From The Corner Post (Hannah Holm):
A thin haze appeared in the afternoon between our rubber boats and distant fins of burnt-orange rock, while a hot wind touched our faces, hands—any skin not taking refuge beneath cool, wet cloth. Later, the haze thickened, mixed with cirrus clouds and gave the golden-hour light a reddish tint.
The river still rushed by, and vibrant leaves in our camp’s young cottonwood gallery fluttered above me. The voice of the yellow-breasted chat that had berated us from cliff walls echoed in my mind, along with the scent of sage and sumac from a lunchtime visit to petroglyphs up a tributary canyon. I was fully immersed in this place, Desolation Canyon on the Green River in eastern Utah. No internet, no phone reception, no news or other distractions. Just the river, the canyon, and my companions on this week-long writing retreat.
But the sky’s tint and the hot wind hinted at what was happening outside the sheltering canyon walls. Record-breaking heat and nearby wildfires, starting early this year. The river itself gave more clues, to those who knew how to recognize them. Low flows and tame rapids, in June. A bear and cub were by the river when they should have been finding forage at higher elevations. We followed a long, irregular stripe of mineral crust punctuated by half-dead clumps of grass on the eastern wall. An extended seep that wasn’t seeping, the ghosts of hanging gardens.
Extended drought—or more accurately, aridification—is making its mark on the landscape and on people’s lives. News that I didn’t read during those days on the river was about ever shrinking forecast inflows into Lake Powell and how the states that share the Colorado River might manage reduced water supplies within a legal framework based on imagined bounty.
I write about these things, too, but on the river, I was trying to find words beyond my habitual short-hand to describe our hydrology and water policy developments. For over ten years, I’ve been learning and communicating about how people built an unbalanced system in the Colorado River Basin, constructing the plumbing for demands to exceed supplies, and how we can worm our way out of the worst consequences of that fundamental problem for fish and farms. I still think that matters, and I still think we have options.
But the river showed me that the transformation in our landscape is bigger than that, beyond the reach of our tinkering. Even far from ditches and diversions, seeps go dry and forage for bears thins out. We can micromanage irrigation water to get the most from every drop, clean up toilet water to a pristine state, and adjust reservoir releases to help endangered fish. We can pay farmers to fallow fields. But we can’t pay the hot wind to stop taking water from the sage, the sumac and the dirt. There’s no negotiating on this point, and no escape, not even in one of the most remote canyons in the lower 48.
Aridification carries a heavier emotional weight when I see it on the land than when I read papers about it or watch presentations in windowless conference rooms. It’s hard to see things change, irrevocably. To walk through a sick forest and know that it won’t grow back the same. To know that going away from people and the things we’ve built can’t actually take me back to a less damaged state of nature.
Since that trip down Desolation Canyon, back home in Grand Junction, Colorado, the temperatures have eased from the 100s into the 90s, and the summer rains we’ve missed for a couple of years have come back. It’s a welcome respite, and the dwarf ash and pinyon pines I see on my trail runs look perkier than they have in ages. I know these rains aren’t enough to reverse the harsh trend we’re in, but they lift my spirits and give all living things a break, a chance to gather strength before facing the next onslaught of hot wind.
We can’t turn back the clock and we can’t run away, but we can gather strength from an unexpected storm. We can diligently tinker where tinkering can work. And we can dip cloth into cool water, feel it dribble across our skin, and listen to the birds as we drift down the river.