Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

Random Thoughts of Excess

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Food, Harris Wash, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Peace, Salt Lake City, Solitude, The Body, The Place

I’ve been wandering the desert around Escalante going on four years now, time enough for my sensibilities to adapt to my surroundings. I suspect my sensibilities always resided here; only I was misplaced. I’ve spent all but three years of my life in one desert or another, but never before—even in my childhood—has the desert around me been so “uncovered,” so devoid of concrete, pavement, buildings, and unnatural plantings. Growing up in Tooele, Utah, then a tidy, self-contained town with fewer than 20,000 residents, I didn’t know I lived in a desert, and I nurtured my ignorance well into adulthood. Moving to Salt Lake City in my twenties made that all the easier because the edges of town were more difficult to reach. In fact, many people in Salt Lake City don’t acknowledge their desert dwelling status. The Mormons promised to make the “desert bloom like a rose,” and indeed they have. The consequences of doing so will be greeting them soon enough, but for now plausible deniability is still available to most—especially the urban desert dwellers.

I recently spent ten days in Salt Lake City hawking my wares and immersing myself in hubbub. I used to love the city clamor, used to crave it, in fact. But the desert has moved into the space I once filled with commotion, and I no longer require—or even tolerate—it. At one time, I hoped the energy of the city would help me shed my rural skin. Instead it only exposed it—painfully. I see my young self on the city streets and in the restaurants now, dressed in nightclub glitter too skimpy for the cool weather, tiptoeing precariously over uneven curbs on toes crushed by heels too high—looking good if it weren’t for trying so hard, if it weren’t for that glance into the darkened window for reflected reassurance. Those windows are a problem. If it weren’t for streets lined with mirrors, it would be easier to hide from oneself in the city than it is in a stripped-down desert, much easier to distract oneself from whatever pain or shame or fear flows just under the skin. A bare desert confronts a person, which might be why we treat them so shabbily, refuse to let them be, rush to cover them with concrete and roses.

Once I settle into the studio apartment where I sleep in Salt Lake City, the car becomes superfluous. I can gather what I need—which consists only of food—on foot. In this way, Salt Lake City is like Escalante. But other than the fact that they are both filled with Mormons—a comforting familiarity for me—the similarities end there.

Excessive choice in the downtown market

A few blocks from the SLC apartment sits a sparkly new, locally owned grocery store, small by “supermarket” standards, but hip and bright and colorful. In spite of its “downtown” size, the store is stocked so excessively beyond the needs of a human body, I often stand in the middle of an aisle—especially in the produce section—perplexed by choices and stimuli overload. I call this desert blindness. My slow and confounded movements inadvertently annoy shoppers who are certain of their desire for the fuji apple among the galas, granny smiths, honeycrisps, golden delicious, braeburns, red delicious, and jonathons.  They huff their disapproval of my dawdling presence as they reach around me before moving on to snap open a plastic bag and deposit a head of red leaf lettuce instead of the green leaf, romaine, endive, radicchio, butter leaf, arugula, or plain old iceberg. I used to be able to shop like that—with certainty and speed. The desert has taken that from me.

Winter abundance in the downtown market

Escalante and Salt Lake City are the antipodes of the food world. If one were to measure the concept of food in Escalante and compare it to the concept of food in Salt Lake City, or any city for that matter, the Escalante concept would be a distant fourth cousin of a friend of a friend who married a brother-in-law’s sister’s ex-boyfriend. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I learned to eat well; when I moved to Escalante, I learned to cook well. My concept of food shifted. In Salt Lake City, I chose what I wanted for dinner then either rushed out to have it placed in front of me hot and prepared or speed-shopped for specific ingredients to prepare it myself. In Escalante, I open the fridge and pull out whatever fresh items I’ve been able to get my hands on within the last week, which then determines what I’ll eat. Sometimes I use a cookbook, but cookbooks are filled with “easily attained” ingredients not easily attained within a hundred-mile radius of Escalante. Nevertheless, I learned how to stock a pantry from Mark Bittman and how to make substitutions from Alice Waters, both of which come in handy in winter months when the few restaurants in town are closed for lack of tourists to fill the chairs. Along with a bump in my cooking skills, my advance food planning skills have soared. One does not want to find oneself wondering what to have for dinner at 8 p.m. on a winter Saturday in Escalante. If the answer is not in the refrigerator and pantry, I will go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and wait another twenty-four hours before Griffin’s Grocery opens on Monday morning where I can buy a Marie Callender’s frozen chicken pot pie and some Cheerios to keep on hand for the next time the planning goes awry.

But then there’s this: In Escalante I eat better than I ever did in a place surrounded by an excess of food choices. I spend less. I waste less. I eat fresh bread we make ourselves. (Yes, I have a bread maker; his name is Steve.) We gather vegetables, fruit, and herbs from the backyard. We track down neighbors to buy eggs. We make four different meals from one pork roast. We make a better pizza than can be bought. We use all leftovers. We throw out very little.  Yet during those ten days in the city, I was stunned by the speed with which convenience took over my eating habits.

Temple Square dressed for the holidays

To get to the grocery store from the Salt Lake studio apartment, I walk through Mormon country—across the granite slab patios of the relatively new, blocky conference center, in front of the fountain fed by city creek, and up the speckled granite stairs. I then cross North Temple in the middle of the block and make a choice. I can walk directly through the Mormon temple grounds, always an aesthetically pleasing experience with meticulous gardens of color and grandeur in every season. On this trip, the dark purple pansies, which had shaken off an early snow with a show of vigor, were just nodding off, and great quantities of yellow and orange leaves were detaching their holds from branches and dropping to greet me. Workers were busy installing and testing Christmas lights; bushes and trees twinkled.

