“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.”
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.
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.
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