A love letter to a sewage lagoon

  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 Powell."

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 waters.

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 of love.

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.

Andrea Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in central Colorado, where she writes about natural history.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.