I seldom tire of strolling through Temple Square because my mother’s comforting presence is so strong there, but if I do, I can choose to wander down what used to be Main Street and past what used to be the Hotel Utah, both now owned by the church, the acquisition of which upset a good many people. I’m not one of them. For one thing, the church’s purchase of Hotel Utah likely saved a lovely historic building from destruction.  For another thing, closing off a street in deference to pedestrians rather than cars makes me happy in the-end-justifies-the-means sort of way, although how the church ended up owning a city street still raises the ire of those who love to spat at dinner parties about the separation of church and state—or lack thereof—in the beautiful state of Utah, as if it would escape the notice of us locals had others not moved in to point it out. Of course, one is no longer allowed to smoke or have sex in the bushes on the north side of Hotel Utah, and that’s a loss, but a whole lot of chaste snuggling and smooching goes on around the reflecting pond in the shadow of the temple. Every once in a while, as we wander through, Steve and I stop to join the fun.

It used to be that one would leave Mormon premises at the cornerstone on Main and South Temple—yes, the precise cornerstone from which sprouts the Mormon grid addressing system—but no longer. When downtown Salt Lake City began its descent into decay, as so many inner cities have, the church stepped in with cash and a plan for revitalization: commerce and consumerism, two things in which the church has expertise and an adaptive sense of morality and ethics. They built themselves a fancy mall.

Now on my way to the grocery store, I cross the street from Temple Square directly into the cobbled stones of City Creek Mall without so much as a stutter step. This may seem strange to some—flowing flawlessly from the sacred into the secular, from the spiritual to the material, all of it part and parcel of the Mormon Church, but the Mormon Church is a modern American church. Whereas the Catholics had to evolve slowly into modernism—first letting go of Latin mass, still a sacrilege to some—and employ the process of two steps forward and one back (or vice versa depending upon your views), the Mormons are not faced with such a problem. Joseph Smith built his church around commerce, and as far as Mormons are concerned, wealthiness is next to Godliness, which is why separation of church and state makes no sense to them. That would be like separating religion and commerce. Why would one want to do that when they fit so nicely together?

Once in the outdoor space of City Creek Mall, I stroll next to the perfectly placed boulders along the babbling creek for which the mall is named. I only assume the creek is babbling. I cannot hear it for the noise of the crowd and the piped-in, remarkably loud music psychologically driving the consumer madness. The number of items contained in City Creek Mall among Tiffany, Porsche Design, Nordstrom, Michael Kors, Brooks Brothers, Apple Store, and ninety or so others that a human does not need must number in the millions. You have the right to remain fabulous! says the City Creek Mall slogan. The fact that I was in the city for the very purpose of waving my arms and raising my voice with “buy, buy, buy!” pleadings for my new novel is not lost on me. Please make me a part of your consuming frenzy!

* * *

Excessive space

Excessive space

When I highlight the word “desert” in Microsoft Word and click on the handy thesaurus and dictionary function—certainly not an exhaustive or authoritative source, but one that, no doubt, represents mainstream thinking—the following terms pop up along the right-hand side of my screen: Wasteland. Deprived Place. Lifeless Place. Barren Region.

Desolate Tract. If I open The Synonym Finder I can add: Dust Bowl. No Man’s Land. Devoid. Empty. Destitute. Poor. Deficient. Uncultivable. Unproductive. We believe these words. They are part of our sensibilities, part of our psyche. They are what allowed the Mormons to make the desert

Excessive beauty

Excessive beauty

bloom like a rose. They are what allow residents along the Wasatch Front to deny living in a desert.

They are what drive us to cover deserts with malls and golf courses and lawns and concrete. The mall bustles with life! Wouldn’t we rather bustle with life than reside in a “lifeless place”?

The day after Thanksgiving, Steve and I drove out the desolate tract called Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the barren region known as Harris Wash. From there we walked several miles through the wasteland of flowing pink sand, pinyon pine, juniper, sage, and

wheatgrass before settling into the lifeless place

Excessive solitude

Excessive solitude

between rust-red sandstone and a cornflower blue sky.

We rested our backs against rocks warmed by a brilliant sun and were soothed by the silence of our deprived place. Pure excess.

The Ways of Western Water

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Las Vegas, Nevada, Spring Valley, The Place, Utah, West Desert

The Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas

A little more than six years ago, Pat Mulroy, general manager for Southern Nevada Water Authority announced a plan to build a 300-mile pipeline to pump water out of the eastern Nevada valleys in the basin and range land north of Las Vegas and carry it to the thirsty city. Because the intricate designs of water aquifers under our feet don’t abide by the rules of statehood, property rights, and water rights—no matter how much we want them to—the plan also includes pulling water out from under the folks living in Utah’s west desert communities, farms, ranches, and Goshute Indian reservation lands.

A life-giving spring for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute.

When I heard the announcement, I thought surely that such an idea based almost entirely on arrogance and power would be immediately shot down by the relatively sane among us, forcing those in charge to abandon the idea. Those in charge are claiming, of course, that they can take water without doing damage to the areas they plan to drain, and those about to lose their water, of course, believe their land, their cattle, their crops, their animals, their communities, and maybe even their lives will be threatened. The truth is in there somewhere and it is this: No one knows for certain the extent of the devastation that will be suffered by those on the losing end—the sucking end—of the pipeline. If we were to use logic and common sense, something we seldom rely on anymore, one would think that draining water out from under land in the most arid state in the nation would certainly have an impact. But expecting decisions made with logic and reason in these days of scarcity and fear is almost quaint—much easier to focus on our small lives, work like hell to keep what little we have, and let those with money and power make the big decisions. So, we come to this in the west: whoever can build the biggest pipeline wins. Apparently that approach makes sense to some. In fact, it makes sense to many. It’s not that those relying on logic and reason haven’t been fighting tirelessly—they have—but they are greatly outnumbered.

