Eight-thousand feet up in the Abajo Mountains of southeast Utah, the late September air gave a wicked chill. I bundled on my blue wool-lined jacket and heavy jeans, knowing that the temperature would be considerably warmer at the base of Hammond Canyon, down 2,000 feet or so. My companion, Larry, shoved some water bottles in a backpack. Our first step on the trail, a gunshot rang out. The sound echoed through the woods, into the crevasse, reverberating against the mesa walls. Another burst. The birdsong stopped. I asked Larry if I could borrow his spare jacket, which was hunter red. It was muzzleloader season for mule deer and bull elk.
We trundled through swales of wheatgrass and brome; boggy meadows, scrub oak and prickly pear, penstemon and yarrow; yucca, pine, and shrub. A tangle of vegetation threatened to obscure the path. We lost our way. We doubled back. Dead-ended. Blazed ahead. Found the route, lost it, misled by rootless patches, then ambled on the trail again. Switchbacked, zigzagged. We zipped along, loose stones slipping under us. Lizards quickened, skittered off. Something mammalian squirreled away, crackling the vegetation. We tramped, we faltered on.
The terraforms changed several times. Around a sandstone ridge, we sloped down hillsides of quaking aspen, ponderosas, larkspur and Indian paintbrush, conifers bedizened in fall colors, everywhere a-spangle with vermillion, gold, and russet. We ventured to the cliffside. A sheer drop—across the gap, the canyon’s far wall arose in irregular divots and indentations, sedimented layers and outcroppings.
We hunched on a boulder. We munched on our mushy burritos pooled inside their tinfoil wrappers. We gazed across the abyss. A cave mouth yawned on the other side. Into what deaf stone would we whisper our secrets? What little griefs kept making the taut wire inside us sing?
On the drive up, Larry told me how he’d been calling his cousin in prison. His cousin’s veins collapsed. They amputated his arm. Larry was trying to get him a prosthetic limb. Larry’s dad used to handle this issue. But now his cousin wouldn’t let Larry’s dad have access to medical records—likely afraid to show how many times he’d relapsed, as if the absent arm were not proof enough. Now Larry’s dad was old, was sick, was dying. The stress was killing him. Larry’s dad had half-adopted the cousin, but couldn’t deal with him anymore. He let Larry inherit the problem. Larry had been on the phone for weeks with lawyers, insurance people, and prison staff. Larry had been in talks with his cousin who also didn’t want to tell him anything.
“Why do we keep picking at our own psychic wounds like we’re worrying a tooth loose? Do you think we find it pleasurable on some level?” I ask Larry, but the thing of it is, I probably enjoy worrying other people’s wounds a little more than my own. I’ve been goading him all weekend on this road trip with existential questions. I’m sure it’s been exhausting.
A week after our trip, I see that Larry’s tweeted, “I distrust people with precise introspection and vague empathy.” I suspect it could be a little well-deserved shade thrown my way.
What is empathy? How can it be distinguished from our own assumptions, projections, or prejudice? Most discussions of empathy seem to draw a line between various dualisms of which I’m skeptical: inside/outside, self/other, emotion/reason.
Larry and I both happen to be writers. Maybe we both just like introspecting other people.
From where we sat on the cliff-face, my empathy suffused over the whole landscape, the peplum’d valleys and the glittering summits, from chokecherry and box elder to fernwort and winterfat. Vague indeed. A pathetic fallacy. I might as well say I’m large and contain multitudes and that contradiction is the hobgoblin of little minds. I might as well be a full-throated transcendentalist who unabashedly projects my own rejected thoughts from democratic vistas.
Looking down the abyss, the cave on the other side of the canyon uncannily resembled a hollow ear.
Not the ear of the local Navajo myth in which Changing-Bear Maiden transformed into a mischievous bear after she was tricked into marrying Coyote, and then her brothers “saved her” by killing her and tossing her ears aside, which, legend has it, have become the twin buttes that now bare her name. No, this was a different ear. An auricle and lobe, a helix and tragus, a cavity and chamber to cradle the soundwaves, the forces vibrating in the very air. The inner tunnel of one’s mental rabbit hole projecting outward: a vault of acoustic mirrors, a funhouse of voices accreted and materialized.
Goosebumped antennae prickled along my skin. To make myself all ear. To fall into that chasm. I imagined my whole body minutely juddering like a vast array of oscilloscopes that collectively function as an interferometer to record the far-reaches of the receding universe. The universe as it’s ever-receding into my own mind, ever-expanding outward through whatever the raw stuff of experience consists.
