a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Pajama-clad, orange juice in hand, I surveyed the desert landscape through the front door window, and announced, “There’s a boat on the flagpole.” My family’s National Park Service home overlooked the Wupatki National Monument visitor center, not yet open for the day, and the boat and the figure standing in it were undeniably positioned at a height boats and people did not belong, high above the empty parking lot and the sandstone paths and visitor center half-tucked into the hillside.
“What the…” said my dad, and went for his uniform, green, gray, and a gun on his hip.
“I heard something squeaking early,” I said. Maybe I had heard something, metal scraping on metal as the boat ascended. I liked to be the one to know things, a six-year-old authority on all the local events. Maybe I just liked the pride that came with knowing.
My dad left to investigate. My mom, brother, and I watched. It was JD in the boat. We knew him the way everyone knows everyone in small National Parks, as a friendly maintenance worker who offered horse-drawn buggy rides at holiday parties and had a history of using public lands as the backdrop for his dramatic criticisms of the agencies who managed them.
But this was a new move. It was the start of the first Gulf War, President’s Day weekend. The flagpole swayed. It was a tall flagpole, narrow and painted sandstone pink, not like the stocky steel poles at school, and he’d rigged a rope and pulley system, not completely unlike the rope used to raise and lower the American flag every day, to hoist a small orange rowboat almost to the top.
Later, I’d point to where the paint chipped off and say, “That’s from when the boat was up there.” I knew the flagpole well: When I could, I’d run down at the end of the rangers’ shifts and help them fold the sheet-sized flag into a neat triangle. They often closed the visitor center alone, and the help of a kid who really liked folded cloth meant they didn’t have to lay the flag down on the floor and hope no one saw. I liked helping. I liked the rules, the importance of the stars-on-the-outside and the never-touch-the-ground. I liked the ritual. But mostly I just liked folding things.
JD also flew a flag, the stars and stripes upside down and blowing in the wind. This meant America was in trouble. This meant JD was in trouble. He wore his government-issue flat hat in the boat, a fake mushroom planted on top. His boat was labeled “Bush Boat” in black letters. His box to poop in, my dad learned when he and the sheriff from town went up in a cherry picker to talk to him, said “Bush box.” He was set up to stay. He dropped a dummy in a noose out of the boat and called it Bush, and it swung back and forth whenever JD stood up. When he put the other noose around his own neck I wasn’t allowed to watch anymore. My dad and the others took all the mattresses from all the houses down to the flagpole in case he jumped, and put a metal trash can upside-down over the posts.
He did not jump.
He did not spend long in jail.
He did not come back to work for the National Park Service, or stop the war.
When I think of my childhood relationship to place, I think of Ed Abbey’s account of walking with his nine-year-old daughter to the site of a then-proposed road. When asked by her father why she thought no road should be built, preventing the “too old, too young, too fat, too thin, scared, ignorant, rich or poor” from getting to the place, she replied, “Everybody can’t have everything.” When asked if she thought she was “better than most people,” the child replied, “Well, a little bit better.”
I know Abbey was an asshole, but I’ve always admired that at least he knew it too, and he wasn’t paralyzed by the holes in his own arguments. Maybe that says more about white men than the ethics of roads, or wars, but there is a lesson I’m drawn to in exploring the gray areas with feet firmly planted on the ground.
Comparisons between Abbey and JD were inevitable. The subtitle to the Arizona Daily Sun article reporting on JD’s more recent sentencing—five years probation for blocking a mountain bike race in the Coconino National Forest—reads, predictably, “No more monkey-wrenching.”
Beyond the visitor center and the parking lot from what was then our house, the Painted Desert stretches to the east, eighty-mile visibility on a clear day. The reds and rusts of Coconino sandstone fade blue in the distance, blending with the sky as dusk nears. I think of that view as my first entry into the world, standing on the porch where I felt like I could see it all.
The morning JD raised his boat was not clear, but a gusty, hazy winter day, flat light and no shadows.
National parks and monuments have, as critics routinely point out, a lot of rules: When and where you can walk, camp, bring a dog, drive a car, collect rocks, pick a flower, sell art out of your car, protest a war. That hyper-sensitivity to rules and regulations and our unearned exemption from them infused our imaginations, and my brother and I played a game at Wupatki that we called “visitoring”: Spying on the people who came to see the partially re-stabilized ancestral Puebloan village the monument preserved.
A round of visitoring started from our front porch, where we could assess visitation flow on the trail, then progressed behind the visitor center, and under the public bathroom windows. We crouched low to remain out of sight from both the trail and the bathroom stalls.
