There are a lot of things Edward Abbey didn’t like: dams, fences, billboards—and cars in national parks. Writing of his time working at Arches National Park, in Desert Solitaire, he railed against visitors who never stepped from their vehicles: “Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything—but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out.”
While I agree with Abbey, I recently realized that I’ve been missing out on something really cool. So, late last year, I asked my daughter and my boyfriend to join me on a trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
OK, yes, if you like solitude—or, say, are pathologically averse to the sight of other human beings in natural settings—it is an agonizing place to visit.
While driving the loop, cars piled up behind us each time we stopped to peer at a kestrel, red-tailed hawk or raven. When we did score a quiet observation platform—to watch bald eagles or a pair of coyotes hunting mice—chatty tourists or serious birdwatchers with binoculars and checklists flanked us within moments.
Then, just about sunset, we pulled to the side of the muddy road. Across an expanse of fields to the north, we could hear the distant rabble of waterfowl. Within moments, thousands—tens of thousands—of snow geese and sandhill cranes headed over us to roost for the night. Flying in streaming flocks and sloppy Vs, their croaks and calls of homecoming were all that possibly mattered in the world.
The scene was so noisy that I didn’t even realize that my daughter was yelling, “GO, GEESE, GO!” And when the sky did finally quiet, the three of us just stood there, grinning. Up the road, a woman in her 30s looked over, threw her arms into the air and yelled: “Wooooooo!”
Whooping joy, a connection with something wild that forever becomes familiar—that’s what 92,000 snow geese and about 25,000 sandhill cranes can do for you. But you have to get out of the car. Abbey is mostly right, but he’s not all the way right.
Even though we barely stepped outside, that experience connected my daughter and me to the Rio Grande in a new way. It has affected how we observe wildlife in our own neighborhood; it has changed the way we draw and write about the world we inhabit.
The writers and photographers interviewed here have undoubtedly been changed by New Mexico’s landscapes; during interviews with SFR about their books, almost all of them spoke of their love for the state. And while there are people—even some writers themselves—who say that books don’t matter much when it comes to changing the world, I disagree. Words and images printed upon the page can educate and enlighten, even create a sense of camaraderie. One book, just like one sunset’s worth of snow geese and sandhill cranes, can ignite the desire to know more. In this issue, SFR offers readers insight into five recent books that explore New Mexico’s environment. Looking for inspiration? Go outside. Seeking knowledge?
The Rio Grande: An Eagle’s View
Photographs by Adriel Heisey
Edited by Barbara McIntyre
Foreword by Robert Redford
University of New Mexico Press, 2011
Tracing the course of the Rio Grande from its headwaters in Colorado to where it pours—or, nowadays, dribbles—into the Gulf of Mexico, in The Rio Grande: An Eagle’s View, photographer Adriel Heisey reveals the river’s curves and sinews; he hovers above places where her waters have been pressed between concrete walls. He also captures the shape of sandbars as they spread downstream and the moment of a bird’s landing in the water. This is a book of moments, strung together to tell the story of a river.
“The whole project was a journey of learning,” Heisey says of the book, which was published by the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians and conceived by its executive director, John Horning. “Like most people, I had a dim perception of the Rio Grande’s geography.” Watching the river travel its course was a profound and humbling experience for Heisey, who learned to fly at age 15 and currently works for the Navajo Nation, transporting officials.
Flying almost daily over the Four Corners, Heisey found himself becoming more serious about photography, and about 20 years ago, he decided to build his own airplane.
Seeking direct access to the sky and landscapes, he built what might best be described as an aerial motorcycle. With the engine behind the wings, Heisey sits in an exposed seat and controls the slow, low-flying plane with his legs. With his hands free for holding the camera, he can compose shots as he would standing on the ground. “For me, that was the holy grail,” he says of his plane: “the ability to almost kind of loiter in the air over the landscape.”