Earlier in the day, Larry and I had driven up from Bluff. A curtain of fog drifted across the bosque and up the forested peaks. Through gloomy thickets of wood and hairpin rims, we’d stopped several times just to gawk at the vast drop offs or the varicolored hillsides awash in florid amber, flame-shot, and umber leaves. Columbine and blue spruce, brittlebush and cottonwoods.
The whole surround was a unique landscape of hoodoos and hanging gardens, mesas, buttes and benches, arroyos, gnarled cliffsides, and serpentine riverbeds cut across cantilevered rimrock; an ancient dune field agglomerated into a series of abrupt abutments. Riddled slickrock and mazy slot canyons, upshifts and declivities. Here, as Edward Abbey once wrote, “were mountain ranges nicely distributed about the region, and more hills, holes, humps and hollows, reefs, folds, salt domes, swells and grabens… synclines, monoclines, and anticlines than you can ever hope to see and explore in one lifetime.”
We were in Bears Ears National Monument. Or Manti-La Sal National Forest, depending on whom you asked. The signs for Bears Ears National Monument sit in a storage warehouse; the maps we found at the Blanding Visitor’s Center don’t mark the monument yet, nor will they likely ever. The revision process by the BLM and Forest Service, begun under the Obama administration, was not expected to be completed until 2019, at best. That was before the December 2017 executive order by President Trump. The space is liminal, the park in limbo.
The Obama administration had designated over 1.3 million acres surrounding this area as a national monument in the last lame duck month before Trump took over. The designation came at the urging of an intertribal council consisting of Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Ute Mountain members, who recognized the precarity of their historic cultural landscape.
A place sacred to so many was in danger of being littered and looted, its treasures lifted, its pristine wilderness left to developers and the robber barons of our carbon economy. As journalist Alistair Lee Bitsóí writes, the monument designation was recommended because “tribes fear[ed] that looters seeking to cash in on Native American artifacts [would] further desecrate cultural sites in the area, many of which have already been ransacked.” The national monument designation allows native peoples to hunt, collect herbs, and harvest on the land. Researchers estimate there are over 100,000 significant archeological and cultural sites in the park’s boundaries.
The relatively scant 12,600 acres of private land and the 109,100 acres of state land within the park’s boundary are not—or would not be—officially part of the monument. The rest of the ground had been federally owned long before Obama’s decree: it was a patchwork of national landmarks and BLM territory, forest service districts, and so-called primitive areas of the greater Canyonlands area. Contrary to local rumors, the monument designation doesn’t affect property owners’ rights and no private land has been acquired unless by voluntary agreement. What the monument designation did do was help stem any leasing of the area to private industry, though existing timber usage had been slated to continue.
Now, under Trump, that public land—our commons—can be claimed through leases and mining rights for the gold and silver, gas and coal, oil and uranium under it. This isn’t open country so much as opened country: an earth that will soon be gutted and gnarled, scabrous and scarified, scored and gashed not by the elements but in the name of human greed and exploitation. Similarly, in nearby Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, also downsized in convenient areas at its heart, coal and fracking companies are already making plans to excavate natural resources. I couldn’t help but think how this was part of a larger and continuing cultural history of Manifest Destiny. Ironically, from at least Frederick Jackson Turner’s famed thesis, this vision of colonizing the frontier has been portrayed as synonymous with so-called American freedom.
Nonetheless, the issue of designating Bears Ears as a monument has divided the locals here, who sport posters and billboards, bumper stickers and slogans on hats and T-shirts. Some see it as a boon to the tourism economy, which is in the “Grand Circle” radius, the area of national parks from Grand Canyon to Grand Staircase-Escalante where millions of mostly foreign tourists visit each year; others see it as an essential measure to protect wildlife or cultural lifeways. For some, though, the designation prompted ironic accusations of a “land grab.” Ironic since the white Mormon settlers of the area had taken the land from its indigenous inhabitants, and now cried foul when the government intervened to promote greater control of the region by an intertribal council.
The idea, however, that the federal government would simply take over land in the possession of others through a designation of a national monument is not unprecedented. Just south of Bears Ears, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is still disputed ground. The Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs maintain ambiguous control of the area rather than the Navajo Nation, despite the fact that none of the land is technically owned by federal agencies.
The Park Service’s 284-page document that purports to offer an administrative history of the park includes such concluding remarks as: “Even those developments that do not evidence Navajo involvement must often have been subject to the scrutiny of Navajo observers, who, albeit, often felt they had no way to inform the distant powers in ‘Washindon’ of any objections or suggestions they might have had.” The mimicry of Navajo dialect is a none-so-subtle put-down, made disturbing in that the remark is issued by those very Washingtonian powers. The whole statement reeks of paternalism and condescension. Suffice to say, there is a long and contentious history to Canyon de Chelly. For many, the ugly legacy of Kit Carson’s scorched-earth tactics in these sacred spots lives on.
