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This sense of sovereignty is endemic to places made along the margins.*

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dry

Private Ranchettes Amid Road Grid of the World’s Biggest Ammunition Storage Facility, Hawthorne, Nevada, 2006

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photographs by Michael Light

by Ann M. Wolfe

Michael Light’s aerial photographs of the American West show vast landscapes marked by spectacular geographical features, as well as sites that have been

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unremittingly altered by human activity. What is most striking about these images is the drama of their extraordinary immediacy, often heightened by a radiant, yet mysterious glow that triggers deep anxieties about our contemporary existence and future.

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h igh d e s e rt j o u r n a l

Union Pacific Freight Train Heading West, Bitter Creek in Foreground, Near Rock Springs, Wyoming, 2007

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To view the earth’s surface through the lens of Light’s camera is to confront the visual reality of the place where we live and to surrender to the vulnerability that such confrontation calls forth. Born to a family of pilots, Light was flying engineless aircraft before the age of 16 in an effort to satisfy his instinctive desire to engage the land below and the sky above. In 2000, he began renting small airplanes and helicopters to pursue his photography. “At first,” Light recalls, “I was just so ecstatic to get out of the studio, to move through the deep western space in three dimensions and partake of illumination itself on sweeping scales.” Five years later, after purchasing a small, two-seat, high-wing aircraft specifically designed for aerial photography, he initiated an extensive aerial survey of the American West. Light’s aim for the survey, which he has formally titled Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West, was to look west of the 100th Meridian – the driest part of the nation – to depict the region’s increasing human presence. His investigations – which, to date, are nearly halfway complete – were initiated with support from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Whether imagining a young volcanic cinder cone or the terraces of the world’s largest excavated copper mine, Light begs us to ask why landscapes change and what our role in that process entails. To read marks and contours on the skin of the Earth is to look back and forth in time for answers to this question; it is to seek an understanding

Michael Light: Some Dry Space was presented as part of the Art + Environment series, an initiative of the Nevada Museum of Art that brings community, artists and scholars together to explore the interaction between people and their environments. For more information on the Nevada Museum of Art and Art + Environment, please visit www.nevadaart.org. of our diminutive scale in relation to geologic and environmental phenomena, while simultaneously coming to grips with the fact that humans have had – and will continue to have – the power to effect environmental change. If optimism is to be found in Light’s photographs, it is in the liberating acknowledgment that these scars on the earth exist, and that Light has the courage to record them for humanity. “Some dry space” is not a comfortable fit for the increasingly “inhabited West.” Light’s photographs remind us of this stark truth and implore us to move forward with a meaningful strategy for the future. < hdj > (Ann M. Wolfe is Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. This essay is excerpted from the Museum’s recent book Some Dry Space: Michael Light.)


h igh d e s e rt j o u r n a l

Terry Tempest Williams and Mugorewindekwe Consulate working on a mosaic panel for the Rugerero Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, April, 2007. photo: chris noble

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a conversation with

Terry Tempest Williams by John Sterling Terry Tempest Williams’ writing has helped me understand the arid Western lands which have provided