For the most part, we humans are proud of our hubris and proud of our pride and so on and so forth. We puff up with our “can do” attitudes while we yank nature around like a toy on a string—building dams, clearing land, diverting rivers, installing levees, poisoning topsoil, soiling the air, and sucking water out of the ground many times faster than it can be naturally replaced. (Case in point, in fewer than 100 years we have depleted the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nations largest underground water sources, which took nature more than 10,000 years to fill during the Ice Age.) Even when nature roars back to put us in our place with droughts, dead crops, toxic food, dust storms, melting glaciers, dried up aquifers, beetle-eaten dead trees, forest fires, broken levees, and flooded cities, we refuse to go. We will not be pushed around by nature. We stand our ground. Rebuild. Find new chemicals to kill new pests. Genetically modify our food. Put air filters in our homes and stay inside. Dig up more land and build more dams to secure more energy sources to run more air filters because it’s too dangerous to go outside. We’ve pitted ourselves against the very thing that keeps us alive—nature. And most of us seem to be placing our bets on humans. You have to love that sort of egotism or blind faith or pure stupidity or desperation or denial or delusion—whatever it is that keeps us building pipelines. It’s like placing a bet on the Detroit Tigers in the bottom of the ninth with two outs when San Francisco is up eight runs.

During the recent presidential debates, some of us were concerned that neither candidate spoke about caring for or attempting to reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth and our environment. Instead we heard “energy independence,” two hollow words proclaimed with either delusion or deceit or a combination of both.

On a Facebook page in response to a lament that the environment is not part of the political discussion, someone posted this comment: “It’s hard to care about the environment when the economy is bad and people don’t have jobs.” In other words, we have more pressing problems. But the truth is, we do not have more pressing problems. That comment was written as if the environment and human suffering were two separate issues. They are not. Every day, through our transgressions against the earth, we add to the suffering and destruction of humans not to mention many other species. We cause cancers with a chemical approach to mass food production. We destroy clean water supplies fracking our way to “energy independence.” We cause oceans to rise, which destroy homes and kill people with every big storm. We add to hunger, homelessness, and joblessness by clear cutting forests and building dams, displacing people who have survived from the land and the waterways for generations. “The environment” is not a peripheral issue, it is not a separate topic that sits “over there.”  It is the one single thing that does the most to either create or relieve human suffering, depending upon our actions. The destruction of the earth is an end game. As E.O. Wilson puts it, “one earth, one experiment.”

But our politicians know us well. They know that in spite of our compassionate rhetoric about the jobless and the uninsured, we care less about human suffering in general—especially if it resides outside of our daily observation in other towns, states, and preferably countries—than we do about alleviating our individual fears and protecting our own individual comfort levels—no matter how large or small either of those things might be. That’s what this presidential campaign is about—provoking our fears while promising to alleviate them. But it soon won’t matter at all if anyone has a job, or if someone has to pay inheritance tax, or if most of us are uninsured. None of us are insured against unbreathable air, lack of water, and toxic food. More pressing problems? The storm that just hit the east coast should tell us otherwise. The dead crops in the Midwest should tell us otherwise. The number of people dying around the world—including here at home—from tainted water and food-borne illnesses should tell us otherwise. And the very conversation of a 300-mile, multi-billion dollar water pipeline should tell us otherwise.

* * *

When I heard the pipeline announcement, I “got involved,” “became active,” wrote lots of letters, met with people, wrote an editorial for the paper—the grind that we grind through on every issue that nudges us closer to the finish line of the human vs. nature race. I love those tireless activists on the ground, on the front lines, but I’m not one of them. I bring up the rear. I’m the support unit. I burn out quickly and trundle home to write, having been shown once again that the page is my only access to activism.

Three questions kept popping up in my mind on this issue: Who builds a city of excess like Las Vegas in the middle of a desert that demands restraint? Who sets up a water-dependent agricultural operation in the driest state in the nation? And once both of those things are definitively established involving real people living real lives in the only way they know how, what happens when the water runs out, worlds collide, and things screech to a halt? So I began to write.

In the meantime, back when I was working on my MFA at the University of Arizona, three fictional characters introduced themselves to me and started rattling around in my head, spilling tea, and having conversations among themselves. They were three generations of women from the same family—twenty something, forty something, and seventy something—all wanting to have their say from the perspective of their age and gender. But they lacked a story and a place so for years they’ve been hanging around in my brain as if in a doctor’s waiting room, looking at their watches and kicking up a fuss now and again about how long they’ve been waiting.

When Pat Mulroy announced the plan to build the Las Vegas water pipeline, she offered those three patient women a backdrop to their story. I offered them a place—the sparse and beautiful Spring Valley, Nevada, nestled between the Snake and Schell Creek Mountains—and set them loose on the page. They took what was offered and ran with it, all of them anxious to be heard: Nell, 76, a Spring Valley rancher; Kate, 46, Nell’s daughter and the deputy water resource manager at the Nevada Water Authority; and Cassie, 21, Kate’s daughter, a student at UNLV.

The three of them began talking in earnest and often over the top of one another, but before long, because she couldn’t trust Nell to tell it like it is, Nell’s sister-in-law, Leona, insisted on adding her voice from the older generation. As Leona says about Nell, “Darn near every story that comes outta her mouth has some sorta bend to it that don’t belong there.”

