I learned about time, and about the way time flows through and beyond a person’s life, from reading names and dates carved nearly a half-century before into the soft white skin of a quaking aspen. I was seven years old. My family had pitched our tent in a Forest Service campsite situated where the pines and spruces of a steep mountainside gave way to the aspen groves that carpeted the gentler slopes of Snow Basin, a bowl-shaped valley high in the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah, not far from the town I grew up in. Snow Basin was home in winter to a small ski resort and, when the snow melted, campgrounds and picnic areas, and although I’d spent many winter days here, this was my first time visiting in the summer. I recognized the ridges and chutes of the surrounding mountains as the backdrop to my several years of ski school, but I was surprised to see that those groomed ski runs threading gracefully between stands of aspen and evergreens melted away each summer to reveal bulldozed scars of bare dirt and the jagged eroded switchbacks of service roads.
I was distracted from my insight into the profound unnaturalness of a ski resort by the dates and initials that rose in deep black ridges against the pale skin of the aspens. As I walked from our campsite through the grove reading names and dates—and some more comprehensive messages like D.G. and H.R. we were here June 32–I started keeping track, correlating the age of the inscription with the girth of the tree and the depth of the black eruption that represented the tree’s attempt to heal itself, a ridge of textured bark I could trace with my fingers. The most recent carvings, those from the late fifties, were easiest to read, still more green than black, still a little moist with the watery sap that oozed from beneath the tree’s bark. The oldest inscriptions dated from the first decades of the century, years that had until then existed for me only in the pages of the World Book Encyclopedia I’d thumb through when housebound and bored, or the antique cars I’d recently taken an interest in. These scarred the bark of the largest trees, those rare aspens that grew a foot or more in diameter.
I read out loud to myself the letters and numbers, and admired even as I struggled to make out the more elaborate and formal inscriptions of full names, some carved with flourishes that could be identified as actual handwriting preserved in neat swoops and stops, the names pushing their distinct personalities through the layered years of growth and healing, the figures asserting with surprising force and clarity the identities they bore witness to. The lines and circles rose like welts above the almost translucent outer skin that curled and broke to the touch like papyrus, and through the slightly more substantial bark, the scars reinforcing themselves with layers of hard black wood, forcing their meaning into the present, it seemed, from deep within the inner rings, the younger life, of the tree.
To these almost unimaginably old inscriptions I added my own name, and the date: John Hales 1959. As I carved circles and lines a quarter-inch wide and a half-inch deep (my older brother had explained that a mere slit disappears beneath the seamless healing of the aspen’s flesh the same way the routine nicks and scrapes of my childhood melted into the fresh blank of new healthy skin), it dawned on me that other lives had existed before mine.
I suppose this shouldn’t have been as overwhelming a discovery as it was. I had been introduced to historical figures in school, and I’d learned the names of family predecessors at home: the Mormon culture in which I was raised valued its ancestors, the family patriarchs of the last century who were responsible for preparing our way into eternity, guiding us into a hereafter that came across to me then as something vague and insubstantial compared to the sounds, colors and textures of the world that overstimulated my senses every day. But as I examined one of the oldest inscriptions, one whose particular grace I wanted to replicate in my own carving, I had a sudden view of a person, perhaps a logger or sheepherder, wearing different clothing and living a different life than mine, but nevertheless assuming the same difficult posture as he pulled his knife through the soft white parchment of the aspen’s skin, working to cut just so far and no farther, negotiating the difficult curves of the S and the 8, the awkward colliding linearity of the H. I imagined someone a century in the future pondering the message I was inscribing today. I imagined this person wondering who I had been, and what I had made of my life. At the very least, I understood that this person would know I had lived.
I’d taken quickly my first summer to most of the work of a government survey–as the newest member of the crew, I dug holes and pounded in flags where I was told–but I struggled to understand the context, unable to translate in either direction between the mathematics and the terrain, between the straight lines we were running and the crooked landscape over which we hiked. Because my conceptual disorientation sometimes led to embarrassing instances of real-world disorientation (more than a few times I’d turned up on a ridge a half-mile distant from where I’d been sent), various crew members attempted to educate me. They drew diagrams in the dirt, reviewed high school geometry for me, and assigned an evening’s worth of reading in the Bureau of Land Management’s Manual of Surveying Instructions, but my disorientation continued. There were the numbers, which I understood well enough; and there was the specific piece of dirt, a precise point we’d mark with an iron pipe, blazed trees, and rock mounds. But how did they connect?
