Coral Pink Sand Dunes

by Joel Long



for Peter Hayes

The light tells us we are losing.  Everything
beautiful tells us.  We sit in canvas chairs, tired day, 
seventy freshmen milling.  We are tired, 
dunes, tired, the way things that aren’t alive
are tired, endless, slipping away in the brilliant
fading day, pink, apricot, salmon, brown.

Canopied in junipers, pinyons, and sage,
we drink lemonade from plastic cups, 
luxury, fuller moon raising red cliffs,
crenelated pines.  You bring gifts for teachers, 
hats, flashlights, headlamps to help us
see the dark, water bottles for thirst you know
will come tonight.  You engraved our names, year, 
each one travelled with you. We stow them
someplace we will not forget, and you sit
with full knowledge the world moves around you. 

Students wander camp twilight, plant presses, 
plucking the desert dozen they know in their hearts
past the time you will breathe in the world, cottonwood, 
juniper, virgin bower with see-through skirts, artemsia tridentata, 
quercus gambelii, castilleja chromosa.  Two kids throw
a football;, see you, know keep quiet, shhh, shhh
others want no racket in camp. They know later,  
you will take them into night, lift stones
heavy as you, show what dark can show, 
filament scorpions under stone, illumined, 
star-green in mauve, claws, telson preened for the sting.

Late, you turn the flashlight upward to stars, scattering
dust, glitter, road with cattle guard, rabbit brush, 
yucca rays cutting deep blue into black.  
We barely keep our feet on ground for this rush
of stars and space behind the stars too quiet, shhh.  You tell
Andromeda’s story, Orion, sword and scorpion,  
half-moon smudging stars with shine as it pulls
our eyes, half heavens opening every form
the mind imagines, mantis, dolphin, bear, Sagittarius, 
teapot lifting steam to the mouth of a man, star milk
feeding him, feeding you, what breaths the cosmos— 
miserly infinite—allows, and when you click
the lamp off, nothing but stars: space blooming
time and being, and the light tells us again
what we’ve lost, why losing matters, this time, 
how to pay attention, how to work and learn.  

Poet's note:

Peter Hayes taught at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s upper school for eighteen years.  During that time, he led the 9th grade trip to Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Angel Canyon near Kanab, Utah.  Hayes retired after he was diagnosed with IPF, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.  The disease took his life less than two years later. 

Joel Long’s book Winged Insects won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.  His books Lessons in Disappearance and Knowing Time by Light were published by Blaine Creek Press in 2010.  His chapbooks, Chopin’s Preludes and Saffron Beneath Every Frostwere published from Elik Press.  His poems have appeared in  InterimGulf CoastRhinoBitter Oleander, Crab Orchard Review,Bellingham ReviewSou'westerPrairie Schooner, Willow Springs, The PinchQuarterly West, and Seattle Review and anthologized in American Poetry: the Next GenerationEssential LoveFresh Water, and I Go to the Ruined Place:Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights.

Map to Taylor Creek

by Joel Long



Begin at moonset.  Lose your feet in the dark. 
Find water, how it feels on your skin, how
it sounds—you walk into it.  
grow wine, grow rust on iron. The moon
drops in a pocket at the base of your skull.  

Predawn is patient—so much time.  You
move along the creek bordered by shadow towers, 
terraced gardens of Babylon, red mineral spires, 
where priests pray silence next to the gods, 
vigil of pinyon and juniper.  

                                          The sun gilds the edge
of everything, and the world glides in emptiness.  
It lifts the cliff face in the shade of cinnamon, 
strands of burnt moss trailing. 

                                          Go toward the voice
in the stone hemisphere, the eroded double
in the wall above it.  Dawn sings, the woman
in a Superman shirt, woman you never see again.  
She sings the chest, the throat, the pure
                                                               mouth shaping
air as stone is shaped but slow in the way being
human is slow, 
                              slow beauty our limited scope. 

The walls of the canyon respond and sing back
her aria, the double arch alcove taking glow
of the day, mosses
blooming green with bright gold
tendrils threading through the red sand.  The singer
evaporates into morning. You
                           find her in stone, in water
marbling watercress and juniper bone glazed blue
this time, lapis, green pebbles, ivory, horse grass
raising woven legions.  There is no song
                                                          that lasts 

long enough.  You leave every sacred place.  

Photo by Joel Long

Photo by Joel Long

Joel Long’s book Winged Insects won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.  His books Lessons in Disappearance and Knowing Time by Light were published by Blaine Creek Press in 2010.  His chapbooks, Chopin’s Preludes and Saffron Beneath Every Frostwere published from Elik Press.  His poems have appeared in  InterimGulf CoastRhinoBitter Oleander, Crab Orchard Review,Bellingham ReviewSou'westerPrairie Schooner, Willow Springs, The PinchQuarterly West, and Seattle Review and anthologized in American Poetry: the Next GenerationEssential LoveFresh Water, and I Go to the Ruined Place:Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights.

September 1867

Geoffrey Scott, Kwanyumai, and Adababa at Hardy’s Landing on the Colorado River, heading North through Arizona Territory into the new state ofNevada (established in 1864).

by Phyllis Barber

The water of the river—a preposterously huge arm wrestling the canyons as it makes its way south. Broad. Brackish. Mostly red with sands picked up along the way, red sand rolling, turning over and over, an integral part of the water. Bigger than life to Geoffrey Scott as he surveys the ferry Hardy’s built for those who want to cross here—thehefty rope stretched across, the flat-bottomed boat waiting on the banks. He holds Adababa’s well-used rope attached to the halter over its head and looks at the narrowing of the canyon above the landing, the never-ending tumultuous water. The Colorado is larger than anything he’s seen before. Humbling. Domineering in a land of mountains looking like piles of stacked, dried mud and valleys of rock and dirt—a barren place for any body of water. On the surface silent, but deadly below. There is a subterranean roar of water over rocks, the conflict submerged by the river. Unseeable forces beneath the surface. Powerful river. Arbitrary. How has it come to be? Why is it here, and yet it is.

