In a recent phone conversation with a group of friends, we were asked to speak about loss as a sort of cathartic recognition of the feelings of the moment, induced by certain biological, viral, and political upheavals: what were we afraid of losing, what had we already lost, what does loss mean, and how do we cope with loss? In my work in landscape conservation, I think a lot about loss. I frame appeals around it, use it to drive action, construct science-based arguments from it, implement it in policy asks, use it as a metric to motivate advocacy. In my personal life, it has become, in no uncertain terms, the lens through which I view the world. Loss is life, it would seem.
This isn’t meant to be the doom and gloom opening to a lugubrious reflection on living through the Sixth Mass Extinction and anthropogenic climate crises. While it may be true that spending too much time mired in reports of species die-off events, catastrophic wildfires, and ever-increasing CO2 emissions doesn’t necessarily breed optimism nor hope, there are some important lessons to be learned and practices to be implemented from living as a loser. And the results of these lessons and practices seem to be, at least in my experience thus far, generative of tremendous gains. In some strange Zen-like twist, I am winning through losing.
I started losing the fall semester of my senior year at the University of New Mexico. I was finally on track to wrap up my undergraduate degree nearly 17 years after graduating high school. I had enrolled in an introductory class in the Art and Ecology Department on the Sixth Mass Extinction, which, for those not familiar, is currently unfolding before our very eyes, and for the first time in global history, humans are driving the extinction bus. Our end-of-year project was to create an artistically-inspired work about something locally related to the Sixth Mass Extinction. I ended up using story mapping software to develop a narrative about a geographic feature just west of where I grew up, called the Pajarito Plateau. Pajarito is the Spanish word for “little bird”, and the plateau, which lies at the foot of the Jemez Mountains, had long been known for its diverse and abundant bird populations.
That is, until anthropogenic climate change created megadrought conditions in the American Southwest, which led to increased vulnerabilities to certain fatal bark beetle infestations in trees, particularly the pinon pine in New Mexico. The pinon nut provides an important, calorie-dense food source for birds, and without it, numbers were dropping precipitously. So I learned about loss. And the more I learned about it, the more I longed to feel it. Not in the way reading a scientific paper full of facts and figures triggers an intellectual response that resembles a feeling. But in the way sitting on the land and noticing the gnarled corpses of pinon trees provokes an embodied, felt sense of something-that-was-that-is-no-longer.
I’ve always sought the out-of-doors as a place of renewal and rejuvenation. Growing up in the rural Nambe Valley north of Santa Fe, most of my earliest memories include the bright high desert sun warm on my face, the quiet thrill of discovering some small nook between the rocks or behind a tree that snuggly fit my little body, or simply watching the magic of the slow birth and dissolution of so many clouds over the mesa behind our house.
But somewhere along the road to “responsible” adulting, I forgot to notice. The writer and scholar Robert MacFarlane says, “Forgetting is an easy way to lose something.” And in forgetting to give my attention to the world, in that child-like way that inspires enchantment and adoration, I’d lost so much. Feeling the loss of los pajaritos brought it back. I began to notice the small details ever-present in the pinon-juniper woodland behind my home. I have come to recognize when a tree excretes sap in defense against a beetle infestation. I search for the hardened sap balls that are produced by the pitch tubes, near perfect spheres of golden amber. I spent the late summer months examining pine cones filled with pinon nuts, trying to determine what color shells reliably yield the meaty sweet fruit that I and so many other forest dwellers were seeking.
It was as if something had been returned to me: a sense of place, a knowing, a recognition. And though the weight of so much loss has not grown lighter on my shoulders or in my heart, the world has given me something to remedy my spirit. When you choose to attend to those others, to the feathered and four-legged and rooted ones, to notice the ways they engage with the world, the ways they create and give form to an inhabitable Earth, you can’t help but admire their resilience, their tenacity, their courage. This is all that I have won as I have lost. Forgetting is an easy way to lose something. We owe it to the great blue world to remember. We have a moral obligation to do as much.
When I first met the Mexican gray wolves of the Greater Gila, after researching their extirpation from the American West and then following their slow, tenuous reintroduction, I realized this obligatory remembering was not mine alone to carry. So many others, often guided by Indigenous allies who have not forgotten, and inspired by their Traditional Ecological Knowledge, are committing and recommitting to remembering, restoring, reclaiming and restructuring in service of a broader, more diverse, more cared for sense of community.
