Earth Day Honorific: George Handley’s Home Waters


We interrupt Spring Runoff for an Earth Day pause, in prose, as a way of remembering that, among its many reasons for being, WIZ is a quiet place of earthen bearing, dressed in soil and water and seed, in sun and winter and stone. We come here to read, “o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams./Wherever nature [leads,]” either to hear the “still, sad music of humanity./Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/To chasten and subdue” or to feel a “presence that disturbs [us] with the joy/Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man. . . .”*

Few enough of us hear those things, or see and feel them, but fewer still do something about it. George Handley is one of those precious few, and is regularly in the breech. Handley is a professor of Humanities at BYU in Provo, Utah. He is also an active environmentalist and an avid outdoorsman. His recent (and still running) book, Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, has made a substantial impression as both memoir and important work of environmental theology. George speaks and writes on the issues he raises in his book–and so much else–often and stirringly and in ways that provoke both humility of spirit and a desire to do a little something to help. He has graciously sent along the following excerpt.

Winter has been defeated, no question. It is a glorious spring day today, and I can’t resist the temptation to get in a run early this morning before the kids’ Saturday soccer games. The impression of an evergreen valley, coated in velvet grass, only lasts a month or two before the piercing sun at these altitudes brings the green into submission. I don’t mind the brown like I used to, which is why I feel all the more guilty for my pleasure, which in Utah feels like the sinful pleasures of the carnal mind. So be it. Today I will be a hedonist and I will stare unapologetically at the viridian velvet of the mountain contours.

I pick a stretch of the Provo River Trail that winds along the banks through the city. I pass under concrete bridges and across streets to keep pace with the water, which flows in a controlled and only slightly meandering line. The water is higher than usual but not by much. Before the Deer Creek Dam was built in the 1940s and before the grid of middle class homes began to spread across the land the way thin sheets of ice claim window panes in a sudden freeze, the water regularly breached the banks, depositing the sediments brought from the mountains, providing fertile spawning ground for fish, and renewing and enriching the soils of riparian life. The earliest irrigation canals did not include screens, and fish found their way into the fields, left there to die as fertilizer. And even before the dam was built, small dams appeared on the river in the late 19th century. Although a law was passed in the 1890s requiring fishways to allow spawning to continue, few people complied. The assault continued in waves: increasing use of fertilizers that drained back into the river, industries of sugar beet, saw and steel mills, all dumping their waste, and who knows how many tons of human sewage that impotent laws could not stop from being dumped into the river until the 1950s. The dredging of the river, levees built to protect budding neighborhoods from floodwaters, water depletion from years of agricultural development, and the gradual stripping away of the riparian vegetation that was once the world made by a river €”all brought the river into humiliation. It got so severe that in the wake of droughts in the 1960s the river dried up entirely in the valley, leaving a graveyard of fish rotting in the sun. So I would have to go back many decades to a time when the river at this time of year would be a mad, muddy and spuming force of the mountains, arguing vehemently for the space it needs to expand its vascular waterways in the springtime. Constrained now by the construction of a modern city and by two major dams above, it is a well-behaved mix of olive and bronze rolling along in a straight shot, making occasional turns presumably only because some development project €”the large used car store, the supermarket and its broad stretch of parking lot, underpasses below major roads €”pretends to lay prior claim to the terrain. There is vegetation along its banks but only modest and slim lines of green, which when seen from the nearby mountains, appear as a thin dark green line cutting through residential neighborhoods, passing a golf course, and slipping beneath roads and the highway.

There are signs along the way of still existent irrigation canals leaving and coming into the river. I catch glimpses of metal, wood, and plastic pieces of assorted things €”doors, shopping carts, milk cartons €”that have found homes along its banks and in tangled jams in its waters. I slow down when the trail and the river lean to the right and a large shopping parking lot slouches to my left. Because the banks of the river here are high and I am a short distance upriver from where Fort Utah had been, I stop running to look over what is the likely scene of the Battle of the Provo.

I had been in this precise spot one early spring with a group of boys from church to do a river cleanup. It turned out to be an ideal place for a project, something to get their noses out of gameboys and their hands off of joysticks because the trees, willows, and bushes flanking the trail silently withstood the indignity of hanging plastic bags, grocery receipts plastered against the tree bark, packaging for food, toys, and electronic equipment lying at their feet. This was not some dumpsite, just the accumulation of detritus brought downwind from the parking lot by happenstance. The boys began their work like a herd of sheep let loose in a field, wandering in circles, doing anything but the work at hand. I and the other leader did our best yelping to keep them huddled and focused. As the morning wore on and their bodies warmed to the labor, they found a satisfactory rhythm and could see that their contribution was making a difference. It was a small victory for civilization.

