By Easton Smith
I began research on the Tavaputs Plateau quite by accident. While driving from Denver to Las Vegas for a conference on conifers or crustaceans (or something, I can’t seem to remember much of my life before this occasion), I found myself on a long stretch of desert highway with a full bladder. I pulled off the next exit I could find and relieved myself into the sand. It was there that I saw a lone elk not three hundred feet in front of me, barely shrouded by a juniper tree. The elk stared at me with impossibly large eyes. I am a scientist, and I say these eyes were too large. But what truly grasped me, so much so that I peed on my shoe without noticing, were the antlers. They sprawled like the arms of an angel oak tree and shined black. A thick, living black. The tar slipped from the antlers in a slow, sensual drip. I followed the elk into the cliffs, and there I began what would become my life’s work: tracking the tar through the veins of this body, the Tavaputs Plateau.
A NOTE ON SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Stratigraphically speaking, we are dealing with the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods. Five thousand vertical feet of shale, sandstone, and siltstone. A great lifting of dry, red rock from the time of the Utahraptor. Contrary to the popular imagination, the Utahraptor had feathers. The dinosaur was, in fact, a bird and back then this desert was, in fact, the bottom of an ocean. In this ancient and fleeting body of water plants and silt would tousle about for a while and then settle down in layers. Millions of years later, the plants seep back out as coagulated, black blood and the sedimentary stripes have been made visible by the ocean floor’s splits and upward plunges. Most people, even scientists, don’t realize that the ocean floor is a mammal. It must come up for air, hence the long history of receding and rising oceans. For thousands of years the Tavaputs has been exhaling. Methane and other hydrocarbons leak through it’s many blowholes. But sometime soon, it will inhale.
So I am here to talk about the anatomy of this creature, rather than its geography. The Plateau’s ‘natural resources’ have been surveyed and mapped over again. But no one talks about her immune system, her heart. So I have here documented the seven layers of the Plateau’s body (I say layers but they are not truly ‘layered’ so much as interwoven like organ systems). At least, these are the first seven that I have deciphered. I hope that this effort spurs more research into the matter.
THE SEVEN ANATOMICAL LAYERS OF THE TAVAPUTS PLATEAU
1: The Deepest Layer
Ike Ross was the first coal miner. He was a herculean man, in both strength and origin. Some say he was the offspring of a human and a prairie dog, although this doesn’t account for his staggering size. It’s very difficult to discern the true happenings of Ike Ross. There is, of course, a whole mythology now. But I have been able to find a few original sources.
When I was hunting by mule-back one day, I heard a strange thumping under the mule’s hoof. I dug into the sand and there I discovered an old crate full of moonshine from the prohibition era, from when the Book Cliffs were full of bootlegging miners. Inside, along with the bottles (which were intact and powerfully brewed, I might add) I found an almost pristine booklet that recounted Ike Ross’ journey to the deepest layer of the Tavaputs.
No one knows what forced Ike to leave his home in Appalachia, but when the story begins, Ike has already crossed the Rockies. The text begins: “Descending the last of the Great Rocky Mountains, Ike saw a plateau stretching out before. We now know this place as the Tavaputs. Ike was eager as always to push his hands into a pumping seam of coal. He could find chunks of oily rock lying between the sagebrush. He knew it couldn’t be far away. He asked the first local he could find, who was, in that wilder day, a showy, chest-puffing turkey. ‘Hey turkey,’ he bellowed. His voice echoed as if he were in a shaft, even when he wasn’t. ‘Where’s the heart of this mountain. Where is the coal?’
“The turkey was silent and then it began to flutter its wings furiously, as if it thought it could fly. Then, it turned and walked away. Ike had never witnessed such discourtesy, especially not from a bird. In anger, he lunged at the turkey and wrestled it against a boulder. There, he tore into it’s feathered breast. ‘If you will not tell me where the heart is, I will find it myself,’ he screamed at the turkey. The turkey stared blankly. He dug like the miner he was, through flesh and bone. But there was no heart. He pushed his hand into the turkey body, only to feel the cold rock behind.”
