The Downstream Principle of Language

I’m posting this at Times and Seasons as follow-up to a three-part series I wrote here a couple years back (see here, here and here). I’ve cross-posted it over at A Motley Vision’s companion blog Wilderness Interface Zone.

September 17th marked the two-year anniversary of the closing of Crossfire Canyon (real name: Recapture Canyon) to off-highway vehicular (OHV) travel. Since then, the canyon has become an even more volatile epicenter of rhetorical and legal power struggles over land use policy. Private citizens, environmental and off-road advocacy groups, and the federal government have all entered dogs in the fight.

I’m not privy to the strategies “tree huggers,” off-road enthusiasts or the governmental agencies involved (like the Bureau of Land Management) play against each other. I’ve heard that, based upon the canyon bottom trail’s historical use, OHVers applied to have Crossfire reopened as a public right-of-way. I’ve read that the BLM is invested in closing Crossfire for good, shuffling OHVers onto designated routes set aside specifically for their use and reserving canyons like Crossfire for what one group calls “quiet users”—hikers and the canyon’s wildlife (and, apparently, cattle). This summer, the San Juan County group SPEAR (San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights) reported in a flier they handed out to bystanders at Blanding’s Fourth of July parade that “BLM informed us that [Crossfire] is no longer a priority for them. It is now being considered for a special ‘World Class’ archaeology area.”

As an archaeologist friend remarked a few nights ago, if the BLM is serious about designating Crossfire as a “World Class” archaeology area, they’ll have to designate much of the surrounding region as a “World Class” archaeology area, too, because nothing in the canyon’s cultural-resource-rich environment sets it apart from the cultural-resource-rich ground surrounding it—for hundreds of miles.

The June11th arrests of twenty-four residents of area towns—including the Mormon pioneer towns of Blanding and Monticello—by FBI agents executing BLM warrants for violations of antiquities law has further complicated Crossfire’s status. Before the raid, Crossfire’s closure rendered it a poster geo-child for various groups’ causes. To the OHVers, it became another case in point for what many consider the federal government’s unconstitutional manipulation of public lands. For environmental groups, Crossfire was battle won, an éclat worthy of celebration. Who knows what it was for the BLM. Neither the environmental groups nor OHV advocates have kind words for them.

Since the raid, Crossfire, whose length runs a couple miles just outside Blanding’s eastern boundaries, has become an even hotter zone. Apparently concerned about retaliation from angry southeastern Utah residents for the 6/11 raid, the BLM has rolled back its ranger presence, leaving this canyon and, as I’ve heard, other areas unmonitored and unmanaged. The usual BLM representatives were also conspicuously absent from the line-up for the Fourth of July parade.

I hike Crossfire three or four times a week. I make regular use of the illegal trail that provided out-of-area parties the evidence they needed to catalyze Crossfire’s closure to OHVs. During the time between the canyon’s closure and the 6/11 raid, I met often enough to expect to run into them BLM officers, visitors to the canyon, neighbors on horseback, and members of various interested parties. Now and again, I saw tire tracks irritated ATVers left on the trails along with other small evidence of sagebrush rebellion. Since the June raid, I’ve met nobody (except for these two ladies, who came to the canyon days after the raid but had no idea what had happened). Tracks in the dirt show only occasional hikers and a few horse riders. To my knowledge, the BLM has stopped patrolling Crossfire, at least for now. Locals who used the canyon as an OHV corridor no longer include it in their jaunts. Along its verboten five-mile corridor, Crossfire has become a long crease of quiet.

Right now, most days, it appears to be just the wild turkeys and me. Like the turkeys, I’ve been reintroduced to the area in recent years. Oblivious to the drama clouding the canyon, the turkey population appears to have exploded. If somebody held a contest to determine which of us—the turkeys or me—are the quieter users, the turkeys would lose. Also, as far as littering is concerned, the birds shed impressive feathers along the illegal trail, which trail they make heavy use of, in company with coyotes, deer and many other animals that seem to take no offense at its presence but treat it as a convenience of home.

Of course, some fuss must be made over illegal trails, or people will be blasting them in all over the place. What interests me is how little provocation it takes to inspire folks on all sides of the issue to rev up four-wheel drive rhetoric and spin wheelies over each other’s linguistic terrain. “Quiet users” who congratulate themselves on their deeper insight into and their true love for nature, who gush about Crossfire’s “recovery” from ATV offenses, enthusiastically yee-haw their ways across others’ interests, grabbing air in wild jumps via name-calling and other acts of labeling and free-wheeling reductionist language. Some visitors to the backcountry pack out their waste lest contamination of important water sources result. Yet they engage freely in bad behavior in regions of human language that likewise contain powerful currents. Language, too, has a downstream principle: The words we release into its rivers, streams, water tables and soils can and will affect others in the present, the near future, and quite possibly in generations to come, often in unpredictable ways.

It runs all ways, of course. Folks who hold their homes sacred, who keep up their yards and in other ways are conscientious about being good stewards, without much thought dump toxic verbiage into what has become a language-dependent world. We’ve wised up somewhat to the effects on people and other species of contaminants that used to be commonly flushed into the country’s waterways—earlier generations’ hazarding of the future with heavy metals and poisonous chemicals. But in the human rhetorical environment where language-thirsty minds live and grow, lead-based warring language, the mercurial taint of ad hominem wielding tribalism, and the poisonous insecticides of guilt, shame, fear, and seduction meant to improve harvests without thought of effects beyond the scope of the season’s take still permeate that glass of water drawn at the household tap.

