The second installment of SFR’s annual writing contest features the winners in the nonfiction and poetry categories. With a nod to one of 2012’s biggest news stories, we asked the nonfiction writers to expound upon the subject of drought—literally, metaphorically or however they could envision it. Poets were asked to use the phrase “It’s a trap!” as their starting point, and the three winners (as poets are wont to do) offered us no shortage of imagination.
2012 Writing Contest Winners
Sperber is a writer and editor living in Eldorado, whose fantastical
stories have appeared in Gargoyle, Hunger Mountain, Moon Milk Review and
elsewhere. Look for the upcoming issue of EcoSource: A Guide to
Sustainability in Action, where she highlights public transportation’s
gifts and Santa Fe’s resources. For editing and tutoring, you can reach
her at email@example.com.
A Santa Fe long-timer, Sally Rodgers draws on more than 40 years of environmental and social justice advocacy in her writing. She is working on two books: a young adult adventure novel about global warming, and a fact-based, science fiction thriller that intertwines invasive species and genetic engineering with the corrupting influences of corporate empires in politics. Her life is full of blessings—biological and adopted children and grandchildren, good friends, good animals, organic homegrown fruit and veggies and the sustaining wonders of nature.
When he’s not creating or promoting his art displayed at Dinosaurs and More, a local meteorite and fossil gallery, Doug Bootes can be found with family, gardening or meditating with the cats that share his studio. He has written a novel, several short stories and a backpack full of poems while studying creative writing at SFCC.
Ben Saucier is from Sarasota, Florida. He studied journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. He lives in Santa Fe with his wonderful girlfriend, where he cooks to pay the bills and paints/writes to ease his soul.
Paula Nixon lives in Santa Fe with her husband and two cats and loves exploring the Southwest. She finds writing to be the best way to understand life as well as being a great excuse to ask questions. She is honored to be among the winners of the Santa Fe Reporter’s 2012 writing contest.
Jenn Messier: I am a mid-30s mama from bitter-cold Maine. I came to Santa Fe randomly chasing some sun. Now I’m off to Hawaii ’cause I’m craving water and that’s where the daddy got a new job. I have been secretly pursuing art for a while now, and also the mystery of life. It ain’t here. Just kidding, take care Santa Fe.
Cynthia Broshi recently returned to New Mexico after nearly 40 years in the San Francisco Bay area. As well as practicing poetry and visual arts, she teaches Jin Shin Jyutsu, a hands-on art of harmonizing energy flow in the body (broshijsj.net). She lives with her husband near Cerrillos.
Daniel Bohnhorst studies poetry at Pacific University, and repairs string instruments at the Violin Shop of Santa Fe. He recently appeared in Poesía de México, the ninth production in Teatro Paraguas’ Poetry Tribute series. He can be found contra dancing at the Odd Fellows Hall on Cerrillos Road.
A painter as well as a poet, Judith Toler has been an editor, an English professor and a faculty union organizer. She started writing poetry after retiring and moving to New Mexico. Since then, her poems have won several awards and have appeared in over 15 publications. She recently completed her first collection of poems, In the Shine of Broken Things.
The Great American Drought
by Ben Saucier
The morning sun pounded against the asphalt. Casey and I sat at a red light in Hadley, Massachusetts. The air outside stank of car exhaust and cow manure. I rolled up the passenger side window.
The tiny blue Corolla was filled with all our earthly possessions: a suitcase of books, two duffle bags of clothes, several backpacks, and various assorted snacks. My knees rested against the glove compartment. Our two bicycles hung on a rack strapped to the trunk.
It was late August during a very hot and dry summer in the United States of America. The abnormally arid conditions have been blamed on a weak winter. The extreme lack of snow across most of the country limited the amount of melt water that was absorbed by the soil. The result has been oppressive heat and barren soil.
July was the hottest month on record. By Aug. 2, the federal government declared over 1,600 counties across 36 states natural disaster zones, and the House of Representatives approved over $383 million in emergency drought aid for farmers and livestock producers.
