Your wife is pregnant, and you’re worried. Ozone levels spike higher and higher. But both of you have good jobs. You can’t just up and leave, moving to a place with healthy air. A friend—sufficiently affluent—spends the winter inversion months in South America. Another moves out of the valley for good.
Most of us who live in Salt Lake City hunker down—agitated, angry, and powerless to make the air fit to breathe unless the legislature takes action.
I’m ready to teach my class at the University of Utah. I typically ride my bicycle to the TRAX line and relax into the whoosh of the train’s climb up the hill to the U. At the end of the day, I ride home. But today’s air swaddles a gray blanket over the valley, a lid, dense with toxins. It’s a red-alert day, with Salt Lake City achieving the distinction of worst air quality in America. I’m supposed to refrain from exercising. I’m also supposed to avoid driving. A maddening double-bind. Do I injure myself, or do I harm my neighbors?
I love living in Salt Lake City. I fear living here, too, knowing that I’m wreaking permanent harm on my lungs, year by year. By choosing to live here, I’m shortening my life. And what about the damage I’ve already done to my children by choosing to raise them here, by making a home for them in this unhealthy place?
When nineteenth-century newcomers came to the West, they displaced Native people from bottomlands where they had farmed and hunted and wintered for millennia. Most of the new arrivals chose to be villagers, living where mountain creeks flow into valleys and basins. Villages grew into cities.
The cold air that blanketed these new basin homes in winter brought fog and ice on the coldest days, glazing trees and fences with rime. That freezing fog needed a name. English speakers took the Shoshone word for cloud, payinappih, and somehow managed to Anglicize it to pogonip—a new word for the icy needles that coat the land and clot the air in the worst of winter inversions.
Pogonip can be beautiful. I’ve seen Cache Valley cottonwoods and willows along the Jordan River flocked by ice, sparkling and crystalline as fog rises and sun strikes the frozen lacework.
These tiny bits of ice also hurt to breathe; hence The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s admonition, “Beware the pogonip!”
Beware, indeed. We have pumped the air full of poisons. Woodsmoke, coal smoke, lead and sulphur from smelters, industrial chemicals, and the fumes from our automobiles. We’ve limited some of these pollutants, but we’ve grown our population even faster—to two million folks along the Wasatch Front, driving cars, burning wood, using coal-generated electricity, dry cleaning our clothes.
The result? Our lives are shorter, our brains are slower, our babies and elders fatally threatened by breathing bad air on the worst days.
We must live with the facts of our basin home. The cold air will pool, the blanket of inversion will settle over our city. Toxins will accumulate in the air we breathe. Beware—but respond.
We know exactly how to reduce the poisons in our air. Drive less, idle less, in cars that pollute less. Whenever pollution looms, let mass transit passengers ride for free. Fill those buses and TRAX trains instead of jamming the freeways with cars carrying only a single driver. Generate our energy from renewable resources, not from coal. Require clean technology in every power plant. Keep water levels in the Great Salt Lake sufficient to prevent a twenty-first century Dust Bowl. Monitor, educate, warn, plan.
And we know the terrible consequences if we make no changes.
We’ve been warned—by the Shoshone, by the Almanac, by physicians and scientists who list the consequences of our dirty air: miscarriages, pre-term births, strokes, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, cancers, and the premature deaths of our loved ones. Beware.
And, now, act.
Stephen Trimble has published twenty-five books, including Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands. He has served as board chair of Utah Interfaith Power & Light and on the advisory board of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Trimble co-taught the Praxis Lab, “Air Quality, Health, and Society” at the University of Utah. b. 1950