I joined a film crew several years ago in Chilean Patagonia where we put together a flick opposing dams along the turquoise rivers of the Aysén region. At the time, stopping the advance of some of the biggest investors in the world seemed impossible. But soon more films were made, protests ignited across the country to save its wildest rivers, and a $10 billion mega-dam project was halted.
I can’t claim more than a bit part, a grain of sand, but somehow all of the grains add up.
Three years ago I was involved in another film project in Utah, pushing a nascent national monument in hopes that President Obama would sweep it into existence in his last days in office. I met with a small crew of two filmmakers and a traveling companion in a convoluted sandstone desert. In winter and spring, we backpacked through knee-deep snow, slept in caves, and climbed into sculpted, echoing canyons. Our intention was to show a landscape in need of preservation, a place up for tar sands development. We approached it from the ground, from a very human perspective, seeing it with our eyes, feeling it with our fingertips, cameras following as we went.
Like stopping the dams in Patagonia, I thought chances this would become a monument were slim, but voices rose up. Tribes got behind the plan and became a driving force. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell came out for a walk. She wore shorts, a day pack, and a sunhat as a Bluff, Utah, outfitter named Vaughn Hadenfeldt showed her through ancient ruins and canyons, telling her that this seemingly desolate land was a good place to live. It’s a small neighborhood, always has been going back thousands of years. Most of us know each other. Hadenfeldt, who took Sally Jewell walking, is a friend of mine. In numbers, this isn’t a big political force. But it has heart.
Last week, Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument, 1.3 million acres of mesas and canyons in southeast Utah. The role of my friends and me was less than minor. We were a drop in the ocean. But the number of drops became many, word spread, and the waters rose.
In the case of both films, we came with our own ambivalence and misgivings. In Patagonia, we were a crew of adventurers from the Southwest. Our own rivers were broken by high dams and turbines. We set off across glaciers and put our rafts and kayaks in at the headwaters of the Rio Baker, following one of Chile’s wildest rivers from source to sea. This was something we couldn’t do at home. We wondered what right we had to come to another country and claim that their rivers should run free while our own country had profited and grown from the wealth of the waters we had impounded. In the end, we could only answer the question with the knowledge that human industry is spreading. Places not consumed by us are becoming desperately rare. The greatest commodity may not be water or minerals, but landscapes we have not devoured. This may be Chile’s saving grace, and, for that matter, the world’s.
In Utah, I was hesitant about pushing a new national monument, wondering how it would be managed, what future administrations would do with it, and if it would be embraced by Utah conservatives or, like a rejected organ, it would be ceaselessly attacked and weakened. I feared hardening this piece of high desert with parking spaces, trails, and signposts: people and more people. The point of a monument, in my mind, is preservation of what is iconically American: vast, sacred wildness. Places where you can step away from all that smells of us. If we can’t remember a world not dominated by human enterprise, we might forget who we are, and what lies beyond us. I wanted this place protected both for its own sake, and so we might remember.
I’m aware of a hopelessness that lurks among us. Too much is at stake in the world. Too many issues have to be faced. From climate change to extinctions, sea level rise to poisoned air and water, where would you begin? The worries seem insurmountable, solutions beyond the act of any one person. Paralysis seems near. Every answer brings another problem. No dams in Patagonia could mean more coal fired power plants. A national monument in Utah could lead to an overwhelming, bureaucratic permitting system and crowded trails, increased looting, and limited protection from industrial development. There are countless reasons to give up, to stop dead in our tracks.
I can’t pretend that I matter, that these films did anything. But I know that the work matters. Billions of butterfly wings flapping at once changes the way air moves, the way clouds gather and part. Countless voices can move this human machine, can give it a heart.
There is reason for hope.
“The Story of Place” was produced by Sinuhe Xavier, and “Power in the Pristine” by Rios Libres.