It’s a crisp, late fall morning in Santa Fe. Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran lay minister, and I sit side-by-side at his kitchen table. Sometimes we look at one another. But mostly we both look out the picture window. The sky is an iconic cerulean blue, and songbirds flit about the backyard: Birdfeeder to fence post to birdfeeder and hop, hop, around and around again.
More than a decade ago, Rasmussen retired from New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. He and his wife now live off Old Pecos Trail. From this window, they can watch a forest in transition.
Nowadays, that’s how we talk about trees that are dying. Trees that smell like vanilla when you press your face close in warm sunlight. Trees whose sticks and split trunks have been fed for generations into cooking fires and wood stoves. The juniper and piñon wood smoke that wafts through cities and towns today is the same that’s filled the air since Pueblo people settled along the Rio Grande centuries ago.
As the world keeps warming, not all those species will survive. Scientists keep saying this, and even drive-by tourists can see the waves of young oak trees spreading across burned slopes that conifers once dominated. I can’t help but wonder how differently the land will smell when our children’s children inhale; I can’t help but wonder if they’ll ache for something they don’t know is missing.
Scientists say southwestern pine forests will disappear by 2100. Hotter, larger wildfires are partly to blame.
“What do you do with your grief? What do you do with your loss?” Rasmussen asks. “What do we do with species going extinct? What do we do with nude mountains?” We both look out the window again. He’s talking about a wildfire that ripped through the Jemez Mountains a few years earlier.
When the fire ignited on a Sunday in late June, a massive cloud erupted like a thunderhead into the sky above the mountains. Visible more than 50 miles away, that trickster cloud fooled me into thinking the summer’s monsoon season had arrived. In an Albuquerque driveway, my young daughter and I looked north and cheered for the blessing of rain in the dry mountains.
I was wrong.
Rather, there was a fire burning so hot that it had created its own weather above the mountains. When heat rises so fast that winds can’t push the air away, wildfires form a cloud—what’s called a pyrocumulous cloud.
From a distance these sometimes look like mushroom clouds. And they put firefighters, and anyone nearby, in danger. If the columns collapse, the falling air hits the ground and then spreads wildly, pushing the fire in new directions.
Through their Santa Fe kitchen window, Rasmussen and his wife, Nyla, watched the mountains burn. At night, the hulk of the mountains—normally just a crouching dark blankness swallowing the pinpoints of stars—flamed orange.
It’s not that Southwestern forests aren’t supposed to burn. But this fire was different. In its first 14 hours, the Las Conchas fire burned through about one acre a second.
Close your eyes and count to 10. During that time, flames devoured 10 acres. Think of the ponderosa pines and Steller’s jay nests, fox burrows and salamanders obliterated in the time it takes to draw and exhale two breaths.
All told, the fire burned 156,000 acres the summer of 2011.
That was the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history. Until the next year when the Whitewater-Badly Fire burned nearly twice that amount, 297,000 acres, of the Gila National Forest.
In our warmer world, ponderosa pine stands don’t necessarily come back. Instead, they give way to Gambel oak and New Mexico locust. Piñon and juniper trees die off, their hard carcasses thronged by wavy leaf oak and mountain mahogany.
Scientists say Southwestern pine forests will disappear by 2100, and that half the conifers in the Northern Hemisphere will have died by then.
How do we mourn nude mountains?
At my father’s funeral more than three years ago, I realized how much I missed those ceremonies we wrap ourselves in during times of grief or confusion.
At the time, I was 39 years old and had lived more than 2,000 miles from my parents for nearly 20 years. But I’d never been to a funeral without my father. I’d never watched the casket enter a church or sat through a eulogy without placing my hand inside his. Even if we’d argued on our way to the church, I’d position myself next to him during the service, then hang around him and his pals—fellow cops, oftentimes—during the meal afterwards. They’d stand around outside. Tug loose their ties and insult one another. Another ritual.
Is there a way to mourn a river, too?
The Rio Grande runs dry every year when agricultural irrigators divert water.
Two decades ago, two US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists sat behind their office in Albuquerque. Surrounded by boats, trailers, tanks, waders, and all the accoutrements of fisheries biologists, they realized the fate of an entire species rested with them.
"Is there a way to mourn a river, too?"
Historically, the silvery minnow had lived throughout the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Pecos River. About 2,400 miles of habitat. By the time it was protected under the Endangered Species Act, the minnow survived only in a 174-mile stretch of the Rio Grande.
Like many species, the minnow’s demise was linked to human cleverness. In the 20th century, people had tamed, tapped, and engineered the Pecos and the Rio Grande to prevent flooding and deliver water. Their work was so effective that watersheds and riverbeds bowed before miraculous engineering feats. Ecosystems changed. Species disappeared.
The silvery minnow loses habitat every year.
Feeling the tug of moral responsibility for an entire species, the two men convinced their bosses to let them try something different. They started collecting eggs from the river and then raising the fish in a hatchery.