At this historical, political, social, ecological moment, so much is framed in terms of wins and losses. I think it’s safe to say no one victory is ever only triumph, and no forfeiture only ever deprivation. The world is far too complex to exist in such polarized binaries. Perhaps it is time we inhabit the space between, the interstices where life and lessons foment and bubble over, connecting us to ourselves, to each other, to the vast web of this existence, where no one is really ever keeping score.
UPDATE (December 11, 2020): Thank you to everyone who wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last month demanding that they not harm these wolves. Our understanding is that the livestock are no longer in the area and no wolves were captured or harmed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency tasked with recovering critically endangered Mexican gray wolves—is working right now to trap and remove wolves from the wilds of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico at the behest of livestock producers who are grazing non-native cattle on public lands for private profit.
Wolves from the Sheepherders Baseball Park Pack or the Pitchfork Canyon Pack are blamed for killing around 3% of one rancher’s herd of cows. In comparison, the federal government has killed about 3% of the entire wild Mexican wolf population this year in the name of social tolerance. It seems that tolerance only goes one way.
Help us stop this wolf removal! Send an email to email@example.com today. Tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service why you support wild wolves over destructive, non-native cattle. Explain that the agency’s job is to protect and recover endangered Mexican gray wolves, not cows. Tell them to stop the removal of these endangered, wild lobos—fewer than 170 of which live in the American Southwest.
Please keep your comments civil, as hostile language is counterproductive. When you email, it is helpful to copy us (firstname.lastname@example.org) so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can’t claim to not have received your note. Thank you for taking action to defend lobos!
Learn more about this situation here.
When I awoke in the darkness, the first thing I felt was the soreness in my quads and calves. I wasn’t sure if it was the muscle pain or the hunger pains that had woken me. Maybe it was something else entirely—something stirring outside my tent.
That’s what it was—a sound. Not just any sound, but a sound I’d never heard before. At first, it was indiscernible. After a moment, it was unmistakable. Almost like a song. One voice, then two… then three… then, an entire chorus.
I tried to focus, but my damn sleeping bag was making all those crinkly sounds as I tried to settle my body into a comfortable position. When I was finally still, the singing grew clearer—not just the sound, but the echo as well. The echo of wolves—howling in some place that seemed, at once, both far away and very near.
It was the fifth, and last, night of our backpack into the Gila Wilderness. I had been longing to hear those sounds for many years and perhaps, in my wishful greed, to catch a sight of the wolves themselves. My only regret from that night is that I didn’t wake my wife, Terry. But if you knew her particular relationship with sleep, you’d understand.
Weeks later, the wonder I felt that night transformed into sadness and outrage, as I realized those were the howls of the Middle Fork Pack, wolves that roamed the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.
I was saddened because I knew both the alpha female and alpha male of that pack only had three legs. Each victims of human cruelty—in one case, a gun shot wound. In the other, a steel trap.
Nevertheless, these incredible animals persisted and persevered for nearly a decade. They successfully raised wolf pups in the wild canyons, pine forests and remote grasslands within and on the edge of the Gila—America’s first wilderness.
In a sense, those of us who care about protecting these wolves are working with one of our legs missing as well.
Seemingly every day over the last four years, the Trump administration has systematically dismantled the environmental safety net. Regardless of who is elected in November, we will be working at a greater disadvantage than we were just four years ago.
But, if we persevere, as the wolves did in the face of adversity, we can still accomplish much. I believe that if we work half as hard as the wolves do, we can accomplish twice as much as we ever have.
We also can each learn something else from the Middle Fork wolves. It’s that there is strength in numbers and that we are more resilient when we look after every member of our pack. There’s likely no way a three-legged wolf could survive on its own, but working together they overcame significant obstacles.
When I think about how many Guardians there are in the world—and by that I simply mean compassionate people who protect the vulnerable—I am heartened by people’s commitment. But I am also aware that we are simply not enough people. We need more Guardians. I want every one of you reading these words to reach out to people you are not convinced share our value of protecting the vulnerable.
You may ask “why?” It’s because there is so much more at stake. It’s not just environmental protection that is being eviscerated, it is democracy itself.
But if we are to ultimately persevere in our quest, whatever it may be, we cannot focus only on the injuries from the past. I can’t imagine the Middle Fork wolves spent a moment in self-pity about their wounds. What propelled them forward was a fierce clarity about their purpose of protecting their pack. What will propel us forward is a compelling vision for the future. A key part of that vision is the recognition that we all share more in common than we usually think.
By focusing on what we have in common, rather than our differences, we can increase the size of our pack. In doing so, we will increase our political power and our ability to advocate on the behalf of the Middle Fork pack and the natural world in general. Doing this will require expanding our circle of compassion.
