OPEN LETTER TO THE PEOPLE: The Sacred and the Revolution (by Ian M. Thompson, 1975)
Editor’s Note: While going through a bunch of my father’s old writing, I came across a copy of the Deep Creek Review, a publication based in Telluride in the mid-1970s. Along with an article titled "Fear and Loathing," about a major crackdown on drugs in the community, I found this piece by my late-father, Ian M. Thompson, written when he was 34. This essay ran in conjunction with that year’s Colorado Plateau Rendezvous in Telluride. Thompson was a writer, journalist, and community advocate. He died in 1998.
Colorado Plateau Rendezvous, Telluride, Colorado, 1975
Let me say at the outset: My family began filtering into the San Juan region of the Colorado Plateau nearly a century ago and I am a fourth generation resident of the San Juan country. I emphasize this not because it makes me more qualified to speak to the issues raised by the Colorado Plateau Rendezvous. I say it because as I point an accusing finger at the wrongs wrought by our “traditional values” I do not wish to appear free of blame. We “natives” have done our part to destroy this beautiful place. The zeal with which we have pursued the routing of nature from the Colorado Plateau is far from exhausted.
We cringe at the prospects of oil shale development and coal strip-mining and the horroros they will visit upon our already desecrated region. We mourn our dammed, stilled, silted rivers. We shudder at the approach of a tidal wave of outsiders drawn by money’s gravity to build the dams, gasification plants, power plants, highways, transmission corridors, and refineries. We see the cultural fabric of our small, humane communities ripped apart and the shreds thrown to the wind as boom becomes bust. We heap scorn on subdividers.
Why do we cringe and shudder? Our dreams are being realized. We are getting, finally, what we have always wanted and feared we would never obtain: Prosperity, the good life. Why, now that it is at last within reach, do we view it with such reluctance, wish to send it back over the mountains from whence we lured it in the first place?
Fooled again, we simply attracted more transient exploiters. Hardhatlessness is no virtue.
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One of my most vivid early childhood memories is of standing on the porch of our isolated farmhouse on a mesa near Durango and watching the approach of the first regularly scheduled airliner ever to land in southwest Colorado. Later there were an airshow and many speeches by local civic leaders hailing the dawn of a new era. The predictions of these wise men have been fulfilled a hundred times over, and the social order led by those wise men now lies close to the bottom of the new social edifice that progress and the newcomers built. Those prominent men who spoke to the awed assemblage of dirt farmers that day are now part of the disenfranchised, bitter “oldtimers” group here. They sought to make destiny only to have destiny bury them. They are for the most part now anonymous. They are local color. They are the repositories of our “traditional values.” They are truly “my people.”
I remember, too, reading the signs on the outer limits of the far-flung villages of the San Juan: “Switzerland of America,” “Hollywood of the Rockies,” “Narrow Gauge Capital of the World,” “Pinto Bean Capital of the World,”… signs that shouted: Come One, Come All, See What We Have Wrought. I believed those signs. I was proud of our mountains, our streams, our “scenery.” It was a possessive pride. It never occurred to us that this beautiful landscape had existed here before us, that we had not fashioned it with our own hands. How great was our pride. We viewed our heritage, our natural landscape the way a merchant views a window display, not as objects of our own appreciation, but as objects to be valued only if valued by others who were lured into our premises by them. We saw our mountains only if they were first seen and commented upon by visiting flatlanders. Then we could barely conceal our pride.
I have seen the satisfaction, the look of having performed a god-ordained act of cleansing, settle across the faces of farmers and ranchers upon the slaying of a cougar or a coyote. I have thrilled to those hunts myself.
I have seen the petty jealousies which destructively turn our Plateau communities against one another. They lurk just under our Main Streets yet, ready to be loosed by self-serving local functionaries.
In the less than three-and-a-half decades of my lifetime I have seen the rapid-fire arrivals and departures of the uranium and oil booms, the arrivals always welcomed by banner headlines on our small-town front pages, the departures hushed and unspeakable. I have seen the much hailed recreation boom mushroom across our Plateau with its gross commercial and real estate intentions thinly disguised as “ski resorts” with its garish billboards, its restaurant and motel strips, its transient workers thinly disguised as evangelists preaching an ecological gospel … evangelists who promise to settle among us if they can finance cheap five acre crash pads in our diminishing forests.
I have seen us come to be epitomized, justly so, by Club 20 shrilling into the void in a super patriot’s voice of growth and free enterprise while smugly begging government funds to pave our valleys and denude our forests.
