Cedar Mesa, by David Petersen, photos by Branson Reynolds
[amazon-product]0816522340[/amazon-product]Review by Ken Wright
Outdoors – April 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine
Cedar Mesa: A place where spirits dwell
By David Petersen, with photographs by Branson Reynolds
Published in 2002 by University of Arizona Press
MY LIFE IS WRITTEN on Utah’s Cedar Mesa. The most memorable part of it, anyway — the last half. Some of it is written in well-known spots — Natural Bridges National Monument, where I enjoyed a short stint as a ranger; in canyons, on monumental hikes in Grand Gulch, or shorter wanderings through Fish and Owl creek canyons, John’s Canyon, or Slickhorn Canyon; and in the many amazing explorations of ruin sites scattered thereabouts.
And many, many other times of my life have been marked by aimless, guide-book-less meanderings down Cedar Mesa’s innumerable smaller, little-known and less-visited canyons and washes and fingers of mesa left hanging between those drainages.
All compiled, those 20 years-worth of footfalls across that landscape trace the wintermarks of my life over the past two decades. Cheesy, but there you have it. Since the early 1980s, I have considered that dry, uninhabited, wind-blasted and water-scoured landscape the place where my spirit dwells. I guess I’m not alone, because now there’s a book called Cedar Mesa: A place where spirits dwell.
Normally someone with a special attachment to a place like I have with Cedar Mesa would cringe and snarl at a book about that place. But this is no normal guidebook or secret-revealing where-to-go money- making manual.
This is a book for people like me, written by someone who feels like I do: Cedar Mesa is a magical, rare gem with special, magnetic qualities that need to be defended for it to stay that way.
In fact, this book is kind of an anti-guide book. Written by Durango author David Petersen and illustrated with black-and-white photographs by local photographer Branson Reynolds — both nationally acclaimed artists in their fields — this little package (only 82 pages) offers little explanation of geology or natural history, no directions on how to get anywhere, and not even any suggestions of what to do once you get there. This is more of a spiritual guidebook. “I wish,” Petersen writes, “to acquaint you with the area, to intrigue you with a true and intimate taste of its cloaked as well as its visible qualities, to help you feel its silent preternatural ambiance — and, perchance, to recruit your support for its enhanced and prolonged preservation.”
PETERSEN AND REYNOLDS are a qualified and quality pair to undertake this task. In Petersen’s seven essays and Reynolds’ dozen-plus photos, a picture of Cedar Mesa emerges, but it’s not a clear sketch or map. What emerges instead is a feeling, a perception, an affection, and — darest I say it? — a spirituality, a spirit of place. But there’s little guidance: from there, the curious reader himself or herself would have to find that spirit. But that’s the point. As Petersen writes, “For those fortunate few who know where and, more important, how to search for and discern the sacred in nature, it damn well still exists.”
And it still exists in abundance on Cedar Mesa. Still, a book about a place — even a well-intentioned book like this — is only bound to lure the hordes, no? Well, no. Well, maybe. Sure. But in this case, even I’m comfortable with that, as Petersen is; for Cedar Mesa is such a special, rare, remnant place of solitude, spirit, and undeveloped land, that it needs people. Some, anyway. It needs those who can still feel that spirit. And it especially needs those with spirits willing to defend it. Defend against what? The usual, inevitable, ineffable scourges afflicting and attacking public lands on Cedar Mesa and everywhere here in the early 21st Century: road building, trail fees, ATVs, desert livestock grazing (and, on Cedar Mesa in particular, chaining down the pinion-juniper forest to make dry pasture) — all of which I’ve seen spread like cancer in the 20 years I’ve been roaming Cedar Mesa. In fact, if there’s any weakness in this book, it’s that there’s too little ranting against these scourges.
But this book isn’t meant to be a bummer. And the strengths of this potent little read outweigh those weaknesses. What this book is is a celebration, not a tirade. Thank goodness. And through Petersen’s fine, evocative prose and Reynolds’ crisp, raw photographs, this book achieves its goal: it makes you want to wander Natural Bridges National Monument, to overnight in Fish and Owl canyons, to sit in reverence in an unknown ancient ruin, to sleep nervously at a quiet spring ringed with fresh mountain lion tracks. And it makes you want to stand and fight to make sure the opportunities to do those things are always there.
This book is a celebration, yes. Now let’s hope — no, let’s make sure — it doesn’t become a eulogy.
– Ken Wright
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