In the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, however, all was well. The rain fell, the soil was fertile and the corn grew tall. The traffic light turned green and we drove down Route 9 towards the Connecticut River.
We reached the Calvin Coolidge Bridge and crossed the river. I took one long last look. The water shined cerulean blue under the midday sun and the valley’s green hills rested gently on the horizon.
After the bridge, we merged onto state road 91, headed south to US 90 West and the beginning of a long road to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Our bikes rattled. So did the engine. The afternoon traffic, mostly truckers, rushed past as the Corolla chugged along in the right lane. We were somewhere in upstate New York. We had been driving for close to six hours.
On the right was a Lockheed Martin facility. It had a giant parking lot that protected by barbed wire, cameras, and floodlights. Next to it was an abandoned silo, rusting in the sun.
Buffalo’s skyline peeked over the horizon. A few smokestacks and a fistful of dairy buildings. The highway swelled to five lanes. We sat in traffic and waited to pay a toll.
It would be an hour before we reached the Pennsylvania state line and another three until we managed to reach Cleveland at the height of rush hour on a Friday night.
We sat in traffic. Advertisements everywhere. My eyes wandered. Beyond the haze of car exhaust and the smog of the city was Lake Erie. Its deep blue water sparkled, reflecting the twilight sun.
Casey suggested finding a hotel outside of the city. We exited the highway after about 400 miles and were greeted with the usual American sprawl: Olive Garden, Taco Bell, Perkins, Shell, Burger King, Citgo, Dunkin Donuts, Super 8 and Motel 6.
It was all so familiar, like we never left.
We chose the Motel 6. The girl working the front desk was outside smoking a Black N’ Mild and talking on her phone. She frowned and put out her smoke.
The room wasn’t terrible. It smelled like cleaning solution. Casey sat on the bed and opened her computer. She searched for apartments. I opened my camera bag and retrieved a bottle of bourbon. I poured some in a tiny complementary plastic cup and walked outside.
I soaked in the glorious suburbs of Cleveland. The sun was rested low and cast the final light of day. I leaned against the second story awning of the motel and looked over a very busy Taco Bell. The drive through was crammed with hungry customers maneuvering large vehicles.
As they shouted orders into a box, a few employees snuck out to the dumpster to smoke cigarettes.
That night I dreamed of the desert. I had never seen it before. I imagined it was like the surface of Mars.
Casey was up with the sun and organizing the room. She got me out of bed around 8 am. My head ached and we stopped for coffee taking State Highway 71 due south toward Columbus.
The sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight. The effects of the great American drought were clear in rural Ohio. The corn was plentiful but dead, like tombstones along the highway. Vast acres of barren brown fields.
A few months ago, the USDA was expecting a record year for corn production. Corn is America’s cash crop. Each year, the government spends roughly $5 billion subsidizing corn farmers, regardless of market price or yields.
At the junction in Columbus we headed west again. The next city was over 200 miles away: Indianapolis. Until then, it would be more of the same: withered crops in dry fields.
We crossed the border into Indiana and were greeted by billboards telling us to repent. Jesus is real, a sign proclaimed. A large steel cross sat in the middle of a construction sight. Recently, temperatures in Indiana had reached 106° F.
The endless fields of dead corn only intensified as we made our way towards the Mississippi. Casey, who had some experience with farming, was rooting for the crops, pointing out what healthy fields she could find. But they were all heavily irrigated, a short-term solution that has its own set of consequences.
We reached Indianapolis and the highway curved around the city center. From the road, we could see the brand new Lucas Oil Stadium. The home of the Colts cost over $700 million to build. Lucas oil, a manufacturer and distributer of automobile oil, purchased the naming rights for $121 million.
Casey was hungry. We hadn’t eaten since we left the motel. We stopped outside the city, in a web of corporate sprawl and chose Arby’s. The chicken was deep fried in old oil and would sit in my stomach for the rest of the drive.
