An Ethnography of Place and Feeling:

Environmental Dialogics and Situated Experience at Powell Reservoir


Richard A. Rogers, Ph.D.

School of Communication

Box 5619

Northern Arizona University

Flagstaff  AZ  86011

vox:  (928) 523-2530

fax:  (928) 523-1505




Competitive paper to be presented to the Rhetoric and Public Address Division

of the Western States Communication Association, Long Beach CA, March 2002.


(c) copyright 2002 Richard A. Rogers


An Ethnography of Place and Feeling:

Environmental Dialogics and Situated Experience at Powell Reservoir




      Following recent critiques of the lack of a non-objectified position for nature, place and materiality in rhetorical theory and criticism, this essay engages Glen Canyon Dam and Powell reservoir in the context of recent proposals to decommission the dam and drain the reservoir.  Guided by ecofeminist conceptions of the human-nature relationship as interdependent and dialogic, I "read" the dam and reservoir to discover the meanings and identities they encourage and, perhaps more importantly, the ways in which they discourage sense experiences, knowledges and identities offered by the pre-dam Glen Canyon.  I conclude by offering a new metaphor for the reservoir based on my experiences there:  "Lake" Powell as museum.  The essay serves to illustrate the importance of human/nonhuman dialogues in environmental rhetorical studies.



An Ethnography of Place and Feeling:

Environmental Dialogics and Situated Experience at Powell Reservoir


Our cultural concerns are of utmost concern to us.  We contend that nature is our culture.

            Clay Bravo, Hualapai tribal member (Williams "Indian Tribe" 105)


We called areas like Talking Rock.  You communicate with this rock.  There's caves out in there [Glen Canyon].  You go in there and those caves will talk to you.

            Thomas Morris, Navajo medicine man (Sass)


      At least three recent publications in communication studies (Abram; Jagtenberg & McKie; Rogers) have suggested that communication scholars must work to revise their assumptions about communication and discourse to include the nonhuman world as a set of agents and interlocutors.  The existing choice between traditional science, in which "nature" is fixed and determinant, and contemporary critical theory, in which "nature" is nothing but a set of cultural fictions, is deadly for a "greening" of communication theory and criticism.  The former reifies nature and justifies its manipulation by humans while the latter reduces nature to culture, eliminating the nonhuman world altogether as a meaningful topic of discussion, as a legitimate factor in the study of communication.  Both objectify nature and are therefore complicit in environmental destruction.  These theorists call for, in Jagtenberg and McKie's terms, a way of understanding the profound interrelationship between the semiosphere and the biosphere.

      These theorists not only call for a recognition of the rhetorical impact of the nonhuman world, they question the distinction between nature and culture, the real and the symbolic, the material and the ideational (see also Greene).  That is, the semiosphere (ideology, symbols, sense-making) has had a profound effect on the biosphere (the "natural" material conditions in which we live).  We have, to a great degree, "written" culture onto the physical world; in turn, that reformed world is available to be "read."[1]  A stunning example of the writing of culture onto the earth is the vast system of dams, pump stations, aqueducts and other structures built to turn the American west—mostly desert—into "viable" agricultural land dotted with a growing number of sprawling metropolises.


Glen Canyon Dam and "Lake" Powell as Contested Symbols

      Since the waters of "Lake" Powell began to rise behind the newly-completed Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, Powell reservoir, the submerged Glen Canyon and especially the dam itself have served as a rallying point, a densely potent symbolic site, for river runners, canyonland enthusiasts, eco-saboteurs, conservationists, and a wide-range of environmentalists (Farmer).  David Brower, who as head of the Sierra Club in the 1950s agreed to a compromise in which Glen Canyon Dam would go largely unopposed in order to save Colorado's Echo Park, came to regret that decision deeply after visiting Glen Canyon just prior to its submersion (Reisner; Farmer).  As the dam was being completed, Brower and the Sierra Club began to publicize what was being lost as a result of the dam through lectures, slide shows, and Elliot Porter's book of photographs, The Place No One Knew:  Glen Canyon on the Colorado.

      Glen Canyon Dam is perhaps best known among those interested in environmental issues in the southwest U.S. through Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, in which a gang of "ecoterrorists" plot to blow up the dam.  Inspired in part by Abbey's book, in 1981 Earth First! protestors unfurled a three-hundred foot plastic "crack" along the front of Glen Canyon Dam (Gross) in an early instance of what DeLuca terms "environmental image events."

      In the 1980s, river runners and others began to call attention to the ways in which the operation of Glen Canyon Dam was destroying the Colorado River ecosystem downstream in the Grand Canyon (Brownridge & Hinchman).  Vastly fluctuating water flows (the result of water releases being timed to provide peak power for the desert metropolises of Arizona and California), a steady supply of unnaturally cold water (the result of water releases coming from deep within Powell reservoir), and a lack of silt (most of which is captured behind the dam) were having dramatic effects on the plants, animals and beaches along the stretch of the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead, an area almost entirely encompassed within Grand Canyon National Park (see, for example, Miller).  As a result of these concerns, the Bureau of Reclamation oversaw environmental studies of the effect of Glen Canyon Dam operations on the Grand Canyon, resulting in more rigid guidelines governing the fluctuation of water releases for hydroelectric power generation (Williams "Government").

      In the last decade, however, support has risen for a new proposal, one that the Bureau of Reclamation refused to consider in its EIS process:  the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam and the draining of Powell reservoir.  Porter's book has been re-issued, along with numerous other books, essays and articles which mourn the loss of Glen Canyon and implicitly or explicitly call for the draining of the reservoir (e.g., Berger; Lee; Nichols).  Two organizations have been formed with the specific purpose of advocating for the decommissioning of the dam (Glen Canyon Institute and Glen Canyon Action Network), and the Sierra Club has endorsed a similar proposal.  Books, videos, web sites, lectures, slide shows, rallies, music and a host of other media are being used to spread this seemingly unthinkable idea, one generally portrayed by mainstream politicians and editorialists as "bizarre," "astonishingly goofy," "nutty," "certifiable" and "utter sophistry" (Forbes 28; "More at Stake;" Sass; Zengerle 20; see also Farmer).  However, to the great surprise of many, in the PBS documentary Cadillac Desert (Else), retired U.S. Senator from Arizona Barry F. Goldwater reversed his long-standing support of the dam and called it a mistake (Yozwiak).

