University of Wyoming College of Law
Lake Powell is a human institution. What should become of it?
“On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument-shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.
In this way, John Wesley Powell named “Glen Canyon” during the 1869 Colorado River Exploring Expedition. Then a century passed. The dam that would submerge the “curious ensemble of wonderful features” came to appropriate the name given the canyon by Powell, while the reservoir impounded by that dam would assume Powell’s own.
With the 1869 Expedition’s sesquicentennial, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the concepts of vision and place. Human beings possess an exceptional ability to imagine what we wish our lives to be, individually and collectively, and then to realize (or at least attempt to realize) those visions in material form. That is the lens through which I’ve come to see the Colorado River Basin as a place: the Navajo Nation and 28 other Indian reservations, Grand Canyon National Park and a host of related federal lands, and a plumbing system that is the most extensive in North America, including Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell as integral pieces of that system—Colorado River Compact insurance policy plus cash-register dam rolled into one. All of these things were once just ideas in somebody’s head.
So many visions of the Colorado River Basin have been about conquest, although more innocuous terms are used to stomach it. The mid-nineteenth century—particularly, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—marks the front end of this pattern in U.S. history. But it can be traced at least three centuries prior to the Coronado Expedition’s search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold—the first occasion on which Europeans saw the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Regardless of precisely where the starting point may be set, the song remains the same: human beings have developed and relied on hierarchical ethics to rationalize this, that, and the other thing in their interactions with fellow humans and other parts of nature. No doubt nuances vary by context; there’s always more to the story. But as I continue to spend time with this place, something historian Patty Limerick has written reverberates: “[t]he history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.”
The blunt truth of the term “conquest” is unsettling. And I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way. Yet the term’s truth provides fertile soil. How do we move beyond conquest? How do we build a post-conquest Colorado River Basin? I would like to be part of this project, and to inhabit such a place, or at least to lay groundwork for my children and their progeny to do so. I suppose part of this process involves seeing and owning our past, particularly stories we have told, and continue to tell, ourselves to justify our actions and existence. It can be painful to come to know ourselves in this way, but nothing really changes without such work. Another piece seems to entail realizing we are never alone, but rather embedded in layers of community that span space and time. We are interconnected with other human beings and parts of nature—indeed, these connections are the richest source of human happiness. Our ethics should be shaped by the reality of interconnection. It should foster an “ethic of place” as it has been called. And there are still other virtues that come into play, collectively and individually, in this vein: patience, humility, and perseverance. If transcending engrained habits of the heart and mind associated with conquest isn’t something that demands these virtues, I don’t know what is.
For whatever they’re worth, I share these thoughts while floating above Powell’s “Glen Canyon.”