The story continues for another four thousand words or so. It tells of Ike’s growing obsession with the heart of the plateau. He bore into the earth with his famous silver shovel for days at a time, running on gritty coffee and handfuls of chokecherries. He made it a mile down, and then another. He casually noticed the shift in rock from mantle to outer core, the increasing heat. But he never stopped for more than a few minutes. Ike threw his shovel into ground with precision, navigating around the molten core of the earth. According to this account, it was nine years later when Ike’s shovel finally clanged on the icy sheet that year-round covers the Gallieni Massif mountains on the Kerguelen Islands near the arctic.
“When Ike felt the blow of dry, arctic air on his lips, and saw the glinting ice sheets with his dark-sensitized eyes, he understood what the turkey had been trying to say. The heart is what you find when you reach all the way through, when you get to the other side of the body or the world. The Tavaputs deepest layer of rock was actually a pebble on the peak of what we now call ‘Mont Ross,’ 12,000 miles away as the crow flies”
I relate this story to you because it confirms my research. The foundational layer of the plateau has no firm boundaries. With my best instruments, I can detect it’s faint murmur in the atmosphere. I can detect the heart of the plateau in the corpse of the wild turkey, which somehow reappears on the Plateau every single summer, with a hole in it’s chest. The turkey appears in a new spot each time, but always near my camp. It decays anew each year (I have documented its progression. See figures 1 and 2), reminding me that a thirst for the heart can never be slaked by digging.
2: Rocky Tavaputs
The second layer of the plateau was also discovered by Ike long before me. But, unfortunately for him, this layer wasn’t so passive as the Turkey.
Unbeknownst to him, Ike had, on his way through the second mile of the earth’s mantle, awoken an ancient creature. The locals call the creature ‘Rocky Tavaputs’ and it is treated almost like a sasquatch or a Loch Ness Monster. But from what I can discern by listening to the accounts, the creature isn’t so mythical. One woman told me that Rocky had “a terrible, long claw” and “a snout like a lizard”. Another woman told me that the creature’s tail “could topple a pumpjack in one swing.” The Utahraptor disappeared from the planet over 100 million years ago. Many think they grew their feathered wings out, took flight. But I suspect hat at least one had another impulse, one that Ike could understand. I think at least one raptor burrowed.
In any case, Ike never made it back from the arctic islands, from Mont Ross, which took his name. He was broken by the second layer of the Tavaputs, consumed quickly, with little mastication from what I see in the fossil samples I have gathered. Ike is celebrated as a hero by locals to this day. The people of Helper, Utah have erected a statue in his memory (the statue is, however, at least 3.4 inches too short, according to the skull and spinal fragments that I have recovered).
The next layer of the Tavaputs Plateau expresses itself to us in malleable, shiny, black and grey rocks that we call bitumen. In my research I have isolated the constituent parts of these rocks. Besides the petroleum, there are many ‘asphaltenes’ in the rock, which are dense clusters of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur molecules. But, to my dismay, I cannot account for every gram of mass in the samples. There is something more, weighing about .07 grams for every ounce, that I cannot find.
This unaccounted weight is what I call the third layer, a strange skeleton for this body.
- The Tar Sands Mine
It was a real shock to me too, when I found out that the mine itself was a part of the Tavaputs Plateau’s body. By part of the ‘body’ I don’t mean that the mine actually shares its DNA. It’s more like the bacteria in our guts, the way that they are part of our digestive system. The mine is part of the respiratory system.
The relationship may be mutualistic or parasitic or something in-between. Symbiosis tends to defy our moralizing categories. Either way, I realized that the mine was an integral part of the Plateau’s exhale one night while reading, by headlamp (I camp out in Sweetwater canyon throughout the warm months), about Oophila amblystomatis, or salamander algae. It’s a single-celled green algae that only occurs in the eggs of the spotted salamander. The organism metabolizes the carbon dioxide produced by the embryo, creating oxygen so that the gestating salamanders can breath. I think that the tar sands mine, indeed all of the fracking and pumping in the region, is engaged in a similar process, just reversed.
The Plateau hugs its dinosaur bones like prizes, so I assume that it recognizes the patterns of extinction. And I think, maybe this has happened before, maybe we are cogs. I must assume that the Plateau knows what it’s doing when it releases all of this stored carbon into the atmosphere. The Plateau breaths carbon, after all. We do not. The Plateau breaths slow. We do not. We are the little microbes on the surface, gluttonous and ignorant, who will die before the the host even takes another breath. Every mammal’s biological processes are aided by the sacrificial labor of smaller, simpler organisms.