I was curious to hear their stories, curious to know how Kate, who grew up on the ranch in Spring Valley, ended up in her position at the NWA touting a plan that she knew would devastate her mother’s life. What had happened between them? What path led her to a position diametrically opposed to her family and upbringing?

The story that the four women told about family secrets, family lies, family tragedies, and many flawed human decisions that spread and trickled through the place and the people like the water aquifers under their feet, surprised me.

The result is The Ordinary Truth, out in bookstores this month. My intent in writing about ideas such as the pending Las Vegas pipeline, which is still on the table and still moving forward, is not to tell readers how to view it or how to think about it, but simply to get readers to think about it. In other words, I want to bring up questions, not offer answers. I realized in writing this book that the issue of the Las Vegas water pipeline—like most of the environmental urgencies we now face—is extremely complex. It’s not a question of good versus evil, right versus wrong. There are good, sincere people trying to do the right thing on all sides of this issue, and there are no easy answers. The truth—the ordinary truth—is that there may be no answers at all.

In its starred review, Booklist says, “With tough women and sensitive men, desert-dry humor, hot-springs sensuality, heartbreaking secrets, escalating suspense, and a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water, Richman’s twenty-first-century western is riveting, wise, and compassionate.

The phrase in that review that thrills me the most is “a 360-degree perspective on the battle over water.” If we ever hope to stop the assault on our life-giving planet and, in doing so, save ourselves, we cannot afford to operate from our morally righteous pedestals, from our positions of certainty, from our place of first demonizing the opposition before we begin a conversation. What I found while researching this book is that the people who will be most affected by any decision made through power and wealth are often those with the quietest voices on all sides of the issues—not only the small time rancher who will not be able to water her crops and the Goshute tribal member who will not be able to water his livestock, but also the low-wage-earning janitor who sweeps cigarette butts off sidewalks in front of the Bellagio dancing fountains in the city of excess. They might indeed hold wildly divergent points of view from one another, but they often still share a love for their families, a love for their geographical place, a love for humanity in general, and a desire for the single necessity in life they’ve always taken for granted—water.

* * *

If you would like to read more of the story behind The Ordinary Truth, you can find a Q&A here and a book excerpt from The Ordinary Truth here.

The Ordinary Truth is available through your local independent bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For those of you in Salt Lake City, please join us for a book launch reading and celebration at The Kings English on November 14, at 7 p.m. For those of you in Moab, please join us at Back of Beyond Books on November 30, where I’ll be reading with Erica Olsen, author of the short story collection, Recapture.

For those of you in Escalante, big book release celebration coming up soon! I might as well kick off the party season here in Escalante where we celebrate Thanksgiving, Solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas all the while pretending Escalante is a sleepy little town that shuts down in the winter when the tourists leave.

In the next few months, I’ll be speaking in Kanab, Utah, and possibly Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. Events will be posted under “News and Reviews” on this website. I’m happy to visit your book group in person, by phone, or by skype. Please contact me by email at janarich@scinternet.net.

The Struggle for Convalescence

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Convalescence, Escalante, Utah, Mindfulness, Salt Lake City, The Body, The Mind, The Place

“I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile.”

–George Bernard Shaw

For the past two weeks, I have been viewing the world through the haze of the common cold. My head is filled with the sort of thick and furry dryer lint that catches in the screen after I wash the cat blankets. I’m told that a cold that lasts beyond a week could be something else, something more serious—pneumonia or bronchitis. I don’t have either of those; mine is all in my head. But it is quite serious. A war has been declared between body and mind. My body is demanding convalescence and my mind is refusing. I have work to do.

My mind operates under the impression that I engage in really important work, that I am indispensible to the daily goings-on of the world—at least the small world I inhabit. My body, on the other hand, knows the truth—that if I were to take a few days or a few weeks or lie down and die tomorrow, life would go on relatively unaffected—not my life but life in general. A partially edited manuscript on my desk would have to go back to its owner; my absence at upcoming readings would cause one or two folks to pause before they shrug it off to irresponsible behavior; a university on the east coast would send me first a concerned email, then a terse email, then a termination letter after several deadlines pass; my brother and sister would wonder if they might inherit anything (they won’t); and my husband would have to attend to the unpaid bills and refill the cat dishes. In other words, my life could be cleared away in a rather tidy and rapid manner.

I spent the first week of my illness in Salt Lake City where I went to speak to a writing class, attend a reading, get my hair cut, and visit friends—most of which I did not accomplish. Instead, I sat in a chair, a box of tissue on my lap, in a small studio apartment across the street from the Mormon conference center. Unable to think clearly enough to work or read, I stared out the window. When the sun became strong enough, I ventured out of the apartment to the lawn where I sat to watch the parade of devout Mormons make their way to conference. Every woman who walked by with her gray hair sprayed hard against the fall breeze reminded me of my beautiful, devoutly Mormon mother. I can’t be Mormon, but I have a tender spot for those women. I adored my mother, but I’m blaming her for my inability to convalesce.

My mother died a very old woman at the age of seventy-nine. For the last ten or so years of her life, she convalesced from one thing or another—falls, congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, skin torn to the bone, and my father. At some point she embraced her illnesses, sank into her couch in the television room, and set out to live the remainder of her days as a convalescent.

I dare not relax for fear my common cold will define my days and nights.

