June 2, 2009. I hiked into Crossfire Canyon via Coyote Way. The morning had a warmth to it I didn’t feel while I walked topside through currents of wind blustering north out of some rise of weather. But as I followed the trail down into the canyon the breezes thinned. Then holes formed in them, holes of heavy warmth and stillness where plants stood as motionless as they appear to in photographs.
This corner of southeastern Utah hosts above-average vigorous winds, so plants are more often astir than not. The junipers—Utah and Rocky Mountain—come alive in the breath of this place. On blustery days, a juniper tree dances and sings. Its singing is a sigh of sliding volume, rising at times to a breathy roar. As it dances, as much as the top two-thirds of the tree leans and rocks back, how far and how often depending on the size of the tree and the strength and constancy of the wind. But each branch moves independently, maybe only by a little, from those surrounding it, all together undulant in the waves of wind. Thus may a juniper approach in its rootedness the suppleness of a belly dancer.
At some level, junipers must feel this freedom of movement. Over their evolutionary path, they must have found ways to take advantage of it.
As I walked, pieces of ground skittered away—lizards running for cover. When I was halfway down the trail, winged shadows swarmed over the ground. I looked up: turkey vultures, very low, eight of them sailing, circling, not a single wing beat to be seen among the lot. They rotated in multiple wheels of flight, turning separately but still together as group intent twirled them slowly northward—the same direction the wind blew. Their shadows splashed across the slope of a small side canyon just across from me. The movement of eight turning shadows, each ballooning in size and shape then shrinking back as it tumbled over uneven ground, combined with the birds’ complex movements in the air to increase their presence in this place. The effect reminded me of end-mirrors in dairy sections of grocery stores that multiply the quantity of goods in an illusion of abundance, but with a different play in light. Turkey vultures seem to use their shadows like dark fingers, prodding organisms on the ground to see if they move. Many animals consider winged shadows frightening omens and look up.
I discovered someone else had used the trail recently, though the footprints were not always distinct. Whoever it was, he or she appeared not to have gained access from the trailhead but to have come up on the path from another point, possibly the side canyon. The traveler walked along the trail in a manner similar to mine, leaving prints near mine, sometimes on top of them. In the desert, placing one foot in front of the other demands attention. One has to make choices nearly every step, because at each point along the way exists a variety of angles and spaces offering passage. Obviously, some places will offer less—a narrow path between rocks, a drop-off with only one safe or stable way.
This person’s choices seemed to shadow mine casually, but not coincidentally.
As I tracked this soul I found him or her traveling more heavily. Following my footprints slightly off-trail through loose loam, this person wiped out an ant lion funnel I’d avoided damaging. Just a little further, I discovered that the wayfarer broke an overhanging branch on a tree that I’ve grown quite fond of.
I don’t know what the tree is called. It’s the only one of its kind I’ve seen along this trail. It’s sparsely branched, willow- or locust-like in appearance, casting only a thin shadow. Its long, slender, green velveteen leaves lie in two ordered rows that attach like ribs to breastbones, in this case silver-green stems. In turn, the stems flow into longsome, graceful, straight branches. Though the leaves lie in rows, rather than every leaf being lined up next to its neighbor in the same plane, each green blade of this tree alternately raises then lowers along the line, up, down, up, down, to the very end of the stem. It’s as if each lowered leaf has reason for lying in the shadow of the one uplifted above it. Among the leaves lie at spaces single, highly scented, yellow, trumpet-like or maybe leguminous but very tiny blossoms. They are so small that if you don’t look carefully you might miss them and think that the fragrance pooling around this tree has drifted in from other plants.
Not all of this tree’s branches flowered. It appeared that only the ones having direct access to sunlight produced buds, including the highest branches thrust around an overshadowing juniper into sunlit spaces.
The tree’s straightish branches connect to a more or less rectilinear trunk sheathed in smooth brown bark having sheen to it reminiscent of river birch or cherry tree bark. Thorns, some more than two inches long, bristle on the limbs. The tree isn’t very tall—maybe fifteen to eighteen feet at tiptop. In fact, it might be a kind of bush, though its Spartan appearance makes it the antithesis of €œbushy. €
For three years, this tree has been part of my passage along the trail, which steepens here. Just above this point, the soil changes from dark, loose-grained organic material mixed with sand to heavy gray clay. I’ve learned the hard way that when the ground around this tree is wet, I need to take extra care. Twice I’ve slipped in the clay and the bank has pitched me into the thorns. This tree has drawn my blood. So I’ve come to approach it with caution and alertness, developing in my interaction with it a heightened awareness. I won’t say I know the tree, but I have a sense of shared presence, of co-occupancy.
