Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Monumental Fragility

From: Ed Firmage, A Gift to Be Simple (2001)

The landscape of Utah and the American west is raw with youth. Geological youth: the mountains of the Wasatch and the Uintas are harsh and dramatic, not yet weathered into the comfortable hills of the East. The heat still bubbles to the ground in the fantastic wildness of Yellowstone. The shores of Lake Bonneville, and the bones of its dinosaur inhabitants, have not eroded away. The clay towers of Goblin Valley proclaim their evanescence, crumbling as you touch them. Arches impresses not only with its grandeur but with its fragility: a few small earthquakes, a geological moment of rain and wind, and it will all be gone. The oaks and maples on the mountains, rivaling New England in their fall colors, are miniatures, stunted versions of their Eastern cousins, scrabbling for a hold in thinner soil and higher altitudes.

But historical youth too. The scars of human intervention have not healed. Our dying towns, gas station corners, massive highways and ever expanding suburban sprawl sit uncomfortably on the land, build of awkward materials in forms that often are gawkily jerry-built, shouting out rush, fast, impermanence, slam bam thank you ma’am, only rarely successfully evoking older places and more established times.

Hiking our beautiful mountains, the stunning deserts, the destroyed plains, one is confronted with the still new relics of exploitation. Too young to have faded into the landscape, the scars of the mines, the desolation of overgrazing, the stiff and uncomfortable pioneer landscaping competing with the harsh lines of industrial agriculture in the desert, the tracks of cattle where buffalo ought to be, confront one at every turn.

In Vermont, the forests have taken over abandoned sheep farms; fields of a century ago have reverted back to something sometimes resembling the woods that preceded them. Traditional construction seems to fit the landscape, giving as much as it takes. In rural England, a millennium or two of agriculture has produced a landscape that seems comfortable with itself, pastorally beautiful if ecologically simplified, softening the diminishment that human control has brought to the land. Even just outside my native New York City, nature reasserts itself where ever it is not paved over: the woods eat away at the edge of the Palisades Parkway. Buildings even a century old wear native stone, softened by time, while development presses people into the center, leaving a periphery barely more settled than a century ago. Not so in the West.

Our more fragile ecosystem here seems to have been assaulted more recently, or to recover more slowly, or perhaps the stresses are greater. The mountains stripped of tree cover remain bare; no hint is left of the native grasses. This land seems not to accept human intervention well.

Recent archaeological work suggests that an older generation of large land mammals — giant sloths, huge elk, wooly mammoth and saber tooth tigers — died out shortly after the first humans arrived, slaughtered, the scientists suggest, by those earlier pioneers. Perhaps the scientists are too hubristic – not all that is important in the world is the result of human action. But whatever happened in those distant days, we know what has happened in our own: desperate attempts to rip a living out of a new land, leaving fragile landscapes destroyed and not much of a living.

Barely a century or a century and a half ago, pioneers described endless herds of buffalo. Birds rising from the Salt Lake blackened the sky. Insects appear in Biblical profusion, crops were saved by equally miraculous flocks of birds. No trees grew in the Salt Lake valley, but elsewhere great forests and grassy plains stood that are barely remembered today. In Yellowstone and on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, scruffy remnants of the buffalo herds, still being shot for the benefit of marginal cattle, hint at their reign of magnificence. The pelicans and ibex of the Bear River bird refuge are beautiful but painfully exotic — strange reminders of a world that so quickly ceased to exist.

Cows have replaced buffalo, but western free range cows are an economic dinosaur existing only because we city dwellers continue to allow ourselves to be taxed to subsidize destruction of the landscape we hope to escape to. Highways crisscross our vast expanses, sucking the life from the cities that financed them. The great dams destroy great canyons and the subsidized water and electricity they produce makes possible the welfare states of the Southwest, individualistically living off the largesse of the older parts of the country. Miners are still invited to desecrate national lands for free, substituting lower value uses for ever scarcer escape from the suburbs.

An ancient Jewish midrash, dating perhaps to the second century, elaborates on God’s blessing of Adam at creation:

“When God created Adam he took him to see all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: See how good they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Pay attention that you do not destroy my world for if you destroy it, there is no one to fix it afterwards.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah commenting on Ecclesiastes 7:13 “Consider the works of God, for who can repair that which he has distorted.”)

Even the anthropocentric Genesis creation story — everything I have created, I created for you — lends itself to a lesson of caring and a warning about its fragility. Our landscape has suffered much; it is time we began to take better care of it. We are entering the middle age of our civilization. The recklessness of youth should give way to an increasing sense of what we have, and how lucky we are to have it. The midrash says “there is no one to fix it” but, at least before the world is destroyed, that isn’t quite right. It would be better to understand the phrase as, “there is no one else to fix it.” We have made a mess and we must clean it up: here, unlike some other places, it isn’t going to fix itself.

The Salt Lake is not just a smelly source of low value minerals and a barrier in the way of a quick commute allowing city workers to live farther North. It is also a center of the world, a migration point for birds whose value is far greater - even crudely economically - than the extractive industries that displaced them. When my then 6 year old son visited Yellowstone, he asked me, if bison and cattle give each other diseases, why are cattle permitted on our national land? Why not make more space for the bison and move the cattle to the feedlots of Chicago? It is the right question. Were we to develop Utah with more a mind to caring for our world, to restore the bird flocks that covered the sky, to replace the cattle with bison, to restore the plains, to build our cities densely and vertically, surrounded by fewer suburbs and more hiking trails, we would have the basis for a rural tourism industry and a knowledge industry urban economy that would employ more people in better jobs. Not to mention the potential of Utah bison-milk mozzarella, surely a higher margin product than American cheese food.

 


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