GUEST ESSAY Colorado Plateau Advocate magazine, Spring 2015
BY WILLIAM DEBUYS
You hear that statement, in various forms, at Hopi and Zuni, up on the Big Rez, and down at Cibecue and Ajo. You hear it over in Colorado’s Ute country and among the New Mexico Pueblos and the Paiutes of Utah. It most often comes up when people have been rebuffed by some incarnation of Authority but refuse to give in. It expresses equal parts patience, resistance, and a long, deep view of time.
Wallace Stegner never wrote much about Indian people. The omission is conspicuous in the brilliant, cumulative portrayal of the West that was his life’s work. One of Stegner’s most memorable formulations painted the white settlement of the West as moving forward on parallel tracks, one dominated by “boomers” and “busters” and the other by “stickers.” Stegner viewed the first group, to which his father tragically belonged, with a mixture of compassion and contempt. It included hustlers and hucksters, promoters of get-rich-quick schemes in agriculture and commerce, speculators in mining, railroads, and real estate, bloviating politicians, drum-beating journalists, and legions of others committed to deceiving themselves and others about the possibilities of the West.
Stegner argued that the best thing for the stickers would have been adoption of John Wesley Powell’s plan for western settlement. Major Powell, in whom Stegner found a kind of intellectualized, replacement father, advocated environmental restraint, using land only for the purposes to which it was best adapted and distributing it in ways that avoided great concentrations of wealth. Stegner thought that Powell and the stickers, had they been allowed, might have built a West more in harmony with the environment, and more democratic and broadly prosperous, too.
If Stegner, who died in 1993, were alive today, maybe he would finally include native people in his favored group. After all, they are the original stickers.
The problem of nativeness touches us all, and it touches the land, too. Outsiders, at least those who consciously try to connect to where they live, face the challenge of sinking roots in their chosen place, which means, to borrow a phrase from Wes Jackson, becoming native to it. Even natives sometimes have to work to stay native, not in the sense of birthright, but in the sense of feeding the connection that binds them to a particular patch of the planet. George Eliot wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” She’s right, of course, but short of frying our minds, if we want to become native or stay native to our chosen places, we are pretty much obliged to live alertly in them, striving to absorb their beauty and complexity.
The boomers and busters haven’t gone away. They’ve got tar sands, desert real estate, and bad politics to sell us, along with ten thousand new consumer products we don’t need. If they haven’t already, sooner or later they will train their crosshairs on every mesa, canyon, and creekbed in the region, as their brethren are doing all over the world. Under such an onslaught, every locality on Earth needs natives, whether by birth or adoption, who will rally to its defense.
I don’t mean to set up a simple paradigm of good guys and bad guys. Although the world produces a few certifiable devils and saints, the rest of us, 99.99% of humanity, live among the gray shades of the moral universe: imperfectionsЯus. One thing we can probably count on, though, is that by aligning ourselves with the good of the land, we take a step in the right direction.
Some people will leave because they don’t like the new conditions; others will leave because they can’t make ends meet. Future realities are liable to be hard on everybody. The silver lining, however, is that those who manage to stay and stick, if only hanging on by their fingernails, will make excellent neighbors. Even as problems mount, however, the bloodless math of demographics guarantees that more people will continue to move to the region, swelling its population and burdening it more. Some will come in spite of the challenges (things might be worse where they hail from); others will come unconscious of them.
The stickers will learn (in the unlikely case that they have not already figured it out) that making a commitment to the land, like any act of love, guarantees embattlement, sorrow, and, if a person lives long enough, bereavement. Nothing stays the same forever, and climate change, even within the candle-flame span of a human life, will accelerate the general pace of transformation. Advocate readers, however, start with an advantage: they already love the desert. That’s good. There is going to be a lot more of it.
On the other hand, we also love free-flowing water—who doesn’t?—and, sadly, there will be considerably less of that. In the power game of regional economics, thirst consistently trumps love. No less powerful will be the desperation of cities and agricultural districts fighting to stay alive. Groundwater won’t provide much relief. Most of the region’s aquifers are already depleted; others soon will be. Competition for renewable rain-and-snow-fed surface water will ratchet upward. No river or stream, no matter how strong its protection under in-stream flow agreements, federal reserved rights, or other doctrines, will be safe from raiding, and the raids will be smart, well-financed, and unrelenting. It’s often been said that, where conservation of land and water is concerned, every victory is temporary and every defeat permanent. Nowhere is this truer than along the waterways of the Southwest.
The list of threats is nearly endless: energy development, urban sprawl, ATVs, habitat loss, forest mismanagement, strip mines, uranium tailings, vandalism, road building, pipelines and powerlines, overgrazing, pollution. Good grief! Sometimes all you want to do is get back in bed, pull up the covers, and bury your head in pillows. But that would be a bad choice. Ed Abbey got it right. He said, “Be as I am –a reluctant enthusiast... a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”
We who love the Colorado Plateau and the lands that surround it are among the most fortunate people on the planet. We live immersed in beauty. We get to drink it through all our senses whenever we reach out and touch the redrocks, even when we do so from far away through the miracle of imagination.
Walk in beauty, you betcha. Walk in it all you can, as often as you can. And rally to defend it the same as you would if your kid or your mother were in danger.
Remember: we aren’t going anywhere.
Guest writer William deBuys is the author of eight books, most recently The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. He lives in northern New Mexico.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The views expressed by Advocate contributors are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Grand Canyon Trust.