So I was disappointed to find that the person who had passed through before left one of the tree’s overhanging, lovely, and very delicate branches broken and dangling—a branch I’ve taken great care in my travels to brush aside. Its tiny yellow flowers had withered, their scent faded. Of course, the tree is fully capable of dealing with the damage on its own. But had I known how to repair the branch, or even knew enough about the plant to understand whether or not at this point repair was possible, I might have tried to do so, to satisfy my own curiosity if for no other reason.
But I didn’t know enough. Lightly, I bent the broken branch aside and ducked around.
A little below this point, at the canyon bottom, the other traveler’s tracks left the trail and headed across the sage and rabbit brush flat, shortcutting to the canyon’s main route.
I followed the actual side-trail to where it connected with the ATV trail. Tracks in the dirt there showed that the main trail had experienced much use over the previous days, including, again, at least one ATV, coming and going. Motor vehicles of any kind have been banned from Crossfire for over a year and a half, purportedly to protect archaeological sites whose intactness had been compromised by ATV use around and over the sites. During the last month, violations of Crossfire’s prohibitions have increased and incidents of damage to the canyon and its cultural artifacts have risen. Someone disappeared the plastic BLM sign marking the canyon as closed to motorized traffic. Someone—or something—knocked down the old cattle gate across the trail bottom (repaired now). Someone has been cutting a spur ATV trail across the creek. Someone (possibly the same someone as the someone who has done all the other deeds) has been harvesting live sage to weave into a camouflage fence around an old cowboy camp built in a complex of venerable cottonwoods.
Though I worry how such behavior might affect my access to the canyon, this is not my fight. I have too many other fights, hopes, and strained intentions demanding my limited time. If the violations continue, or if others’ behavior in the canyon results in further restrictions being placed upon people’s presence in it, I’ll cope and go elsewhere.
I walked along the creek’s edge looking for signs of an active beaver presence but found none. What I did find were juniper branches scattered along the trail, partly sawed through then snapped off the rest of the way. Juniper branches are somewhat friable at their ends. Their tips tend to break away easily. But these were end-branch sections, one nearly three feet long, the wood cut partway through then the branch torn off the rest of the way. This, I did not understand. The trail allows plenty of room to dodge overhanging juniper branches, so these seemed broken needlessly, perhaps for fun or to try out a new tool. I rubbed my thumb across one smooth cut then sniffed. My skin carried to my nose from the wound the faint terpene odor that infuses juniper wood and provides the base notes of the trees’ pleasant frangrance.
Two years ago, along this same stretch, someone cut down several of these junipers, harvesting the straightest trunk sections for fence posts. This act left along a half-mile stretch an ugly litter of dying limbs, treetops, and crooked trunks. You can still see these: crumbly dead foliage clinging to dead branches, tree parts projecting at wrong angles or lying tangled in sun-bleached piles, and flattop stumps. At a meeting discussing Crossfire’s closure to motorized travel, I overheard a BLM representative comment on this damage. While the official reason given for the closure is protection of archaeological resources, no doubt acts of this kind lie in the shadows of discussion over Crossfire’s accessibility.
As I thought about damages to plant life I’d seen that day and considered the show of outright defiance of law, it occurred to me that there’s a difference between human conscience and human awareness. Conscience, that traditionally held seat of our humanity, the Jiminy Cricket in our wooden heads, has begun to look to me more like a psychological device society installs in its members to maintain order: €œDon’t do this. If you do this then you will feel bad and might bring misfortune not only upon yourself but upon the entire community. €
Such prohibitive language, wherever it appears, strives to secure its purpose similar to the way alarms or other anti-theft devices are installed in cars. A person’s sensibilities, in combination with variously installed social anti-theft devices constructed of lockdown language, act to create what’s commonly called conscience, the source of a person’s moral or ethical judgment or of his or her sense of right and wrong. The problem is that people are not mechanical devices, and while guilt—the device’s blaring alarm bells and whistles—might prevent some bad acts, other people are able to override embedded conscience or it simply fails in them for other reasons.
