Guest Post: Desecration in the Desert ~ The Land Desk

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Desecration in the Desert

by Jim O’Donnell

Jonathan P. Thompson
Aug 18, 2021

Editor’s Note: The following essay and photographs are by Jim O’Donnell, a Taos-based journalist, author, and photographer.

I had expectations. That’s always my problem. Expectations. 

Two weeks ago, I woke at dawn on a mirror-still morning at Lake Powell. To the northeast, a rim of dank smoke lined a sky lit orange by the slanted rays of the sun colliding with flakes of our northwestern forests. Somewhere, a fish splashed. Two ducks sliced a crisp V across the surface of the lake, making for their nest along the breakwater at Bullfrog.

Rasa Lila, my wife, slipped onto the dock for a run into the desert while I tip-toed across my brother’s houseboat, Pirates Paradise. I lifted a cup of steaming coffee from his hands, took a map of the lake from the wall and sat, grateful for a day without wifi, news of COVID, the never-ending Republican clown show and the existential threat of climate change. 

We were eight – most of our family, but not quite all. Our plan was to motor up lake to the Escalante arm, make camp and spend several days exploring the canyons. These are the former tributaries of the now-drowned portion of the Escalante River: Indian Creek, Davis Creek, Willow, FiftyMile and in particular, Clear Creek. 

Jim O’Donnell photo

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Clear Creek holds a revered place among folks like me: environmentalists, conservationists, tree-huggers, people who love the land, people who marvel at the natural world. Several miles up Clear Creek the Navajo sandstone vaults into a domed, basilica-shaped slot canyon that has been compared to the Sistine Chapel. A frigid, trickle of a waterfall serves as choir in this house of worship. It is known as the Cathedral in the Desert. 

In 1964 renowned landscape photographer Phil Hyde captured an image of the giant alcove, and named it “Cathedral In The Desert, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1964.” The black-and-white image—considered one of the top photos ever made—reveals the massive amphitheater, the sandy creek and streams of sunlight pouring through the narrow rim of the canyon. The photograph was made the year after the lake began filling behind the massive Glen Canyon Dam. By the time I was born, six years later, the cathedral was under water. 

The drowning of Glen Canyon under Lake Powell remains one of the great tragedies in a string of 20th Century water management follies throughout the American southwest. The Cathedral is a symbol because it, more than any place else at Lake Powell, represents what was lost in the hubris of our attempt to tame the desert. Edward Abbey famously lamented the flooding of these canyons and the cathedral in Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Yes, I’m aware of Abbey’s faults. And he was also correct about many things. He was correct about the unnecessary loss of this jewel to the orgy of dam building. 

On the second day out from Bullfrog we woke to smoke so thick we couldn’t see across the inlet. The plume from the California and Oregon fires had spread across the country. Again. Reaching even to New York City.  

The sun rose to a pinpoint of orange peering through the haze. We slipped from Pirate’s Paradise with only our coffees and motored No Shoes, my brother’s launch, up Clear Creek toward the Cathedral. The water was glassy, reflecting the bleached sides of the canyon walls, the white marks where the water has been. The so-called “bathtub ring” was created by minerals in the water adhering to the sandstone. Lake Powell has dropped more than 150 vertical feet since 1999, the last time the lake was full. Just this year it has dropped more than 50 feet. While we were there, the lake dropped two to three inches per day. This is why the Cathedral, after all these years, is visible again.

The canyon narrowed. We slowed, scanning the water for rocks or tree branches that might shred No Shoes’ propeller. We rounded the corner into the Cathedral and tied up. Three other boats were already anchored in the cove. One of them flew the  “blue lives matter” flag. Another, the American flag. A crowd of men and barking dogs hung on the beach at the mouth of the Cathedral. 

This group, I’m guessing 10 to 15 individuals, had camped in the cathedral. It was eight in the morning and they were drinking and playing ball games. They obviously had tied one on the night before as they were hacking, snorting, spitting, pissing, and moaning. There was trash in the sand, trash in the water, and a pile of human shit along a side wall. They were nice enough, I suppose, but my disgust was hard to swallow.

