In Memoriam, Mike Moore

I had a friend who drank too much
and played too much guitar – 
and we sure got along. 
Reel-to-reels rolled across the country near and far 
with letters poems and songs…. 
but these days he don’t talk to me 
and he won’t tell me why. 
I miss him every time i say his name. 
I don’t know what he’s doing 
or why our friendship died
while we played the poet game.
– Greg Brown, ‘The Poet Game’

 

“Why Mountain Gazette? Why not?”

That’s the way Mike Moore introduced the first issue of a new magazine “generally about the mountains” in the fall of 1972. Exactly what Moore had in mind, no one really knew.

For example,  here’s Barry Corbet, a noted mountaineer, skier and filmmaker in the 60s and 70s, sounding puzzled: “I have in hand a letter from Mike Moore, editor and manager of this journal. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to write ‘from one to sixteen pages about the mountains….’”

He accepted the assignment, of course, as we all did, all the writers who got that letter—Moore’s stable, writers living above 8,000 feet elevation if only in spirit. Mountain Gazette. Why not?

Now, it’s a long way from 1972, and word just came in a roundabout way that Moore died November 20, in Vermont where he has lived most of the past quarter century. This is not an obituary—he wanted none of that: no funeral, no memorial, no eulogies, said the notice making the rounds. Okay, but he can’t stop old friends, old loves from remembering him. Trying to re-member (sic) him through what he brought to our lives in what was the relatively brief but very intense first five years of the Mountain Gazette.

The Mountain Gazette wasn’t actually a startup; it was an acceleration or expansion, or maybe a digression, from another magazine, Skiers’ Gazette, that had entered the field of ski journalism in 1966, a newsprint gadfly journal that was the Village Voice to the ski industry’s array of earnest four-color Wall Street Journals (the romance of ski capitalism).

I became part of Moore’s SG stable of writers while I was running the Crested Butte Chronicle in the Colorado resort town of same name. He occasionally reprinted something I’d written in my gadfly newspaper; and when I left the newspaper business, where the ratio of business to writing was too high, to try to pursue a career freelancing, he offered me a chance to write a column for the SG.

That was great: I invented a mythic ski town, and over the course of that winter unloaded half a decade of observations that would have lost me all the Chronicle advertisers I hadn’t already lost. Moore made sure we writers didn’t worry about the impact of our biting of the hands of the advertisers that fed the SG and our meagre checks; still, we might have hypothesized that Moore’s motivation for expanding the Skiers’ Gazette to the Mountain Gazette was a need for access to a larger body of advertisers to offend.

But that was not Moore’s motive; he wanted to find, nurture and give voice to the 20th-century literature of the mountains, and the strange post-urban cultures springing up in the mountain towns like new mushroom species. Skiers’ Gazette had made him aware that there were lots of articulate and over-educated misfits, malcontents and de facto expatriates slinking around the mountain towns and beyond, trying to piss a line in the snow—dirtbag hippies, burnt-out suburbanites going exurban, lawyers undergoing a Saul-Paul transformation, Lord Jims in orderly retreat, all of whom knew, sort of, what Robinson Jeffers was trying to say: “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” He wasn’t beating the underbrush of the mountain valleys for advertisers but for writers, whom he could lead, push or otherwise nurture or seduce to some greater level…. He didn’t want to just do a Village Voice for the mountain regions; he wanted to do a high-altitude New Yorker: the socio-economo-politico-cultural voice of a place and a time whose writers he believed might have something interesting to say.

Paradoxically, Moore was not a “mountain person” himself. He grew up in Colorado’s Front Range cities— cities that are to the mountains what Boston and San Francisco are to the ocean. He didn’t ski, didn’t climb, didn’t even hike much except on golf courses with a mountain view. As MG editor he mostly came to the mountains to visit his stable of mountain writers, visits that seldom moved beyond the bars of those places.

And by extension, the exemplars he carried in his heart were—I think—the great urban editors and publishers of the mid-20th century – people like Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, the man who “found” and brought to full bloom Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones and others. That was what Moore wanted to do, the life he wanted to live.

I was lucky enough to make it onto the short list in his stable—those not just called but those maybe chosen, after a little serious work and tuning. He was the kind of editor who edited from the front, pre-manuscript, as well as what he called “pissing in the manuscript” after it was in. This often involved 12-to-7 “working lunches” for throwing ideas around that got better as the afternoon deteriorated, in the event that either he or the writer was capable of remembering the ideas – especially since the working lunch usually deteriorated further into just going out and overindulging for the rest of the evening. Moore also worked the phones with writers – and being an insomniac himself, a 3 a.m. call was not unusual.

