Swans Commentary » swans.com August 14, 2006  



Desert Lands


by Martin Murie





(Swans - August 14, 2006)  The Red Desert is under attack. More about that later.

Deserts are not wastelands that don't matter. They have a special feature, scarce water, but in that very scarcity, diversity, gradations. Deserts, typically, are terrifically complicated. Swans people know that, but let me rub it in.

Black Rock desert, northwestern Nevada, a wide glare of white alkali, so hard caked you can drive on it, very like the much larger Great Salt Lake desert where world class auto racers try for new records. Like most deserts in North America, the Black Rock and the Great Salt Lake are intimately involved with mountain ranges. And the Salt Lake's big lake laps at the very edges of Salt Lake City and its international airport. Its shorelines vary, from pure salt to rocky coasts to large swatches of saline-tolerant brush and flowering herbs, sedges, and grasses, the dominant color being dull brown. Dull? Stop, get out of the car, take your time, the dullness vanishes. That's a promise.

Where do you draw the line between "wasteland" and more inviting terrain, like sparkling streams, tall timber, meadows? Don't draw lines, we're not realtors, we're just wandering, surprises lurking, more surprises than can be imagined from a quick look-see through wrap-around shades and car windows.

Back to the Black Rock. I know it has at least one spring, in a big outcrop of rock. Like any oasis, desert water becomes a site for flora and fauna. Intricate ecologies develop. Mosquitoes for sure. Don't camp next to desert water. The Black Rock and its mountains merge. The mountain ranges are rugged and dry. Behind them, eastward, a huge expanse of mesa land, the mesas built of volcanic basalt and between them are up-and-down sweeps of rocky land cut by steep gullies, or big canyons inhabited by coyotes, canyon wrens, bobcats, owls, lizards, snakes ... and in those canyon bottoms, slotted in cracks between fallen stone and heavy plant growth, small flows of water.

We're walking across one of these between-mesas places. It goes on and on. Cliffs, rocks, ridges. Nearly dark by the time we get back to the campsite. On the way we have gone down into one dry gully after another and climbed the opposite sides, looking for opals and arrowheads. We find bits of fossil wood, but no decent opals. We find a couple of obsidian arrowheads, tips broken off, hand wrought flaking patterns unmistakable. The brush gets high and troublesome in the gullies, but in the uplands plants grow more modestly. The soil is thin, saturated with rock fragments, and overgrazed. Range cattle and sheep are gone now, but there are other grazers: wild horses, burros, antelope, sage hens. Pale tufts of grass grow isolated from each other, each tuft holding a smidgeon of dry soil. We see a band of antelope in the distance. They stare at us, move on.

A rock wren perches on a rock the size of a suburban SUV garage. Ants live here, and beetles, butterflies, moths. We find coyote scats and in a sort-of trail in the bottom of a deep gully, bobcat scats. Beyond that find we enter a commodious crevice made by several big hunks of fallen cliff jammed together. It's easy to imagine a bobcat here, lying on the cool, dry floor, waiting for evening prowl time. Or we imagine the bobcat padding noiselessly away, tufted ears erect.

Finally, we stop fighting against the grain of the land to follow the floor of a gully, but there are little cross patches of embedded rock ledge, too small to bother going around, but we don't want to risk jumping down into unknown rock and brush. Sprained ankle or worse are not wanted here -- we are far from anywhere. So, take care, crouch and maneuver, in the acrid smell of sage and dry grasses. We reach better travelling and there's a coyote, loping away. It stops. Without turning its body, it looks back at us, then moves on in a soft and easy trot to the crest of the low ridge and over and out. Nighthawks buzz above, harvesting in the dusky air.

I have picked up arrowheads in that basalt country, some of them near perfect, tips intact, symmetry astounding, and a stone knife on the east side of Black Rock. In the Jarbidge Mountains, northeast Nevada, we found several arrowheads, one of white stone, near horse trails and on ridge tops or open meadows, waiting to be seen. It was as though we were the first foot-travellers to travel in those great mountains since the bows were drawn, the arrows launched. That supposition might not be too far off the truth. Sheepherders ride horseback, so do Forest Service rangers, so do many hunters, so do cowboys. From the deck of a horse it's not so obvious, those beautifully worked stones.

