Featured image by Michelle McCarron
When I was asked to tell in pictures the story of the Colorado river, I’ll admit that besides being honoured to be asked, that I also felt a little overwhelmed. How could I, an immigrant settler, tell one of the most American stories of all? Before I even began I was humbled by the river’s story.
We know of the Colorado’s significance in the spiritual and practical lives of the native peoples who lived in harmony with her flow. Historical accounts recall her part in the ‘taming’ of the west by European colonisers. Powell, his expeditions and novels were lauded for the accounts of their grand adventures down the river and her canyons, adding to the aura of the west.
Her beauty is world renowned. As she winds her way around Horseshoe bend and carves her majestic path through the red sandstone of the Grand Canyon, she is the Mona Lisa of the natural world. Since the dawn of time she has been sculpting the earth as it rose to meet her, working her way to its heart, unveiling its history layer by layer as she went. For millions of years.
In a relatively short timespan of 150 years humans industrialised and multiplied to such as extent that we felt compelled to change what a river had been doing for millennia. So along the Colorado we built massive dams and thousands of miles of infrastructure to control her according to the insatiable energy and water needs of 40 million of us across 7 states. But what is the complete story today that plays out along her foreshortened journey from the clouds to the sea?
In September a first of its kind lawsuit was filed in federal court in Denver seeking Rights of Nature for the Colorado river. The Rights of Nature movement seeks protections for nature that assert that nature has inalienable rights to flourish and regenerate regardless of it’s use to humans. The concept of the Rights of Nature movement is built on the premise that If the corporations that profit from earth’s resources have rights then why can’t nature have rights? Why is one awarded privileges and protections and the other not? Nature is not our subject so why do we act like her master?
Will Falk, a writer, attorney and member of the activist group Deep Green Resistance is one of 7 individuals named on the lawsuit as a ‘friend’ of the river. Will and I came together to tell the river’s story, highlight the case and prepare for what it’s outcome may mean in the stakes to protect life on earth. What will it mean for us and other species if the legal system refuses to grant nature the protections she needs given the current crisis, that might save her from annihilation by corporations? Have you thought about what that world looks like? I have.
When we can’t watch the birds or hear their song anymore, when all the polar bears are gone, when we can’t go to the beach because the beach is there no longer and the glaciers have all melted.
The intrinsic worth of nature has no value in the industrialised global economy. An endangered species knows this and so too do four endemic fish species of the Colorado river on the brink of extinction. Whether or not you value life, one thing is certain. Extinction is forever.
As Will and I began our journey, I realised that I had been perhaps a little naive to think that at the Colorado’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, I would find some wildness intact. The reality is a river shackled by a canal called ‘The Grand Ditch’ wrestling her into compliance at her birthplace, sending her through valleys and rusty culverts to a series of reservoirs. From there she is forced uphill and through a 13 mile tunnel blasted beneath the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. From west of the great continental divide the Colorado is wrangled east to front range farmland and thirsty cities where no cities should be. This is just the beginning of her life.
Moving southwest through her Upper Basin, along the Yampa and Green Rivers we followed a sea of oil and gas wells in Colorado and Utah. We took a random diversion off the highway near Roosevelt, Utah and followed it into the mesa, uncovering a litany of drill pads disemboweling the earth of its carbon. Any road would have revealed the same thing. Coal fired power plants and their tailings ponds put the finishing touches on an industrial landscape where city billboards proclaim their love for coal and drilling. Out here is energy nirvana for oil and gas fracking companies getting drunk on the resources beneath America’s public lands.
However we spend our lives, one thing is clear. Nothing happens without nature. Without nature we have nothing. Yet nothing may be what we deserve. Though not what other species deserve or future generations who have played no part in our narcissism. We have a choice which we need to wake up to and act upon. Do we continue to let corporations do what they want? Including mining and destroying our lands, displacing us, poisoning our water and selling it back to us in plastic bottles? Or do we protect what we love and stand for something much bigger than ourselves? It’s a choice between doing nothing or doing something.
Wherever you are there’s a Colorado waiting to hear your choice.