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A Premature Burial

The Remaking of Cataract Canyon (Part Three)

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Day Three.

In the morning, there is some anxiety concerning the fate of Lorenzo. His tent is a mangled ruin from the storm. The fabric has collapsed in a violent heap and the poles protrude at odd angles from the earth, like Sioux lances stuck into the corpses of the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. Daniel gets on his knees, worms his way through the rubble and checks for signs of life. He detects deep snoring from within the rubble and flashes the okay sign.

At the other end of camp, Brian is heaving into the river. He attributes his illness to withdrawal from fast food. He craves Whoopers and Big Macs. But the vomiting is probably an early warning sign for heat exhaustion. Even the guides can get wasted by the fierce and undiscriminating desert sun.

It’s not just our bodies that are taking a beating. The rafts and kayaks must be constantly ladled with water, especially when beached, to keep them from expanding in the heat. Ed Abbey’s friend Ken Sleight, the model for Seldom Seen Smith in the Monkey Wrench Gang, once lost a raft that way, owing, as he puts it, to a "Sleight explosion."

As the sun peers over the crest of White Rim sandstone, it baths the far wall of the canyon in a sultry, rose-colored light. There’s no escaping the impression that these canyons are an eroticized landscape. In his narrative, the prudish Powell refers over and over again to the "naked" stones. Here’s Powell writing about Stillwater Canyon, a few miles from our camp:

"We are now down among the buttes, and in a region the surface of which is naked, solid rock-a beautiful red sandstone, forming a smooth, undulating pavement."

And so it is. But the rock is not just naked, it also is eroded into fleshy colors and shapes, the whole Freudian montage of standing cocks (circumcised and not), breasts, slot canyons, nipples (Molly’s, among others) and, to use Powell’s phrase, upended arses.

And then there’s Upheaval Dome, a bizarre crater a few miles to the east of us where (although this remains the subject of vitriolic debate among geologists) apparently a meteor slammed into a bulging salt dome–an anhydrite diapir to be precise– blasting a giant hole in the sandstone that from the air resembles an anatomically precise depiction of the female genitalia, clitoris included.

So the canyon throbs with Eros, not all of it sublimated. There’s a lot of uninhibited screwing around going on down here. Though not at our campsite. Not yet, any way.

Luminescent blue dragonflies join together in threesomes, foursomes, sextets, locked in fierce undulation on our paddles, on our toes, humping away indifferent to our presence. So are the grasshoppers and Mormon crickets. And the black-tailed jack rabbits-Lepus Californicatus-are fucking like, well, rabbits. Toads mount each other from the rear in fat quivering stacks. "Bufo bufu," quips one punster in our group, who shall remain anonymous for her own protection. I don’t have the heart to tell her that her elaborate pun falters on a misidentification of the species. The humping amphibians in question are members of the well-known exhibitionist troupe, the Great Basin Spadefoots (Spea intermontana) and not the more dignified and modest Red-Spotted Toads (Bufo punctatus). Nice try, though.

* * *

We float backward into time, through an object lesson in stratigraphy, the laying down of rock and its washing away. The making and the unmaking of the Colorado Plateau.

The strata, all laid out in horizontal lines, is an exhibition of the great geological story ever told. Rip up the book of Genesis and start anew. Your founding myth stumbles here. But there are new mysterious to behold. Bow down and embrace them.

Most of the rock down here is a relic of the Mesozoic and Paleozoic ages. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, a shallow sea covered most of the Colorado Plateau, then a subtropical zone in the latitudes of the Yucatan on the ancient super-continent of Pangea. Those inland seas rose and fell, rose and fell, innumerable times over the course of the turbulent Permian epoch, creating sandstones, mudstones, shales and fossil-encrusted limestones in, for the most part, sharply defined horizontal layers: the Moenkoepi Formation gives way to the gorgeous benches of the White Rim Sandstone, which sits astride the maroon cliffs of the Organ Rock Formation, which covers the tall, blond cliffs and amphitheaters of the Cedar Mesa sandstone, which surrenders to the Halgaito Shales and the strange Honaker Trail Formation. Underneath all of this is the Paradox Formation, a bulging dome of salt, a kind of salt volcano, that is pushing upward and warping all of those layers of rock, creating grabens, anhydrite diapirs and large rotational slumps on the cliffs of Cataract Canyon.