Aha Kwahwat,” Kwanyumai says, coming up beside him, surprising him as he always does, jolting his presence of mind. Kwanyumai, the warrior, or at least that’s what he told Geoffrey Scott when asked the meaning of his name—the Mojave who’s a foot taller than most men. Who could mistake Kwanyumai for anyone but a warrior of great magnitude?

When they first met ten years earlier, on the opposite banks of the Colorado, Kwami was a sorry sight. Shaking like a leaf. Pitiful with malaria. A year later, he appeared again—this time a painted warrior dressed in loincloth and a war bonnet, pointing a warning arrow at Geoffrey Scott when trying to get supplies to Lieutenant Beale on the east side of the Colorado. A few years after that, the boy from Kansas saw the Native once again, this time while hammering nails into what would become Fort Mojave. Kwami showed up near the edges of camp at odd hours while everyone else slept or was lost in their cups. The two spent the dark hours learning to talk to each other. To speak each other’s language. And now, standing next to the Kansas boy on the banks of the swift river, he’s a picture of health—well-defined muscles in his chest, not shaking at all, and definitely a foot taller than most in the military. Hell, taller than most any man Geoffrey Scott has ever known. And they are together. Heading north. A Mojave Indian, an Abolitionist, and a camel named Adababa. Friends. Who would’ve ever put them together? 

“Red River,” Kwami says. “Feeds my people. Corn. Wheat.”

“Been rollin’ for thousands of years, I would imagine,” Geoffrey Scott says, glad to see Kwami again, the Indian who appears and disappears without announcement. “Has its own rhythm. Seasons. Hardy must be making a good livin’ from anyone who wants to get across that big river.”

Phyllis Barber has published eight books, as well as short stories and essays in many periodicals, including Agni, Missouri Review, North American Review, Weber:The Contemporary West, among others. This excerpt is from a novel-in-progress, ADABABA—historical fiction. She taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing Program for nineteen years and now teaches workshops in Park City, Utah. In 1991, she received the Creative Nonfiction Award from the Associated Writing Programs and most recently in 2016 was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters by the Smith-Pettit Foundation. 

The Last Fifteen Miles | Michael Engelhard

This is a pilgrimage of sorts, and like all good pilgrimages, it begins on foot. After the convenience of air-conditioned, motorized travel in a contraption whose model and brand convey status as a trek to Mecca or Jerusalem once did, I set out for the sacred place humbly, in sturdy leather boots.

Trudging through deep red sand, past a gutted mattress and shards of whiskey bottles that glitter like broken dreams, I search for the route into the canyon, down to the Colorado’s lobed shores. After avoiding “Lake” Powell and its dam for decades, I finally decided to visit what is left of Glen Canyon. Over the years, I sifted stacks of bleached photos and accounts by travelers lucky enough to have seen the Glen in all its glory. With that historical residue and my knowledge of similar canyons, I’ve tried to reconstruct loss—a loss felt possibly even deeper because I neither knew the thing lost nor would have a chance to reclaim it. Those from whom it was taken at least have their memories. The damming feels like personal trauma, as there is no other landmark I care to know that has been so completely corrupted while almost staying within reach. I am curious how the place I imagined compares with reality. There is middle-age stocktaking also, which casts its long shadow. I am past fifty now, and the likelihood of seeing the reservoir drained or dried up in my lifetime is slim.

After a tour of the concrete blade that guillotined the river and now marks Mile Zero, the little-used Ropes Trail to the river seemed just the cure for a case of civilization blues. When I had asked about the trailhead’s location, a volunteer at the Park Service information desk refused to provide that information, because “it’s too dangerous.” I guess the agency thinks that rescuing a few cliffed-out, dehydrated hikers or retrieving the bodies of those who, searching for a way down, haplessly missed the edge, is less trouble than facing a liability suit.

I was sure I could find the trail on my own but, apparently, had walked from a hard place into rocks—plenty of them. 

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Joan Hoffman | Inspiring Conservation

Nine Mile Canyon

Nine Mile Canyon

Joan Hoffmann oil paints the breadth of open space-landscapes that inspire conservation and conversation. For over forty-five years she has carried her paints and heart into the wild and remote regions of the west, and from desert to ridgelines and all the while recording the breathe of the Colorado Plateau. Her voice and visual discussions of the Nature of Wilderness Painting, National Parks and Public Lands resonate across a broad landscape of interested groups. She is the 2016 Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park Artist-in-Residence and previously was a Yosemite National Park Artist-in-Residence and at the 50th National Wilderness Conference she presented, The Art of Wilderness. Her impressionist oils give standing, presence and form to the fact that we are the wild. Her oils are collected: Yosemite National Park Museum, Pt Reyes National Seashore, SUWA and Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and private patrons.

Comb Ridge

Comb Ridge

Desolation Canyon

Desolation Canyon

San Rafael Swell

San Rafael Swell

Tank Mesa, Bluff, Utah

Tank Mesa, Bluff, Utah

Shash Jaa’ Follows Wherever I Go | Alastair Lee Bitsoi

Nearly ten years ago, I remember sitting with friends in the back seat of a red Jeep en route to Salt Lake City and noticing the mysterious twin buttes jetting above the western horizon. I would later learn they were called Shash Jaa’ in Navajo, or the Bears Ears. While driving through Navajo land near Mexican Hat, Utah, these buttes tower above Cedar Mesa and connect to the Abajo Mountains, the lay of the land changing from red and orange cliffs to green forestry.

