By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
So Ward and a few of his neighbors began talking about the health threat posed by the planned incinerators. They conducted their own (admittedly unscientific) health survey, hoping to get a snapshot of their community's well-being. Illness was everywhere: cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, strange debilitating disorders. "When you realize that there is cancer in every third house you pass, the evidence becomes compelling." The fight against incineration was on.
It was an uphill struggle. Deserts, as Ward says, are difficult places to defend. "Their location populations are often small, scattered and desperate for economic advantage. Because the terms and criteria of our public debates over how land is used are 'practical' or utilitarian, it is hard to protect ground that offers no obvious other economic benefit . . . The connections between what happens in the 'barren wastelands' and what shows up in the blood and cells of those who live downwind are also hard to convey."
What Chip Ward and his neighbors were, and are, up against is more than the military juggernaut or government officials curtsying to their greedy corporate bosses. The real danger lurks beyond the Geiger-counter diseases and Hot Wheels warheads. The enemy is the American aptitude for doing violence to the land, in carefree disregard of the desert as a virtue in and of itself. Ward echoes the flip side of the American ethos, of John Muir's and Gifford Pinchot's efforts to quarantine parts of the West from the blight of Manifest Destiny. Ward: "Those who come to the Great Basin with open minds and active senses . . . see it . . . is a unique place of silence and solitude that owns a spare and stubborn beauty." That ought to be enough. No need to extract its minerals or sweep toxic effluent under its desiccated surface.
It also happens that the desert is part of the fragile membrane of all life. In reality, Ward says, you cannot bury anything there that will not someday re-emerge elsewhere in the ecosystem. All those cattle in the Great Basin grazing dioxin-laced grass produce poisoned beef, which in turn produces poisoned mother's milk, which in turn . . .
NEARLY 25 YEARS AGO, AROUND THE time Chip Ward first visited Utah's complex of red-rock canyons and desert mesas, the noted physician Lewis Thomas told the story of organelles, single cells without nuclei that incorporated themselves into all living things some billion or more years ago. They "are moving about in my cytoplasm, breathing for my own flesh, but strangers," Thomas wrote. "They are much less closely related to me than to each other and to the free-living bacteria out under the hill. They feel like strangers, but the thought comes that the same creatures, precisely the same, are out there in the cells of sea gulls, and whales, and dune grass, and seaweed, and hermit crabs, and further inland in the leaves of the beech in my back yard, and in the family of skunks beneath the back fence, and even in that fly on the window. Through them I am connected; I have close relatives, once removed, all over the place."
What is true about the nature of life inside the body is equally true for life outside. The parched soils and dried-out canyons of the remote Utah badlands are the rim on which we are all perched. We are all canaries. This is Chip Ward's simple, if hard-learned, point.
CANARIES ON THE RIM By CHIP WARD | Verso 238 pages | $25 hardcover