Zoe McCully: From Finite to Flash Floods– Experiences with Water in Horseshoe Canyon

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In Horseshoe Canyon the traces of water can be found everywhere. In the rippling waves on the sandy washes, and in the different forms of damp compacted earth, much easier to hike across than dry shifting sand!

It is in narrow young slot canyons where giant tree trunks have been wedged tightly between swooping sandstone walls with an unreckonable force.

It wraps cottonwoods and shrubs in the washes or arryos with grassy coats that show where it once swiftly flowed.

It is in heavy purple clouds that hover over canyons walls, and we sometimes hear it at night pattering on our tents.

It hides stars and deeply undercuts the rocks nearest to, or in, the wash. We walk through a dry river bed, empty of rapids, eddys and holes.

Pour offs rise above us, too steep to scale, and pictographs painted high on desert canyon walls, are unreachable, the ledges that once made these figures accessible to human hands have since been weathered away.

Yet water itself near the mouth of the canyon is seemingly only present in small puddles and nighttime rains.

As we dropped in elevation, descending deeper into Horseshoe Canyon, and crossed from Bureau of Land Management to National Park Service land, traces and trickles of water turned to a lush riparian ecosystem.

Tall upright cottonwoods, rushes, and reed grasses grew with sharp slivery abandon. Rabbit brush, which we had initially seen come up to knee height, rose high above us, well, maybe not above Nick and Garrett. Willows filled with buzzing bees waved in the warm wind. The wash that was once dry and wide narrowed, and our hike became a winding walk over and through a stream.

Water is the deciding factor in where we camp. Pour-offs, indicated by steep topographic lines in side canyons, often create small steams or puddles that collect rainwater. Springs sometimes seep up from the ground. We need water for life in the same way the plants and organisms that compose this arid landscape do.

Where is the water in this canyon going? Who does it give life to along the way? How do the species in this landscape manage to survive such a climate with such a limited life giving resource?

Gay Marie Ekker told us, “We don’t think about water. We don’t think about how finite it is. The Colorado River is a perfect example of this.”

The water in Horseshoe flows into the Green River not the Colorado.

It flows into our mouths, through our sandy hair and smutty hands.

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and pull me from my reading when desert mermaids beckon me to dip my head into a cold shady pool. Baptism makes so much more sense in the desert.

Our treasured National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States, describes canyons as some of the region’s natural highlights, I concur. The authors explain that, “Bearing abrasive sediments washed from areas with little vegetation, the Southwest’s creeks, rivers, and washes carve steep-walled canyons and cut through the plateau’s ‘layer cake’  of sedimentary rocks, forming a maze of cliffs, escarpments, mesas, and canyons that form some of the region’s most distinctive scenery and that multiply its biological diversity.”

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and we have been lucky enough to witness in full force the effects of a desert storm. Our second to last night in Horseshoe Canyon we witnessed the intensity of water in the desert, in the form of a flash flood. As we crouched in lightning position, waiting out the overhead storm we were pummeled by sharp flicks of hail. All of a sudden someone pointed out the water cascading off the slick sandstone walls and hundreds of feet down into the grey wet haze the canyon air had become. The canyon walls had transformed from dusty red walls to slick maroon slides, and it seemed like water was pouring into the canyon from any and all possible directions. In this moment of barefoot feet in hail-filled crocs, soggy rain gear and seeping cold I stared down at my soaked rain pants, trying to minimize the amount of water that ran down into my raincoat. I am so grateful that that while I was keeping my head down someone else had the attentiveness to look straight up into the storm. After the lightning passed and while we ambled, mumbled and stumbled around looking for firewood, the water that had once been a small stream gently perusing its way through the sand, turned into a gushing river. One of our fearless instructors, Nick, rushed across to rescue the tents that we had casually set up on the other bank during a sunnier time several moments before the rain set in. That night we moved our tents again, to higher ground, because the wash had become an audible reddish-brown torrent and we were forced to engage with the strength and unpredictability of a desert storm. At the same time it was such a blessing to see water in the desert rise up and flow freely and wildly on a sandy bank where we once sat.

Water is powerful, essential, and temporary in the desert and I believe we have truly experienced this reality in the depths of Horseshoe Canyon.

