I sit perched on a sandstone ledge overlooking a bend in the wash of Larry Canyon. From here I can see the white salt deposits from the stream, blanketing the dry regions of the wash beneath the luscious green cottonwood leaves. A light breeze keeps the gnats from buggin me. Occasionally the breeze picks up, rustling the pages of my journal, allowing my gaze to drift upward. I’m surrounded by red cliffs, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. The visual differences between the rock layers—boxy and jagged darker rock and the lighter, smoother, tafoni-filled sandstone—symbolize the different environments that this landscape has seen throughout history. Every few moments, the overcast sky gives way to an expanse of blue. The bold contrast of the blue against the red rock is unlike anything I’ve seen. Here you hear the wind before you feel it. A brief period of silence is interrupted by the distant howl of the breeze flowing like water through the canyon. It rustles the cottonwood leaves and then it reaches me, wrapping and warping itself across the contours of my body, raising hairs on my arms as it passes.
Each element that fills my senses does not aid in helping me grasp the complexities of the concept of scale. Scale of size, magnitude, distance, time. I am miniscule compared to the canyon walls that surround me, yet I tower in comparison to the sand grains whose intricate crystalline structure allow the cliffs to tower above me. A gnat comes and lands on my hand. Curious, it crawls around for a few seconds before returning into the air. In a few days its life will have passed. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to me. I wonder if the canyons feel the same way about me. My lifetime is but a heartbeat to them. Here, time seems unfathomable.
If you look closely enough, you can read Earth’s history from the layers and composition of rocks. Their near-permanence has harbored billions of years of knowledge, embedded in minerals, crystals and their chemical composition. One story told by these ancient beings is about the Earth’s climate. On geologic timescales, rocks exert a great amount of control on the climate. The chemical weathering of carbonate rock (as well as volcanic outgassing of carbon dioxide) has provided life on Earth with carbon—which helps keeps the temperature of the atmosphere relatively warm and is perhaps the most essential elemental ingredient for life. But rocks also take in carbon from the Earth’s surface, and recycle it back into the asthenosphere. Carbon-clad organisms that fall to the sea floor eventually become part of new rocks and are brought into Earth’s interior through the subduction of oceanic plates. For billions of years, this system has been one of the main drivers of climate on Earth. Now global climate has begun to shift on a rate never seen before as humans fill the atmosphere with carbon that has been naturally sequestered in rock layers over the past hundreds of millions of years. This is happening all over the world, Utah is certainly no exception.
The sun was fading, hiding itself behind the western cliff above Angel Cove, our first campsite along the Dirty Devil River, as we settled down to begin class. Our topic for the day was energy—primarily fossil fuels and their extraction in Utah. Our discussion recalled several points from the day before, when we met with Sarah Stock, a WRFI alumna and current environmental activist in Utah. Sarah described to us how the state’s geological landscape has allowed for the extraction of petroleum and uranium, and another non-conventional oil source known as tar sands. Similar to petroleum, tar sands are the remains of organic material that has been chemically transformed into a thick substance known as bitumen. Unlike petroleum deposits, which tend to concentrate into locations known as traps, this substance is spread throughout layers of sand. Extraction methods vary by location, but in many areas in Utah steam extraction is used. In this process, steam is pumped into deep holes drilled into the deposits. This heats up the bitumen, making it less viscous, and then it is sucked out of the rocks. Before the oil can be refined, it must be separated from the sand. The whole process is extremely energy intensive—it has been estimated that tar sand mining produces five to ten times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil extraction (already a very dirty process), and requires copious amounts of water, a resource which is very limited in this landscape. If this were to happen on a larger scale in Utah, the environmental effects would be immense. Luckily, due to the relatively cheap price of oil, tar sand extraction is uneconomical. But if the global oil market were to shift, it may make this process financially appealing to US energy companies. Sarah is working to combat the industries which still seek to extract these tar sands, engaging with local and statewide communities fighting for the health and future of the planet. Her stories were inspiring to us, as we have learned and recognized the severity of the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on local and global socio-ecological systems.
A few miles down the river, we settle into a quiet cove. Perennial shrubs and invasive annual grasses spread across the flat valley. Scraggly oak trees stand rooted in groups along the eroded slopes where the canyon walls meet the ground. I dodge the cryptobiotic soil and settle down in an open spot facing the south canyon wall. These must be the biggest cliffs that we have seen yet in the Dirty Devil. The warm evening light kisses the red canyon walls as the sun sinks below the horizon. There is an intoxicating stillness here, interrupted only by the sound of the wind rustling the oak leaves and the occasional laugh of one of my friends, echoing off the varnished walls. Deep in thought, I am able to contemplate my purpose here. I look to the Earth for guidance.
These canyons have stories to tell. Tales of cultures, of ecosystems and of a landscape that we will never see, of times so far from our own that they seem otherworldly. These canyons are our cathedrals. To me, they harbor a sense of infinite wonder, spirituality and sacredness, and allow my curiosity to fill every pore, crack and void within their surface. They represent but a taste of the Earth’s beauty and history, yet are now so deeply embedded in my story. For this moment, we live here. Beneath the cloudless, starry desert sky, we fall asleep in the softest sand. We are nine unique souls, each searching for something different, with the privilege to experience firsthand the unrivaled beauty and tranquility of this magnificent landscape.