Love and Tar on the Tavaputs Plateau
The State of Utah has labeled the land “multiple use,” but what besides mine can one do on a desolate strip mine? Well, a few things: feel lost, plant seeds, get arrested, and fall in love.
My friend squats down, puts his head to his knuckles, and begins to pray to the murky, thick pond. He prays in the language his grandmother used to speak, and he sprinkles some medicinal plants into the water, like she would have done. I can’t understand his words so I try to take in their gestalt. He whispers an apology for me and my presence on the land, or so it feels to me. I’m hyper-aware of my privilege like a paranoia. I think everything is about me, that my overwhelming internal experience, in this case my guilt, must be felt by others. But he is not praying about me. I am not object nor subject in this spiritual event, which makes me fidget with a child’s anxiety: how do I be in this world, as an irrelevant thing? I think of my own prayer to the water, but it feels all wrong. I never learned to speak to ponds. So I try meditation.
To clear my mind I stare down into the pond, where I see bubbles rising from the bottom.These bubbles are full of air that has worked its slow way through a layer of tar beneath the earth. Bitumen, natural tar. The kind the dinosaurs got stuck in. I can see the tar dragging itself from the ground and into the pond. It is all over this area, seeping from the ground at the roots of aspens, collecting the grass, the soil and the fallen bark into a small, sticky lava flow. Its oozy, shiny texture appears to me like a metaphysical repellant: you don’t want to mess with this stuff. But mess with it some do, because this tar can be made into oil.
We are on the Tavaputs Plateau in the eastern part of so-called Utah, land that was stolen from the Uintah Utes not too long ago. It’s high-desert terrain, beautiful in its sparsity. Up here, I have seen wild mustangs run next to my car as we pass by the countless fracking wells. I guess this is what the state means by the ‘multiple use’ label they have given this land. The horses, the hunters, the pipelines, the yucca, and the natural gas wells all get their place. But what, besides mine, can one do on a strip mine?
As I sit next to the pond I can feel the mine breathing down my neck. Behind me is a slope like a double-sized freeway embankment. It emerges suddenly from the forest, like a boil on a head of hair, and it keeps sloping up and back till it levels off in a dirt pad. On this pad is machinery, trailers and fences that, when viewed from our campsite, silhouette a play about death in the red and orange evening sky. This is land that the Canadian corporation, U.S. Oil Sands, has relieved of its ‘overburden,’ or what most of us call ‘mountain’. To them, every bit of earth above the layer of bitumen is just wrapping paper. They tear it away like an eager child.