Ecology of Absence

By Larson, Brooke | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Ecology of Absence


Larson, Brooke, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


For starters, the desert is not empty. Things grow in ways you could not doream up. In the Arizona desert, where I was dropped off as a pain-in-the ass teen, there are ocotillo and prickly pear and yucca and all manner of cactus; creosote bushes and mesquite trees with long, knuckly beans; scads of devil's claw; crucifixion thorns and resurrection plants.

The desert is not unbroken expanse. In the desert there are more things vertical than flat: red canyon walls, mesas and buttes, hoodoos and cairns and geo-acrobatic arches. Not least, the trees. Black walnut, velvet ash and ironwood, oak, alder, Mexican elder, jade-skinned palo verde smooth as scars, and crusty alligator juniper. Why am I surprised? In the heart of nowhere there is always the faint pulse of a seed.

Wilderness therapy was a happy accident of Stone Age technology. Effective treatment, a side effect. The intent had been to teach college students primitive survival skills, not life skills, but the fact was young adults were coming home from the middle of nowhere more alive than they'd ever been. The survivalists and their desert experiment couldn't stay off the map forever. Already a host of psychologists and sociologists had picked up on their little prehistoric operation. Everything must evolve, the survivalists knew. And so it was that the ANASAZI Foundation, the first wilderness therapy program, organically, collaboratively, came to be. Precarious kids, following guides through the Arizona wilderness, would bushwhack their way forward, all the while cutting new synaptic pathways. They called it ANASAZI after the "Ancient Ones," so named by the Navajo who once inhabited the land on which the teenaged ones tread. Others would come to call it "Treehab."

It was 1962. A group of thirty Brigham Young University students, as part of an academic experiment, were dropped off in the Utah desert with a can of peaches each. They would trek across the blister-red terrain to a pick-up van waiting on the other side, one month away. They would have one guide: a young professor, rangy, enthusiastic, and helpless without his black-framed bottle-glasses. His short hair was crisply parted on one side, but he wore his leather fringe rugged. Larry Olson's obsession with Native American cultures had lured him into great wastelands as a young boy living in Idaho. He minutely emulated their tools and skills. He became a sophisticate at primitivity. The University had him bring it to the classroom. On meeting him for the first time before the trek, one student recalls thinking, "This skinny white man is gonna get us killed."

The student was Ezekiel Sanchez, a first-generation college kid of migrant workers, and recently expelled from the University. Indeed, all the students were ex-students. Kicked-out for chronic failing. Only those with nothing left to lose would agree to be guinea pigs without even the shelter of a lab. The deal: the students would be readmitted to BYU if they spent their summer participating in Larry Olson's rawbrained Stone Age scheme. Ezekiel, back home in Texas hammering once again at the railroad, was fasting when he got the letter of odd invitation. Without the heart to break it to his parents that he would not be returning to school in the fall, Ezekiel had decided to go without food or water until he got a miracle. And so it was. Probation in the wilderness struck him as manna from heaven. He set out for Nowhere, Utah.

Things went south fast in the desert. One guide, and too many lost kids. Olson feared he'd made a fatal mistake. People were starved, injured, sick, falling behind and straying sideways. But then there was Ezekiel. He knew things. Olson had watched him hang back from the group and quietly gather from the land what he needed. Ezekiel's family had long survived like this. One night, sleepless with anxiety, Olson crawled over to him in the dark. "I need your help," he said, "or we're not going to make it." Ezekiel said he would think about it. …

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