My first real love—call it infatuation if you must—was an anthropomorphized pig named Wilbur who shared his pigpen with his wise and loyal friend Charlotte. I identified strongly with Wilbur, a pathetic runt prone to self-pity and easily moved to blubbering hysterics. Wilbur and I spent our early years in much the same manner: desperate for friends, shunned by barnyard animals, and seeking fun, frolic, and warm straw into which we could burrow knowing we are safe and loved. Our search for such an existence gave purpose to our lives.
Charlotte’s Web was first published in 1952, four years before I was born. In my memory, I got the book in first grade, although upon reading Charlotte’s Web as an adult, the book seems too sophisticated for someone in her Dick and Jane years, and I was not a precocious child by any measurement. Nevertheless, I cling to the memory of discovering Wilbur early and holding him close throughout my traumatic grade-school introduction to life.
E. B. White and friend
My next real love—and this was no infatuation for it has lasted well into my sixth decade of life, albeit, with some sizable gaps—was Wilbur’s creator. E. B. White was the humorous, story-telling father I never had. I gaze at pictures of him, each one of them sporting the face—and often the suit coat if not the necktie—of the stern but fair father, his quick wit cloaked by his ubiquitous civility.
Nearly 30 years would pass between my childhood discovery of White and my adult rediscovery of him. During that time, I engaged in the necessary stumbles of life. I flunked out of college, became a bride at 17 and a divorcee soon thereafter, went back to college, became an accountant, made money, lost money, quit counting, married again, and divorced again before I came upon White’s work when a professor recommended The Elements of Style to make up for my spotty education in the basics of good writing. I was more than happy to take advice from my old friend in this manner. But it wasn’t until just past my fortieth birthday, when in a graduate writing program I was assigned to read White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake,” that I began to grasp the quiet magnificence of White’s work.
Exhilarated to discover that the man who gave voice to my fundamental nature through a pig named Wilbur was the same man who created empathy for the suffering of a nameless pig in “Death of a Pig,” I took myself to the warehouse-sized, used bookstore near the University of Arizona campus and purchased every available book written by E. B. White. I walked out carrying six books, fewer than half the books published by White but enough to fill me once again with the joy, compassion, and humanity that is ever-present in his work.
Starting in 1942 and continuing for about a year thereafter, White published a monthly piece in Harper’s Magazine under the heading “One Man’s Meat” and a later collection of essays under the same title. Acting out of utmost reverence, I have stolen the title of White’s column. By doing so, I’ve undoubtedly set myself up for an unpleasant comparison to White, one that can only turn out badly for me—an unfortunate side effect of the decision but not the intent. If I were a good enough writer to steal more from White than his title, his poetic-yet-simple, spot-on prose, for example, or his keen observance of human dilemma, I certainly would, but, alas, I’m limited by my own deficiencies. My lofty goal for stealing White’s title is inspiration in both writing and grammatical correctness, although both will likely fall considerably short of their mark.
In the foreword of One Man’s Meat,White describes the collection of essays as “a personal record . . . which I wrote from a salt water farm in Maine while engaged in trivial, peaceable pursuits, knowing all the time that the world hadn’t arranged any true peace or granted anyone the privilege of indulging himself for long in trivialities.”
My sweet writing shed (photo and construction by Jacob Croft, Croft Remodeling and Restoration)
That seems to me a perfect description of what I’ve started here—a personal record written from a small shed set under the “junk trees” on my town parcel in south-central Utah while engaged in trivial and usually peaceable pursuits. Though I hear nothing from my shed at the moment but the singsong of crickets and an occasional complaint from a dog disturbed by one of fewer than 800 people or one of more than 800 skunks in town, I’m not fooled into thinking the world has arranged any truer peace now than it had in 1938 when White began the essays later published as One Man’s Meat.
Of course White’s essays were far more than a personal record. White was feeling the self-condemnation that comes from residing in a place “beyond gun range” during wartime, and his words reflect his burden. The essays of One Man’s Meat are also significantly more than a historic record. White’s insights transcend both time and place, and many of his observations have, as he once put it, “the odor of durability to them.” In July of 1938, in an essay entitled “Removal,” White observed the nation’s growing affection for the latest technological invention—television—and lamented that “sound ‘effects’ are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself . . . and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals.” White feared that we would “forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.” As the dead-on accuracy of White’s misgivings fade without notice into our collective consciousness, I immerse myself in his words, knowing that he’s speaking directly to me, believing that as he and his “vile old dachshund, Fred,” throw slop to the pig, they do so with a hint of disconcertion for my welfare in this time and place.
I, too, hope—in the modern version of a monthly column known as a blog, an ugly but appropriate word—to humbly set down more than a personal record. Although I confess to being perplexed by what might seize the interest of the masses at any given moment, I am quite sure that a personal record of my life would be of little interest for I am not a sometimes-blond starlet nor a soon-to-be-released-from-rehab rocker nor a nasty honey badger, though I share some characteristics with the latter.
But I, too, sit out of gun range at a time of war, although I believe the similarities between White’s war and my war are few. I remain stunned at the zest with which we rushed into my war and at the ease with which we ignore it on a day-to-day basis—at least those of us who do not have a vacancy where a family member once stood—living White’s feared prophecy that allows us to forget the primary and near in favor of the secondary and remote assisted by 285 channels. And I too, like White, made the choice three years ago to permanently leave a city, for which I have a great fondness, in favor of a rural locale. It was not a moral choice—I hold no judgments on the ability of one place over the other to infuse a life with spiritual enlightenment—only a personal preference. Unlike White, I grew up with the smell of cow manure in my nostrils and hay leaves in my underwear, with the absence of anonymity (something I very much loved and miss about the city), and with a singular meaning attached to the phrase “going to the store.” I hold no romantic notions of rural life—I knew I would be witness to the anguish of dogs permanently attached to the ends of chains, earwigs in my kitchen cupboards, and flies in numbers only horse shit can demand, all of which I am asked to accept with as little comment as possible. Nor do I place myself in any loftier position having come from the city than those who were smart enough to stay put from the get-go.
I chose Escalante, Utah, because it appeared to be a town that had somehow held onto itself over the last hundred years of exponential population growth and insidious technology—two things that I’m struggling, and often failing, to embrace. Nevertheless, there’s movement underfoot here, and many, thrown off balance, are grappling to regain equilibrium. As happens in small towns over time, things change. Many towns both east and west of the hundredth meridian have gone through it. Factories close, cotton mills shut down, steel mills rust and crumble. Towns shift, adjust, and recover—or they don’t. People adjust and recover—or they don’t. The rest of the world goes on about its business with a fair amount of indifference.
A few months ago, the mayor of Escalante appeared in front of the Congressional Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, summarized our town’s woes, and placed the blame for them at the feet of the federal government—specifically at the nicely shined, Italian leather shoes of former President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM), which essentially engulfs the town of Escalante in a three-sided hug. Some in town are feeling the gentle warmth of that hug as if Grandma had met them at the kitchen door with milk and cookies. Others are feeling constricted in what feels like a straitjacket.
Escalante is divided, not quite equally, between “locals” and “move-ins.” I am marked as a move-in, and, indeed, that’s what I am. We are most commonly split down religious lines—Mormon and non-Mormon. In the company of the opposite group, we pretend this is not a big deal, but it is. The Mormons settled Escalante in 1875 and, for more than six generations, enjoyed a stronghold in town with little interference from outsiders. The county newspaper, which appears in my mailbox free of charge each week, still recounts baptisms and confirmations, the comings and goings of missionaries, visits from family, church job assignments, and trips over the mountain to the see the doctor.
The mayor’s public comments reignited a not-very-dormant tension that runs a jagged line through the two distinct groups and gives the town its reputation as a crabby little place—a reputation we simultaneously abhor and cherish. Tempers flared, folks chose up sides, and words were flung—some with measured restraint and some with wild abandon. I admit to being one of the flingers.
In front of the committee, the mayor spoke of the “devastating social and economic impact” of the GSENM to Escalante including a lack of jobs, a decrease in real personal and per capita income, an unstable town economy with a reliance on tourism, floundering schools that annually face the possibility of closure, and young families moving away. A representative from the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics, who testified at the same hearing, painted the opposite picture with equally broad strokes: more jobs, an increase in personal and per capita income, a thriving tourism economy. Both speakers threw down statistics, the malleable tool of the political trade, and both speakers attached their facts—the good, the bad, and the ugly—solidly to the creation of the GSENM.
I know not the accuracy of either set of facts. I write not from a position of factual knowledge but from a position of observance. Filtered through my own incurable state of bewilderment, I’ve observed the following:
Politicians and those who play on the political playground—such as congressional subcommittee testifiers and radio talk show hosts—clearly understand the power of words. Those with integrity respect the power and use it accordingly. Those without integrity harness the power and use it disingenuously. Unfortunately, we have significantly more of the latter than the former, and I don’t imagine that will change anytime soon. A widely practiced misuse of language is the rush to assign cause and effect where mere correlation exists. This is done either out of ignorance—those with the microphones slept through their basic logic course in school—or out of arrogance—they believe their constituency stupid enough or lazy enough to be blinded by statistics alone without the requisite reasoning attached. I fear we’ve proven them right, which seems to have given them license to continue the practice unabated.