But most of Moore’s interaction—at least with this writer—came in letters, those things we used for communication before email. I have a whole file drawer of letters from him—and I wrote as many to him. I reread the folder of his letters from the Gazette years the weekend after he died, and some of them would begin, “Responding to your two letters from last week….” What were these letters about? Well, about one to sixteen pages. They might be about a piece I was working on, or he wished I was working on; but they were also ongoing conversations about things he’d read or I’d read or we’d both read (it was Spengler for quite a while), discourses on what was happening in our lives, and –… But that sounds so damn – literary.

I need to downshift and get honest here about re-membering Moore. The letters, the long meetings were a love affair, is what they really were: we were both in love with my potential. That sounds terribly egomaniacal, but I think it is true, and the affair was conducted through this mad blizzard of letters about writing, with a focus on my writing. There was nothing sexual about this love affair – but something he said in one letter about his sex life kind of explains something about his relationship with the writers he worked with.

He said that he took a lot of his self-identity from the woman’s physical satisfaction—“She comes; therefore I am,” was how he put it. So it was with us: if, with his suggestions, support, critique, wheedling, stimulating and stroking, we might finally write something generally about mountains (and what isn’t?) that communicated a little Wright-Brothers-type hopping flight of the soul—then he existed too. I knew of course that he was profligately twelve-timing me with all the other Gazette writers; we all knew that, and jealousy occasionally intruded, but basically we loved him back as profligately: our Max Perkins, shepherd, custodian, editor, lover-of-our-potential.

If you were one of his short-list writers, he would—eventually—publish just about anything you sent him. Even in complete disregard of the “one to sixteen page” parameter stated in that first letter. Between stages in my own life in the summer of 1975, I cranked out a 90-page manuscript in a two-week burst of desperate something-or-other—in many respects, just a longer letter to Moore, but more generally about mountains. I sent it to Moore, with a letter asking him to see if there were any salvageable fragments in it, anything to take out and work up; “I can’t imagine what you could do with the whole mess,” I concluded.

I got a letter back a few days later that began, “We’ll print it, of course; we just have to figure out how and why”—then went into a description of how he had alarmed patrons at the bar where he went to read it, with noisy outbursts of laughter, backtalk, and other manifestations of his tendency to be a very active reader…. We define love too narrowly, too pedestrianly, if it can’t include this – not just “brotherly love,” but loverly love, a kind of shared intimacy involving mutual penetration of each other’s minds and hearts, and the kind of trust that enables that.

Eventually that outpouring became the final part of a four-part series that involved a lot of back-and-forth calls and letters, a couple emergency work days in Denver, and some serious stress on both of us. When done it occupied more than 50 pages of the magazine over four months, and was very well received in the mountain world. For us: how was it for you, did you…? Yes, the peak intensity, climax of our love affair with my potential, through which his potential was realized. We came together on it; therefore we were.

He thought the “Part of a Winter” series should become a book, and started calling in or begging favors from every big leaguer he had ever encountered in the rarified realm of New York publishing. But this was also a time when he was going through a lot of personal trauma—a failing marriage, financial troubles at the magazine, a lot of heavy drinking and the indiscriminate bestowing of random female orgasms. I got a contract eventually, with what turned out to be the wrong publisher—my fault, not Moore’s.

And not long after that, in 1976, Moore left the Mountain Gazette and Denver, to set off on an extended tour of Europe with his family in what even he could see was predestined to be a futile effort to salvage the marriage. The book was edited by a young woman in New York who knew commas but didn’t know what either she or I were doing; suffice it to say that Part of a Winter wasn’t the Look Homeward, Angel or Farewell to Arms that Moore had made us both believe it could be, in the intensity of our affair.

We continued to write letters for a number of years after he left the Gazette, but with increasing infrequency, while he went through a number of editing jobs, and eventually a partnership in a Vermont publishing house. Finally, he stopped writing entirely—not just to me, his partner told me, but to everyone from his “former life”. For almost two decades I heard nothing from him, until out of the blue he called one afternoon a year or so ago—“to say goodbye”: he’d received his death sentence from the doctors.