Perhaps it is naïve, but I believe the practice of compassion can be a compelling force. Many times, I have written about the need for society to expand the circle of compassion to include those who have historically been marginalized—women, minorities, the disabled, and the entire natural world. If we, as environmentalists, can expand our circle of compassion to include new, unlikely allies—I believe we will be more effective in achieving our goals.
Though the Middle Fork Pack sadly no longer endures, I hope their story becomes a part of your story about how we can be more resilient during these uncertain times. Let their story remind us that, with perseverance, we can overcome great obstacles.
Let us remind ourselves that we are members of a pack with room to grow, both in numbers and compassion. With that unified purpose, we will find strength and comfort, from ourselves and from each other, and together we will accomplish great things.
Ten years ago, some humans came to the table. We sat down together and looked at the facts. We looked at each other. Looked at the world. And looked at the facts again. The scientific facts. The planet is warming, we said to each other. Species are dying. The Sixth Mass Extinction, we murmured under our breath. What can be done. Must be done. So we made a pact. Signed a treaty. Nodded our heads and dusted our hands and went back to our respective countries. Masters of solutions. Inventive solvers of problems. Phew, we thought to ourselves. That was a close one.
Ten years later, we came to the table again. We stood with our hands on our heads, our eyes to the sky. We paced and fretted and asked why. And then asked how. The facts were still there. Only worse this time. More warming. More species. Gone. Our goals, unachieved. And now, a global pandemic. Fires. Floods. Birds falling from the sky. How? Why?
Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) is the primary publication of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity is the primary organization attempting to gather members of the global community to address species extinction, as they did ten years ago, when almost every country in the world (sans the United States), signed on to an arduously negotiated and fastidiously researched treaty to mitigate climate change and species die-off events.
The 5th GBO was just published, and in no uncertain terms, we are failing at our goals. A New York Times article published on Tuesday summarizes the GBO’s findings nicely. The takeaway: we are doing far too little. Extractive and exploitative industries still maintain a vice grip on governing agencies and institutions that set policy regarding agriculture, transportation, and energy. In other words, the status quo is slow to go. No surprise there.
But when life as we know it is on the line, perhaps we pay attention to the fire, quite literally, burning under our asses, and demand that systemic change is non-negotiable. Governments must act now. Nothing less than a complete overhaul is required for the integrity of posterity. For the perpetuity of the human species. For the future of our more-than-human cohabitants who now look to us for their survival. As the article states, “Without transformational change, all humanity will be affected, with Indigenous people and the poor bearing the worst effects.”
And so I ask myself, what do we write about when we write about loss? When loss comes in a new kind of weight that presses the human heart into submission…and then presses some more? It’s smokey here in New Mexico today. Some strange ochre filter scatters the sunlight into something eerie and unrecognizable, casting noon shadows and curtaining the rugged horizon. The landmark that, since March, has provided the only sense of constancy in what increasingly resembles a world run amok.
Sixty-eight percent of animal life has been extirpated since 1970. We live now in a perpetual state of absentia, existing in relation to what is no longer here. The artist, philosopher and materialist poet Dario Robleto speaks about the moral obligation of memory. How as creatures so corporeally, spiritually, and emotionally tied to our ability to remember, we must responsibly wield this power for good.
A Mexican Gray wolf howls in the dusk and the dark from Gilita Creek. The full harvest moon sways between tendrils of clouds above the Mogollon Mountains. She is a testament to our remembering. Teetering on the brink of extinction, we refused to forget the long history of coexistence between wolves and humans. It is our moral imperative to remember the colors of the yellow-billed cuckoo, the surreptitious movements of the jaguar, the lonely howl of the lobo. It is the debt we must pay as members of the species complicit in their slow dying. It is the least we can do. And it is not enough.
I find myself these days mostly engaged in what feels more like exuberant celebrations of life rather than solemn elegies of death. Much of this resilience and conscious turning towards joy is inspired by places like the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. This irrepressible landscape is not only the focus of my work as a large landscape conservationist, it is also the source of my optimism. And if I had my druthers, it would be a model for a new type of public lands management, one that prioritizes connectivity, habitat corridors, climate resilience, and healthy streams and rivers. One that incorporates and elevates Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the wisdom of the Indigenous ones who know this land, have cared for it and loved it before the word “wilderness” even existed.