The United States corn yields represent over 40 percent of the global harvest and are valued at over $70 billion. Over 96 million acres were planted in 2012—half of which is now deemed poor or very poor. Corn is used for everything, from feeds to ethanol, and is a primary export. This year’s shortage is expected to drive up food costs dramatically for 2012. Prices of beef, poultry and pork could rise 4-5 percent. Eggs, milk and other dairy products are projected to increase by around 3.5 percent. Other crops, such as soybeans, wheat and cotton, were also heavily affected by the severe drought.
It was late afternoon when we reached Illinois. Grey clouds hung in the sky but the air outside was still warm and dry. We were listening to a local country radio station. A song called “Rain Is a Good Thing” came on, and the chorus stated: “Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey / Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky.” Amen, brother, I thought to myself.
In 2011, Illinois produced approximately 1.9 billion bushels of corn—the second-largest amount of any state. The state receives the second most federal money in direct subsidies, with over $320 million in 2011 alone. The road was quiet and wide open, besides for sporadic packs of semis. The scenery was becoming all too familiar, acres upon acres of withered brown corn. The rain clouds teased us with a few drops, but it never fell.
We closed in on the Mississippi and the grass looked greener. The sky was neutral grey and the clouds persisted. Before the mighty river, signs advertised the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, home to the largest prehistoric archaeological site this side of Mexico. The 80 mounds, covering 2,200 acres, are remnants of civilizations past. I viewed them for the road, a chilling reminder that nothing last forever.
The land will remain, with or without us.
Past the mounds and beyond the clouds, I could see the Gateway arch highlighting the St. Louis skyline. A cast iron bridge spanned the Mississippi. From the bridge, I took a long look at the river. It was spanned by power lines and lined with industry. But the water was low and sandy banks were exposed. The river was at its most shallow depths in decades. Suddenly, the mighty muddy didn’t look so mighty. As we sat in traffic on the bridge, a few lonely raindrops hit the windshield.
We spent the night in a youth hostel near downtown and when morning came we were back on the road.
Missouri was particularly bleak. The sky remained a lifeless grey, and the highway twisted through the state. The drought had been rough on Missouri: more than 25 people have died from heat-related deaths, and every county in the state has been declared primary natural disaster areas. In Truxton, Mo., state officials have been desperately drilling for water hoping to find new wells to provide relief for parched constituents.
Tensions between us were building. It had been three days of nonstop driving and very close quarters. The road was testing us. Today was our hump day. We had to keep pushing.
We stopped at a gas station, somewhere in the center of the state. I got out and stretched, Casey went inside to use the restroom. An Asian man was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot. He noticed my shirt, which advertised the University of New Mexico. You got a long way to go, he said, smiling.
But not that long. Soon we would reach Oklahoma, driving along the highway that was once known as the Trail of Tears. The colors of the earth changed, dominated by red clay and orange rock. Acres of scorched dead trees served as a reminder of the vicious wildfires that swept the state earlier this year—another chilling side effect of the great American drought of 2012. Signs along the highway warned drivers not to drive into smoke.
We stopped in Tulsa. We could have kept pushing but we decided to give ourselves a break. I picked a Super 8 outside of town. It had an indoor pool. We both had a long swim and tried to relax.
The next morning, the Oklahoma sun was oppressive. It was well over 100 degrees.
Casey complained about the heat. You’d better get used to it, I told her, it won’t be any better in New Mexico. It would, she assured me. Santa Fe was in the mountains. It would be cooler than this viscous heat.
I hoped she was right. I had never been there before, but I was excited. Today was our last day on the road. We would be there in 12 hours.
We passed Oklahoma City and my excitement grew as we approached the Texas border. To my surprise, the horizon was crowded with windmills. A nice gesture, I thought, but it might be too little, too late.
No corn fields here. Instead, the landscape was dominated by the natural gas industry. Pipe compressors, refineries and drilling rigs replaced the endless cornfields of the Midwest. The machinery dug into the red earth.
The road was long and empty. Large billboards would occasionally advertise an authentic Indian gift shop or the occasional McDonalds. Just past noon, we crossed into Texas.
Welcome to Texas, a sign read, Drive Friendly. The immensity of space was overwhelming as we drove through the canyons of northern Texas. We passed through Amarillo and by more windmills, next to massive cattle farms. Flat and dry, empty countryside.