Loitering over the landscape also gives him a heightened perception of his surroundings when he’s on the ground. “I don’t think ‘revelation’ is too strong a word for what happens when I go airborne,” Heisey says. “To carry that sense of expanded perception with me all the time is one of the joys of being a pilot.”
Having shared the experience with friends, he realizes that most people feel apprehensive, rather than wondrous, while flying in such a small aircraft. “I’ve gone way beyond that sense of apprehension to a place where I feel completely comfortable,” he says. “That means my heart can completely open when I’m up there because it’s not contracted by fear or anxiety.” After three decades of flying, Heisey still sounds as excited as he must have felt at 15, taking his first flight. For him, this book—his fourth—is a way to share with people the deeper understanding and wider experience he gains from flying, from experiencing transcendence in the air.
And that’s probably what makes The Rio Grande: An Eagle’s View more than just a pretty coffee table book. Instead, it feels like a call to action—that is, a call to come to the river. To walk among the cottonwoods, navigate ditches and acequias to find their sources and catch a glimpse of the birds who consider the bosque home. The book itself isn’t an end, but rather the means to bring Heisey’s revelations down to the surface of the river’s waters.
The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project
By VB Price
Photographs by Nell Farrell
University of New Mexico Press, 2011
Photos from The Orphaned Land can be viewed on
photographer Nell Farrell’s website: nellfarrell.com
Writer VB Price has a nice way about him. He’s easygoing and soft-spoken. Waving to people at the coffee shop where he’s a regular customer, he’s quick to shake his head and laugh, oftentimes at himself. Whether he’s talking about other writers, former students—he teaches at the University of New Mexico—or Nell Farrell, the photographer for his latest book, The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project, Price has a way of praising others when asked about himself.
That’s why it’s kind of awesome to watch him become increasingly animated at a November reading of his book. In The Orphaned Land, he explores the impacts of contaminated dust from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Superfund sites in Albuquerque’s South Valley, the poisonous legacy of uranium on the Navajo reservation, and cattle ranching and oil and gas development on the eastern plains of New Mexico. “I don’t want you to get depressed,” he says to the audience. “This is fighting stuff.”
Speaking about corporate irresponsibility and anti-regulation sentiment, Price says that if companies earn profits producing something—whether natural gas or computer chips—they should be responsible for the waste and pollution they create. “If you can’t run a business without taking care of your excrement, you should fail,” he says.
Later, he explains that the great, hidden benefit of capitalism is that corporations aren’t required to take care of their waste, and politicians are glad to jump on the anti-regulation bandwagon.
“We need to stop these people who are coming in and saying, ‘regulation is thwarting business,’” he says. “What regulation is doing is thwarting the way business has always been done, which is to dump your shit anywhere you want.”
Anti-regulation fervor has waxed and waned over the course of Price’s career as a writer. He got his start as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune in 1966; worked briefly as editor of New Mexico Magazine; reported for the online New Mexico Independent; and has written, edited and contributed to more than 30 books. It took him eight years to research and write The Orphaned Land, and its many stories began as hooks that wouldn’t lose hold of him—newspaper clippings he had saved and filed away over the years.
“What happened was I ended up literally wiping a little bit of the dust off the top of the table,” he says, adding that, time and again, he came across examples of military pollution, industrial pollution and poor or ineffective technology. “Then I just became obsessed, really,” he says, chuckling and putting his head down to his hands on the table. “I couldn’t stop!”
Animated again, Price mourns New Mexico’s lost opportunities. For decades, the state was considered a health center, a place of curative waters and a healing climate. In the wake of the Manhattan Project, New Mexico could have become a hub for studying the medical impacts of nuclear technology. Starting in the 1950s and ’60s, scientists could have been researching the long-term impacts of radiation. “But no, we stonewalled it; we denied it; we did nothing; and, as a matter of fact, we contributed more and more and more of it.”
Just before gracefully changing the subject—he’s done talking about himself—he laughs again: “Then I just started getting pissed off.”