My party chief, Jerry, finally took me aside and told me to imagine an invisible grid hovering in the air above the landscape we were surveying. Speaking slowly so as not to be misunderstood by this over-educated college boy, he described a suspended ceiling of invisible panels, each one a mile square, defined by intersecting lines running straight from horizon to horizon, always north-south or east-west. Because the measurements we made across all that uneven ground added up to something other than a perfect mile, we recorded angles and plugged them into equations that corrected for the ups and downs of topography, the calculation finally yielding a figure that coincided with the numbers that defined the perfect grid suspended above our heads. When the calculations for east-west and north-south lines converged, when the numbers agreed upon a specific point in space, we’d translate those numbers into an exact bearing and distance, and then we’d measure our way to that spot. Then we’d mark it, and move on to the next point where mathematics intersected landscape.
I continued to think about this image throughout that summer, and into the next, sometimes looking deeply into the blank blue of the southern Utah sky for traces of the grid Jerry had described, and eventually surveying began to make sense. Observing the impossible distance that separated the perfect and transcendent order that hovered above from the chaotic fallen landscape anchored below had the ironic effect of allowing me to understand the possibility for connection, for contact. It even began to feel personal: I came to feel a little less confused concerning broader questions that similarly involved reconciling the distance between theory and practice, between meaning and experience. At rare moments I could picture in the transparent atmosphere above my head a clear point of intersection between impossibly perfect lines from which dropped a kind of Platonic plumb-bob that made an indentation I could almost see in the earth at my feet, an actual mark in the world I came to revere in ways far beyond what the job required.
A substantial part of the surveyors’ workday is spent marking those points where the idealized grid intersects the actual landscape. The Ordinance of 1785 determined that surveyors laying out townships would place physical monuments marking each half mile and each intersection between north-south and east-west lines called a section corner. The ordinance also required that these monuments be referenced by what the Manual calls “corner accessories”: geometrical arrangements of rocks and sod, and figures inscribed into trees and rock faces. These markings and monuments are what make the survey legally unambiguous and economically useful. Land claims must begin somewhere, and a physical monument, a pile of rocks adjacent to a large vertical stone into which is carved 1/4–the standard nineteenth century indication of the quarter-corner, the point from which a section is divided into four quarter-sections–becomes in practice the starting point for fencing in a 160-acre homestead.
This act of inscription adds up to something much more complicated than mere applied mathematics. Forcing together the ideal and the real–the continual occupation of government surveyors–is difficult, and not every human being has the mental balance such employment requires. One surveyor I met my first summer, a man in his mid-twenties who had completed a two-year degree in surveying and joined the BLM’s Cadastral Survey with the intent of making it his life’s work, would not survive his first year, something even I with only a few months’ experience could predict. He worried too much. He was too connected to his calculator, to the world of the ideal grid; he expected the work he did in the field to reflect precisely the mathematical equations he labored over in his motel room each night. He looked for the same kind of perfection in running line that he found in his equations: the phrase “acceptable margin of error,” written into every piece of surveying legislation since the Sumerians, gave him no comfort. The other phrase we repeated constantly–“close enough for government work”–was in no way an excuse for sloppy practice (we were anything but sloppy, and we ran lines over and over again in order to discover the source of legally allowable but still troubling deviations), but a mantra we chanted in order to remind ourselves of the ultimate impossibility of bridging the gap between trigonometry and geography, between math and landscape, between the essence and the actual.
Of course, Ray’s problem was bigger than surveying; he worried about the trim of his narrow mustache, the effectiveness of his flossing, the fidelity of his beautiful wife. He was the first person I knew to buy a bed protector for his pickup. As the summer proceeded, unnaturally straight furrows lined his forehead, circles deepened under his eyes, and the morale of his crew plummeted. His surveys were neither less nor more accurate than those of his fellow party chiefs, always well within the legal limit for acceptable error, and yet he’d sleep only on weekends, driven to exhaustion by sex with his wife that was neither climactic nor hygienic enough. The last any of us heard, he’d moved on to another kind of surveying, laying out foundations for industrial plants, work that involved theodolites and distances measured electronically in millimeters, not chains and links, but we all understood that he’d never get a good night’s sleep until he changed his vocation completely.
The best surveyor was one who accepted error as a condition of the fallen world in which you did your work. You struggled against it, but accepted its inevitability. You understood that a survey was at least partly ephemeral, a process rather than a product. You understood better than any postmodern critic that a survey was basically a text, and as such bore a complex and undependable relation to reality.
