Walking from the third basket, I looked up and saw frozen cascades. I tried to keep walking but was pulled up the scree and snow. It was precarious: wet and loose rock interspersed with ice.
I kept looking down to see what I’d fall to. But it was worth it, the verdant green veiled by ice that was letting go of itself a drop at a time.
The stream’s little canyon is eroding, taking sage with it, creating reflections as roots grasp soil.
I left the canyon. I went to Step Mountain.
The steps are taller than me, making my hands stretch above my shoulders to lift myself on each ascent, pressing the whole length of me against these symbols of a volcanic past.
I’d watched it from afar long enough—this geologic rarity of stones heated and cooled until they found their column form, split uniform to the width of old oaks, now stacked as logs, waiting to be fed a new flame and alight this brittle mountain. [i]
At the top—snow covered mountains, snow covered piles.
When does the world adjust to a pile?
What is the transition from gulch to plateau?
Each gulch is singular, with its specific angles and sunlight. Some hold low grass and sage and others oak and pine.
I found a list, written in 1940, of the gulches once around the mine. It says some were partially filled then, they are certainly gone now and I wonder if the author tried to stop it. I read the names and feel foolish. They were only gulches—not even deemed worthy of the canon of “canyon”—and I still feel desolate. Why do I care for places I’ll never see and were gone before I opened my eyes?
The first truck bed lifts and deposits a pile of loose sediment, left to be sniffed and perhaps dug into, golden with sun. Then the next spills into the first. Again and again. I don’t believe animals can recognize such a pattern. Surely this threat has no precedent in their body’s intuition.
Yet, they likely understand when soil encases grass and breaches rungs of mullein seeds that this land is losing its capacity to carry them. Small burrows move and the birds of prey follow. Damned water disperses into compacting soil. Juniper seeds fall mere inches as the ground rises to meet them. At some point the tops of the oaks take the place of the sage—becoming a groundcover of canopy. Perhaps, the deer relish high branches that are now low branches. I’m sure dust hangs heavy in the air. Was there a point when mice ran among the treetops? Presumably the birds no longer perch there as the distance between earth and sky collapses, one lifted bed at a time.
At least that is how I imagine the suffocation of topography. Perhaps the places were wiped before being filled. But if not, there must have been a moment when the visual composition tipped and tree, still threaded to buried topsoil, became foreign to a new desert of “overburden.” I found no mention of the turn from a foreign pile to foreign trees. I’ve imagined that at the erasure of the last sign of the past, there was a sigh, from the driver and from the pines as soil enclosed every rib of a needle.
Why does no one talk of this process?
Now, the filled gulches are plateaus, graveyards of scenes I’ve come to know. Soil fossilized sound and a reverent silence remains. Do I feel the lost places—the canyons, creeks, gulches, and peaks—because today I walk among their kin?
I fear I can do nothing for the list of gulches, but reverence and remember.
I walked the usual path but did not stop to see the baskets. I wanted to be here, to have no destination.
Some days my camera is a nuisance, wool over my eyes, but today it steadied me.
Today it was magnify glass.
Today it made the aspens have eyes. It made them look like the juniper-freckled hills.
It made me see a Turner painting—whole shapes of water-colored blue and dull pink.
It made trees become bleeding ink on a cotton-pressed sky.
And all along the woodpecker kept time.
The sun is setting, stream is free of ice, and the temperature is dropping. Toes are feeling it. It is a day when feeling burns inside and words don’t equate. I feel hopeless in writing, but full nonetheless. I fear my marks are merely shadows of a bright world. Perhaps there are times when it’s meant to be this way: Moments not meant to be communicated because they live in your blood.
A solitude brought by an inadequacy of words.
This is a land of mountains. That is what my map tells me. It speaks with a confidence of sure and deep lines. It says, “Come, ascend here and I promise you will see earth and sky unhinge and bleed together.” It speaks as if mountains will always be. People will leave us, mountains will not. They are a sure place.
The Oquirrhs refute such maps. Peaks have been quarried, buried, and moved. This is a land of mountains. So, when a mountain is removed, how can I not ask why?
I tell myself to keep writing, to keep marking, and perhaps an answer will come. And the next question I write is: Does my attachment to this place outweigh my attachment to this way of life?
What is place? Some call place “a process of carving out ‘permanences.’”[ii] Place is when time and space thicken and become flesh.[iii] Place is “a pause in movement.”[iv]
Place is a pause in movement.
I titled my copper installation, “I wonder if we gave them pause?”
I wonder if this mine gave someone pause. The intention all along was to remove mountains. Was the mine settled back far enough, for long enough, to entrench into the consciousness before it revealed itself? When did it leech out of the canyon and show itself to the valley? Then, did enough people pause? I wish I could know if others looked up and saw it, a new landscape growing as another diminished, and felt it. Or perhaps our outrage is linked to abruptness.
Thomas McGuane said that “all literature is about loss or the recognition of loss.”[v] Yet, tales of loss cannot be an incessant dirge. To create a sense of loss there must first be praise. It is light that creates shadows and so to feel loss there must first be love.
There are the mountains; there is the pit. I must carry both.
So, I praise. And so, I recognize loss. I grieve and love, at once, for I’ve found the first veil of tears, whether of joy or sorrow, sharpens my sight.
Perhaps, I’ve been trying to answer my own question, pausing to disperse my marks into the reservoir of life and words saying, I cared.
I wove these baskets but the mountains grew these threads—willow stalks and long grass from streams and marsh.
They are stationary. They are marked. They are hearing before speaking. They are witness.
There are times at night, when I look at the lights on the Oquirrhs and know mountains are still being moved. I think of the baskets then. They are there, always there. They are woven and awake, even in the dark.
[i] This geologic formation is called horizontal columnar joints. See Hintze, Utah’s Spectacular Geology, 125.
[ii] David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 261.
[iii] M. M. Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics,” Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure and Frames, editor Brian Richardson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002), 15.
[iv] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), 138.
[v] Rick Bass, Brown Dog of the Yak (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1999), 63.