The entire ten million acres of the Greater Gila Bioregion would be held up as a vision realized, as a signature achievement of the kind of protections mandated by the Convention on Biological Diversity. I am past the point of feeling paralyzed by the staggering predictions of loss and destruction. I invite all of us to exercise the force of our human memory, to lodge ourselves firmly in the desert sunflower-filled meadows of Collins Park in the heart of the Gila, where a wildness resides while bull elk bugle and bald eagles fly overhead. We know now, it is a scientific fact, that large protected, connected landscapes are one of the key solutions to species extinction. Let’s mobilize the power of this conscious remembering in service of those landscapes we love, the bird songs they foster, the quiet ways they make our lives more livable, more full of wonder and color and love.
It feels strange to say it, but I am a child of drought. Not drought in any kind of metaphorical sense. Drought in the literal description, as defined by Merriam-Webster: a period of dryness, especially when prolonged. Perhaps this is the price of reveling in the beauty of the desert southwest. We are gifted daily with singular cloud patterns strewn across rugged skylines hued in incomprehensible shades of apricot and lavender as the sun dips below the horizon. We gaze across vast distances of hills flecked with juniper and pinyon, seceding to the erosive force of our wild Gila River, everything bathed in that kind of light that holds the eye as if a screen had suddenly been lifted or a filter removed. Sudden clarity of vision subtly stealing the breath, inspiring the mind, filling the heart.
And yes, there is the dryness. Especially prolonged dryness. These days it’s often referred to as megadrought. Climate crisis-induced megadrought.
“Unprecedented stress on limited water resources,” says one scholarly article.
“The worst in 500 years,” warns Scientific American.
A raven streaks across the sky above the Silver Fire scar in the Gila National Forest. Aspen saplings and New Mexican locust bring a relieving green to the charred, blackened hills. This is a landscape that has been “progressively” managed for fire. But how climate resilient is it? I wonder as we gaze north across the Black Range from the top of Hillsboro Peak. How resistant to the depredations of an unprecedented megadrought?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released their long-term weather forecast for the southwest. They predict 70-80% above normal temperatures and 40-50% below average precipitation for September, October, and November of 2020 in the American southwest.
A group of three Mexican gray wolves lope through the matchstick remains of a ponderosa pine forest in the Whitewater-Baldy burn scar in the Gila National Forest. The rusty yearling sits back on her haunches to howl at the setting sun. I wonder if they’re parched, the nearby stock tank a cracked maze of bone-dry mud and withered grass. The wild ones are masters of survival. And water is life. Agua es vida. This is a mantra for all desert dwellers, no matter what language you speak.
And what we ask for, as Guardians’ Greater Gila team, as children of drought, as lovers of Iron Creek, and Bearwallow Peak, and black hawks, and Gila trout, and Gooding’s onion, and the Gila thistle, is that managing for megadrought and climate resilience become the new mandate for land management agencies, conservation organizations, communities, and individuals alike. We all know the fractious forces of political allegiances are successfully sowing doubt and driving schisms at a time when we must care for each other and the planet more deeply than ever before.
In a recently published article in LitHub, Barry Lopez asks us if, “…in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?” Despite my own skepticism and misanthropy, even in the face of megadroughts and megafires and some wild thirst parching our rivers and sucking our water tables dry, I say yes. It’s an affirmation based not on the latest science or administrative predictions. It’s driven by the connections and conversations I’ve had over the past six months working on behalf of the Gila. By the love and commitment I hear in the voices of Forest Service staff, professors, archaeologists, other conservationists, community members, politicians. It inspires belief, and dare I say, hope even. Yes, Barry. It is possible.
The World Economic Forum now ranks biodiversity loss as a top-five risk to the global economy. In the slow, unpredictable unfolding of my own understanding of why our world matters, nature’s economic value was never a personal driver of salvation motivation. I am typically more likely to be influenced by the display of awareness and tenacity demonstrated by a white-breasted nuthatch feeding in a Douglas fir, or the steady mutualism exhibited between the piñon jay and the piñon pine. But we are dwellers in a consumerist country where capital is king and money defines success and social worth, so I suppose looking at the current biodiversity crisis in terms of dollars must be a part of our strategy to make change.
According to the WEF’s study, protecting lands and seas creates increased, multisector economic output when compared to the status quo. The economic growth of the conservation and nature sector is largely driven by nature-based tourism, and outweighs the benefits of expanded protections for extractive industries like timber and agriculture. Additionally, protecting 30% of the world’s land and seas would cost just 0.16% of global GDP.