When the continent began to shred apart, the plateau province turned hotter, drier, raked by violent winds. Climate change on an epochal scale. The ocean beds turned to seas of blowing sand, interwoven with small streams, shallow lakes. Buried and solidified. Buckled and titled by dozens of faults, upwarps and mountain-building orogenies.

The massive buttresses of the Wingate and Navajo formations, great reefs of stone that are as distinctive as the orders of Greek architecture, are lithified sand dunes, a thousand feet thick. The Navajo and Wingate are separated by a crumbly bench of shale called the Kayenta Formation, while the thick bulk of the Wingate weighs down upon a thin layer called the Chinle Formation, highly prized by uranium miners. Collectively, these layers of rock, in some places more than 2,500 feet thick, are known as the Glen Canyon Group.

Of course, these days the best place to see the complete tapestry of the Glen Canyon Group is on the Green River, in Labyrinth Canyon, near where we put in at Mineral Bottom, 150 miles up river from Glen Canyon itself, where half of the geological story now lies unread beneath those solemn depths.

As the price of gas spikes ever upward, those shales woven in thin layers between the sandstones, and trapped by the great Meander Anticline, may soon be as valuable as gold. At $80 a barrel, some petro-geologists speculate (and speculation is ever the name of the energy game) the oil shales become profitable-with generous federal subsidies and exemptions from the petty constraints of environmental laws-to exploit–meaning blast, drill, strip mine, crush, slurry, dump and, then, run, with your indemnification papers in your vest pocket.

Oil shale extraction, the fervent dream of James Watt during Reagantime, promises to be the most noxious assault to hit the West since the open air nuclear blasts in Nevada of the 1950s. It combines the worst aspects of oil extraction and strip mining. All under the guilt-free banner of national security, naturally.

The Colorado River and its three major tributaries, the Green, the Grand and San Juan, began cutting into those thick layers of sedimentary rock about 10 million years ago, chiseling out the most dazzling sequence of canyons on earth: Lodore, Dinosaur, Desolation, Gray, Labyrinth, and Stillwater on the Green; Westwater and Meander on the Grand; Cataract, Narrow, Glen, Marble, Grand, Boulder and Black canyons on the Colorado.

The amount of sediment hauled away every year by a river whose annual water yield is less than the tiny Delaware River is astounding: 195 million tons, as measured at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. In flood years, the number rises dramatically. In 1936, gauging stations recorded that the Green River alone flushed downstream 2.2 million tons of sediment in a single day.

Those rivers have already carted away nearly half of the original rock on the Colorado Plateau, from the Book Cliffs to the Kaibab and beyond. The Green and the Colorado are indiscriminate and voracious eaters, chewing through dinosaur bones, pools of oil, uranium beds and coal seams. All going downstream. Until the dams went up. Now the sludge is piling up in the backwaters of the reservoirs, at the base of the dams and in the mouths of the side canyons. Happy water skiing!

"Imagine the hubris of the dam builders," Marta says. She knows about hubris. Dance is the most ephemeral and riverine of arts. Or so they tell me. Compulsory attendance at Mrs. Gates’ Ballroom Dancing Academy obliterated most of the joy from that art for me at age eight. But lately Marta has been choreographing her dances in communities and buildings that under immediate threat of extinction, facing down the developer’s wrecking ball. Dance becomes an act of resistance, an aesthetic assertion of the collective power of memory.

The hubris of the dam builders, the hydro imperialists, will almost certainly come back to haunt them, their adherents and their dupes. They have pawned off the self-glorifying illusion that their mighty plugs have arrested the geological processes that have excavated canyons that are 5,000 feet deep and 50 miles wide. It is a con and a dangerous one, the same species of hubris that sank New Orleans.

Let it rain.

* * *

The squat butte looming in front of us was named Turk’s Head by Powell, who thought it resembled a fez, though there’s not the slightest evidence in the biographical record that the major had ever seen a fez, never mind encountered a Turk. From my vantage, it looks more like a Bundt cake, slightly charred.

This stretch of river offers the densest concentration of Fremont sites– granaries, signal towers, burials, middens, petroglyphs-that we’ll encounter on the Green. But there are no dwellings, no cliff palaces. For some reason, the Fremont and Anasazi didn’t like living near the big rivers. Perhaps, they feared floods or rockfalls. Perhaps they felt too exposed to enemy attacks. In any event, they built their pueblos in the side canyons miles from the Green and Colorado, except in Glen Canyon, which was the heartland of the Anasazi. Thousands of Anasazi sites, dwellings, granaries, burials, and rock art, were lost in the drowning of Glen Canyon.

