That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
People around the world are asked—or ordered—to stay home. But where is home? Where you are now? Where you’re told to go? Where you feel safety? THP author Stephen Trimble considers all of this and his own place of privilege amid Utah’s redrock country.
“Do you feel like a local here?”
The coronavirus crisis has sent us all burrowing into our homes. My wife and I have retreated to our house in southern Utah. We’ll live here through these strange and perilous times—these quarantimes—because it’s the safest place we can be.
We are older, with retirement income to cover our needs, with no kids to home-school, with no jobs to lose, with none of the terror and desperation of those without resources. We’re fortunate, and we know it.
“Space has new meaning. We
talk to far-flung family and friends most every night, reaching out in video calls, across the country, across the globe.”
Space has new meaning. We talk to far-flung family and friends most every night, reaching out in video calls, across the country, across the globe. Boston, Baltimore, Bozeman. Illinois, Israel. A couple in a cabin in the woods in Wyoming, another on an island in Puget Sound. The calls temper our isolation with the closest approximation we can manage of soothing, warming human connection.
And yet we’ve all contracted into the tiniest of worlds. A friend’s daughter is sheltering in a 400-square-foot apartment in New York City. The Israeli couple tells us the government has limited their ventures outside to 100-meter walks.
Here in the West, the vast deserts and mountains that have always defined us now complicate our adaptations to the pandemic, funneling those who flee the cities toward favorite trails and campgrounds.
Privilege—urban privilege, my privilege—ratchets up tensions between insiders and outsiders. Now, it’s not just the familiar resentment longtime locals feel toward affluent city-dwellers coming to play in redrock country, in the Sawtooths or Wind Rivers, in Colorado snow country and Nevada hot springs and southwestern national parks. Now these visitors with their critiques of grazing, resistance to industrial development, and advocacy for wilderness don’t just anger legacy ranching families. They endanger these families.
Sparsely populated counties have good reason to ask everyone to stay away, even the motorized recreationists headed out with their ATVs, visitors whose values align more closely with rural communities. Don’t import the virus, don’t strip local market shelves, don’t burden fragile health clinics and hospitals.
Guidelines to life in the West begin to change. National parks close. Lodgings close. The Navajo Nation institutes a curfew banning all travel after 8:00 p.m., to keep folks at home, to flatten the curve of infection. Utah adopts new technology to ping every vehicle driving across the state line with a text asking new arrivals to register and provide contact information and health status.
San Juan County, Utah, restricts camping and prohibits “leisurely travel” in and through the county. Garfield County, Utah, closes all destinations on public lands “where proper social distancing practices cannot be achieved.” Neighboring Kane County bans everyone not a current resident or who “does not own real property in the County” from recreating on public lands.
The officials who write these directives are reaching for a fair definition of “local” while protecting the health of these locals, their neighbors.
“One injured visitor who needs overnight medical care means one less hospital bed for all of those who live in the county,” say the San Juan County authorities. “Even if a visitor is not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, they may still be contagious and increase the risk of infection to our essential first responders, who would then need to be quarantined for 14 days.”
The pandemic barges into the café where everyone knows where they sit and upends the tables. Chairs scatter, drinks spill. Startled customers bolt upright and glower. States-rights legislators in one corner, public lands conservationists in another, Native nation leaders, federal land managers, EMTs, county commissioners, public health authorities, local business owners, climbers, spring-breakers. We are all in this together, but where do we sit now? Who’s in charge, who has the power? Identity and turf get in the way of acting cooperatively to save lives.
What about second-home owners who live part-time in rural counties? That’s me—so I’m grappling with this question. How much does my “ownership of real property in the county” and divided residency grant an ethical right to be here, even now?
The goal, of course, is to avoid spreading the virus. Avoid all contact with other people. Refrain from forays into remote backcountry. Quarantine for two weeks on arrival. If you become ill, retreat to big-city hospital facilities immediately.
Follow these common-sense directives, and I don’t think it’s wrong to be here.
Perched at the edge of public lands, it’s easy to isolate. Easier than in the city. The West has a gift like nowhere else in the country—the legacy of land owned by all Americans that rolls out over millions of acres of wild country. Surely there’s enough space for everyone.
For fifty years, I’ve been writing about the power of these public lands to teach and heal us. I’ve tried every string of words I could construct to convince my readers that these lands belong to us all, not just to the lucky few who happen to live in neighboring towns. They are our commons, our collective backyard, our shared home.
But now I find myself trying hard to explain why my privilege should allow me to wait out the virus in the far reaches of the rural West when I haven’t earned that right by committing to live here full time, an authentic local. Am I just rationalizing? Is this really my “home”?
Not long ago I went to a new health provider in Salt Lake City who asked me, “Do you feel like a local here?”
She told me this was her carefully considered way of asking patients where they were from. She adopted the wording from a thoughtful TED talk by writer Taiye Selasi.
After a moment, I told her, “Yes, I feel like a local, but it’s because I have a relationship with the landscape.” I know that’s not what most Utahns mean by local. Culture is everything for those with Mormon roots. Utahns establish their credentials as “local” with genealogy—often, even, by the arrival date of their forebears’ handcart company.
I can’t do this. So can I still consider myself “local”? I’ve lived in the Four Corners states all my life, and in Utah for more than three decades. I’ve chosen to live here, to remain here, to engage here. As a landscape writer and photographer, “here” and “home” are expansive concepts. I don't have the specific and nourishing sustenance reaped by a family living in the same valley for generations. I’ve chosen another way of living fully in the West, a big-view affiliation with whole landscapes and their stories.
“With sage green, blazing blue, and Wingate red saturating the pixels in my camera viewfinder, my buzzing brain quiets, my concerns dissolve.”
In the space, silence, and solitude of the Great Basin Desert surrounding Salt Lake City, I feel at home. I can say the same when I walk out into waves of slickrock in southern Utah, downcanyon between bonsai piñons and junipers with raucous ravens playing in updrafts along the cliffs. With sage green, blazing blue, and Wingate red saturating the pixels in my camera viewfinder, my buzzing brain quiets, my concerns dissolve.
Selasi asks us to assess our local identities by looking at ritual, relationship, and restriction. Ritual can be anything from where you drink your morning coffee and where shopkeepers greet you by name to where you worship to where you harvest your garden. Relationship grows from where your friends and family shape your weekly emotional experience.
Restrictions impose limits: war, racism, where you are able to live. On a less dramatic scale, all of us living in Utah who are not members of the LDS church are restricted from becoming “locals” by the absolutism of the culture that arrived here in 1847 to displace the indigenous people and appropriate the term “native.”
And yet, by Selasi’s more expansive definition—and mine—I’m a local in the desert West. Selasi says, “My experience is where I’m from. All identity is experience.” I am a local in the places that have shaped my experience, the places where my relationships remain meaningful, the places that give context to my overlapping circles of community.
And so I am a local in Denver and the Colorado mountains where I grew up, in Santa Fe where I matured enough to qualify as an adult, and in Salt Lake City and in Torrey where I live today. When I say “Salt Lake City,” I include the basins and ranges that sweep away to the west. When I say “Torrey,” I also claim the canyons and mesas and mountains of the entire Colorado Plateau.
So I’ll remain carefully hunkered down in my house on the mesa, respecting the rules of the pandemic. Privileged? Absolutely. Local? It depends. Grateful to be in my home for the duration? No question.
Lifelong westerner and author of numerous books, Stephen Trimble tells stories—in words and photographs—about the land and people of the West. Trimble edited the THP advocacy chapbook Red Rock Testimony: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands and its subsequent trade edition Red Rock Stories, and he contributed to the anthology Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness.
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