By Terry Tempest Williams
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama established the Bears Ears National Monument. Not only is this a beautiful gesture in the name of protecting 1.35 million acres of red rock desert through the Antiquities Act, but the opening paragraph of the proclamation is a beautiful description of the land itself:
“Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Bears Ears.”
Within this historical document, the reader will find a language more a kin to poetry than public policy, well worth reading out loud around a dinner table or campfire. Too often the politics of place obscures the spirit of a place. But the authors of this proclamation have created an evolving narrative of beauty and change, both human and wild.
Here are two of my favorites culled from the document:
“Ancestral Puebloans followed, beginning to occupy the area at least 2,500 years ago, leaving behind items from their daily life such as baskets, pottery and weapons. These early farmers of Basketmaker II and III and builders of Pueblo I, II and III left their marks on the land. The remains of single-family dwellings, granaries, kivas, towers, and large villages and roads linking them together reveal a complex cultural history. ‘Moki steps,’ hand and toe holds carved into steep canyon walls by the Ancestral Puebloans, illustrate the early people’s ingenuity and perseverance and are still used today to access dwellings along cliff walls.”
HHH“From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”
HHHWhat follows these beautiful scenes of people in place and the stillness of the country is a stunning litany of plants and animals that inhabit the Bears Ears region, call it a poetics of natural history where each tree, each plant and every creature imaginable is named with reverence and respect.
Consider this liturgy of wildflowers:
“The alcove columbine and cave primrose ... grow in seeps and hanging gardens in the Bears Ears landscape. Wildflowers such as beardtongue, evening primrose, aster, Indian paintbrush, yellow and purple beeflower, straight bladderpod, Durango tumble mustard, scarlet gilia, globe mallow, sand verbena, sego lily, cliffrose, sacred datura, monkey flower, sunflower, prince’s plume, hedgehog cactus and columbine bring bursts of color to the landscape.”
I bring these details of language to the foreground because it is this kind of care on the page and in the world that creates compassion for a living, breathing world that is often unnoticed or dismissed. The anonymous authors of this presidential declaration believed in the power of the word, just as President Obama has given us the word of law that these precious, vulnerable, enduring lands in southeastern Utah deserve our highest protection.
Nothing is forgotten in this proclamation that reads as its own Creation Story.
At a time when politics is so rancorous, so partisan, so blatantly in the hands of special interests like the fossil fuels industry, especially in the American West, where what is valued is what can be sold, the designation of Bears Ears National Monument signifies a grace note in the centennial year of the National Park Service and all that endures.
America’s national parks and monuments are our inheritance, not what we own but what has been passed on to us through love.
The U.S. government listened to the leadership of Native peoples. They heard the voices of the Navajo, the Ute Nations, the Hopi and the Zuni, members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition who asked for the protection of their ancestral lands to both honor the graves of the Ancient Ones and ensure the collection of medicinal plants, that they might continue the sacred nature of their ceremonies for future generations. Traditional knowledge in partnership with scientific knowledge inspires us to see the world interconnected and interrelated.
We can all celebrate this triumph with the tribes as fellow residents of the Colorado Plateau. We can honor the abundance of life and solitude and a night sky of stars that has arched over these erosional landscapes for eons. It is this eternal beauty, timeless and transcendent that can temper the malfeasance of small-minded politicians who threaten to undo what has already been done – “In beauty it is finished” says the Navajo Blessingway.
The evolutionary story of wonder has been written and revised as an ongoing narrative of change that allows us to remember what it means to be human in a world much larger than ourselves. The eloquent proclamation of Bears Ears National Monument reminds us what Native people have never forgotten: We are not the only species that lives and breathes on this beautiful planet we call home.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. She lives in Castle Valley, Utah.