Cedar Mountain Wilderness. West approach even though we come from the east. We arc south at a well-marked Y. I spot massive tufa outcroppings a few miles down the road which always seem to stop me in my tracks. I am forever reminded when I see this residua of the Pleistocene lake that existed here for 22,000 years of the mid-aughts’ cinematic exploration of the work of Lewis and Tolkein whose mythological battles happen on wide grassy plains, and as the camera pans out, one finds that they are marked here and there by craggy menhirs of what is obviously limestone (of the Middle Earth variety). I pull the car over and bring the dogs with me up the old off-road trail that hasn’t seen much use since this place was made wilderness to keep the Indians from profiting off nuclear waste.
The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits mechanized travel in wilderness areas and yet I see evidence that someone has driven a truck in here within the past few weeks. Inevitably in Utah the brown and green fiberglass wilderness boundary markers placed in front of traditional motorized trails are missing, broken at the ground, or otherwise vandalized. Utahns (themselves subject to two centuries of ridicule and persecution came to this place, called it The Place, and promptly ridiculed and heinously persecuted the Indians who’d been here for the preceding 10,000 years) tend to bristle at the notion of anyone telling them what to do with Their Place. In fact, the current congressional delegation from Utah seems hellbent on scuttling a century of federal land policy whether by fiat or through some more painful version - a kind of death by a thousand leech bleeds. One recent bill by Rep. Chaffetz would have immediately authorized the sale of some 3.3 million acres of federal land. The Utahns in power also vehemently oppose Bears Ears National Monument which was created, in part, to honor a few of those humans who can trace their ancestry back to the place when there was no time and the mingling of human consciousness and the natural world made myth. Every square foot of Cedar Mountain Wilderness has surely been traversed by human feet for millennia and the stories that those humans told about every square foot are now long lost. In the same way, Bears Ears is a honeycomb of life lived fully since at least the time of the composition of the Odyssey.
Mormons are astoundingly tone deaf to the ways of Indian life and their attendant claims to be heard. So when a destitute band of Goschutes wanted to host nuclear waste on their reservation as a way to make a meager living for their people, the powers-that-be in Utah found themselves on the very same side as environmentalists (a situation that will occur again in fifty years, no doubt, as the water begins to run out) and supported an emergency creation of the Cedar Mountain Wilderness in order to block rail access to the reservation. Thusly, in a stunningly obvious way, Mormons project their pathos onto Indians. This is the reason that Bears Ears stings so gallingly to Utah politicians. There are millions and millions of acres in the state with which to extract minerals and fuels – and we don’t, as a rule, lose out on those opportunities here (thanks, Rob Bishop). Believe me. But their opposition to Bears Ears is not about that. That Indians would have a federal mandate for as long as there is such an entity as the United States (and there are no guarantees that's a long term proposition), a seat at the table in the administration of a prized federal land designation, stings too much to bear for the whites. They must do unto the Indians as the United States does to them – tell them that they have no voice in the administration of their territory, or at least that’s how they’d prefer to have the narrative. Truth is, Utah has more land under federal ownership than any other state. Mormons, with a perpetual chip on their shoulder foment these states’ rights arguments in a thinly veiled attempt to redress psychological wrongs committed by no one in living memory. Except it’s very real to Indian tribes who continue to be vigorously ignored and dispossessed at every turn. The Mormon leadership’s alternative plan to the formation of Bears Ears would have stripped away 100,000 acres from the Ute Mountain tribe and threatened the water rights of 300,000 more. The situation even now developing in North Dakota between the Lakota and the governments of that state (and now, of course, with the election of a hateful and impulsive narcissist, Washington DC) mirrors the situation found here. The white residents of Bismarck would have nothing to do with a pipeline running under their drinking water, so let’s make it an Indian problem, they’re lazy, don’t have jobs, and live on scrub land that is good for only carrying crude oil across it. Water is life. That’s what whites don’t really get, even when they’re building the largest structures in human history to damn up water behind them flooding canyons replete with ancestral homes with water meant to grow rows of one or two plants in a fucking desert and also to keep the lights on in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
Indians understand water. They pray to it, drink it, bathe in it, watch it, marvel at it, ablute in it, know how it’s carved the world.
The falcon understands water too for it knows that it will thrive in landscapes whose relationship with water is to slough it off in rushing shrugs when it falls the few times a year as sheeting torrents.
My dogs and I climbed a prominent shoulder at the end of which was a cliff heavily pockmarked with gnarled cursive hieroglyphs of tufa. To our left the shoulder rose to the high point of the range and to our right, where the sun was going, the Great Salt Flats fanned out before the horizon as if some kind of joke, ringed, here and there, by severely gnarled mountain ranges whose recalcitrant manner resembled some discarded numinous notion of ‘bedaubed crumpling’, an implosion of form which, it turns out, is also a form, at least to humans, at least for a few generations until there are no more here.
From the risen outcropping a darkly scythe came sliding around, clearly annoyed, banking right toward me; a bird more muscled boomerang than hollow-boned killer, whose deep shoulders bore the fierce face aloft on wings held perfectly flat for long intervals and then furiously shook, shaman-like. It spun in fervent circles, now canting down below the cliff, now rising above it, careening into the blue but never angrily or carelessly. I knelt down, brought up my binoculars and saw at once the dark streak down the front of the eyes, the vertical mottling of the milky belly, the black struts on the coverlets, Prairie Falcon. Falco mexicanus. Lord of the skies, lord of the desert. A mating couple in a wilderness area two miles from a toxic incinerator. Fierce life ripping the sky apart in Mormon lands, scrub lands. My home.
The tiercel cried rapidly as he hewed like a sledge hammer through the late morning empyrean.
Here on the edge of the world, I'll wait for the craziness to subside.