Another thing I’ve observed in town during the months since the mayor made his national speaking debut is an omnipresent sense of loss and the fear that accompanies it. I cannot pinpoint concrete evidence of it, cannot provide examples that would illustrate it, but I’m certain of its presence. I recognize it, as many do, because it is a common American experience. In fact, my own obscure reason for moving to Escalante boils down to this: I was trying to assuage my own feelings of loss. And it worked. But my gain is another person’s loss.
I grew up in Tooele, Utah, in the 60s and 70s. My earliest memories include Swan’s Grocery, a two-cash register, raw meat-smelling establishment run by a single family, the members of which called me by name as they chatted with my mother, soothingly similar to Griffins Grocery in Escalante. During my lifetime, Swans was replaced by Allen’s Foodtown, which was replaced by Albertson’s, which was replaced by Smith’s, which was joined and dwarfed by Walmart Supercenter, and the town tripled in size and filled with strangers as quickly as it filled with fast food. The town where I swam in ditches, traveled by bicycle, and terrorized horny toads in open fields disappeared, and although the loss of childhood place is one that I, no doubt, share with the majority of Americans over the age of 50—urban and rural—it feels personal to me. If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that for a long time I felt rather proprietary about that place and a little bitter toward the newcomers, as if each of them held some responsibility for my loss. And now, when I meet a “local” in the Escalante post office, the person who grew up in this town, whose mother and grandmother grew up in this town, I see my bitter self in their eyes. It doesn’t matter how friendly I am or how good I am or where I came from, I represent their loss. The loss is real, and there’s a deep sadness attached to it. I get that.
In Escalante, the sorrow surrounding the loss is intensified by the single thing we speak about only in small groups if at all: religion. In my observations, when a fear is voiced that the town is dying, that people are leaving to find work elsewhere, the real fear is that the town is changing. In 1950, the population of Escalante was 773; in 2010, it was 797 with a few drops and gains during the six decades in between. The town is not dying, but it is changing. According to a 2010 study done by Todd Goodsell, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University, only 66 percent of the town’s population is Mormon compared with 100 percent in the not-too-distant past.
There is a belief among locals in town that had the Monument not been established, the vast and wild Kaiparowits Plateau may have been opened to coal mining establishing jobs for all who wanted them, and that those who wanted them would have been the children and the children of the children of locals, thereby resolving the problem of the changing religious demographic. Senator Orrin Hatch has proclaimed that the establishment of the GSENM cost rural Utah “500 high-paying jobs.” (Again, those malleable statistics with cause and effect attached, sans reasoning or evidence.) There’s a certain sense of “ownership by proximity” of the land—demonstrated by the mayor’s and the senator’s comments—although it has always been federal land, owned by many not few. Whether or not the Kaiparowits would have become a coal mine, of course, remains unknowable, but I recently read that Virginia has the second lowest unemployment rate in the nation, largely attributed to its coal-mining industry. I also read that Virginia has the second highest rate in the nation of death by black lung, largely attributed to its coal-mining industry, so it is possible that those jobs, had they materialized, would have done as much to shrink the population as to bolster it.
Many move-ins also share this belief—that the establishment of the GSENM may have prevented the Kaiparowits Plateau from being opened to coal mining. Many are here for exactly that reason—to celebrate and build a life around access to wild and remote space. I’m one of them.
What is likely true is that the GSENM has contributed to the changing religious and ideological shift in Escalante—filled the town with strangers, many of them plopped into the catch-all category often uttered with disdain: radical left-wing liberal environmentalist. I proudly hold my position in that category—there’s not a single word in that string of words that I’m ashamed to claim. I’m also sixth-generation Mormon (albeit lapsed) and the daughter of a small-time rancher who ran cattle on Utah public lands, and I proudly hold my position in those categories. I have no intent and no means to clean up those contradictions.
As a move-in in Escalante, I, of course, want to feel welcome and accepted without regard to my spiritual or political beliefs. But according to research by psychologists Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry, optimism and happiness are increased, and anxiety and pessimism decreased, when we surround ourselves with a tribe or band of supportive people—people who largely share our interests and beliefs and strive for a common purpose. Mormons intuitively know this; they’ve banded together for safety and happiness since the beginnings of the church in the early 1800s. When the band begins to break down or disappear, as it has done for the long-term residents of Escalante, anxiety and pessimism follow. The fear and sadness for what has been lost, and will likely continue to be lost as the town evolves, cannot be dismissed lightly if we ever hope to find peace among us.
Change here represents loss of identity to town and people. According to geographer Robert Hay, the depth of one’s bond to a place is affected by one’s ancestral and cultural sense of place. He believes that generations of family on certain land create a deeper spiritual bond to a place than can be created simply by length of residence. That’s no small thing, especially to Mormons whose historical story includes the establishment and loss of many beloved towns and places, which is what landed them here in the first place 135 years ago.