      In the spring of 2000, an opposing organization called Friends of Lake Powell erected several billboards in the greater Phoenix area (residence of many Powell recreationers) and smaller plastic signs along the roads approaching the reservoir reading "Don't let the Sierra Club drain Lake Powell:  water – power – recreation - habitat."  At least two of the Phoenix billboards were vandalized with the spraypainted the words "Free H2O" blocking out "Don't let the Sierra Club," leaving "Free H2O drain Lake Powell" (Slivka).   Holding onto the idea that a "lake" is a natural body of water and that John Wesley Powell symbolizes human efforts to navigate free and wild rivers, opponents reject the official name and often refer to the reservoir with epithets such as "Res Foul" (Farmer).

      Certainly there is a need for a rhetorical analysis of the debates over Glen Canyon Dam.  Several issues are of potential interest to environmental activists, their opponents, and scholars in areas such as rhetoric, public policy, and ecocriticism.  For example, how is it that Glen Canyon Dam has become the focus of environmental groups instead of other large dams on the Colorado (e.g., Hoover or Flaming Gorge)?  How has the debate broadened from a focus on the downstream effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the Grand Canyon to discussions centered around the restoration of what lies upstream beneath Powell reservoir, Glen Canyon?  What roles are played by scientific and economic discourses as opposed to aesthetic, sensual and spiritual ones?  How are the arguments against the dam predicated on anthropocentric and instrumental grounds as opposed to the idea of the intrinsic "right" of a place to exist relatively undisturbed?  How has Glen Canyon, an area submerged since the late 1960s, been constituted for audiences who never experienced it, and probably never will even if the reservoir is drained?  While such questions and the foci they entail are important, in this essay I want to take a different approach, one grounded in the recent "green" revisionings of critical rhetorical theory and criticism discussed above.


The Rhetoric of Place:  Materiality and Meaning

      While I will explore the more "conventional" rhetorics of the Glen Canyon Dam debate in other essays, here I wish to heed the call for a dialogic theory of discourse which embraces rather than denies the importance of materiality, place and nonhuman life in sense-making.  I make this move not only to expand the scope and possibilities of environmental criticism in communication studies, but also because of the particular issues involved in the Glen Canyon Dam debate.  First, many of the more recent arguments for draining Powell reservoir are predicated upon the spiritual, emotional, sensual and erotic experiences of those who knew Glen Canyon (see, for example, Berger; Lee; and Porter).  In other words, these arguments are not primarily predicated upon abstract ideological notions of the need to preserve and restore free-running rivers and wild spaces; instead, these rhetorics are grounded in specific, embodied experiences of the place known as Glen Canyon.  Second, Powell reservoir itself is a key element in the rhetoric of those opposing any move to drain the reservoir and decommission the dam.  The dam and the reservoir are also, in the view I am adopting here, rhetorical acts.  What are the discursive functions and implications of these man-made structures and of their intersections with the pre-dam ("natural") environment?  How do these material acts and places articulate with verbal and visual texts and ideologies in the debate over the future of Powell reservoir?  In short, how do people "read" Glen Canyon Dam, Powell reservoir and Glen Canyon, and how are these readings potentially influenced not only by environmental ideologies and ideographs, but by the embodied experiences of--the dialogues with--these places?


Glen Canyon Dam

      Glen Canyon Dam blurs the distinction between the material and the symbolic.  The dam is certainly interpreted through a large cluster of official and unofficial symbols.  The dam is also, without question, a massive material undertaking with economic, environmental and political foundations and consequences.  But it is also, in itself, a massive symbol.  Glen Canyon Dam is a cultural inscription onto the biosphere.  As Lady Bird Johnson put it in her dedication speech at Glen Canyon Dam:  "This is a new kind of writing on the wall, a kind that says, proudly and beautifully, 'man was here'" (Else).  The dam is the imposition of a will to control, a writing of culture, the creation of a "text" that can be read outside of the tours, plaques, displays, brochures and films provided at the visitor's center.  Its sheer height, graceful geometric curve, masses of concrete and spinning turbines; its creation of a large body of relatively still, blue water upstream and the cold, clear, completely regulated water downstream are both material acts of engineering and symbolic acts of a will to domination.

      The experience of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon and many other areas in the southwestern U.S. are profoundly affected by the physical structure of Glen Canyon Dam as well as other dams such as Hoover, Parker, Davis and Flaming Gorge.  Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, along with Mead and Powell reservoirs, frame the Grand Canyon both literally as well as ideologically.  Literally, the dams block the flow of the Colorado River and fill huge canyons with water at either end of Grand Canyon National Park, with tremendous attendant ecological changes.  The Glen Canyon region, and specifically Glen Canyon Dam, is an intersection not only of nature and culture, but of spirit and technology, the biosphere and the semiosphere, aesthetics and economics, the material and the ideal.  We humans exist and make sense admist our positions within those various articulating spheres—as do other entities.

      How does the physical structure of Glen Canyon Dam affect the meanings people make of the surrounding physical environment?  Greta Gaard approaches "wilderness" from an ecofeminist perspective, focusing on how wilderness shapes human identity:


While it is an accepted fact that humans shape the identity of nature (though building cities, dams, roads, tunnels, and through logging, mining, pollution, etc.), Western culture has failed to acknowledge that nature shapes human identity beyond the mere process of physical evolution…. [For example,] moving to a land radically unlike one's birthplace or homeland, or leaving behind a particular special place in nature, severs a relationship with a specific part of nature which had shaped one's physical, cultural, and psychological identity, causing a sense of loss or grief…. Suggesting that human embeddedness with and relationship to nature can have such a deep and lasting effect on human physical, cultural, and psychological identity is an absurdity only in the context of Western industrialized culture.  (15)


Similarly, Wallace Stegner  argues that "if there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that has conditioned me."  Therefore, "I can't come to even tentative conclusions about the West without coming to some conclusions about myself" ("Living Dry" 214).  Stegner's discussion of his own identity and the "nature" of the western U.S. reflects a similar understanding of the dialogic relationship between human identity and sense-making and the environments (natural or otherwise) in which we live.  Therefore, we can begin to make sense of Glen Canyon Dam's material-ideological consequences in terms of how it prevents or alters humans' connection and dialogue with "wild" nature.

