Tag Archives: Utah

Landscapes and Libraries

South of Salt Lake

South of Salt Lake

Driving south from Salt Lake City, I found it hard to believe that we were en route to a celebratory vacation. The landscape surrounding us looked like any other commercial strip-mall, except that it was situated in a very harsh — almost bleak — semi-arid desert terrain. To my surprise, and — I might say, great relief — it was not long thereafter that the scenery underwent a tremendous change — some might say a phase transition. Indeed, I was not disappointed. Awestruck, we found ourself face-to-face with the rising sandstone cliffs of the Capitol Reef. The only comparable vista that I have ever seen is at the site of Petra, in the land of Jordan. However, the Capitol Reef is not only much vaster — extending over a hundred miles; unlike Petra — where Man had a major role in carving out its topology and architecture — the Capitol Reef owes its unique landscape and incredible array of multi-colored sandstone canyons, castles, pinnacles, and buttes — some of them reaching right up to the sky — to Nature’s rich endowment of evolutionary forces. Here, over eons, the rain, the snow, the sun, and wind have converged, employing all of their might to render a grandiose and unforgettable landscape.

Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak.

Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak. It is only when we explored the area on foot that we were able to get a real feel for the extent of life and movement around us. For example, we followed the path of a wash through winding canyons, where new delights emerged from around every bend. Making our way along this trail, we experienced the secrets of the place unfolding before our very eyes. Each historical epoch — dating back as far as 250 million years — was revealed to us in the distinct colors and layers of the rock formations, the rare remnants of petrified wood, fossils embedded in the canyon floor, and the deposits of mammoth rocks that Nature had imported from afar. Just as in a library or archive, the record was open and there for all those inclined to see.

instead of the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.

Libraries have existed for centuries, archiving and documenting the history of mankind. Browsing through their stacks, turning over the pages of their voluminous books, we get a sense of human nature as a whole, not just a snapshot of the myriad, individual parts. Exploring Nature’s repositories, such as the Capitol Reef, provides much the same kind of experience. However, instead of revealing the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.

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Abbey's novel.

Recognizing their value, nearly all communities are willing to provide public support for libraries that preserve materials written by human beings. Unfortunately, in the case of Nature’s libraries, the opposite may be true.  Although Capitol Reef is protected by Federal Law, there are many exquisite landscapes that are not. One need only consider the situation in Southern Utah where all too often we saw drilling pads, clear cut logging, desert-destroying off road vehicle trails, and just plain vandalism. It’s all documented in Edward Abbey’s classic account The Monkey Wrench Gang as well as in the more recent, equally eloquent writings of Terry Tempest Williams.

Mind Over Matter

Six years later, we are grateful for each and every day. We no longer wonder “why us?” but rather “why not us”: Why is my husband one of the lucky minority who has survived so long?

Two days, and six loads of laundry later, we are making a quick turn-around. My husband Brock and I are on our way to visit the Huntsman Cancer Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he is doing follow-up visits, having successfully staved off the dread cancer — multiple myeloma — for more than six years. The initial prognosis, when he was first diagnosed in July 2002, was dim: Make out your will — you have three weeks to live. Talk about the need to focus; to bring all of one’s intellectual, intuitive, and spiritual resources to bear! Eventually, that is precisely what we did. But at first, on hearing the news, we were shocked and dejected. Desperately trying to postpone our fate, we went for what we thought at the time would be our last walk together along the Potomac River, at Great Falls Park. We asked ourselves: Why us? Six years later, we are grateful for each and every day. We no longer wonder “why us?” but rather “why not us”: Why is my husband one of the lucky minority who has survived so long?

Interestingly enough, as I sit in the waiting room at the hospital, while my husband undergoes his first test of the day — a PET scan — I find myself reading the very same book that I read while waiting, six years ago, in the radiologist’s office. The book is Baribasi’s Linked: The New Science of Networks. Describing and explaining the evolution of our thinking about networks, this book has been useful to me in the intervening years in a number of ways. For one, I was teaching a course at the time called “The Networked Economy,” and Barabasi makes a convincing case — useful for contextualizing this course for my students — as to why networks provide a wonderful unit of analysis. But, perhaps more important to me at the time was Barabasi’s discussion of cancer cells from a network perspective. I breathed a sigh of relief upon reading that our knowledge of networks, and how they operate, held promise for discovering a cure for cancer. By understanding the architecture and the topology of the cancer cell network, he said, we could find ways to stress the system and undermine the way its components — the cells — communicated and interacted, thereby wiping it out. Never before had my intellectual life and personal life been so intertwined!

He even went so far as to organize his fighting cells into famous military units — Israel’s Golani Brigade, Britain’s famous Red Devils parachute brigade, the Union Army’s Iron Brigade, and the 1st Marine Division from its days in Korea.

In the last six years, science and the medical profession has come a long way in its efforts to conquer multiple myeloma. To be sure, their medical advances constitute one way of exerting mind (in the form of scientific knowledge) over matter (the diseased body). However, as I witnessed my husband rise to the occasion, resolutely determining that he would fight the cancer back, I came to appreciate more fully the role that an individual can play is using his or her mind to guide the body back to health. Drawing on his own internal resources, my husband practiced guided visualization1, going down into his body and rallying his good cells to fight the cancer. He even went so far as to organize his fighting cells into famous military units — Israel’s Golani Brigade, Britain’s famous Red Devils parachute brigade, the Union Army’s Iron Brigade, and the 1st Marine Division from its days in Korea. Having marshalled his best troops, he would visually reenter his body at night and strategize with them. Occasionally he would award them medals for their outstanding bravery and sacrifices.

It was only an hour ago that I witnessed what can happen when these two different ways of employing the mind are joined together.

He turned to us with a broad grin, announcing “Perfect–it couldn’t be better. There is no trace of the cancer.”

While we waited anxiously, Dr. Zangari reviewed the results of my husband’s tests. He turned to us with a broad grin, announcing “Perfect — it couldn’t be better. There is no trace of the cancer.” Savoring the joy of it all, and anticipating a trip into the Utah mountains, I thought to myself: If all of our mental powers can be brought together to defeat something as terrible as cancer, can we not also employ them to address the many other challenges that we face in life? Part of the answer, I though to myself, is to keep our minds open to all possibilities.

1.  Read a moving entry from Brock’s diary, “March 2006: Cancer coming back.” PDF will open in a new window. Hosted by the Oncology Nursing Society, and used with author’s permission. ↑ back to essay ↑