Well, no eulogy then, Moore, per your instructions, no obit, just this effort to re-member you in my life, keep you a member in my life, and remember how you changed my life, for better or worse. I think we both eventually realized that I lack something—the ego, discipline, drive—to really realize fully whatever potential I have or had in the running for the Next Great American Writer, and that may be why you stopped writing letters. But I thank you from whatever depths I have for your seemingly boundless love for us all during those first intense and exciting Mountain Gazette years, which like all love is given, just given, and not for what we are but for what we might become. Unsustainable, love like that, but how gray life would be without ever having had it.          —George Sibley

The Gazette at, uh, 40

Karen Chamberlain With Mike Moore

Photo of Karen Chamberlain with Mike Moore by Bob Chamberlain

I’m still getting used to this idea of a 40th-anniversary celebration for a publication that spent around 20 of those 40 years in a deep coma (we all thought it was dead). Can we really say that a publication, which lived for only one decade, then pulled a Rip Van Winkle, actually rose up and lived again?

Well, I think we can — as Mountain Gazette founder Mike Moore said in the first issue in 1972, “Why not?” Especially since refounder M. John Fayhee very deliberately set out to resurrect and carry forward the old publication, rather than just start up a new one with the old name. He scoured the West to scrounge up the aging survivors like me from the Seventies publication, while also looking for new young blood to seduce into the indulgence of speaking from the heart about things you love, an indulgence that ruins you forever for the practice of what passes for journalism today in publications that actually pay serious money, where you’re just supposed to paw through the hearts and minds of others and keep yourself out of it.

Now Fayhee, the Natty Bumppo of this expedition, has asked those of this band of brothers and sisters who were actually alive and writing in 1972 to give some personal reflections on Then and Now and what went Inbetween. He also asked us to keep it to around 800 words, which is an unusual Mountain Gazette request, but understandable, since otherwise this issue might weigh too much for the average reader to handle unaided. And he also asked us to try to avoid the usual reflective funk about how everything has been really going to hell on our watch.

In 1972, I personally was in further retreat from the world, living in a shack six miles by ski from the mountain town to which I had retreated six years previous. That sounds depressing, but it really wasn’t. My retreat was, as Conrad said in “Lord Jim,” “in good order,” and it was also a pretty nice shack — although ultimately a little small (16’ x 20’) after our daughter joined my partner and me and our young son. It offered a mix of 19th and 20th century living; we had to haul water from a nearby spring, the toilet was about a hundred feet due east and the bathtub was a big bowl that also served as my partner’s bread-rising bowl (no baths on bread day). But we had electricity for the long nights, the windows faced south and gathered a lot of sun, and it was an easy place to warm up with a wood stove, which I kept fueled by strapping myself into the snowshoes and a rope harness on sunny afternoons and going up on the nearby hillsides to haul down a matched pair of dead-standing aspen.

It was in fact a pretty cushy life — a civilized life, there six miles beyond the plowed-out part of civilization. I was ostensibly there to write — and did, some, first for the Skiers’ Gazette, then when the name and mission changed toward the ambiguous, for the Mountain Gazette. But mostly, I guess I was there to stare at the wall or out the window and think, or go out and ski around and think, because that’s mostly what I did. Think about the world I was retreating from.

There where civilization and nature coexisted and contended in an often delicate balance — that was where I began to distinguish between “the world” and “the earth.” There’s this planet here, which we are on; that’s the earth. And we are one very successful species in a thin layer of what geologists call “fluff,” life, spreading over the restless rock and wind and water of the planet, and what we do as a species is create worlds that we superimpose over the earth. Our worlds are imagined and partially executed reorganizations of the earth and its fluff of life to make the earth more accommodating to ourselves and our needs and desires.

There are, as I see it, only two ways to look at the past forty years both positively and sort of intelligently. One is to say, wow, we have sure gotten adept at turning the earth into a world. This isn’t just a matter of the technological changes of recent decades (like this device on which I not only “write” but also store my brain). The world we are still making has also essentially permeated what passed for relatively untouched “nature” in places where most of us Gazetteers like to hang out; everything is subdivided into units by use, and all of it is being overlaid by information about it. We have wolves again, here and there, but most of them have radio collars to keep someone informed about where they are, what they’re up to — just as most of us voluntarily carry a variation on the radio collar that keeps someone else informed about where we are, what we’re up to. There’s really no putting things back; there’s just going forward.

A second way to look at the past forty years is to say that today we know a hell of a lot more than we did in 1972 about what we are doing to the earth in this process of creatively laying a world over the earth. And also what we are undoing for the earth. We may be gradually turning ourselves into a reflexive species — a species that thinks more inclusively about what we are doing and undoing while we are in the process of doing it. And even before we start doing it.