They did that because New Mexico’s largest river could no longer keep a two-inch long fish from going extinct.
Today, the river still dries. And the wild fish population declines.
What do you do with your grief?
At the end of my father’s wake, no one rushes me. Friends and family and police officers look away. They’re ready to walk with the casket from the wake to the church.
But I’m not ready to leave the casket. Not ready for the lid to seal shut. I kneel, pressing my head against the cool metal, and then recoiling at the smell of rot and chemicals.
By the time the pallbearers carry the flag-draped coffin up the steps and into the church, I’ve lost track of whether he’s head or feet first. Incense. Words. Stained glass windows and gold on the altar.
From the church’s front pew, I stumble to the altar in heels and a dark-colored dress, then choke through a reading. At the cemetery, uniformed men and women fire the requisite number of rifle shots. Someone hands my mother the folded American flag. The ancient driver of the hearse blows into a trumpet. In the back of the limousine, I hold my brother’s hand.
For months afterwards, I wonder about decomposition. I imagine that the blue eyes I passed along to my daughter no longer exist within his face. The lips and mouth that look like mine are surely gone. His hand must be desiccated by now.
I keep the rifle shells in a wooden box. But I still don’t know where to put my grief.
Back in Albuquerque, I visit with a biology professor at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico. I’m curious about the Latin American hummingbirds whose evolution he studies.
After talk of jungle mountains, lungs and tiny hearts, Christopher Witt walks me to the back of the museum and slides open a wide, shallow drawer.
There are passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, Ivory-billed woodpeckers, dusky seaside sparrows and Eskimo curlew.
They have no descendants somewhere, preening or molting, blinking their eyes against the rain or singing a morning song. These species are all extinct.
Taxidermied threatened Mexican spotted owls lie next to their extinct cousins in the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico.
Another drawer holds a tray of threatened Mexican spotted owls, their downy white eyelids closed. There are also boxes of Northern aplomado falcons, which were nearly extirpated from the United States by the 1950s. I peer at the tag tied to one falcon’s foot: “Falco Femoralis Septentrionalis. Fort Bayard, New Mexico.” Collected by F Stephens on August 8, 1875.
My eyes water and I look down in shame. I jot notes I can’t actually read. How do you mourn a drawer full of birds?
My father has been dead two years when I return to Connecticut for three summer weeks. After living for almost 20 years in the Southwest, I scoff at the green. The trees crowd out my necessary horizon; I anticipate ticks. But I love getting to know my cousin’s children. I’m secretly pleased when my daughter, brazen like I never was, mouths off to me, then runs into the backyard with her kin.
In the woods beyond my mother’s house, my childhood fort is gone. It’s not that someone scattered the brush and stones and pieces of metal I’d collected and piled. The hillside is gone.
More than a decade ago, a developer blasted the mica-flecked bedrock. When he ran out of money, he abandoned the subdivision. And a backhoe. Now, water fills empty foundations. There are cattails and frogs that disappear in a croaky ripple. An old Christmas tree lies across the road; televisions and suitcases flank it. I poke assorted weird shit with a stick.
Beyond the mess, the forest is thicker than it was decades ago. There are foxes and turkeys, deer and species of birds I don’t remember seeing when I ran around the woods as a kid, tracing stone walls, forever hopeful I’d discover a gateway into another world. That other world might be magical, it might be sinister. Either way, I was ready, pocket knife filched from my dad’s collection.
During one of those last summer nights in Connecticut, I stare up at the stars around the edges of the trees and hear a sound that’s familiar to me only from the West.
Coyotes. At first I think I’m dreaming. I hold my breath and listen. The syncopated stutters carry across the forest from a hillslope away. Past the road cut and powerlines.
When I first started writing about climate change, maybe a decade ago, a scientist told me I shouldn’t worry for the planet. It’s humans who will suffer, he said. The Earth will remain. Species will blink out, evolve, or emerge. Ecosystems will shift. The same geological processes that have been churning the Earth for eons will still shape tomorrow’s landscapes.
The selfish grief I felt over losing my father, and any chance he and I had for understanding one another, has dissipated. In its place, a fiercer love has emerged. For my daughter and my mother. My brother and his family; dear friends and ready allies. For the world we still have. Looking back, I realize that I twisted nostalgia and hope into inaction and despair.
A door has opened on a new world that awaits our children.
Perhaps healing requires grief and mourning. But both those emotions seem like indulgences. And there’s no time for that.
So instead, I wonder about the coming world. Which trees will grow, which birds will have survived. The meaning of shifting cloud formations. I wonder what the world will smell like. Because now, even though it’s been decades since I stopped looking for that gateway in earnest, the door to that new world has opened. And there’s no going back.
Laura Paskus is an independent journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Earlier this year, she completed a year-long reporting project on climate change for
New Mexico In Depth.