Escalante Post Office, the "hub" of Escalante.
As a move-in, I think about it this way: if I were to knowingly move into an all-Amish community, would I expect the members of that community to welcome me warmly and embrace my divergent points of view? I do strongly believe, however, that in a town of 800 people an opportunity remains to employ the power of words with authenticity in spite of our cultural and ideological differences. I’ll be happy to listen if someone wants to chat in the post office or the grocery store or even track me down at home. I’m also fine passing in benign silence if that’s the preferred choice of my neighbors.
I moved back to Utah after being gone close to 20 years, vowing to never leave again and seeking exactly what Hay mentions—the spiritual bond to my ancestral place. But I found, as many have before me, that my ancestral place has been buried under a Walmart footprint. I understand the sense of loss in Escalante, but I cannot stop it nor would I try if it meant coal mining in the Kaiparowits, creating, in my heart and mind, a loss so fathomless there’d be no chance of recovery.
The other day, my husband and I drove deep into the beautifully sparse and quiet land of the Kaiparowits Plateau. After a while, we parked and walked down a wash that had been well traveled by cattle, the prints of which were intermixed with an occasional boot print. Eventually we were enticed into a side canyon that required enough rock climbing at its entrance to discourage bovine exploration. After we walked for less than an hour in sand free of evidence of man or beast, we reached the steep walls of a box canyon and could go no further. We spread our lunch and ourselves on a rock and sat in silence sharing the heat of the sun’s rays. Both of us felt it—the dramatic realization that we were alone. Truly alone. We immediately convinced ourselves that no other human had ever walked that route or lingered on that particular rock, in that particular box canyon. Unlikely, but if it is possible anywhere, it is possible on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
I looked at my husband whose body was built for the desert. Like a perfectly still lizard, he blends with his environment as if he were given that gift to protect himself from predators—his frame angled to drape effortlessly over rock, his skin the color of desert sand, his eyes the color of juniper berries. And although he daily lives a life of peace, a palpable tranquility emanated from him at that moment, in that place. I turned away from him, closed my eyes, and felt it also—a reverberating murmur gurgling through the body. I knew then, from the deepest core of my physical organism, something that I had only intellectualized before: I knew exactly what we had sacrificed in our zeal to “use” the land, to make the land “work for us.” We’ve sacrificed the instinctive human, the natural human, the animal human. We have sanctioned a painfully slow and ugly death for ourselves. And there’s some part of each of us that knows the truth of this.
I’m not a person who rushes to join many causes, although I have nothing but respect for those who do. Nevertheless, I have pondered the question, “What matters enough to me to sacrifice what I have?” I found my answer that day on the Kaiparowits Plateau. I would fight the destruction, the tearing apart of that powerful, wild place. There are many arguments for leaving the heavily fossilized and geologically rich plateau undisturbed. It can teach, and has taught, us much about our history. But I’m arguing for its protection on a level that cannot be measured in scholarly study, in dollars, in jobs, or in uses. I’m arguing for something that cannot be measured by any standard generally accepted in our society. I’m arguing for its protection on a spiritual level.
I fear that we are several generations past the human animal now—a fact that some find comforting. I do not. I realize that some who visit the Kaiparowits Plateau and see fine, black silt oozing from the rock will feel nothing more than a sense of wasted opportunity. But left alone, the Kaiparowits Plateau has the capacity to ignite a profound shift in consciousness, has the ability to locate immediate knowledge in the gut. There are damn few places left in the United States holding onto that sort of potency, and we desperately need them. Let’s please, for God’s sake, for once in our lives, leave something the hell alone and see if we can’t find some human value in that. Let the Kaiparowits Plateau be that one experiment in human restraint, and let’s see if we can’t recapture a little dignity, a little humility, and maybe even a little humanity in the process.
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I started my writing career—if I may be so bold—as an essayist before turning to full-length nonfiction and fiction. I now eagerly return to the essay form without fear, hurling myself headlong into E. B. White’s description of the essayist: “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” something I intend to do once a month in this location for as long as my effrontery and stamina persist. I invite comment here—a technological marvel that White escaped and one that certainly has the capacity to put a crimp in one’s effrontery. But as White once wrote, “In resenting progress and change, a [wo]man lays [her]self open to censure,” so I embrace it heartily. Please join me. Use this space to comment, discuss, rage, cry, or simply sigh.
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An observation on the reputation of writers: The other day a nice woman—intent on smoothing over the tension between locals and move-ins—asked, “What do you do?” I replied, “I’m a writer,” to which she replied, “Is your husband also retired?”