by Stephen Trimble [launch slideshow]
I try out the declarative statements. My family now owns land. I own land. I am a property owner. Simple phrases, but with momentous consequences. Our title to thirty acres of mesa and cliff outside of the village of Torrey in Wayne County, Utah, feels quite different from owning a house on a tenth-of-an-acre city lot. Our Salt Lake City neighborhood has been urbanized for a century and a half. Our family is simply passing through, investing for a time in the right to live in a two-story foursquare brick home built nine decades ago. People lived there before us. Another family will follow. Our little back yard, grassed, gardened, and fenced, has been thoroughly incorporated into the human-dominated world.
On the mesa we own eroded rimrock ledges and potholes and piñon-juniper forest and cottontail hideaways and Great Horned Owl roosts. The rains bring wildflowers. Drought matters. Bark beetles consume the piñons. Charcoal under a ledge marks a prehistoric campsite. Mule deer bucks bound away at sunrise. We are the stewards of a living ecosystem.
We love the little patch of furrowed field in our view from the mesa. We would rather see hayfields there than rooftops. We know all the cracks about NIMBYs, the not-in-my-backyard folks who want to shut the door behind them. My wife Joanne and I are acutely aware of just how privileged we are.
Like the other newcomers, I would be happy to slow the very development I’ve just accelerated. Just like the writer Mary Austin, who arrived breathless in Santa Fe in the 1920s, I simmer with visions of my new home’s future. And I wince when I come across a passage in Hal Rothman’s Devil’s Bargains describing the self-important Austin who had hoped “to maintain the special character of the place” by appointing herself “keeper of traditions and arbiter of what was appropriate for the ‘real’ Santa Fe.”
The only traditional resources our land might yield would be forage for perhaps one cow for one month each spring, or decorative flagstones. No humans have ever before built a permanent structure on our share of the mesa. And now we’ve subdivided this wild land, increasing density by a factor of two; we have become accomplices in the domestication of the open space of the West. I mourn the loss while I celebrate what I’ve gained—a home. Drawn by the thrill of living so close to wild country, with each step toward the creation of our home here I add a wrinkle to the social fabric, tweak the economy, and nudge the environmental balance of the mesa and its surrounding communities. The changes bounce back, too, and I must reorder my self-image accordingly.
I’ve struck my deal with the devil.
I know that my family has an impact in the Colorado Plateau backcountry, but I can tolerate this threshold level of disturbance because this is indeed publicland. I have harangued my kids since toddlerhood about how to avoid crushing the living plant crust that shields the soil, that unique black cryptobiotic surface. They can repeat the riff back to me, with affectionate sarcasm. I always believe that since we are surely gentler than more mechanized users, we can’t do much real damage. I have a powerful sense of sharing with all who follow us, whoever they may be.
Americans have two competing attitudes about owning this astonishing continent of ours. We treasure our public lands; indeed, the wisest of Western writers, Wallace Stegner, called national parks America’s best idea. Public lands are the fundamental source of energy as well as solace, the altar of daily worship for the American environmental movement. At the same time, those famous lines at the end of Gone With the Wind ring in our ears. In the last scene ghostly voiceovers from the men in Scarlett O’Hara’s life restore her will by speaking of the power of her land, reminding her of the place she loves: “Tara! Home! Land’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. It’s from this you get your strength, the red earth of Tara.”
Camping on land that is “ours,” we drive up the track to the top of the mesa on Labor Day weekend, 2000, and step out onto “our property,” onto a piece of the Earth that we “possess.”
We will want to engineer our road. Make it passable in winter. Cut through the ledge rock. Maybe even blast…. Should I pioneer the road to the building site though I don’t know precisely where it will be?
I realize that I am not ready. I have yet to establish protocols. I don’t know when to say yes and when to say no, don’t know how to limit our impact within my comfort zone. So I torment our kids, admonishing Dory and Jake every time they veer their mountain bikes six inches off the road. I see Jake practice skids, and it makes me nervous even when he is on the road. Photos from years of newsletters from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance light up in my brain—illustrations of tire tracks through cryptobiotic soil, cleated treads wounding the earth, single-track gouges that, when the next rain rips into them, broaden to arroyos.
I sound like a neurotic sitcom character, continually overreacting, but I’m trying desperately to be responsible about having taken on this wild land. My family can’t believe the intensity of my feelings. It will be another year and a half before I can laugh at myself—and permit Jake to ride his bike off-road on our land, designating a corridor of ledges for him to bounce down. Why has this become okay? One answer comes from my father, when I bring him to the mesa. He looks around with his geologist’s eye and then, incredulous, at me: “That’s not ‘soil,’ it’s two inches of coarse sand over bedrock!” He liberates me from my fussy perseverating with an amazed shake of his head and convinces me that our bike trails will disappear when we quit using them, to be swept clean by the wind.
I stand on a ridgetop, a deer head in my hand, my tripod shouldered like a rifle, looking for all the world like a poacher. I hear a truck approaching. I prepare to explain myself.