Our captain motions us to beach our boats at the gaping mouth of Deadhorse Canyon. Yellow-breasted chats chide us as we thread our way through the tangle of tamarisk and take our first step into the blast furnace called the Maze-the land of standing rocks, the technicolor epicenter of Abbey’s world, scene of the rip-roaring chase and shoot out at Lizard Rock during the climax of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Weisheit leads us to a house-sized chuck of rock coated in desert varnish and loaded with petroglyphs pecked into the sandstone by Fremont rock artists with the antler-points of elk and mule deer. Some of the images may date back 2000 years or more. It is a crossroads site and almost every inch of rock has been etched upon over the centuries. Much of it is almost certainly ancient grafitti, bathroom humor. Some of the images seem to function as an early version of PowerPoint, depicting maps of rivers, mountain ranges, and trails; the locations of springs, maze and melon fields and granaries; the migratory routes of bighorn sheep, weather patterns, the omnipotence of the shaman. Some of the art is as abstract as anything produced by Jackson Pollock or Franz Klein. There are spirals, shields, bison and bighorn, powerlines and rattlesnakes, and strange zoomorphic monsters from the dreamtime. Kokopelli is there, too, looking like Coltrane hunched over a soprano sax, sporting a prodigious erection. A love supreme, indeed.

The canvas of rock also displays the spooky floating anthropomorphs that obsessed the Fremont rock artists, large legless figures with elgonated trapazoidal bodies, horned heads and ornate necklaces adorned with what appear to be shrunken skulls. The largest of these figures seems to be carrying a human head in the hand of its frail, stick-like arm.

Did the Fremont hunt heads or did their gods? Were spine-tingling images merely illustrations to enhance Fremont ghost stories designed to scare the crap out the kids or warning signs to interlopers? To me the floating figures resemble water creatures, spirits of the deep, vengeful ghosts of a drowned world.

The faint trail switchbacks up the parched slope to a bench of shattered jasper and chert at the base of a towering red cliff. On this field of worked stone are the remains of a Fremont factory, a lithic scatter site, spread across several acres, where Fremont weapons-makers manufactured their precision projectiles: arrow heads, lance points, ax blades.

In the glittering pile of red and white rubble I find a round black stone that Weisheit calls a Moki Marble. These sun-polished rocks are highly prized by Navajo shaman, who collect them as wards against skinwalkers. Perhaps, it will also repel the demons of nuclear Armageddon. Kimberly and I place the black stone on a small cairn overlooking the river as a memorial to our friend Wilson Howes who died a few days ago of cancer. His funeral is being held in Maryland at this very hour. Wilson may have been another victim of the atomic age. While in the Navy in 1948, he and his shipmates were forced to stand on deck of the USS Albemarle as observers of the Operation, yes, Sandstone nuclear test at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific.

The desert southwest was also ground zero for nuclear testing; the residents of southern Utah were unwitting witnesses and guinea pigs to the Pentagon’s H-bomb pyrotechnics. Between 1950 and 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon detonated 126 nuclear bombs above the desert at the Nevada Test Site east of Las Vegas. Each blast was aimed downwind. Destination Utah. Thousands fell ill from the radioactive fallout, lost their hair, lost their lungs, lost their breasts, gave birth to sick children with horribly deformed bodies, watched their sheep and cattle herds perish, died painfully from thyroid cancers and leukemias. No apologies were issued, no admissions of responsibility. Just collateral damage in Zion, the glowing land of the saints.

The radioactivity from those blasts persists, in the sand and dust across the region, all around us here at Deadhorse Canyon, clinging to our clothes, our skin, embedding hot microscopic flakes into the tissues of our lungs.

Geologists probing the sediment mounds piling up behind Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon and Hoover dams carry Geiger counters and record the distinctive ping-ping-pings of Cesium-137 to date the layers of silt: 1951, 1954, 1959. Like a Bordeaux wine, each nuclear shot emits a unique signature, its very own radioactive vintage.

Even down here in the red basement of the continent, there’s no secure refuge from the chronic hazards of everyday life in the post-nuclear age.

To be continued.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part One.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Two.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.