Thus, widespread mistrust of federal management of lands is not without cause. Bears Ears, writes Ryan Benally in the Deseret News, “creates another oppressive controlling systemic government-run entity, like the BIA… a national monument was unfairly pushed on San Juan County natives by out-of-state organizations, such as the outdoor retail industry.” Benally, however, counts himself, like then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a proud veteran; meaning, he surrendered his body to be the property of Uncle Sam. I wonder why someone who’s so paranoid of big government’s stewardship of conservation areas would volunteer his own body to be controlled by that same outsized bureaucracy? Why would someone who recognizes the historical legacy of colonialism by agencies such as the BIA sign up to be deployed in an imperialist war in the Middle East?
Benally’s views, though, are not atypical among rural Utahans. A strong libertarian streak runs through the West. There persists a myth in which many residents want the wilds to stay beyond the reach of any authority or officialdom, of which corporations seem curiously exempt; a pioneer spirit of the place where gunslingers must defend their homesteads. Edward Abbey himself voiced this contention: he feared National “Money Mint” status foredoomed the area to one day become a tarmacked parking lot overrun with tourists.
Paradoxically, this same suspicion of the government is less likely to extend to the military or police forces for western, and predominately white, libertarians; a veneer of patriotism, duty, “law and order” glosses over the contradiction. Besides, many men who are attracted to gun culture find an outlet in military and police jobs where their incipient violence is legitimized, celebrated, and glorified, as they stake claim to be the instruments of liberation and so-called civility.
In the western, a stranger comes to town and restores order in a world of outlaws; but just who is the authority—sheriff or bandit, stranger or Indian—is always a matter of perspective, is always perspicuously the métier of how the western’s violence is framed. The sunset one rides into manifests its own bloody destiny. The ravagement of the West is a long litany of economic opportunism, these deserts not wastelands so much as lands laid waste. The sand dunes creeping across the Navajo reservation, for example, are not a natural phenomenon, but rather a result of long years of desertification from a manipulative history of grazing rights.
“We are in some strange wind says the wind and it has always been that way,” Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Downwind from nuclear testing. Downwind from the state lawmakers who want to sell public lands to the highest bidder so they can develop them. Downwind of shale oil and gas extraction that threatens to erode the very beauty that defines America’s red rock wilderness.” The Bears Ears Monument has been reduced by 85 percent, from 1.15 million acres to just over 200,000. The wind shifts and the sun screws down. The very carbon which will be excavated from this place is heating up the earth, turning more and more land into a desert. I listen again to the wind. It makes my hearing aid whistle and howl.
Strange as it seems, distrust of the government is being exacerbated by the current administration to allow the government’s corpocratic apparatchiks to seize more power. Zinke, for example, chartered a private flight at the taxpayer’s expense, paid to an oil executive who owned the plane. Such persistent reports of cronyism, though, make us all a little cynical; paranoia inspires paranoia. Conspiracy theories soon become self-reinforcing systems of belief. The accusations of fake news and rigged systems make people tune out from politics and distrust the government agencies which protect us from corporate overreach. Of course, readily filling that vacuum are lobbyists and special-interest groups.
Yet, who else besides the government is powerful enough to protect us from rampant profiteers? Corporate policy-makers are the new “invisible” hands who draft laws and create legislation; it’s not big government, but rather government’s influence by big business that we should fear. But the fear—the anxiety, rather—now seems untethered from any localized source. In the clamorous news cycle, people feel paralyzed. I heard someone recently say she didn’t even know which disasters warranted her concern anymore; it just seemed like there were too many. The latest catastrophe falls on deaf ears. And yet, and yet despite all this suspicion—this burnout, this outcry—government regulations are, like it or not, often the only thing standing between us and exploitation of the commons.
I wonder if the common ground that has been most eroded recently is our common sense: what Aristotle termed endoxa, a society’s store of shared facts and beliefs without which any argument cannot get off the ground. Once that is gone, almost any scheme can gain traction amid the murk of disinformation and incuriosity. All views are leveled, all points bend to illogic, all lines of reasoning may earworm into their own echo chambers.