That was at least three years ago, and now it looks like it could stand another visit. The morning light is faint but contrasts are starting to deepen, bathing the car-less concrete in a grey light. The crowds will come soon enough, pushing their carts full of cereal boxes, cartons of milk, and canned vegetables, but for now the air hangs still and silent. The Mormons had pushed fur-covered sleds for shields as they fired upon the Indians hiding beneath the steep banks behind me. Bullets whistled and thudded in the banks of snow and blood soaked the snow and slid into the churning winter waters. The wails of mourning mothers pierced the air. The asphalt wags its indifference while the brick edges of the distant hospital and the billboards sharpen in relief. A rusty and dented bronze station wagon pulls into the lot in front of the supermarket. An elderly Hispanic woman emerges from the other side and walks toward the grocery store with a slight sideways tilt €”perhaps a creeky hip. She is joined by what looks like her daughter who has stepped out of the driver’s side. My mind sorts through an index file of possible stories looking for a match. The old woman has to shop with her daughter because she does not know a word of English, doesn’t understand American foods, has only recently arrived from Mexico, has no health insurance, is illegal, can’t negotiate the complex world of over-the-counter medications. As their shapes move across faint lines of empty parking spaces, I tell myself that I could have loved them if I had known them. And then it occurs to me that Walt Whitman would never have survived our cynical century. How to spend this affection for strangers and foreigners?

I continue my run beneath a dark concrete tunnel under Freedom Boulevard where Independence Day parades have made their journey for decades. I don’t see it coming. I am shin deep in brackish water, because I discover on the other side of the underpass that a sprinkler head is broken and water is streaming into the underpass. As I emerge onto the other side, a large brown patch of business lawn for an auto dealership spreads before me, neglected by the broken sprinkler. It’s feast or famine because elsewhere the grass is deep green, long, and water logged. It takes 30 inches of annual rain to support grass, but we only get 15 down here in the valley. In the Uintas it rains up to 60 inches a year, but thanks to modern engineering, this stretch of land is getting well over 100 inches, enough to grow rice. To my right on the west side of the street I can see a long line of brilliantly colored new Dodge trucks, a vehicle of choice for businesses that demand it, but also for those who merely crave the powerful feeling of riding high. Someone, in some marketing seminar for car salesmen, has been promoting the idea that this green, like muzak, comforts and seduces customers into spending their own €œgreen. € They conveniently forgot to advertise the part about what an automobile portends for the good green earth.

My soggy shoes squeak and sputter as I slip through another narrow tunnel surrounded by chain link fence on both sides where a neighborhood of trailer homes has spawned. After passing through a grassy park of picnic tables where last year a Hispanic toddler wandered away from the family table and fell into the river, I run into an open and totally undeveloped and unwanted stretch of land a hundred yards or so before the trail passes under Highway 15. The sound of tires streaming by above me drowns out all other sounds. On the left of the trail, a large stone slab stands surrounded by high dry grass and sagebrush with a brief text describing the location of Fort Utah, its layout, and the most significant dates and names related to its establishment. It appears to have been desecrated several times, since the text is hard to read in places where sandblasting has smoothed the surface. Some vulgar comments remain inscribed in red above the stone-carved words that make brief mention of how relations between the Indians and the Mormons deteriorated shortly after the fort’s foundation. I guess they wanted to be as faithful as possible to the historical location of the fort, even if it meant few would ever see it. Of course, I don’t know what I was expecting. I had my worries about a divided past, but this seems downright unremarkable.

Or maybe it already protests too much. Maybe a marker of willows would suffice, or better still, a stretch of river restored to its ancient shape. But that is assuming people would know what a willow hides or what artifice lies behind the natural appearances of things. And that is assuming a river cares. That a river could hold its shape. History is useful, mostly so that it can be forgotten by those careful enough to have remembered it.

The past is certainly not commemorated by the way of life in the valley, which is the worst kind of oblivion, an ignorance weed-killed and fertilized by indifference. With the exception of the occasional endangered pioneer home, the old grid of streets at the center of town, and the unusual number of church spires pointing skyward throughout the basin floor, there is little in our architecture, the design of the increasingly fewer places we share, or in the way we spend our leisure time and money that is any different from the rest of America. Given its sometimes rather predictable appearance, I have often wondered what home it was I thought I was returning to when I moved to Utah. The strange thing is, this is no Vermont where loners drift into voluntary solitude but a community with a deep and shared history. Nevertheless, people here generally resent the sheer number of acres managed by the federal government and resist any suggestion that more wilderness is needed, because we prize above all the notion of private property even though we all have access to thousands upon thousands of acres of beauty that can’t be owned. Not far from the banks of the river, one finds crabbed stretches of man-made rivulets pouring over backhoed river rock by a strip mall and everywhere a shocking intolerance for open space. And yet what Edward Hoagland calls the tidy climates in gated selfishness appear in backyards, all part of the race to own and enjoy one’s private slice of paradise. It’s not as if my home culture here is short on public life or public will €”it has both in spades. Perhaps because America offers respite from the burdens of community, we are coaxed, cajoled, tempted. Apprehensive, not yet accustomed to the bright sun of modern capitalism, our Mormon grandparents crawled out of obscurity to explore the pleasures of the American Dream and now we find ourselves storm-raked, unable to stay the hand of a cultural mudslide. It is not their fault, of course, since by now we have had enough chances to know better. After all, didn’t He promise that we wouldn’t be tempted beyond our capacity to resist?**

*Various lines from Wordsworth’s “Lines. Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (written 1798).

**Excerpt from Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River by George B. Handley, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010): pp. 190-194. Reprinted by permission.

Check out Handley’s book, one of many high profile reviews, and his new blog.

Photo: “Upper Provo River,” Wikimedia Commons, 2007.


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