In Teton County, Wyoming, kids ranging the mountains low over the ground spied, once in a while, an obsidian arrowhead. My prize was a tiny bird point that glinted like smoky glass in pale rock rubble on that steep mountain slope at the head of a gravel street they now call Cache Avenue.

In southern Utah, petroglyphs, interpreted by archeologists. I hold in suspension those interpretations. How do they know for sure? So long ago, and so quickly did we overcome that country, those nations.

In the Red Desert too, petroglyphs. I sketched some of them. One is a bugling elk, not at all perfect in its assembled anatomy, but it has key posture lines and it is definitely making noise. The other is an arrow with five lines drawn at the nock end, probably feathering, but can I be sure of that?

Stones worked into implements of survival, engravings on cliffs, these are signs, of absence and presence. Absence of the Eastern Shoshones and Western Shoshones, the Paiutes and Utes and Mountain Utes, the Crows and Cheyennes and Arapahoes--and their presence, surviving nations. Northwest of the Red are Arapahoes and Eastern Shoshones, very much alive in struggle. And all of the others too, in rezes tucked away throughout the west, some small, some large, and in cities. Native Americans, survivors of the wars. Here in Iroquois country I went to a bookstore named Akwesasne, on the rez, US side of the St. Lawrence River. We traded books. Mine was Red Tree Mouse Chronicles. "Who should I inscribe it to?" I asked. The manager said, "The Mohawk Nation."

The rocks won't let me forget: stones that have felt the hands of incredibly skilled workers, the buffalo drop cliffs in the Red Desert, the pictures scratched on rock faces.

On July 26, 2006 a Department of the Interior Record of Decision (ROD) for the Jack Morrow Hills section of the Red Desert was made public. For summary and comment, joy@reddesert.org.

Record of Decision is lawyerese for final Department of Interior approval of a plan for which an Environmental Impact Statement has been written, and comments solicited.

On July 29 of this year I received a Certified Mail letter rejecting my objection to the original Environmental Impact Statement, an objection I mailed to the Department of the Interior on August 6, 2004. That latter date is not a typo. In other words, the rejection arrived two years late.

The Bureau of Land Management now has the go-ahead. It will begin to process oil, methane, and coal leases. Thumper trucks will jolt their way across desert terrain, even on remnants of the old Oregon Trail, as long as local BLM officials certify that there will be "no adverse effects." Those are loophole words, providing wiggle room. This certified letter is loaded with them. For instance, "Exact standards of timing and sequencing will be developed during the site-specific NEPA evaluation and will consider all relevant factors." Here's one more: "Section of the Proposed JMH CAP includes consideration of the timing of activities, where consistent with oil and gas lease rights." Just for fun, how many loopholes can you find in those sentences?

I don't apologize for spending time on lawyerly word-smithing, because it is important to get a full realization of the lack of binding commitment to habitats and species in government plans and procedures. Military-Industrial projects typically get a green light while flower-loving flies and Mexican wolves et al. get "to the extent possible," or other standard equivalents. For the complete ROD,

Yesterday I wrote to the Western Literature Listserv. Here is a condensed version:

Assuming that western lit lovers need to know what's going on in the west, and also assuming that a letter to the editor is a form of literature, here is my short summary of the Red Desert disaster.

This Record of Decision confirms, again, that the boys in charge in the white house are going for broke, not only overseas, but also here at home. Their talk about conservation and environment is pure bullshit. It's serious, folks.

Is there anyone on this list, lurkers and all, who once in a while sends a Letter to the Editor? Now's the time. This ROD says, in effect, to us citizens, "Ef you and the horse you rode in on."

In honor of deserts and desert peoples, everywhere, we need to answer back, fast, hard and furious.


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About the Author

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/murie09.html
Published August 14, 2006