From August 29 through September 9, 2013, the Moab Music Festival celebrated its 21st annual run. My wife and I attended the first week as babysitters for our granddaughter, Tallulah, as daughter Carla Kihlstedt and husband Matthias Bossi were among the featured musicians.
The setting for this music festival can hardly be more dramatic, and so the bulk of photographs for this post feature the spectacular natural surroundings of southeastern Utah. Since some readers may be tempted to visit Moab and/or the music festival, I encourage them to attend this year’s festival, which will run from August 31 through September 11, 2017.
My apologies to the residents of Montana, which we all know is the “real” big sky country. Nevertheless, almost every evening was accompanied by a drama of clouds and colorful sunsets which appeared pretty spectacular to an urban New Yorker.
Salt Lake and South
The crowd says it all in the first two photographs; the Red Iguana has rightly earned its reputation as among the best in Mexican cuisine anywhere. First opened in 1985 by Ramon and Maria Cardenas, it continues to win major awards every year.
The last two photographs, shot through a car window on the drive between Salt Lake City and Moab to the southeast, underscore the drama of the land. In the third photo, we see a section of the Wasatch Mountains. This range helps to define the major population corridor of Utah, known as the Wasatch Front. The fourth photo, taken further south and closer to Moab, is named after Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith, who took command of the U.S. Reconnaissance Survey in 1853 after its leader was killed by Paiute Indians. Their survey was tasked with plotting the best route for a railroad to the Pacific between the 38th and 39th parallels.
Moab, First Encounters
Uranium mining dates back more than a century, first as a by-product of mining radium and vanadium, then in the 1940s primarily for the uranium itself. The largest uranium deposit in the United States was discovered here in 1952. Re-named the Atlas Uranium Mill a decade later, it was closed in 1984. However, the mining process left a pile of tailings over 90 feet high. These tailings are right off the highway, three miles north of Moab and not far from the west bank of the Colorado River. Because they contain low levels of radioactivity as well as toxic heavy metals like lead and arsenic, they are finally being moved to a lined hole some thirty miles away from the Colorado River. This process began in 2009 and is expected to continue through 2032 (as long as annual funds are appropriated).
Here’s a bit of mist cooling, or evaporative cooling, for the benefit of pedestrians on Main Street (also US 191).
Within easy walking distance from our rental house a few miles outside of Moab to the south was the 12th tee for frisbee golf. The sport, apparently first played in 1926 in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, used tin lids. Although we think of the frisbee as a Wham-O product of 1957, its actual inventor was–coincidentally–a Utahan by the name of Fred Morrison, who had been developing the toy for twenty years before selling his “Pluto Platter” in that year to the Wham-O toy company.
Unless I am mistaken, what is pictured in the distance is a section of the Moab Fault, which runs north-south just to the west of Moab. Its sandstone cliffs define what is called the Moab Valley. Locals, apparently, prefer to call it the Spanish Valley.
A slightly longer walk from our rental house is the beginning of Steelbender Trail. Originally a wagon route known as Flat Pass, it would become a favorite challenge once 4-wheel-drive vehicles took fashion. Soon the Pass exacted its own form of revenge on this wheeled invasion and earned its new name. It may well be that Flat Pass offers more to see and appreciate for one willing to go by foot, even if its eight miles will take a good bit longer to traverse. In addition to the above three photographs, I show several more, later in the post, from my wanders in a small part of Steelbender.
All trees are powerful, living statements. Most emphasize aspiration and verticality. Almost all boast crowns through a combination of branching and leaf foliage. Some emphasize horizontal spreading more than verticality, as in the American live (or evergreen) oak. Still, each genus possesses a recognizable form, whether vertical, horizontal or an identifiable proportional relationship of height to width. Almost all can form copses or forests, and so subordinate their individual form into a larger, communal statement.
Given this, I ask: what is the form of the Juniper? Especially in consideration of the Junipers growing in the American southwest, is there such a thing as a recognizable form? Or, is the form of each Juniper unique? This, to me, would seem to be the case.
Of these eight photographs, the first example has a canopy (more-or-less); the next two, not at all. The sixth one (Park Avenue Trail) limps along horizontally to our right; the seventh (from the Windows) aspires to verticality. The lower trunk and root structure, as seen in the remaining three images, gesture in every direction imaginable. Each Juniper makes its own artistic statement; each reveals a complex gesture of life stemming from an inexorable will to survive under the harsh conditions of its environment.
