By Brooke Larsen, photos by Parker Feierbach
As Kailey and I organize gear on our bikes, we hear our friends start singing “Paradise” by John Prine. We drop our gear and run through the string of aspen lining our campsite to the small huddle of tar sands resisters harmonizing “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County down by the Green River where Paradise lay.” Smiles fill our friends faces as they see us run to join. We sing this song often, sometimes changing the lyrics from Muhlenberg County to Uintah County, making our own ode to the Green River that flows through our home region, the Colorado Plateau.
In early June, a small group of us spent the weekend camping near the tar sands mine in eastern Utah. Kailey and I arrived by bike. It was the second week of my eight week, fifteen-hundred mile cycling tour through the frontlines of climate change across the Colorado Plateau. My friend Kailey joined me for the first two weeks. The bike ride to the tar sands mine took us south from Vernal, Utah through parts of the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation, past wild horses blocking the road, and hundreds of oil and gas wells. The paved highway ended at what could be the first commercial-scale tar sands mine in the country. As we summited our last hill in the early evening, heavy machinery and stripped earth appeared behind a tall fence decorated with signs warning off trespassers. The last three miles to our campsite took us on steep gravel roads lined with aspen, a dramatic departure from the overgrazed red earth that dominated most of our ride.
I have always felt comfort under the shelter of aspens. The first night I ever slept alone in the woods I found a grove of aspens and placed my sleeping pad in the middle. My anxiety made every small creature’s movement sound like giant bear paws pounding towards me. Around 3:00 a.m. though, the stars lit the yellow, dancing leaves above my head and a calmness overcame me. I no longer felt alone.
Aspen symbolize connection. A stand of aspens share roots and genes. They are clones, growing from suckers and shoots that sprout from lateral roots. They also represent diversity. Aspen forests are among the most biodiverse areas in the American West. They have a higher diversity of plant species than any other forest type in the region.
The aspen forest we camped under near the PR Springs tar sands mine is on the Tavaputs Plateau in the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. The environmental impact statement for the tar sands mine classifies the area as low scenic value, a justification for stripping away earth that determines land’s value based on profit. Only the most aesthetic will make money from protection, the rest through exploitation.
Those who spend time in the Book Cliffs, though, recognize its beauty. There are no delicate arches, but aspen stands shade colorful wildflowers and feed wild ungulates. Hunters flock to this area, and in more recent years, a group of climate activists from across the Colorado Plateau make an annual pilgrimage to this sacrifice zone.
The nature of the resistance has changed over time. Easton Smith, my friend and co-organizer of the climate justice group Wasatch Rising Tide, said, “The first action camp I went to we were like ‘how do we shut down the mine?’ and the action camp last year we were like ‘how do we heal our dying souls?’”
This year the need for healing is felt even deeper, as organizers decided to not hold an action camp at all. Instead we chose to write and sing together, reconnect with the land and one another. However, the feeling that we should do more subtly lingers. Easton said, “We’re not doing an action camp this year and I don’t know what that means.”
It may mean that continuing to act requires some initial investment in self-care. Rather than sustainability, the climate movement increasingly identifies resiliency as a goal. Sustainability implies continuation, resiliency connotes response to inevitable change. If climate change makes sustaining our lifestyles impossible, resiliency provides a path at least towards survival. In ecological terms, resiliency is the capacity of an ecosystem to withstand disturbance.
Aspens already display vulnerabilities to climate change, an inability to remain resilient to rising temperatures and compounding human disturbances. The aspen near the PR Springs tar sands mine face the more immediate threats of grazing cows and potential contaminated water from the mine, but the potent emissions from burning tar sands also contributes to a much greater threat.
Bill Anderegg, a professor at the University of Utah, studies the aspen die offs in the San Juan National Forest outside of his hometown of Cortez, Colorado. He is a young climate scientist who received his Ph.D. in 2013 and is a father of two-year-old twin girls. He has scruffy blonde hair and it’s clear he chose his research not just because of an interest in climate science, but also a love for the outdoors.