So today — much more so than in 1972 — there is a tension between our increasing knowledge of how to manipulate the earth into serving our world vision, and our increasing knowledge of what happens to the earth when we so manipulate it. Never mind that the hard-charging manipulators have dominated the politics and economics of the past forty years; they have not achieved their goal of silencing the reflexive voice always posing the obnoxious questions: Do we really know what we are doing? Couldn’t we think this through a little further?

Exploring and resolving the tension there, between those two competing cultural drives, may be the work of the next forty years — 2050 is the current long-range planning horizon for most governments and agencies that have no choice but to keep on doing, but with a growing awareness of what we are doing. And undoing. And that exploration doesn’t all have to be “scientific” and data-driven; it’ll be a lot more accessible if a lot of it is anecdotal. Sometimes we get that in the Gazette. I just hope the Gazette doesn’t fall into another 20-year Rip Van Winkle, either due to being too serious or too superfluous.

George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter: A Memory More Like a Dream” and “Dragons in Paradise: On the Edge Between Civilization and Sanity.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Dick Dorworth reflects on Edward Abbey, and his influence on him

The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Sera and the Wildernext

There are maybe a dozen of us, sitting on folding chairs at the center of three empty acres of old cracked concrete, listening to a young man and the wind play on a long wooden flute, and watching a dancer courting the concrete.

She lies on it, slithers along it, lays her cheek on it. But the concrete is unmoved. Finally she rises and walks off into the vast flatness of the slab, past the brown stickery weeds growing out of the cracks, walks to where its flat horizontal plane ends in a long vertical plane of more concrete, while overhead a flight of geese honks toward the horizon, a distant train answers from a crossing somewhere off toward Commerce City, and the cirrus-streaked sky is what it always is, everywhere.

Watching the dancer trying to humanize this vast forlorn and empty place, my mind wanders off to something Ed Abbey wrote back in the 1970s — a newspaper article someone sent me. I carried it around for years, folded up in my first copy of “Desert Solitaire,” until that book wandered off as books do, the clipping with it.

It was a short essay about a visit to an abandoned pier or dock area somewhere in New Jersey, where Abbey lived and worked before he moved full time to the Great American Desert. The nut of the piece was his observation that that abandoned, filthy, polluted, derelict industrial remnant rotting into the water was the real American wilderness. Or the new American wilderness, something like that: basically, it was an American wilderness — a made-in-America wilderness. It was not the kind of place around which anyone would think of making a “wilderness park,” but at that point in its devolution it met the basic “uninhabited by humankind” criteria of wilderness.

To say anymore would probably be putting words in his mouth — a good way to get haunted by his acolytes, some of whom probably have that little essay laminated. But back when I first read it, that little essay made me think about my own life — a little defensively. That’s the unsettling quality of Abbey’s work, like this dancer’s work too.

At the time I was — so I thought — living on the edge of the real American wilderness, up in the mountains of Colorado, a quarter-mile or so from the boundary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area. We were winter caretakers six miles beyond the end of plowed-out civilization. Me, my partner in parenting, our young son, and eventually our even younger daughter, who is now the dancer trying to engage, embrace the three-acre concrete slab.

Speaking only for myself (a luxury the dancer didn’t have then), I was there for the same basic reason that Robinson Jeffers sent messages back from out in the middle of nowhere most of his life:

“…for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.”

From my perspective, that pretty well says where we were, and why. I did not delude myself that we were “self-sufficient” in any meaningful way: we packed in a lot of canned goods and dry staples every fall, earned mostly by working construction on houses that represented the ultimate tentacular sprawl of “the monster,” and what I mostly did while there was try to write things that would sell in “the thickening center” from which I imagined myself to be in a kind of Byronic romantic retreat. It was not what today I would call an economically, philosophically or environmentally sustainable situation.

But that place was where daughter Sera was born, out of the Perseid meteor shower one August night. In her early years, we imagined Sera to be a “Heidi,” a child of the high places, the still pure and unspoiled places. And for a time, that seemed accurate: the first time we took her to Denver in the summer, she all but collapsed, basically passing out on the bed through the hot afternoons. I imagined her becoming a permanent resident of the High Country, like me.

But at some point, she — moved on. Moved down, I should say, down into the thickening center. She kept to the mountains into her college years, following Norman McLean to the river that ran through Missoula and the university there. She majored in dance — the daughter of two not very successful artists who did not learn from our bad examples.