In addition to the above study, which was included in a working paper authored by nearly 80 scientists analyzing the economic implications of the 30×30 initiative (which concludes, by the way, that protecting at least 30% of the world’s lands and oceans provides greater benefits than the status quo, both in terms of financial outcomes and non-monetary measures like ecosystem services), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just released their latest guidelines for conserving connectivity through ecological networks and corridors. The two are related in that conserving 30% of terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030 (the goal of 30×30) will inevitably and by design provide ecological networks that include areas protected to various degrees and the necessary habitat connectivity corridors, two restoration and rehabilitation mechanisms necessary to stem the tide of biodiversity loss, and bolster an increasingly insecure global economy.
We are learning that large scale conservation initiatives have economic value, in addition to ecological value. It is imperative that land management agencies begin to think in terms of the movement ecology of species, and not just the obvious charismatic megafauna like polar bears or elephants, but the slow migrators as well, such as trees and shrubs. As we face the escalating effects of the climate crisis, and the positive feedback loop of biodiversity loss it is feeding, floral and faunal stresses will increase and extirpation events will follow suit. We need governments and the land management agencies they oversee to think boldly and creatively about how to promote climate resilience and stem the tide of biodiversity loss. This includes upending the status quo, particularly in situations of commercial use that are no longer economically or ecologically viable due to climatic infeasibility. Livestock grazing in the desert Southwest is a perfect example of this. Check out Guardians’ grazing permit retirement campaign to learn more about the measures we’re taking to provide both ranchers and the land the opportunity to diversify and rehabilitate.
WildEarth Guardians’ Greater Gila Campaign is aiming to bundle all these factors together to form a new style of connectivity conservation to be practiced on several million acres of protected land spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border, a region facing dire water stresses and increased threats to already endangered species and ecosystems in a climate crisis-induced megadrought. We envision a large landscape designation that would set the stage for the ecological and economic benefits of land protections to be, for lack of a better word, capitalized on. What if, in this landscape that inspired Aldo Leopold’s visionary land ethic, the Forest Service fully mobilized the Leopoldian legacy in service of new standards of management that align with 30×30 goals and IUCN guidelines?
What if the Greater Gila Bioregion became a national model for what public lands management can become when we all choose climate resilience and biodiversity over asymmetrically distributed profits from extractive industries? What if the devastation wreaked by multinational corporations like Freeport-McMoRan and their Chino Mine in Silver City, NM was remediated and then abandoned in favor of a civil corps committed to custodial environmental efforts? The Taos Pueblo-Rocky Mountain Youth Corps just up the road in Taos, NM offers an example of a creative solution to both social and environmental issues. For 25 years they have been offering tribal youth the opportunity to learn valuable skills while contributing to the ecological resilience of their community. Similar federally funded programs are needed throughout the West, and ecological robustness is a good investment no matter how you slice it.
What if the contemporary and historical Indigenous relationship to land was valued as much as or more than its grazing or mining or drilling potential? What if our governance of public spaces became polycentric, orbiting around a commitment to fostering diversity of both human and non-human inhabitants, prioritizing respect and stewardship and education in order to ensure bio-integrity for many generations to come?
We need not speculate over every counterfactual. It is time to take the efforts of the World Economic Forum and the IUCN and run with them. We must run towards the incredible expanses of open space that define who we know ourselves to be. We must think in terms of the commons, for public lands are, at their core, common lands. We must honor their original and current Indigenous inhabitants. We must follow their lead on respectful cohabitation. Let’s make the Greater Gila the exemplar for connectivity conservation, multispecies justice, and a softer, more considerate way of being a human on Planet Earth.
Last week, I fell in love with country. Not This Country. Not Our Country. Simply country. I perched atop peaks above 10,000 feet and peered out across distances incomprehensible. I squatted beside rivers that swayed and snaked for hundreds of miles, wild from source to sea, flexing their hydrologic muscle to carve canyons and move mountains. I star-gazed, open-mouthed and full of wonder, remembering what’s small and what’s precious and what’s worthy of protecting. I saw black hawks and blue jays and arching sycamores and barking elk and trundling bears and trotting wolves. Yes, trotting wolves! Three of them to be precise. Yipping and stalking and howling and moving something inside me that once was wild and fiercely free.