On this first section we walked from the top of Horseshoe Canyon all the way down to its mouth at the Green River. We learned about how opposing viewpoints, interests, and ideals lead to over-allotments of water and fraudulent claims of land, during the settling of the West.

We have stripped the rivers and watersheds of the West of their abilities to flow freely and I wonder how this will decrease the resilience of this land.

What is the future of a resource that can carve a canyon, strip rock and soil from layers of earth and carry it away, but that has been dammed, bought and allotted by people who misunderstood and idealized the arid climate of the West?

I am eager to learn more about directions we can take with policies, consumption, and systems of thinking to move away from a history and current reality of overconsumption, and misuse of water in an arid land.

What systems of thinking can help us preserve and properly appreciate and allocate this life giving, earth moving, ephemeral, and finite force?

Garrett Hartley : Time Set in Stone

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Walking through the icky sticky mud and the sinking sand dunes of the Dirty Devil River, one can take a trip through time. When I’m not busy falling into riverbed holes and avoiding treacherous quicksand, I can look to either side of the canyon and read the story of time. We look up to the towering walls and see ripple marks in rock which mirror the same ripples washed into the mud of the riverbanks today. Using the principle of uniformitarianism, we assume that the same forces that shape the mud today, resulted in the same shapes we find in rock more than 200 million years old. Naturalists like John Muir have used this approach to analyze glaciation in Yosemite Valley. Modern day geologists do so as well. With this tool, I am reading the stories of ancient water systems, sand dunes, and impressions of footprints laid down in these canyons millions of years ago.

Today the only water we see in the Dirty Devil Canyon is mostly in the main river channel. The Kayenta Formation however tells a different story. Within this layer of 200 million year old rock I see a sequence of ripple marks. Throughout the cliff faces there are varying sized smiley face lines, which interrupt the uniform planar striations that run along the rock face. These smiley faces are more formally identified as “channel lenses.” They show the approximate width of ancient rivers that once spread all across the land. On each side of the smile there would have been a riverbank, at the bottom of the smile, a river channel. These watermarks and smiley faces in stone look identical to the markings in the mud and riverbanks I see today. Other layers, like the Navajo Sandstone, tell a different story.

One thing you cannot ignore when travelling the Colorado Plateau is the extremely varied weather pattern. In the morning it’s so cold I find it difficult to make my fingers function properly; afternoon has you hunting for any bit of shade.  One day in particular we had hiked many miles in the dry heat of the afternoon and then got bombarded by a hailstorm and flash flood by the time we reached camp.   Has this area always been so variable? If I’m not sinking in mud I’m sinking into small sand dunes and once I get a moment to look up from breaking trail, the Navajo Sandstone tells me this is nothing new to the Colorado Plateau.

Long angled lines striking across the face of the stones look just like the wind swept sides of the sand I walk on. The only difference lies in size, the lines on the rock layer are much larger. In geologic terms these lines are known as “cross bedding.” With uniformitarianism I can infer these lines are telling stories of large sand dunes. Indeed geologists believe the Navajo layer constituted the largest sand dune desert known in Earth’s history! Cross bedding can even tell us the direction of the wind that shaped these dunes.

Now I know the land was once muddy and then became sandy. What can I see now because of this change in landscape? Between two other rock layers, one made of lithified mud and the other sand, a massive chunk has fallen from the canyon wall allowing me to gaze over one hundred little footprints of the dinosaur known as Grallator!

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing with my large collection of dinosaur toys. Now on the Dirty Devil River it seems they have left something for me, rekindling my curiosity and childlike wonder. Seeing these footprints in sediment that is over 230 million years old has to be one of the most rad things I’ve ever laid my eyes on!

Just as I walked through the mud along the riverbanks and make a footprint, I realize it could be fossilized in the same way under the proper conditions. I have an idea about the land Grallator and his friends walked through. I wonder what their groups of buddies were doing in the mud before the impressions were suddenly filled in by sand and lithified under the heavy weight of mounting sediment?

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The experience of trading my normal box shaped classroom for the meandering river and steep colorful canyon walls has been an amazing decision. Being able to walk through a landscape and hypothesize what happened in the past based on the processes you notice today absolutely fascinates me. With experiential learning and actively asking questions about my observations, I am able to clearly understand in what ways this landscape has developed as well as how these mechanisms cause and repeat this change. Let the story of time continue as I venture on through the Colorado Plateau.

Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

Isa Caliandro: Reading Between the Lines

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Horseshoe Canyon. Photo by: Nick Littman. 

Looking up the fence the differences on either side were subtle at first, yet the closer I looked the more obvious they became. On the right there were grasses, hillsides unmarked by trails, and cottonwoods peeking around the corner. I could just see around the bend where sunshine was streaming through tall grasses. To the left there were shrubs, sagebrush, and terraced hills. The only trees were pinyon pines, their twisted lines a replica in plant form of those of the towering sandstone around me. On the right, bright greens; on the left sandy soils, together they represented a difference.

Our journey to this line began one prior. We had been following the curves, patterns, and streambeds of Horseshoe Canyon at a naturalists pace. Taking the time to inquire, examine, and take note of the nuances of the species magically thriving in this landscape. Hailing from the Northeast this new flora and fauna, coupled with the landscape was completely new. Each day, travelling deeper and deeper into the heart of the earth I was growing to love it more and more. Finding sand in my shoes at the end of a day of walking, and getting to explore alcoves tucked away in small side canyons I was beginning to find desert treasures. After a week I was beginning to be able to trace my hands along the softer desert plants and echo their names in my head. It was all beginning to come together, why certain plants had spines and grew on the higher up rocky soil, which animals were avoiding. I had learned how to follow and scout for cow paths so as to not disturb the fragile desert crust. These cow paths mark the driving force between the differences on each side of the fence: grazing.

In Horseshoe Canyon there are two ruling designations that have come to shape the landscape: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The National Park Service. The BLM is an agency in the U.S. Department of Interior that has multi purposes.  Its roots are in grazing and land distribution. The BLM leases out land along the canyon to ranchers, which allows them to graze their cattle on the land. This is the land designation for the start of the canyon until about halfway down, at which time the land designation switches to the National Park Service, whose mission is recreation and preservation. They strive to survive and want everyone to be able to see the gems in the nooks and crannies of the great and vast American Landscape. These two approaches to land management ultimately determined the ecological composition of the landscape.

After the fence we followed a very different canyon. As Barrier Creek, the river that flows through Horseshoe Canyon and eventually into the Green River, grew to that of a trickle and the banks completely changed, we began to learn about a new kind of desert ecology. The grasses now grew above my head, dead leftover from last summer and fall; they swayed with the gentle cool breeze. Cottonwoods, previously a rare sighting, now filled the creek banks. They grew tall, sideways, and were full of leaves marking the warmer temperatures to come. They provided shade for the creek gathering strength, and a stunning contrast against the cornflower blue sky. A few days past the fence the canyon melody began to grow. The canyon wren threw its call down the canyon walls where it was met in patches of willows by the industrious hum of bees. Around each turn there was more and more life, and the song grew stronger. It felt as if the birds, especially the canyon wren, was ushering us deeper, and deeper, among the contours and sandy hues to a more magical place. The further we wandered from the cows, the further past that line and the deeper between the lines of sandstone the more deeply the canyon breathed and came to life, it was lush. This stark difference has really made an impression on me, yet more importantly a greater one on the landscape.

A naturalist, and fellow enthusiast, of the Colorado Plateau Thomas Fleischner has detailed the history of the area around Horseshoe Canyon in his book “Singing Stone.” He said, grazing was introduced to the United States by way of Mexico in 1540. Its spread, development, and regulation or lack there of has become deeply rooted within its own culture. Largely out of the public eye, grazing wasn’t a cause for concern until the Dust Bowl when over grazing contributed to the loss of topsoil. It was only in 1934 that the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, mandating government control over grazing. This led to the creation of the U.S. Grazing Services; that was eventually joined with the General Land Office to become the BLM. Then it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the livestock industry and grazing truly came into the public eye. I was surprised to find out Regan even included it in his campaigning in the west. It was only until a few days ago that this livestock issue really took stock in my life but I can safely say it has my attention.