Some suffer needlessly because of it. Language meant to arouse guilt or shame casts a wide net, gathering in not only those who have acted wrongly but also those who have done no harm but live with hair-trigger guilt for other reasons. Such a person might have suffered abuse at the hands of another, and the abuser succeeded in maintaining his or her control by installing and working language levers and buttons meant to disable his or her victim’s natural reactions against predatory behavior: common manipulation. It’s fairly typical for abusers to transfer their guilt to their victims, making them responsible for the abuse. Such people frequently carry the burden of their attacker’s peccancy without understanding why. Typical cultural attempts to control others through shaming language can affect these people rather badly. In fact, arrows of conscience aimed at another target might well fly wide as of their own accord and strike these innocent bystanders. Thus, human conscience shows itself able to engage with only the shadow of human awareness ghosting it.
In the case of Crossfire and other public lands now closed to motorized traffic, some people seem to be able to override that part of their conscience that tells them to obey the law. They disobey for what they believe to be higher purposes—their conscientious objections to what seems to them to be suspicious motives for control over their €œback yard. € Thus they are able to drive ATVs into Crossfire or organize acts of rebellion like conducting convoys of four-wheel drive vehicles along roads that the U.S. Forest Service or other government or private interests have closed to motorized traffic.
How might human awareness differ from human conscience? Where human conscience appears to work through externally installed rhetorical mechanisms, human awareness comes from within a person’s soul. Certainly, human awareness might be called human conscience. But where common human conscience’s mechanisms work well enough without involving human awareness and might at times even depend for their efficacy upon a person’s not being fully conscious of what he or she feels or why, lively consciousness of others and of prospect—of the possibilities—wholly inform human awareness. The effectiveness of conscience rises in its ability to provoke aversion or other kinds of €œmovements away € from unpleasant conditions. But the vitality of human awareness arises in its €œdrawing toward, € in the lighting of a field of relation into which a person might move. Because it comes from within, an individual cannot normally override his or her awareness of others as he or she might be able to override externally cultivated human conscience, though human awareness might well continue to grow. In human awareness, one acts with and in response to others. Human conscience, on the other hand, may be used to isolate individuals for the purpose of driving them one direction or the other, often against their wills.
Where our treatment of nature is concerned, I think that language that engenders human awareness a more meaningful approach than attempts to prohibit or fall back on mere behavior modification via words that administer shocks to human conscience, as guilting or shaming language does. As I’ve said elsewhere, how we treat the creatures and materials of nature reflects back to us how we people treat each other. So when we write about the natural world, we should, I think, write in such a way as to to arouse reader consciousness rather than draw back the bow strings of human conscience. Walking through Crossfire that day it occurred to me: human beings are able to see something as being alive—a tree, a beaver, or a scarlet gilia plant—without perceiving it as a life, another being into which they might move with relation in the dance of €œbeing with.” As opposed to the heavy-footed shuffle of “making use of,” I mean, or the “roll over other lives in the way of making use of something else” stomp.
I’m no wood elf. I hike wearing a Danner shoe called €œThe Agitator, € a mid-weight boot with a heavy lug. I have chosen this boot because it’s affordable, because it offers a perfect fit every time, and also because its design helps me compensate for over a decade of voluntary confinement as I helped my special needs daughter cope with her circumstances. The stability this shoe offers also eases stress on a recalcitrant knee injury. But true-to-name, it does €œagitate €—it leaves a deep print and churns the soil. I would like to be able to walk barefoot through the desert like Kwai Chang Caine does in the old TV show Kung Fu. In the past I’ve done so, working skin-to-earth around archaeological digs, wielding mattocks or shovels or moving wheelbarrows full of dirt up backdirt piles, all sans footwear. Or I went barefoot in camp. I used to hike in the Sonoran desert, through the cholla, barrel cacti, and tarantulas, in just lightly treaded sandals. It will be a while before I achieve that degree of confidence and grace again, if I ever do.
As I walked out of Crossfire Canyon that day, passing over the cattle guard marking the boundary between BLM land and private property, the first two lines of the hymn €œMore Holiness Give Me € came to mind:
More holiness give me, more strivings within.
More patience in suffering, more sorrow for sin.
Thinking over these words, I said, €œThat’s not quite it. More awareness give me, more holiness will follow. Then we’ll be able to skip the some of the suffering and most of the sorrow. €