- The Homestead
I say the ‘Homestead’ but this next layer is more the feeling of the Homestead than the structure itself. The structure is made of wood a nails and sits about 3.7 miles down South Canyon from the main road. But the feeling of wood and nails is a less fixed location. It’s also in the eyes of the small cow that stared at me as I approached the Homestead for the first time.
The cow was with its herd, which seemed by that point to have full possession of the Homestead. They marked it in shit and piss, in throated cries and indifferent standing. When I approached, the herd moved much as one would expect, except for this lone calfling. On it’s hide was an outline of the bones underneath. White fur extended from its eyes into the shape of a perfect skull. It’s torso was striped like a ribcage. I became mesmerized by the silent, skeletal cow. But then I remembered something I read in that book I had uncovered from the moonshine stash. I turned around immediately, and when I got back to my tent, I rummaged to find the passage.
“The homesteaders in the Tavaputs have brought cattle to replace the exterminated buffalo and fleeting elk. They roam like lumbering corpses, dead in the eyes. There is one place, I cannot say where, that the cattle have taken for themselves. The family stopped coming by to trade for my corn liquor about three months ago, but I thought nothing of it. And then, a month ago, as I traveled North by mule to look for berries and buck, I came to their small abode in the canyon. The family was nowhere to be found, the door hung by a single hinge. There was no one but a single cow with a bone-white face.”
The feeling of the Homestead is what you feel when what you have brought turns against you, when the domesticated ones become wild, when death tastes a bit sweet. It’s poison berries baked into a pie, a broken old cage, a run-down homestead littered with cow-pies. If I had to make equivalences, I would call this feeling the Plateau’s endocrine system, its lust and its lick.
- A doctor cannot operate on her child.
There was once a surgeon who took the scalpel to her child. The child had a cancerous tumor and there was no one else in the town who could perform the operation. When the surgeon finally cut to remove the rubbery ball of flesh, she screamed out in pain. She tried again, and fell to the floor in agony. Her child’s tumor was an extension of her own body, of course. We shouldn’t operate on those who are so closest to us because we are ourselves part of their wound. I can’t extract the next layer of the Plateau for you because I may accidently slice my own tendons, or worse, I may cut too wide and too shallow in fear of causing myself pain.
You see, I don’t just have old moonshiner’s books. I also have those of my own family. They relate stories of my ancestors, classic Northern European Mormon settlers who came to this Ute territory with the surety of God in their heart and a hoe in their hand. The book often relays the small, awkward confrontations between settlers and the indigenous people. One story focuses on my Great Great Great Grandfather, David Edwin Bassett. It talks about an “Indian” man who broke into their home, and how my father punched him and almost brought an axe down on his head. But, “after much persuasion, the Indian sat with Father on the chopping block and they smoked the pipe of peace. Then the Indian went away. Father was not worried about his coming back to cause more trouble; an Indian is always your friend if he will smoke with you.”
That man was never my Great Great Great Grandfather’s friend. In an effort to cut around the sensitive parts of the tumor, the story just takes off the first layer of skin: a quirky interaction with a happy ending. Meanwhile, whether they wrote about it or not, my ancestors were on the cutting edge of a genocidal campaign of Westward expansion.
What I mean is that I cannot interpret the sixth layer of the plateau. I tread already so closely to my ancestors tracks, being out on the Plateau, prodding with my instruments. To tell you what I know about this layer would illuminate nothing. It would just end up with a shallow vindication of my own self. I would tell the wrong story. So you’ll just have to trust me that it’s there.
- A Sentinel
The elk walk in single file across the ridge line. They know things that we never will, like how the Plateau smells in mid-winter, fifty miles away from the nearest road. They walk single file so that no one’s view is blocked. They walk single file so that they don’t trample too many plants. They walk single file because they know something we don’t know.
Please excuse my ‘poetry’ here. I know it’s not so scientific. But I don’t know how else to speak of this high layer. The final layer of the Plateau (I say ‘final’ but it could be the first. I cannot order such things), perches on the peak of a mountain. She’s the sentinel. A line of her kin stretches out from her and tugs itself along the ridge like a caterpillar. She stays. She knows things that we don’t know. She looks for wolves and humans. She waits for the Plateau to inhale.