* * *

I have a friend who tells me she has learned to move through her life as a majestic elephant—slowly, mindfully, with purpose. At first I had trouble merging the two—the small-boned, fat-free woman and the majestic beast, but, indeed, I can see majesty—splendor, dignity, power—in her movements and hear it in her words. She is seemingly full of joy, love, and peace, and she shares them generously. She tells me I need to nap, listen to music, get a foot massage, and sit on the back porch in the fall sun to watch the remaining leaves fall. Convalesce. Restore. Recuperate. Relax. My body lunges at the thought, but my mind is mortified. Deadlines will be missed and commitments will be broken and many things will fall through very wide cracks! She doesn’t have this problem because (1) majestic elephants are apparently wise enough not to accumulate unrealistic deadlines and too numerous commitments in the first place, and (2) majestic elephants do not swirl in circles of self-induced chaos. They simply go about each single task in front of them, one after another. She provides either inspiration or jealousy steeped in self-loathing—my choice.

* * *

Black Walnut Tree at Rest

Black Walnut Tree at Rest

Last night I walked to the writing shed in pure darkness after everyone—husband and houseguests—had gone to sleep. The moon was but a sliver, but the crunching of the browned grasses under my feet told me when I had wandered off the bare dirt path. I did an hour of editing before sinking into my reading chair and reaching for my box of Kleenex to blow my nose.

The world had changed during my ten days in Salt Lake City. The leaves on the giant black walnut tree and the three smaller cottonwood trees in the front yard had yellowed and dropped without my attendance. The frosty mornings have taken the lives of the herbs and tomato plants. The grass and weeds have gone dormant. The apple trees are still full, but production is down. It is a time of rest and restoration for those willing to embrace it.




The Monsoonal Flow of Kindness

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Kindness, Monsoons, The Mind, The Place

There is no need for complicated philosophy . . . the philosophy is kindness.

–Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama

Monsoons have arrived in Escalante. Brash, vociferous monsoons carried into town on raucous winds and dumping fat, lavish globs of rain. At the very moment I write this, lightening sparkles around me, thunder bellows, clear water falls from the sky—one minute battering insistently, the next descending gently—and squishy mud forms around the porch of my writing shed as if it were the gift I’ve been waiting for. And it is.

The monsoons have been present in Escalante for three weeks now. Those whose job it is to predict and report the weather call them violent storms. I call them kind, benevolent storms. My phone was deadened for a day and the water ran urine-yellow from my kitchen faucet for a week. Still, I wouldn’t call those consequences—my loss of modern conveniences—acts of violence.

No doubt someone will point out to me that such storms are violent because they can be, and often are, deadly. A young husband and father was struck and killed by lightening during a recent storm, and in the not too distant past hikers have been killed in flash floods, common in nearby canyons during monsoons. But death itself does not denote violence. In my mind, violence requires intent. And monsoons are just monsoons—there’s no violent intent involved.

Monsoonal Flow --Photo by Cassady Croft

Of course, one could then argue that if monsoons cannot be violent nor can they be kind and benevolent, as I have described them. I suppose that is true. Monsoons are indifferent to humans. But I am not indifferent to monsoons; therefore, I choose to receive them as kind. After a summer start of scorched earth, smoke-filled air, empty lakes, disappearing rivers, and a dry, dusty yard—a stark preview, no doubt, of summers to come—I can’t find anything but kindness and compassion in the monsoons. Others are free to receive them as they wish.

* * *

Last fall, Steve and I attended a gathering of about fifty people interested in a new collective consciousness—a consciousness that would reconnect the human mind to the reality of the human habitat, a consciousness that would remind us that humans can live without fossil fuel, airplanes, and cars—and, in fact, have done so in the not too distant past—but they cannot live—and never have been able to live—without clean air, pure water, and non-toxic food. Because a physiological adaptation to such a state is unlikely, most of us know—if we are conscious at all—that the choice among those things is quickly approaching.

As one might expect, based upon who has the most to lose in the game of chicken we’re playing with the earth, the average age of those in attendance at the consciousness gathering was approximately 20-30 years my junior.  The crowd was hip, young, smart, and creative, and it showed in their manner of dress, in the expansiveness of their art, and in their relationships to one another. I felt the opposite of all those things: old, dowdy, out of place, and shunned. Steve—a redneck hippie intellectual who is comfortable in his own skin and, therefore, comfortable in any group—fit right in. For five days, we camped among the youth, sharing meals and conversation. It was not easy to keep my defenses up for a full week, but I managed.

On the final day, the group came together to bid one another farewell with a few final words from each of us. I had nothing to say, so while others spoke, I occupied myself with formulating something simple, something that wouldn’t give me away as the only person who had not been transformed by the experience. But I kept getting distracted by the words of others—words that contained what seemed a genuine outpouring of love, not only for everyone in the room but for humanity and life in general.

When it came my time to speak, I could not. While everyone patiently waited, I wept. A young man—a burner (a devotee of Burning Man) in his early 20s with wildly free, shoulder-length hair and face paint—sat next to me on the floor. As I attempted to speak through tears, he reached over, gently but firmly wrapped his large hand around my forearm just above my wrist, and held onto me until I stopped crying long enough to utter a few words. Afterward, as everyone one stood to leave, I touched his arm and thanked him. He smiled and engulfed me in a tight hug.

I don’t know that young man’s name, I don’t know if I will ever see him again, and I don’t know that I would recognize him if I did. He gave me the simple but momentous gift of kindness and taught me something about myself: I contain my own segregation. I carried it into that gathering. At the moment of my vulnerability, at the moment I let down my defenses, he bestowed unrestrained compassion.

* * *

Last month the New York Times published an essay in which I shared my life-long struggle with fear. In the online comments, some scoffed, some simply called me foolish, and some argued that I have no right to my fear. They pointed out that I live in a beautiful place, that I have a good-looking husband and a cat. They, thereby, proclaimed me unworthy of fear. I agree! That’s precisely what I tell my fear every morning: go away; you have no reason to be here. I am not deserving of your presence.

