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You could describe this scene as “post-apocalyptic,” but the term has become embarrassingly outdated.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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...