmers to switch to crops adapted to hotter, dryer summers. Less water might mean mass human movement away, just as it did for Anasazi and pioneer alike. The species Zion hoped to protect will be gone. It’s something managers have never confronted before: their park up and moving away. If we hope to protect a certain species, we may have to set aside lands now where we think that species might end up later. Bizarre to be sure, but also necessary if we hope to plan for the future. This is not idle speculation. Scientists who study butterflies are already predicting that with climate change, the monarch’s Mexican refuge will be too cold and wet for the species to survive the winter. Can you imagine a summer without monarchs? I don’t want to.

All these dire predictions remind me of pre–Hurricane Katrina warnings of what New Orleans would experience after being hit by a massive hurricane whipped to a frenzy by global warming: broken levees, flooded wards, stranded populations, decimated wetlands. The preceding forecast is the Southwestern version of Hurricane Katrina—a list of things that will change so slowly we won’t notice until they hit us unprepared and head-on.

A recent climate study predicts that at our current rate, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will double from preindustrial levels by 2070, triple by 2120, and quadruple by 2160. The study predicts “profound transformations; some potentially beneficial, but many disruptive. Climate zones will shift hundreds of miles north.”

It’s true that the Zion we see today is just one data point on an evolving continuum. Zion has always changed; that’s the one constant. But now, we’re the agent and we’re moving too fast. At one time a large forest covered Zion and extended to Grand Canyon’s lowest level; as ancient climate changed, sotoo did the forest. The difference was that the transition happened slowly, giving plants and animals time to adapt. But when climate change happens quickly, well, ask the dinosaurs how well that worked.

It’s easy to feel powerless against such overwhelming forces. But the real take-home message is act now. The longer we wait, the worse the consequences.

Winning Entry

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

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.

Canyon Voices

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.

Many thanks to Niles Ritter, Luci Brantley, Charlotte Vaillancourt, Gigi Krause, and Chip Chapman for making the awards ceremony so lovely.

A Bit of a Riff on Rockville

Alma Cox by Michael Plyler

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 Pioneer Voices 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.