For most of the day I had lounged in the brilliant sun, numb with pleasure. Such an autumn day deserved full attention: I tried to dwell on the details. The sparkle of waves led me to the river, guarded by a rampart of black mountains jutting into the summer blue sky. Eroded cliffs released tiny landslides of red dirt. The air smelled of earth and bark and rotting leaves. Singing wildly, a pair of slate-colored water dippers whirred by beak-to-tail, then perched on a boulder and bowed politely to the swirling water.
Towards evening I began to fish. The action was spectacular. I caught and released a dozen trout, finally keeping a big brown I managed to coax into taking a black lead-headed jig, and an acrobatic rainbow that flew out of the water when I hooked it. The rainbow was full of eggs; I wanted to throw it back but the jig was too deep. As it lay dying the rainbow quivered, blood seeping from the gills.
I walked over to the river to take one last look. Waves foamed against the cliff, then spread out into a deep, green pool. An old cottonwood tree released a single yellow leaf that soared, spun lazily, then dropped with a dry crackle. A thicket of bristly black hawthorne hung over the water, under which I could see the orange-spotted flanks of a brown trout as long as my arm. When the fading sunlight hit the current, the brown floated up and sipped delicately at invisible insects.
This is the upper Provo River, a few miles above Hailstone Junction. For seven miles the river — wild, splendid, mostly untouched — flows through a narrow canyon between Hailstone and Francis, providing the best fishing within an hour's drive of Salt Lake.
But when I left the river at twilight, strolling through the cool evening air and scented woods, all I could think of was the waste, the stupidity, the destruction.
You see, next year this river will begin to die. A few miles from where I fished, at a place called Jordanelle, swarms of men and giant machines are tearing open an ugly gash in the canyon wall, preparing to dam the river with millions of yards of dirt. Soon this lovely canyon will flood, forming another stagnant cesspool of a reservoir, full of carp and suckers, surrounded by beer cans, and echoing with the gunfire of motorboats.
Another stretch of river is dying. And for what? I'll tell you: more water to satisfy the bizarre Utah lust for petunias and marigolds, more water to dump on grass greener than thy neighbor's — in a climate best suited for rabbitbrush and junipers — more water to waste on zucchini nobody eats. Utah is a desert. Why this obsession with English daisies and Kentucky bluegrass?
The Jordanelle dam is part of the Central Utah Project, engineered by the Bureau of Reclamation (a strange name for people so fond of dynamite). This pork barrel feast has so far cost American taxpayers over two billion dollars. Since their inception in 1902, the BOR eager beavers have been blowing up mountains, drilling huge tunnels, pouring billions of yards of concrete, and flooding hundred of valleys. Among their other triumphs is the Glen Canyon Dam. Most of this frenzied dam building has subsidized huge agricultural monopolies in California. Only two major rivers in America, the Salmon and the Yellowstone, have so far avoided destruction. As inconceivable as it may seem, had not powerful conservationists intervened, the BOR would have flooded the Grand Canyon.
Why is this dam being built? According to the BOR, one reason is, "to provide water to meet the municipal and industrial requirements of the Wasatch Front, where the population growth and industrial development are continuing at a rapid rate." What population growth? What industrial development? Don't these people read the papers? Utah's population growth is taking place in California and Arizona. Utah has become the land of the new exodus. However, I'm not complaining, — let them leave if they want. The Wasatch Front has enough yuppies. The upwardly mobile in search of the good life deserve their fate.
But how about agriculture? Doesn't this water benefit our farmers and stockmen? Well, take a took: how many farms do you see in Utah? The only decent soil in the state lies under the freeways and shopping centers of the Wasatch Front valleys. As for the rest of Utah — forget it. The beauty of Utah is staggering, but it's the beauty of glittering redrock canyons, sunbaked alkaline basins, and steep mountains — none of which are any good for cows or cucumbers. Is there anything more pitiful than the forlorn cattle of Southern Utah, aimlessly wandering the pinon flats in search of a blade of grass?
Agriculture is of little economic importance to Utah. Less than 20,000 people — about .03 percent of the working population — work on farms. The average yearly net income of a Utah farmer is $4,879. Tourism and outdoor recreation are worth far more to Utah's economy than agriculture and livestock. Yet we spend millions of dollars building dams to subsidize a few marginal part-time cowboys in the Uinta Basin and Fillmore, and we do everything we can to ruin those very natural qualities that make Utah the outstanding tourist attraction it is. Why? Who can tell me?