On this road trip, I learned that Shash Jaa’ is where Navajo headman Manuelito was born in 1818 and where his ancestral Bit’ahnii clan call home. My political junkie acquaintances knew this, better equipped at Navajo history than this then- 21-year-old. Their claims were later verified by Navajo historian Jennifer Nez-Denetdale, a descendent of Manuelito, and oral histories of Navajo families and clans, along with the testimonies from other tribes, nations and pueblos that have cultural attachments to this beautiful land. 

Even though I was not driving toward Shash Jaa’ during that summer day, I was mesmerized by the Navajo connection. Instead of being attracted to the city life of Salt Lake City and the Mormon experience of Brigham Young University, my mind wondered about what the mountainous knolls, canyons, forests, water and wildlife of the Manti-La Sal National Forest and surrounding public lands looked and felt like. I could only envision inhaling the fresh air. 

Then last summer came. I was hired by the Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Diné Bikéyah to tell the story about the efforts of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which I learned about from being a reporter with the Navajo Times. While at the base of the Bears Ears Buttes last July, I listened to and talked with cultural leaders from the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni people, who told how they continue to harvest medicine, pick herbs and minerals, hunt, perform ceremonies and issue offerings at designated places in the Bears Ears region.

Witnessing wildlife, including deer, come toward our campsite and listening to the Bear Dance songs by Ute Mountain Ute healers showed the connection between cultural leaders and Native families that want Bears Ears protected. Evidence of an indigenous footprint is obvious; more than 100,000 archaeological sites that date over 12,000 years reveal this history. Unfortunately, these cultural artifacts are being desecrated, looted and disrespected by non-Natives who see these sacred items as cash profits. Ongoing threats come from natural resource exploitation of the oil and gas and uranium industries and the environmental degradation of overgrazing by ranchers and all-terrain vehicles. This cultural landscape needs protection.

When I had my epiphany in that red Jeep, I never thought I would visit the Bears Ears in so many ways—documenting the July celebration of the coalition, camping, flying in a small aircraft and learning the healing powers of this nearly untouched landscape, Hozho, or there is beauty, in the Navajo tongue.

I also never thought I would be writing about Bears Ears thousands of miles away in my Brooklyn apartment, where I attend graduate school at New York University. The presence of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is growing in New York City. At NYU, Angelo Baca, a Navajo doctoral student in film and anthropology, has screened his 21-minute documentary about the coalition’s efforts and his family’s connection to Bears Ears.

Bears Ears will always be a significant healing space for young Navajos like me, who live in the concrete jungle that is New York City. The experience of Bears Ears will always be in my heart and mind, just as it probably is for Manuelito, the Navajo leader who encouraged Navajos like me to get an education and help our people. 

Prelude | David Lee

Prelude: Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. And the Voice said, “Moses did not go to an
oil well derrick to receive the Law and the Tablets, and Jesus did not go to a fracking site to give
The Sermon, and Buddha most certainly did not sit under a pump jack to experience the vision
that changed the world forever. Sacred Place is required to receive Sacred Epiphany, and
without that epiphany, wisdom cannot be achieved.”

Impromptu Meditational Ode
Concerning the Sacred Relationship of Time and Place
(and the act of finding the bullseye in the center of epiphany)
During Miles Davis’ “Autumn Leaves”

and by an autumn inspiration
Richard Wilbur, “In the Elegy Season”


when silence screams like a gashed river
through the space between note and next
the mind makes the first movement
from absence to creation
          Parmenides all the while listening
questioning whether the basis is need
or dramatic impulse and if difference
is even meaningful, one can, like flotsam, turn,
move into a quiet pool of contemplation
          and begin the shift:
whether the fiction of this event we call life might
be akin to a small but very deep pond or even lake
the product of a thousand quiet pools and pauses conjoining,
co-mingling, creating in this instance the memory
          of an autumn perception
seen perhaps once in magical childhood
as from a great and fearful height nestled
in the remembrance of Bears Ears, Hatch Point, or Boulder Mountain
surrounded by huge vistas, great pines
          interlaced with the blaze of glistering aspen
all mirrored in the still twilight water
of a brilliant afternoon lake,
a reflection of first moment
personal realization that if autumn comes
          winter is not very damned far behind


and then the requisite shift
to antistrophe, the fulcrum moment
between inspiration and expiration
when the lips purse and in the mind
          the millisecond of doubt
the lake, great mountains, burning aspen,
towering and reflective pines memory
only symbols inviolably intertwined
with their referents
          covering what lies below
dark, incomprehensible and invisible truth
whispering in the embrace of acrophobia:
surrender, make the leap into the still stare
of water under moon-bitten pines
          sink into the dark abyss of unknown
the plunge, penetration of time’s scrim
the lung throb, turn back toward surface
the second terror of suffocation
clasping the mind in fingerstops of nightmare


          then the awakening with the break into light
only to recognize the separation between aye and I
and remain standing above the lake’s great eye
wondering: what next? while deep in the mind’s ear
between the anvil and stirrup of memory
          the benign inner voice of enlightenment,
first comprehension that the shock
of height or drowning is not of falling or suffocation,
but of failure to make the leap, and with grace,
so that when the plunge comes, the remembrance
          thou shalt not fall: dive
into expiration, then new inspiration
and with that parabolic breath the mind returns
to blood rush rhythm, joy of the leap with the float
back into melody, which, as they say, is exactly why

Put off the shoes from off thy feet,
for the place where thou standest
is Holy Ground

Exodus 3: 5

The Eyes of the Young | Brooke Larsen

As I descend the sticky sandstone cliffs into the Dirty Devil wilderness, anxiety seeps over me. Heading into the backcountry for three days makes me stop and run through any unsent emails before leaving cell service behind. Initially, my unease in disconnecting from technology overshadows my relief in reconnecting with nature. But as a child of the red rock, that feeling quickly fades. My jaw loosens, my eyes come alive, and I howl. I hear the echo as a reminder that I am untamable. 

