Not for us the resolution of old night, nor the revelation of high noon

Daegan Miller considers how our historical landmarks have shifted in meaning, leaving us adrift and disoriented in the Anthropocene.

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave.
— Annie Dillard, ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’

WE ARE OF THE SHADOWS. Not for us the resolution of old night, nor the revelation of high noon. Of the shadows, but on the banks of a river that has spent ages slowly carving a canyon through a range now called the Wasatch before spilling into the flats of the Great Basin, which hems its dozens of wandering rivers in. None ever make it to the sea. We are on the banks of the Weber, a White name given, about two-hundred years ago, to the flowing water at our feet; this Weber River never reaches the ocean, either, and instead, it shimmies its way northwest from where we stand, then skirts the small city of Ogden, forty miles north of Utah’s capitol, to eventually mix its snowmelt with the old brine of the Great Salt Lake, from where it will ascend back to the country of clouds.

The photographer Brent Mathison and I have come a long way to stand on these banks, chiseled down deep in Weber Canyon. We’ve come a long way to visit a tree, meet a wandering angel, and find out if the landmarks have any direction left to give.

It wasn’t difficult to get here. Mathison and I flew from Boston to Salt Lake City, set up camp in one of Ogden’s cheap motels, and then steered our rented Toyota Corolla east on I-84, toward Cheyenne, past Ogden’s sprawl, over the screaming concrete roadway, and through the Wasatch’s fingers. A valley appeared in front of us, palming small Utahan towns: Mountain Green, Enterprise, Morgan. On we drove, passing ranches and shoddy ski chalets and, as we sped into Weber Canyon, gravel operations chewing through the mountains so that cities may have cement. The interstate hugged the canyon’s walls, sharing the narrow strip of flat land with the river and the steel-gray dual tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. We drove until we slid to a stop at a dirt pull-off at the canyon’s head, in a small river bottom where the mountains back off just enough for a few irrigated fields and the fifteen-block town of Henefer.

I have spent years gazing longingly at three stereographic photos, taken in 1873, of a tree called the Thousand Mile Tree, which grows not far from where we park. We walk toward it, downstream, through waist-high clumps of sere bunchgrass and silver-green sage, shoulder-to-shoulder with the galvanized guardrail that separates us from the throaty eighteen-wheelers steaming down the four-lane interstate—Savage, Legend, Amazon—trying not to slide down the steep slope on our right that slips into the Weber, which is now whispering at its November low-flow, green and midnight.

We’ve come a long way to visit a tree, meet a wandering angel, and find out if the landmarks have any direction left to give.
Rain is in the forecast, but right now the skies are blue.

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