Five stories that Price says demand more coverage:
• Air pollution in the Four Corners: “Consider the specter of 30,000-40,000 pump jacks in the San Juan basin—combined with the smokestacks (from coal-fired power plants), combined with coal mining, coal dust, coal tailings, plus the water you need to do all that.”
• Los Alamos National Laboratory: “I think everybody should be spending tremendous amounts of time looking at LANL and not being hornswoggled into not looking at them. They are so vast. Their waste dumping has been so incredibly huge, and there’s a lot about them that nobody’s really written.”
• The leaking of 8 million gallons of jet fuel from Kirtland Air Force Base into the groundwater beneath an Albuquerque neighborhood—and how air force bases nationwide impact community water supplies.
• Rio Rancho’s Intel plant: Suffering from health problems, residents downwind of the chip maker’s plant asked that the federal and state governments require the company to cut its chemical emissions. But the state of New Mexico sided with the company against residents. “It’s a big, big, big, hidden problem,” Price says.
• The proposed Tres Amigas project, which would unite three huge power grids: If it becomes possible to mix electricity from different sources—coal, wind, solar, natural gas—within the systems, the intermittency of wind- and solar-generated electricity will no longer count against alternative energy.
A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
Oxford University Press, 2011
A few years ago, climatologist David Gutzler told SFR that, when it comes to climate change, the question isn’t whether the Earth as a whole, or nature, is going to survive. “People are the species to worry about,” Gutzler said. “After all, it’s the species that has a big infrastructure built up that is dependent on a stable climate. The Earth, the insects—they’ll do just fine. It’s human societies; anytime there is a big change, there are winners and losers.”
That fact is just one reason why William deBuys’ book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is so compelling. Throughout the book, deBuys writes about the impacts of climate change on this already arid region. And he shares the stories of the people who live and work here.
Don’t care about the Mount Graham red squirrel that’s being run out of its habitat in Arizona? Fine. But you’re going along with deBuys and conservation biologist Peter Warshall as they try entering the gated and locked Red Squirrel Refugium. Have no idea who Pat Mulroy is? You’ll remember her after reading about her gold lamé ballet flats and “voice with a touch of gravel in it.” (One of the most powerful women in the western United States, as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Mulroy is the reason Las Vegas continues to exist and drunken tourists ogle the Bellagio’s water show.)
“I didn’t just want to write about nerdy climate issues,” deBuys says. “I wanted to encounter people, human beings, and have them tell the story of that issue and that place.”
Indeed, deBuys is at his finest in A Great Aridness, which covers a topic so depressing that even an environmental journalist doesn’t want to pick it up at first. What he does, however, is tell great stories. Along the way, the reader becomes so enthralled that it’s impossible not to learn something about climate models, atmospheric conditions and altered habitats along the way. DeBuys treks all over the Southwest, talking with longtime friends and sources such as Luther Propst, director of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute, and the US Geological Survey’s Craig Allen, who studies climate change and vegetation in the Jemez Mountains. He also visits with immigration activists along the border with Mexico and archaeologists studying the remains of ancient cultures in the Four Corners.
Over the course of four decades, deBuys has researched and written about some of New Mexico’s most challenging topics. His latest book is no exception. So does he get depressed? “I consider myself an intellectual pessimist, but a neurochemical optimist,” he answers. In other words: No. Optimism is rooted in the beauty of the land, he says, even as it changes. “That is always inspiring,” he says. “There is always something that needs protecting, needs defending, needs people to stand up for it.”
As long as there is work to be done, he says, there is a reason for optimism.
Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land, and Water
By Fred M Phillips, G Emlen Hall and Mary E Black
University of New Mexico Press, 2011
Almost 60 years ago, Paul Horgan published his monster of an ode to the Rio Grande. In Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Horgan wrote about the river’s place in the history of the region and the cultures that have grown up around it.
Since the 1950s, the river and its management have only grown increasingly complicated. And not until now, with Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land, and Water, has anyone tried to explain how the river actually works. Authored by a hydrologist (Fred M Phillips); an anthropological linguist, writer, editor and librarian (Mary E Black); and a water law professor (G Emlen Hall), this book is shockingly readable.