Our dog, Tika, and I have picked our way around a rimfall where flash floods have poured over the red sandstone, fluting and molding the slickrock in those rare, intense moments when rain pummels the desert. We are exploring the BLM land adjacent to ours. Just before reaching the dirt road that snakes the ridgeline out to Beas Lewis Flats, we stumble on a nearly complete mule deer skeleton with a five-point rack attached to a skull mostly clean of flesh—a picturesque Old West treasure. I collect the trophy, holding on to the smooth antlers. Tika periodically tries to nibble at the scraps of fur on the skull’s snout.
I’m always amazed at what turns up when I extract myself from the truck and start walking, keeping an eye out for objects composed for a photograph, waiting for rainbows. I find sunstruck cliffs, cactus blossoming crimson, moonsets in lavender skies. I hear canyon wrens. I smell cliffrose. I find deer skulls.
Then I see the pickup—not a sleek black SUV but clearly local, a rusting rattletrap white truck with an empty bed. There is something vaguely threatening about the way the truck noses down washes where no roads exist. I wave, but the driver is too distant to look in the eye, and the truck never reaches me. Unable to block the unease that comes, unbidden, I turn and head back toward my own vehicle. On this soft November day, alone again, the peace of immersion in redrock returns to calm me.
I park along the highway in the mouth of the little canyon below our house site. I leave the pavement and walk up the wash, headed for our woodpile, where I plan to leave the skull. Suddenly I intersect fresh tire tracks where there is no road. I know I tend to be self-righteous about off-road vehicles—my youthful park ranger persona resurfacing. But wheels damage the land and invite further trespass. At first merely irritated, I simmer easily into my youthful impersonation of a full-fledged authority figure defending the land from destruction.
I hear a motor, and the same rusting white pickup emerges from behind the piñons. The driver must have come in from the highway, as I had on foot. We are on my land, now, or close to the boundary. I am in control. I am not just The Ranger; I am The Owner.
The truck pulls up; I see a jittery man, sixtyish, scrawny, with a hard edge that the warm and forthright local ranchers never have. I talk to him through his open window: “What are you doing back here?” Clearly nervous, he replies, “Just driving around.”
“Looking for rocks.”
I respond without hesitation, “Well. This is my land. The land coming up here is also private. And this is not a road. Please don’t drive up here ever again.”
He’s quick to say, “Okay,” quick to escape.
I listen to myself, nonplussed. When I saw him at a distance on public land, I granted power to this man, seeing him as the insider. Now I have the power, fueled by the outrage automatically conferred by the complicated myth we call ownership, by the landowner’s peculiar self-granting of authority. My role reversal stuns me. I sound just like one of those too-fierce defenders of private property rights who have always aroused my suspicions. And normally I don’t even feel comfortable describing our place as “property.” I prefer “land.”
Now, on my land, without pausing to consider the irony, I have acted as imperiously as the wealthy, the powerful, the insider—The Man.
Another trip. Dory and I camp on the land, parking at the house site. An antiphonal chorus of coyotes sings out just as we click off our headlights and let the ebony night flow over us. Nighthawks work the updrafts along the rim as we drift in and out of sleep, their cries punctuating the bass-drum booms that their feathers draw from the wind.
Sunrise the next morning hits the top of the Cockscomb, a brilliant white-gold flare on the Navajo sandstone cliff. I’m partial to the monumental, transcendent stripes before me: red Moenkopi ledges in the foreground, piñon-green hills and mesas midground, then the sea-monster ridge of the Cockscomb spotlit by shafts of sunlight from the Fresnel lens of moving clouds. The green-black mountain rises beyond these as backdrop and finally gives way to blue sky, with strokes of cloud swashed across the firmament.
And that’s just the view to the south.
In the still cool air I write these thoughts in my journal as I listen to the ravens and red-tailed hawks that nest on the cliffs within a couple of hundred yards. I hear the croaks and cries when the adults flap off their nests to hunt and return to eggs and fledglings—generation to generation, here, sharing our ledges. Dory sleeps in the back of the truck; the drone of vehicles on the highways is nearly constant. Once more I grapple with the paradox of wildness and civilization.
There is a hole in the living room. Our contractor, John Sammond, supervises the first bites into the mesa with heavy equipment in late August 2002. A track hoe grinds up the road to the mesa.
John takes out the few trees we must lose. Once we have given our final, final approval to his precise stake-out—after moving the footprint five feet west, two feet south, pondering, moving it back, and moving it again, trying to position the house sensibly in relation to the rim—he proceeds with digging the foundation. I blush at our dedication to getting this decision just right. And yet the rim has an integrity we can feel, and we do not want to crowd it.
The track hoe scrapes against the rock, lifting out huge stones. The operator piles them around the house site, six feet high, for later use as walkways; no need for us to import just the right stone from Vermont or Idaho. Huge chunks of ledge nudge right up to the BLM line, around the trees we are saving, against the woodpile. The site looks like a quarry, but at least it doesn’t yet look like a war zone.