      First, the river itself has been substantially altered.  Its inhabitants, color, temperature, taste, smell, silt content, rate of flow and rhythm are now fundamentally different.  The river's flow is affected by demand for electricity and scientific experimentation instead of seasonal rains, snow melts and other natural factors (Sibley).  Today's river is largely predictable and conforms to an image of water deeply connected to an ideology of purity (cool, blue and clear).  And, of course, large parts of the river no longer exist, covered over by the calm waters of Powell reservoir.  No one, no where, experiences the Colorado and Glen Canyon as it existed before the dam.  Beaches, erosion patterns and the entire river and riparian ecosystem of the Colorado have been altered—first by intentional and unintentional ignorance, and now by scientific experimentation with controlled releases of water from Glen Canyon.  Some go so far as to defend the altered river as advantageous because it "'air conditions' the hot canyon floor and lets them [river runners] chill their drinks" (Brownridge & Hinchman 97).

      The canyons themselves have suffered from immersion in hundreds of feet of this water.  The reservoir not only stores decades of silt, but toxic deposits flowing in from upstream and toxic materials introduced into the lake by jet skis, houseboats and other forms of transportation and recreation (Farmer; Lee; Miller).  In addition to completely blocking access to both natural and indigenous sites, this immersion also changes the nature of access.  Boating across Powell reservoir to get to Rainbow Bridge is very different than hiking there through (the now-submerged) Glen Canyon.  They produce different experiences and knowledges.  Sights, smells, textures, temperatures and sounds are all profoundly changed and—despite dualistic claims to the contrary—these sensory experiences articulate with and help form the knowledges and ethics from which we operate (Abram; Gaard; Rogers).  As Navajo medicine man Thomas Morris recounts, within the submerged Glen Canyon are many sacred sites, sites which are also the dwellings of powerful spirits:  "Our god area--water's already covered it…. How would our god know that we need rain because it already has the water?" (Sass).

      These and other acts of communication with the sites in Glen Canyon are now virtually impossible.  Berger describes the reservoir's waters as "odorless" in contrast to the "sharp curry" smell of the "rich muds from mountain runoffs" in the pre-dam Glen (1, 9).  Similarly, Lee writes


What knocks me out about western rivers is their smell.    The only way I can describe that smell is to call it more dry than wet, more dusty than dewey.  Pungent, earthy, not fishy.  A clean-dirt smell, stronger on the upstream wind when the rivers are nice and silty.  I call it the Great Mother's cologne…. My ears felt it, and I certainly tasted it..  (18)


All sensory experiences in the former Glen are lost or altered.  The smell of "clean" reservoir water replaces that of fresh mud; the taste of the river's water is inaccessible.  And, of course, the sounds--the echoes and voices of the Glen--are gone.  John Wesley Powell wrote of one place, "we are please to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds.  It was doubtless made for an academy of music by its storm-born architect; so we name it Music Temple" (231).  Katie Lee describes in more detail the feeling of the place and its effect on human visitors:


A song can be heard beneath that dome to the river, nearly half a mile away…. I sang in Music temple every year for ten years.  In all that time, I never heard anyone shout.  Kids didn't race about; no rough-and-tumble, no games.  It seemed like when they passed that last bend under the dome and looked upon the scene before them, they treated it like a holy place.  None of the guides said anything but, "We'll stop at Music Temple, where you can see the Powell party's names and dates carved in the sandstone."  So it had to be the secret of the sounding rock itself that spoke to their subconscious reverence. (22)


In 1967, after Music Temple's submersion had begun, Lee recounts men in a fast motorboat shooting guns into Music Temple, the sound shattering reverence.

      Viewing Glen Canyon from the top of Glen Canyon Dam or the nearby bridge (built in order to facilitate the construction of the dam), whether north (where Powell reservoir now sits) or south (where the Colorado still "flows"), offers—even encourages or demands—a radically different experience of the landscapes and ecosystems of the area.  Glen Canyon Dam was built in a largely inaccessible spot, with sheer canyon walls and few roads.  Glen Canyon Dam now offers visitors paved access, parking, air conditioning, water, restrooms and food.  Standing atop the dam or the nearby bridge creates a perspective heretofore unavailable—hovering over, in a sense, the canyon below. 

      The several hundred foot drop to the river below is accomplished via elevators inside the dam or by car through a tunnel blasted into the surrounding Navajo sandstone.  The rhythms of walking and climbing are replaced by the smooth flow of an elevator, cables working invisibly and almost inaudibly.  Inside the dam, the regulated pulsing of electrical and mechanical energy is overwhelming.  Outside the dam, huge powerlines and supporting structures produce a mechanistic web of steel and cable.  The hum of electricity fills the air.  On a larger scale, the native energy fields of the area are further altered or drowned out by the sheer mass of the structure and the water it holds back.  Downstream, for example, the enormous weight of "Lake" Mead (behind Hoover Dam) has bent the earth's surface and created new seismic activity in the area (Else).  All of these factors and many more have the potential, at least, to affect visitors' senses, perceptions, knowledges and interpretations.  While these "sensual" or "erotic" knowledges are largely discounted by the dominant ideologies of Western culture (Schott), as scholars of discourse and sense-making we should not similarly discount them.


"Lake" Powell:  To Go or Not to Go?