Others urged me to hang onto my fear, even suggesting I may not be fearful enough, especially when it comes to my physical surroundings. They told me the same thing the signpost that graces the trailhead near the Escalante River tells me: “You Could Die Out Here!” Precisely why wandering a vast, magnificent desert calms a person like me.

Many more readers—online and through email—reacted with the simple philosophy of kindness. I was stunned—perhaps naively so—by the sheer number of such messages I received. Some called me courageous for sharing my fear in a public way, informing me that fear and shame often operate as a pair, and, indeed, that was the message of the angry readers: you should be ashamed of your fear. Some wrote to me of their own struggles with paralyzing fear, irrational fear, fear that greets them every morning and haunts them throughout the day. Fear, it turns out, is democratic—it is not gender specific, it is not geographically specific. It does not care about skin color, sexual orientation, class, religion, profession, trade, talent, intellect, friends, family, love, or income level. No one is deserving of that kind of fear, and no one need be ashamed of that kind of fear. To those who reached out to me in the vein of kindness, thank you.

* * *

The other day, a friend of mine received a great review from Publishers Weekly for her forthcoming novel. I was truly happy for her, without qualification. I’m embarrassed to admit that for much of my life I’ve experienced petty jealousy with the good news of friends. I did not understand that joy can be shared, that there is plenty to go around. I did not understand that one person’s good fortune does not supplant another’s. Opportunities for joy should not be squandered. Same with kindness. If I don’t carry kindness in my soul, I have no way to receive it from others.

* * *

Monsoon Waterfall --photo by Julie Trevelyan (www.wildgirlwriting.com)

Steve likes to run in the desert; I like to walk in the desert. Both of those things are made more pleasurable by the kindness of monsoons so we’ve been going out often—starting at different points and meeting in the middle. We typically go out after the monsoon has passed but the remnants linger—pools, quicksand, the scent of sage, and—if we’re lucky—waterfalls over slickrock. Sometimes we’re out when the monsoon arrives, so we tuck under an alcove to watch the storm through wide eyes and a panel of water or climb to the safety of high ground from which we watch the river rise, turn muddy, and gush below us.

Washed-smooth and moisture-packed sand is a joy to travel over. It requires no trudging; it’s like walking on a sponge. As I walk, I can’t stop myself from looking back at my perfectly formed footsteps, especially if I’m walking barefoot. I’m somehow fascinated by the way they follow me—teasing and fun, a playful existential game, but a game with a moral I’ve yet to figure out. Once while walking together in post-monsoon sand, Steve and I noticed that I—a smaller and slighter body—was leaving deeper prints than he. I attributed this to his lightness of spirit. So I continue to check the tracks behind me, expecting that one day I’ll turn and see no trace of myself.

The Human Intrusion

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante, Utah, Peace, The Catskills, The Mind, The Place

“The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity.”

–E.O. Wilson

During the past few weeks, I left my desert home for a variety of reasons, the first being only that I was invited to do so by an old friend with whom I wished to reconnect after a twelve-year pause. Being comfortable with the natural comings and goings of friends throughout a life, I approach all such reconnections with trepidation, but in this case, the reunion was reason enough to vacate my dry and thirsty plot of land and suffer the repugnance of airplane travel. I had missed her easy laugh, her love and knowledge of books, and our shared neuroses.

The promise of a view such as the one I now gaze upon through the upstairs window of an old farmhouse in the Catskills provided yet another motive for risking the lives of my water-dependent herbs and tomato plants in Escalante. The view, quite simply, is green. Green upon green. Green behind green. Green in such magnitude a desert dweller might find it monotonous, almost crushing in its closeness. But I don’t find it so. I’ve never lived in such a place—I’ve been a desert rat most of my life—so I’m unable to explain the nostalgia that flushes through me upon arrival. But synchronicity often follows me, and within the pages of the only book I carried with me, E. O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, I find my answer: the savanna hypothesis of human evolution. When given a choice, people of different cultures, countries, and backgrounds overwhelmingly look for three characteristics when choosing a place to live: a height from which they can look out over a parkland with scattered trees near water. In other words, says Wilson, “habitats resembling those in which our species evolved in Africa during millions of years of prehistory.”

Outside the window, a tamarack tree, gentle in its grandeur, spreads itself upward and outward—at least seventy feet tall and twenty feet wide from its trunk in every direction. I don’t know much about trees. I don’t know much about anything, really. I spend a good amount of time outside, but my ignorance about the nature of things is generally widespread. Information seeps in and leaks out in equal parts. Wilson believes that if we were all better educated about the inner workings of the natural world, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the mess we’re currently in. I’m sure he’s right.

Catskills Garden

Fifteen feet up, the slender trunk of the tamarack splits, and two trunks grow side-by-side, equal in proportion, equal in production, a perfect partnership. I don’t know if trees have identifiable genders. I could “google” it, but sometimes having the short, quick answer is not nearly as satisfying as immersing oneself in the essence of the thing. This tree is female. Not a hard, athletic female, but a soft, lithesome female. A rare female without insecurity or conceit.  Through its wispy tendrils and tiny cone baubles, I can view the thick lawn running out to meet the tall-grass meadow and the trees beyond, many of which are hemlock and syrup-bestowing maples. The gardens sprout pink and white peonies, purple lupine and iris, lavender foxglove, orange and pink poppies, yellow sundrops, and white wood anemone. Near the vegetable garden, a stinky, as-of-yet unidentified bush sporting creamy, swaying feathers turns away plant-seeking deer. A slow, dark creek crawls through the yard and into the woods. The nostalgia of prehistoric recognition makes me want to lie in the meadow and weep.

