The Colorado Plateau is home to some incredible natural spaces and has drawn many people to study—and enjoy!—those places. The relationships between those places and the people they draw in are deep and continue to evolve. This week, Science Moab highlights takeaways from several conversations discussing the people and places of the Colorado Plateau, and the relationships between them. We speak with bioinformatician Sabah Ul-Hasan, writer and activist Morgan Sjogren, and river conservationists Mike and Jenny Fiebig.
Science Moab: Can you talk about the value of incorporating different ways of knowing?
Sabah Ul-Hasan: I’m South Asian. In the US, I’ve seen things like golden lattes, coconut oil, and raw turmeric pop up recently. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance around people telling the world their discovery of these things when these are things my family has been using and doing for a long time. Everyone should be able to enjoy and benefit from things; it’s about including the people that have historically known these things. It’s about merging all these oral histories and scientific techniques together to be a strengthened, unified form of science. There is this pushback of, “Well, this is how it should be done.” According to whom? Asking those questions is really important. There can be multiple right ways of doing things, and it’s even better and even stronger if we can consider all options and have that sense of greater community. Our science benefits when we include people. It’s a core part of being a good scientist.
Science Moab: Do you have a vision for ensuring these different ways of knowing, these different data, are utilized to create a better world?
Ul-Hasan: I think the way we respond to change is very important. Doing internal work, setting an example of ways to be; I think that’s the best thing. We can really only control ourselves. We can make sure we are good stewards and that we lead by example. Whatever your personal opinion is of the right thing, we’re all messing up something. We all have something to learn from other people. Trying to maintain that mindset is key.
Science Moab: A lot of stories about the Colorado Plateau have been written by Western white men. How, if at all, do you think being a woman has changed the way you approach writing about this place?
Morgan Sjogren: When I came to the Colorado Plateau, I went down the rabbit hole of reading anything I could get my hands on about this area. So much of it has been written by white men, many of whom are well-meaning and care greatly for this place. But I’ve since had a great shift in the voices and people I read. A few of my favorite authors in this region are Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, and Terry Tempest Williams. I’m starting to see that in this female tradition, there’s a sense of understanding that you’re a part of this ecosystem, that you are not separate from this place. This isn’t to say that male authors don’t have this perspective, but it comes through quite strongly in those other women writers’ work. It’s something I really find myself meditating on, especially when I’m alone in the wilderness.
Science Moab: What have you learned as you delve further into this place?
Sjogren: I’m coming to understand the responsibility that comes with learning about this place. So much of that responsibility is not just sharing what I learned, but being receptive to hearing the stories of others and helping share those perspectives with a broader audience. I’m realizing more and more that it’s a way to help facilitate the shift from a world of white-male-dominated voices to the inclusion of more perspectives about this place. It’s a huge responsibility, along with efforts to use anything I learned for good: to help educate future visitors about these places, to instill and inspire others to care.
Science Moab: Why did you decide to conduct interviews along your journey from the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Gulf?
Jenny Fiebig: One of the objectives of this trip was reconnection. Mike and I are in midlife, and we used to live out of trucks and be outside a lot more than we do now. We talked about how we could reconnect to ourselves, to each other, to the environment, and to others along the river system. The interviews were a good way to see how people along the whole system are connected to the rivers. We had some interviews planned, and some were organic. It was interesting to get lots of different perspectives, from ranchers way up at the headwaters of the Green River to houseboaters or old dory guides. Everyone pretty much cried in the interviews, talking about how deeply they’re connected to the system.
Science Moab: Was there a particular question you got that earned memorable responses?
Mike Fiebig: One question we asked was, “What message would you want to give to people upstream or downstream from here?” It was pretty cool to assess commonalities or differences amongst people from the headwaters to the estuary. The Colorado River has been called the hardest-working river in the world. It’s got a ton of structural water issues. To be able to talk to people, to find what motivates them, what connects them, was a really good opportunity for conservation work, too.
Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of these interviews, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio.