Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dominion Over Feast and Foul: a lesson in Eco-nomics

We leave the town of Green River, Utah paddling noticeably heavier boats.

This could simply be due to the 12 days worth of supplies we just picked up that are supposed to last us through 3 canyons and across 180 miles of flat water. But there is a good chance we are also feeling the after-effects of the Green River Feast, a wild attempt to regain some of the calories we paddled and shivered away since we left the Wind Rivers. The 24 hour stop-over in civilization left us packing some heat. BTU’s in reserve courtesy of the bacon cheeseburger, fries, and Polygamy Porter we both had for lunch, the corn dog and 2 gas station Tornados (rhymes with desperados) we both had in the early evening, the double green chili cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and shake we both had for dinner, and the chirizo, egg, potato, cheese burrito we both had for breakfast. Having eaten identical meals for so long, we seemed to have developed identical tastes even when there was a menu available. Or else our eyes were just attracted to the most calorie dense names.

Though Will is processing the grease better than I am, the low-riding boats are certainly suffering the weighty emotional trauma of what our friend Jonathan Cooley calls “McGret.” Yet neither saturated fats nor groceries seemed to tell the whole story. Something else is at play. There is a good chance we may also be feeling the burden of our new-found fame. After our 4 day solo stint in Desolation Canyon, we learned via iPhone that an article about our trip had been published online, a short video with footage we shot a few weeks earlier had been edited, and AM country stations across Colorado were announcing the expedition. After Desolation, all this was stardom. Culture shock, to say the least.

Heads spinning, we try to make some sense of our situation. The article was helpful. It mentioned that we had one of the most sought after research positions in the West. This both flattering to hear and disturbing because now we have to add the fear of competition to the list of dangers. We feel under-qualified for such a title. And confused about where exactly our “research” is being directed. Mostly we’ve been paddling. Some solace was found the the comment section below the article. There the people were confused as well. There we threads arguing about where the Colorado starts, some compliments, words of advice, and this unnerving remark: “That’s not research, that’s a vacation.” We swallowed nervous lumps in our throat. Somebody’s on to us. Quick, quick back to the river before were replaced by more scholarly candidates. We make our get away.

As we float down towards Canyonlands, we try to digest all these shocks to the system. Conversations circle around the same questions. What are we doing here? Is it research? Is it a vacation? Progress is slow.

A few days later, recovered slightly, it’s clear we’re on vacation. We sit shoeless on a beach sipping a beer as the sun sets over the canyon rim. This is exactly what we’d want to be doing on a spring break from school but extended for 4 months. But there’s a catch: reservoirs. And the eventual slogging across a dry delta in Mexico. Not the average kayaker’s idea of vacation. Could it be research then? Without a research question, data analysis, and the production peer reviewed report? It’s not even clear what we’d be researching if this were research. The river is kind of a broad topic.

Our Spot message for the next night reads, “Nothing happened today.” Finally. The most important day of the trip. It took 40 days and 40 nights but we are finally have nothing to report. “The nothing nothinged,” as Heidegger would say and we were there to (not) see it. Absurd statements, yes, but I think I may have found the subject of our researches. Possibly the reason why our position is so sought after. We here to research nothing. Now it’s clear that this vacation has turned to delirium. We’re chasing mirages caused by too much sleep caused by too much unstructured time compensated for by too much caffeine. We sit on the beach trying to make sense of the message we just sent to the internet.

We hope somebody will ask: “What do you mean nothing happened?”

“Good question,” we’ll respond, “not exactly sure. The right combination of wind (0 mph), humidity (0%), and updates about the Republican presidential bid (none).”

Being persistent, our questioner persists. “But surely something happened.”

Fair enough. Meals were cooked, events transpired, miles were covered, time was wasted. But nothing was produced. And it was produced without flaw. A nothing of value that is. Nothing that could be sold. A few memories formed, a few photos taken, a few ideas passed back and forth. Truths flickering on the surface of the water concealed in their own revelation. Joyce’s “Coloured signs,” reflecting on the river, “snotgreen [flowing below the tamarisk], bluesilver [below the sky], rust [below the towering sandstone walls, rich in iron oxide].” A language for the eyes to interpret, waiting to be brought into speech. There’s not too much of it out here. These sights go unspoken. We paddle the afternoon in silence. The last name in the rafter registration box at Mineral Bottom signed in over three weeks ago. We meet no one.

The next day, we part ways for 50 miles in Still Water Canyon. There’s still water in here, in case you were worried, and it’s still wasting our time. But there is no place I’d rater be, nothing I’d rather be doing. For that’s what I’m doing just now. In this place, and according to our research, there is little that is more important. Maybe it’d be better to say I’m spending my time wisely than wasting it. Paddling the wilderness river it seems there is little difference. I’m not here to invest capital back into my future in hopes of gaining some kind of return. I’m not here to grow my bank account or climb the career ladder. I’m here, first and foremost, to be here. Any investment is secondary. So if you view wilderness exploration through an economic lens, it is a wasting of time, a squandering of capital never to be regained. “Expenditure without reserve,” shouts Georges Bataille. The only place where divine intimacy has ever been accessible to humans. Go out and produce nothing. To the wilderness, for example.

This may sound like empty linguistic play, but I think the difficulty of answering the question “Why wilderness?” without falling back into economic metaphors (talking of its value or its worth) is linked to a deep problem in the conservation movement’s self-understanding. The economic model is always drawing discussion of wild lands back into its calculating claws. We want wilderness to be good for something. We want to quantify the ecosystem services of a place, or its recreational value, or its number of endangered species. We want to be able to tally the cost of altering it by comparing the value of the undeveloped to the developed. In dollars and cents. All of these are fine and important approaches to take but they shouldn’t be allowed to have precedent. We shouldn’t protect an untrammeled piece of land or free river only if it contains a certain number of endangered species or will draw a certain number of fee-paying tourists. We should protect it simply because it is, because it is good for nothing, for the doing of nothing. We should protect it because it has a right to exist without producing anythings for us humans.