All in the Gila, that seemingly eternally unfolding expanse of hills and vales and mountains and vistas and wild silences that spread themselves across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, what we at WildEarth Guardians refer to as the Greater Gila Bioregion. This is a landscape long inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon cultures, and later the Apache, Navajo, Acoma, and Zuni. This place is anciently sacred, humming with the footsteps of Native Ancestors seeding Indigenous Knowledge Traditions deeply prescient for their time. This is a place ecologically abundant, tending to a biodiversity greater than that of Yellowstone. This is a landscape that has known a fire regime and management practices more progressive than anywhere else in the West, where the long-lived cycle of over-grow-burn-regenerate has been allowed to persist with minimal human intervention. This is country wild, where humans have come since time immemorial to travel softly and fit themselves snuggly into the astounding web of living selves, to rest beside Mogollon Death Camas and Mimbres Figwort, to gaze upon Gila chub and Loach minnow, to become, once again, quiet dwellers rather than raucous extractors.
This is the country we need. It requires no undiscerning patriotism, no flaring bias or political unilateralism. It only asks that we give our attention to a greater sense of self, that we assume our membership in this grand community of bipeds and four-leggeds and root-growers and wing-flappers, and that this membership rise to the top of our list of things to be tended to. You may leave your flag and your fearful ideologies at home. Come with me to the Gila, where we may all, once again, fall in love with country.
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time exploring a part of my home state of New Mexico that I had never seen before. My dad, my brother, and I drove our bikes north from Santa Fe to a remote section of the Continental Divide Trail situated in the midst of what many know as O’Keefe country. For those who aren’t familiar, Georgia O’Keefe is widely considered one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Much of her work depicts elements of the high desert landscape: rolling hills flecked with scrubby juniper and pinon, tawny mesas set against a vivid blue sky. She made her home for much of her life in the tiny town of Abiqui, New Mexico, where she drew endless inspiration from the wild colors and austere geography of the land around her. Traveling through O’Keefe country is one of the many spectacular treasures of living and adventuring in the Land of Enchantment.
But what especially inspired me about this outing was the feeling that overcame me as I pedaled my way along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). (If you’ve never heard of the CDT, check out all the resources provided on the Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s website. They’ve got fantastic maps, photographs, and many opportunities to volunteer your dollars or labor in service of trail maintenance). As we rolled along through the dry, dusty pinon-juniper woodland, I got goosebumps when we came across the first tiny CDT trail marker nailed to a tree. I suddenly imagined the serpentine miles of trail stretching out behind me, winding their way over high Rocky Mountain Peaks and down into rugged river valleys, through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, all the way to the Canadian border. And I pictured the meandering trail before me, heading south through the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests, past El Malpais National Conservation Area, into Pie Town, where thru hikers and bikers regularly gormandize face fulls of pie at the iconic Pie-O-Neer pie shop (which has sadly closed in the wake of COVID-19), and then making its way deep into the heart of Gila country, before terminating at the Mexican border.
There was something different about the sensation of being physically connected to the Gila, to that landscape that Guardians’ Greater Gila team is working so diligently to protect, by this rocky stretch of single track. There was no rumbling highway, no roaring semis or reflective road signs. Just these little, unassuming, triangular, blue CDT signs with the arrow forever pointing south, and my own physical body to propel me there. For 42 years (the CDT was established by congress in 1948) this trail has quietly provided a path through the woods for the weary traveler. It has provided a means to reconnect with our original locomotion, to slow to the speed of self-generated action, to move with deliberate willfulness in order to smell the warm brandy-honey-maple-spice of the Ponderosa bark baking in the sun, to listen attentively to the soft tremble of the aspen leaves quaking in the breeze.
But vast and expansive trails such as this one could not exist without equally vast and expansive forests in which to house them. The incomparably wild stretch of the CDT through the Gila would be something quite different if it was flanked by busy roads with endless industrial traffic, or if it traversed below rapacious mines carving out the mountain side. There is a mutualism between a rugged, unbroken trail and a roadless, unbroken forest. The forest gives to the trail by virtue of providing those of us without wings or four legs an opportunity to cherish a solitude that retreats from our reality with greater rapidity every day. And the trail gives to the forest by reminding us, this hominid species increasingly overcome by our own consumptive power and technological obsession, of the incalculable value of a quiet wood, of our own smallness in a sylvan landscape, of our vulnerability, of our connectedness, of the necessity to protect these wild spaces that fuel and flame the humanity of our spirit.
These are the relationships we aim to preserve in our Greater Gila Campaign. We envision a federally-designated protected status for the entire bioregion that encompasses the Gila and its surrounding mountains, forests, and plains. We know these landscapes are not islands, nor do the wildlife and wild rivers within them exist as such. We need large, connected, protected ecosystems if there is to be a future for humanity moving forward. The science fueling the 30X30 Campaign for Nature says as much. Help us support the woods, the trails, the birds, foxes, wolves, and fish of the Gila by supporting WildEarth Guardians and learn more about our Greater Gila Campaign and the ways you can get involved.
