Love and Tar on the Tavaputs Plateau
The State of Utah has labeled the land “multiple use,” but what besides mine can one do on a desolate strip mine? Well, a few things: feel lost, plant seeds, get arrested, and fall in love.
My friend squats down, puts his head to his knuckles, and begins to pray to the murky, thick pond. He prays in the language his grandmother used to speak, and he sprinkles some medicinal plants into the water, like she would have done. I can’t understand his words so I try to take in their gestalt. He whispers an apology for me and my presence on the land, or so it feels to me. I’m hyper-aware of my privilege like a paranoia. I think everything is about me, that my overwhelming internal experience, in this case my guilt, must be felt by others. But he is not praying about me. I am not object nor subject in this spiritual event, which makes me fidget with a child’s anxiety: how do I be in this world, as an irrelevant thing? I think of my own prayer to the water, but it feels all wrong. I never learned to speak to ponds. So I try meditation.
To clear my mind I stare down into the pond, where I see bubbles rising from the bottom.These bubbles are full of air that has worked its slow way through a layer of tar beneath the earth. Bitumen, natural tar. The kind the dinosaurs got stuck in. I can see the tar dragging itself from the ground and into the pond. It is all over this area, seeping from the ground at the roots of aspens, collecting the grass, the soil and the fallen bark into a small, sticky lava flow. Its oozy, shiny texture appears to me like a metaphysical repellant: you don’t want to mess with this stuff. But mess with it some do, because this tar can be made into oil.
We are on the Tavaputs Plateau in the eastern part of so-called Utah, land that was stolen from the Uintah Utes not too long ago. It’s high-desert terrain, beautiful in its sparsity. Up here, I have seen wild mustangs run next to my car as we pass by the countless fracking wells. I guess this is what the state means by the ‘multiple use’ label they have given this land. The horses, the hunters, the pipelines, the yucca, and the natural gas wells all get their place. But what, besides mine, can one do on a strip mine?
As I sit next to the pond I can feel the mine breathing down my neck. Behind me is a slope like a double-sized freeway embankment. It emerges suddenly from the forest, like a boil on a head of hair, and it keeps sloping up and back till it levels off in a dirt pad. On this pad is machinery, trailers and fences that, when viewed from our campsite, silhouette a play about death in the red and orange evening sky. This is land that the Canadian corporation, U.S. Oil Sands, has relieved of its ‘overburden,’ or what most of us call ‘mountain’. To them, every bit of earth above the layer of bitumen is just wrapping paper. They tear it away like an eager child.
There are about one hundred of us camped out on a ridge across from the mine this weekend. Tomorrow, many of us are going to replant that bulldozed slope with native plants. We will sprawl a 100-foot banner that says “Resistance Is Fertile, Overgrow the Tar Sands” over the pile of disrupted earth. We will sing as we pass the “No Trespassing” signs, and we will keep singing even when the cops show up. It is more ceremony than action.
In the past folks have locked themselves to the mining equipment and others have pursued legal mechanisms. Collectively, we have forced this mine to remain small and relatively inactive. But the investors are still investing, the diggers are still digging, and the mine is set to expand significantly. The mine joins in this global chorus of ecological catastrophes that drowns out our protest songs, telling us that our fight is forlorn. Every fossil will be extracted and turned to fuel, every fuel will be burned out of ‘necessity.’ In response to this, I find it relieving to fight outside of the arena of tangible results. Indeed, we know that our permaculture plantings will be bulldozed within days, if not hours. This is not about winning in the classical sense, but about learning to act and to heal, even when everything is hopeless.
We gather in a circle before marching out to the mine. Someone from the Diné Nation prays with song. Burning sage is passed around. I am, again, unsure how to act around this indigenous spirituality. Growing up in the bedrock of global Mormonism, I found pleasure and meaning in my atheistic rejection of spirituality, but such attitudes don’t translate here. Caustic dismissal of the divine is here a colonial project that affronts the traditions of some and denies the needs of all, the needs for some metaphysical alliance to keep us going. I want to embrace this thing, but I fumble to name it, to speak of it, just as I fumble with the sage as it comes my way. I see the nervous eyes of other white folks in the circle, reflecting me. This circle is at the intersection of the sacred and the awkward. It could go either way.
The facilitator of the circle, who is white, suggests that we take a moment to evoke places and people that aren’t with us, to bring them into the action with us. It’s a bold suggestion, and for a moment I worry that it will tip our wobbly unity into a permanent awkwardness. But within a minute people begin to speak the names of dead humans, of other dying species, of rivers and unborn children. As names are spoken, I look about to see my closest friends and my partner. I am also keenly aware that my partner’s other lover shares the circle with me.
