The time of the long dark nights leaves one looking for light in the trudge toward the cycle of renewal that eventually follows the long winter. This is even more the case when there seems to be a long and bitter “winter of discontent” in the cultural environment as well as in the natural environment — a time of rage, intransigence and meanness from the top levels of governance down to the streets, what Founding Brother James Madison called “the violence of faction” whereby the “instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” It looks like a really long slog to the end of that bitter winter.
In looking for light to hold up to that darkness, I think of the Mexican poet Jose Pacheco: “(My country’s) abstract lustre is beyond my grasp … but I would give my life for ten places in it.” I thought about that — Pacheco’s distinction between the abstract nation-state and the places in it that one would give one’s life for — at the November meeting of the Upper Gunnison River District board, when we heard reports about some projects the district supports in the valley.
Zack Vaughter and Ashley Bembenek were there to report on what the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition has done this year. This group — part of the valley’s legacy from the late Steve Glazer — is primarily focused on maintaining or improving water quality; it has expanded beyond its original focus on Coal Creek, the stream running from Lake Irwin through Crested Butte, to include the whole upper Slate River watershed with projects ranging from straightforward stream monitoring to complex heavy-equipment engineering to deal with abandoned-mine damage.
We also heard from Tom Grant, whose interest in watershed-scale restoration work is such that he left a secure faculty job at Western State Colorado University for a contract with the Upper Gunnison District to coordinate the “Wet Meadows Project” begun five years ago by The Nature Conservancy. The project goal is to mend highaltitude meadows, once wet and grassy, that have become dry brushy meadows because of gullying that lowers the water table. Small rock and log structures are strategically placed in the forming gullies in the highest of the high country. Some call this the “Sage Grouse Project” because the threatened bird needs the grassy meadow habitat, but it also benefits the stockgrowers, and by storing groundwater for more gradual release during the summer and fall, it benefits the entire Colorado River Basin.
The light from these efforts restores some of the “lustre” of America, in my mind at least, by making it less “abstract.” It is fashionable to hate “big government” today; regulation has been made a dirty word; and the movement rages on to privatize our public lands and to starve out of existence the agencies charged to care for them. But these headwaters projects would not be so successful — might not be happening at all — without the full hands-on participation of local officials of the federal and state land management agencies: the Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, Americorps and others.
They invest their time, knowledge and what they can afford of the increasingly paltry funds they are allocated by increasingly mean-spirited legislative bodies. The Coal Creek Coalition relies heavily on funds channeled through the Colorado Water Quality Control Division from the (gasp! shudder!) Environmental Protection Agency, which the current administration claims it wants to eliminate entirely.
We call these actions “local” projects, but they all have a larger and more visionary context with its own “abstract lustre.” We are the headwaters for a great river that ultimately supplies water, food, energy and recreation for 40 million people. How important it is to give the waters for that whole vast region the cleanest and most abundant start possible here in the headwaters?
Points of light trying to keep America great against the lustreless lostness emanating from Washington today: would I “give my life” for this kind of work, in such a place? I’m one of many like Zack, Ashley, Tom, and the great agency of people in the valley, all literally giving part of our lives to this work. Greetings of the season; pray for snow and spring.
(George Sibley is a Gunnisonbased writer, educator and longtime community activist.)