Illustration by Kyla McCallum

A Field Guide to Everything

An exploration of the beauty and challenges of the sacred Bears Ears

A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.

THE DRUMMING HAS BEEN GOING on all night. Rain patters on the roof of our tent and thunder occasionally announces the arrival of the lightning that soon illuminates the tent’s innards, but the drumming doesn’t stop. It is still going when I get up at four to take a leak. The rain has ended but not the beat. There is singing too. It is coming from a tepee about a quarter mile away. I try not to wake my tentmate Mark as I zip myself back into the tent, but I fail. “Maybe they are having a peyote ceremony,” he mumbles before falling back into a snoring sleep. They are not, I’m pretty sure, but the drumming and singing continue until six in the morning.

The music ends not long before I climb out of the tent. Though it is July in southern Utah, here at seven thousand feet it is a cool, almost cold, morning. The rain has kept the dust on the road down as I follow it toward the center of camp. Deer wander idly through the campsites, as they have all weekend. Wind blows through the pines.   

“Everything is living,” one of the Navajo elders, Hank Stevens, who represents the Navajo Nation for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said to me yesterday. “The ponderosa pines are singing to us. The music of the wind through the pines.”

I crave coffee but, knowing they haven’t likely put it on the stove yet, head out to the meadow, a field of sage and ponderosa. I make for the stump where I like to watch the sunrise. A raven shrieks and chases another raven. Otherwise it is quiet here, the members of our small settlement of about a hundred and fifty humans just starting to stir. I take my seat on the stump and stare up.

And there they are. The twin buttes that give this place their name. The morning sun has hit them first and their tops glow orange, the rock made even more radiant by the bulky blue gray clouds that serve as a backdrop. 

You can see the Bears Ears from all over the Four Corners, and I first caught sight of them on this trip before I entered Monument Valley back in Arizona. Now, sitting in the shadow of the two peaks, I think: “Something great has happened here.” 

Something great is always happening here. For thousands of years it was a meeting place for multiple tribes. In the 1860s it was the place where Chief Manuelito held out against U.S. government forces before the long walk. But there is also more recent greatness. Back in December of 2016, something of a miracle occurred in this place. After centuries of tearing land away from Native Americans, the United States took a small redemptive step in the other direction. President Obama, heeding the call of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group made up of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, declared the 1,351,849-acre Bears Ears a National Monument. This was land that was sacred to the tribes, ancestral land whose historical and spiritual significance could not be overstated. And now it would be protected, not taken away, by the United States government. 

But not so fast. A year later, that promise was broken (does that ring a historic bell?), the monument eviscerated, reduced by 85%, by the new president, Donald John Trump. The tribes, which had been lifted in triumph, were now slammed to the ground. Trump’s actions also posed a threat to the very act with which the land was created, the Antiquities Act, which gave presidents the power to declare national monuments. 

The declaration of the Bears Ears National Monument by President Obama in December of 2016 had been a moment of hope. Perhaps unity is impossible in our faction-torn world, and in fact the tension in Utah sometimes rises to the level where you might expect a civil war to break out at any moment. But in at least one way, Bears Ears speaks of union not division. One of the most exciting aspects of the creation of the monument was that it represents a possible confluence of established land preservation ideals with the vision that grew out of the work the Tribes, led by Utah Dine Bikeyah, did. 

During the summer of 2018, after Donald Trump dramatically reduced the national monument that was meant to protect this land, I was lucky enough to join the summer celebration of the tribes in this meadow below the Ears. That summer we felt threatened and, despite ourselves, defeated. Local ranchers moved the signs that directed people to the campsite, tailgated out cars, buzzed us with a plane. This summer has been different. Better. 

October of 2021 saw another grand reversal. Poetically, and powerfully, the very first Native American Interior Secretary, Deborah Haaland, recommended restoring the first national monument to fully grow out of the thinking, support, and political power of Native American tribes, and on October 8, 2021, the president signed that restoration into law.    

I am happy to be back here. Bears Ears is a story of great loss and possible redemption. It is both a thoroughly modern story, one that in its battle of entrenched interests reflects where we are as a country and a culture, and an ancient one where the drama is being played out on an ancestral homeland where people have lived and worshipped for thousands of years.

As a writer, I see something else that Bears Ears can offer. Language. A new story. A story that draws on the present and threads in the old and also the ancient. That takes the best of our conservation legacy and makes it better.   

Wildness is not just nature. Wildness is surprise and uncertainty. That is another thing we are destroying. The way we corral language these days. In trying to be correct we have become safe, predictable, dull. We hunger for the spontaneous, the surprising, the wild.

* * *

“For us there is only the trying,” wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. Have I tried hard enough? Have you?

During my travels around the country witnessing climate disasters, I have become wary of the word hope. It often seems phony to me. Something we plaster on, a weak Band-aid.

And yet I keep coming back to Bears Ears. 

It is good to be back here, up in the cool above the heat. 

We are above the world, at seven thousand feet. Up above it but not beyond it. 

This morning, the second of the celebration, I talk to Jessica Wiarda, a young woman only a couple years older than my daughter Hadley. Jessica is half-white, half-Hopi, and is the artist-in-residence with the Dine Bikeyah, the Navajo group that fought to preserve Bears Ears as a National Monument.

The Bears Ears themselves loom in the background as she describes growing up in the city of Logan, Utah, where there were no other Native Americans in her class and classmates called her Pocahontas. This is her first time in Bears Ears, but she feels connected to the place by stories. She says that her grandmother told her that her grandmother told her about her grandpa hunting here. Now that is a generational imagination.