To quote from a brief essay on the Juniper put out by the National Park Service, “Each tree is like a fine work of art that one might find in a museum.”
The expressive gestures of the Juniper captivated me, as might certain movements found in modern dance or in the brush strokes of certain Abstract Expressionist action painters. You will encounter more Juniper photos further on in this post. However, here are some facts which will help us to understand this most unusual form of tree.
The Juniper is a conifer. Its central, tap root can descend over forty feet through and around rock in search of water. Its lateral roots may extend out over 100 feet, so that its underground root system may account for two-thirds of its total mass. Many live over 700 years, yet, even the most mature are under thirty feet in height. It is the ultimate survivor. When the challenging conditions of strong winds, intense sun, scarce water and poor, eroding soil threaten its life, it will self-prune. It will stop sending nutrients to one part in order for it to survive. Maybe this is why there is life in its every gesture, twist and turn. Why even that dessicated tangle of the last photo above (Steelbender Trail) looks anything but dead.
Even the sand and stone carry the marks of life, whether etched into their surfaces by ancient forces or growing on top of their surfaces in the form of lichen. Lichen, by the way, are among the oldest of living organisms and have been described as “self-contained miniature ecosystems in and of themselves.”
There is a small toad in this photograph. It sits right at the intersection of the two diagonals of the picture frame, its head directed to the top of the page. It’s not easy to see, as its color is that of the surrounding sand. So, too, the lizard in the next photo, its body and tail conforming to the stone’s curvature.
Animal life is abundant in the high desert, whether reptilian lizards or warm-blooded rabbits like the Desert Cottontail above. But animals also roamed this region 150-million years ago. Many dinosaur skeletons have been unearthed nearby, and several sites retain evidence of fossilized tracks, as in the two photos directly above. These date from the Jurassic Period.
My knowledge of plants is quite limited, so I can’t identify the first five examples above. The sage is the exception and a bit of a cheat; it’s not wild, but was growing in the yard of our rental house. As to the Cottonwood tree, its gnarly bark caught my eye: only as it ages does the once-smooth bark of this tree take on these deep furrows. Cottonwood bark has a sweetness attractive to beavers and horses. Moreover, its fresher, inner bark contains vitamin C and is chewed by Native Americans to ward off scurvy. In fact, the Cottonwood has many medicinal uses, and buds, leaves and bark (often infused in oil to make a salve) lower fevers, reduce inflammation and–being high in antioxidants–heal the skin. It fully earns its Latin name as a tree of the people: Populus fremontii.
The eleven photos above are examples of the art of various ancient cultures which inhabited this area. In these particular examples, the imagery has been made by scratching or otherwise abrading the surface of the rock. Among the images, we can find various animals including some big horn sheep, snakes, and human/anthropomorphic forms, some with elaborate headdresses. Had the imagery been created by painting on top of the rock surface instead (with mineral pigments and plant dyes), we would call these pictographs. Some of these rocks have what is termed “desert varnish,” where the rock surface has turned black due to the oxidation of excess manganese.
Arches National Park, General
The La Sal Range is part of the southern Rocky Mountains and defines a section of the Utah/Colorado border. Its highest elevation is Mount Peale at 12,721 feet.
This plaque reads: In loving memory of Mark Irvin & Chris Holt. Lost / Died August 1995 while biking Porcupine Rim found above Negro Bill Canyon.
This Canyon was named after an African-American prospector and rancher named William Granstaff, who lived here in the 1870s, having taken over an abandoned mission and fort. The name was changed to Granstaff Trailhead on September, 2016, by the Bureau of Land Management–a somewhat belated gesture to political correctness.
The entrance to Arches National Park is four miles north of Moab. It consists of 76,679 acres and claims to have “the highest density of natural arches in the world.” The following section offers a more detailed look at one of the Park’s many sections.
The Devil’s Garden
This distant shot of Devil’s Garden shows the clustering of rock fins and pinnacles (as well as arches which can’t be seen here) that define the section’s almost eight miles of trail. Once inside, one enters a very different environment from that which we see here.
Keep in mind that these fantastic pinnacles are the result of millions of years of erosion. They once were part of a broad and expansive plateau, of which they represent its more resistant rock sections. That plateau eventually eroded into mesas, which rose above and helped to define an ever-widening valley floor. When those mesas lost size through further erosion, they became buttes, and those buttes eroded into pinnacles. such as those we see here.