I am in my early twenties. My generation is screen saturated and nature deprived. We find constant connection in our digital world, yet we hunger for depth. Our friendships grow in quantity rather than quality. Our relationship with our self and our environment degrades as our fear of solitude and silence grows. It’s not revolutionary to say my generation needs wilderness more than ever.

I reach the Dirty Devil and sink my feet in the mud at the river’s edge. Joy tingles every inch of my flesh, awakening my wild spirit. For me, few things match the beauty and awe of flowing water in a landscape of red. Even the rivers run red. One could say this landscape is parched earth, but as long as rivers flow, life seems in perfect balance. If I have children, will they also find a flowing Dirty Devil in 50 years?

The forces trying to desecrate this landscape not only leave initial scars, schisms and spills. The oil rigs and natural gas flares contribute to a much more existential threat—climate change. For my generation, it’s impossible to separate the need for wildness from the need for climate justice. Protecting this landscape is not just protecting our human spirit—it’s protecting the future of all life in the region. With daunting climate change predictions for the region, it’s realistic to wonder if the Dirty Devil will still flow for the next generation. The economic, legal and biological ramifications of a water-stressed Colorado River Basin are well known. But what about the spiritual?

Crossing the Dirty Devil River, I head towards the canyons of the Robbers Roost. In popular culture, Robbers Roost is known as the outlaw hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For desert dwellers, it’s known for its wildness. Here, I follow coyote tracks rather than human footprints. I respect the power of water and wind to carve stories into walls. I experience desperately needed solitude and silence.

The red rock wilderness is my spiritual refuge and teacher of humility. In a society where young people can navigate anywhere with an app, I learn from navigating based on geologic layers and topographic lines. In a culture where we can have food delivered to us in minutes, I learn from planning my survival around the dependability of perennial streams. We realize our own insignificance. We realize our vulnerability.

For me, protecting this place is deeply personal. My family has called Utah home for six generations, but I didn’t grow up with religion. I grew up questioning. My story is written in carved slot canyons and desert washes. Wildness became my spiritual refuge—particularly the red rock wilderness of southern Utah. So if I respect the churches of others, why are the leaders of my state constantly disrespecting mine?

My red rock story is one of self-preservation. As the lands and people around me grow increasingly tamed, I fear I will lose my own wild, human spirit. Each drop of oil extracted digs me into a deeper existential crisis as I wonder if under a changing climate this region will remain livable.

The eyes of young people are closely watching. The spirits of future generations are pleading. The deep time of the red rock inspires hope—from the geologic story told in layers of orange, pink and red to the rock art left by ancestors of Native Americans who still call Bears Ears home. However, increasingly it feels like we are running out of time.

Our leaders must choose between greed and restraint. Our leaders must choose between preserving the American spirit and destroying it. Our leaders must choose a healthy, safe future for their grandchildren or immediate profit for themselves. If we think ethically and compassionately, the decision is not hard. As a young person, I implore you to act wisely and lovingly.

Pack Creek Ranch Song | Christopher Ketcham

Pack Creek Ranch Song
                                           -thinking of Ed Abbey


5 am, old desert, I walk out to the corrals, the stars sting the eyes, all the ranch sleepless
except Dexter wily cat, survivor, sleeps on lap of anyone who sleeps
the horses in the field cry out in the other corrals and the one-eyed horse
who I fed once has gone to New Mexico with a girl named Anna-Claire.

White cats, black cats showing up at the door like the bowsprit water of Noah
under the star-pooled sky -- I imagine myself just a little to be him (so not at all).
No winter or flood yet, but the lavender going, the bees asleep, the hummingbirds at final hum
the sunflower seas gone, at dawn in September the days growing shorter and shorter.

Gather the animals wondering of the change, the things such as the cat knows
why the slitted eyes smile in the night, why paws reach longer.
As domesticated as us, as pining as us for no winter to come:
gather the animals, that’s what we want, quick before the snows.

Such is Dexter the gray tabby mild, wild, furtive, sleeping in culverts, eating rats, rabbits, mice
voles on my doorstep, crunching at 5 am like farm clocks, swinging into doors like Tarzan
milking every tit in my fridge for dinner, kind as an insurance salesman looking for winners
walking the other way when he hears no bowls of milk or froth.