The ear itself is a bony labyrinth, a kind of cave, in which the sounds floating in one’s immediate environs are reverbed and channeled by otoliths and ossicles down a deep canal. Through the utricles to the spiraling snail-shell of the cochlea where vestibular ducts are a-swim with fluid. Then the soundwaves are transduced by fine cilia-like hair follicles into electric currents, nerve impulses, other forms of energy. Reified by brain-matter; ruminated and materialized; spirited into words, ideas. And then, perhaps too frequently, exchanged in the clamorous marketplace.
I think of Larry’s cousin on our trek down to the base of the canyon. An emblem of the earth I trample. The parkland, too, is being amputated. Its rich veins will be excavated and collapse. The body politic rots in its prison cell, incarcerated by its own discourse, too suspicious to share anything that might aid its own survival.
The cliff-sides held their secrets around tortuous bends as I plodded downward. I wondered if empathy could be a side-effect of some vestigial organ, like the way that a whale’s small and isolated pelvis bones—long thought to be a mere remnant of their evolutionary past—recently has been found to help the bulls maneuver when mating.
Perhaps empathy is our way of sensing the twinges of electric current that swim in the airy ocean about us, allowing us proprioception of the minute vibrations of our environment, a long-lost phantom limb still capable of feeling pain, an exaptation from our origins in the primal slime. This fantasia of fishy psychokinesis is made more potent when I realize that before the sediment and traprock, before the sand dunes and canyonlands, some of the high desert of Utah and Arizona now surrounding us was once a sea floor. I imagine my Ur-self undulating through the ancient hydrosphere, sending and receiving telepathic communications through the vasty ooze. And then, from this waterlogged dream, I stand amazed, jostling down the trail on my two terrestrial feet, that a little fluid in my inner ear has kept me upright all along.
Soon enough, Larry and I lumbered into the leaf-lush riparian terrain. The soil grew clayey, damp in spots, but no water trickled through the banks. We followed the rocky streambed with its tumble of smooth river stones and felled trunks. The canyon narrowed and curved, the ground became solid rock.
Little pockmarks along the would-be riverbed acted as catch basins, brimming with a few muddy water droplets. This was a relatively rare ecological landform, I’ve since learned, termed tinajas, pockets carved from scouring gravel along the limestone riverbed, which collect seepage. They’re a vital source of water, microhabitats that breed plants and spawn insects and even provide crustaceans such as fairy shrimp and triops short-lived aqueous dwellings. I had seen tinajas elsewhere in Utah, near Coral Pink Sand Dunes, where the little pools in the sandstone pullulated with thousands of squiggly tadpoles after a rare rainfall. Such drought-tolerant animals exist as dormant seeds in the dusty bottoms where they suddenly sprout to life with the first monsoon or snowmelt.
Deserts are uniquely fragile terrains. In our minds they can appear a faceless void, an arid stretch of ever-changing sand. But this sense of a desert, Michael Marder writes, “is a state of mind that levels difference and treats everything as the formally equal and interchangeable” whereas “actual deserts are, of course, awash with differences in terrain and mineral composition, in altitude and degrees of denudation whereby the terrestrial surface wears away, and in the flora and fauna whose habitats they are.” To see deserts as abstract and homogenous zones of nothingness is to erode one’s own imagination, making it possible that real deserts—diverse and alive, lush yet vulnerable—will become the barren space we assume them to be.
Or maybe, I speculate, empathy for our environment is what, since the Holocene, we’ve been evolving toward. Maybe pathos is not always a fallacy, a projection. Maybe we’ve adapted to sense the cycles, the seasons, the circadian rhythms, equinox and apogee, solstice and zenith. The petroglyphs nearby spiral inward to announce our coordination with the cosmos. The biological processes deep within our cells align with the star-stuff we orbit.
For thousands of years, human civilizations prospered by registering the harvests and mood-tides, the hibernations and awakenings around them. Only in our most recent epoch of the last couple hundred years, the Anthropocene, have we shunted ourselves away in climate-controlled, wired-up cubes. Only recently have we become like mollusks shuttling between the shiny carapace of our various cars.
At the base of Hammond canyon, Larry and I rubbernecked the pinnacles, goggled at the drip spring, shot a few pictures; we shot some bull, too, but no bucks. Devoted leaf-peepers, we fell head-over-heels for the autumnal foliage. Felt something turn, a rustling breeze, the inchoate transmutation when, as Tennyson once declaimed, “the woods decay, the woods decay and fall / the vapours weep their burthen to the ground… / A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream.” A quiet overcame us.
The river’s trickle and the susurrus of wind-song leaves felt like a faint oracle that fled before us. We were deep inside the twisting labyrinth. An eerie chasm. Far down the folds. Within these canyon walls, Bears Ears seemed to listen back.
All Bears Ears photos by Will Cordeiro.