The World As It Is

'The boundaries of loss are blurred for me: my divorce is the pandemic is the police baton is the extinguished animals is the lake going, going, gone.' In this raw account, writer Ash Sanders searches for a vanished artifact in the canyonlands of Utah, while contending with personal loss enfolded in worldwide unravelling.
is an award-winning writer and podcast producer who likes to think about the way public griefs shape our personal lives. She's currently working on a book about life at the end of the world and a project where she'll raft a 1700-mile imperiled river to talk about the global water crisis.
By the time I get in my car and drive south, the Utah monolith is already gone. When I tell people that I am going to look for it anyway, they are confused. But the monolith doesn’t exist anymore, they say. I tell them that’s why I want to find it.

The monolith was first spotted in a remote red rock canyon in southern Utah by a team of biologists counting bighorn sheep. Following a gleam in the rock, they found a sculpted metal beam, taller than a person and about as wide, bolted to the floor of a slot canyon. There was no signage, no clue as to how or why this piece of art – if indeed that’s what it was – had gotten there.

When images of the monolith make their way to the internet, they quickly go viral. The crowds follow. It is November 2020: exhausted by months of lockdown, desperate for something to break the monotony of the pandemic, people descend on the distant canyon as if on pilgrimage, trampling the thin desert soil, defacing rocks, and in general trashing the place.

Then just as suddenly, the monolith is gone. Angered at the destruction of a delicate desert ecosystem, a group of local rock climbers stage a midnight mission to remove it, toppling it as onlookers watch and wheelbarrowing it away.

It is a small loss in a year where we’ve already lost so much. In fact the losses are so staggering – Black bodies lost to police violence and sick bodies lost to an everywhere-virus and, according to reports, one million animal species toeing the edge of extinction – that counting the losses has started to feel like a vigil. Like vigilance. It is a year when I begin to wonder whether – as some philosophers demand – I can believe in the world as it is. A world of such staggering damage and loss.

I didn’t need to see the monolith when it existed. But now that it’s gone, I am obsessed with its absence. I need to see the site where it was. I tell people that in a year where we’ve can barely keep track of what’s gone, I am interested in memory. Salvage. I want to believe we can hold onto traces, some debris of the thing itself.

The truth is more complicated, and more personal. The truth is that, two weeks before quarantine, I lost something of my own. My marriage. One moment, my wife and I were sitting on the therapist’s couch, and the next moment, they were saying I can’t, were saying divorce, were getting up and putting on their coat and walking out the door. Outside, on the sidewalk, they said Don’t follow me, and began to run. For a long time, the last memory I had of them was the sound of their shoes slapping the pavement, getting quieter and quieter in the cold blue night.

When I think about that time now, I think of the fairy tale, Bluebeard, where a woman is told she may go in any room of a house but one. My entire life, it was as if I had been living in one wing of myself, obeying some psychological mandate not to wander far. The divorce beckoned me down a hallway, took me to a door. Open the door, it said. I opened it and saw the room, I sat down and said: Oh.

The room is gigantic; it contains the sum total of the unfelt and the unsaid. There are drop-cloths everywhere, as if someone had abandoned the room in a hurry many years ago and wanted to preserve what was there. There are objects underneath those cloths, and shadowy recesses, and I understand dimly that I will stay in the room until I have looked at everything.

The place where I do the looking is my parents’ basement in Utah. At night I lie there, my feet hanging off my childhood bed, the sticky stars I put up decades ago still on the ceiling. In the weak glow of a forgotten nightlight, I turn things over and over in my mind, polishing them to a dark luminescence.

In the family room, the television is always on. Thousands dead in Italy. Bodies piled up in Central Park. I do not contract the virus. But still, there are many days I do not believe I will survive the year, that I will die of infection or grief. I want to go back to before, to turn time backward. I want the wedding cake sweet in my mouth; the bed that smelled of bodies milky with sleep. I want all the bodies back, lifted out of their graves; I want the animals back in their dens. I want the whole world back, prelapsarian and perfect. Instead I am here in my parents basement amidst everything that has already happened, time moving like an arrow in its one inexorable direction.

*

Months before the monolith is discovered, I begin to track another sort of disappearance. It is spring, and I am trapped in my childhood home, the dread and the dead pressing everywhere around me. There is nowhere to go and no one to go anywhere with. But I can’t sit still. So I head to the hills.

Behind the house a trail snakes along the midsection of the mountain, marking the high point of what used to be the shoreline of a massive inland sea. The sea existed until 11,000 years ago, when the waters breached a rocky berm in what is now southwest Idaho. They say the flood was biblical, rushing out at Red Rock Pass, draining half the West like a bathtub. All that was left of the sea was a shallow salty lake. Early pioneers called it the Great Salt Lake – the adjective tacked on with no sense of historical proportion.