How Dexter survived the last winter I guess only by the half-an- ear he sports on his right side
sliced from frost. When I first saw him, he had blood on his lip, he couldn’t walk straight
he wore his ribs like crepe, his eyes big and starved
I fed him, nursed him, adored him, he purred like a Saturday hooker at a Sunday dinner
He was a great cat Now the new winter comes for him

Who runs the Ark around here at Pack Creek? Not I. Maybe ol’ ghost of Abbey next door,
     who wrote those last two books in the shack with the dirt floor --
Who could cram the elks’ horns, cats’ egos, horses’ worry, mens’ farting
the smell of juniper on fire, the coldness of the moon looking down, the darkness of the night
making no sense with its stars, the white stretch of the country lane, the cats the cats bursting on
every scene like creditors, and the great dogs, how forget the dogs, how they come back with
answers that are so enthusiastic, always so wrong, the canyons whetted by the master builder:
water, rain, wind, cloud, snow, freeze, thaw
Who but Noah could cram all this on one boat’s bashing
I run down with rain through the place
where once you and I hiked free and now that same canyon is gone and cannot be named

If Noah has a song in the canyons it goes like this flood:
Awake brood, food, o flesh mere, there was a canyon here
Long before mothers drew breath on two feet
Or starry-eyed stared at the thousand night pleats
All you are is a big not-at- all where the canyon makes crumbs
Where the corpses of men pile who thought they were beavers

Sumptuous bellies flop, meat-eaters, surgeons, testy virgins
Animal husbands, clone wives, breeders of the bubble-time
French ticklers, peddlers of knives, milk, happiness, Mary Poppins
Fathers on cellphones, mothers in wine, teeny boppers eating cookies like vermin

All crumble! Tossed, bossed, made simple at last!
The flood comes, hold on


So from Pack Creek Ranch in our mild places, with homes steady, the horses ready
the creek running hard and brown from the tin-pan light of the rush on the mountain
Petra and I climbed just a little, 300 feet to the ridge above the ranch
all the world was transformed, even our own souls, even the very feet we walked with
for up there it was snowing, where at the cabin was just rain, now the snow had birthed two new
man and woman, the sky and snow and light from the sun, the wild arms of juniper, arms bright
with white calls to the methodic stone below and to the bent miles of cloud in the warm valley
where no one knew it was snowing;
here are the keys to the kingdom that the prophets speak of, the joy of footfalls in the life-giving
water, joy of light

Where we come from, where we would go back to is not the matter.
That we were in the snow on the mesa above the desert
Was all that mattered, that the cold wind burrowed in us, that we lay in the snow
warm in the sun, that we thought only of the warmth of our bodies and the cold of the mountains
above and wanted to go (and not to go at all)


Here’s who runs the Ark, it’s Ken Sleight, ol’ Seldom Seen Smith himself who’s sick of being
told he’s the Seldom Seen myth of Abbey, ghost of a novel, the real man riding more horses than
Abbey did in his jerking hand --

Here’s Ken Sleight: ears big as trumpets, eyes slitted at the sun, old man’s gait – he’s 80 – young
man’s run, and on his horse walking on air, rock, steam, sheets of silk, feathers, a graceful guy
altogether, made of flesh and legend, and how he builds the ark

Is charging two bulldozers at noon on the mesa-top above Pack Creek Ranch with Knothead his

Whole and Holy | Chip Ward

The honey, bone, and amber-toned canyons in my Utah backyard are a magnet for tourists, drawn by the beauty of light on stone. I live at the gateway to the Colorado Plateau’s wild canyons, places like Capitol Reef, the Bear Ears, and Cedar Mesa. Tourism and recreation are the lifeblood of the local economy. For us, wilderness is an asset just as it is, with no need to pockmark the land with drill rigs and sprawl.

At night we see an awesome lattice of pulsing light across an obsidian black sky. Most visitors who stand under that spectacular firmament tell us it is the first time they’ve seen the faint veil of the Milky Way and the experience is breath-taking. The canyons that fall away around us offer endless recreation but also rare encounters with solitude and silence. There are vistas too vast to fit into cameras.

But after forty years of living in one desert or another, I know firsthand that America’s iconic desert landscapes, places like Canyonlands and Arches national parks, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, scrape, bomb, drill, pave, over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by all Americans. I believe our understanding of the ecological dynamics of America’s western landscapes is flawed and deserts are exhibit A. We act as if there is no upstream, no downstream, nothing whole or alive in the middle of our schemes and deals.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. National parks and monuments and formally designated wilderness areas form a vital commons where humans and wild creatures can co-exist, where a landscape wrought by aridity has a chance to be resilient, where ecosystem integrity matters and the usual abuses are restrained.

Our public lands offer us the opportunity to experience the land that shaped the nation’s character. More than that, my wilderness experiences taught me that human life is embedded in nature. The food that becomes us is a synthesis of sunlight, rain, and soil. Soil is leaf, limb, root, bone, carcass, carapace, and flower. We drink from a watershed. We breathe each other’s air. We live on a fluid planet where whatever goes downwind or downstream eventually settles into blood and bone. I know what is at stake because wild land grounded me.

It has also humbled me. I have wandered across Cedar Mesa and seen the crumbling towers, pot shards, and holy kivas that are scattered through the canyons. I have climbed the Bears Ears above mesas laced with ruins that demonstrate the crushing power of a harsh climate. I know that the deep and unique history of indigenous people holds valuable lessons for us today as we try to live within the carrying capacity of a changing world. It is time to empower tribes in the homeland they hold sacred. It is time to listen.

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses of settlers in his beloved American West into two camps. The “boomers” saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, gold miners, buffalo hunters, and land scalpers. They are still among us, trying to frack and drill their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those who Stegner called the “nesters” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native to this land.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Ecological citizenship is the struggle to choose wisely and to live with each other’s choices. Today, that struggle is intensifying in the American West as heat-parched forests ignite, reservoirs dry up, and sparse mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing dust.

I believe we have sacrificed enough to the extractive compulsion of yesterday’s Manifest Destiny. It is time to swing the balance and protect natural treasures from the incessant blade of development. It is time to honor America’s ancient history and to listen to those who tell a story that can help us understand our relationship to the land and our obligations to future generations. It is time to assure that our children and grandchildren and their children will be able to come here and be grounded, healed, humbled, and awed by the dance of light on stone. They too can stand under the stars and understand their lives anew because the Bears Ears will still be whole and holy. If we act boldly to save what is left, I believe they will bless us for our wisdom and generosity.