For my part, I will no longer speak of Crossfire Canyon as “healing” or “recovering from” the effects of ATV riders bumping through and the unprecedented access the unviable (as I heard a BLM ranger call it) and ill-begotten trail enabled. I realize now that such words not only risk imposing upon the nature of the canyon, which may or may not have suffered as much as some say from the presence of the trail and trail riders, but also they attempt to manipulate attitudes toward others invested in the outcome of the battle over Crossfire, implying intention of continued exploitation or abuse.

Over the last four years, I don’t think anybody else has spent more time in this section of Crossfire than I have. I see that since the trail was closed to motorized traffic, the canyon has changed. How much of that change would have happened anyway, I can’t say. I do note that the most striking transformations have occurred as results of the beavers’ recent arrival on Crossfire Creek. But given the weighty importance of what I don’t know about this place, I’m cleaning up my language: “The canyon has changed.” From there, I’ll figure out what to say and what other ways lie open to my describing my experiences in and around it. But after close inspection of these four words, they are as much as I feel confident will do little or no harm to the world as I release them into streams of human discourse already clouded with doubt.

10 comments for “The Downstream Principle of Language

  1. Well said, Patricia. We all need to use language carefully and caringly, to help recapture (what a name!) a verbal environment not quite so laced with toxins.

  2. Kaimi,

    There’s a rule one sees often on signs and pamphlets advising hikers and campers on their behavior: “Leave it better than you found it.”

    When I’ve been out poking around in the backrocks, where there’s no litter or anything problematic requiring attention, I’ve wondered how to apply that rule. In the wildlands of language, however, I wonder if the applications might be limitless.

    I don’t think, of course, that behaving better in language is a mere matter of cleaning it up or preserving some portions to keep it pristine. Fine language has creative brio, power to open up matters and expand frontiers. For me, many times, it has changed everything.

  3. Patricia,

    Is there a limit to your principle? If “healing” is too value-laden a word to apply to the revegetation of tire-tracks that separated the main stems of plants from their wide-ranging, water-seeking roots, is there a way to be sure that “canyon” is not also too value laden?

    One can’t always envision how a beaver might use the broken side of a styrofoam cooler to reinforce a portion of its dam. Is it best to leave it flotsam, or to gather it up into one’s pack?

    In terms of language, mightn’t partisan-sounding words today become the neutral, accurate terminology of tomorrow? Didn’t that happen with “women’s suffrage,” and “equal rights”?

    I readily agree that values are implicated in the language we choose, and that a kind of subtle violence can be done to others by rhetorical selections and stances. But I’m dubious that higher values can be promoted only by consistent use of relatively less value-laden language.

    If a canyon road cut cannot be “healed,” is the same true of a tortise’s leg that was broken when it was run over by the ATV that made the road cut?

  4. g.f., not all uses of “healing” are “too value-laden.”

    Nor am I interested in promoting relatively less value-laden language as a form of higher language. My remarks about the deleterious effects of contaminated rhetoric demonstrate that quite clearly.

    I have in the past used the words “recovering” and “canyon” (something like, “the canyon is recovering”) in reference to changes in Crossfire. Looking at my own motives in using those words, I can see that I said them to cast a poor reflection on others more than as a well-informed appraisal of the canyon’s condition. So I’m stripping “healing” and “recovery” out and starting over, finding a better way. This is not to say I won’t use them again, only that if I do, I’ll probably mean something altogether different from what I meant before.

    I’ve spent only 4 years in and around Crossfire. I’ve spent nearly 30 years considering the nature of rhetoric. I’m only just getting to know the canyon, and it is only getting to know me. In these early stages of presence, taking greater care not to form hasty judgments about what’s going on has become deeply important to me, especially when the rhetorical atmosphere swirling around Crossfire has become quite dense and exerts its own influences upon the canyon.

    In the landscape of rhetoric, I’m more informed and have extensive experience. I will make strong statements about language–“lead-based warring language,” “the mercurial taint of ad hominem wielding tribalism,” with greater confidence and the ability to back them up. “The canyon is healing”? Not enough information, no depth of experience or understanding.


    So … “the canyon is changing.” A good base from which to explore further, on which to rework my thinking, on which to sculpt a better way to speak about this stretch of earth that is becoming part of me, and I of it.

  5. I appreciate the modesty and humility.

    I know a very few things. I know that God lives and I know that truth and love are powerful forces in the universe. I know some people who are good and generous. I know the sort of conduct that leaves me feeling refreshed and joyous and I know the sort of conduct that doesn’t.

    And then I think a lot of things. I have opinions about environmental issues, for example. But mostly I don’t know. Most of the most zealous fighting is done by people about things that they, also, don’t know. I’ve become pretty anti-ideological, though I try not to be ideological about it.

  6. Most of the most zealous fighting is done by people about things that they, also, don’t know.

    This is what I’m seeing. Much of the fighting over Crossfire doesn’t appear to be about the canyon, not really. What might it be about, then?

    I’ve begun to think that it’s some kind of language expressing dire need.

    At any rate, I think it’s time for new kinds of geo-rhetoric that rather than prompting readers to align themselves or choose sides instead enable them to feel wonder, consider their positions, and form actual attachments. Passionate but yielding words that actually do leave the earth and the human language now flowing everywhere over its surface better than when they found them.

  7. PK, thanks very much for this. You always make me reconsider my ways, and I need these calls to repentance.

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