Her other lover stands across from me, with their unassuming air and their kind tallness. They have welcomed me into their community with uncommon compassion and regard, even as I fall publicly, loudly in love with their partner. They embrace me with genuine smiles and lanky arms at every meeting, even as I chip away greedily at the time they get to spend with our common lover. They accept my existence with an outward grace that starkly opposes my inner anxiety about the whole affair. When they are around I find myself trying to balance my humility and my eccentricity to win this subtle game: to be the person who lets love be totally free, but still, somehow, ends up owning love. I don’t want to, but I do find it hard to be around my partner’s other lover.
Sometimes when I have a hard time with someone, I turn them into a non-human animal. It helps me to remember that they are also just a fellow creature trying to live in the world. I have taken to thinking of my partner’s other partner as a stick bug. They blend in, by choice. They lank, gracefully. If they pester me, it is clearly my own bias at work. They are just there, trying to look like a stick, as unobtrusive and unpretentious as it gets.
My eyes skip over them as I look around the circle. I am actually far more concerned about my own presence in the circle than I am about theirs. I don’t know what lost ones to call into this space, but it feels wrong to go into this healing action without some larger sense of self.
Some have called their ancestors. But my inclination is to push mine far away from this place. My ancestors came with the first waves of Mormon settlers, farming the cold, hard ground in places like Centerville and Hoytsville. I don’t know for sure how active they were in the genocide that took place on these lands. The sturdy facts are hard to come by as the family history is filled with pages of superficial anecdotes and boilerplate sentences about faith and responsibility. That is the culture: a brittle, formulaic crust that just barely covers a thick, moist trauma beneath.
I am hesitant to speak about my ancestors and to re-center the stories of colonizers in this space. So rather than calling them in publicly, I place them quietly into my pocket. I will till them into the soil on the mine. I will sew their memories with another kind of seed, humbling them to the height of the Lupine, and the fragility of Drop Seed grass.
On the mine, the banner is quickly unfurled, and a long trench is dug below it. The “seed balls,” a mixture of soil and native seed (normally these are called “seed bombs,” but we didn’t want to further the likelihood of being called environmental terrorists), are dropped into the trench. My specific role in the action is as a legal observer. I am responsible for monitoring the police, taking notes on their actions and keeping track of any arrests. But before the police arrive, I take a moment to plant a seed ball. Away from everyone else, I drive the ball into the ground with my thumb. I think of my grandpa’s childhood summers spent working all day on the farm, and his father’s regard of the land as an oppositional force to be conquered. I try to instill a reverence that he may never have felt into my thumb as I push. The ground absorbs the ball like a hungry amoeba.
I feel rapturous, connected, and certain. The prayers of the weekend, linguistically and culturally far from anything I know, stirred in me something outside of my secular lexicon. Maybe spirit is the word. I carry this stirring with me to the mine. I have no reservations about breaking the law to take part in the planting of seeds. During the Indigenous Panel that was held before the action, one of the panelists told us that it is a sacred thing to plant seeds. Hers is the authority that I follow as I walk onto the mine. When the cops show up, they seem small, irrelevant.
I am the first to be arrested, perhaps because I am the legal observer and the police don’t like to be observed. An officer cuffs my hands behind my back and leads me to a seat on the ground. He places me right next to Stick Bug, who is also in handcuffs. We look at one another and stumble into grins that are marked by gratitude and mischief. Our ceremonial preparations, along with the absurdity of being arrested for planting seeds, has exploded my emotional walls. I can’t help but feel a sort of giddy solidarity with everyone around me, but especially with Stick Bug. The polyamorous relationship that binds us, sometimes painfully, becomes in this moment a small secret we share from the cops, another way that our love escapes policing. And this subversive love is unwieldy. I am not expecting to, but suddenly I lean my body towards theirs. I lay my head on their shoulder, gently and briefly, in the most intimate act I can manage with cuffed hands.
They take us off of the mine in twos on an ATV. Stick Bug and I ride together because we were the first two to get arrested. We play a game. I call out the attractions we are passing like a tour guide, and they “oooh” and “ahhh,” pretending to be an obtuse tourist, snapping photos. “If you look to your left, you can see the machines of human progress, and if you look to the right you can see a hole that used to be a mountain!” Stick Bug and I are elated and unstoppable. We play games up until the moment we are released from our cell, twelve hours later.
We are taken to a trailer, and finally put into vehicles for the two and a half hour drive down dirt roads to the Grand County Jail in Moab. The driver of my vehicle is a sheriff, and the first thing he says to us is, “I first came to this land when I was six years old. You know what, no one ever asked me what I thought about all this.” He looks out at the mine, and everyone is silent for a minute as he pulls out of the trailer lot. He grew up spending summers on the Reservation, and he tells us, “all I ever wanted was to stay there forever.” But his father told him as a boy, “you’re too damn white to live on the Rez.” He laments that the land has changed. It’s the loss of water that most concerns him. The streams used to flow year round.