But like any other producer of texts, your effectiveness was directly related to your willingness to act upon the assumption that what you did meant something, had significance beyond the mere exercise of skill or the marking of a boundary. Like a poet or a painter, you believed deep within yourself that there were moments, there were actual places on earth, where text and reality intersected, and although you’d never use the word “sacred,” you’d celebrate these intersections with words and procedures that bordered on the religious. You’d want those moments, those spots of time and landscape, to endure.
As the Greeks well understood, for truth to have any meaning, it must be beautiful, and it must be eternal. Beauty I’m not so sure about, but as far as eternity is concerned, surveyors have always been held to a high standard. The canonical Manual of Surveying Instructions reminded us “the law provides that the original corners established during the process of the survey shall forever remain fixed in position.” Because forever is a long time, most of the work of the Cadastral Survey today involves the maintenance of corners established by the 18th- and 19th-century surveyors who had laid out the first township and section boundaries. Called a dependent resurvey, this responsibility requires surveyors to retrace the original lines, following in the footsteps of surveyors of the last century in order to locate their rock corners and replace them with brass-capped iron pipes and new corner accessories, ensuring the corner’s perpetuity, at least for another hundred years.
During the decade I worked summers for the BLM I participated in the retracing and rehabilitation of dozens of original surveys, an experience that taught me a great deal concerning the ultimate ineffectuality of human action. I would estimate that we found only about half of the original rock corners we searched for, and no more than a few dozen looked the way they were supposed to look. The manual many of these nineteenth-century surveyors worked from–the 1855 Instructions to the Surveyors General of Public Lands of the United States–included beautifully engraved plates intended to illustrate the ways in which enduring monuments could be constructed from what the manual called “local materials.” These plates portray giant stone pillars, native rock hewn into obelisks and marked with chiseled divots inches deep, buried four feet in the ground and standing at least that far above, mounded in place by a pyramid of stone and earth and surrounded by an array of shallow pits and rock walls, the whole arrangement of stone and sod resembling nothing so much as an ancient temple, a Stonehenge of carved rock and raised earth.
What we found when we retraced these lines, of course, was something quite different. Between individual will and eternal truth stands the problem of human weakness: laziness, incompetence, the still observable consequences of awarding a job to the contractor who submits the lowest bid. These early contract surveyors had a lot of unsurveyed landscape to cover, and they moved fast; when their calculations revealed that they’d reached the point where those ideal overhead lines intersected, they found the nearest rock, knocked a few chisel marks into it, half buried it, piled a few rocks alongside, and moved on. Section corners were distinguished by chiseled hash marks representing the number of miles to the north and west township boundaries; quarter corners were supposed to be marked with an actual “1/4”, and the manual provides an example of stone-carving prowess worthy of a cathedral. In reality, a “1/4” still readable after a hundred years of erosion and abuse was rare enough for us to retrieve our cameras from the truck in order to record the occasion for posterity. I learned to not expect to easily find the marker I was looking for. Instead, I’d look suspiciously at every rock larger than a football, trying to determine whether it had been scarred by the random processes of nature, or nicked by the half-hearted efforts of my nineteenth-century counterpart, a teenager recruited for the summer from a nearby settlement, a boy living in the moment, not looking towards eternity.
More often than carelessness or incompetence, however, the rock markers were done in by time and natural processes. It was sobering to see the way rocks could erode and crack in so few years; the marks even the most scrupulous surveyors left in their monuments only served to provide purchase for ice and wind, a place from which cracks could be widened and deepened on their way to eventual sandy dissolution. The ancients understood that even the most beautiful urn would inevitably fade and collapse, made dull and brittle by the weight of time, and although the purely fictionalized lines recorded in notes and on plats and maps would survive a little longer, safe from the elements in file drawers in Washington D.C. and in state and territorial capitals, the lines themselves could not long endure. The best surveyors understood the Sisyphean nature of their work, accepting the inevitability of error and erosion even as they fought against it.