As a little kid, I remember flipping through the pages of National Geographic magazines and staring entranced at beautiful pictures of wildlife. I was always a kid that enjoyed spending time outdoors, and my fascination with the natural world was reflected in the movies and books I consumed. An avid reader, I plowed through many introductory materials on wildlife, ecosystems, and climate. My favorite movies to watch were National Geographic Kids films on wildlife behavior. Through these materials I became increasingly aware of the looming threats of both climate change and mass extinction of wildlife throughout the globe. As a kid, I actively worried about endangered species and became determined to “save the earth” and the animals along with it.
In fact, I was so concerned about the fate of wild animals that for several birthdays in a row I demanded that my present be an “adoption” of an endangered species. Several organizations at the time welcomed donations to “adopt” an endangered species and in return would send you pictures of an individual animal you had helped to protect. As a young environmentalist, I became the proud protector of a dolphin, wolverine, and seal. At the time, I believed that my adoption would ensure those individual animals lived a long and happy life in the wild, untouched by humans.
I now understand that wildlife conservation is not quite as I had imagined as a little kid. You can’t just “adopt” a wild animal and ensure its protection; I was actually asking my parents to fund broader conservation efforts. In fact, I now understand that wildlife conservation is part of a much larger tapestry of environmental protections that work to combat the climate crisis while simultaneously supporting ecosystem health. This tapestry, in addition to protecting wild spaces from further degradation, also ensures the wellbeing of human communities.
WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places and Wildlife programs demonstrate the interconnected nature of conservation policies which is why I am so excited to contribute to both programs as an intern this summer. For example, the protection of the Greater Gila Bioregion is a multi-pronged effort. Ensuring the health of that ecosystem requires not only working towards the permanent retirement of grazing permits but also working to protect the Mexican gray wolf. Altering the species composition of an ecosystem is a dangerous game to play, and WildEarth Guardians works to restore ecosystem equilibrium through their advocacy in the region. A healthier Greater Gila bioregion also promises a more resilient landscape. Healthy and resilient ecosystems are key contributors to the overall health of our planet, as well as help to maintain clean air and water in the region.
Likewise, wildlife protection efforts at WildEarth Guardians, such as working with the TrapFree New Mexico coalition, contribute to the overall health of local ecosystems and communities. Wildlife policies that rely on cruel killing techniques like traps and poisons are not ecologically sound and actively ignore the interconnected nature of biological ecosystems. But working to ban cruel wildlife traps in New Mexico not only protects wildlife, it also protects people and domestic animals in the neighboring area. Creating outdoor spaces that are safe to recreate in is equally important. In places as beautiful as the southwest, public lands should be places where locals and tourists can safely and responsibly explore the natural world.
This summer, I hope to meaningfully contribute to both the Wild Places and Wildlife programs at WildEarth Guardians. Since flipping through those National Geographic magazines as a kid my conceptualization of the natural world has changed greatly. As an Environmental Studies major, I now have a better understanding of the complexities of conservation – I know that as an individual I cannot save each and every beautiful animal that roams our wild lands. However, by contributing to WildEarth Guardians’ work in wildlife and public lands, I hope to honor the desire of my younger self to “save the earth” and work towards a future where humans and the natural world can coexist for the benefit of all.
I recently finally began listening to the audiobook of Cormack McCarthy’s The Crossing after incessant urging by my partner, Mark. I had demonstrated some initial resistance, knowing McCarthy’s reputation for grim violence and stark depictions of the depravity of man. But I decided his imagined, if meticulously researched, historical world couldn’t be much more grisly than the current real one we find ourselves in. So I listen.
I bring all of this up to open today’s blog post because the first few hours of The Crossing revolve around a wolf, a pregnant she-wolf to be precise, making her way through the wild country of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona (the exact location of our Greater Gila campaign!). And she’s being pursued. A young rancher’s son is setting traps for our wolf, as she is the cause of numerous livestock depredations. At last listen, she’d finally been caught, forefoot gruesomely snared in steel jaws, after weeks of out-smarting the trappers. She’s been hog-tied and dragged behind a horse. And I’m not feeling like it’s cause for celebration, in fact quite the opposite. And I think McCarthy’s eerie foreshadowing of her capture is intentionally preparing me to interrogate the metaphor of the wolf, and what she might represent in the American imagination.