On its cover, John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, writes that the book is a must-read for students of water politics. That’s true, but with an important addendum: This book is a must-read for all New Mexicans. Given climate change, drought and continued population growth, the Rio Grande is poised for change on the scale of what the pueblos and Spanish farmers experienced as Anglo engineers, farmers and railroad builders began large-scale alterations to the river and its landscape in the 1870s.
The authors also navigate the economic and political maneuverings that have shaped the state’s water laws, spawned dams and diversions, and wrangled and tightened the Rio Grande into a system that 3.5 million people in two countries and three states now rely upon for water. They also reveal one particularly grim fact: In New Mexico, water law is murky at best.
As one of the authors, Em Hall, pointed out at a recent meeting of the New Mexico Water Dialogue, in the Middle Rio Grande—the stretch from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Lake—the extent of everyone’s water claims remain unknown. The four pueblos could potentially claim the entire river; no one is even sure what rights irrigators or the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (which delivers water to irrigators) actually hold. Those unknowns, combined with ill-defined water laws and the fact that Albuquerque has yet to wake up to the connection between groundwater pumping and surface river flows, are a “recipe for disaster,” Hall says.
“Those chickens will come home to roost,” he adds, “and it’s a good idea to deal with those realities.”
Most importantly, Hall believes water users should learn the basics of New Mexico water law, rather than seeking legislative fixes to their water rights woes. “People should concentrate more on the intricacies of water law than [on] making political complaints,” he told one member of the audience, a woman who said she had lost faith in a system that could allow a developer to drill into the groundwater beneath her community and transfer those water rights to someone else. “Once water is politicized in a community,” Hall warned, “you’re going to lose.”
Utterly incomplete timeline of the messy, sometimes ugly and oftentimes inconvenient history of the Rio Grande until 1938 (from Reining in the Rio Grande):
• 20 million years ago: Volcanic activity ceases in what is now New Mexico, dividing an elevated crust of the Earth’s surface that slowly flows east and west along a north/south fault zone, creating a geological rift that begins to open and define the boundary of the Rio Grande drainage basin.
• 2.5 million years ago: The northern Rio Grande breaches its final barrier, joining its southern portion that flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
• 12,000 years ago: The region’s first human inhabitants spread across the land at the end of the Pleistocene.
• Between 1000 BC and AD 1000: Archaeological evidence traces 14 early irrigation systems near Zuni back to this period.
• April 20, 1598: Near what is now Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Don Juan de Oñate and his troops arrive at the banks of the Rio Grande, but cannot find a safe place to cross. After two weeks, they finally find a way in what is now El Paso, Texas.
• 1590: Early Hispanic settlers near modern-day Española force 1,500 inhabitants of nearby pueblos to dig the first acequias in San Gabriel.
• February 26, 1878: Engineers from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad appear at a hostelry in Raton Pass, asking its owner to assemble a work crew to begin work that night on a railroad grade over the pass. Completion of the first railroad in New Mexico sets off a mad rush on the state’s natural resources and marks the entry of massive amounts of out-of-state cash. Huge irrigation diversions and canals dug by Anglo farmers coming to the San Luis Valley siphon off the river’s waters, while clear-cutting and overgrazing slough away topsoil, increasing erosion and altering downstream flows.
• 1879: John Wesley Powell issues a report on the West’s arid lands, stating that opportunities for increased irrigation in places such as the Rio Grande Basin are limited, and arguing that the nation should establish water districts that encompass entire watersheds, rather than based on arbitrary political boundaries that divvy rivers across states.
• December 1889: The US Geological Service establishes the nation’s first stream-gauging station on the Rio Grande, near Embudo.
• 1895: The New Mexico Territorial Legislature classifies New Mexico pueblos and acequias as corporations. (According to the authors of Reining in the Rio Grande, this transforms them from “informal, local, and communal entities” to those with formal legal status.)