Being older, I usually led us from the window into the narrow concrete drainage ditch, a three-sided trapezoid filled with leaves, sticks, and cinder, and just deep enough to hide our small bodies from visitors below ground level. It didn’t rain enough to clear out the debris, and it crinkled and scratched as we slid through it.
If we made it into the ditch without causing anyone on the trail to turn around and without hearing exclamations from the bathroom of “What was that?” or “Is there something outside?” we were allowed to slither forward on our bellies toward the trail. The ditch followed the visitor center wall for the first ten feet, until it surged into the open. There, we were hidden from view only by the spindly garden where the rangers tried to grow beans and corn, twelfth century style, in a square of dry cinder fenced by chicken wire. If we made it past the garden undetected, we won.
Victory came easy on slow days, when we could coincide our advances with the breaks in visitation. But the challenge was in not being seen when being seen was a distinct possibility, and so holiday weekends were best if you had something to prove. Visitors, we learned, don’t expect to be watched as they do their watching of the landscape. Still, one too-fast move or unfortunately timed shoe-scrape against the concrete walls of the ditch could bring the attention of the trail-bound visitor, who would turn their eyes on us and ask their companion, “What are those kids doing over there?” In this case, we lost, and we’d simply stand up, slink back to the porch where we came from, and start the journey over.
When we moved into Flagstaff, I spent a lot of time under the bed, trying not to be seen. I didn’t like the neighbor kids showing up without warning and asking me to play with them, and my mom proved an indiscriminate sentinel, inviting kids in to try to coax me out in person. This, then, became a game of will: could I remain under the bed until the other kids tired of demanding my company?
I usually could. We’re all just waiting for the moment to make our move.
My dad worried that in writing about the flagpole incident I would make a mockery of a man in crisis. I assured him that I can more easily relate to how one might end up in a boat 30 feet in the air flying a distress flag than how one might end up a law enforcement officer. My dad opposed the war too, but when it came down to it his uniform allied him with the sheriff. I thought of the boat sometimes while attending anti-war protests every Thursday and Sunday in the early 2000s, and wondered why JD had chosen such an obscure location; why not raise the Bush Boat at the courthouse in town, somewhere the media might actually show up?
I thought of JD decades later when I found myself alone at 3:30 am struggling to tie a sign painted on a cardboard refrigerator box addressed to then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who would be arriving later that day to promote his public lands extraction agenda, to the entrance sign at Denali National Park, Alaska. Early morning in May at high latitude doesn’t provide the cover of darkness, and by the time I’d tied the cardboard to flop unevenly against a post, the sky glowed pink and a steady stream of cars rolled down the highway en route to breakfast shifts. At least JD brought enough goddamned rope, I cursed as I drove away.
That evening, a law enforcement ranger who’d been on duty told me gently over beers, “I recycled your sign.”
“It wasn’t mine,” I started to say, but stopped. We’d both had a long day.
“Thanks,” I said. We left it at that.
The nationalism of the National Park Service can feel like a comfortable incarnation for me, and for many who might otherwise distance ourselves from the American flag, from its wars, from its thefts. So many of our private lives are mapped across these designated public lands, political critique softened by pride in the iconic landscapes our own or our family’s employment grants intimate access to. The wars are fought elsewhere. Ours is a legacy of imperfect stewardship.
Growing up, my family had a VHS copy of a satirical amateur movie called “Big Park,” in which caricatured mustached park rangers invited themselves into a wholesome white family’s home and announced that they were taking it over and turning it into a park. They knocked dolls from the kids’ hands, made messy sandwiches in the kitchen, replaced family portraits with the arrowhead logo, all while singing cartoonishly about the Big Park they’d create. We laughed along with it; I wasn’t raised unaware of government displacement, but the movie family’s whiteness distanced them from the violence of the histories we talked about less.
By summer 2020, much of the work of federal land management agencies had been restructured and redirected by the Trump administration to facilitate as much oil and gas leasing as possible, but the National Park Service remained relatively unscathed. From Alaska, I watched the videos of law enforcement attacking Tohono O’odham protectors at the U.S./Mexico border, pausing and zooming in on the uniforms of the men pushing women to the ground in defense of the steel wall behind them.
The Border Patrol, yes, of course, of course. But by this time they were building in Organ Pipe National Monument, rushing to finish by the time the administration left office. Not all the uniforms were so easily vilified. NPS arrowheads on gray shirts seemed to leap off the screen and down my throat where the image sat like poison in my gut for days. Of course I knew there are assholes working everywhere. Of course there is power in carrying a weapon. “A cop’s a cop,” a coworker said, and I snapped back “I know that.” But I still held a sliver of that childish notion of exceptionalism, that the uniform I associate with family, community, a half-decent Plan B whenever my other job prospects didn’t work out, wouldn’t be so damn obvious about its imperialist violence. The agency’s mission, “to preserve unimpaired,” left the constructed barrier better protected than the desert’s watershed or the people who have stewarded them for generations. I had to remind myself again and again that this is not unexpected from a set of values that sees so few ways to acceptably be a human in a place: only a visitor. Never at home.