But while there, she learned about a dance teacher sat Smith College in Massachusetts that intrigued her, and through a masterful act of National Student Exchange wangling, she managed a senior year at Smith on Montana in-state tuition. And after graduating, she followed her mentor to “Monster Central,” moving not just to New York City, but uptown to Harlem.

She was there to help get a very multicultural dance company started, and effort that ebbed and flowed for several years — she actually got praised, by name, in a New York Times dance review once, some kind of a benchmark for young dancers. But it was also where she began her flirtation with that other American wilderness Abbey wrote about so briefly, the made-in-America wilderness of uninhabited ruins exhausted and abandoned by industrial civilization. Our “wildernext.”

Dancers in New York need some kind of paying work to support their habit, and she karma’d her way into a job at Battery Park — the extension of the original park, up the side of the island, an enlargement of the island literally built on the rubble dug out for the basements of Manhattan’s skyscrapers and dumped in the Hudson River. It started as a summer temp job, but she discovered an affinity with plants, and on the strength of that, plus her affinity for working well with others, was invited back the next summer. And when the dance company finally ebbed terminally, the Park took her on full time, benefits and everything, with the title of “horticulturalist” — a dancer with one survey course in biology, but a good mind and good OJT.

While working at the park, she got a crash course in “reinhabiting ruins” on and after 9/11. She was working that day — hit the ground when the second plane went over the park full throttle a few hundred feet above them. The rest of that day and for the next month, she worked through the death-snow of asbestos and gypsum that fell on everything, turning the lower city into a temporary ruin dominated by the seven-story mountain of debris at its center. She’s one of several thousand “9/11 heroes” named in a memorial book the city created.

But — living in New York, living in Harlem. Jeez. I visited her there a couple of times. The best thing about the neighborhood she lived in was that it was in fact a neighborhood. A busy one. It was not dangerous, in the way we outlanders think of New York as being dangerous, because there was always someone around, someone watching, loafing, listening, commenting; it would have been embarrassing to try to commit a street crime there (although bodies — ODs — occasionally turned up in the little park across the street from her building). It would have been easy to find a fight if you wanted one, but nobody seemed to be really looking for one. It was my first experience at being an invisible, ignored minority. Trying to sleep up in her fifth-floor apartment (the elevator often worked), with both the humidity and the temperature of that heat-island hovering in the eighties at midnight, I reminded myself that at least it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood; it was too damn busy, too damn noisy to be dangerous, but damn I wished the guys drinking and yucking it up down by the goddamn dumpster would just shut up for a bit …

The old apartment building she lived in was handsome, with once-polished marble in the foyer, and the elevator was probably once the wonder of the block — but it was the same marble, same elevator a century later. The walls of the apartment had that layered look that old apartment buildings get after the consequences of scores of residents have been painted over and over again.

Going out in the morning, I wasn’t depressed by the city, I was oppressed. To me, it was a city of stone ruins — ruins still inhabited, ruins even loved by their inhabitants. But it was stones that had been floated into place on the strength of dreams, visions and hopes that were either worn out or getting that way; the stones no longer floated in place; they weighed. To me, the city felt heavy with a past that was wearing out. It was infiltrated in a lot of places by tall alien invaders of glass and aluminum, but the overall feel to me was a weight of stone that was no longer buoyed by a future.

Walking around downtown, I remember coming around a corner to see, there before us, the marble entrance to one of the older Manhattan bridges, built when the city still had its magical future — a magnificent structure that seemed to say, this is not just a bridge, this is a monument to the idea of crossing. Crossing to what? Well, today, it crosses to Brooklyn, Queens, wherever, but that hardly warrants such a monumental entrance.

It was the same throughout the city, for me. The Empire State Building — again the city’s tallest skyscraper — is as graceful as a muscular mountain of stone can get, a monument to reaching (as opposed to the blocky arrogant monuments to in-your-face bigness that now don’t even exist as ruins). But it is a monument to a time when “empire” was still considered worth reaching for, not yet a dirty word. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with its cathedral towers, and went below it to the old Brooklyn Ferry dock, where Walt Whitman’s lines to “Mannahatta” are inscribed to the fabled skyline across the water — but inscribed on a fence, not a gateway.