Moab Music Festival, I
Local artists display their work outside of Star Hall. The program that evening featured a film by cellist Nick Canellakis (with music by Michael Brown), a world premiere of a piece by Carla Kihlstedt, and works by Sergei Prokofiev and Johannes Brahms.
This is the setting for the free annual Labor Day Rocky Mountain Power Family Picnic Concert. Its theme was American Songs Then and Now, a program ranging over 300 years from traditional folk songs to songs by Bolcom, Bernstein, Ives, Gershwin, Kihlstedt (Carla), and others.
Christopher Layer is an extremely diverse musician, known for his Irish Uillean Bagpipes, Scottish Highland Bagpipes, various wooden flutes and whistles. This post contains a video of him playing a keyless flute in Moonflower Canyon, near Moab [1:37].
Pianist Michael Barrett is the co-founder of the Moab Music Festival, along with his wife, Leslie Tomkins. Four year earlier, in 1988, he started NYFOS, the New York Festival of Song with his colleague, Steven Blier. Leslie Tomkins, co-founder of the Moab Music Festival, is a violist.
Singer Adrian Rosas is a “bass-baritone with a burnished voice,” according to a review in the New York Times. When on his web site, click “Media” for four audio samples; I suggest the fourth, Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers & Hammerstein [2:40].
Red Cliffs Lodge is situated on the Colorado River, around fifteen miles north-east of Moab. It offered a dramatic setting (see following section) for an outdoor, open-tent concert titled The Future of American Song. This was a program of original, new songs by Matthias Bossi, Carla Kihlstedt and Gabriel Kahane (seen above).
Gabriel Kahane joined them on guitar. I offer two videos, one in which he plays piano and sings his song, “Neurotic and Lonely” from his Craigslistlieder [2:51], and the other in which he plays guitar and sings his Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Boulevard) [3:32].
Red Cliffs Lodge: Before the Evening Performance
Jet Boating Down the Colorado River
These are photos taken on September 1, 2013, as concert-goers were ferried south-west, down the Colorado River to a “secret” concert in a natural grotto. The spectacular vistas belie the fact that a decade of drought has lowered the Colorado River. Even with a reprieve from the recent wet winter of 2016-2017, consider the fact that, where the Colorado reaches Lake Mead near the end of its American run, the water level of that 110-mile long Lake has dropped 130 feet since 2000.
Almost more worrisome than drought and climate change in regard to the beauty of this wilderness is the new political attitude toward public lands under the Trump Administration and that attitude, more specifically, within the State of Utah. Even before he became president Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke joined other Republican members of the House to pass rules easing the transfer of federal public lands to state, local and private control.
Equally discouraging is the fact that, for years, Utah has been “harboring and encouraging our country’s most strident public lands opponents.” Among the many culprits are Governor Gary Herbert, Representative Rob Bishop, Senator Orrin Hatch, the American Lands Council, and the Sutherland Institute.
Moab Music Festival, II: The Grotto Concert
Clearly, I must study up on masks in Photoshop to avoid this washed-out background. The contrasts between the Grotto interior and any view to the outside world were too extreme for my (present) talents. My apologies, but I wanted to use this show to show context.
Besides his invitation to the Moab Music Festival, cellist Jay Campbell also made his debut in 2013 with the New York Philharmonic. Then, last year, he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and this year will be Artist-in-Residence at the Lucerne Festival. Here are two performances by him on YouTube: Variations on Mozart’s Magic Flute as arranged by Beethoven [9:14], and the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major [3:44].
My reference in the caption title is to the three main materials we see here: the two most essential woods of the Steinway Grand piano against the stone of the Grotto. What I hold back as my last word is mention of the unbelievable acoustics in this magic place. You would think it were enough to disembark onto shaky wooden planks, penetrate through an overgrowth of shrubbery at the edge of the Colorado River, and be confronted with the majesty of this natural apse along with a Steinway Grand.
But then, the music begins, and you can hear every note, every word sung in triple pianissimo. This was utter magic.
I quote from this year’s festival brochure on the Grotto: “If you could marry the Sistine Chapel with the Musikverein in Vienna, AND Carnegie Hall….well you might get close to the perfect acoustics, but you still wouldn’t have the Grotto’s natural surroundings.”