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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Wild People, Unite!
by Ken Wright ||
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All revolutions have failed? Perhaps.
But rebellion for a good cause is self-justifying
-- a good in itself. Rebellion transforms slaves
into human beings, if only for an hour.

-Edward Abbey

It was about the time we bombed Baghdad to draw attention away from the fact that one of our nuclear submarines had killed a bunch of Japanese kids while some rich potential campaign contributors were driving, that my friend Mark and I decided we would head to the canyonlands for a quick getaway.
     Early Saturday morning, we drive west. We roll over the south flank of the La Platas, cruise underneath the north wall of Mesa Verde, then circle around the top of the Sleeping Ute's war bonnet and into McElmo Canyon, where we enter No National Monument. Or so the hand-painted signs in many yards say. That seems like a much better name than the tedious and wordy Canyons of the Ancients National Monument the government has assigned the region.
     Farther: onto Dinetah's oil-and-gas badlands, where I tell Mark the story of another time after we'd bombed Baghdad for some other reason, when a different friend and I headed out on another visit to the canyon country. We were blazing down this same road when we approached a small, rectangular, pre-fab plywood government home -- the anti-hogan -- set in the dusty brown chaparral. In the yard stood a small maze of bombed-out household appliances, and around them played two kids. As we approached, my friend lifted his hand in greeting from his open window. The kids looked at us. Then the oldest returned a single-digit editorial on our kinship.
     As we passed we watched them hug and laugh hysterically, like kids. My friend and I turned up the Allman Brothers and roared on, laughing quite happily ourselves.
     Onward. We drive past cow-burnt sandhills, past tireless pumpjacks, past wind-swept trailersites and trash-filled arroyos. Fueled by coffee, the latest war news, the dust-bowl views, and the anticipation of getting to the wilderness, Mark and I share angry talk -- it's part of the therapy this trip offers -- about the fact we're down to the stems and seeds of wilderness here in the 21st century. I rant about how my kids need wilderness; Mark rails back about how we've got to fight for it. Mark fights. He's an angry young man, and that s why I like him. Actually, he s an angry middle-ager afflicted with the suicidal tendency to say what he thinks, like me, but I like him anyway.
     And that's why I like the No National Monument signs. That's why I delight in those kids who flipped us off. When it comes to earning my respect and admiration, it matters less to me what someone's particular argument is -- I'm happy to argue; society should be messy -- as it does that he or she argues at all. I believe, on some level way deeper and more fundamental than thinking, that the hope of our species lies not any particular platform or plan, but in the survival of raw wildness. Not just wilderness, but human wildness.
     If that's a formula for chaos, so be it. If science has shown anything, it's that chaos and diversity are the engines of evolution (Someone please tell that to the government, the genetic engineers, and the religious right, okay?). Where there's chaos, there's wildness, and wildness is my faith. In my disturbed logic, then, where there's someone lifting a finger, there's hope.
     We are headed somewhere along the San Juan River. This destination was my idea; I needed to come here. I need the river, that entrenched thread weaving together the cryptic spires of Monument Valley, the forbidding escarpment of Cedar Mesa, the snow-cloaked slopes of the Abajos, and the temporarily submerged depths of Glen Canyon. My personal heartland. There are stories here, and since it's February, always the longest short month of the year, my spirit and body need a hit of those stories. Even though I've been out here only some 20 years, just half my life, this place has become my Place.
     Another one of my peculiar perspectives: We need land to survive, yes; but more than that, for health we require Place: land that is meaningful. I don t mean this as some mystical woo woo: this is human psychology, evolved biology. Think about the people who truly lived in these canyons for hundreds of generations, for longer than even they themselves could remember. To those people, the landmarks that comprise this place weren't novelties visited on weekends or vacations; for true natives, each canyon pool, amphitheatre overhang, natural arch or bridge, or scenic vista was a neighborhood sight that they were born under, walked past, climbed over, mulled on, worked by, and gathered food near every day, as their ancestors had forever. They knew they'd die surrounded by these landmarks.