What did Sera see here? But I remembered my father paying an early fall visit to the cabin we were living in up at our place six miles beyond plowed-out civilization. He saw no romance, no vision; he just saw a kind of decrepit cabin, surrounded by weeds and woods and mountains, where we were proposing to raise his grandson. “It’s dirty,” he later told my sister, who was traveling with him. So why should I expect or hope to see what my daughter was seeing in this slow heavy settling at the thickening center?

What I could really see was that she was working really hard to stay there. From 125th Street in Harlem where she had a sublet, it was about seven miles down to Battery Park. When the weather permitted, she bicycled down the parkway along the Hudson; other days she took the subway. If the weather turned really miserable while she was at work, she might have to lug her bicycle home on the subway. Just getting to work struck me as a day’s work. And when the summer air squatted over the city and didn’t move for days, squeezing the shit out of thousands of bags and dumpsters of not-yet-collected garbage, and even cold baths and wet sheets at night couldn’t keep the body temperature under 100 for long when the whole damn heat island was over 100 … It was a hard life, far harder than anything I had ever experienced in my retreat to the mountains.

Somewhere out of all that — mostly out of the park and her work there, I am guessing, but maybe also out of the mountain of 9/11 debris on top of the growing weight at the laboring heart of an industrial civilization growing older — out of all that, she hatched the idea of going back to school, and next thing we knew she — a dance major — was applying to graduate schools in Landscape Architecture. And she got accepted, back in Colorado at the University of Colorado-Denver campus.

Where she now seems to be evolving toward some kind of a vision for the reinhabiting, the resurrection of places like the wilderness created by the world from which Ed Abbey and her father were in retreat. The late afternoon event on the concrete slab was the culmination of an independent study in which she was applying a dancer’s perspective to a place similar to Abbey’s piers — a place worn out and left behind by the forward march of America, a made-in-America wilderness that was what was left of a row of abandoned warehouses after two of them had burned, opening the space up to the sky and the rain of nature in the form of precip, wind and seeds. “For the cold, abandoned feeling already present in the space,” she said in her paper about the study, “what is offered is an excellent starting point for seeing the human body in a landscape where the code of industry is written.”

In Abbey’s terms, she is exploring the wilderness — but a rougher wilderness than Arches or Maroon Bells-Snowmass. In Jeffers’ terms, she is engaging the monster — but at the end of its age, not its beginning, and not as an adversary, but as a researcher wondering how it can be restored to some kind of life.

In the spring term, she will be designing “Roots,” a journal the Landscape Architecture program puts out. The theme for “Roots” this year is “Forgotten Spaces.” “There are some places that cling to life through decay,” the prospectus for the journal says. “They exist, not as they once did, but rather in a suspended state where neglect and time have displaced their former purpose.” Such places (like the three-acre concrete slab) “are peppered throughout the urban landscape and beyond, are quite likely undesirable, and assuredly have untapped potential.”

One July weekend when she was only five, Sera and I hiked through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area, to visit friends in Aspen — I’m not sure what I was thinking, a five-year-old on that kind of hike. We were under-prepared for the amount of snow that was still on West Maroon Pass that year, and the nastiness of a July afternoon snowstorm that caught us; I had to posthole up to the pass, carrying Sera on my back, to the shelter of a rock on the other side where I put her in a sleeping bag for a while to warm up. I was too terrorized myself by my own unpreparedness for how really nasty it had gotten to feel cold or tired.

Warm again in the woods below the pass, the storm transformed into a cold but gentle mountain night. We were full of the exhilarating gaiety you feel when you realize you’ve done something stupid but gotten away with it. We laughed when I charred our wet socks trying to dry them out, laughed at the new pair I made for her by cutting the fingers off an old pair of wool gloves.

But I can’t help but think what a relatively tame wilderness mine is today, compared to these abandoned, poisoned, haunted “urban wildernesses” for which she is beginning to develop some kind of a still-embryonic vision for restoration, resurrection, reinhabitation — but by some new “code” for the land, not the “code of industry” in which the straight line, flat plane and monstrous rectangular enclosure dominate, constructing an efficiency that might inadvertently starve whatever it is in humans that leads them to dance.

It is both a proud and forlorn moment for a father, to realize that, somewhere along the line, after your years of tending, extending and pretending to lead, show, set examples, et cetera, your offspring have sprung off into some totally new and unanticipated arena of life, where you are only going to be able to watch from the near edge, wondering what the hell they are doing — and marveling as they do it. The wildernext.

Senior correspondent George Sibley is a writer, father and retired educator living and working in Gunnison, Colo.