      For twelve years I explored southern Utah, especially southeastern Utah, as well as related areas in northern Arizona.  While moving from Canyonlands to Bryce and Zion, the Vermillion Cliffs to Cedar Mesa, Capitol Reef to the Pink Sand Dunes and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I completely avoided the body of water officially christened "Lake Powell."  On my first trip from Salt Lake City to Flagstaff I encountered Glen Canyon Dam for the first time.  The physical, emotional and spiritual pain I experienced on that first 30 second drive over the bridge that parallels and overlooks the dam led me to avoid that route whenever possible.  In other words, despite twelve years of on-and-off exploration of the entire region, I avoided "Lake" Powell as if it was a black hole waiting to suck me in.  Once when traveling from Natural Bridges to Capitol Reef, I unintentionally ended up driving over the northern end of the reservoir near Hite and was again stunned by the violation of the beauty and integrity of the natural environment of the area.  Thinking back, it wasn't so much that I consciously avoided the reservoir; I simply blocked the entire Glen Canyon National Recreation Area--a substantial chunk of southeastern Utah--from my vision any time I looked at a map to plan a trip.

      About three years ago, I began a research project looking at tourism at Hoover Dam, specifically focusing on the official presentation of the meaning and significance of the dam.  Examining Hoover forced me to look into the history, economics, issues and debates surrounding all dams on the Colorado, including Glen Canyon Dam.  During my studies of Hoover, I spent a lot of time at the dam itself--a similar but for some reason less painful experience than the few I had had at Glen Canyon Dam.  However, I also decided--on some subconscious level--to avoid any direct contact with Lake Mead.

      As I began to wrap up the primary research for the Hoover Dam project, my attention moved to Glen Canyon.  As I had been studying Hoover Dam--its building and design, its consequences and its contested meanings--groups such as the Glen Canyon Institute and the Sierra Club began to advocate for the draining of Powell Reservoir and the restoration of Glen Canyon.  I recalled my brief experiences with the dam and reservoir--that is, the deep and very real sense of pain and loss it evoked--and concluded that this was the next step in my work on southwestern environmental issues.

      I have begun reviewing the "literature" on Glen Canyon, the dam and "Lake" Powell, from the several book-length histories, travel narratives, and photographic and motion picture representations of the canyon, river, dam and reservoir to the web sites, editorials, articles and magazine-like publications through which much of the debate over the proposal to decommission Glen Canyon Dam has occurred.  I began attending events put on by the dam's opponents and I began speaking to friends, colleagues, neighbors and students about the debate over the proposal and about what "Lake" Powell has meant to them.

      Soon I concluded that I should give up the… what is it?  indignation?  fear?  moral high ground? …that kept me from experiencing Powell reservoir.  Well, at least some of it.  I have allowed my feet--indeed, my whole body, despite fears of giardia--to feel the warm waters of the reservoir.  While still resisting the draw of the motorized transport which almost all water recreationists on the reservoir utilize, I have begun to explore the inundated side canyons and almost 2000 miles of shoreline of this 186-mile long stretch of water in the midst of the desert and canyon lands I fell in love with a dozen years ago.  Granted, a paddle won't get you very far on this liquid autobahn, and it is by no means the common means of water-born loco-motion, so I do not claim to be participating in the "normal" Lake Powell experience.

      As someone who has taken a strong position on the need to restore a freer-flowing Colorado River, I struggled--and continue to struggle--with the morality of my baptism in the waters of Powell reservoir.  Of course I can rationalize.  To understand the debate over the past, present and future of the reservoir, I have to have some understanding--beyond that gleaned through books--of what it means to its annual count of three million visitors.  To understand how various environments come to mean, I need to have relatively direct bodily, sensual and perceptual experiences (Rogers).  And as an outdoor "recreationist," I can begin to imagine how I can "use" the reservoir for my own purposes--not to burn gas, not to spend hours jumping over the wakes of large boats with a jet ski, not to drink beer while piloting a boat and getting a great tan--but for something more, uh… honorable?  That is, I thought, there are the uninundated upper ends of canyons.  There are still some arches, petroglyphs, mesas, and other aspects of interest to me.  I can simply use the reservoir--not as something valuable in and of itself, not as something to carry on more endless consumption just to go (literally) in circles--but as something to further the kinds of outdoor experiences I enjoy:  relatively isolated, away from masses of people, primarily muscle-powered yet still, admittedly, luxurious.

      Perhaps the point here--aside from me trotting out my moral discomforts into public view--is this:  For years I made a conscious decision to avoid any contact with Powell reservoir.  Before spending any significant time there, I immersed myself in the literature about Glen Canyon before the dam:  Elliott Porter's The Place No One Knew, Katie Lee's All My Rivers Are Gone, Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire, Bruce Berger's A River No More, and John Wesley Powell's accounts, as well as conventional histories and motion pictures.  I went to the reservoir relatively well informed about what had existed there before, grounded in my clear position on the ethics of the dam, and with a determination not to engage in the "collective amnesia" which the dam, reservoir and attendant rhetorics promote (Berger).

      I can happily say that I did not have the experience reported by many who oppose the dam and reservoir yet who still find Powell to be beautiful and enchanting, something that certainly destroyed but that also created new forms of beauty and experience (Farmer).  I was not overtly repulsed by the reservoir and its waters, I was not disabled by the kind of pain I had experienced earlier around the dam site itself, but I certainly was not converted.  Nevertheless, my experiences bothered me.  While looking at the reservoir, while paddling across it, while clambering around the landscape near its shores, I slipped, all-too-easily, into the amnesia I felt certain I would avoid.  Put simply, while paddling across the water's surface, I would forget--sometimes for hours at a time--what was below me, what the reservoir has drowned and begun in earnest to cover up with toxic sludge and silt.

      This experience has taught me a number of lessons.  First, strong ethical commitments and extensive indirect knowledge of a place cannot completely override the "nature" and function of the place itself.  That is, cognition is not the only element involved in alienation--alienation can and does occur through sensual means as well (Gaard).  Second, I remain ambivalent about my use of Powell reservoir.  I can rationalize it as simply a means of access, as a necessary activity to "flesh out" my research, as a means to overcome simplistic stereotypes about how and why people visit Powell reservoir.  But it still makes me uncomfortable, even if sensory alienation encourages only a temporary amnesia.  I hesitate to tell my "green" friends that I have spent time there, and continue to carry with me guilt, remorse and dis-ease.  Third, the experience has suggested to me a new metaphor for understanding the reservoir.