Surveyors who were accustomed to spending summers rediscovering and remonumenting the work of predecessors long dead and buried (in graves referenced by only slightly more elaborate stone markers and corner accessories) understood something of what they were up against when taking on the rare original survey, as we did one summer on the Kaiparowits Plateau, a particularly chaotic landform that rises from the canyons of the Colorado River in southern Utah, and although we knew that our work wouldn’t ultimately last forever on the ground, we still operated as though it would, that we’d be the first surveyors to actually fulfill the dictates of the Manual and leave marks and monuments that would “forever remain fixed in position.” Our Manual instructed us that the best hedge against destruction was a combination of natural and artificial materials. Our most unnatural material was the iron pipe, a thick-walled, three-foot-long, three-inch-diameter tube galvanized to within an inch of its life, split into a Y at the bottom end to anchor it firmly in the ground, and topped with a thick cap of a brass alloy said to be immune to corrosion. The cap was engraved with the warning that the might of the Federal Government enforced the security of this monument, and that a $250 fine would be levied against anyone who tampered with it. This threat was embossed around the perimeter of the cap; upon the blank spot in the center we inscribed the specific figures that defined the marker’s position in time and space:
Using either the blunt end of an ax or, more conveniently and less dangerously, a ball peen hammer we carried in the chaining-pin holster that dangled from our war-surplus utility belts, the surveyor would pound a hardened steel die into the golden-brown cap, cast from a brass/copper alloy soft enough to accept the mark but resistant to the slower forces of oxidation. After marking the cap, our instructions were to plant the split end of this unnatural object as deeply as possible, leaving 8 inches protruding above the ground. If we couldn’t bury it–as we often couldn’t, much of Utah being solid rock naked of dirt or sand–our instructions were to build a mound of rocks sufficiently high and wide to buttress it just as firmly above the ground.
On those occasions when the precise point we established through doing the math and running the line occupied a hillside of solid rock, we’d spend hours building a mound as tall as an oil barrel and half-again as big around, starting several feet down the slope from the base of the pipe, necessitating a foundation four or five feet across, which we’d construct by carrying large rocks as far as we needed to, sometimes hundreds of yards. It is this lifting, hauling, and difficult masonry work that uses up a surveyor’s back, and contributes to the limp most older surveyors walk with. It also accounts for the experienced surveyor’s sense of the way rocks work, the way natural irregularities in stone surfaces can be made to mesh and interlock. Some fine stonemasonry can be found in Township 41 South, Range 2 East on the Kaiparowits Plateau, rock mounds that withstood the challenge of what we called the “Andy Test,” a procedure named for Andy Nelson, a legendary surveyor of the generation before Jerry’s, a man who had whipped Jerry and the other master surveyors into shape through the 1940’s and 50’s. The Andy Test required that the largest crew member balance himself on the four-inch diameter face of the brass cap and jump up and down, testing the iron pipe for looseness. Only one mound that summer was not evaluated according to Andy Nelson’s procedures, and that was a pile of rocks surrounding a pipe perched so precariously at the edge of a cliff that to fail the test would mean not just building a new mound; it would probably mean the loss of the pipe itself, not to mention the surveyor administering the test, which would have been me. I was flattered that Jerry believed enough training had been invested in me that I wasn’t completely expendable. He was saving me, he said, for a greater purpose.
Soil deep enough to allow planting the pipe the necessary 28 inches didn’t spare us from carrying rock: taking into account the fact that a mere eight inches of pipe might be easily overlooked, covered by vegetation or drifted over by sand, the Manual required that we stack rocks (“no fewer than five”) into a pile “not less than 2 feet base and 1 1/2 feet high.” Echoing the language of the Manual, which employed words enshrined in surveying legislation dating back to the 18th century, we always referred to this as a “mound of stone.” I wondered at first about the archaic formality of this phrase, but soon found myself using the words myself, savoring the way they rolled off my tongue, language that anchored our work in the distant past and hence far into the future. I came to believe that a mound of stone carried a kind of dignity that gave it an edge against the elements, a stature that would allow its integrity to endure long after a mere pile of rocks would slump and disperse, scattered into the randomness of nature.
The other natural materials we made use of were more stationary: trees and rock faces. I’d learned from retracing earlier surveys which trees stood the test of time, and which ones didn’t. Quaking aspen didn’t. It was the rare aspen that survived into the distant future I’d imagined as a seven year old. The ease with which aspens could be inscribed was directly related to the short life span of the species: the soft bark and the brittle, pithy wood beneath contributed to a middle age unresistant to insects and vulnerable to the weight of snow. We seldom found aspens that had been marked more than twenty or thirty years before, and we used aspens as bearing trees when they were the only trees available.
Juniper trees, however, were more durable than rock. A hundred year old stone corner might disintegrate, being dead and therefore subject to decay; a living tree, however, maintains its structural integrity, and the ubiquitous desert juniper grows so slowly and directs so little energy towards healing its wounds that the letters and numbers a surveyor carves into the wood remain legible long after the rock corner it bore witness to has returned to dust. Conifers were another story–they grew quickly, and put a substantial amount of effort into closing the blaze made by the surveyor, woodflesh and bark creeping at an inch a decade to finally enclose the cut, covering the blaze and the numbers with new pith and bark, leaving a puckered line like an appendix scar facing the corner.