In recent years, in response to vague recognition that something had gone wrong, I joined hundreds of other natives in the long and successful fight to establish the Weminuche Wilderness Area, only to see it already trampled under the fashionable boots of the present generation, destroyed before the future generations it was intended for are ever born. Fooled again, we simply attracted more transient exploiters. Hardhatlessness is no virtue.
In recent years, blindly groping at straws, we have fought for and won land-use administrators in our counties. With rare exceptions these land-use administrators have drawn five-acre grids across our mesas, valleys and mountains; have segregated land uses in ways that do violence to nature’s logic; hide in their offices in fear of the storm of human passions they have brewed across our Plateau; blame Denver; busy themselves mightily begging next year’s funds from Denver; discuss, in closed meetings with other bureaucrats, the need for greater public involvement; spin fantasies in which all but the most enlightened and agreeable citizens vanish from their areas of jurisdiction; preach land-use doctrines which are a greater wedge between man and man and man and earth than all of Peabody’s draglines.
I tell you about us, the above, because I suspect there is some misguided, potentially destructive myth-making afoot among us. We and our “traditional values” are expected to inhabit those myths. We are being groomed, being taught to perform. So far we show promise of living up to expectations. It is tempting. We are to be enshrined … we will exist at last in the eyes of others and, therefore, know that we ARE! We never dreamed that the flatlanders would turn their enchanting gaze from our mountains to ourselves. All we need to remember is our lines, to catch our cues. We will do ourselves very, very proud. We will be taught simple phrases on how much we love this land, this Plateau. “Love,” too, is possessive.
A Navajo man recently stood up at an environmental impact hearing in Window Rock, after enduring a long line of Anglo environmentalist witnesses, and said:
“Willa Cather was not a Navajo, Oliver LaFarge was not a Navajo, and all the students and professors at Berkeley are not Navajo. Yet they all presume to tell me what we Navajos consider sacred. I hope that just one Anglo will come up here and tell me what Anglos consider sacred."
The immensity of that Navajo man's challenge overwhelms me. I have tried and failed to find ways of escaping it. I, too, now wish to know what I, we, consider sacred. Sacred, sacred, sacred … the word contains immensities of its own. That one word stands poised against other words and phrases we favor: Reason, Policy, Progress, Pursuit of Happiness, Individualism, Traditional Values, History, Humanism.
Sacred, sacred, sacred … the word has pushed me to the edges of terra incognita. I am frightened, saddened, can barely control the impulse to audibly, visibly grieve. Over what? One comfort, I find that I am not alone. There are many more like me here with me, each sent by different revelations.
I grew up believing, as each of us raised in these Plateau villages believed, that to emigrate to the coastal cities was, itself, to succeed. No one ever put it to us in quite that way, but we all knew emigration to be a mark of success, of worth. I have tried to leave. I have not been able to stay away for long. That is my first clue. My soul cannot travel with me, my soul remains here on the west-sloping mesas, in the aspen groves, in the sculpted side canyons, along the desert rivers, in the banners of snow whipped from the peaks, in the wildness, in the fields, in the towns.
Now I know that we do not have to leave here to feel pain. We are brought to agony with each dynamite blast in the crust of the Plateau and in the ether of our souls, with each mouthful of the scattered fragments consumed by the draglines and furnaces, with each new five-acre tract, with each newly arrived savior who promises to stay if he can just find a woodsy crash pad. These are violences committed on our souls.
Now I know that after a century here the sacredness is at last seeping into our very genes.
There are places where this land talks to us in a silent voice. I cannot yet write of them. We all know where those sacred places are.
There are consonants and vowels tumbling through our own arteries to match those spoken by the rivers, mountains, and woods of the Plateau, waiting to become the sacred phrases.
We have, for a century, erred in many ways, not always willfully. The land speaks, is worthy of our worship. It makes us whole. We have not stopped to listen, to worship. We are just beginning.
Let us resist the preservation of our “traditional values” as surely as we must resist the draglines. Let us resist learning our colorful lines as surely as we must resist the destruction of the Colorado Plateau in a last brief, desperate, doomed attempt to save our fossil fuel addiction from its last agony.
Let us sit in the aspen grove, the canyon, on the peak, by the river until the sacredness wells up irrevocably within us and begins speaking. Let us, then, speak it to one another. And when we can bring to Reason, Policy and the Pursuit of Happiness a dimension of Sacredness we will have begun the revolution.
Ian (Sandy) Thompson
Durango, Colorado Plateau