Voices of Bears Ears

Voices are screaming, howling, pleading, and hoping for the protection of the canyons, sagebrush forests, and cliffs full of history and sacred messages. The chorus is diverse and loud, but drums beat a counter-point that appears to resonate with the ones making decisions at the highest levels. Rather than listen to land, the wind in the alcoves, the stories told by descendants of the original occupants, the travelers that come, or the science of what truly makes the place special, the powers tune in the squeaky sounds of greed. They may strip Bears Ears of its rightful boundary, but they can never silence the voices.

It pained me to fill our gas tank in Blanding, Utah. A giant sign greets visitors as you enter town–“RESCIND BEARS EARS.” A few hundred yards down the same highway a visitor center parking lot is full of information seekers emerging from RVs of all sizes, and there are eager locals handing out brochures and information on how to get to ruins and backroads of Bears Ears. They simultaneously declare war and seek tourism dollars. This is intolerable madness, but our tank needed to be full before we disappeared down a dirt road. I yield a few dollars and then we head to the unmarked turn for the Butler Wash Road and a trip deep into the stories of Bears Ears.

The farmers and gatherers spoke to us in Fish Mouth Cave. From the road the alcove in the distance does appear to be the gaping jaws of a giant leviathan. The walk through the canyon under a canopy of blazing orange cottonwood leaves was delightful. The air smelled of musty leaves crunching underfoot and savory sage. We passed a series of small ruins each exquisitely tucked into an alcove, the sensual connection of nature and human handiwork. Then we reached the toe of the sandstone slab and began a steady climb to the throat of the fish. Upon entering the shade of the cave our eyes adjusted and began the process of taking note of granaries, grinding stones, and potsherds. Ancient corn cobs rested in the dirt and on stones. The voices came through raised hands painted on the sweeping back wall, proclaiming this as their space, their crops, and their legacy. We listened as we stared out of the cave and across the wash, a vista deserving protection.

The architects spoke to us as we respectfully walked the canyons in Butler Wash. There are castles constructed of rocks and mud throughout Bears Ears. A week before we walked the trail to Monarch Cave we had strolled the streets of Richmond, Virginia admiring architecture that marks early America. An even earlier story is told in sandstone nooks of Utah. For nearly two decades we have visited the dwellings and churches of Ancestral Puebloans. The quality of construction and level of preservation of the ruins in Butler Wash is remarkable. The original adobe remains with the wispy prints of the fingers that plastered the wall. The twigs of a roof shoot like arrows pointing toward the unknown future. The spring still provides sufficient water for ivy to grow among the structures. But a deep crack and lean of a wall reveals the whispers of the builders—we took pride in this and built it for the ages. Mother Earth will reclaim our homes but please let her set the pace.

d5000_10152017-654The coyotes spoke to us in our sleep. Howling from the wash in a frolic and frenzy, there were generations of voices surrounding us to the point I expected to descend from our tent on top of the truck to find a ring of paw prints encircling us. The sphere was incomplete, but the prints were there. I have spent many hours grinning my way through wild canine serenades around the Southwest, but this concert felt different. There was a voice humming within the songs begging the listener to save the desert for the creatures.

The shaman spoke to us from the walls, foretelling of conflict between religion and science–the struggle between faith and knowledge that is as old as the etched cliffs. The Wolfman Panel of petroglyphs in Butler Wash is one of the best. The human figure seeming to ooze wisdom from fingers and toes as shields and suns stand guard nearby is hauntingly vocal. I hear a tale of civilization struggling with growth, with overuse of resources, with confusion of belief systems, and with impending need for radical change or rampant decline. The desert is a delicate environment, and no one knew that better than the artists and shamans. The story carved in that rock must be heeded and preserved.

The owners of driveways and boulevards in Bluff, Utah spoke, perhaps the loudest of all the voices. Signs proudly claiming the town as the gateway to Bears Ears National Monument stood in defiance of those who would have you believe all of Utah is in opposition. We drove around a few blocks to take inventory and study the charming old houses. Each block revealed more signs supporting Bears Ears. If I’d needed gas in the tank, this is where I would want to spend my dollars. These modern Utah voices speak—leave it as it is. It is our treasure, our heritage, our future.

I add my voice. Bears Ears was properly vetted. The designation did not alter access for traditional uses. Profiteering off alleged resources under the ground will only lead to the evisceration of the soul of the place no less than grave robbing stole relics and stories in earlier times. Stripping it down to line the pockets of current generations will ultimately quiet the voices we all need to hear to understand the full story of who we are, where we live, and what we might become.

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