Sadie Koch: From Abstraction to Action on the Colorado Plateau

13384877_10205445711816865_46492133_nAs we near the end of this course I find myself peering back up into Horseshoe Canyon, were we completed our first backpacking trip together. Looking at towering rock walls, meandering Green River, and bright green cottonwoods, of this place I begin to think about how I got here. As a Social Work major, coming on this course directed at increasing environmental literacy was out of left field. It was a complete switch of topics, and I left my studies behind for the semester to learn a whole new set of skills. But why did I make this choice?

I have always been passionate about being in the outdoors whether I am backpacking, climbing, or having a picnic. As someone who spends a lot of time in the outdoors, I have always been surrounded by people who are passionate about protecting the Earth from its current threats of climate change and environmental degradation. These people feel a passionate emotion that leads them to change their own lives to protect their environment and often to speak out against the ways it is being damaged.  I always felt some type of abstract emotions over the possible loss of the places that I loved the most, but it was never as intense or as driving as I wanted it to be. I think that I came on this WRFI course because I hoped that I would learn to feel something deeper about the places I love; something that would push me to be a more involved participant of environmental protection.  Through the physical and emotional journey of this course, I think that I accomplished just this.

Looking back into Horseshoe Canyon after eight weeks exploring the Colorado Plateau, I remembered my first time in this canyon.  It was the start of this adventure and the dramatic cliff walls, sandy washes, and chips of chert were all so new to me.  Seeing the beauty of this landscape and feeling its mystery connected me to this canyon.  And then we saw the pictographs.  The eerie figures painted by people who existed in this canyon thousands of years before me made me feel a connection to something much greater than just me and the canyon.  All such poetic feelings, I know, but the sense of wonder I got from this strange new place was overwhelming.  As humans it is very hard to value and care about things that we are not personally connected to.  Having this personal connection to a landscape built my ability to experience other emotions surrounding the land more fully because I cared deeply about this landscape.

After Horseshoe we hiked, scrambled, and splashed our way through Dirty Devil Canyon.  This canyon felt even more dramatic than the first because of the murky river that ran through the canyon walls, carrying their sediment and reflecting the landscape around it.  However, we also walked across old roads once used for uranium mining in the canyon.  We also learned about the potential for tar sands extraction in the area, one of the most environmentally damaging ways to extract fossil fuels, and the lack of protection against these practices.  I imagined the pollution of the solitude, silence, and ecology of the landscape and I felt a pang of sadness, loss, and regret while imagining the slow destruction of this canyon.  I knew that I could picture the destruction so clearly in my head because it had happened to so many other wilderness areas, and would be the loss of a place that we could not afford to say goodbye to yet.

The sadness I felt quickly dissolved into anger, especially after our time in the reservations of Navajo and Hopi.  We saw the environmental destruction of their sacred lands and that their inequality of voice left them relatively powerless in the face of environmental exploitation that was often supported by the government.  An example of this that we saw was the exploitation of the water from the Navajo Aquifer from the Black Mesa Coal mine.  Since the mine’s creation, it has decreased water levels in the aquifer by around 50%, overusing the primary source of drinking water on the reservations (LaDuke 380). We saw this in our Hopi hostess’s cistern which she used to be able to swim in. Because of the decrease in water in the aquifer that feeds her cistern, the flow has been reduced to less than a trickle.  Many Hopi elders have spoken out against the mine’s practices, but their voices have been ignored and the water use as it has been was allowed to continue.  I saw the environmental injustices involved with the fight against environmental degradation, where high emitters make the decisions of the rates at which this degradation will happen, while those most highly affected are not given a fair voice to speak out about these practices.

The inequality of this system made me angry in a personal way.  This I could connect with Social Work, and it reminded me of why I chose this path in the beginning.  Feeling this personal anger is important because it drives people to speak out against the ways that things have been happening and initiate change.  Jack Turner talks about how a personal anger, “presumes how things ought to be and aren’t, presumes caring” (Turner 22).  Although dwelling on this anger can often be unhealthy, it is important because it is the catalyst for change, and it is obvious that we need to change how we live if we want to protect the Earth.

However, for me, anger is not enough.  I think that in order for action to occur, we need hope.  Many people, when asked why they became involved with protest, talk about an anger rooted in a sense that their actions could make a difference, and hope for the future.  An idea that their anger was not ignored.

In Dark Canyon we entered our first Wilderness, designated by Congress.  Although this designation did not mean a lot for our trip it did signify a legal action taken to protect a beautiful area.  Wilderness designation is permanent so the longevity of this canyon was guaranteed by the wooden sign at the trailhead.  To me, this signified a call to action that was answered on a national level to fight for the preservation of our remaining wild places.  While there is a lot of work to be done, and a lot more places to protect, the process has begun, which gives me hope.

“Effective protests are grounded in an alternative vision” (Turner 23).  What Turner is describing is a need for a protest to have something to fight for, not just against.  The environmental movement has often had that problem, where everyone is working towards creating a better future but the idea of how to do this in not consistent within the movement.  In Labyrinth Canyon we learned about a variety of ways to act in the face of environmental degradation that are being explored.  One way that is being considered in the idea of Bioregionalism, where the connection of inhabitants to their land is encouraged to promote the feeling of responsibility to protect your land.  If we were more connected to our land it is presumed that we would be more involved in the governance of this land and learn to use it more sustainably.  I think that the idea of this is very interesting and seems like it would be effective, and as we paddled through the Green River I thought about ways that I could implement this in my own life.   Learning about the ways to create change in our lives made me think of a personalized path forward and validated the work we did on the course.

This emotional exploration from connection to sadness to anger to hope to action left me feeling like I could and needed to take this knowledge and use it.  It may not be directly involved with my career path but I think that it has taught me how to be the more knowledgeable, passionate environmental steward that I have always tried to emulate.  The personal connection both to this place and the lessons I learned of how to protect them will hopefully remain with me as I move forward.

Works Cited

LaDuke, W.  (2005).  Salt, Water, Blood and Coal: Mining in the Southwest.  In Recovering the Sacred: The Power In Naming and Claiming.  Cambridge, MA: South End Press.   

Turner, J.  (1996).  The Abstract Wild: A Rant.  Pp.  19-37 in The Abstract Wild.  Albuquerque: University                     of Arizona Press.

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