Powell Reservoir as Museum

      Opponents of the dam and reservoir rely on a number of key metaphors.  The dam is likened to a prison (as in the sabotaged billboards reading "Free H2O - drain Lake Powell") or a plug needing to be pulled (as in the poster of David Brower holding an enlarged bathtub plug).  The reservoir itself is the target of particular verbal derision, ranging from "Floyd's Void" to "the Blue Death" and "Res Foul."  The pro-dam/pro-tourism forces, on the other hand, have referred to the reservoir as "heaven on water" and "American's natural playground" (Farmer).  A promotional pamphlet produced by Floyd Dominy and the Bureau of Reclamation in 1965 titled The Jewel of the Colorado claimed that "To have a deep blue lake/Where no lake was before/Seems to bring man/A little closer to God" (qtd. in Farmer 149).

      My experiences at and reflections on Powell reservoir have led me to suggest another metaphor. While reflecting on my recent experiences paddling on Powell, during which I felt I slipped into an alienating amnesia about "what lies beneath," I hit upon a metaphor which at first seemed too strange to fit, the source domain and target domain simply not coherent within my "common sense"--if not mainstream--understandings.  Glen Canyon Dam has created a museum called "Lake Powell."  Why a museum?  How can this metaphor work, and what might it reveal about the rhetorics, ethics and material existence of the dam and reservoir?

      One of the fundamental arguments used to oppose Glen Canyon Dam is the destruction of the beauty, spirit and ecology of Glen Canyon--what was, among other things, one of the largest roadless and inaccessible areas in the lower 48 states (Farmer).  And since the 1950s, one consistent reply has been that since Glen Canyon was such an inaccessible place, the reservoir would have a "democratizing" effect, opening up a huge new territory that could easily be explored by all (Farmer).  That is, just as museums make paintings available to "everyone," not just their elite owners; just as museums present the public with artifacts of far-way, endangered and/or extinct civilizations; just as zoos bring exotic and wild animals almost within our reach, and certainly within our gaze; so does "Lake" Powell make accessible pieces of Glen Canyon and its many side canyons.  Whereas approximately 16,000 people (read:  white people) in total visited Rainbow Bridge from its "discovery" in 1909 until the late 1950s, in 1968 alone 28,000 people did so.  By the early 1990s Rainbow Bridge received over 200,000 visitors annually (Farmer).

      In one largely-uninundated canyon where I spent a few days with a friend, a popular locally-produced guide map indicated that rim of the canyon—some 800 feet above water-level—was accessible by climbing up the slopes of talus covering the canyon's walls.  Surveying the slopes with binoculars, no trails were immediately visible and we wondered which route we should try.  With a five minute walk up the canyon's bottom, however, we began to see strips of red plastic—of the kind used to mark survey stakes— tied to bushes and rocks, marking a route up.  The semiotic code here was easy to interpret:  red flags are used to mark something that people want others to see.  In this context, they seemed to us to be clearly telling us "go this way."  While the route was not exactly well-selected, either from an environmental impact or human endurance point of view, it successfully took us up the canyon wall.

      To uncover more levels of meaning here, I should note that this is not something I am used to encountering in the areas of the Colorado Plateau I visit.  First, I am generally interested in going places where I won't encounter others; I desire solitude—something not easily found on or near Powell's shores.  Second, many of the others who visit these places don't want others to know about them either—or if they do, detailed instructions are generally not offered.  Third, this second factor is intensified in that I am often seeking out ancient cultural sites such as ruins and rock art.  With these sites in particular, those who write about them go to great pains to avoid revealing information specific enough to make finding them easy due to an incrase in looting (cartographers, in fact, are removing the few of these sites listed on publicly-available maps).  Fourth, when there are existing routes in more remote/less developed areas, they are often marked by "cairns"—small piles of local rock which blend in easily and which can take careful attention to notice.  The red tape, therefore, stood out quite forcefully:  an artificial substance of a color which stands out from the natural features of the area; a signal meant to be seen by as many people as possible.

      This experience of a widely known, highly visible, and aesthetically-clashing sign system helped me to coalesce some other observations made in the course of preparing for trips to Powell.  A search on the web quickly provides multiple sites listing detailed information about camp sites, fishing spots, hikes, roads, and geological and cultural features on and immediately around Powell.  Visitors to Powell proudly post exceptionally long lists of information, including GPS waypoints, for other visitors.  While there are certainly an abundance of books, maps and websites on many areas in southern Utah and northern Arizona, the public broadcasting of information about Powell reservoir seems to be of a much greater scale.  The intent of the red tape, it seems, was not so much to keep people on a specific trail to reduce environmental impacts, but to post a big, unmistakable sign:  "go here!"

      The nature of the access Powell reservoir encourages is also worthy of note.  While all boat-accessible areas within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are open to any boat or personal water-craft (PWC) which can make its way there, driving within GCNRA is limited to existing roads, of which there are very few.  There are large areas accessible only to backpackers, but little information is devoted to either foot or automobile access.  In addition, very few people who boat on Powell use muscle-powered means; paddling is an oddity.  Motorized boats generally travel at very high speeds unless they are being used to fish from.  Even houseboats, with cruising speeds in the range of eight miles per hour, are often used as bases from which to launch short trips on personal water craft ("jet skis") with frequent refuelings limiting trip distances.  It is not atypical to see a houseboat cruising from last night's campsite to the coming night's with a motorized boat and two PWCs in tow.