The Manual regarded this healing process as serendipitous, nature’s way of keeping the inscribed information safe until it was needed, the annual layers providing a means of dating the inscription in order to prove its authenticity. Occasionally, if a lot depended on reestablishing a specific corner, Jerry would perform surgery. He’d reopen a healed blaze by trimming back the scar tissue with careful swings of his ax, finally peeling the moist membrane away from the dried and gray surface of the hundred-year-old blaze, sometimes revealing the figures impressed backwards in the newer skin of the scar tissue, a mirror image of the old carvings. More often we’d forgo the surgery and accept clear evidence of healing as proof that the tree at hand was the one listed in the original notes, and we’d sometimes reestablish corners based on scars alone, more dependable than rock corners and mounds of stone, which can be moved and scattered, either by unscrupulous landowners or through the slow but insistent forces of nature.
Trees are rooted in the earth, however, and they stay put. Even lightning strikes fail to move trees completely; trees can burn, rot from within, be chopped down (sometimes by a surveyor cutting line, retracing his way to the corner), and they can be cut and trimmed into posts–juniper makes a good fencepost for the same reason it makes a good bearing tree, and more than one rancher’s barbed wire fence is held up by a post still faithfully proclaiming the numbers associated with a distant section corner–but the stump remains many more years than you’d imagine, and a certain number of stumps the requisite distances from a center point gives the surveyor information substantial enough to reestablish a corner.
So we were careful in our original survey on the Kaiparowits Plateau to leave as many bearing trees as possible. The marking of bearing trees was generally the responsibility of the crew chief, but I’d begged Jerry for the chance to prove my skill, and I’d shown him that I could do a pretty legible job, even though it took me twice as long as more experienced surveyors. He found another leather pouch to add to my utility belt, a scribe, a screwdriver-like tool with a metal handle as thick as a flashlight supporting a sharp spike and, screwed to the side, a blade curved at the end into a tight “u”.
I’d begin by trimming off the bark with careful axework– aspens could be marked directly through a covering that seemed more like skin than bark, but other trees required blazing. In trimming the bark it was best to not cut into the wood itself, instead leaving exposed only the smooth moist surface of the cambium, which provided a clean canvas for your work. You’d pull the u-shaped blade for straight lines, carving a deep clean channel in the hard skin of the blaze. For curved segments of letters and numbers, you’d plant the spike and swing your cut around it like a compass, full circles for 0s, and linked half circles for Bs and Ss. A surveyor marking a section corner would carve these figures lengthwise along a foot-long blaze, indicating to the educated eye that in a northwesterly direction could be found a brass-capped iron pipe monumenting the intersecting boundaries of sections 9, 10, 15, and 16 of Township 41 South, Range 2 East:
T 41S R 2E S 16 BT
Bearing trees marked with this tool had small holes punched in the center of each curved line, the fulcrum around which the curved blade had pivoted.
Whenever possible, we’d leave four bearing trees for section corners, a tree in each section, all within a chain (sixty-six feet) of the brass cap, each blaze facing the corner. After the corner was marked and buried, the mound constructed, and the trees blazed, we would set up the transit over the brass cap, turn angles to determine the bearing to each tree, measure each distance, then record all these numbers–bearings, distances, the diameter and species of each tree, and the exact letters and numbers of each inscription–in the small yellow fieldbook:
a juniper, 10 ins diam. bears N. 80 E., 134 1/2 links dist, mkd T41S R2E S36 BT
a pine, 12 ins diam., bears S. 44 1/2 E., 71 ks dist., mkd. T41S R2E S36 BT
a juniper, 14 ins diam., bears S. 3 1/4 W., 31 lks dist., mkd. T41S R2E S35 BT
a juniper, 8 ins diam., bears N. 3 1/4 W., 67 lks dist., mkd. T41S R2E S26 BT
We’d also record the information we’d punched into the soft alloy of the brass cap, sometimes using a special notebook provided by the BLM for taking a pencil rubbing of the embossed surface, requiring the surveyor to kneel and patiently rub gray smears with the side of his pencil lead until the figures he’d inscribed appeared as ghostly blanks amid the gray, serving as a primitive Xerox copy for the archives.