The Grace of Wildness | Thomas Lowe Fleischner

The moment we hoist packs, the rain begins. It is four days before fall equinox; this is no spring mist. A horizontal wind slaps wet against us, and the cold stings our faces. Other problems soon become apparent: crippling blisters, forgotten gear, lethargy. It’s a long walk, much of it in loose sand. The group’s mood is sullen as the sky. Concerned about water, I try to hurry them along, circling back with words of encouragement and offerings of dried fruit. They tolerate me—that’s all.

Then comes our first grace: at midday the clouds blow off, like the unfurling of a curtain. We have descended deep within the canyon of burnished Wingate sandstone. The students get their first look at the lovely juxtaposition of red rock and Utah blue sky. The air remains sweatshirt-cool, even though the sun is out. Several days of rain provide a damp chill to the air. Fast hikers get stiff muscles waiting for stragglers, while slow ones get aggravated when everyone heads out just as they finally limp up.

It’s now we receive the second grace of the day.

I round a bend to see one of the students running back toward me: “Tom! You’ve got to come here, quick!” She signals me forward and points at the wet clay in the wash bottom. Lying there, shivering on the cold mud, is a robin-sized slate-gray bird, with muscular black feet, and a broad mouth. In all my years as a naturalist, I’ve never had an encounter like this—a bird on the ground, for the taking. Recalling handling techniques from banding birds two decades earlier, I carefully pick up the bird, nestle its back against my warm palm, and brace its head between my first two fingers. Its eyes glisten with vulnerability and attention, but it remains motionless in my hand.

Though I have studied birds for over twenty years, I am disoriented——who is this? The visceral connection between the bird’s fluttering heartbeat and the nerve-tips in my fingers focuses me on this animal as an individual being, not a member of a species. This bird man or woman, stunned by the cold, stares back at me. For five minutes we all watch wordlessly. Then, I feel power returning to its long wings. I carefully curl back my fingers and level my hand. The gray bird sits still for a few seconds, then suddenly leaps from my hand, and flaps it long wings—once, twice, three times.

The instant it’s in flight I recognize it as one of my favorite canyon birds, a White-throated Swift. It circles higher and higher. Then, from a nearby cliff, a second swift surges toward the first; they circle together, becoming smaller and smaller, and disappear against the red cliff. The individual being has disappeared completely back into the anonymity of the species. We humans look into each other’s eyes, remaining silent for a few seconds, before the questions come tumbling out.

“What was it?”

“Why was it lying on the ground?”

“How did you know what to do?”

I answer as best I can. It’s a White-throated Swift. I don’t have any idea how it ended up on the ground, but once there, it was stuck——swifts are among the most aerial of all birds; they can only take off by launching from a ledge. How did I know what to do? I just followed my instincts, remembering the proper way to hold a bird, and watching its eyes very, very closely.

We sling our heavy packs back on and move downcanyon, toward water. But our eyes keep scanning the cliffs for the catapulting flight of swifts. The sky trembles with a new possibility. My fingertips carry the lingering heartbeat of fear, and the joy of re-found freedom.

We humans cannot leap into dazzling flight. But we can access this tingling sensation—call it freedom, call it wildness—each time we enter these astonishing stone canyons. We feel it in the vibrating shade below numberless cottonwoods, or within the glow of shimmering evening light on polished sandstone walls. We hear it in the sound of water plashing over a rock ledge, and in the sudden torrent of a Canyon Wren’s rippling song. And yes, we see it in the swooping flight of a swift. The landscapes that protect these simple, profound splendors are found nowhere else in the world—which is why travelers converge here from every corner of the globe.

Are we really so eager to trade these startling silences and unadulterated beauties—these rare places that harbor freedom—for the same dismal grind and clang, the same acrid smoke, the same standardized monotony of industry’s footprint? Why would we trade the rare elation of real freedom for the mundane ordinariness of plundering the world?


Adapted from: Singing Stone: A Natural History of the Escalante Canyons, University of Utah Press, 1999.

Faith in the Land | George Handley

My Mormon faith has some of the most earth-friendly doctrines of any religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Among other things, it teaches that plants and animals are “living souls” and that the Creation is intended to “please the eye and to gladden the heart… to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul... for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-21).

As a practicing Mormon, I can’t understand how Utah’s recent efforts to seize public lands are consistent with such judgment. I say this because the politicians who push for state control of public lands emphatically deny that climate change is real and human-caused. They support massive fossil fuel extraction and neglect alternative energy sources. They reject legislation that we desperately need to improve Utah’s poor air quality.

In 2010, I participated in an initiative called Faith and the Land. Dozens of Utah citizens gathered in small communities of faith—Quakers, Episcopalians, Jews, Mormons, and others—to discuss the value of wilderness in our spiritual lives. A remarkable consensus emerged that articulated our need for these lands as sources of spiritual renewal. Representatives from each faith group went to the Utah state capitol building to speak directly to our legislators. What I said six years ago needs to be repeated today.

In this remarkable interfaith effort of over 250 people from 11 different faith communities, our beliefs might differ, but our values harmonize on this essential point: wilderness teaches us humility, wonder, respect, and gratitude for the Creator. Wild beauty has a special quality: its joys are spiritually meaningful because they are unexpected, like grace. Wild beauty teaches us about our small but important place in a diverse, complex, and interdependent world and inspires the moral value of self-restraint. We are on a clear path to privatize, develop, and ruin every last wild and beautiful place in America.

