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Know the West

A harsh and priceless gift to the world


"There was a hardness of stone," Theodore Roethke starts a poem, "an uncertain glory ... Between cliffs of light / We strayed like children."

The Harsh Country, the poem is called. I'm miles away from what I think of as the harsh country, the cliffs of light, the country of bright stone. It has a new name now, to be layered on top of its other names, Anglo and Spanish and Indian, spoken and silent. It's the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

I have maps in front of me. I know some of the names the new monument gathers: Kaiparowits, No Man's Mesa, Burning Hills, Paria. I know of the ravens and the rattlesnakes there, and the potsherds and the canyons and the dark nights full of stars. I'm a painter, and the landscape is a palette for me: Pink Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs.

I love maps and I draw maps, so I look at these maps and dream. In my backpacking days, I nibbled around the edges of the Escalante, with a short hike here and there. I planned long trips that never got made; you know how it goes. Now an injury makes it hard for me to hike, but that doesn't matter, really. I didn't need to go there to love it. And now the maps have been saved for me.

Not everyone is as happy as I am about the monument. Some environmentalists are disappointed because we wanted more, and we wanted it as wilderness. Some are so cynical about President Clinton's motives and timing that they can't get the bad taste out of their mouths. That doesn't bother me in the least. Even Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with politics in mind. The main thing is, he signed it.

I feel sorry for those Utah locals who feel blind-sided and run over by a train, but not as sorry as they want me to feel. I have small-town ancestors myself, in places like Georgia, who have been blind-sided in the past, by things like the freeing of the slaves. Times change everywhere. It is possible to adapt.

The fact is, the Escalante is, and always has been, as much mine and yours as Utah's. Calling it a national monument may be the only way to make that clear.

As for the Utah delegation: I can't help but smile to think of their anti-wilderness bluster brought to a spluttering, foam-mouthed stop by this sweet checkmate move. It makes me want to burst into song: "Locking up the Kaiparowits / Causes the Utah congressmen fits!'

Of course they'll accuse us of "locking up" their public lands. What an interesting choice of words that is: locking up the land. You lock something up, so it can't escape. But the harsh country, the bright country, could never be kept locked up. It's escaping now, all the time, coming through all barriers, sending out tendrils of barberry perfume, leaking sandstone grit and raven shadows. That's why we needed to save it. That's why we honor its place on our maps.

We didn't need the coal buried there. The Escalante is a furnace already, giving heat and light and burning power. People who will never see it in person, people in Florida and Japan and England and Ohio, will look at their maps, at that space saved for mystery, and warm their hands over it in their dreaming. This is what I'm doing now.

I dream over the map of southern Utah the way I wonder over the stars at night. Each is a chart to a country I may not visit; each guides me, powers me, lights me nonetheless.

The Harsh Country.

Orion. Jupiter. The Andromeda galaxy.

Kaiparowits. Paria. The Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Diane Sylvain works at High Country News in Paonia.