At night I sit in the dark expanse of the lawn and watch the joyful, erotic dance of fireflies. I remember seeing fireflies as a child in Utah, but I’m not sure if my memory is real or fantasy. I haven’t seen them in more than four decades. I check with my husband, also a Utah native; he tells me the memories are fantasy.

Birds come and go from the tamarack paying no mind to me. They don’t admire us the way we admire them. They don’t keep a people journal to jot down where and when they spotted a particular type of person sporting certain colors and singing a recognizable song. With few exceptions, says Wilson, almost everything in nature can survive without humans, one of the exceptions being three species of body and head lice. Humans, on the other hand, need almost every species on the earth for our survival—especially the insects—though we are loath to admit it. Wilson is too polite to say so, but when it comes to “living Nature,” we are defiantly ignorant, and we protect our ignorance with gusto.

According to my two housemates who are knowledgeable about such things, there are good birds and bad birds, desirable birds and undesirable birds. I can’t tell the difference. I tend to pick birds the same way I pick sports teams—whoever has the best colors gets my endorsement.

For the most part, all birds look pleasant to me, though one particularly large and confident blue jay does throw its weight around at the bird feeder, bullying the others. I’m assuming it belongs in the undesirable category, which I confirm at dinner. “Blue jays?” I ask. “They’re assholes,” is the response—a widely agreed upon characterization that makes me giggle for its sheer humanness. But this bird sports a handsome crown and gorgeous deep blue—almost periwinkle—wings and tail etched with gray and white design work. No wonder he’s cocky. Yet he’s common. The more rare the bird, the more desirable the bird, which explains why most humans are undesirable—we are not nearly rare enough.

* * *

In my backyard in Escalante, a large cherry tree annually produces copious amounts of dark red bing cherries. Each year we share our crop with the birds—or more accurately, the birds share their crop with us. They take the top half of the tree, and we take the lower half, a perfectly reasonable arrangement. We have no ladder high enough to reach the top branches, no desire to bottle cherries, and a limited digestive capability for fresh cherries. This year, however, I began to notice activity in the cherry tree long before the cherries were big enough or ripe enough to pick. The chirpy visitors were yellow-breasted, orange-headed birds—excellent team colors. Possibly western tanagers, though I know as much about birds as I do trees.  Although the bird’s colors would put it on my “winner” list, it turned out to be a cheating bird—a bird that doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the rules; an impatient bird—a bird that could not wait for the cherries to grow and ripen; a greedy bird—a bird not willing to share with an inferior species of cherry picker.

In fear of losing my summer opportunity to sicken myself on cherries, I asked around town for a resolution. “Throw a net over the tree” was the most common response I received, which perplexed me. I don’t have the largest cherry tree in Escalante by any means, but “throwing a net over the tree” would require either a helicopter drop or a buildup of scaffolding. Instead, I pulled a chair up to the railing of the back porch, propped my feet up, and watched the birds clean me out. To their credit, western tanagers—if that’s what they were—are tidy birds. I now have a cherry tree full of stems and pits still nicely attached to the branches. No mess on the ground. I’ve not yet decided whether or not the western tanager is a desirable bird.

* * *

The scent of the Catskills mountain air blowing gently through the lace curtains into the room where I write is unknown to me. The woods of the East and the woods of the West don’t carry the same scent. The woods of the West never fail to catch my heart with their pine-infused, dry-rotting mustiness and dirt, and I could tell by watching my friend when she first got out of the car that the woods of the East catch her heart in the same way. The smell here is more alive, coalesced and smoother—like a perfectly mixed cocktail with a little froth on top. The smell in the west is a shot of tequila followed by a shot of vodka followed by a shot of whiskey—strong and distinct. I believe the difference might be due to the spacing of plants—I can’t smell bare dirt here.

The sound in the Catskills is also unfamiliar. Birdsong rules the airwaves. Clear, vibrant, and contained—as if the woods keep the sound near. In the open space of the West, the birdsong escapes, always in the background instead of the foreground. I’m most startled by the absence of a familiar summer sound—the tish-tish-tish of irrigation sprinklers. Here, I’m forced to acknowledge the unnaturalness of the sound that has soothed me since I was a child and still often does.

One evening I and my housemates sat on the porch of the art studio built in the woods next to the creek and caught glimpses of the setting sun through the trees, a somewhat frustrating experience for someone used to wide horizons. It felt like sitting in the back row at a music concert where the stage can be seen only occasionally between the bobbing heads of people. But there’s something comforting in the way this place repairs itself around the human intrusion with such abundance, such luxuriance, almost as if it is saying, “settle in, you’re welcome here, we’ll just fill in around you.” The beauty of rainfall.

The arid West cannot accommodate us so easily. It cannot fill in around human intrusion in a few seasons or a few decades. It does not have the capacity to do so. The land around my Escalante home appears spectacularly tough—reddened and baked rocks, jagged, running cliffs, deep gulches exposing rocks more than 270 million years old, Entrada sandstone goblins and arches—the quintessential picture of the rugged west. But it is not tough. It is an extremely fragile ecosytem, and each day the degradation from human intrusion becomes more apparent. I feel lucky to live amid such beauty, but it can break your heart on a daily basis. We have damaged it beyond repair—there is no doubt about that—and we remain defiantly ignorant about the consequences.

The proponents of tearing into 2,000 acres of public land near Bryce National Park to extract coal have promised to “rehabilitate” the place at the end of thirty years of destruction. Such a promise is both laughable and sad. Cleaning up toxic air and water is the simple task. How does one put rocks back together after they are blasted apart? How does one replace the animals (including humans) killed in the process? How does one rebalance the native insects?

