A Rich History of Desolation

Published: September 11, 2009 | Read Time: 3 minutes

Desolation Canyon. Sounds as inviting as a barren wasteland. 

And yet, when Dr. James Aton speaks at Southern Utah University’s annual Distinguished Faculty Honor Lecture, his audience will be anything but forlorn as this English professor takes them to some of the wildest country in the lower 48 states and along the bottom of a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon in his presentation, “Land of Wildest Desolation: History Along the Green River,” next Tuesday, September 15, at 11:30 a.m. in the SUU Auditorium. 

Desolation Canyon is a 118-mile, serpentine swath of a region so protected by daunting ramparts that it is one of the largest sections of the U.S. not bisected by a road. It is known for its grandeur and wildlife, including wild horses, bighorn sheep, blue herons, flying squirrels and black bears. Aton, who wrote The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green, will discuss the Canyon and Green River’s resources from as far back as 13,000 years, focusing on the region’s environmental history. 

Of the region, Aton explains, “Desolation Canyon grabbed my heart and mind seven years ago like no place I have ever known. I have become completely absorbed in trying to understand its human and natural history. This place is like no other in Utah–wild, harsh, astonishingly beautiful, challenging, and alluring. It has been a privilege to have spent parts of each year there, walking the canyons and rowing the river. I am honored at the opportunity to tell the stories of the ordinary--but ultimately extraordinary--men and women who for the last thirteen thousand years have made a living in this rugged but lovely place.” 

A self-described “fan of rivers” and outdoor enthusiast, Aton intends for this presentation to “show how extraordinary this wild place is by telling its history.” He also plans to discuss the modern-day forces threatening the region’s distinct natural and cultural resources. 

Aton’s lecture on Tuesday is also part of the University’s Convocations Lecture Series and is free and open to the public. 

Dr. Aton received a B.A. in English from Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL in 1971, an M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky in 1977, and a Ph.D. in American Literature from Ohio University in 1981. He has taught in the Department of English at SUU since 1980, where he is Professor of English. He teaches classes in Writing, Mythology, American Studies, and Continental European Literature. Dr. Aton has twice been a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in American Studies, first in 1989-90 at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and second in 1997-98 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, Peoples Republic of China. 

Aton has published articles on environmental history in Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, Southwest Art, and Blue Mountain Shadows. Twice he has presented the SUU Distinguished Faculty Lecture. His monograph, John Wesley Powell, appeared as part of the Boise State University's Western Writers Series. His book with Robert S. McPherson, River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan, was finalist for the 2000 Utah Book Award in non-fiction and was awarded the 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award for "best book on any historical subject" from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. His book with photographer Dan Miller, The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green, was published in April 2009.

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