There’s no denying that McCarthy is something of a literary genius, his cult following can attest to that, but what most impressed me about the listen so far is his depiction of the wolf. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to her description. And while there is no trace of anthropomorphizing, he manages to render a picture of her so vivid, so alive and beautifully wild, that she becomes perhaps the most compelling character in the story so far. Her experience becomes a deeply felt experience for the reader. To bring such life to a fictional non-human literary presence requires more than just a way with words. I can only conclude that McCarthy must have come to know the wolf in an extraordinary way, in a way, perhaps, we can all come to know the wolf one day.
As an added bonus to my wolf wonderings, it’s Wolf Week here at Guardians (check out our webpage on Wolf Protection and Recovery and our Mexican Wolf Recovery toolkit)! So we, as an organization, have also been thinking about wolves (really since our inception, over 30 years ago), and I have been reading other thoughtful voices who have been thinking about wolves. Because beyond their recently recognized status as charismatic megafauna, the wolf plays into some of my previous weekly themes, namely national mythologies, and ideas about One Health, in addition to the new nation-wide ritual of howling for healthcare workers that takes place every evening.
Let’s start with the wolf as a player in our national mythology. The enlightening dissertation paper by Gavin Van Horn titled Howling About the Land: Religion, Social Space, and Wolf Reintroduction in the Southwestern United States discusses the various relationships humans have with wolves, both in contemporary and historical contexts. Van Horn attributes the near eradication of wolves in the U.S. in the mid-20th century to the fervent disdain that came ashore with early European colonists, who, as keepers of domesticated animals, saw any and all wolves as vicious, calf-eating monsters. This reputation persisted, and was even elevated with the rise of the venerated cowboy, and the thrill of his brave quest to tame the wild frontier and all the savageness (wolves) that came with it. What I find most worthy of further rumination is the way the wolf violates two American ideals. First, the wolf has no notion of private versus public property, and, as a species with an inherent need to roam great distances, is therefore a common and unwelcome trespasser. Second, the wolf embodies a certain archetype of freedom and wildness, the former which we envy and the latter which we fear. The wolf exists in a state of original liberty and, as Van Horn so aptly observes, their howls become “a reminder of what humans have yet to subdue.”
In another scholarly paper by Martin A. Nie from the University of Minnesota titled The Sociopolitical Dimensions of Wolf Management and Restoration in the United States, wolf reintroduction becomes a lens with which to view shifting attitudes in American social and political spaces through time. I love this idea because it mandates a recognition of the ways we etch our human agendas, both implicit and explicit, onto the landscape and all the other selves that reside there within. As Van Horn suggests, for so long our obsession with that which is “civilized” (i.e. urban sprawls, agricultural fields, domesticated animals) has justified a scorched earth policy to eradicate that which is “wild” (i.e. uninhabited landscapes, unfamiliar cultures, non-domesticated animals), all in service of some constructed notion of progress.
But how does this tie in to our current moment of pandemic and social upheaval, you may ask? From the perspective of One Health, the wolf is a critical keystone species, one that when taken out of an ecosystem can cause a cascading extinction effect. We saw this with the Yellowstone reintroduction of wolves, as there was an astonishing recovery of habitat and a reestablishing of ecological balance. If we accept as true the concept that our health is inherently tied to the health of our community, our environment, and the planet, then we insist upon a coexistence model in which we share space and resources with other species who serve important ecosystem functions in maintaining that holistic health and wellness.
Furthermore, as Nie posits, when we come to recognize our treatment of wolves, through individual actions, management practices, or restoration efforts, as an expression of our own fears and insecurities, and our own confusion from the slow dissolution of an unproductive national mythology, perhaps we can manage those emotions with more grace and self-awareness. Perhaps we can lean into the challenge of inspecting our own imperfections, our misguided ideologies that lead to skewed perceptions of what counts as valuable. Perhaps we can tenderize our own human-ness, gather the truth of our own vulnerability and co-dependence on that which we may not know nor understand, and step towards a new and brave way of being a human in the world, a human in the world with wolves and bears and other humans, and be grateful to be small and soft and in our own way unsubdued. We howl now because we are afraid, not just of the Coronavirus, but of our own separation, our own loneliness. The stakes have become too high to continue reifying rugged individualism and unfettered growth. We howl now for change, deep tectonic change, for humans, for wolves, for the planet.
Each week, the Greater Gila Campaign Team of Leia Barnett and Madeleine Carey will share what they are reading, listening to, and watching and how it shapes the connections they draw between the current crisis and their work to conserve large landscapes.