Finally, after 2,000 miles, a turquoise sign welcomed us to the Land of Enchantment and the landscape changed again. This was the desert I had been waiting for. The rocky mesas proudly dotted the horizon. The land embraced the dryness, weathered the drought and had made do with what little water it had.
The road to Santa Fe was one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery I had seen in this country. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains welcomed us to our new home.
We finally parked, a block from the Plaza. I stretched and took in everything: the light, the architecture, and the smell of roasted green chiles. I saw a sign for the Santa Fe River and walked towards it.
There was no water, only rocks.
The Missing Wolves
by Paula Nixon
Wolves had been absent from the Southwest for decades when I moved to New Mexico in 1997. I had never heard of the Mexican gray wolf but, like its counterpart in Yellowstone, it had been shot, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction. Before I had finished unpacking I began to hear about plans to reintroduce a small population of the lobos, as they are known in Spanish, into their historical habitat. I ignored the story.
Environmentalists cheered and ranchers protested when the first wolves were released into the Blue Range wilderness in Arizona near the New Mexico border in March 1998. I didn’t consciously follow the story, but as the months went on it was hard not to hear the latest news: camper shoots wolf; New Mexico governor opposes wolf program; office of animal rights group is target of gunfire. I tried to tune it out.
Things calmed down after the first two or three years of the initial reintroduction. Lawsuits were filed by both sides and wolves were still being shot, but some of them began to thrive, learning to hunt deer and elk, whelping and raising litters in the wild. Maybe they did have a chance at success, but I didn’t want to watch too closely.
More years passed and, by the end of 2009, there were four packs living in Arizona and five in New Mexico, with a total of 42 known wolves, far below the original goal of 100. On a trip to Albuquerque, I stopped by the zoo to get a look at a lobo.
The Albuquerque BioPark participates in the breeding program that established a population of Mexican gray wolves for reintroduction. On the day I visited sparrows flitted around the branches of a large cottonwood in the wolf habitat which is situated below the viewing area. I could hear a dog barking in the distance. Most of the other visitors spent a few seconds looking for the wolves and then moved on. It took me a few minutes to spot them on the opposite side of the enclosure, lounging on top of their den. Too far away to get a good look, I continued to watch and wait.
My patience paid off. One of the wolves got up to patrol his territory and trotted around the perimeter passing a few feet below where I was standing. He was smaller than I imagined with long legs; a thick, multi-colored coat; and a distinctive masked face. Signs next to the viewing area provided a brief overview of the history of the lobo and recommended books and websites for more information.
I started with David E Brown’s The Wolf in the Southwest, which exhaustively details the extirpation of the wolves; I moved on to the more hopeful The Return of the Mexican Gray Wolf by Bobbie Holaday, which lays out the long road to reintroduction and the role private citizens played in making it happen. I searched the internet for all of the news that I had missed, and downloaded and studied government reports: the recovery plan, the environmental impact study and annual progress reports.
The Bluestem Pack
Every month, US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) publishes a project update detailing the status of each of the packs. Most of the wolves wear radio telemetry collars, and weekly monitoring flights track their whereabouts. Even though there were less than 50 wolves when I started reading the monthly updates in 2010, it was hard to keep all of them straight. I needed one pack to follow, and I found it when I discovered Female (F) 521. By the time I started to read about her, she was 13 years old and was running along the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
Going back through years of monthly and annual reports, I was able to piece together the history of the female wolf and her pack. Della Garelle, the director of conservation at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs; Susan Dicks, a wildlife biologist with FWS in Albuquerque; and Adriane Ragan, public affairs officer with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Springerville, Ariz., answered my questions and helped me fill in the blanks.
F521 was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 1997, in the newly constructed habitat called Wolf Woods. Zookeepers named her Estrella, which means star in Spanish, and Garelle told me the pups were a hit with visitors. In 1999, Estrella was selected for the reintroduction program and was moved to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in western New Mexico.