This, I decide, is what I’m interested in researching. But in producing nothing, it comes closer to a vacation. Research produces a product: results, information, numbers. A vacation produces nothing. Economically speaking, it’s waste of time. But what is responsibility to the economy? Justice? Beauty? Play? Forgiveness? Hope? Grand words begin to circle like buzzards, sometimes almost coming close enough to make our their feathers. Can the economy understand these things? If these words still have any meaning, then need they always produce a quantifiable return or have a measurable, researchable value? And if not, then why should environmental ethics be forced to play a different game?

Will and I meet back up at the confluence of the Colorado and the Green. Looking upstream towards Moab, Grand Junction, Aspen, Vail, and my hometown of Glenwood Springs, one of the grand words returns. Hope. We’ve been reading about the Colorado River, and from what we’ve heard, it has little left to be hopeful about. Problems, conflicts abound. We’ve seen some of them and we’re about to see more. Tailings piles polluting the river, trans basin diversions to Colorado’s Front Range, dams, promises of drought and increasing populations, dying fish. The list goes on. But were not here to increase our proficiency at Apocalyptic visions, four years of living in Colorado Springs gave us enough practice at that. We’re here to live as well. Before the last judgement. Before the end of days. Sometimes reading well-intentioned environmental writers leaves us with the same message of our Harold Campings. The end is coming. All is doomed. Fear all. Trust no one. Make a survival stash. And while your at it recycle (or repent)...it will make a difference. Motivating perhaps, but in a rather hopeless way. Only learning about the problems, it’s easy to find reasons to not care, to think it’s too late. But the river tells a different story. It took forty days of paddling but the other night, when nothing much was happening, I though I heard the river whispering: “I’m not dead yet.”

We begin the descent in to Cataract Cayon. Big drops, big waves, the benign, low-water version of Satan’s Gut. Whoops and good fun. The best rapids of the trip. Distraction. And then, we catch a foul odor on the wind. The finger tips of Lake Powell have come up the river to meet us bringing with them their Midas’ touch that turns beaches to cracked, putrid mud flats, rapids to a stagnant pool of scuz, and an otherwise useless desert canyon in to a bustling desert sea--of productivity. Yes, it only takes one little concrete plug to do what politicians are always talking about doing: to create jobs. The reservoir provides otherwise nonexistent employment to dam operators, campground hosts, speedboat manufacturers, oil drillers to run the speedboats, fish and wildlife biologists trying to save native species downstream in the Grand Canyon, Milwaukee breweries, rangers, tazer technicians, etc. This pond also works tirelessly to collect silt and salt, erode beaches in the Grand, give exotic species a home, store and evaporate billions of gallons of water, and produce electricity with a similar amount of carbon emissions to coal (from the decomposing organic material underwater), or so read. I begin to feel a little queasy. But this is progress, industry, profit, what’s supposed to make sense in a calculable, rational format. Silt banks sluff into the water. My stomach flips. Not knowing what’s wrong, I recall a line from the ever-rosy Bob Dylan offering a diagnosis. “Hope’s what you need, man, and you need it bad.”

That word made more sense before we hit lake. When there was less calculation involved, more nothing. Back on the living river, we moved too fast. 25 miles a day, urged on by our Grand launch date. Half a mile a day would have been better. because in those useless canyons we met with a fickle and mysterious companion: the future, towards which hope is always directed. We passed alluring side canyons, ancient ruins, inviting campsites, Turk’s Heads, Candlestick Towers, Cleopatra’s Chairs, Mazes, that we had to leave unexplored and unresearched. Reasons to return. Reasons to keep vacationing, keep paddling and to recycle even. Reasons to live.

Still we are well aware that years wouldn’t be enough time to exhaust the secrets of these wild canyons. These canyons are alive. They hold their secrets in reserve like the face of a friend about to speak. If we are going to understand their “value” we need more rigorous research methods than the scientific method alone will allow. Methods that grant for the canyon the space to exist on its own: incalculable and incapable of being understood with statistics. If we’re going to have an environmental ethics, we need to have a way of knowing (or greeting) our wild places that lets them be enjoyed as they are, not simply studied. Let alone flooded. If you want to get to know your sister, you don’t research her. You don’t seek out hourly brain scans of her neural activity. You talk to her. You waste time with her. You certainly don’t demand she become economically beneficial to you, that she work for you. Is the river any different? If you want to get to know the river, you float on it, camp next to it, waste time with it. Best done, you leave no trace.

But unfortunately, our research on the river was cut short. It disappeared into lake. We made the transition at dusk. An attempt to scout a campsite leaves me knee deep in rank-smelling quicksilt. We paddle on into the dark between growing silt banks. The dead silence of the place swallows the few words we speak. Water rises to meet the cliffs. Flashlight beams offer little in the way of campsites.

We paddle on into the night. We’re 30 miles from Hite where we know there’s solid ground. 170 miles from the Blockage: the dam. 12 hours from dawn.

1 comment:

  1. Rather a waste of time, within it all I feel certain that you are preparing for the waters ahead. Sure there are whop-de-doos within the canyon walls, but those will be small in comparison to those you'll ride for the next 60+ years. Few have the desire, gaul, or balls to prepare in like manner.

    It's your river.


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