At the end of the day I see the machine parked on the ridgetop, daylighted against the sky. After the builders have gone home, I climb into the cab and grip the shifters and throttles. Even with the engine still, it gives me a bracing sense of power and control.
In transferring decision making to first the architect and now the builder, I have conveyed a measure of responsibility to them. We chose to build this house on this spot. We carefully screened our contractor, John. Now it’s his turn, and he is perfectly calm about it. John’s only concern is for how I will react: “People aren’t ready for how different it looks. This is a lot of change.”
On my next trip down from Salt Lake City the outline of a house zigs and zags across the excavation. Footings have been poured, forms for walls built, and I can stand more or less at ground level, admiring the view from each imaginary room. I help hold the hose that feeds pulses of concrete from the clanking truck into the wall forms.
The pulses come a bit faster than once a second. Heartbeats. Thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. It’s definitely a macho experience, downright ejaculatory. Shaping wood and stone and concrete with these big machines—this has to affect the souls of the men (and it’s mostly men) who do this every day.
Two weeks later the walls begin to rise. We are building with SIPs, structural insulated panels—six inches of Styrofoam-like insulation with a layer of aspen chipboard on either surface. The material provides superb insulation, reduces the numbers of trees consumed by our house, and goes up like Legos. As the walls rise, flanked by those of other houses along the nearby ridgelines, the low-profile silhouette on the mesa is reassuring. We haven’t designed a castle. We won’t feel like pigs.
In February we stand inside the house as the stucco goes on outside, a half dozen “stucco guys” smoothing on the compound in circles. They work fast. The sound from within is elemental. Their masonry tools scrape and shape the surface of the walls in a controlled frenzy, timed just so. It’s the sound of a glacier grinding off the skin of a mountain. The sound of rapids. The fundamental sound of humans building, whether they work with Ndebele adobe in South Africa or European stone in Chartres. It’s the sound of a blender concocting from earth and tint and acrylic the colored shell—the carapace—in which we will live for years.
We are daunted by just how substantial the house has become. We wanted “the not-so-big house,” the small flexible space popularized by the writer and architect Sarah Susanka; we had budgeted for a few fine details rather than the standard suburban excess of square footage. But engaging an architect—even one concerned with sustainable building practices—generates an unruly momentum. Our house hasn’t turned into a castle, but it has grown incrementally larger than we anticipated. It’s close to being a primary home rather than just a cabin.
Our contractor tells us that we process decisions more completely than any clients he has ever had. John makes this comment just as Joanne and I have been saying how painless it has been to build this house, how we have felt reassuringly decisive and in tune with each other. Our kids have perfected a parody of our relentlessly detailed decision making.
Even though the SIPs take longer than anticipated to frame around all the corners in our idiosyncratic design, John finishes in six and a half months. I sequence my slides to create a time-lapse story of walls rising, roof appearing, stucco applied, staircase to roof tower completed.
The house on the mesa is done.
The change from seeing a rock ledge where we camp and dream of a house to standing in the house—looking out the windows, walking out the French doors to the plaza with my morning cup of coffee, standing on the rim and looking back at the house, our house—astonishes me. From our bed alcove at dawn we see flares of orange light on beam and earthy stucco, with the snow-spackled forest of Boulder Mountain deep and dark behind. Watching the play of light move across the house equals the pleasures of contemplating a sculpture or an earthwork. The angles and framing lines interact with rock and horizon—respond to the landscape—and prompt us to think about our placement within that landscape as individuals, as a family, as members of a community.
This is one value of private land, then: to personalize a relationship with a place. It’s reminiscent of the familiar feeling of creating a campsite on public land—the kitchen next to a ledge, the tent backed up between two junipers, camp chairs perched on the rim—an argument with comfortable predictability for the few days we live there. Only now the feeling of home is solid. Substantial. Our home is built to last for decades, into the next generation. This new permanence is moving; in its statement of ownership, of affluence, of dominion, it’s also unsettling.
My crazed worry about change was superseded by engagement with the process. I took the trenching and tracks and compacted earth and lost trees in stride. We replaced the wild rim with a home, a domicile. We took a stand, created a physical presence to express our affinity with this place. And we’re not done. I tick off an endless series of projects: laying rock walls, cutting firewood, managing invasive weeds, planting native seeds.
As we begin to use the house and dwell within its space, gradually our identities shift to incorporate our relationship with the mesa in our definition of home. After two weeks in the city, views from the mesa haunt our dreams. The warmth and light and freshness of the wind in this one place become fundamental to our definition of everyday joy. On the mesa we walk into a postcard and turn to look back at the rack of scenic views framed by our windows. As soon as we frame the view, limitless wildland becomes “landscape,” “scenery,” complicating nature with culture.
We have tried to create a house that engages us with the land we love. But we built on a mesa within sight of Torrey—not somewhere tucked away in the wilderness—and now we owe our neighbors something in return. We will need to explore the meaning and practice of good citizenship in our new community. Wayne County’s measure of our bargain awaits us.
View slideshow of 15 Stephen Trimble photographs from Bargaining for Eden >>