     What stories this place must have told then! Every wrinkle in the land would have a tale invested in it, stored in it. Eventually, the people's history would be remembered by the Place. Not an "accurate" academic history, but a true history -- stories shaped and reshaped by each generation, each teller, each telling, evolved and honed not to the sharpest accuracy but to the most vital meaning, earning their tenure among the people by offering morals, lessons learned by the people and worth remembering, worth passing on. Stories about who they are.
     In a hunter-gatherer's world, the land was the culture. The physical place was inherently interwoven with the people's identity and character. It was all of a piece -- all of a Place. And it always had been and always would be, for what would change it? Stability, familiarity, sustainability -- we are born expecting these aspects of our homes. It's only natural. Or was. But how many today know this incredible immeasurable depth of immersion in one place? Few. And growing fewer. Change of the land and loss of Place is not just the nature of our modern growth-economy culture, it is our culture. Yet stories, meaning, Place -- these are the true traditional uses of land that precede all others. And supercede all others, in the radical politics of my mind.
     Afternoon: Mark and I hike high into the bowels of deep canyon. Even in the farthest recesses we find evidence of what in the politics of public-lands policy are called traditional uses: cowpies lining pounded cowpaths. Mark curses as he kicks the sloppy paddies aside for a place to have lunch. I'll be honest, though: Given a choice, I'll take cowflops over mountain bikes. Or at least over the industrial recreation industry and its crowds, fees, reservations, management, marketing, improvements, policing, and general commercializing of the outdoor experience the Disney Wilderness. Ideally, of course, like the bumpersticker I plan to market one day will say, I d rather be hunting and gathering. But the reality is we live in an age of triage: we gotta pick the lesser of evils, and hold that ground, for the time being.
     Here's my triage plan: Keep alive the wildness we can -- in land and people. That's my fight. That means that even though it sometimes puts me at odds with my eco-friends, I admire and respect those whose ideas of what we should do with our undeveloped landscapes differ from mine, as long as we share the common ground of finding meaning in Place. Chaos and diversity: I don't ask that we have the same meaning of Place, it's people who have some meaning of Place who matter to me. It's the spirit to fight for those meanings that I value in people.
     As I see it, here in the early 21st century, triage requires we look beyond our management-plan differences and unite to fight for all our Places, for all our kids -- cowboys and Indians, multi-generational rancher and rural-refugee relative-newcomer (just more in a multi-millennial line of migrators) -- or we'll soon have nothing left to argue about. If we can't look past our personal political agendas toward some deeper shared roots, then it just may be that all of the meaningful nooks and crannies left on the land will be engineered, profiteered, privatized, regulated, marketed, and paved away. We can argue about the details, but first we must unite against those who have no meaning of Place beyond the money that can be extracted from the land; and who, in that money-worshipping land-sacrificing, will suck the Place out of the places needed by those of us who still need that meaning. In a growth-buzz addicted culture, even the stems and seeds get smoked.
     Here's my new bumper sticker: Save the wild people. I envision next to that slogan the picture of a little kid giving the finger.

*  *  *

Sunday: We could be home watching the XFL -- tits and hits, as Mark summarizes the theory behind the new league. What more can you say about a league whose abbreviation doesn't even stand for anything -- just X, like an illiterate's signature. You gotta love it -- it's the American free-market corporate media humming along perfectly. For our Sunday's titillation, though, we climb down 1,100 feet of near-vertical cliff-face to the San Juan River.
     Down to the opaque green flow, a storied flow for me and my wife and our kids and our friends. We slog through the sand upstream until we find a spot where the sun has come around the canyon wall. I strip down and jump in the river; it might be February, but it's a required and reverent gesture.
     I dry off and dress, and join Mark on the warm sand to eat some breakfast. Then, as we sit and nibble and stare, a bald eagle rises from the canyon wall on the other side of the river. He passes no more than fifty feet above us, then circles overhead. As we eat, he takes 15 minutes to slowly and steadily spiral high enough to pass over the canyon rim and out of sight.
     People would pay thousands of dollars to have this moment, Mark says.
     And they still wouldn't have it, because they paid thousands of dollars for it, I say back.
     And that's another story.

Image by Ronnie Burk

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