At Sevilleta, wolves have minimal contact with humans; no visitors are allowed. Estrella was identified only by the stud book number assigned to her at birth, F521. She was paired with the male wolf M507, and they lived together in a large fenced enclosure. In the spring of 2000, they had their first litter of pups. Dicks described how biologists and other staff use binoculars and scopes to observe wolves from a blind on a hill to determine how well they bond, raise their pups and interact with the pack, trying to determine which ones are the best candidates for reintroduction. The wolves eat a specially formulated diet that is supplemented with deer and elk roadkill when it is available.
After the pair had their second litter of pups in 2002, they were selected for release. In June, the alpha pair—along with two of the offspring from their first litter and the five new pups—were given physical exams, outfitted with radio collars (except for the new pups) and trucked to a remote mountain meadow in the ASNF.
Placed in a mesh pen, the newly dubbed Bluestem Pack chewed their way out the same day. The staff monitoring the newly released pack must have watched and waited with bated breath. For all they had learned about this family of wolves at Sevilleta, there was no way to know how they would react once released. Would they stay together? Would the adults be able to feed and protect the young? Would they learn to hunt deer and elk, or would they be tempted to chase cows? As a precaution, they provided supplemental food.
The Bluestem Pack got off to a rocky start when they killed a blue heeler and two cows and had to be hazed away from a ranch. But by September, the pups were spotted snoozing on a boulder above a wolf-killed elk. At year’s end, seven of the original nine pack members survived in the wild.
The next spring, F521 gave birth to her first litter of wild-conceived and wild-born pups. The pack established a territory near the Black River close to the border of the ASNF and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. They hunted elk and stayed away from cows. The next two years were much the same, with new litters each spring. Not all of the pups survived, and some dispersed, joining other packs or forming new ones.
M507 was found dead in June 2006. The pups of the year were a few weeks old, but were probably weaned. With the help of her older offspring, F521 managed to raise the pups. By the end of the year, she had a new mate: M806.
The new alpha pair had pups in 2007, but F521 was 10 years old, and it would be her last litter. She stayed with the pack through 2008 and, for the first time in six years, they killed a cow. Sometime in 2009, F521 dispersed from the Bluestem Pack. F1042, one of her offspring from a litter with her original mate, replaced her as the alpha female.
F521 sometimes traveled by herself and other times with the Fox Mountain wolves—probably as a companion pack, according to Dicks. Garelle was planning a trip to New Mexico late in 2010 to try to get a look at F521 when she got word that the old wolf had been shot. Skinny and not as fast on her feet as she used to be, F521 might have been mistaken for a coyote, but we will probably never know for sure.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the forest, M806 and F1042 were showing their newest offspring, F521’s grand-pups, how to chase down elk.
A Trip to Wolf Country
In mid-September, I took a trip to the White Mountains of Arizona. Although the monsoons had come through with less than normal rainfall, wildflowers were in full bloom. Lemonweed and ragweed bahia formed a red and yellow carpet around burned-out stands of pine trees. The 2011 Wallow fire had hit the area hard, and the Bluestem Pack’s denning area had been directly impacted. They survived with the help of a food cache provided by the wolf recovery team. At the end of 2011, the pack had four known members: the alpha pair and two pups.
In July, M806 was found dead in the Bluestem Pack’s traditional territory. His death is under investigation by law enforcement. F1042 continues to travel and take care of five pups born in the spring. In the days before my trip, the pack was reported to be nine miles east of Big Lake in the ASNF.
It was sunny and warm the day I visited Big Lake, with just a few fisherman and campers around. Yellow-tinged leaves on aspen trees shivered in a light breeze. The fire-risk dial was pointed at low, but other signs warned of danger in the burned forest in windy or rainy conditions. Huge ponderosa pines and Douglas firs seemed unscathed by the fire and, at 400 or 500 years of age, they would have been standing when wolves originally roamed the area.
Back at the lodge in Greer it was a dark, moonless night. The temperature dropped to the mid-30s; I slept under a blanket with the window open, hoping to hear elk bugling or wolves howling. It was quiet all night, but I liked knowing that out there, somewhere, the wolves were running.