As the great Mormon thinker, Hugh Nibley, once said, “the appreciation of beauty is nothing less than the key to survival.” When we get to the point where beauty is dispensable, we are in trouble. Wild beauty is a gift that requires our best stewardship.

It is human arrogance, however, to assume that stewardship gives us unbridled license to do as we please to nature or to act in short-term interest only. It is wrong to assume that nature always needs human development and improvement in order to have value or that only fossil fuels are God-given but not wind or sun. As we read in the Bible, the world is “very good” all on its own. God commanded Adam and Eve to “dress” the garden but also to “keep” it and “take good care” of it. Of course, there is a place for gardening, extracting needed resources, and developing land. But if we assume we can use up nature without limitations or without having to use our judgment, we will not only ruin its remaining wild beauty, but we will degrade ourselves.

Deserts, mountains, and sacred groves are vital for our spiritual and physical health; they strengthen the bonds of family and community. To get serious about preserving wilderness is to get serious about living a more reverent and gentle life and honoring an indigenous past we have tragically ignored.

I don’t pretend to be above ideologies of my own. I don’t know anyone whose theology is pure. Religion assists us by inspiring self-questioning, not unquestioned self-confidence.

The good judgment my religion calls for requires respect for the Creation, a spirit of service, commitment to listen to others, and concern for future generations. We are not owners. Land is not an instrument we should use or own to shore up power and identity over and against others. It is, instead, good in and of itself, and we are merely its stewards. While we use the land every day, when we do so with deeper deference and reverence, we are filled with greater humility and dependence and wonder. We confront the fact of our own creatureliness.

Whatever the merits of increasing state rights and extracting local oil reserves, if those who make these demands are motivated by a desire to be less answerable to the nation, to its indigenous past, to the planet, or especially to the Creator, then I want nothing to do with their demands. I call upon all our elected leaders to protect Utah’s public and shared heritage of extraordinary wild lands.

Memory | Jen Jackson Quintano

Canyon wren notes descend. In my heart, a crescendo: of joy, requited longing, a sense of homecoming. Here, in this aridity, amidst scent of sage and cliffrose, I know who I am. I know my strength and how to carry its subtle, remarkable weight. Here, surrounded by barebones earth, my being is laid bare. My being is resilient and true.

Canyon wren notes descend. Geese burst forth from the banks, distracting us from nests, eggs, goslings. Cliff swallows swoop out of mud-daubed abodes, seeking sustenance. Sadly, it is too early in the season for nighthawks. I introduced my husband to nighthawks on a long ago desert evening. “My love for you is a nighthawk booming in my chest,” he told me. My heart boomed back.

Though our home is now elsewhere, the desert continues to hold our love story. It always will, long after it is otherwise forgotten. Canyon wren notes descend. Reflexively, my heart swells. It encompasses this canyon, the vast desert, and all of the stories I have sown and grown here.

I am a visitor. And I am home.

“Mama! Mama!” she calls, needing me as much as I have needed this landscape. Can I provide her all that these stony expanses have provided me?

She is just over one year old. My name is new to her lips. The desert sun and sand are new to her skin. This canyon realm is new to her nascent awareness.

I have become a mother since leaving my desert home. Everything has changed. Doubt – regarding identity, aptitude, my very place in the world – seeps into the cracks of my painstakingly stone-built strength. My once sure steps falter. Alone, I was enough. Now, I am her all. Am I still enough?

Everything has changed.

The canyon, however, remains. Small beings above still swoop and trill. Small beings below still skitter, slither, and dart. Minor stream riffles still echo off towering walls, as loud as raging floods. The rising sun still tenderly touches sage and grasses, gentle in its brand-new- day affections. Life here exists in a state of certitude.

Amidst this seeming constancy, I remember: the stories I wove, the self I built, the successional loss and longing and love that grew from parched earth. I want to give it all to my daughter, neatly wrapped in balsamroot leaves, tied with horsetail ribbons. I want her to know what I have known here. I want her to know that she is the product of desert and the memories residing there. I want her to be able to return to a landscape – and a story – that endures.


The utterance is urgent, but she speaks with a smile, enjoying the sensation of power on her tongue. She already knows my reflexive response to her voice, this word. I scoop her into my arms, delighting at the feel of her sun-warmed skin, the perfume scent as her small hand thrusts a flowered branch toward my nose. She wrinkles her face in mimicry of sniffing. “—Frose,” she says. Cliffrose. A new word.

The story continues.

Everything has changed. I am now a visitor. Yet I am also home. I am coming home to myself in a place that remembered for me.

“She’s going to cry when she sees this,” he tells his companion, gathering a bouquet of snaking, blooming cliffrose branches.

When he brings them to me, I bury my face in the fragrance, but I do not cry. I will save my tears for goodbye. For now, we are home in the blooming-place of our story. Now, it embraces us as three.

Everything has changed, but my need for the desert landscape endures. I need it as it is, as it has been, as it will be. I need that bedrock stability, a constant by which to measure the mutability of my being.

How else can I quantify the distances I have traveled? How else can I return home?

In a world where everything changes, it is essential to have places in which we can be touched by the untouched, moved by the immovable. It is essential to experience beauty and truth neither conceived nor altered by minds and hands. It is essential to have something beyond us worthy of our seeking and striving. Worthy of return.

In the desert’s constancy is its wildness, and we are the caretakers of this rare and fragile longevity. In our hands, we hold the fate of the places holding our stories. Everything changes, but where wildness remains, we can come home.

Canyon wren notes descend. My daughter calls my name. Cliffrose blooms. A chest-bound nighthawk booms. This place is a container for the ever-evolving story.

