Waste, beauty and eco-awareness with a novelist’s touch
May 8, 2009
Blame Edward Abbey.
If Chip Ward hadn’t happened upon "Desert Solitaire," Abbey’s classic account of life as a park ranger in Southern Utah, he might never have traveled west of the Mississippi. As fate, and literature, would have it, Ward gave the book to his brother-in-law and eventually migrated to Capitol Reef National Park in the southern reaches of the state.
Ward and his wife lived in a modest motel-unit-cum-makeshift ranch affectionately called "Sleeping Rainbow." Beguiling vistas and painterly red rock were part of everyday life for the young couple. But it wasn’t until they moved to northern Utah, on the rim of the Great Basin, that Ward realized that wilderness was in trouble. The beauty that had once surrounded him became a siren song. "We inadvertently moved from the grandest wilderness area in the contiguous United States to the most extensive environmental sacrifice zone in the nation," Ward writes in his book, "Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West."
The book, part memoir, part expose, is about "deserts and how we use them. It is about the people who live on the desert rim, whose unacknowledged suffering should signal a loud warning to us all," Ward writes. Written in swift prose, "Canaries" details how the state has become a testing zone for bombs, a dumping ground for nuclear waste, and what everyday citizens can do about it.
"The book rattled my cage," said Roger Arsht, an English teacher at Park City High School. Arsht read "Canaries" about six years ago for a graduate course at the University of Utah, and the stories of eco-abuse, neglect and subterfuge stuck with him. It’s a book he thought his students should read.
Now they will.
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"Canaries" is one of the first school-wide summer reading assignments. All tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders at PCHS will read it. They’ll take notes and write responses, but perhaps the most memorable learning will take place during the first week of classes in the fall. Ward will lecture and teach at the high school as part of a scholar-in-residence program.
Students can purchase a copy of "Canaries on the Rim" at Dolly’s Bookstore for a discounted price.
"Our point wasn’t to open students’ eyes to the environment," explained Arsht, who is co-chair of the English department. "It’s to energize students and help give them a voice. The education they’re getting now is part of being an engaged citizen. It’s just the beginning." He added, "We don’t care what you’re passionate about. We just want you to be passionate about something."
Arsht decided to expand "Canaries’" reach even farther by working with the Park City and Summit County libraries, both of which have selected the 238-page text for its One Book program, a community effort that will feature discussion groups and events for adults during the summer months.
Michelle Matyja, currently a junior at PCHS, responded enthusiastically to "Canaries." She read the book in the spring and gave it a positive review. She said she doesn’t mind adding the book to other required reading for her Advanced Placement course in literature, saying of Ward, "He must be an extraordinary individual."
Brian Hartman, who is one of the staff members in charge of circulation at Park City Library and Education Center, described the book as "engaging and well written." He recommended "Canaries" for the annual One Book program after getting hooked from the first two chapters, which offer a first-person account of Ward’s transition from northeastern academic to accidental environmentalist.
The library has multiple copies of the book on order and plan to launch the One Book campaign by mid-summer. It is the first time in recent memory the library selected a local author for the honor.
Having diverse groups in the community read the same book is more than just fodder for conversation. Hartman said he hopes "Canaries" will foster a dialogue within the community, especially among parents and kids.