Maybe there's no rational explanation. Maybe no one really cares. Maybe losing a river to produce a few hundred jobs for a few years seems like a reasonable proposition. After all, why bother about an insignificant stream like the upper Provo? In comparison with other rivers this one is nothing. It's too small to compete with the great fishing streams of Montana and Idaho, and too shallow to attract the attention of canoeists or kayakers. It lacks the grandeur and rugged power that evokes "ohs and ahs" from summer vacationers in their Winnebagos. All of these objections are true. The upper Provo is just an ordinary western river. But it's all we have left in Utah. Every other nearby stream — the Weber, Parley's Creek, East Canyon, the Strawberry — have been dammed, dredged, or piped to oblivion. And now the Provo is gone, so that suburban culture may flourish. What do you think — is a wake called for? Shouldn't this sacrifice be given the tribute it deserves?
Let's walk down the stream. Let's see what we are losing. A cold snap hit last night; today the white-limbed trees are rimmed with frost. Branches hang interlaced like tangled yarn, framing the stellar blue sky. The first pink of late afternoon washes over the horizon. Wood smoke drifts from the farmhouses across the street; the scent evokes some feeling or memory you can't quite place. What is it? What does it remind you of? That feeling haunts you for hours.
You walk over exposed roots, piles of driftwood, scattered logs bearded with gray moss. Grassy swells hide channels gouged by high water. A wild river is nature's artery; this lovely little river valley, nourished by a complex network of capillaries, hums with life. Rivulets and channels run in all directions, feeding clumps of willows and mossy beaver ponds.
In spring white water roars down the canyon; when summer comes the brooks become rills, then mere trickles, then disappear into ivy-choked mudflats. Smooth round rocks, all the same size, cover the flood plain. Careful — these rocks are treacherous to walk on. Freshwater shrimp scurry for cover as you move.
Down the river a meadow opens up. You stop and pick the burrs out of your socks. In places wild roses line the banks; stunted clumps of chokecherry festoon the meadow like sheaves of straw. As the afternoon wears on, the red haze deepens on the horizon. Towards the mountain, stands of cottonwoods and Rocky Mountain maple provide habitat for owls, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and families of squabbling bluejays. Deer are everywhere. This canyon is the home of foxes, elk, raccoons, weasels, and all the other residents of a riparian ecosystem.
Something moves in a small tree. A baby porcupine with a teddy bear face looks over and squeaks in terror as you approach. As fast as he can, but, agonizingly slow, as if movement itself were torture, this sloth-like creature creaks out of the tree and waddles away, as yet unaware of his invincibility.
You stroll along the river, at peace, and maybe try a jig in an inviting hole. What a nice cast — but no action. Fishing is long minutes of philosophical quiet punctuated by moments of boiling fury. This contrast of natural fact gives rise to thought. Your mind is cleansed of debris, of nagging preoccupation; the clamoring ego is momentarily quieted. With the power of fresh perception you are able to see the earth as she really is — the true source of humanity's spiritual life. To pollute and destroy such a lovely green globe, when worship is called for — how have we come to this? You cast again, moving down the stream. Flocks of clouds graze near the sun, or so it seems: when you look again the flock sweeps away like birds, white dots against the sky.
You stand hypnotized by the flowing water, not really thinking, just lulled by the soft sound and twisting currents. The frothing waves lick gently at a submerged boulder. This is the moment you've been waiting for. As Herman Melville says — and who knew the water better than he?
"Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to all . . . Meditation and water are wedded forever."
Now it's five o'clock. Only a sliver of the blood-red sun remains above the mountains. The western half of the sky glows orange; the pale clouds overhead darken as the sun slips away. Birds settle in the tops of the cottonwoods, singing their last melody to daylight. Evening perfumes suffuse the air. Right now the fishing will hit viciously — but we must go. The road is far away. You walk with the contentment of exhaustion, exhilarated by the taste of the air, overcome by the sky, full of reverence for creation and that mystical something — call it spiritual peace — emanating from nature. What wonderful things we have seen, what enchantment!
That's all we all ask, most of us: just somewhere to worship in peace. I don't throw mud on your church, why do you want to bury mine in concrete? Utah is a big, wide place: there should be room for creeds and faiths of every kind. We already have hundreds of reservoirs and roads, dozens of shopping malls and convenience stores, an infinity of cozy living rooms. In every house shelves groan with knickknacks, attics swell with last year's Christmas presents. Consumer civilization covers everything. What will it take to satisfy? Does every canyon have to be developed, every stream dredged, every wild place paved and domesticated, so we can have more and more? How much is enough?