Near the end of Brown’s book, he asks “Cannot we, who find our challenges in the frontier outdoors, afford a few wolves…? “
I hope so.
by Jenn Messier
Santa Fe entrapped me. First it was a boy: we were both frigid, flooded from our circumstances, from our home in the Northeast. I had followed him here; then it was the illusion of enlightenment among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—the magical light, the sun, the warmth, etc.—and ever since I made the choice to call Santa Fe my home, I’ve been drying up slowly. Eleven and a half years; I feel like an old woman now. What has my life meant?
Was it my childhood, one that was rife with alcoholic neglect and abuse and eating disorders and sadness, my parents, family that I was running away from or a personality flaw that I didn’t have the skills, the right attitude to take care of myself? Anyway...
During those 11.5 years, I made babies with another alcoholic—more drunken neglect and the continuation of my own self-imposed abuse due to learned behavior. And now Santa Fe is getting on my nerves. I could go on and on for another 1,000 words about what is wrong with this area of the country, how it isn’t a good place to raise a family, but I think it’d fall on deaf ears—other than those in hiding and looking for water, too. The fantasy (“Fanta Se”) has worn off. I’ve long been dehydrated here and didn’t know it.
I’m definitely experiencing a drought of myself, of life. Being a non-Native student of IAIA here, I’ve learned of Indian tribes and how they’ve evolved their identity according to the environment that they interact with. So I can have some compassion for our situation out here in the desert, how the citizenship of Santa Fe is as a whole experiencing a drought within and causing this unbalance of how we behave with each other, this rude woo-woo thirst. Drinking water is cosmic, and not going to alleviate the problem.
I probably would have kept surviving this way, with my margarita cocktail of entitlement and self-flagellation. But I had a tragic accident this summer due to a freak accident (but the drivers here in this God-propagated town—rather than a God-forsaken one—are impolite anyway). Rather than a bad driver, it was a girl having a seizure who hit me on my bike, and I almost died. I felt the hand of the cosmos inside of me telling me to wake up! That I needed to give myself the water I needed, that I needed to leave the desert. I’ve done my penance; it’s time to leave the skeletons.
by Cynthia Broshi
Against the shower wall I caught a tiny spider
in a shot glass. Semi-transparent, burnt umber, she struggled
on orange-gold soft of the giant webbing moth
pictured in an ad for pheromone traps. From West, South,
now North: October winds. You are my Moon the singer calls, Sees
the One the heart answers. Even if, in lifetimes, longing’s
accrued—even if, in generosity, life pours forth—I search
in stone for positions of Light. Little All-Legs, whipped in, out, past
the juniper’s arms—
Lying Awake at Valles Caldera
by Daniel Bohnhorst
You took from the high shelf a jar
labeled Desert Rain
and watered the first seed
to bed here after the eruption
Millennia later, I lie awake
in the tall grass of this crater
while October nears, and clouds
half-cover the harvest moon
There is a cavern in me
deep as the magma pool
whose pressure opened this valley
where I lay my head
And there are nights I fear
what peace I have is only
a delicate silk that lies above
kindling about to ignite
Shutting the Trap of a Noisy Cat in the Voice of the Duke of Ferrara after Bobby Browning
by Judith Toler
That’s Cleopatra, my last cat, curled
upon the sofa,
looking as if she were alive. I call
that pose a wonder now.
Cost a million lira and four months time:
stuffed, frozen solid, vaporized, but
worth every cent.—See how gracefully
her tail curves round her body, head
resting on delicate paws outstretched,
eyes made of marbles, still bright blue,
pink nose airbrushed.
A well-born Siamese, she mewed too much.
Freeze dried forever—would you like to pet her?
Gabe Gomez is a poet and music critic. He holds a BA in creative writing from the College of Santa Fe and an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. Gabe has taught at the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, and the College of Santa Fe. His first poetry collection The Outer Bands was awarded the 2006 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize by the University of Notre Dame Press. His new poetry collection The Seed Bank was recently published by Mouthfeel Press. Gabe is the Director of Communications for St. John’s College and was recently appointed to the Santa Fe Arts Commission.
SFR’s editorial staff judged the fiction and nonfiction entries.