      This certainly challenges the notion of what kind of "access" this desert water highway provides.  Driving or boating at 50 mph provides a radically different experience than paddling or walking at two to four mph.  With the former, emphasis comes to be on the grand, large-scale sites such as looming sandstone cliffs framed by blue water and sky.  At one point, in a relatively underutilized section of the reservoir, we come upon a group of four bachelor bighorn sheep.  Having spent many years exploring the habitats of these creatures, I have seen many more petroglyphs of big horn sheep than I have the sheep themselves.  While the sheep seemed to continue to act as if we were not there, we paddled over to the opposite shore and spent several hours watching them through binoculars.  While we watched, several motorized boats and PWCs zoomed by, apparently ignorant of the sheep.  However, there were also numerous rubber rafts cruising by at very slow speeds, small motors inching boats ill-designed for the many miles of flat water separating the end of the Colorado River and the marina at Hite where they could pull out.  These river-running groups, whether because of their slow speeds and/or their heightened consciousness of wildlife, usually noticed the small and well-camouflaged group of sheep.

      Our own experience of the big horns, while exciting, was also somewhat tinged by a museum-like experience.  The sheep seemed to pay little attention to passers-by, be they slow-moving and quiet (such as ourselves) or fast-moving and loud (such as the speed boats pulling water skiers).  Perhaps this was due to long-term exposure and desensitization, perhaps because the humans who passed by them were not on nearby land.  The experience, for me, was somewhere in between a "genuine" wilderness wildlife spotting and watching animals in a film or a zoo.  The water created a "safe" distance between us, reducing the chance that we would scare the sheep away with our presence, almost as if a clear piece of glass separated us.  In one sense, our "access" to these big horn sheep was facilitated by the reservoir, while the reservoir also profoundly altered the experience of that encounter (and not only for us, but for the big horns as well).

      Powell reservoir is also like a museum in that you can see but you can't touch.  Today, all one can see of the former Glen Canyon are its highest walls, the surrounding mountains and mesas, the highest ends of its side canyons, and the few arches, petroglyphs, pictographs and ruins that were high enough to escape inundation.  But this parallel goes further.  I recall my visits to and discussions of museums where the artifacts of First Nations peoples are presented to the public, such as the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, B.C.  For every artifact displayed in these museums, thousands are packed away beyond the reach of the public.  So many are stored away, in fact, that it is doubtful that most will ever be studied by archeologists, anthropologists, and others who are granted privileged access.  As a critic, I am driven to ask not only about what is re-presented and how, but what is not re-presented, what is absent.  For it is these absences which contribute to our collective amnesia about the past as well as our alienation from the products of our present labors.

      Museums often claim to preserve, but they also hide.  For example, from the perspective of many native peoples, they do the opposite of preserve--by participating in the storage of the violated remains of these people's ancestors and ancestral culture, they cut people off from their own heritage.  Navajo medicine man Thomas Morris is concerned about not only the damage the dam does to "mother earth," but about the damage to future generations as a result of their inability to access, experience and communicate with the sacred sites and deities of Glen Canyon (Sass).  Museums retell the story and in doing so destroy the "real" heritage, replacing it with a sanitized and colonizing one.[2]  The Navajo Nation officially opposes plans to drain Powell reservoir, in part because of the economic benefits which Powell reservoir makes possible (Sass).

      And there is a final parallel I want to draw between "Lake" Powell and museums:  almost by definition, what is re-presented in a museum is not a living culture, but a sterilized, decontextualized one (Clifford).  To put it bluntly, museums can be seen--as certainly Powell reservoir can be seen--as the coffins of culture, built by those peoples who participated in the death of indigenous, "primitive" peoples or, in this case, of a relatively inaccessible, and therefore "wild" place.  As Ed Abbey wrote of the post-reservoir experience of Rainbow Bridge,


Those who see it then will not understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geologic oddity, an extension of that museum-like diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world. (241)


Indeed, Farmer reports that by the mid-1970s, representative comments in the monument's register included "get a bigger store," "install a water fountain," "install a beer fountain" and "need steps to climb over it" (167).

      Many of those who praise Powell reservoir do so based on an abstract aesthetic formed through photographic images of the kind reproduced in coffee-table books, and I argued above that the nature of access—by motorized boat—encourages the application of this aesthetic over others.  In addition, the appreciation of Powell's waters seem deeply connected to an ideology of purity, an ideology which values the "clean" (that is, clear, blue, sediment-free) water of Powell over the "dirty" (red-brown, sediment-laden) water of the pre-dam Colorado River.  On an extended trip on the northern end of the reservoir, near Hite marina, this dichotomy manifested itself in multiple ways.  In the deep "clean" waters of the main channel and large side canyons south of Hite, access was easy and the evidence of that access was abundant.  In addition to a large amount of boat and PWC activity (though admittedly less around Hite than around Wahweap, the largest marina located at the opposite end of the reservoir), houseboats were moored around almost every corner and trash—plastic bottles, aluminum cans,  cigarette butts, toilet paper—was ubiquitous on the shores and in the slack-waters at the ends of side canyons.

      After a few days of this environment, we headed under a large steel-arch bridge up a narrow, high-walled canyon toward the area where the Colorado River merges into Powell reservoir.  Ironically, while the river was still dozens of miles away, the sign on the bridge indicated that this was the "Colorado River."  While the water was still flat and without current, there was an increase in the amount of natural debris as well as a substantial increase in suspended sediments.  The water became brown—"dirty" in the literal sense—and the boat traffic dwindled.  In the few places where one could temporarily get onto a small ledge of rock at the edge of the water, as well as further up on a few small beaches, there was almost no sign of the garbage that had haunted us in the main body of the reservoir.  Certainly this was still a reservoir, not a river, and signs of human impact were not hard to find (e.g., the trail marked with red flags discussed above).  Nonetheless, this area fitted our interests and aesthetics better.  In particular, the relative lack of motorized boats was a relief, and we felt less annoyance at the small, noisy outboard motors used to drive river rafts to Hite marina than we did from the fast-moving craft coming up from the reservoir.