This 300-mile ancient shoreline is now a desert, as dry as the fishbones you can still find buried there. And now the Great Salt Lake is dying too, sucked dry by drought and climate change and too many thirsty humans along its tributaries.

Barring a miracle, the lake will die in the next few decades: the water gone, the birds nesting there, gone, the tiny brine shrimp in its waters as dead as the lake. The mud left by the receding water will turn to dust, the dust will rise in windstorms, carrying industrial poisons. Like the lake, my city could also die in my lifetime – millions of people exiled by miasmic air.

The writer Terry Tempest Williams tells of a time, decades ago, when the lake had the opposite problem: flooding. At the time, Tempest’s mother had just been diagnosed with cancer. The flooding imperilled the shorebirds Williams loved so much. The cancer imperilled her mother. ‘I could not separate the bird refuge from my family,’ Williams writes in her book Refuge. ‘Devastation respects no boundaries.’

I am devastated too, and the boundaries of loss are also blurred for me: my divorce is the pandemic is the police baton is the extinguished animals is the lake going, going, gone.

The boundaries of loss are blurred for me: my divorce is the pandemic is the police baton is the extinguished animals is the lake going, going, gone.

The high line of the ancient sea is now a hiking trail that extends hundreds of miles, from southern Idaho to central Utah. Desperate for a project, I decide to hike the whole thing.

When I begin walking, I believe that all I am is grief. No, says a friend when I tell her this. You are also curious. And what do you want to know? I want to know how the shoreline fits together, I tell her. What I don’t say because I don’t know it yet: I want to stare backward into time, to recover lost things.

I’m not paying much attention at first, I’m simply trying not to die, trying to survive my own endings and the ending of so much else. Haunted by my own past, I walk the ledges of a desert valley also haunted by past waters, past floods, and all the unnamed animal dead, cataclysms that happened too long ago for lament.

The first day, I walk for an hour. The next week, I go back – and the next week, and the next. Again and again, I walk the shoreline, jagged with what has happened to me. I am circumnavigating two pasts – recent and ancient – trying to get the shape of something. The shape does not appear, but trees do, and animal tracks, and one time, a deer’s ribcage and a thick slurp of blood. In the distance, the remaining lake shimmers with its real waters.

Weeks later, I am still at it. The snows continue late into the season, and I blunder up and down the foothills, my ice cleats on, my dogs in tow. I do not know how to separate the shoreline from my sorrow, or the present from the past.

From the tops of snowy mountains, I look at the Great Salt Lake and remember that once, before things ended, I walked with R out on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty at gloaming and floated in the water, pink water pink sky pink orb, the world flamingoed close around. I pushed R down into the water just to see them bob back up, the salty lake making their body buoyant. This water will not let you drown, I said.

Robert Smithson’s earthwork Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point, Utah on the shore of the Great Salt Lake (Photo: Netherzone, Wikimedia Commons)

One day, before my shoreline walk, I read about the smooth handfish of Tasmania, which has just been declared extinct – the first fish extinction in modern history. I am dressed to leave, but I unlace my boots. I am suddenly obsessed with finding a picture of the fish – this fish I’ve never seen or even heard about. This fish that is now gone for good.

In pictures I find on the internet, the fish looks, just as one scientist said, like a toad who’s been dipped in paint, told a sad story, and then forced to wear gloves two sizes too big. I learn that the smooth handfish survived for millennia in the shallow seas, walking on its hand-like fins, and would have kept on doing so if not for industrial dredging and warming oceans.

The smooth handfish was likely gone for decades before scientists declared it extinct. Its sister species, the red handfish, has not been seen for 20 years. Scientists have searched for the red handfish by sweeping the ocean for traces of its DNA, performing their own sort of ghost-hunting, their own attempt at talking with the dead.

Perhaps the red handfish is already gone, too. Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps, as the song says, we’re determined not to know what we’ve got until it’s gone. Meanwhile, scientists estimate that 2,000 species go extinct every year. Most we’ve never named. Many we’ve never even seen.

To put it plainly, the death of the smooth handfish fucks me up. At the grocery store, at the dog park, on walks at six-foot distances, people ask me how I’m faring. I know they are speaking about my divorce, but still I want to tell them: Actually, I miss the Australian handfish. But how can I miss something I have never seen? I think about this as I walk the ghost shore of the ancient sea.

*

Another day, my sneakers crunching along the red gash of trail on the hillside, I think of a conversation I had with a poet years back about climate grief. We were sitting on her porch, drinking sweet tea and staring into the setting sun.

Some days, the poet said, I feel I will not survive, knowing that the corals are almost gone. Some days I want to lie down on the road and wait for a car to come. I am talking about suicide, she said, and I nodded. I knew the feeling if not the impulse.

Then she said something that surprised me. Do you know that I have never even seen a coral reef? I stared at her for a second, startled. She smiled. Then I laughed. We laughed until we cried. But does that even matter? It’s just right, knowing that they’re there.