All these figures would be translated into more formal notes the party chiefs spent each winter typing up, a prose narrative of the summer’s work that would eventually be submitted to the state office, where the story would be copied, filed, and eventually transformed into plats, the numbers now sprawled across the flat paper expanse of a map, a gridded apotheosis of landscape rising from another kind of negotiation between numbers and terrain, the ideal grid that gave up numbers easily, the fallen world we’d wrenched them from.
Sometimes we’d leave our inscriptions in stone, which was the other means mandated by the Manual to bear witness to the monuments we erected. There were bearing trees, and there were bearing objects, which were marks chiseled in rock surfaces too large to be moved, either boulders bigger than a Volkswagen (our generally agreed-upon unit of measurement) or rock faces, the revealed surfaces of the granite and sandstone mountains we surveyed across, vertical or horizontal expanses of exposed rock within a chain of the corner.
We seldom found bearing objects in our resurveys; they were not mandated in earlier Instructions along with bearing trees or mounds of stones or pits. And we tended to take the sometimes considerable time necessary to make these inscriptions only when the corner was an especially important one, or when the mound we’d built was in a precarious spot. If the corner was doomed to imminent destruction–if the corner fell on the steep dirt bank of a wash, or amid the loose talus of a constantly moving slide, or if that sacred point of intersection between the real and the ideal occurred in midair, beyond the edge of the cliff, but before the intersection hits the bottom–then we’d place a witness corner, a monument on line that has the usual numbers plus an arrow pointing to the spot the inscription actually monuments, and the inscribed letters WC. But if we were a little worried, if there was reason to believe the pipe would be there for a long while, but not exactly “forever fixed in position,” we’d find a rock face, a surface as sheltered from erosion as possible, and carve these figures:
The X was the spot we’d measure to, and turn the angle towards, as we would the surface of the blaze of a bearing tree.
Sometimes the rock would give itself easily to our inscription. I remember a couple of reference points I carved into the Kaiparowits using only the sharpened tip of a chaining pin, roughly the diameter and hardness of a ten penny nail: I’d drag it back and forth along the B and O and X until I’d worn a channel in the sandstone a half-inch deep. But I began carrying in a pouch on my ever-heavier belt a small chisel, sharpened to carve letters four inches long, an X as big as my fist, into the more resistant limestones and granites our lines sometimes traversed.
As I think about what all this means, it starts sounding like desecration, slicing utilitarian numbers into the skin of mother earth, defacing some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. I eventually came to feel a degree of uneasiness remembering the hour I’d spent carving my name and the year in the quaking aspen, when a child camping with my family in the mountains above my home, and the tree carvings I labored over through the years leading up to my eventual summer employment as a surveyor were sometimes inscribed at the price of guilt and shame. Nevertheless, I’d eventually have my way with dozens of trees, carving my own initials and the year that marked my growing older; later, as a teenager, I’d add the initials of a girl I was at that moment in love with, or a peace sign, or even a joke: C Columbus 1492.
The blazing and carving I did for the Cadastral Survey, of course, is something else entirely, less personal and more political, the carving of section numbers somehow representing the whole terrible process of scratching lines in the natural world, imposing ideas of linearity and order on nature as if it lacked character, had no internal integrity of its own. “What have we done to the earth?” Jim Morrison asked rhetorically in a song I listened to over and over again my senior year of high school, 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. “Trapped her and stuck her and ripped her and bit her. / Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn / and tied her with fences and dragged . . . her . . . down . . .” It sounded bad to me then, and it still sounds bad to me, looking at the whole thing from my present perspective, having since read Muir and Thoreau and taught a course in nature writing.
But there is no lure more powerful than the forbidden, and I took a complicated kind of pride in making marks where I shouldn’t, occasionally taking the more committed step of carving myself into stone. When I was twelve, I scratched my initials into a soft sandstone wall near the base of Rainbow Bridge. It was one of those compulsions I could do little but obey, even though I was overwrought as I did it with something more powerful than mixed feelings. It was like the time when I was six or seven, about the time I’d carved my name into the aspen at Snow Basin, when bored or possessed I made some marks with a dark blue ballpoint pen on the bottom sheet of my bed, curious to see whether I could mark a point that would be visible only to me. Without thinking, I started connecting the points with inked lines, then expanded on the lines, drawing finally a scene, a hillside and flowers and–for reasons I still don’t understand–a cross. (I was a Mormon boy, and crosses had no place in Mormon iconography. Crosses were for Catholics. We were told in Sunday school that Jesus might well have been crucified on a “T” arrangement of wood.) But I drew and drew and then suddenly realized that I’d covered with indelible ink a considerable expanse of bedsheet. I didn’t bother attempting to disguise or wash out what I’d done; I went crying to my mother, confessed, told her the truth–which was simply that I’d done it and I had no idea why, an explanation so straightforward yet unhelpful that my mother was puzzled into inaction, unable to decide on a punishment or a even a warning concerning future behavior.
