Wandering the desert scapes of the GSENM in search of the target plant populations allows for long hours of careful contemplation. Hours upon hours of my internship are spent driving dirt roads passing RVs and horse trailers, tourists and cowboys, and endless acres of rabbitbrush and countless herds of cattle. All this is in search of the elusive plants divined for collection by the powers that be. Meanwhile my mind journeys over hills and mesas, down canyons and washes, independent of my driving body. I believe that Edward Abbey would have understood my mind’s inclination to wander freely when surveying the American West. And I like to think that Ed paved the way for the rest of us restless desert wanderers, justifying my reflections upon everything and nothing in my dutiful roving. I believe that another man (having no connection to the American West whatsoever) also understood my mind’s need to roam unfettered and wrote many stories of meticulously and whimicically crafted characters to share his thoughts on what it means to wander. Ed had his Desert Solitaire, but Mr Tolkien had Roverandom.
Mr Tolkien famously wrote many stories, but he unfamously wrote many, many more. Roverandom, like The Hobbit, was meant for a much younger audience than the typical CLM intern, but it is nonetheless valuable. The story brims with the simple morality and fantasy that a father attempted to pass onto his bereaved child and distract him from the loss of a beloved toy. The themes, albeit simple and clearly intended to mollify an equally simple child from a fleeting time of grief, are universal and are therefore applicable to my tenure as an SOS intern in Escalante.
If you are not a Tolkien nerd like I am, then you have probably never heard of Roverandom and you probably don’t care about the simplistic novella, but, please, humor me for a moment. It’s a story about a mischievous dog named Rover who is first turned into a tiny, toy dog by a grumpy wizard, then turned into a tiny, real dog by a kinder (but still kind of grumpy) sand wizard, and eventually (after first being given wings to travel about the moon with his moon-dog friend, and then gills to travel around the ocean floor with his sea-dog friend) is turned back into a life-size, real dog. In his journey from real dog to toy dog to tiny dog to legitimate dog again, Rover (later renamed Roverandom to reduce confusion because both the moon-dog and sea-dog are named Rover…Tolkien, you scamp!) wanders the wide world and has many adventures. The main themes that I take from this story are: 1. Adventure and novel experiences will never be found in a stagnant location: one must put forth at least a little effort in creating their own adventure, 2. Wandering is good for the soul because wandering is freeing, and 3. One doesn’t need a definite end destination to arrive at an incredible one. These themes are easily applicable to my time in Escalante, and I owe a great deal to Mr Tolkien for writing such an affirming story.
This train of thought leads me in two different directions: on one hand, I think that stories by the curmudgeony, Western wanderer Edward Abbey and the inventive, fantastical dreamer Mr Tolkien both inspire and encourage roving, especially through landscapes as (relatively) untrammeled as the monument. This thought comforts me on my long drives and my mind’s contemplative walks, and largely justifies both. On the other hand, I think that both writers would encourage me to break free from the expected SOS duties every once in a while and have a scientific adventure exploring a different kingdom.
In addition to my SOS responsibilities, I also have the great pleasure of working on my interim mentor’s wildlife biology projects. Last week I was inducted into the cohort of hummingbird surveyors on the monument, and I had the delightful task of recording data, capturing the birds at the trap feeders, bagging them for processing, and feeding them prior to their release. I have been eagerly awaiting spring in the desert so I could add hummingbird work to my growing list of life and job experiences, and this work surely did not disappoint. There are many great joys in life, and holding a fat-depleted, desperately hungry male black chinned hummingbird, in his undiminished iridescent plumage, is certainly one of those joys for me. Friends, if you ever get the chance to work with hummingbirds – to hold such a small life in your hands, to feel a miniscule heart urgently beat so close to your own dutifully persistent pulse, to accidentally steal the hard earned heat from the little body of the bird and to feel awe that there is so much energy being exchanged between your two beings – then I highly recommend it. It is so choice.
Plants are wonderful organisms for study, and they are undeniably important – especially given the unprecedented changes in local, regional, and global climate – but it is my firm belief that every conservationist, regardless of specialty and focus, must occasionally take the time to appreciate organisms beyond their study and the life within them. Merely working with hummingbirds for four hours reinvigorated me and has encouraged me to appreciate my botany work because of its role within the larger ecosystem.
I think that both Ed and Mr Tolkien would have understood the importance of my sojourn and my mind’s consistent tramps through the desert alone. Ed in particular had a distinct respect for and grasp of the big picture within such an enormous landscape. So I leave you now, friends, with an Edward Abbey blessing from Desert Solitaire:
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.
In the Spirit of Adventure,
Escalante Field Office, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, BLM