I found this photo – journalism piece I wrote for West Word, which was a Colorado Environmental Magazine at the time. I joined my friend and soulful musician, Kate Wolf on a tour of the Southwest that culminated in her performance at the Paramount theatre in Denver in combination with a documentary I contributed to: Four Corners, A National Sacrifice Area. This piece is dated in some ways, but in my memory, those times in the desert claimed a piece of my soul for life. Around our camp- fires at night, Kate played and sang softly, lulling and linking all of us to a hopefulness that the fragile desert and it’s creatures would survive.
The wild horses and burros, like royalty of the barren land, are connected to it all.
( sorry all the old black and whit e photos are gone so I replaced them with new ones. )
Strategically surreal, God’s country austerely guards more than half of America’s energy resources. The junction of the earth that forms the four corners area of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona stares silently :its destiny as a “National Sacrifice Area””, lies in the high-rise political domains of the east. Beneath eastern fluorescent lights, generated by western coal policies are written to determine the destiny of the mineral wealth of the west.
A Hopi prayer is heard, hundreds of heads bow as Thomas Banyacya shares a prayer for the earth:? May it be beautiful before me. May it be beautiful behind me. Where I walk, may it beautiful.”
On stage at the Paramount Theater in Denver, Kate Wolf is applauded back. Her stunning ballads, inspired with her green-eyed simplicity, take us to a place of alluvial calmness. “You better listen to the voices of the mountains. You better listen when they talk about strip mining…” Kate’s mellow tones flow in an Appalachian chant that anoints the film and lures our spirits, on the journey.
“The Four Corners A National Sacrifice Area” documentary, focuses on mining and environmental dilemmas of the west. The journey of images and songs in the documentary this evening are much greater and older than my reflections but as places and events flash on the screen, a specter’s game probes by soul. A pristine melancholy befalls a piece of earth , as its hope for survival sifts in the dust of our minds.
Black Mesa, present on stage tonight appeared stunning above slate-grey cleavages of coal strip mines that began there in 1960. My ghost took me there, to the holy mountain Black Mesa. To the enchanting dance and soft sounds of moccasins on sand, where Kachina dolls dance rites to welcome crops.
One half of America’s uranium reserves rests here. Here, where I made a fire from dried pinon wood and scrubby sage, in a concave pot hole in the rock. I lay next to it, mesmerized by the mysterious smoke of the burning sage. Secluded within crater-shaped palaces of melted earth, a medieval fairy tale evolved. I saw the villain’s tooth in the murk of rust in the stream that didn’t flow.
Over hundreds of acres of farm and grazing land on the Colorado Plateau is a one-thousand million ton spill of tailings. It escaped after atomic energy plants stock-piled uranium’s radio activity, and before the maize along the creek bed was ground for corn meal. The toxic trench of tailings material that absorbed into the soil and poisoned the streams will be hazardous for eighty thousand years.
The coal slurry line oozed in front of me and across hundreds of miles of enchanged red earth. Through a land where annual rainfall never exceeds ten inches, the slurry line slithers as a leach in the night, sucking table from the table of the earth.
Thunderbolts of blasting dynamite from Peabody’s Coal Mines still vibrate through the cinema as Governor Lamm traces the history of mining and agriculture in Colorado. “ It’s boom or bust out here in the west. Agriculture has been the healing energy that has bailed us out in the past.”
In the past the earth was all green and the clear streams gurgled and bubbled with fish. Indian legends whisper over fields of grain that are now tinged with a golden amber of autumn. Kate’s songs echo in the theater, “the hill’s turn brown in the summer time….” As strip mining proposals threaten to drain the earth’s water shed. As water is taken from the earth at an average rate of five thousand gallons per minute the Four Corners area – once contributing to a stable agricultural economy, may be sacrificed to desert lizards.
Striated through maroon mesa walls, within the Peance Basin of Colorado Rocky Mountains, is oil shale, trapped inside an evolutionary wonder is the only major resource America has. The mass attack planned by eastern energy companies proposes to change mountain rids of mule trails into freeways, rabbit holes into drill rigs, and aquifers into dry holes.
While sixty-five thousand acres of land, containing two billion tons of coal is leased for strip mining , our nations’ leader exclaims through his “johny get your gun,” grin, “By saving our energy reserves, everyone would have to be a little cold in the winter and a little warm in the summer.” Increased energy exploration in the west is encouraged and environmentally protective policies are rarely revised and often ignored.
Hidden in thicket sites along the reddish ranges leased by energy companies daring mustangs wildly celebrate what may be there last days of freedom. They run with the other creatures of land and sky toward a drying creek. Hidden under cancer cells upon the earth, infected by the tyranny of man’s greed is the heart of the bone, of the mountain. In the film a farmer in a straw hat sat, leaning on a fence. “For the life of me, I can’t see how they say we’re gaining. If they take away your water, whathave you got left? That’s just your life’s blood. Without water you can’t even get yourself a drink.”
The earth is all that lasts. That afternoon beside a river of fire that flowed between the sandstone ovens, my body succumbed to the earth’s revered heat. In the greatest stillness I have ever known, a scorpion wove a silver thread between stone and sand. Silent canyon bird songs chimed in acoustic simplicity . And there, in the evening, when there was still light, mountain spirit shadow danced upon a bronze and glowing stage.
Like the heavenly star’s malignancy on a moonless night, carried within the witching wind, three millions tons of decaying particles of radon gas appear a twilight zone above the west. The Department of Energy has declared that anyone within one-half mile of the uranium tailing spill has two times the risk of contacting lung cancer. Native Navajo tribes, once free of cancer now expect up to seventy percent of the mining populations to die of lung cancer. While children break broncos in the sifting red dust, epidemiologists note the significant increase in the birth defects and respiratory illnesses that follow the toxic drift.
Exxon proposed the uranium rich land be declared a “National Energy Zone” Peter McDonald former president of the Navjo tribal council, speaks of adaptation of the eleven thousand Navajo people, that might be forced to leave their homes to make way for mining. The Indians are concerned for their agricultural economy. “Farming will guarantee future generations of livelihood, but energy will strip the land of the essential water it needs to survive, let alone nourish crops. In the long run, nothing natural can survive on poisoned land and water.