But at Rainbow Bridge I knew exactly what I was doing, and I told no one–this is the first time I’ve come clean. I was there with a gathering of my parents’ friends and their children, a group called the Fireside, a dozen couples from my neighborhood who met twice a month to discuss Mormon scriptures and to socialize. We’d come together to Lake Powell not long after it had filled sufficiently to allow boating, and we’d rented boats and made our way up the canyon to within a mile or so of Rainbow Bridge (today you can drive your boat that last mile and anchor a stone’s throw from the bridge, the incursion of dead water and jetskis into the bridge’s shadow constituting another troubling imposition of human will on natural landscape), where we followed a well-worn trail to the great bridge itself, a formation that was immense in a way impossible to anticipate–you really could fit the state capitol under it, just like the tourist brochures said you could.
I looked at the bridge, overcome. Everything fit: the grace of the span, the perfect blue backdrop of desert sky, the pale orange sandstone that absorbed the day’s heat and gave it back as something homey and warm, the sandpaper texture of the rock, substantial enough to support a weight I could only wonder at, yet seemingly on the verge of disintegration, gritty crystals coating my hand as I caressed the gently rounded surfaces of the base. Hundreds of initials had been carved into the bridge’s buttresses, and it was clear to all of us that this was vandalism–to cut figures into the bridge itself was clearly desecration, in an indirect but still true way threatening the life of the bridge itself. As I examined the many inscriptions, so many initials carved on top of each other that the earliest ones were reduced to chips and sand beneath our feet, I came to understand that what they’d done was wrong. But I also recognized something profound in their having done it, and almost against my will I walked a hundred feet away, located a blank piece of orange sandstone that faced the bridge, and with my beat-up pocket knife carved JRH 1965 in the rock. I grew ashamed at exactly the moment I admired what I’d done, taking pride in the evenness of the letters, my ability to carve just so far and no farther, to leave clean endings to the straight letters in my name, to carve the half-circle of the J and R and stop exactly where the curve intersected the line.
I’d done a good job. I’d also sinned, and I knew I would keep my guilt to myself at the same time I knew I could find these figures when I came back as an old man, leading my grandchildren up the trail; this thought filled me a with a sense of the eternal, and at the same time a deep sense of groundedness. The sand shifted beneath my feet on a daily basis in those days, at that age, the exact age of puberty, when I was beginning to understand just how complex and incomprehensible the world actually was, and to have made a mark that would last beyond the confusion of the moment seemed at least equal to the shame of having done it.
I recognized a similar ambivalence one day years later, on a field trip to the San Rafael Swell with a geology class I took during the school months that elapsed between my seasons as a surveyor. Our professor, a man who had literally written the book on Utah geology, had brought us to this rugged corner of southeastern Utah partly because the formations to be found there were representative of many of the geological processes we were being lectured on, and partly because the Swell was his old stomping grounds. He’d grown up a half-century before in a tiny settlement huddled on the edge of this boundary where the Wasatch Mountains met the Colorado Plateau, and as a boy had ridden his horse into these canyons to round up lost cattle, to let off steam, and to experience the particular joy he felt in finding fossils and arrowheads.
Our caravan of student cars and school vans stopped at a blind arch formation, a concavity in a sandstone wall that forms a gigantic alcove, the kind of natural architecture that resembles nothing so much as an arched wall in a Gothic cathedral, space filled with colorful murals that preserved Christian theology in fresco, the blending of paint and plaster, message and medium, that offered medieval artists and architects the illusion of permanence and hence the possibility of the sacred. The sandstone wall we pondered that day with our teacher was covered with a variety of small and large pictographs, graceful shapes and figures painted into the sandstone wall by the ancient people who had made their lives in this dry and tortured landscape. Right in the middle of all that ancient art, amidst the human figures with long spears, the delicate running animals, the more abstract arrangements of concentric circles and intersecting lines, was a modern addition, a row of large black letters that spelled out the first initial and last name of our own geology professor, and a year, 1932.
He didn’t explain right away why he’d brought us to this particularly self-incriminating blending of art and geology. He described the formation, explaining the way sandstone, formed millions of years ago under the pressure of a mile of rock overlay, peels off in arcs when exposure relieves the pressure, forming the familiar arches of southern Utah. If this process takes place in a thin blade of sandstone, the result is an arch; if it’s combined with the erosive power of flowing water, if the blade interrupts the occasional flood in a streambed, the result is a natural bridge–like Rainbow Bridge, he said, my conscience flinching a little at the example.
