At a neighbor’s house a few years ago, I saw a sphere of ruddy sandstone displayed on a ledge. Rolling it in my hand, I recognized the heft and grittiness of the ball. "We used to find these at Lake Powell," I said, "Is that where this came from?"
Our neighbor, a dedicated
environmental activist, replied crisply, "We hate Lake
I set the stone ball down and said nothing. She
was absolute in her disdain, but my own feelings are more
equivocal. I grew up in southwestern Colorado, and the vacations of
my childhood did not involve museums or Disney glitz. We’d go
camping, usually in the forests of the San Juan Mountains, where my
dad led the family on his time off. In the mid-‘70s, my
parents bought a boat, and we began to camp on the rocky shores of
nearby Navajo Lake. Eventually, we made the trip to Lake Powell, a
half-day’s drive away.
As we traveled into Utah,
I’d watch the landscape shift from forested mountains to
piñon-flecked flats, then finally to a vast terrain composed
completely of sandstone. At the Hall’s Crossing boat ramp,
the blue-green lake stretched out before us -- seemingly an age-old
miracle of water in the desert. Once in the canyon, there were no
trees and no distant vistas; nothing but planes of liquid and stone
intersecting at sharp angles.
To a child accustomed to
horizons serrated by peaks and furred by evergreens, this was a
strange place. The starkness brought small details into sharp
relief: monkeyflower and moss in a shaded seep, a
hummingbird’s nest with two jelly-bean-sized eggs, potholes
of water that were alive with insects and algae, cliffs hung with
silvery waterfalls after thunderstorms. The moonlit nights were so
bright it was hard to fall asleep.
I knew Lake Powell was
manmade, that it was really a giant reservoir created by Glen
Canyon Dam, but it embodied for me the fundamentals of the natural
world: water, sun, earth, wind, the doggedness of living things.
When I began to read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and
other books, I discovered that he put words to some of the wonder I
felt in the desert, yet for a long time, my sole experience of that
environment took place along the shoreline of a reservoir Abbey
despised. Abbey called Lake Powell a "sewage lagoon." But I swam in
it, ate fish from it, slept beside it and even drank its murky
Older now, and tuned in to conservation issues, I
understand the damage the reservoir has done and the river-wrecking
it represents. The high-water outline on the sandstone walls is a
ghost that will lurk in Glen Canyon for decades, a scummy specter
of overweening ambition.
Although now, when I go to the
desert, I seek out places more true to their arid character, those
days on Powell’s silty shore are the baseline of my
sensibility. I think my experience might be also the reality of our
age: Few of us will have the luxury of discovering where we fit in
nature by getting to know a truly wild place.
There’s sadness in this, it’s true, but recognizing
that wilderness is not a prerequisite for loving the natural world
is important. If we can broaden the scope of our affections, we can
lighten the load on the untrammeled places that remain. Recognizing
that an environmental consciousness might spring up anywhere can
shift the impulse for preservation closer to home. It might help us
temper our throwaway habits; it might help us seek the land’s
integrity no matter where we are.
The problem with
disparaging places that are not pristine is that most of the modern
world is no longer pristine. This invites further abuse on
compromised landscapes, and it increases the risk of
unintentionally snuffing out affections that sprout in ground
dismissed as sterile or corrupt. I don’t mean to suggest that
hard-line environmentalism denies the need to protect or restore
those places where human impacts are profound. It often seems,
however, that such areas are portrayed as worthy of labor, but not
I’m haunted by what has been lost beneath
the waters of Lake Powell. But I never learned to hate the place. A
bridge is usually a plane of access across water. For me, the
waters that drowned Glen Canyon were themselves a bridge, pointing
toward the desert’s heart.