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Lament For A Lost Eden

July 2024
3min read

Lake Powell commemorates Glen Canyon in much the same sense that a statue commemorates a famous man. But sculptured marble can no more give satisfaction to those who know a living man’s charms than can the lake that fills Glen Canyon replace the beauties it has submerged in the memories of those who journeyed on the river that flowed until 1963.

A monument to a person is thus an inadequate reminder to his close friends; it speaks only to the public in historical terms. It celebrates his public life; his gentler private qualities and personal attachments are not communicated. And so with Glen Canyon, Lake Powell celebrates the short history of the construction of the dam that destroyed it; of the filling of the basin behind the dam with water of the Colorado River; of the development of commercial facilities beside the lake; and of the ever-increasing crowds that come with high-speed motorboats and water skis. These are what Lake Powell memorializes. But the long, unrecorded, secret history of Glen Canyon, fragments of which survive in the minds of its few explorers, lies drowned.

To the motorboatist the lake presents superb opportunities for racing about in his high-powered craft. He can speed for hundreds of miles from gasoline pump to gasoline pump with hardly more than a glance at the half-submerged tapestried sandstone walls. When boredom overtakes him he can break the monotony with water skiing, an activity that too soon palls. Always seeking new artificial thrills to lessen the drag of time, he roars into narrow, flooded tributary canyons, side-slipping around the tight S-curves at thirty miles an hour.

Not long ago one could walk in these side canyons beside reflecting pools upon a smoothed-out sandstone floor in an atmosphere aglow with filtered sun and sky. The boatman, to whom the undammed river could once have provided wondrous experiences, knows nothing of these lost glories, regrets them not, or belittles them in his ignorance. In place of infinite variety, awesome convolutions, mysterious and secret recesses, glowing painted walls, and golden streams, we have received in exchange a featureless sheet of water, a dead basin into which all the flotsam from the surrounding land accumulates with no place to go: a sink for sediments and the trash carelessly scattered about by throngs of visitors. The exchange is one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated by responsible government on an unsuspecting people. They have been cheated out of a birthright without ever knowing they possessed it.

The fern-bedecked amphitheatres, where the only sounds heard were the plink of dripping water or the sudden cascading song of a canyon wren, the mirroring pools under a curving, banded cliff, and the sheets of silent sliding water are no more. The ends of the side canyons arc now clogged with driftwood and the debris from suffocated and dying trees. The banks are everywhere undermined and arc slipping into the lake, leaving behind unstable sandy walls of exposed roots. Mud that formerly was flushed down into the big river by freshets and flash floods is deposited now in the shallows, covering the approaches to the upper reaches of the canyons with quaking layers of ooze and quicksand. In these backwaters loaded with decay and decomposition an explosion of algal growth has taken place, turning the water into a murky green soup and coating it with thick layers of scum. Scattered throughout the packed wreckage of vegetation are Coke and beer cans, plastic containers, film cartons, food wrappings, empty suntan lotion bottles, the discard of an irresponsible civilization.

A dead lake has replaced a living river, and even the dead lake is threatened with further deterioration from pollution. Where, recently, flowing water lapped at green banks; where willows, tamarisk, cottonwood, and oak groves crowded to the water’s edge; where teeming riparian life filled all the niches in the ribboned oasis carved by the river into the Colorado Desert; where great blue herons waded and fished through the summer months; where beavers burrowed into the clay banks; where lizards darted among the rocks of the talus slopes; where deer came down from the dry highlands to drink and browse; and where in spring a dozen kinds of warblers sang or built their nests in the budding thickets— now barren rock is all that remains. Life is gone, drowned, dispersed, departed, extinguished for want of room and a place to breed. The plunging cliffs are licked by the wake of passing boats reflected from wall to wall. No songs of birds now are heard; in their stead we have the whine and roar of internal combustion engines.

This is the monument men have built—you and I— not to the lost Eden so few knew, but to their engineering ingenuity and ruthless ability to transform the land, to remake it simply for the sake of remaking it, thoughtlessly, improvidently. Gone is indeed an Eden, an Eden of wondrous canyons, some deep, dark, and narrow, some cut in bare rock and boulder-strewn, some green and sunlit. They all bore names suited to their particular attributes: Mystery, Twilight, Dungeon, Labyrinth, Cathedral, Hidden Passage. And one, because of difficult access, was called Lost Eden—a name that now speaks the fate of Glen Canyon.

—Eliot Porter

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