“I’m sure this was super awesome for them,” my brother said. “It kind of sucks for the rest of us though.”

I guess, as desecration goes, this isn’t such a big deal. It certainly isn’t on the scale of uranium mining at Bears Ears, copper mining at Gaylore Ranch, Standing Rock, Oak Flat, the wholesale destruction brought on by Trump’s border wall, or, for that matter, the inundation of Glen Canyon by Lake Powell. But it certainly didn’t feel good. 

Jim O’Donnell photo.

I’ve struggled this year. Between COVID, climate change and the teetering of our nation, I’m having a hard time seeing a way forward where things “work out” in any sane way. For the first time in my life, “existential crisis” is real. 

The early days of COVID were a heady time for me. Yes, I was just as frightened as anyone else but I was also hopeful. I saw COVID as our opportunity as a society to break from our destructive patterns, to work together and find a way forward to deal with the virus, climate change, racism and poverty. I honestly thought we would pull together as a people and finally step into the future. In fact, we did just the opposite. I wasn’t naïve about it. I didn’t think it would come without serious work. But I had expectations. 

That‘s why our arrival at the Cathedral was wrought. Why are you camped here? Why are you shitting here? Why is your dog running all over the place? Why is there trash in the water? Why are you drunk here? (I’m no teetotaler by the way). 

Even there, even in that place that so many of us regard with near religious fervor, there in that place of stunning beauty and symbolism … even there in the Cathedral, the desecration, disrespect and entitlement that is literally killing us all was on full display. I was angry. I was heartbroken. 

COVID is far from over and may, in fact, never end. Climate change is punching us in the face and we aren’t even close to waking up. Our nation is teetering on the brink. Selfish individualism reigns. These guys symbolized everything that is going wrong.

Jim O’Donnell photo

In the afternoon, back on Pirate’s Paradise, I thought about the size of the Cathedral in the Desert. A picture I snapped with my phone that morning shows my wife, lit in a sliver of light, insignificant in that vast amphitheater. It vaulted above us that morning, pinching out the smoke-filled sky and wrapping us in a cool embrace of 180 million-year-old stone. The waterfall was there, singing free with chilly runoff that danced over a vagina-shaped lip in the rock and into a shallow pool at the base. The tents of the vagrants shrank and became, perhaps, insignificant. Maybe. I’m still not sure to be honest. 

I’ve wondered about even coming to the lake. On the one hand, I get to marvel at what is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world and even better, I get to do it with my family and loved ones. 

On the other hand, we’re burning fossil fuels and participating in the impact of a place that certainly doesn’t need more impact. We are fully aware of the ethical conundrum. 

I think it is the optimists who struggle most. Those with expectations. I’m trying not to be an optimist anymore. I’m not endorsing pessimism. I’m working to accept what is real. I don’t agree with what is happening in our world right. I don’t like. but my mental and emotional health depends on my acceptance of reality even as I strive for a better future.  

I’ll go with the long view. Old, complicated, racist, misogynistic Ed Abbey pointed out that the Cathedral in the Desert wasn’t actually gone. It was there. It would always be there, he said. The flooding had simply placed the holy site in “liquid storage.” 

In the long run, we humans have very little impact on the Earth. This planet has survived much worse than humanity. The Earth will outlive us and the Earth will thrive. Glen Canyon Dam is nothing more than a brief plug in the system and one day, in the not-so-distant future, it won’t be there. The river will again run free. The Cathedral will be liberated from storage. There is a comfort in the long view. The planet is fine. 

Humanity? Probably not.

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One thought on “Guest Post: Desecration in the Desert ~ The Land Desk

  1. Don’t despair. One of two things will happen: Powell will either be emptied to fill Mead and keep that hungry monster going to provide electricity for another few decades or it will dry up. Access to the Cathedral will be by foot, not water; a lot harder. Those slobs you describe will not be able or want to make that trip. Nature, a flash flood or two, even a good rainstorm will clean up the place, if you didn’t or someone else, like me, will.

    Nature always wins.

    It is a good side to be on.

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