We talk mostly about the place, its beauty, its quiet. But when I ask her about the climate crisis her face changes.

“I guess I try not to think about it. Because I get teary when I do. Especially with Salt Lake drying up. People were mourning about it. So I’m not very hopeful. I’m not.”

She pauses, falters, continues. 

“I feel like I’m going to be old and dealing with the heat and lack of water. I will have to save more. I’m blessed that I have a job and can save money. But I worry about my friends that are living paycheck to paycheck.”

She now cries as she talks. We are both surprised by the sudden emotion. 

“It’s the first time I’ve really talked about it. I usually don’t want to talk about it. But if you ask me, I am not hopeful. Maybe once things are bad enough, when it’s really here, maybe then the generations can work together. But no, I’m not too hopeful.”

Later, around lunchtime, I interview Woody Lee, the Executive Director of Utah Dine Bikeyah. He sits on my favorite stump in the meadow amidst the sage and tells me the Navajo story of the twin warriors who fought the monsters that threatened their people. 

“Some of the monsters begged for their lives. They said ‘Put me in a place I cannot be seen again.’ And they were told ‘You will be placed in the ground. That’s where you will stay. And nobody will let you out.’ The monsters agreed but said: ‘If someone takes me back to air and light, there will be repercussions.’”

He pauses.

“One example of this sort of monster is uranium. That was a monster that was taken out of the ground and look what happened.”

Not long ago there were uranium mines, and the attendant cancer deaths, all through Bears Ears. A new mine was launched in 2019 when Trump undeclared parts of Bears Ears.

“The way we approach the land is the way we will leave it. If we dig stuff up there will be repercussions. You don’t just take things from the ground in any place you want to. When we come to a place, we make an offering.” 

I ask about Trump’s reduction.

“When Trump reduced the size of the monument it had an unusual effect. It brought attention to the issue. We gained more support when he reduced the size. We gained even more when he sent Secretary of the Interior Zinke out here. We were gaining momentum, we had more people joining us, more people supporting us. He did not know what he was waking up. He was waking up the bear.

“Bears Ears will continue to be a place we hold up as an inspiration, a place that orients our prayers and a landscape where people from all cultures can come to pray, to heal and to restore our minds and bodies.”

As a writer, I see something else that Bears Ears can offer. Language. A new story. A story that draws on the present and threads in the old and also the ancient. That takes the best of our conservation legacy and makes it better.   

* * *

We leave the meadow and Woody heads over to lunch.

In the tepee on the first night the mostly white media gathered for our sensitivity training. I have been through these things before and to be honest was mostly tuned out, but after the basic program three of the Navajo elders started to talk and the experience went from rote to inspired. They spoke about how much Bears Ears meant to them, the devastation of their people by Covid, the importance of being in a place where “it all started.”

The line that stuck with me was one by Hank Stevens: “We came into this world and use our words for the world.”

I was not sure I had the sentence exactly right and when I asked him the next day Hank was not sure either. But it remains an important line for me.

Words still matter in this chaotic world. People in Washington use their words to say this place is saved, then say it is unsaved, and for all we know the old president might soon become the new president and take this away again. But it remains a place filled with energy and legend.  

Usually those who write the laws for a place are divorced from the place itself. The document declaring Bears Ears a national monument, however, grew out of the original proposal written by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The final version was written by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who had hiked, rafted, and explored the area, and the acting chair of Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, Christy Goldfuss. The document begins with a grand overview but it gets really interesting, for me, at least is when it gets particular: 

The diverse vegetation and topography of the Bears Ears area, in turn, support a variety of wildlife species. Mule deer and elk range on the mesas and near canyon heads, which provide crucial habitat for both species. The Cedar Mesa landscape is home to bighorn sheep which were once abundant but still live in Indian Creek, and in the canyons north of the San Juan River. Small mammals such as desert cottontail, black-tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, Botta’s pocket gopher, white-tailed antelope squirrel, Colorado chipmunk, canyon mouse, deer mouse, pinyon mouse, and desert woodrat, as well as Utah’s only population of Abert’s tassel-eared squirrels, find shelter and sustenance in the landscape’s canyons and uplands. Rare shrews, including a variant of Merriam’s shrew and the dwarf shrew can be found in this area.

Carnivores, including badger, coyote, striped skunk, ringtail, gray fox, bobcat, and the occasional mountain lion, all hunt here, while porcupines use their sharp quills and climbing abilities to escape these predators ….

Raptors such as the golden eagle, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, northern harrier, northern goshawk, red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, American kestrel, flammulated owl, and great horned owl hunt their prey on the mesa tops with deadly speed and accuracy. The largest contiguous critical habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl is on the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Other bird species found in the area include Merriam’s turkey, Williamson’s sapsucker, common nighthawk, white-throated swift, ash-throated flycatcher, violet-green swallow, cliff swallow, mourning dove, pinyon jay, sagebrush sparrow, canyon towhee, rock wren, sage thrasher, and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.

There is a tendency to overromanticize what is gone. There is also a tendency to overromanticize Native people. I want to avoid that but I find in the example of Bears Ears a combination of hard-headed sense, practicality, and a deep love of nature.  

Wildness is not just nature. Wildness is surprise and uncertainty. That is another thing we are destroying. The way we corral language these days. In trying to be correct we have become safe, predictable, dull. We hunger for the spontaneous, the surprising, the wild.

Subscribe to Orion Ad