This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.
camp: Lava Lake, Idaho
context: We spent a week on the property of Lava Lake Lamb, a sustainable sheep ranch that’s trying to do research on wildlife migration through their land. We had just come from Nevada, where we listened to anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel describe the problems fences pose for wildlife migration. He told us that anytime we saw a fence in the west, we should tear it down. But as part of our work for Lava Lake Lamb, we helped them make their fences more “wildlife-friendly”.
So we put up plastic squares along fences that Jon Marvel says shouldn’t be there to stop sage grouse that he wants listed as endangered from hitting them. I don’t mind fences out here—it all looks the same to me; fences are part of the landscape as I’ve come to see it. But fences keep wildlife from moving, and I realize I’ve stopped looking at sagebrush as wild and started assuming grazing when I see it. I worry about the plastic—so many biologically pervasive toxins in them, molecules that get inside you and stick, invisibly, until you try to reproduce or are diagnosed with cancer. But I doubt those small squares will disrupt many endocrine systems. Is this what it means to see landscapes whole? To see the scars too, to always have a rejoinder starting with, “But…” whenever a solution is proposed? Can I go back to Moab senior year, when I didn’t know cattle grazed on public lands and the desert was just beautiful, even at Hidden Splendor*? Driving in Nevada, I look out the window and I see Harry Reid, gold mining, Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima in September 1945, Owens Valley, the Superfund site list, cyanide, cows and climate change. Is there an off switch for this vision? Will I ever be able to see a sunrise unaffected again?
Oh, hyperbole. And yet, with everything I know, it’s still beautiful out here. Finding beauty in a broken world…almost easier, in a way. The contrast is starker. Or maybe it’s that things seem more beautiful because they’re broken—imperfect, yet still present. You acknowledge the imperfection and you work to make it whole. You put tiny white plastic squares on barbed wire fences, and they shudder like tree leaves in the breeze.
*Hidden Splendor is a site in the middle of nowhere—the San Rafael Swell in southeastern Utah. It’s where much of the uranium for the Manhattan Project was extracted, and the old mine shafts are still there. It’s also possibly the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been.