The loss of insects is something that would, of course, be laughed out of any discussion about the pros and cons of coal mining. We seldom hear environmentalists arguing on behalf of insects, yet close to fifty percent of all insects are endangered due to human intrusion. Once we lose insects, we lose flowering plants because we have no pollinators. We lose herbs and trees and shrubs dependent upon insects for pollination, including fruit trees. We lose birds that prey upon foliage, fruits and insects. We lose insects that turn soil and ready it for planting. The natural ecological balance is not only a beautiful thing; to the human, it is a necessary thing. “We have only a poor grasp,” says Wilson, “of the ecosystem services by which other organisms cleanse the water, turn soil into a fertile living cover, and manufacture the very air we breathe.” In other words, every species we lose—even an ant—nudges us toward our own demise. Yet, we continue to toy with the delicate balance of nature like children playing with matches, like drunken teenagers playing Russian roulette. The boast of “rehabilitating” the land back to a “pre-mining” stage is nothing more than a perfect combination of hubris and gullibility. We believe it because we want to believe it. We want to believe we can have benefits with no costs. Defiant ignorance.

* * *

From the desk in the farmhouse’s upstairs bedroom in the Catskills, I hear the gurgle of the “tiny creek” that runs through the woods. That’s the way the owner of the house described it—a tiny creek. The tiny creek is deeper and faster than the Escalante River crossing I encounter on my daily walk around the circumference of my town. At the west end of Escalante, I trundle down the powdery banks of the river and cross without hesitation. Without getting wet. The water comes no higher than the soles of my shoes.

Further downriver, the Escalante widens and deepens as it picks up the creeks of the Aquarius Plateau until it theoretically feeds into the Colorado River. However, it can no longer reach that great rushing river. Instead the Escalante runs into the unnaturally still waters of Lake Powell—the backed up bathtub of the Colorado River.

Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell, offers another striking example of brazenness and credulity, trading short-term results for long-term destruction. The sacrifice of Glen Canyon was only the beginning. The dam fundamentally changed the Colorado River from a raging, brown, silt-filled river into a clear, serene river carrying less than ten percent of its pre-dam sediment, permanently altering the formations of the Grand Canyon and killing off native fish. Most people don’t care. We prefer slow-moving, clear water to a raging, muddy river anyway, we have a hard time empathizing with the Humpback Chub, and we are notoriously inept at thinking beyond our own lifespan.

When I return to Utah from the Catskills, the Escalante River crossing on the west end of town is dusty bone-dry, and my state is on fire. So far more than 175,000 acres have burned. The neighboring states—Arizona, Colorado, and others—are also burning. The fire closest to my house has burned 8,200 acres and is 10% contained. The skies above my house are filled with smoke. My house is not in danger, but my soul and my psyche are. The fire was started by a spark from an ATV.  So far this year, 393 out of 438 Utah fires were human caused. In other words, 90 percent of the fires were preventable, unlike those caused by lightening strikes.

People who don’t care about the Humpback Chub care about the fires because they want to go camping, hiking, and fishing. They want to roast hotdogs and marshmallows over a campfire on the Fourth of July. They want to light sparklers and firecrackers. They want to ride ATVs and shoot guns that create sparks. As Americans, it is their right to do so. The line connecting the disappearance of the Humpback Chub to the smoke burning our nostrils is too dotted to follow, and we have no interest in connecting the dots anyway. Defiant ignorance.

Many work to repair the damage we’ve done. They reintroduce species—frantically trying to reestablish nature’s balance—and make pleas to the powerful with a few successes and many failures. In the mountains above my home, native beavers, having disappeared due to trapping, were reintroduced. They happily splashed around North Creek reservoir for a few weeks before someone trapped them, bashed their heads in, and threw them back into the reservoir—a clear statement to those who would dare attempt such acts as balancing the natural order of things.

Some will rise above such horrific details and keep working in spite of the unconditional violence directed at them. I so admire those people, but it feels a bit like trying to carry the Colorado River in one’s cupped palms. Holistically speaking, I have little faith in the ability of humans to manage nature. Even the most laudable kind of “nature management” seems close to an absurd idea, an idea borne out of the egos, and possibly the desperation, of humans. Yet I still believe in individual acts of redress, individual attempts to save the living environment, which is nothing less than a very commendable attempt to save ourselves. Maybe those small balancing acts will make a difference. Maybe it is my own defiant ignorance—rather than the smell of burnt earth—that tests my faith. If E. O. Wilson, with his vast knowledge of the regenerative capabilities of nature, can remain optimistic this many years after he began to shout warnings into seemingly deaf ears, why not me?

* * *

On my way from Escalante to Salt Lake City to catch the plane that would deliver me to New York, I followed a 4×4 Dodge pickup towing four ATVs—humans’ most triumphant tool of destruction—up the road over Boulder Mountain. Traveling rather close to the trailer’s bumper as I waited for my opportunity to pass the slow-moving vehicle, I nearly joined the group when the brake lights came on and the truck and trailer came to a full stop. In front of the truck, a mama blue grouse (I think) and five chicks scurried around and eventually crossed the road. While the mother darted back and forth to herd the chicks, I chided myself for my preconceived notions about the driver of the truck. He had stopped. He risked having me plow into the back of him—my own damn fault and not his problem—to allow three-inch-tall babies safe passage across the road. It is possible, of course, that this person might return to the mountain three months from now during grouse hunting season and kill the very birds he just saved. Nevertheless, he stopped.

The Land of No Use

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Kaiparowits Plateau, Loss, The Mind, The Place

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.

* * *

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?”