Mesas and Sky

2014 Bell Prize runner-up

 

Utah mesas and sky after a rain.
Brooke Warren

A friend once told me that, long ago, before all that red rock and sand in southern Utah settled at the bottom of an inland sea, it crumbled away from the top of the Appalachian Mountains. Erosion carried it down ancient summits, hundreds of miles away, and softly deposited it in a shallow Western sea. To him, hiking the Hayduke trail was like walking over the ashes of one of the greatest mountain ranges that ever was. All those lonely mesas and all that empty sky will do that to a person — make him think that way.

 

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

—Pablo Neruda

 

The West seems dry now, but it’s going to get a lot drier. Lake Powell is getting so low that, any day now, the ghost town of Hite, Utah, will emerge from its depths, and Ed Abbey’s Seldom Seen Smith might even stroll down its streets again. In 50 years, there may not be enough water to keep the whole thing going. They’re already calling for water rationing by 2017. We built our oases in a desert during the wettest part of the past millennium and still had to stop the 6 million year flow of the Colorado River to the Pacific in order to do so. Where will we find the water and the hope to sustain us in the coming drought amid all the struggle and iron?

Drought drove the Anasazi people out of history back in the 13th century, and drought may cause their ancient dwellings to rise back form the ripples of receding Lake Powell in a few short years. Will we notice and remark on this irony of this, or be too busy preparing for our own exodus?

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer

—William Butler Yeats

 

In a hundred years, there may not be so many people in the American West. Changing climate and a lack of water will dry up our desert metropolises. It happened to the Maya. It happened in Petra, and India, and Zimbabwe; why not Utah? I suspect there will be more Hanksvilles than Salt Lake Cities out West in a hundred years.

But that’s not to say things will be quiet. Wolves will howl in pursuit of bison in the Henry Mountains, cheatgrass will sizzle in wildfires across the Colorado Plateau, and hundreds of thousands of wind turbines will creak as they turn and turn in the sun - a mechanical gyre so dizzying that even after dark you won’t be able to hear the nighthawks buzzing. Turbines will turn and solar panels will glare. Wildlife will abound, but the sputterings and coughing of the continent’s new energy extractors may drown out its voice. And who will be there to hear it? The shepherd without a flock?

 

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

—T.S. Eliot

 

I suppose the West will be quiet again in 200 years: Just ragged gila monster claws scuttling across the floor of a dried-up sea. Dust will scratch away at some long-forgotten sock left in Coyote Gulch that refuses to decompose in the arid climate. Irrigation pivots won’t turn. Oil wells won’t bob. The world will end, after all, with a whisper.

But would it have been wrong for us to look forward? Would the head-scratching and throat-clearing and predicting and increasingly urgent warning have been worth it?

A great professor once told me something that I’ll never forget. Gaia, he said, would be here long after we were gone. Climate change won’t destroy the Earth. It may destroy people, but not the planet. Drought won’t destroy it, either. We probably won’t destroy the Earth — at least not before we destroy ourselves. Something will remain. I find that comforting. I’ll continue to revel in the majesty of the red rock desert and rebel against the forces that seek to unhinge it. I’ll work to conserve, and preserve, and fortify, and protect. But, in the end, nature wins. No matter what, sand and time and mesas and sky will triumph.


Daniel Kinka is a doctoral student in ecology at Utah State University and is currently investigating the use of livestock guardian dogs as a non-lethal management technique for large carnivores. 

As runner-up winner of the 2014 Bell Prize, Kinka received a $500 package from our generous sponsor Mountainsmith