• 1907: The New Mexico Territorial Legislature adopts a formal water code (the “Bien Code”).
• 1938: Representatives from Colorado, New Mexico and Texas sign the Rio Grande Compact, which establishes water rights to the Rio Grande for each of the three states.
Eco-Tracking: On the Trail of Habitat Change
By Daniel Shaw
University of New Mexico Press, 2010
At first glance, the brown mass about three-quarters of the way up a cottonwood tree could be the nest of a large bird, or a clump of leaves, or just something no one notices because, really, who scans the treetops expecting to see porcupines?
Dan Shaw expects to see porcupines, bald eagles, American robins and dark-eyed junkos. He also keeps a lookout for yerba mansa, which grows on the floor of an area nicknamed “The Cathedral” for the way its cottonwoods tower and leaf out in the spring and summer. Oh, and he notices the three different types of leaves mulberry trees have; they remind him of his grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky.
“I’m kind of ADHD out here,” he says, by way of an apology for constantly stopping, looking through binoculars and weaving off the path. After having taken his wildlife and conservation biology class out to track porcupines along the Rio Grande, he’s walking back to Albuquerque’s Bosque School. There, he teaches science and also directs the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program, a joint project between the school’s Black Institute for Environmental Studies and the University of New Mexico.
Each year, BEMP involves more than 5,000 K-12 and university students in collecting long-term ecological data from monitoring stations along the Rio Grande. For some Albuquerque kids, BEMP offers their first trip to the Rio Grande.
“They have not spent time learning where they live, who their neighbors are,” Shaw says. “My job is to have kids realize the environment is where you live, where you draw your water.” In other words, “the environment” isn’t something abstract or a place you visit on vacation in a national park. “The environment” is the world all around.
Now, Shaw is trying to reach even more children, as well as their teachers and parents. In 2010, the University of New Mexico Press published Shaw’s book, Eco-Tracking: On the Trail of Habitat Change as part of its Worlds of Wonder series for children. (It’s the first of his books for the series; his next will be about aquatic habitats in the Southwest.)
In Eco-Tracking, he guides young people in becoming citizen scientists—to learn about their environment and share their data with scientists. Activities include mapping neighborhood habitat, building weather stations, making track pits (clearing patches of soil to capture and identify animal tracks) and maintaining field journals. He touches on issues such as climate change and biodiversity, showing how easily scientific concepts can be woven into children’s daily lives. At its core, this is a book that children are meant to bring outside while they explore their habitat.
For Shaw, the essence of science is doing it. Science is like writing, he explains. Students can read the classics and the literary greats, but they don’t learn to write without actually stringing words into sentences and paragraphs. The same is true of science, which teachers should ensure doesn’t intimidate students. “I want my students to be ready for science at the next level; I don’t want them to shut down because it’s hard,” he says. “As a teacher, it’s not my job to make the road smooth for them, but to help them navigate a bumpy road.”
Bumpy roads, of course, are found outside. Whether they are identifying birds for the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, tracking porcupines, sharing their monitoring data with the US Bureau of Reclamation or helping biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service vaccinate captive wolves at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Shaw’s students use scientific methods to better understand the world around them.
“By moving beyond the classroom, I’m helping connect them to the landscape and, hopefully, helping them build a sense of stewardship,” he says, recalling the pair of bald eagles he saw in the bosque before the school day began. When he moved to New Mexico 25 years ago, the chances of seeing a bald eagle were slim. Thanks to national conservation efforts, today, some 300-400 migrate through in the winter.
Back inside the school building, Shaw shows off students’ poster presentations on topics including how wildlife can access habitat across busy roads or through urbanized areas and the impacts of oil and gas development on the rare dunes sagebrush lizard. “Part of being human is being able to engage in multiple disciplines; students shouldn’t have to choose between arts, sciences and languages,” he says, pointing to the photo of a former student who studies dance in college. “I want them all to be scientists, even if they choose to be dancers.” SFR