Spaces of Peace

by Grant A. Mincy

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all — in a world of conflict, ’tis the season of peace.

A season of peace it is. Thankfully my family and friends are safe, happy and (mostly) together. I greatly enjoy the Christmas/holiday season. Winter has arrived in my scruffy town of Knoxville, Tennessee. The weather is cold. Mist and fog are a constant these days along the southern banks of the Tennessee River. Church bells chime as trains whistle forlorn across our Old Sevier neighborhood. Lights decorate this southie community, glasses clink at our local watering holes and children laugh and play in their newly constructed public waterfront park. We maintain a cautious optimism regarding the gentrification. At night we huddle in around our bright trees full of clunky figurines and bulbs, drink egg-nog , sing carols, eat too much and watch holiday themed movies.  It’s cozy — no better way to put it.

We enjoy silent nights in our world of conflict. On every continent, save Australia and Antarctica, wars rage. I don’t know what war is, but I know there is too much of it. I know there is far too much violence in the world. There are the armed conflicts of states and the ideas of terrorism; rising poverty and wealth disparity; climate change and environmental degradation; the crimes of humanity and our creeds. Though ominous I find comfort in my belief these threats hold no candle to the better angels of our nature.

At times, however, I am very worried about the future. But, only at times. When wrought with despair, I think of all the good in the world. I also think of times of solace and spaces of peace. Places that allow still reflection. I think of the wild. I find great peace in the untouched cathedrals of nature. Agrarian and Appalachian author Wendell Berry, in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, describes these moments best:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

With this in mind, I am saddened by a recent move to reduce the size of public lands throughout canyon country. On December 4 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, the head of state noted he would drastically reduce the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. He stood in Salt Lake City and declared: “No one values the splendor of Utah more than you do and no one knows better how to use it.”

But, that’s just it. Who will use it?

In moments like this it is important to peer through the linguistic trickery of politicians. The administrators view wilderness not as canyons, rivers and mesas, but instead as political terminology. This is not a reduction of state power. Instead it is the first step in a transfer of power to unaccountable private tyrannies.

If this were a true reduction of state power, a gift of property back to all the people of Utah, a system of Adaptive Governance and Collaborative Management would be put in place. Democratizing public lands in such a fashion requires autonomy from the heavy hand of government. All stakeholders, user associations, collectives and individuals with a desire to engage the democratic process would be called to the management table. No such thing is happening. Instead it is only the politically connected who stand much to gain.

The people of Utah, and the rest of us, will see the wilderness, our wilderness, enclosed and scarred for capital.

True shame. The desert country of Utah is something special. Incredible sedimentary rock formations weather and erode in the harsh desert climate. The horizon in all directions grows, builds, but does not peak. Instead the rock flattens across a great wilderness expanse. The horizon is crowned in a strange majesty, the marvelous wonder of the arid plateau. The terrain is carved by water, allowing a great testament to life. Even in the solitary, desolate, bleak world of scorched sun life persists. Wildflowers bloom, plants survive, the fauna carves out a life in a land of surprising form and color.

As a lucky younger man I was able to ramble around this wilderness with friends. I’m lucky enough to know the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert. It was some nine years ago on a road trip across America I discovered canyon country and the Utah Desert. As the United States burned from a financial crisis, in a time of transition, my  fellow wanderers and I lived on the road and in the wild. It was October. Under western skies, among sage brush and rolling hills, there was already a bit of snow and ice pack around. Our trio arrived in the desert at night. I was driving, one of my buddies was standing through the moon-roof of my trusty, cross-country proven, 1993 Accord (Norma Jean) howling into the otherwise quiet night. We set up a modest camp, drank whisky and red wine then passed out under the stars.

We spent the next day among the anticlines, synclines, thrust faults and paleosols looking for signs of ancient life. And these signs were abundant. Especially, if I recall correctly, ancient marine life — perhaps even Cambrian in age.

As the day came to a close we made our way to camp, set up our tents, rolled out our sleeping bags and began our preparation of the bon-fire. Fire is a necessity on such a trip anytime of year — but especially on cold western nights. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze. We filled our bellies with loaded mashed potatoes, a good, warm, carbohydrate laden meal for the chill awaiting us. As the hours went by, beneath an array of twisted lodgepole pine’s, we had plenty of laughs, built upon the foundation of our life long-lasting friendship, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

The paradox of protected lands is that they remain ungoverned spaces of refuge and human liberty — free from the Leviathans of modern human civilization. Authoritarian systems have no choice but to loathe and fear the wild. If we lose the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert we will lose a piece of openness and freedom itself.

A new preservationist movement is needed now more than ever.