Essay by Diane Sylvain
"There was a hardness
of stone," Theodore Roethke starts a poem, "an uncertain glory ...
Between cliffs of light / We strayed like children."
The Harsh Country, the poem is called. I'm miles
away from what I think of as the harsh country, the cliffs of
light, the country of bright stone. It has a new name now, to be
layered on top of its other names, Anglo and Spanish and Indian,
spoken and silent. It's the Grand Staircase-Escalante National
I have maps in front of me. I know some
of the names the new monument gathers: Kaiparowits, No Man's Mesa,
Burning Hills, Paria. I know of the ravens and the rattlesnakes
there, and the potsherds and the canyons and the dark nights full
of stars. I'm a painter, and the landscape is a palette for me:
Pink Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs.
love maps and I draw maps, so I look at these maps and dream. In my
backpacking days, I nibbled around the edges of the Escalante, with
a short hike here and there. I planned long trips that never got
made; you know how it goes. Now an injury makes it hard for me to
hike, but that doesn't matter, really. I didn't need to go there to
love it. And now the maps have been saved for
Not everyone is as happy as I am about the
monument. Some environmentalists are disappointed because we wanted
more, and we wanted it as wilderness. Some are so cynical about
President Clinton's motives and timing that they can't get the bad
taste out of their mouths. That doesn't bother me in the least.
Even Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with politics in
mind. The main thing is, he signed it.
sorry for those Utah locals who feel blind-sided and run over by a
train, but not as sorry as they want me to feel. I have small-town
ancestors myself, in places like Georgia, who have been blind-sided
in the past, by things like the freeing of the slaves. Times change
everywhere. It is possible to adapt.
The fact is,
the Escalante is, and always has been, as much mine and yours as
Utah's. Calling it a national monument may be the only way to make
As for the Utah delegation: I can't
help but smile to think of their anti-wilderness bluster brought to
a spluttering, foam-mouthed stop by this sweet checkmate move. It
makes me want to burst into song: "Locking up the Kaiparowits /
Causes the Utah congressmen fits!'
they'll accuse us of "locking up" their public lands. What an
interesting choice of words that is: locking up the land. You lock
something up, so it can't escape. But the harsh country, the bright
country, could never be kept locked up. It's escaping now, all the
time, coming through all barriers, sending out tendrils of barberry
perfume, leaking sandstone grit and raven shadows. That's why we
needed to save it. That's why we honor its place on our
We didn't need the coal buried there. The
Escalante is a furnace already, giving heat and light and burning
power. People who will never see it in person, people in Florida
and Japan and England and Ohio, will look at their maps, at that
space saved for mystery, and warm their hands over it in their
dreaming. This is what I'm doing now.
over the map of southern Utah the way I wonder over the stars at
night. Each is a chart to a country I may not visit; each guides
me, powers me, lights me nonetheless.
Orion. Jupiter. The Andromeda
Kaiparowits. Paria. The Grand
Sylvain works at High Country News in Paonia.