The New, New West

Introducing the 2014 Bell Prize winner.

 

Turkey vultures perch on a Cardón Cactus.
Brooke Warren

Through the mountains and over the desert in the rocky and rugged American West, 200 years from now, a turkey vulture flies. Pink flaps of bald skin encircle her beady eyes; her crooked black feathers are slick with carrion grease. This weird bird could be considered the West’s last surviving heroine. That is because she is a perfect mirror for her native landscape, which has become more harsh and depleted than ever.

Once, the powerful cities of Denver, Salt Lake and Phoenix held sway, surrounded by seemingly eternal miles of asphalt blah. Now, in the year 2215, these metropolises are empty, save for the tumbleweeds piled high against old chain-link fences and the walls of abandoned buildings.

For wild things like the turkey vulture, this withdrawal of a crumbling civilization should have felt like a victory. And it might have, had many creatures other than vultures survived long enough to see it happen. But the desert tortoise, the pronghorn and the big cats vanished long before the humans fled this region. Even the coyote, that resilient, versatile trickster of the animal kingdom, finally surrendered. And there can be no restoration of this part of the world now, for there is no water. The landscape reflects the decaying décor of the dusty rooms in the now-empty cities. It is a sun-blasted hell.

Not that there is no water at all: There is a little, but it is hoarded; the land is not allowed to use any of it. The few remaining springs and parched aquifers and the pathetic trickle of piss that was once the mighty Colorado River have long since been privatized. In 2215, there is only water enough for the water company employees themselves, with just enough left over to sell at an ultra-high premium to the fracking technicians who pull hazard pay just for venturing into the desert during hot daylight hours. The crews who film them for reality TV shows must import their own water, as must the heavily armed private security firms that watch over and guard the billion-dollar water and energy operations.

You could describe this scene as “post-apocalyptic,” but the term has become embarrassingly outdated. By 2215, historians agree that the so-called apocalypse began hundreds of years earlier, sometime in the 20th century. This was back when corporations and politicians were still pouring money into convincing some of the more gullible citizens that there was no such thing as climate change and that the much-sought-after and heavily exploited natural resources were still abundant. By the time they realized that it was simpler, not to mention cheaper, to simply take what they wanted by force, even from their fellow citizens, the collapse had been underway for generations.

No, the post-apocalyptic era has come and gone: 2215 is in the middle of the Age of Endurance. And there are those who endure. Not in the Southwest, where such a feat would be impossible without a private army and a bankroll the size of Shiprock, but farther north, where some rain still falls. Every day there are more who dare to believe that the experiences of life should be richer than mere survival. Their goal remains distant, but they are working toward it with steadfast determination: by showing gratitude for the land that gives them life, by growing sustainable organic crops, by taking care not to overharvest the mushrooms and berries they forage from the forest, by abandoning cattle with their stinky beef and eating only the meat that comes from the deer and elk that they respectfully hunt or from the few salmon that they fish. They are healing by helping the Earth to heal. In 2215, things are finally starting to change.

Nathaniel Kennon Perkins lives and works in Salt Lake City. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, Decomp, Pithead Chapel and other publications.