Ten days after singing with my friends near the tar sands mine, I spent a morning with Bill in the forest where he grew up camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. The plots he studies range from healthy, dense stands to dead stumps. To the dead plots Bill responded, “I guess I don’t have to come back here.” As we walked away, each step felt heavier. Natural evolution for aspen is out of the question at the scale of projected climate change. How will the loss of our forests impact our own resiliency?
During his first summer of graduate school, Bill returned to the forest where he grew up and found a lot of dead aspen trees. “Even some of the campsites where we took family pictures were just completely dead,” he said. “That was one of the biggest triggering points—realizing, wow, there’s something big going on here, it’s visible and it’s visceral and it’s during my lifetime.”
The drought in the early 2000s that led to the aspen die-offs was significant not because of precipitation levels but temperature; it was two to three degrees centigrade hotter than previous droughts. The drought caused widespread tree mortality, but aspens were the hardest hit. The sites Bill studies have experienced a 30% mortality. Bill said, “Aspen death is somewhat fascinating because it’s sort of a slow motion crash and it tends to play out over a decade or so.”
Sometimes the whole crisis of climate change feels like a slow motion crash, including the continual attempts to turn rock into money. When talking about the tar sands mine, Easton said, “It’s a particularly strange example because this mine actually never starts. It starts and stops and starts and stops. Which feels like a broader, microcosm of the whole issue of climate change. It’s always looming, and it’s always approaching, and it’s always here, but I don’t always feel it. It just kind of feels like a myth, but clearly it’s so real. And I wonder if that’s how crisis feels until it’s upon you in a more visceral way.”
This year was a wet year, but the aspen are still dying from the early 2000s drought. Part of the reason is that the roots are dying so regeneration isn’t occurring. Even when aspen do start regenerating, the cows munch away the baby stands, preventing the trees from growing to the needed height to withstand the impacts of grazing. Because aspens are connected, pathogens can pass between them, and they also depend on one another for shade. Bill informs me that aspen need a fairly closed canopy, and he notices that mortality most often starts at the edges and moves inwards. The lone trees that poke up above all the others also tend to die first. The aspens depend on one another. When some die, the others suffer, and the ultimate threat to their resiliency is the fading away of the roots that connect them. Connection creates resiliency, but also vulnerability.
Other species also depend on healthy aspen stands. One undergraduate student who conducted research with Bill, led a study on the understory plants in healthy and dying aspen stands. They found that about a third of the species disappear in the dying forests, and most noticeably the charismatic wildflowers. Resiliency, diversity, and beauty are intertwined.
A few of our friends didn’t make it to the tar sands mine. They backed out at the last minute, feeling overwhelmed by their commitments at home. Because we weren’t doing a serious action, they felt less pressure to attend. We felt their absence. Nearly 100 people gathered last year. This year there were nine.
Throughout my bike tour the same subtle anxiety present among my friends at the tar sands mine existed in my friends elsewhere. People were exhausted, trying to organize at every turn, preparing for the next executive order or cuts in the EPA program that supported their work.
When I asked people what brings them hope, most responded with a slight laugh, bringing a feeling of hopelessness to the air without saying anything. But then their smile became a bit more serious as they remembered their connections. Some good friends pointed to me, a motion I cringed at initially, but in retrospect I understand they didn’t find hope in me specifically but rather close relationships. This especially happened with friends who also called Utah home. We shared roots.
Those who were the most hopeless were in the boom and bust towns, the places where anyone who questioned the fossil fuel industry was not just an anomaly but the enemy. In liberal oases like Durango, Colorado, I talked to people for around an hour. In Vernal, Utah, some people talked with me for five hours. They craved connection.
The survival skills to respond to climate change will forge connection and create beauty. In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey observes frogs singing and says, “Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage, and without courage all other virtues are useless.”
At the tar sands mine we sang, not because we thought our singing would rise above the aspen groves into the ears of U.S. Oil Sands and convince them to stop the mine. We sang to heal ourselves, to connect deeper not only to our roots, but those who share our roots. We wrote and cooked for one another, creating our own form of beauty. One of my friends said every time she spends a weekend with people near the tar sands mine, her relationships grow stronger—both with the people and the place.
The slow motion crash will start to feel like crisis when our connections fade away. Building resiliency starts on the edges.