He then explained the day he’d encountered this wall for the first time, when he was a teenager riding his horse with his friends through the Swell. He came to love this wall of Indian writing, he said, and had been moved to add his name and the year. He said this without exactly apologizing. I expected at least that; what I was sure was coming was a morality tale, a story of a lifetime of guilt and remorse, a vivid illustration of the venerable truism that you live with the consequences of your misdeeds, that a moment of carelessness or irresponsibility can lead to a burden of shame you carry your whole life.
That’s what I expected, but that isn’t what he said, exactly. He said of course I shouldn’t have done it; I was young and stupid. But he also said something I will never forget: “We believed we belonged here, the same way these people did. We believed it was appropriate to add our names to the wall. They’d made their mark; we made ours,” he said, and then he became our white-haired professor again, explaining the way the chemical properties of axle grease in cooperation with the absorptive properties of sandstone meant that his marks will occupy this wall for centuries, bearing witness to a precise moment of intersection between cultures, a point in time and space where history collapses, where the perishable breath of the individual connects for a moment with the timelessness of landscape.
I keep pondering that statement: we believed we belonged here. Of course, the difference between graffiti and art is a subtle one, having to do partly with who decides what art is, and partly with how long the graffiti has been there. The sense of who belongs in what landscape–and the appropriate way to celebrate that belonging–is another tough one to figure out, and to carve one’s identity into a specific piece of earth is at the same time an expression of connectedness and an admission of failure, of disorientation, a desperate attempt to pin down a feeling of connection so rare as to not last beyond the moment.
I grew up, like my geology professor, a Mormon boy, distrusting my body and the wildness I prayed hard to tame, and at the same moment loving it, loving the uncontrollable joy buzzing in my nerves, in my skin, in the wind that disturbed the air around me. I grew up in a landscape with which my culture had cultivated a spiritual relationship, and had also cultivated, wrenched from it the raw materials from which the New Jerusalem would be built, leaving as evidence of its existence concrete-arch dams, clear-cut hillsides, and the world’s largest open-pit copper mine. Beneath the groomed surface of reverence for the Utah landscape we sang about each Sunday in church–”Our mountain home so dear / where crystal waters clear / flow ever free”–were the bulldozed gashes that served up Snow Basin’s recreational possibilities.
Mormons believed they belonged in these mountains and deserts as surely as the Israelites belonged in the Land of Canaan, a gift from God that begs the question of the previous birthright, the belongingness of the people–Canaanites and Paiutes–who had occupied the same land for centuries before, land similarly bequeathed by another deity, their own connection ritualized and documented with carved and pigmented figures on rock walls throughout the west. The landscape was both mother and father to the first Mormon settlers, a land that nurtured and also scourged my ancestors when they required scourging, which considering the harshness of the Utah landscape, must have been pretty often. We belonged here; otherwise God wouldn’t have made it so difficult.
How do you act on this feeling of connection–that you don’t just reside here; that perhaps you’ve been placed here for a purpose? That beyond the specific theology that ties your culture to a particular place, your personal and individual occupation of the landscape, your own place in the world, might be an expression of something cosmic and universal? All I know is that I found an unexpected and strangely familiar satisfaction in the process of inscribing numbers into the brass cap of the iron pipe, stacking rocks into a mound of stone, carving figures into the soft skin of a tree and the hard varnished surface of a sandstone face. I’d put my cheek close to the pale smooth surface of the blaze and inhale the scent of fresh pitch as I pulled lines and circles into a phrase that spoke to a future I could never quite imagine beyond the fact of the mounded rocks, the inscribed stone, the opened bark. After turning the angles to each tree and stone, measuring distances, and combining it all into a neat mathematical web described in the prose of my fieldbook, tracing the brass cap inscriptions as if they contained some kind of truth to be preserved and pondered, I’d look with satisfaction at the job I’d done, the mark I’d made, the intersection with that ideal ethereal grid I’d found and made tangible.
At such moments eternity seems possible. You find a point of contact between the dirt at your feet and a truth that hovers beyond, a transcendent fact not exactly visible but as real as the breath you exhale. You identify that point, that moment of connection, and you mark it. You carve an X, or paint your name, or you rearrange the natural scattering of stones into something geometric and human. You carve figures into the living flesh of a tree, and for a moment you believe that life on earth–your own life–has meaning.