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Know the West

A chance for redemption


It was mid-September 2001, and I was sitting on a sandbar, my ears full of the roar of whitewater, watching the stars blink through a slice of cobalt sky. I was deep in Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah, and as far as I could tell, my pack of friends and I were the only humans left on the planet. Out here, there aren’t many signs of people other than the footprints in the sand, but you can usually count on finding the blinking lights of a jetliner in the night sky. Not that night.

We had some idea of what was going on. We were in town when the jets hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We had gathered at the local bar to watch the towers fall on CNN. We knew why the planes were grounded. We had to wonder, though, what else had happened since we slid our rafts into the river the morning before. Had more of our civilization come crashing down?

Writer Craig Childs knows something about the fall of civilizations. The author of this issue’s cover essay spends much of his time following the paths of the ancient Puebloan cultures of the Southwest, "thumbing up" pottery sherds and piecing together stories from discarded fragments. He was also in New York City on September 11, and saw the towers fall.

It’s a sobering thought — that our civilization could topple like many of those that came before it. We’ve come to believe ourselves invincible, immune to the forces of nature, or even a demise of our own making. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve built our house on the sand. In the sixth year of serious drought, states in the Southwest are finally hitting the reality that the Colorado River has been over-tapped. Climate scientists report, with increasing confidence, that we’re heating up the atmosphere, a trend that will likely have dire effects on the West’s wildlife, plant communities and society. And we’re watching another major military and nuclear buildup — a buildup that will be borne on the back of the West, both the cradle and the grave of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

These are dark times, but people find hope in the most unlikely places. Dan McCool, another of this issue’s featured writers, finds hope in crumbling dams. To McCool, they show that we can learn from past mistakes, and even undo some of the damage done to the landscape. We may, in fact, find our way out of this mess.

Humanity has faced crises like these before and lived to see a brighter day. Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, and a prominent playwright and poet, wrote during some of the darkest days of Cold War Europe. Here are his suggestions for dealing with dark times, from a 1999 speech: "There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor … I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit."

And, if I might add — Get out there on the land, on the river, under the night sky. Toward the end of his life, writer Wallace Stegner had second thoughts about calling the West the "native home of hope," but I think it’s still out there, if only we look hard enough.