Generations of Power
2023, Junior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Nicole Horseherder, Tó Nizhóní Ání
As far as the eye could see, there was only mist. It surrounded her, changing forms as it churned like the ocean. Then, all was still, except for ripples coming from a looming shadow. When the figure drew nearer, Nicole saw that it was an older woman, her back stooped with age, but a lively glow still alight in her eyes. Something about this old lady seemed familiar…
“Grandma?” she whispered. The old lady smiled but gave no response. She turned around and gestured to the mist. As if on cue, the mist parted to reveal Black Mesa in all its former glory. The desert was alive, its landscape dappled by juniper, buckwheat, and blue grama grass, the last of which grew stubbornly in patches, as if it owned the place, so that no one in their right minds would dare try to remove it. Further back, horses and sheep grazed among the grasses, lazily drinking water, chatting amongst themselves. Behind them, the Mesa Mountains stood tall and true, overlooking all their children.
Nicole gawked at the old lady, trying to form words, but nothing came out. The once hushed sounds of nature: the birdsong, vegetation rustling in the wind, horse neighs and sheep baas, suddenly increased in volume, becoming more and more deafening. The old lady no longer seemed peaceful and serene. Nicole stared hard at her granddaughter and a message seemed to pass between them. “Yes, Grandma, I promise.” These were the last things Nicole Horseherder remembered saying before she woke up sweaty and panting.
* * *
Although on the surface Black Mesa was a desert, it covered vast amounts of water and coal underground. The water was essential for life on the Mesa. It supported its people, the Navajo, who were as hardy as the desert scrub that dotted their ancestral landscape. But the coal represented progress, and John Sterling Boyden saw an opportunity. He strode into a meeting with the Navajo elders. It was June 12, 1960. Like most summer days on the Mesa, this one was blisteringly hot, but Boyden looked cool in his neatly-pressed, double-breasted suit. He worked for Peabody Energy, and in glib tones, he placated the elders’ concerns of disrupting their centuries-old way of life. He promised them that the new power station would bring jobs, money, and progress.
* * *
For centuries, the Navajo tribe has been breeding sheep and selling their wool. Nicole and her grandmother – before she passed last spring – were part of this traditional way of life. Every morning, well before dawn spread her rosy fingers over the desert landscape, they guided their sheep to springs in an effort to beat the heat of the day. Everything in this desert region depended on water, and the Navajo strongly believed in the interconnectedness of all things in nature. The water was not their possession. Rather, it represented a delicate balance, and the people knew to use only as much as they needed, or else that balance would be disrupted. With the arrival of Peabody, however, this all changed. Peabody’s Mohave Generating Station drained 3.3 million gallons from the aquifer every day. What little surface water remained in the Mesa flowed only intermittently through the cracked and desiccated landscape.
As Nicole returned home on the morning of her dream, her thoughts fixated on her grandmother and the promise she had made. That afternoon, the tribe would be holding a Naachʼid, a special meeting held to address emergency situations. They needed to decide what to do about Peabody. After two years of plant operations, things had reached a boiling point. Those who followed the traditional ways of herding, like Nicole, wanted to shut down the plant. But many others, who had abandoned the old ways, desperately wanted the plant to remain open; they depended on Peabody for their livelihood. As Nicole entered the Naachʼid, she was only able to ease the knot of tension she held within her by recalling the image of her grandmother. The meeting was a whirr of emotions and differing opinions.
“Peabody pays us!” one of the Elders contested. “$4.3 million a year so they can use our water. I care about the water drying up, but what will we do when the money dries up?”
A younger man continued in the same vein, his voice passionately restrained. “Before Peabody, I had no chance of finding a decent paying job in this dry Mesa! What will I do to feed my family without them?”
Amidst the building tension, Nicole rose up. She struggled to keep her hands steady as she gathered the courage to speak. “I had a dream last night. My grandmother visited me. There was mist surrounding her and this land. We all know what this symbolizes. If we don’t protect the Mesa, its water, we will lose it all. This land is ours. It always has been, and only we know how to care for it, to maintain its delicate balance. Are we willing to sell that for a few dollars, just so people hundreds of miles away can have electricity, while we have none? We must protect this land and that will take sacrifice… from all of us. We are already losing our way of life, but when the water dries up, even the plant workers will be out of work. And what will we tell our grandchildren then? That we gave up their land and traditions just for money?”
Nicole took her seat as nods of assent made their way through the room. The tribe feared fighting back against a ruthless and rich company like Peabody, but they knew it was the only way to return to nature’s balance, the interconnectedness that animated life on the Mesa.
* * *
Everyone watched as the long smokestacks of the power plant wobbled and stumbled in parallel motions, for a moment stubbornly refusing to fall over. But that moment passed, and now the supposed root cause of all their troubles lay helpless at their feet, as clouds of dust spread through the eerie silence. Uncomfortably, they turned to each other with mixed emotions. No one felt triumphant, because the power plant had been where so many of them had worked. Nicole, sensing everyone’s unease, spoke first. “I know we’re all scared, but we made a commitment not to be fooled anymore by the company’s big talk. They came in here saying they would make it a better place. Look around. Our dying animals, the cracked surface of the Mesa, represent the dying of our culture. Today, we are taking the first step to return to the ways that have sustained us and this land for centuries.”
The people looked around at the landscape. Once beautiful, it now resembled some sort of mechanical nightmare. But trusting in Nicole, they began the most daunting part of the project: restoring a way of life and restoring the delicate balance of nature. Even if they weren’t heroes in a story, even if they didn’t feel truly high and mighty, they would step into the unknown for their children and grandchildren, those who would one day inherit this land.
* * *
The alarm rang. A little girl sprinted from her bed and out the door. The scene she saw drew a stark contrast to that of Nicole’s dream generations before. Where there used to be dust and wilted grass, today a juniper-covered hilltop stood triumphant and alive. The little girl gave a contented sigh and whispered under her breath, “Thanks, Grandma.”
Climate change goes beyond harming the environment. Bit by bit it also erodes people’s culture. If we are unwilling to fight together for the common goal of preserving the Earth – a task that may seem too remote and too difficult to accomplish – why don’t we fight for something more personal: the preservation of our culture and beliefs, as the Navajo did? I chose to write about Nicole Horseherder and the struggles of the Navajo because I felt it would be interesting to write about climate change from the perspective of long-suffering people fighting against a merciless company – and winning. Not many people (including me before I wrote this) know or care what happens when big, rich factory owners storm into other people’s homes, bribe them with money and promises, and take something that can’t be replaced or bought with money. I hope after reading my story, when people flip a light switch, they think about what that energy really costs, and they choose to make a difference in the global fight against climate change.