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Know the West

Is development a cancer on the West’s landscape?

When your mom is battling the illness, the metaphor gets complicated.


My mom made maps of time. Before retiring, she’d bushwhack over ranges and into basins, find traces of past epochs on hilltops and buried seabeds revealed by stream cuts. With a rock hammer she’d gouge out samples, shatter geodes to identify minerals under a hand lens pulled from a worn leather holster on her hip belt. From craggy promontories, she read time through the language of land crumpling and unfolding, punctuated by uplifts and fault lines. Sitting on dusty tailgates under wide desert skies she compiled notes, consulted previous surveys, built a block of land in her mind framed by superposition — what’s oldest is underneath — and the knowledge that land moves slowly or cataclysmically.

A woman of medium build, burdened by a bulky field pack, sunhat and stout scrambling boots, she walked all over the deserts of Arizona, Nevada and Utah, and in the corners of California and New Mexico. Her then-brown hair was longer and straight, and her face fuller, already crossed by crow’s feet and smile-lines but with rounder cheeks.

Illustration by Latasha Dunston for High Country News

My mother’s bones are making more lymphocytes than is usual. Lymphocytes are white blood cells  that  attack viruses in the body, but hers lack key proteins and are ineffective. These cells seep out of her marrow into her bloodstream, which is tilting towards an inbalance between red and white, thanks to faulty DNA.

Now that she’s retired, she walks every morning; she seems unconcerned as she steps out the front door into the cold winter air in Flagstaff. I wonder how much of her thought is bound up with white blood cells — if while she walks through the forest, she thinks of how these lymphocytes flowing through her veins came from the marrow in her bones; if she is quietly amazed that the infantry of our immune system originate from within the very infrastructure of our bodies. I wonder what she thinks of hers faltering, as if her bones are failing her.

But after 64 years, she knows to keep some thoughts from intruding, to just look out and see how things have come to rest.

Last winter I ran almost daily, using the gray skies as an excuse to move, to remember that Tucson, where I live, has an elusive beauty. Moving reminds me to see that these buildings I pass by are tapped into an electric grid, that they were recently developed and require an allocation of water resources. That the people waiting at the bus stop have their own intrusive thoughts, and that they find it difficult to keep those thoughts out as well. That the mesquite trees and feather bush and palo verde by the path are all planted for my enjoyment, and that I do enjoy them. That the indoor world of air conditioning and plumbing and electricity isn’t everything; that, outside, the weather’s changing.

When I’m running, I see replication everywhere: the beige neighborhoods, the cloned shopping districts, all unchecked lymphocytes. I wonder where cancer is metastasizing in the West. 

Running is my preferred way to cover distance through this paved geology. It holds my eyes to the light on the gravel and prods me to see that light as what’s left after the atmosphere siphons off spectrums: how the gravel pops with texture in late afternoon, and how between clouds are crepuscular rays so present I imagine I could grasp one.

When I’m running, I see replication everywhere: the beige neighborhoods, the cloned shopping districts, all unchecked lymphocytes. I wonder where cancer is metastasizing in the West. Is it the constellation of freeways — blacktop tendrils carrying commodities, commuters, loners — or — the power cables and towers bristling over hills and dotting vast, empty stretches of desert? Is it the dams clogging every river: Hoover and Glen Canyon, two especially malignant growths?  Or the Owen’s River Aqueduct and the canals of the Central Arizona Project bringing water intravenously to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson?

I’m running under a winter desert sky as clouds of brilliant white with dark blue edges disentangle over the crest of the Santa Catalina Mountains, an unraveling of lenticulars. Sometimes I find myself talking in my head, conversing with figments of my conceptions of others. I’m asking my Mom: Is there too much space in the West? All this distance obscures the consequences of how I live, in a city with water, electricity, fresh food and entertainment constantly available. I have to leave to see what’s underneath, what’s oldest, the land I live on but not in. I ask not who, but what, are we. Am I the cells in the bloodstream or the damaged DNA?

My feet keep striking the pavement. I’m a flat-footed runner, and I’ll get shin splints soon. The air is cool on my neck and arms. I think about my breath, lungs working while the words drift away, pushing against thoughts too large to move.  

Jack Hereford, winner of this year’s Bell Prize, is soon to graduate from the University of Arizona; he is looking for post-grad work, including dishwashing. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Winner of the 2019 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental 
issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the runner up essay.