The sheriff wants to make it clear to us, “This is a two-way road.” If the mining company ever messes with us, we can call up these sheriffs. It’s hard to reject such a sincere offering from someone who doesn’t have to make it, but I offer a pointed silence in response. The only two-way road that’s around here is Seep Ridge Road.
Seep Ridge Road used to be a graded dirt road, mostly frequented by hunters and hikers, that cut south from Uintah County, part of an old dream to connect Vernal to Grand County with a highway. In 2011, a proposal to pave part of the road was set forward by Uintah County. The county commissioner explained, "It opens [the Book Cliffs] up for development of some of our natural resources.” Indeed, “some” oil and gas wells have sprung up along the road, and “some” mountains have been destroyed to access fossil fuels. The majority of the funding for the road came from the Community Impact Board. The Board is supposed to collect funds from oil and gas leases and then give that money to communities impacted by the mining. But it’s no secret who this road serves. The pavement ends right at the tar sands mine. The two-lane road only goes one way.
The sheriff and I don’t agree about how roads function, that much is clear. But I love to hear him speak about the bear that he knows, which comes back to the same spot every year to gorge on wild onions left over from a long-abandoned homestead. He tells us about his explorations of these canyons, the old stills he has found, leftover from prohibition days. He has a map that an old man drew for him years ago, which supposedly marks a quarry of buried moonshine. He has never been able to find it, but he has looked. He loves this place, “a land of many secrets.” He probably loves it more than I do.
The sheriff spoke to us as if he were trying to undo the handcuffs with his words, trying to embrace us, congratulate us, encourage us. He admired us, but his admiration was calculated against reasonable considerations concerning private property. This calculated love is everywhere I look. Millions of people hedging their bets so as not to rock the boat that’s sinking. Praising the criminals as you drive them to jail.
Calculation: up until recently, bitumen was not considered as part of the world’s estimated oil reserves because it was not economically feasible to mine. But, spiking oil prices have changed that, and now someone has calculated that there are two trillion barrels of oil in this tar beneath the earth. Miraculously, economic feasibility turns a valueless tar into one of the most sought after resources in the world. As for environmental feasibility, don’t worry, the environmental impact statement for the Tavaputs Plateau has calculated that “the scenic quality of [the area] is generally low.” Calculation serves abstract logic, which aligns itself with power, not with love or humanity. It knows no worldly limit.
I am skeptical of calculated love, but this doesn’t mean I believe in universal love. I don’t love the mine, and I don’t love the cops. If I did love these things, it would interfere with my love for the land. I just want to love the things I already love, and I want to love them wildly, without the burden of justification.
One of the panelists told us that white people can’t just export their spiritual work onto native folks. We have to find our own connection to the land. But when I look for some authentic thing to salvage from my heritage, I find nothing. Where there is not atrocity, there is repression. Where there is not violence, there is mundanity. I can only find that metaphysical love as I walk past the “No Trespassing” signs, as I plant seeds on a strip mine, as I spontaneously embrace my partner’s other lover. This love feels like that wild rapture I never found in church.
The land is still deeply scarred. We let our love pour forth over the mine, and still it did not stop operations. The action didn’t even get much press coverage, despite the twenty arrests. Tangible results are lacking. Worldwide ecological catastrophe persists. It was a healing action, I feel much better myself, but nothing really has changed. I don’t know what to do with this.
In that circle before the action I didn’t ever call in my ancestors. But I did call in a decaying beaver that I had met the previous week along a creek in Moab. I had sat with the beaver, drawing it in my sketchbook with a special focus on decomposition. The skin had petrified and begun to split and disintegrate into holes that gave light to the skeleton beneath. The tail was falling apart in small, patterned flakes shaped like continents. The hair matted, creating a soft bed for the corpse. There was no flesh on the head, revealing long teeth and a fierceness that is always hidden in the skull beneath the face. I had returned to the beaver for three days, each time spending an hour or more with it. On the first day, its smell triggered a carnal rejection in me, and it took some time to overcome such a sensation. But in returning, the beaver’s smell welcomed me to its vicinity, and I began to appreciate the musk of death. I’m sure I carried some of the smell myself after my time there. In that circle I called the beaver to walk with me into that mine, to teach me, if willing, about the healing of rivers in life and the nourishing of ground in death.
Here’s what the beaver told me: We will all die and holes will spread in our flesh for maggots to fill. How splendid, a life complicated with the obstruction of death, like a river re-routed by my dam. Re-routed but not contained. Don’t try to contain. Find a healing in a transgressive love. Love for the smell of death, for the unbridled messiness of your body. Find more love for the seed than the harvest, and don’t spend too much time counting either. These things take time.