The animals are out of place. I don’t know most of them but I know that. And here am I – my own world out of place, my own small but desperate losses. R’s name, always R’s, like something smoking on my tongue. I am back here, in my dying home, trying to believe in a sort of buoyancy, trying to believe in the world as it is. I go to what remains of the ancient ocean, to that great and salty lake. I sit among the shorebirds, hoping to be cormoranted and grebed and heroned into something else. Or if not that to find something from the wreckage: some clue as to what was lost and why.

North arm of the Great Salt Lake, Utah (Photo: Tiffany A. Rivera)

And so when, months after I begin my walk, the news about the monolith comes out, I latch onto it with a desperation that is beginning to feel familiar. As long as it was there, I didn’t need to see it. But now that it’s gone, I have to witness its absence, to understand what happened.

Before I set off to find the remains of the monolith, I speak with my geologist friend, Carl. He tells me about the land near the monolith: how sand from the time of the dinosaurs blew west from the eroding Appalachian Mountains, gathered in Utah, then got buried and weathered and turned into cliffs. One-hundred-and-fifty million years in the shape of a landscape. We talk of monolith debris hidden in these weathered canyons. Carl says if I can get a piece of the monolith – even a nail, he says – I can find out where the metal came from. And that might help me fill the absence, the missing story.

To get to the monolith, a friend and I drive three hours south. We drive a six-lane freeway that turns to a two-lane highway that turns to a dirt road that turns to a cattle path. I gas up at a weatherbeaten fuel station covered in murals of UFOs and aliens. At the final town before the country turns red and serpentine, I eat oversalted fries from a fast-food drive-thru. Then the world drops away. We heave up and down rocky inclines, the car wheels biting for purchase.

Finally, at the precise midpoint between nowhere and nowhere, we stop at a satellite pin on my map and start walking. My GPS tells me the monolith is in a canyon just 30 minutes away.

At first, we follow footprints. Then we lose them. We follow our GPS. We lose signal. We cross a wash. We climb the side of a ridge and down the other side. Every time we see a side canyon, we run up it and check for debris. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Near one canyon, we find something else, though: a cache of petrified wood. Ancient trees turned to stone.

We run out of water. The sun starts to set. We know this is stupid. But we keep going. We’ve been out for six hours, hiked nine miles. This is bear country. Mountain lion country. We don’t care. We press on.

When we hit the last wall of the last canyon and the moon is halfway up the sky, we give up. I sit on the ground. I want those monolith scraps so bad my mouth tastes like metal.

I chide myself for my childishness. I knew the sculpture was gone before I came. And now I have in my pockets bits of a tree that fell into a river many millions of years ago and got buried in silt so deep it mineralised and turned into a rainbow of stone on the floor of a waterless desert. And I want a nail?

But sitting there, my shorts in the dirt, some part of me knows. Somehow, in the midst of what I thought was a bizarre obsession, the monolith became a totem. Something with magical powers. I am after what Walter Benjamin calls its aura. The presence of the thing in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

In a year saturated with loss, I have mixed up my desire for the monolith with my need for the presence of things that used to exist.

My friend drags me up and we follow our own shoe-prints back to the car. We don’t talk much. Disappointment isn’t a wordy business. As we walk, though, I begin to see the shape of something: this shape I’ve been stalking as I’ve walked the shoreline, this shape I am still stalking, even now, in this desert valley red under its moon. In a year saturated with loss, I have mixed up my desire for the monolith with my need for the presence of things that used to exist. I want to believe in the world – not as it is, but as it was. I want the animals back. I want R back. I want them all present in time and space, in the places where they used to belong.

But that world is gone. And some of that is my fault and some of that is not my fault and some of it has nothing to do with me at all, except that I am alive now, in its long penumbra. There are things we cannot recover, and things we may never recover from. The world is always ending somewhere, for somebody. And we must learn the words for that lost world, must know it well enough to speak its eulogy.

But the world is also always beginning. And perhaps that is harder to face. It is not the world as it was, it is the world as it is, full of its impossible absences and ghosts.

Here we are in the middle of everything, on the edge of a desert on the edge of a dying lake on the ledge of an ancient sea. In our pockets, wood that has calcified into stone. We do not have the things themselves. Instead we have remains. The debris of memory. The possibilities of salvage.

Goodbye, we say.

Hello, we say.

I’m sorry.

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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Comments
  1. Thank you, Ash. Practically everyone I know as friends is going through this same thing. It’s like being a leftover in the landscape. Subject to being unearthed. Wanting to do much more than atone, but my individual molecules aren’t enough in themselves, so what to do aside from grieving. I wish to be a fillable being, and then set about to filling myself for the sole purposing of emptying my innards upon something more deserving than I. Possibly my ignorance is also innocence, also a holy thing.

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