Without an enduring, stone-bound memory, who are we as individuals? Who are we as a people?

Meeting of the pack, Or, Wolves return to the Canyonlands | Christopher Ketcham

Brothers, sisters, meet at last
There is drink and drums
There is a god among wolves
Speech from leaping lungs
Oh brothers, sisters, I have longed for you
When I lay alone in the high mountains
In the desert, on the rivers
I have longed for your company
Your touch, your wisdom, your fool
Laughter, your kindness – oh tribe and pack!
What have we done with our time
Alone in the darkness? What have we done
In those long winter nights?
What light shone except the remembrance
Of the pack?
For we have walked the earth
And seen our aloneness in the autumn shadows
Our pack blown to pieces
Felt no hand on our shoulder
No friend in that cold plain
Our tin cups full of drink but no drunkenness
Our food without joy
Our mirrors looking back at us
Saying, Who this?
Our alarm clocks, our children’s socks
Our imbecile jobs, our bank accounts
Our checks that bounce
Our lies for marriages, mortgages, rents
Our music against a wind
That drowns till nothing but wind and dust
Our feet unable to move
Our wisdom with no one to hear
Our words trivial, like pebbles
Downstream in the river
Our muscles growing weak
Our eyes dim
In the light of aloneness.
Brothers, sisters, meet at last!
I love you! I’m mad for you
Like a man for oxygen come up from the waves
Nearly drowned
Like a sun that hasn’t smiled on the earth
After a year of rain
Like a child returned to parents
Who were held in chains
Like a fiend at a coke snort
Like the belly of a starved creature
Given a straight dinner
Like a full moon seen at last
When I’d only known the rational sun.

The Bear Behind the Rocks | Jose Knighton

The delicacy of the bear’s tracks in silty pink sand, where I can detect the finest creases of its pad like a palm reader, so distracts me that I don’t, at first, consider the oddity of their location. I have just climbed over the southwest rim of Moab Valley into the heart of one of the most formidable patches of erosional earth art on the planet. Behind the Rocks is a maze of towering, east-to- west, Navajo sandstone fins and bone dry fin valleys where no minotaur could survive. “What are you doing here you crazy bear?” I blurt out, knowing no one without wings can hear me. 

Finding tracks of any kind on the few hard-won routes into and through Behind the Rocks is rare. When I come upon human sign, I can usually recognize, by tread pattern and size, one of the dedicated cadre of local explorers driven by equal parts curiosity, determination and madness. I assume this bear travels with a different equation of motivation and intent. 

Glancing eastward at the distant La Sal Mountains that the southeastern extremity of Behind the Rocks stretches toward, I think, “Why did you leave that sky haven, where you etched crescent bear-glyphs when climbing soft white aspen trees as a cub?” I’ll never know. 

I decide to spend the rest of my hike following bear. Its tracks lead like a compass through familiar convolutions of smoothly eroded, flesh-colored fins. Approaching a crucial, counterintuitive route up one fin’s slope and down into the hollow of another and where all the obvious routes play out at distant dryfalls or deadend ledges, the bear’s tracks disappear on slickrock at the passage’s beginning, as if it had a map. Damn!

On subsequent hikes I ascend routes into Behind the Rocks farther northwest, on the bears heading. This direction eventually, though not easily, leads toward the Colorado River. It’s a rainless early summer, good for tracking, bad for a thirsty bear. Traveling south to north in Behind the Rocks cuts across the grain of the fins, exaggerates the difficulty and diminishes potential passages. As I approach a critical break in a wall of fins that gradually descend westward, I know that if the bear found its way through this sensuous cluster of rocks, it must have come out in this dry wash. 

Bingo! Bear’s tracks exit along the wash and follow its winding path below a relatively open zone of worn down fins and sand dune slopes scattered with a dwarf forest of pinyon pines and Utah junipers. One of the rare, reliable waterholes in Behind the Rocks is not far ahead. Bear’s tracks vanish on slickrock as the drainage narrows and ramps sharply downward. Then they reappear, pressed deeply into the waterhole’s mud, where a soup bowl-sized puddle remains. 

My next hike takes a more direct route to the waterhole. The dry drainage bear has been following carves a winding path through steep buttresses of fins, dropping in descendable increments that promise, then deny more waterpockets. However, I know from experience that this wash is, emphatically, a dead end. It terminates at a vast vertical dryfall plummeting into a short side canyon. 

At a bend of the wash, not far from the waterhole, though, an innocuous slope ascends to the right between two unpromisingly crowded fins. Its far side descends, in a steep rubble-strewn gutter, all the way to an easily negotiable bench overlooking the Colorado river. All other climbs from that side of the wash lead only to fabulous views of the river’s sinuous, cliff-walled entrenchment. The pugmarks of bear tracks in dry sand suddenly veer toward that unlikely passage as if the bear had been reading my mind in advance. At the apex of the route the brilliant green miracle of river-lining cottonwoods is suddenly framed by shadowed fins. 

Across the river from the descending crevice is a large and distinct petroglyph of a bear etched into the wall’s contrasting desert varnish. On this side, not far from the climactic exit to the bench above the river, is another ancient petroglyph of a quadruped, with clawed toes, a stubby tail, a grizzly’s distinctive shoulder-hump and with an elegantly flexed fish in its mouth (head down, tail up). In a dismal failure of parsimony, this bear is often referred to as the Moab Mastodon. It’s all a matter of perception. When I cross the ribbon of private property bottomland and the paved road that separates Behind the Rocks from the river, I see glaring discontinuity. I’m still struggling to discern just what the third bear saw.