September 4, 2012

The Character of Scenery

At the beginning of May I was offered – and accepted – a 6-month volunteership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alpine, Arizona, working on the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Project. Mexican Gray Wolves are the most genetically distinct sub-species of North American wolf, and like the California Condor, they have been brought back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding, begun in the late seventies. In 1998, the first Mexican Wolves were re-released into the American southwest. Currently there are at least 60 wild wolves in eleven packs spread out across the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. For more information about the project, go to My job is to gather on-the-ground information about the movement and doings of wolves in New Mexico, which is accomplished through radio telemetry of collared animals, the location of track and sign, and the use of game cameras. I am also involved in efforts to locate and trap uncollared wolves and this year’s pups. 

Wolf print
It is an amazing opportunity to learn the skills of large carnivore conservation and to explore a completely new landscape with new flora and fauna.
    As I have had more and more opportunities to do this throughout my life, and have been exposed to the thoughts of others on the same topic, a pattern to the process of forming a relationship with a place has emerged.

All is unknown, overwhelming, impressions are general, details float and disappear without a framework, aesthetic impressions fall into easy categories.

A  portion of a map at a kiosk along the Pacific Crest Trail.  

It begins with stepping wide-eyed from the plane or car or train to this new place for the first time. I remember stepping out of the tiny airport in Show Low, Arizona, and being struck foremost by the wonderful and completely unfamiliar smell, and then by the dry hot texture of the air on my skin.

Charles Darwin wrote:

“But there is a growing pleasure in comparing the character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty.”                        

I had in my head many “images” of the Southwest which were just that – pictures, not memories. They had no dimension of sensation behind them. Images such as cactuses, cowboys, red-rock towers, coyotes howling with head thrown back. Each of us has a collection of these sort of clip-art ideas about any given place. It is not until we really visit, and for more than twenty minutes (which is, sadly, the average length of a stay at the Grand Canyon) that these begin to be replaced by actual smells, sensations, textures, and views. Our understanding of that place changes from a story written by someone else to a story written by us. And at the same time, there is pleasure to be found in actually seeing the real-life versions of our mental pictures: the prickly pears and cholla scattered across dry south-facing slopes, range riders who walk into the office with spurs jangling, the dust-colored coyotes flitting between ochre bluffs. 

A saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert. This large plant could be nearly 200 years old.
Time and effort is put into acquiring relevant knowledge: names, maps, places, dates, leaf shapes, bird calls, property lines.

The handful of preconceived notions I had about the southwest are, of course, vastly outnumbered by all the things, large and small, which are entirely new to me, and which, learned bit by bit, let me see the true character of the country. My daily morning walks along the dirt road where I came to know the traveling habits of the local raccoon. Finally identifying the mockingbird as the owner of those white-flashing wings. Noticing the raw and ragged ravines through which the stormwater scours, washing away the tawny soil. Marking the phenology of the wildflowers springing up, saturated with color, from the hillsides. All these are things which I saw in my first days, but which, like people as yet unknown to me, did not register upon my awareness. It is as Goethe said:

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.  

I have watched with fascination this growing comprehension in myself as the weeks pass here. I begin to note the “new eyes” with which I see the landscape – eyes for differentiating tracks, ears which catch even the faintest blip from a distant radio collar, a nose for differentiating baits, a sense for calculating how a radio signal might bounce. 

Arizona Centaury, Centaurium calycosum

As I learn more about the history of grazing, fire, and erosion in this place, the names and habits of plants and animals, and the history of the people – Apache, Euroamerican, Mormon – my understanding of, and response to, a view or object which upon arrival would have elicited nothing more in me than perhaps the simple visual pleasure of a tangle of organic forms, now brings forth much more: interest, history, pleasure, and, sadly, often disgust. Well, perhaps that is too strong a word. But certainly a feeling that, somehow, things are not as they should be.

As the big picture begins to fall into place, all the instances of loss make themselves known – patterns of cultural subjugation, erosion, extinction, greed.

Morenci Mine, the largest copper-mining operation in North America. This photo shows about 1/5 of the operations. I passed it on a weekend trip to Tucson.

I know that nature (and people) are ever-changing and do not adhere to some static “balanced” form. There is no cosmic rule-book which delineates the “proper” form of the southwest ecosystem. And yet I refuse to accept the idea that the transformation of a small river valley from a green, willow-shaded idyll to a denuded, massively-eroded wash should be viewed with indifference. My trailer, in the Alpine Ranger District Administrative Site of the Forest Service, clings to the foothills of a collection of prominences which rise quickly northward to the summit of Escudilla Mountain. It was here that the last grizzly in Arizona resided, before it was killed, leaving Escudilla, in Aldo Leopold’s words, “only a mountain now.” Leopold spent the early part of his career working for the Forest Service in the southwest, and it is what he saw there that began, gradually but inexorably, to shape his thoughts and beliefs away from the doctrines of the time and into his classic vision expressed in A Sand County Almanac. He wrote:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

This statement has often come to mind as I have pondered the struggles between conservationists and landowners in the southwest. To the eyes of a rancher, the sight of a field dotted with sagebrush, juniper, and cows, evinces satisfaction and prosperity. An ecologist might look at the same scene and see invasive species usurping native ones, transforming what was once a lush grama grass meadow maintained by fire to a weedy over-grazed wasteland. Both of these views may have some truth in them, for the cows feed both the rancher’s family and America’s insatiable lust for burgers, and the evidence is clear that the simultaneous dramatic increase in grazing pressure and the complete suppression of all fires following Euroamerican colonization are responsible for major changes in the flora, fauna, and even topography of the area. Similarly, the rancher views the wolf as an unwanted threat to cows, elk, and even human beings, whereas a supporter sees the return of a majestic creature to its natural home. 

One of a handful of similar anti-wolf signs throughout the recovery area.

Integration / Re-enchantment
As a deeper, more complex understanding of the place is gained, the functional relationships between the various parts and pieces begin to come clear. The dots, so to speak, get connected, and in doing so, a new awareness of the vitality, ingenuity, and beauty of the place begins to eclipse the dismay.

A butterfly attracted to the moisture in a coyote scat.

It may be true that an observant eye and a taste for understanding connections (which is, after all, the basis of an ecological education) may leave one saddened by human thoughtlessness, but I think Leopold would have been equally accurate had he written that one of its gifts is that one lives in a world of wonders. As my understanding of this place has deepened, I am more and more frequently brought to a standstill by something fascinating or beautiful or odd – a track in the dust, the sudden surge of wooly bear caterpillars, the sunset light on canyon strata.

Finally, and particularly if one is actively working for and with this place, a new sense of possibility is gained – the past, of course, cannot be changed, but the future is wide open, and one can envision it wholly and well.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
            ~ Rachel Carson

Twice now I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and see a wild Mexican Wolf going about its life – taking a cooling dip in a pond, trotting eastward through the pines. In these moments, I do not feel some vast surge of emotion or lofty thought, but something better: the feeling that nothing exists in the universe – no politics, no dilemmas, nothing – except the wolf,  which draws around itself a tiny vivid orbit of light on vegetation, moving air, and my gratefully astonished gaze.

As far as we know, this isn't a pack's territory...yet.