Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, May 12, 2006


I grew up in Emigration Canyon, in the Wasatch Mountains, east of the Great Salt Lake Valley. In 1847, Brigham Young and his Mormon entourage followed the canyon to the Promised Land, and since there were no canyons leading out of Nauvoo, Illinois (their point of departure) to give the name Emigration to, they gave it to ours. A small working-class community clung to a six-mile stretch of State Highway 36, which runs through the canyon. It was an ideal place for a boy with an interest in nature to grow up, with a limitless expanse of wilderness to explore. A horse trail followed a long secondary valley to the north of the canyon, and this was our access to the richest back country. The land belonged mostly to the BLM or to one of two sheep-ranching families whose younger generations were already looking to other occupations by the time I was born. Sheep were summered in the canyon for the last time in 1970, and within a decade, housing developers with dreams of dollar signs began buying up their land.

Today that horse trail is a two-lane paved road lined with hundreds of enormous homes and manicured yards. Twenty years ago, the powerful aroma of sagebrush and balsam-root were striking, but today they are completely masked by the perfume of chemical fertilizers. The road follows roughly the same course as the old horse trail, and I've continued to use it to access the back country each year.
On my last trip, though, at least one resident was disturbed to see a man with a backpack walking up the road under his own power, and called the police. Deputy Sheriff Kyle Lowther was dispatched to solve the problem, but unfortunately he arrived after the perpetrator had already disappeared up a deer trail. On my return, just yesterday, Officer Lowther's timing was better. He detained me, explaining that although it was unmarked and ungated, the road was private property, and that I was to leave, and would be jailed if I was caught stealing another hike from the good citizens. Deputy Lowther was actually a very nice guy doing his job, and I got the feeling he understood how ridiculous his task was. He even posed for this nice picture.

Walking back to the highway, I felt indignant, and my gut response was to declare war, but I had no right to be too hard on these newcomers, however distasteful I found their values. My own family tore out a chunk of wilderness to build our house. Each time I hike up there and see another clump of aspens being bulldozed, and drilling mud or chlorinated, softened water being pumped into a creek, I have to temper my anger with the knowledge that the Canyon's blood stains my own hands, too.
I mention this story not only to vent, but to illustrate two factors affecting our ever-changing relationship with the land. The most obvious is the enormous impact that members of a species as chronically successful as our own have with our each move, each decision. We've spent the past 10,000 years trying to hide it from ourselves, but our lives are still irrevocably dovetailed into that vibrating ecological matrix. Our every activity broadcasts a little ripple, and each ripple is amplified by a factor of six billion.

The second factor that comes to mind is the commodification of wilderness. That old maxim, “the best things in life are free” is becoming increasingly fallacious. One of the many drawbacks of a capitalist system is that it rewards and encourages the greedy. As wild country becomes more scarce, the charlatans will move from the woodwork to the woods, trying to find a way to sell it to us. What disturbs me is not so much that the gates of the wild will be closed to the poor, but that the land beyond those gates will be managed with an eye toward profit. The end result will be wildlands that are fit only for the wealthy, and that's a result I can live without.
upper: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"
center: Deputy Sheriff Lowther, May 11, 2006
lower: The Brest van Kempens, c. 1965 (that's me in the center of the loader bucket)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post and I completely agree with you. Unfortunately it is happening everywhere in the West which is so sad. The rich do want the wilderness to be their own private playground and a lot of people who think their access is guaranteed as it's public land need to think again. Land trades happen all the time. We have to be aware and right now with the government we have which is run by the dollar, it isn't likely to change unless people fight it and people seem such sheep sometimes :(

6:34 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Rain. There's a disturbing paradox in having to participate aggressively in the economy in order to enjoy the wilderness that's being aggressively diminished by the economy.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post but I just recently started reading your blog and I had to comment on this one.
I'm from Sweden and we have a somewhat different system from yours. In Sweden we have something called "allemansrätten" wich means roughly "the right of everyone". In brief, it allows us (and tourists of course) to go almost anywhere we want in nature (except were it's clearly marked as off limits and through gardens and so on) regardless who owns the land (many fences for farm animals are designed to make it easier for people to get past them), we can also camp almost anywhere, light fires (you can find pre prepared places to light a fire in many places), pick fruits, berries and mushrooms (among other things) assuming they're not endangered (all these with the same restrictions as mentioned above). Of course these rights also come with responsibilities, it is discouraged to light fires when it's a dry summer and on top of rock surfaces (to avoid cracking), if we want to pick something we need to know what plants and mushrooms are endangered, fishing and hunting are however more restricted especially hunting.

3:34 PM  

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