Six months ago, with a car stuffed full of belongings, I beelined from Brewster, Ohio, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Before embarking, I knew little about “The West” aside from the common tropes of cowboys, covered wagons, and tumbleweed—a cultural perception frozen in time. I soon realized that fleeing toward the profound open space of the American Southwest also meant diving headfirst into ecological precarity.
November sunset at Delicate Arch
An environmental psychology professor once told me that land value in Ohio would increase with rising tides and parched deserts; the state would inevitably become a climate refuge. All my life, I knew a landscape so highly developed into monocultures of corn fields and strip malls that I was cradled into a latent state of environmentalism. This land I consider home held no tender place in the hearts of desert-dwellers like Meloy and Abbey who wrote of Ohioans as neon-clad spectators of the Southwest. I have come to accept that locals will make this assumption of me (and they have). Despite the questioning glances and smirks I am met with, I know there is still a possibility for belonging.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests that “to be native to a place, we must learn to speak its language.” I don’t expect to ever consider myself a native of Utah, which dismisses the history and presence of the Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Ute people whose inhabitance predates the Mormon pioneers. I do want to earn the right to participate in the conversation.
Mark Bailey, co-founder of Torrey House Press, offered some advice on becoming Utahn: “Go to Salina. Buy cowboy boots,” he told me. I immediately imagined raised eyebrows of Carbon County residents watching me hop out of my Ohio-plated hybrid in a pair of dazzling cowboy boots. I wonder if, much like ecosystem adaptation, cultural adaptation requires time—it requires a bit of listening, noticing, learning the language.
Utah has exposed me to threats previously mediated through projectors in lecture halls where I jotted down notes to be regurgitated on next week’s exam, sometimes forgotten. Here, along the Wasatch Front, pollution is visible; inversion lingers in the valley like a bed-sheet ghost, concealing the coarse and triumphant peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges. Further south, littered and overburdened gateway communities force me to avert my gaze from the glowing red of canyon walls. A smoke-filled sunset at the Great Salt Lake redirects my attention to a neighboring wildfire. Pipeline warning signs welcome me to the cancer research building, exposing a correlation so often ignored. A crippled juniper tree reminds me of the fragility of the human at the helm of aridity.
To belong to the Great Basin requires more than a pair of boots, though boots might be a step along the way. One must hear the preemptive fall of crisped aspen leaves or the blue-coated lodgepole pine’s descent into the soil. I don’t claim to be fluent in the language of this land, but I can say that, by listening, I have joined the conversation. As I continue to hear warning signals from the coniferous forest and the high desert, my desire to speak the language shifts toward necessity. My typical hushed critique and roll of the eyes are not a proper response here. The landscape is beckoning for a fight. A yell, perhaps fueled by a sudden inhalation of particulate matter, seems more appropriate. It cannot quiver or stammer; it must echo through the valley.
Michelle Wentling is from Northeast Ohio and a graduate of The Ohio State University where she studied English. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Environmental Humanities at The University of Utah and is the Torrey House Press Environmental Humanities Graduate Fellow.