wilderness : self-willed flora, fauna & minera in the community of Earth
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The Green River runs through the homelands of the Crow, Shoshone, and Ute peoples, much of it in the state of Utah. Visited throughout the 19th century by missionaries, trappers, chronicled by the one-armed lieutenant colonel John Wesley Powell, and eulogized by great 20th-century poets, essayists, and artists, the river sparkles with story. I spent eight days canoeing the river in May of 2017. We--my husband, daughter, parents, and I--put in at Mineral Bottom and wound slowly to the confluence of the Green and the Colorado, where a jet boat ferried us back to Moab.
Maps project external territories and chart internal landscapes. No matter our perspective, mapmaking requires us to select and cut away, add and embellish, to make meaning.
The Green River from the International Space Station, showing the water's sinuous course across time and space. From far above the Earth, you can see the lace-like fractals of shoreline. Edward Abbey, in his essay "Down the River with Henry Thoreau," described these same bends up close: "riparian jungles of rusty willow, coppery tamarisk, brown and gold-leaf cottonwoods. On the shaded side the crickets sing their dirgelike monotone." Most of what I know about the river beyond the eight days I spent on it is from Ellen Meloy's Raven's Exile: A Season on the Green River.
The Green River travels 730 miles north-south from Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, swings briefly into Colorado, meanders down to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and joins the Colorado River. Landmarks, images, language, dwellings, and granaries made by Paleo Indians, Fremont, and Anasazi peoples appear along the maze-like canyon walls and sit atop sandstone outcrops. The landscape is a soul-place. Around every turn is something unexpected. It keeps you guessing.
I keep mapped records of walks, backpacks, and paddles, letting the dreamtime of sidewalk, path, or river dictate the form, the elements I include and exclude. Sitting in the back of a canoe while my husband paddled the Green, I documented the river's quixotic twists and reversals. Magical and spooky place names like Valentine Bottom and Dead Horse Canyon, landmarks like Turks Head and The Sphinx, and my own private sightings and soundings: a raven, a willow, a waxing crescent moon, an echo. The map pictured here is plate one of six I made on the river in 2017. How will you blend present and past, public and personal, on a map of a neighborhood, a field, or a memory?
Monthly celebration of makers who are teaching / re-teaching us how to connect with the natural world and with one another.
Writer Melissa L. Sevigny
Melissa L. Sevigny is the author of Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016), Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Brave the Wild River (W.W. Norton). She is the interviews editor at Terrain.org. She writes about science and nature from her home in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Artist Sarah Swett
Sarah Swett was born in Brooklyn, New York, moved to Idaho at eighteen and has devoted the subsequent decades to telling long, slow stories with yarn. Her work travels the world. She does her best to stay at home eating cinnamon toast and following threads of thought.
“It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.” --Terry Tempest Williams
I was in quarantine in British Columbia, Canada, for two weeks in December, which meant few art supplies, no walking outdoors, and no contact with other people. Directly outside my door was a bed of stones from the Fraser River. I love to paint on rocks as much as I love the shapes inscribed on canyon walls in the Utah desert. Images and symbols painted or drawn onto stones ground us to the Earth and to our Neanderthal ancestors, who marked rocks some 20,000 years ago.
Painted stones for children (and adults) can connect imaginative play with oral and written storytelling, especially when we’re overwhelmed by the act of writing, says blogger Megan Zeni.
The symbols on the stone above show bees, mosquitoes, bats, and swallows that accompanied me on the Green River.
1. FIND a rock the size of your palm.
2. INSCRIBE a story onto the rock with markers or paint. Use personal symbols. Feel the texture, the coolness, the slow time, the porousness and the solidity.
3. If you're inclined, WRITE the story into your journal as prose or poetry. In what ways are you grounded? What does slow time mean to you? How will you chart the geology of a moment? Employ general geologic words such as surge, flow, impound, cut, drain, advance, choke. Or use terms from Green River country: unconformity, paradox, formation, pinnacle, plateau, fault, spire, deposit, strata, uplift, erosion.
4. GIFT your story stone to a path or rock bed.
STORY | Cataract Canyon
It starts with a terrifying ride at sunrise in an old van around precipitous switchbacks on Mineral Bottom Road, which some claim is the most dangerous byway in America. By putting in here, we avoid the difficult Desolation Canyon to the north. The five of us are young and old and middle-aged. We are inexperienced paddlers.
Once we get to the beach, the world slows down. Sage and willow bloom out of a mud hole and ratty river people in T-shirts and rubber shoes stand around. Everyone seems to be smiling. A limb-heavy cottonwood rises from the bank. I stretch out on its giant roots for a moment because I’ve read you can feel a tree’s heartbeat if you get close enough.
Nearly every culture in the northern hemisphere celebrates winter solstice, the great mystery of darkness turning to light. Donald Rothberg of Spirit Rock Meditation Center urges us to embrace darkness and invite light, as we are “hung thin between the dark and dark.” What about those strange monoliths appearing in Utah Desert and then elsewhere? The New York Times says that whatever they are, they mark “a collective desire to mark a transition.” Speaking of transitions, we lost two great writers of the natural world this month, William Kitteridge and Barry Lopez. Their legacies continue in different ways, like the work of Tope Folarin in his novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man or journalist Ken Layne, who has been producing a radio show and zine, Desert Oracle, since 2015. Layne wants everyone to read Mary Hunter Austin, whom he calls “the first Edward Abbey." The Crow Nation’s advocacy recently helped push the US Forest Service to preserve parts of Montana's Crazy Mountains, though more work needs to be done. Thoughts on doing vs. planning: planning creative work is easy, but actually producing something is hard and demands silencing the ego, says Dave Morrow, the wilderness photographer from whom I learned night sky photography. For creative inspiration this month, check out Allison Hedge Coke’s wonderful #poempromptsforthepandemic. My own transition and solstice celebration included my daughter and son-in-law's interfaith wedding. It began in Delhi, India, in March 2020, and was interrupted by COVID lockdowns. A few days ago, they finished the ceremony in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada. Finally, warmest of wishes as you dance into 2021!
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