I am by no means an expert on ranching, Utah, the West, or even Horseshoe Canyon. Yet, I do know that in the layers of sandstone, hidden alcoves, and the gentle sway of willows I find great joy. I know the ecosystem on the side of the fence where it lies protected, and un-trampled feels more vibrant. I know without munching, stomping, and tramping this vibrancy thrives and the canyon is just that much more wild. I feel that I can even go as far as to say, the grass is truly greener on the other side.

 

Anna Martone: The Sounds of Silence

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Photo By: Nick Littman 

HHEEELLOOO  HELLLOO hellloo hello………When you speak to the canyon, the canyon speaks back, echoing down through layers of Navajo sandstone. Now stop, stand still and listen. The silence will move over your body like chills in a brisk wind. Sounds can be deceiving in the Horseshoe Canyon, but if you listen closely, there may be more noise than you originally perceived.

As our WRFI group descends down one of the only accessible trails into the heart of the canyon, we become separate from the world above us. The steep canyon walls enclose us in a world unknown and mysterious, and my excitement starts to grow. As we stand in the wash, I am immediately taken by the absence of noise and stillness that permeates throughout the environment. No longer do I hear cars rushing down a highway, doors slamming shut, cash registers chiming with every purchase, or day-to-day, white noise sounds I have become so used to. It is quiet.

As days go on and we casually stroll down the 30-mile stretch that is Horseshoe Canyon, my perception of sound begins to change. I begin to notice more. I begin to question more. I begin to interpret the world around me and traits of a naturalist start emanating throughout my body. Horseshoe Canyon has opened its doors to show a diverse, captivating ecosystem that encapsulate sounds around every alcove. If you listen closely you might hear a canyon wren whistling above, a cottonwood swaying in the breeze, a whiptail lizard scurrying across slick rock, or a burrow off in the distance. But to the untrained ear, canyons can become silent escapes; drastically different from the world we left behind.

As days pass, my ears become accustomed to the deservingly quite desert and I begin to recognize the silence as much more. For me, the absence of sound speaks greater volumes than anything outside these red stained rocks. As I begin to get acquainted with the environment around me, I start to question and ponder what sounds have echoed loud through these rocks long before we ever found our way down. What sounds are no longer present here but have shaped the biological and physical aspects of this canyon?

Millions of millions of years ago heavy rivers cut deep through layers of sandstone to form what is now Horseshoe Canyon.  As I look up at the escarpment of rocks that have fallen from high above, I imagine the vibrations of sound made as boulders crash and tumble on to hard ground. Desert varnish paints the walls deeper red, showing evidence of what was once a larger sandstone rock.  As I peer up at the stone around me, I start envisioning that last moment when the crack in a rock becomes its own boulder, flying high through the sky ready to make a grand entrance into the wash of the canyon………. BOOOOOMMMM. Rocks scattered across our trail shouting as we cross over them.

Stepping over rocks that once made vibrations through the narrow wash of the canyon, I notice the absence of water. As we walk through what used to be a river, flowing deep within the walls, water is now barren. No longer do sounds of rushing water, splashing against mud rock surround the area. The wash runs dry, but the water has not left without leaving its mark. Through dips in smooth rocks, branches pushed up along the base of cottonwoods, steep banks and muddy shores, we can begin to find clues to where the last floods seeped through. Interesting how what has shaped these giant canyons walls, is now nowhere to be seen or heard. The water that once flowed through can now only be heard through ones imagination.

Evidence of life permeates through every corner, and my imagination runs wild. A dinosaur track prompts our group to embody what we think this animal sounded like, walked like, looked like. Different interpretations travel through our minds, questioning what the world was like 65 million years ago. What sounds encapsulated the area as this dinosaur moved through the land? Through pictographs and petroglyphs sprawled over alcove walls, chert found between layers of other rocks, footprints of animals not to far head of us, and old bones of different mammals, I begin to recognize it wasn’t always so quite down hear.

On the count of three open your ears-1, 2, 3………..What do you hear?

 

Rachel Bowanko: Common Ground

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

When I was young I lived over the hill from a bustling creek. On days when the sun was shining, I would run downstairs and put on big black rain boots, ten sizes too big, grab a few black garbage bags, and race over the hill to that creek that I loved so dearly. The trees blew in, the wind and birds chirping above welcomed me back. I would find a large stick for balance and walk along the creek among the rocks, picking up trash along the way. Sometimes my mom would join, and other days I would make my friends come with me, pretending that we were grown-ups and that it was our job to clean the creek.

