I’m alone in the campground. Just me and a few ravens. There are no sounds other than a cicada off somewhere to the southwest. One lonely cicada, it sounds like. As alone in his world as I am in mine. I wonder if he is lonely or if he enjoys his aloneness as much as I’m enjoying mine.
For the moment, there is not even the distant noise of an airliner passing high overhead. It must be – for this moment at least – just as it was long ago when only the Old Ones were here. Sounds carry far in still desert air. A blob of high pressure holds clouds away. East of here, the Sleeping Ute lies quietly on his back. Dozing as he always has and always will.
A raven takes off from a juniper and his wing beats noisily fan the air as he rises, gaining altitude with what seems like a lot of effort. I wonder if he’s as underpowered as one of the old airplanes I learned to fly in. That thing seemed to have an aversion for distance above the ground, but then I think that, no, ravens may not be the best of flyers — like hawks and eagles and soaring buzzards — but the air is their home, so even if his wings lack the aerodynamic streamlines of a soaring bird, he’s still at home looking down at the likes of me.
Can You Still Hear The Old Ones?
Voices carry far in still desert air. Now voices sail from the trail past me and blow eastward on a gentle breeze. Two women. Earlier, I was sure I heard a man’s voice chanting. Chanting for only a moment, but chanting as perhaps might have been heard here long, long ago. It lasted only a moment — a few phrases of a language I didn’t know. Then there was a woman’s voice. And it was silent again.
Had I imagined it? Or had I heard one of the descendants of the Old Ones visiting here to seek a moment of spirit? Do modern people come to this place to pray, to leave a paho or in some other way seek oneness with this land as I am doing now?
A Park Service sedan drives into the campground and then out before I can flag them to ask. Did I hear what I heard? Or was I hallucinating under the spell of silence? I’ll have to ask my question later. I finally have a chance to ask a volunteer from Texas. Rusty says he doesn’t know and tells me I’ll have to ask the ranger, Todd. So awhile later, I wander into the visitor center and ask Todd Overbye. He says it’s very possible. There’s a Hopi archaeologic tech here who sometimes breaks into song. His wife may have been with him this morning.
Then Todd tells me of how just after he came to HOVE (Hovenweep National Monument) several years ago, he kept hearing drumming. But there were no drummers. He was worried. Too much isolation? Then some visitors asked. He felt better.
Finally he discovered the drum. An oil rig a few miles west of here that caused a drumming throb as it bobbed up and down pulling oil from far below.
It is quiet again. Only a gently whispering breeze passing through the juniper and slats of the sunshade that gives relief from the heat of day. More voices now. Male. Somewhere behind me. Maybe in the NPS housing or maintenance area.
I look, but see no one. A maintenance truck drives quietly into the camp and the man driving it begins to work on something by the restroom. I look southeast and can see the tops of a long line of high voltage towers marching across the land, bottoms hidden by a ridge of sandstone cloaked in scattered pinyon and junipers. The quiet comes now only in pieces.
The spell that been weaving across the land is gone. But only for awhile. The maintenance man drives off and silence settles again around me. It hits me then that this is one more reason — silence, scarce silence — that makes places like Hovenweep so valuable in the world. I look up from my laptop and see that I wasn’t really alone in camp. An older man, even older than I, trudges past along the campground road. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t see me. Maybe he thinks he is alone. I don’t call to him. Don’t spoil his solitude.
The Magic That Is Silence
Yes, I’m sure now. It is that silence that makes this a magic place. Later today, I’ll hike the trail. Later today, I’ll stop at the visitor center. Later today, I’ll just be a visitor. But for now, I’ll be alone. A good time to finish reading a book.
I put the book down. I’ve just finished reading – for the first time – Edward Abbey’s classic The Monkey Wrench Gang. I listen. Silence again. Off to the southeast and southwest, no signs of civilization but the tips of high voltage towers. There are no sounds around me other than those the Old Ones heard. But my mind comes back to present times.
This is Utah. Utah, where our legislature and governor have pledged to “retake” these “locked up” lands from federal hands and place them into the tender, loving care of Utah. Not far east of me are the lonely canyons of a new national monument. A place called Canyons of the Ancients.
A place where silent stone walls remain where they have stood for centuries. Protected now. Locked up. Useless. Prohibited. Even though those canyons are across the border in Colorado, they still represent what is so hated in the great granite building at the top of State Street in Salt Lake.
Land where drill rigs and huge shovels cannot intrude on the silence of the ages. Useless land. Land that isn’t bringing dollars to the pockets of those whose pockets long to possess them. Utah.
Where our current Congresscritters promise that if they are elected again, they will lead the charge in Washington to restore these empty wastes to productive use. To lands that will bring treasures into the state’s coffers. Treasures that will fund our schools. Funds that will, if they and their colleagues have their way, provide financial salvation for all of Utah and its citizens.
Lands where endless tracts of homes and vacation palaces for those who can afford them will be built. Places that will be watered with liquid piped hundreds of miles to green the grasses inside the communities whose gates will discourage intrusion. Pipes to be built with public funds to enhance private profits.
Where one of our Congressmen promises that if re-elected, he has promises from others of his kind that will assure repeal of the hated Antiquities Act that made places like Hovenweep possible. The act that locked this land and prevents its use for anything that is . . . well . . . useful.
He promises that if he is re-elected, he will bring progress to the useless lands of the Southwest. But that, he warns, is dependent upon the election to Congress of enough members of the proper party – and a President of the same brand to avoid veto of the schemes of those who dream of riches untold. He and his cohorts cloak their promises in half-truths and complete non-truths and hide them behind noble sounding titles that ring with perverted patriotism. Some – too many – people believe them.
Not far east of where I sit now stands an old oil rig. Todd Overbye’s drum. Now, it’s as silent as the land around it. Stains of spilled oil mark its earth. Nothing but the most hardy of weeds grows in the barren space surrounding it.
But, this candidate promises, if he and enough others like him are elected, this will change. Gone will be the hated NPS and BLM. Gone will be the Forest Service, EPA, and environmental restrictions that now handcuff progress.
Elect us, they promise, and progress will prevail.
I just finished reading a book. An old book, but one whose words are unfortunately as current now as they were back when the book was written nearly three decades ago. A book that points out that the definition of progress depends upon who is defining it.
It’s frightening. Frightening because there are so many people out there ready to swallow those twisted promises and falsehoods without thinking of what they – along with the rest of us – stand to lose if people like these candidates prevail in November.
Not far from me now, a canyon wren sings its song. Earlier, a Hopi sang his. And I wonder where Ed Abbey and Hayduke are today when we need them, because Bishop Love and his Team are alive and well.