Our latest assignment is to write a dispatch from the West, 250 words or less on one of four topics: wolf at the door, aspen, incised channels or water out of place.
We were raised by a generation that doesn’t know what a stream looks like. We were taken hiking and told: this is nature. We were lied to.
They’re spread out like scars across the dried skin of meadows and desert sagebrush. In summer, heat evaporates moisture and the skin cracks, but there is no blood. The channels run straight and dry, banks trampled by cattle, aspen eaten away by elk. The groundwater is thirsty, praying for rain, but it doesn’t rain in the desert. When the snow from distant mountains finally melts, the water runs quickly, hurried without sinuous curves that used to slow it down. The stream is our journey West, the frenzied rush to build railroads and conquer the continent. We called it Manifest Destiny, and it manifested itself in beaver pelts, smallpox blankets and dams. It’s been a long time since beaver ponds told the water to slow down, stay a while. When you’re trying to squeeze profit out of dry land, water gets squeezed out too. A cow pie, a solitary puddle at the bottom of a canyon and acres of cheatgrass: this is our destiny, manifested.
We see the lie. We walk across the scars under the heat of a desert sun and fall asleep dreaming of the breeze playing with a yellow aspen leaf as it falls onto the surface of a pond built by beavers, the only animal that has ever been successful in its efforts to bring more water to the desert.