      The reasons for the lack of visitors from the main body of the reservoir are undoubtedly multiple.  One obvious reason—when viewed from the perspective of a gas-dependent boater—is the lack of mileage-marking buoys and the increase in floating debris.  Another is aesthetic and moral.  This was not the "clean," clear water that so many note in their experience of Powell.  Ironically, the absence of trash coincided with the appearance of "unclean" water, water imbued with visible sediment and thereby morally and aesthetically "impure."  It was in this area that we not only managed to avoid trash and traffic, but where we saw more abundant wildlife.  The water and the surrounding areas seemed to be more alive in an other-than-human sense.

      In short, Powell reservoir is a place pervaded more than anything else by death (a sense also experienced by Berger, Fletcher and Farmer, among others).  This is odd, for water, especially in the arid southwest, usually begets dense concentrations of life.  Along the Colorado in the pre-dam Glen Canyon, for example, the bottoms of the canyons were places filled with lush plant growth and abundant wildlife.  So in a sense one would expect the reservoir to attract life forms in need of water.  But aside from the non-native, stocked fish populations, there is relatively little life at Powell.  In my visits there, I have seen relatively  few birds and little sign of mammalian life on or near its shores (see also Stegner "Lake Powell").  The much-lamented "dirty bathtub ring," calcium carbonate left from times of higher water levels, is not only an aesthetic abomination, but as Colin Fletcher describes it, a "death zone" separating the reservoir from the red sandstone and the desert life holding on in the Glen's higher elevations:


a thick white scabrous crust that coats the cliff's skin like desiccated fungus.  The rock is sick.  It has leprosy.  And in this zone of sickness nothing lives.  Or almost nothing.  If you look long enough you may detect an occasional insect and even one or two small lizards that no doubt subsist on the insects.  But otherwise you have moved into the Death Zone.  And very time I saw or even thought about the Zone, fell the shadow.  (254)


Fletcher's description may be a bit exaggerated, as I have seen many lizards, some shore birds, and quite a few rodents in the "death zone," but my experience does not substantially contradict his observations.  Invasive plant species, many of which are less friendly to human skin than the native flora of the area, abound on the beaches and other soiled areas in the death zone.  More striking, as I moved up and away from the shore, the kind of life one expects in the canyonlands of southeastern Utah slowly returns—more numerous and varied rodents and reptiles, signs of big horn sheep and coyote, flurries of  bats at dusk, and the usual array of birds.

      These are the things I, and others whom I have read or spoken with, experience at the place known as "Lake Powell."  Even those who celebrate the reservoir's beauty speak not of life, but of an abstract aesthetic involving blue (water), red (rock), and fabulous light (Sass).  While these experiences are no doubt produced out of the dialogue between our verbal and visual ideologies, it would be dangerous to deny that the place itself contributes to these meanings.

      But making meaning out of the "Glen Canyon National Recreation Area" is limited by the presence of the dam, reservoir, and the houseboat-and-jet ski lifestyle it promotes.  It is all to easy to see how the dam contributes to a profound alienation on a host of levels.  First, its role in producing electricity and controlling water encourages a forgetfulness that the southwest is a hot, dry environment.  It allows it to "make sense" to sprout metropolises, golf courses, lettuce and cotton where such things make little sense.  Second, it has embalmed and entombed what to many is a sacred place, prohibiting the development of the kinds of knowledges and sensitivities which such a place can foster in dialogue with humans.  Third, it has silenced and encased the place that was lost so that unless one wishes to seek out the requisite information, one can experience the reservoir with no thought to its consequences.  It is difficult, for many, to mourn what isn't even recognized or remembered.  Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir alienate us in many senses of the word:  from the products of our own labor, from the oppressive relationships we are engaged in, and from the natural world.

      Bruce Berger has written of the "collective amnesia" which Powell reservoir encourages about what has been lost.  This amnesia is also an alienation from the products of our own actions.  After our return from the "dirty" arm of the reservoir which extends to the rapids of the Colorado River, we spent a night in the main channel not far from Hite marina.  A few feet from our campsite, the reservoir's waters lapped on the shore.  About six inches under the water, a sandstone  shelf extended into the water for a few feet, at which point there was a drop-off of indeterminate depth.  The water was clear and seemingly "clean."  I was immediately struck by an impulse, in part because our other camps had not had such a built-in luxury:  this would be a great place to wash dishes and even some clothes, because we could access "clean" water for washing while the deep drop-off and large channel nearby would quickly dilute or wash away any residues of dirt, food and soap.  Reflecting upon my "common sense" thinking, another form of amnesia was made apparent.  Of course whatever I put in the water went somewhere, but I was pleased to think that I wouldn't have to see it, smell it, feel it.  The garbage doesn't go away, but the reservoir enabled me to think that it would in a way that is not inconsistent with the way I flush my white porcelain toilet at home.  There is a void created by the reservoir, a void where all of our "undesirable" stuff can go:  our garbage, the dirt the river naturally carries with it, and any knowledge or memory of the place called Glen Canyon.

      A recently-discovered problem at Powell serves as a condensed symptom of this alienating sensibility.  Individual boat owners and operators as well as the licensed concessionaire for the Glen Canyon Recreation Area have created a habit curious for those who claim so vehemently to love the lake.  General practice has been to use the reservoir as a garbage dump.  Need to change that battery in your houseboat?  Just throw the old one overboard.  Broke that lawn chair?  Toss it wherever.  In the 1980s alone, a hundred truckloads of trash and a thousand batteries were dumped near Powell's five marinas.  Volunteers are now sought for annual "sweeps" of the reservoir, pulling up large amounts of an almost unimaginable range of items (Farmer).  These actions make sense--not just amidst the pervasive nature-as-resource ideology, but amidst the kind of feeling that a place like Powell reservoir encourages.  This is not a place with intrinsic value, but an instrument to be used:  to get a tan, to party, to water ski, to reunite with family, to access places just beyond the reservoir's reach.  What lies beneath the water is largely irrelevant, absent, forgotten.  The disengagement of the relationship with and connection to Glen Canyon is, for most, apparently complete.