Over the summer, I was given a box of discarded flags in varying states of disrepair, weatherworn and tattered from years flapping from visitor center flagpoles, “in case I had any use,” folded into thirteen neat triangles. Nothing I could think to do with them seemed worth doing.
I once heard the poet Sharon Olds speak about whiteness. “My poems are slightly better if I’m partly the villain and not just the victim,” she said.
I nodded, vigorously, the way you do when you agree but you know your poem’s still not any good.
One of my favorite childhood books was The Last Bit-Bear, a misanthropic illustrated parable about a talking knapsack-wearing bear named Clover, the last of his kind, in search of a home and a mate in a polluted world. He connects with a ragtag group of misfit animals all escaping the harm done by “the other animal,” who has cut down the forests, polluted the rivers, hunted and trapped recklessly.
The only actual human depicted in the story is a young boy Clover and his animal friends encounter on a beach, who directs them to a national park where they can live in peace. Before they part ways, though, the kid insists that Clover pose so that he can carve an image in the sand so his biologist dad, who studies whales in order to save them, can also see the last bit-bear.
The book was written and illustrated by one-time National Park rangers, friends and acquaintances of my parents and their friends and, I’d later learn, of other friends of mine as well – everyone knows everyone. My parents recognized the author’s name on a store shelf years after they’d worked with her, and picked up a copy. It’s a simplistically righteous story, clearly imagined by someone who wants to believe that she and her colleagues are doing the right thing but bleakly aware of the limitations of their efforts.
The story has aged awkwardly, as has so much pre-climate crisis writing. The suggestion of uncomplicated safety at arriving at a border, of pollutants that don’t trickle down, seem almost less believable than the animals’ dialog. But I see why I liked it: the straightforward misanthropy, the biologist’s kid’s self-assured saviorism, the conclusion that no, everything is not fine.
Though his friends stay in the park, Clover decides to keep wandering, but never finds another bit-bear. “Today you will find no other animal like Clover when you hike in a forest or visit the zoo. Clover was the last bit-bear,” the story concludes. The final illustration in the short book is of a wave washing the sand reproduction of the pot-bellied bear into the sea.
I scheduled a visit with my parents around a writing conference in Flagstaff, spent most of it trying to recall the details of the parking lot before it was a university conference center, and in the evenings, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the afterhours events because all the bars were so new, all seemed so full of Phoenix money. I felt panicked and anxious and didn’t know why. One night, after a keynote presentation from Tim Flannery, who asked, “What fact about climate change is gonna change someone’s mind? Nothing. But surely we can make art that will engage people in the emotional truth,” I left the building as quickly as I could, feeling claustrophobic and struggling to breathe.
I wandered downtown Flagstaff, until ducking into the just-old-enough-to-cut-it new bar in the old hotel where, in high school, we’d repeatedly dropped a life-size dummy off the roof for a film project. I ordered a glass of wine and prepared to settle into an angst-ridden public journaling session when I caught the eye of a permafrost researcher I’d met in Alaska, the head of a team that had recently moved to Northern Arizona University. She’d taught me about nitrogen and heat, and about the ways the melting earth’s layers affect each other. There was an emotional truth in her work that the conference room full of writers seemed unable to access.
I joined her, and she listened while I told the story of how, every day at three one winter month, my friends and I would climb the stairs to this hotel roof, and drop the dummy, trying for the perfect shot from the rooftop across the street. Some days, cops gathered on the sidewalk below, cheering “jump, jump!” Some days, we’d wait for hours in the lobby for the manager to arrive and unlock the stairwell for us. We never finished the film. The story was intended to encourage our peers to seek help, but we spent a lot of time rehearsing this fictional death.
The dummy’s hair sometimes caught in a tree. JD’s George Bush effigy hung unnaturally but the sheriff said he didn’t know that pulling into the parking lot an hour after leaving Flagstaff on a report of a suicide risk at Wupatki. No one is ever prepared. All our sculptures are washed away eventually.
Maybe what makes effective protest and good art and sound science aren’t all that different. They all ask that we learn where we are. Learn why it matters. Learn what living there well looks like, and learn how to say that without caring who sees. The wars are not over.
Erica Watson is a writer living on Ahtna lands on the boundary of Denali National Park, Alaska. Her work addresses themes of community, infrastructure, and landscape, and has appeared in terrain.org, Alaska Women Speak, Panorama, and elsewhere. She works for a small conservation organization, and is working on her first book.