the context for my life. Her commitment to advocating for these lands influenced my decision to pursue a life dedicated to the conservation of our wildlands. I spoke to her in January, not long after the release of her new book Finding Beauty in a Broken World. The new book moves far beyond place-based writing and into a meditation on how we can bring the pieces of a troubled world together into a new whole. joh n st e r l i n g : When you were you young, did your folks make a point of getting you out into nature or was that something you found on your own? te rry t e m p e st w i l l i a m s : No, I certainly didn’t find it on my own. This is a family credo, ethos. My father still out-hikes me. Coming from a family of pipeline contractors, work was done outside. Part of the grace of that work was being able to walk those trench lines for miles, speculating what was underneath as they would make their bids for natural gas lines. As kids, it was heaven because we would follow the jobs. You’d be in Vernal one minute, in Dinosaur National Park on the edge of the Green River. You would be in Zion the next, when The Tempest Company was doing work in St. George or Cedar City. That’s been the one common ground for our family. We’ve all loved nature and our family has made its livelihood by working outside. joh n st e r l i n g : In your new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, you bring up regularly the fact that the family business had to do with digging into the earth and laying gas pipelines. You’ve talked about that in earlier writings. Has that been a tension for you with your family? te rry t e m p e st w i l l i a m s : It is a tension. It was more of a tension growing up. I remember reading Sand County Almanac on the banks of the Green River when we were with my mother and aunt and grandmother; all of us were camping there. Reading his land ethic, realizing how David Brower stopped the damming of Dinosaur, at the expense of Grand Canyon, thinking about the conservation history that is our legacy as Americans, well, it was a transformative moment for me, right after graduating from high school. Leopold’s words never left me. My grandmother was a great conservationist. She read us the book, The Place No One Knew, with photographs by Elliot Porter, when Glen Canyon Dam was being built. There was always this conservation ethic present in my grandmother. Then there was the whole other ethos that had to do with hunting and laying gas pipe that was contrary. But I think the tension line was held with some sort of understanding that we all loved the land. So it was complicated. In all honesty, it still is. When we could listen to each other it was civil. When we weren’t listening to each other but holding onto positions, it was not so civil. The challenge, always, is to not let it get personal. joh n st e r l i n g : Given some of the writing you’ve done on behalf of the land, your family experience must have helped you understand where the other side was coming from. te rry t e m p e st w i l l i a m s : I think that’s right. I’ll never forget in 1995 when we were in the middle of the bad Utah Wilderness bill that was before Congress, there were hearings held across the state, in all 29 counties. My father showed up at the Salt Lake hearing. I remember being in the audience thinking, oh no, what’s he going to say? But he actually gave one of the most eloquent essays

with tremendous gravity because he talked about being a pipeline contractor and making a living off the land. Wilderness doesn’t help his business, but he talked about hiking up to Notch Peak in the west desert that was under consideration for wilderness. He talked about the view before him. And then he said, “You can’t put a price on that.” I remember shortly before my brother Steve passed away, one of the last gifts he gave me was a monkey wrench. I think it was his way of conveying we may not see eye to eye, but bless you as you continue on your own path of passion, which was his passion too – which was wildness. joh n ste rl i ng: You’ve become, whether you wanted to or not, a spokesperson for the grassroots conservation movement. How do you feel about being that voice? te rry tempest wi l l iams: I guess I don’t see it that way. I do think we belong to this extraordinary community of both diverse and like-minded people that care tremendously about wildness, wilderness, specifically the wild lands in southern Utah. I am mindful of those people who have gone before us. I think of Abbey, I think of Stegner, I think of John Wesley Powell. I look at the voices now that are coming out of this country, whether it’s Craig Childs or Amy Irvine, certainly Ellen Meloy. I think it’s a continuum. I look at how High Desert Journal has been a voice with many other grassroots voices on behalf of the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau and the interior West. I think all conservation and the literature that has emerged out of this movement is a generational stance. I’ve been lucky and I’ve been around for awhile. And I will say, it is a privilege to have a voice in this conversation. I never take that for granted. joh n ste rl i ng: You mentioned a number of writers a lot of people would classify as nature writers. What do you think of that term? te rry tempest wi l l iams: I don’t pay much attention, honestly, to categories. My work has never been easily categorized. I think I’ve seen it in every section of a bookstore, including occult. In libraries, no one can ever find my books. In truth, my editor and publisher don’t know how to categorize it either. Is it nature writing? Is it memoir? Creative nonfiction? Or does it belong in politics? Women’s studies? Or spirituality? I don’t think it matters. We live in a world where categories do not serve us well, in the same way that compartmentalization and generalizations of the world do not serve us well. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand that economic issues are environmental issues, which are social issues, which are ultimately issues of social justice. I feel the same way about writing. In America, because we are so commercially oriented, people are quick to put you in a box. To be very crass, publishers need to “market” a book. That’s why they need categories. On one hand, I couldn’t care less, if it makes it easier for people to figure out where they are going to put a book on a shelf. My creative

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Maternal Instincts

Portraits of Women in Oregon and Mexico by Jessica Plattner

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The Guardian, 2008 oil on linen, 42 x 29 inches


h igh d e s e rt j o u r n a l

Maternal Instincts

Portraits of Women in Oregon and Mexico by Jessica Plattner

The Breakfast, 2008 oil on linen, 29 x 40 inches

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Profile for High Desert Journal

High Desert Journal #9  

The best literature and visual arts of the interior West

High Desert Journal #9  

The best literature and visual arts of the interior West

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