      As called for by the recent writings on environmental rhetoric cited at the beginning of this essay (Jagtenberg & McKie; Rogers), we must also come to understand the interactions that are taking place between culture and nature, between the biosphere, the technosphere and semiosphere, at places such as Glen Canyon Dam and Powell reservoir.  Clearly there are natural entities, formations and structures in, around and under the dam site which can also be read as texts, as the statements of subjectivities of the nonhuman world, as interpellations (Althusser) of both human and nonhuman identities (Gaard), as participants in a dialogue (Abram; Rogers).  What our current theories of discourse, communication and rhetoric do not easily enable us to do is account for the feel of a place like Glen Canyon.  This feeling, while strongly influenced by cultural discourses, is also affected by natural systems and entities, as well as by the ongoing dialogue between the semiosphere, technosphere and biosphere.  The recovery of a sense of place in communication theory and criticism is necessary if we are to contribute to sustainable ways of life.



Works Cited


Abbey, Edward.  The Monkey Wrench Gang.  New York: Avon, 1975.

Abram, David.  The Spell of the Sensuous:  Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.  New York:  Vintage, 1996.

Althusser, Louis.  Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.  New York:  Monthly Review P, 1971.

Berger, Bruce.  There Was a River:  Essays on the Southwest.  Tucson:  U of Arizona P, 1994.

 Brownridge, Dennis and Steve Hinchman.  "The Grand Canyon Is Just Another Turbine."  Water in the West:  A High Country News Reader, Ed. Char Miller.  Corvallis:  Oregon State University Press, 2000.  93-99.

Churchill, Ward.  Indians Are Us?  Maine:  Common Courage, 1994.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture.  Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1988.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael.  Image Politics:  The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism.  New York:  The Guilford Press, 1999.

Else, Jon, dir. and prod.  Cadillac Desert.  Based on the book by Marc Reisner.  San Jose, CA:  KTEH, 1997.

Farmer, Jared.  Glen Canyon Dammed:  Inventing Lake Powell & the Canyon Country.  Tucson, U of Arizona P, 1999.

Fletcher, Colin.  River:  One Man's Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea.  New York:  Vintage, 1997.

Forbes, Steve.  Not a bathtub.  Forbes, 23 March 1998:  28.

Gaard, Greta. "Ecofeminism and Wilderness."  Environmental Ethics 19 (1997): 5-24.

Greene, Ronald Walter.  "Another Materialist Rhetoric."  Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15 (1998): 21-41.

Gross, Mathew.  "Historic opposition to Glen Canyon Dam."  Glen Canyon Action Network.  27 Jan. 2000.  <>

Jagtenberg, Tom and David McKie.  Eco-Impacts and the Greening of Postmodernity:  New Maps for Communication Studies, Cultural Studies, and Sociology.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage, 1997.

Lee, Katie.  All My Rivers Are Gone:  A Journey of Discovery Through Glen Canyon.  Boulder, CO:  Johnson Books, 1998.

Miller, Scott K.  "Undamming Glen Canyon:  Lunacy, Rationality, or Prophecy?"  Stanford Environmental Law Journal 19 (2000): 121-207.

"More at Stake than Water-Skiing:  Canyon Dam too Valuable to Lose" [editorial].  Arizona Republic,  16 July 2000:  B8.

Nichols, Tad.  Glen Canyon:  Images of a Lost World.  Sante Fe:  Museum of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Porter, Elliot.  The Place No One Knew:  Glen Canyon on the Colorado (commemorative ed.).  Salt Lake City:  Gibbs Smith, 2000.

Powell, John Wesley.  The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.  New York: Penguin, 1987.

Reisner, Marc.  Cadillac Desert:  The American West and Its Disappearing  Water (rev. ed.).  New York:  Penguin, 1993.

Rogers, Richard. "Overcoming the Objectification of Nature in Constitutive Theories: Toward a Transhuman, Materialist Theory of Communication." Western Journal of Communication 62 (1998): 244-272.

Sass, Bert.  "Glen Canyon."  Horizon.  KAET.  18 Jan. 2001.

Schott, Robin May.  Cognition and Eros:  A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1988.

Sibley, George.  "Glen Canyon:  Using a Dam to Heal a River."  Water in the West:  A High Country News Reader, Ed. Char Miller.  Corvallis:  Oregon State University Press, 2000.  110-122.

Slivka, Judd.  "The Fight to Pull Lake Powell's Plug:  2 Sides Tangling over Glen Canyon."  The Arizona Republic, 13 July 2000:  A1.

Stegner, Wallace.  "Lake Powell."  Marking the Sparrow's Fall.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1998.  57-67.

Stegner, Wallace.  "Living Dry."  Marking the Sparrow's Fall.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1998.  213-229.

Williams, Florence.  "Government Tames Its Wild, Destructive Dam."  Water in the West:  A High Country News Reader, Ed. Char Miller.  Corvallis:  Oregon State University Press, 2000.  100-104.

Williams, Florence.  "Indian Tribe Pushes for a Natural River and Canyon."  Water in the West:  A High Country News Reader, Ed. Char Miller.  Corvallis:  Oregon State University Press, 2000.  105-106.

Yozwiak, Steve.  "Goldwater Joins Voices against Lake Powell."  Arizona Republic, 22 June 1999:  F1.

Zengerle, Jason.  "Water over the Dam."  New Republic, 24 November 1997:  20-22.


[1] The choice of writing and reading as a metaphor based in communication media is not accidental.  As David Abram argues in The Spell of the Sensuous, the phonetic alphabet can be seen as a significant factor in the movement of "civilized" peoples away from a deep connection with and respect for the natural world.


[2] I can't help but see parallels between Glen Canyon Dam and issues raised by NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  For the Navajo, for example, Glen Canyon was a place where spirits resided.  Since spirits/gods/deities are not separable from their specific locations for many indigenous peoples (see Abrams), to flood a particular place may be to cut off all contact with that spirit.  Religious practices have been directly blocked by the reservoir or by the activities of people at sacred sites such as Rainbow Bridge.  For comments on the replacement of traditional ways of life with a native culture (re)constructed by European colonizers, see Churchill.