I spent a majority of my time by this creek, watching the fish, frogs, and birds among the trees, rocks, and mosses. I watched the seasons change around me and noticed patterns in nature such as the way the current flows and where the frogs find their homes at the end of the day. When I had a long day, I would walk down to the creek to think. Sitting on the rocks I could hear the wind through the trees somehow answering all my questions. The time I spent outside growing up taught me about the power of nature and my place within the world around me. It helped instill a desire and need to protect this world around me. Thinking back to the time I spent by this creek, I recognize just how instrumental it was in shaping who I am today. This creek taught me what it means to find your place within the world around you, and it taught me how to live among nature in a respectful and kind manner. With each change for the season, I became more grounded in my spot by the creek and my love for it grew deeper. From this love stemmed an obligation to protect it.

We spent one week in mid-October floating the Tongue River, and as we floated I remembered the time I spent near the creek by my house. Compared to the creek near my house, the Tongue River is a much more complex ecosystem with a larger community connected to it. The creek near my house supported fish and frogs, several insects, some mosses and vines, and some deciduous trees growing nearby. The Tongue River out here supports fish, insects, Cottonwoods and wildlife such as deer and coyotes. While the creek in my yard crossed through one habitat, the Tongue River spans riparian habitats, Ponderosa Pine forests, native grasslands, and rocky cliff banks lined with red strips from burned coal. The creek near my house was a place for fun and play for the neighborhood kids; out here the Tongue River supported several communities. Native Tribes relied on this sacred land for generations and homesteaders chose the Tongue River Valley to begin new lives in the late 1800’s. Intertwined with the river are all the stories of those who were here before and their connection to the land. Today the Tongue River continues to support agriculture through irrigation and in turn it supports our food supply. The creek was visited primarily by the neighborhood, often simply driven by in passing. The Tongue River, on the other hand is a home-utilized and revered by many different communities.

Despite these differences, there were also enormous parallels. The rush of the current near the storm drain at the end of the creek reminds me of the strainers we navigated around on the Tongue River. The abundance of minnows in the creek and frogs on the banks were reflections of how well the creek was doing, just as the fish and beavers in the Tongue River reflect that ecosystem’s health. Both bodies of water change with the seasons, as leaves turned bright yellow and fell before us during the float.

Beyond the environmental parallels, both bodies of water connect people to the land. The Tongue River Valley was the proposed site of a coal mine and a railroad to transport the coal. Recognizing the travesty this could lead to, members from all different communities came together to fight against the development of coal in this area, especially around the watershed. We’ve been lucky enough to meet several people from different groups who have organized the community around stopping the railroad. Most of those who we spoke to grew up by this river and had ancestors who did the same. Over the years they had formed a deep connection to the river and relied on it greatly. Although they come from different backgrounds, every person we spoke to had one thing in common: a connection and respect and love for the land. By finding this common ground and working together, they were able to create a meaningful difference as the railroad has finally, after thirty years, been stopped.

As we spoke to those in the Tongue River Valley and heard about their love for the river and land, I was reminded of myself as a child and the love I developed for the creek by my house. I believe that lasting change begins with a deep seated love for a place and a personally felt obligation to protect it. As Turner wrote in The Abstract Wild, “We value only what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild.” The value I placed on the creek growing up stems from the time I spent sitting with the frogs and watching the leaves change. Those who fought against the Tongue River Railroad grew up on this land and know it better than anyone else – they have seen the seasons change and recognize its value. With each passing day I am grateful of my childhood by the creek, a childhood that grounded me in nature and taught me the values of knowing and loving the land.

Shannon Quinn: Silent Warriors

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine.  These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic.  They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark.  The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves.  As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit.  If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say?  Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence.  Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival.  Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.

We must be the voice for these silent warriors.  We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself.  In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land.  The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades.  The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests.  The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere.  If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever.  Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self.  Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life.  The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines.  It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland.  Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate.  The people took on the task of defending the environment and community.  They said no to the railroad and the mine.  They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice.  This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne.  When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.

If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence.  They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles.  They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm.  The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime.  I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.