Seriously Writing the Southwest, Part 1

So, two years into my graduate school experience, I knew I didn’t want to be a “scholar” or a writer of fiction.  Yet I still longed to write.  Then I happened to take a class with “Mike,” a professor of rhetoric and writing, in which the students read and discussed the various styles of contemporary non-fiction writers, including historian Barbara Tuchman; Richard Selzer, who wrote eloquently about surgery; and the popular, if debauched, Hunter S. Thompson.  Mike informed me that I could be awarded a master’s degree in English with a “creative non-fiction” emphasis.  Thus, with his guidance, that of another writing instructor, and that of a professor of “American studies,” I began working toward this goal.

I had my cherished novels―Deliverance, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Brave Cowboy, A Farewell to Arms, Black Robe, A Separate Peace, Wolf Song, Flight from Fiesta―but it was the memoirs, “personal histories,” and essay collections in which land played a central role that I had been increasingly preferring to read.  Deeply familiar with the area, I devoured Hal Borland’s many books about his life in New England’s Housatonic River Valley.  I liked John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, in which he and his dachshund navigated for two weeks in a canoe the Brazos River of Texas, and Gretel Ehrlich’s account of ranching in Wyoming.  I loved The Colorado, Frank Waters’s sprawling overview of the Southwest, including his personal adventures throughout it over many years.                  

Soon I had a plan for a master’s thesis.  In the years following my arrival in New Mexico, I had identifiedto my satisfaction, if not necessarily that of scientists and geographersfive basic landscapes in the state: the shortgrass prairie in the northeast; the Chihuahuan Desert in the south; the Colorado Plateau country in the northwest; the piñon and juniper forests roughly between the 5,000- and 7,000-foot elevations; and the high-elevation forests of ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and spruce.  In the interest of space and time, I decided to devote my thesis to three of those landscapes: desert, plateau, and prairie.  Each discussion would consist of a brief impression of the land―its physical features, but also its peoples, cultures, flora, and fauna―and a much lengthier profile of an individual who resided on that land.  Of course, except for the high-elevation forests, cities of various sizes existed on each of these New Mexico landscapes, but I didn’t care to give much attention to them; I wished to write about the raw and tranquil lands beyond the cities.

Researching New Mexico’s small towns and their sparsely-developed surroundings was   pleasurable.  Finding an individual to profile for each of my chosen landscapes was a challenge.  At the very least, the individual I had in mind had to feel a connection to the land, the deeper the connection the better. 

The first person I profiled I met merely by chance.  To research the Chihuahuan Desert backcountry, I spent several days in early May backpacking in the Big Florida Mountains of southwestern New Mexico.  I took photos and filled my journal with details about canyons, ridges, peaks, trees, birds, flowers, thunderstorms, and, after five years in New Mexico, my first encounter with a rattlesnake. 

Not far from the Big Floridas is Rockhound State Park.  I didn’t know what a “rockhound” is, so, out of curiosity, I stopped at the park, located at the base of the Little Florida Mountains.  After covering the modest park’s loop drive, I entered its headquarters, a small trailer, and met a fellow named Frank, one of the park’s rangers.  He informed me that the park was devoted to the understanding and appreciation of semi-precious gemstones such as agates and geodes. 

Frank looked to be in his late 60’s.  He had a slender Ronald Colman mustache and was deeply and thoroughly tanned―he looked as if he should have been accompanied by embers.  He had a definite Northeast accent, the first I’d heard in years, which, being originally from New Jersey, I found intriguing.  He was relaxed, loquacious, witty, and wildly enthusiastic about gemstones.  I took to him immediately.  After conversing with Frank for 20 minutes, I explained to him what brought me to the Chihuahuan Desert.  I asked if I could profile him for my thesis, and he consented.

 Frank was indeed from the East Coast, up and down it, in fact.  Born in coastal Massachusetts, he lived in Maine for a quarter-century, and then worked in Florida.  Regularly en route to Arizona with his wife to visit his mother-in-law, he would pass a sign on Interstate 10 indicating Rockhound State Park, which always piqued his interest.  After his wife died, and now retired as a radiologic and lab technician, he returned to southwestern New Mexico and paid his first visit to Rockhound.  There, he settled in, camping―that is, sleeping on the seat of his pickup―and prospecting for gemstones at the park and on the surrounding public lands.  Soon, he began volunteering at the park, maintaining its campsites.  By the time I met him, he was a park employee, sleeping in a bedroom of the trailer. 

For three days, two of which were his days off, Frank and I conversed in the trailer; prospected for geodes in a pit southwest of Deming, New Mexico; toured New Mexico’s bootheel; and visited Frank’s pharmacy and favorite bakery just over the border in Palomas, Chihuahua.  Throughout this, I filled my notebook and captured our conversations on a portable tape recorder.  I left Rockhound confident and eager to begin the formal writing of my thesis.  Frank was not a deep man, not a desert mystic or much of a philosopher, but his love for the desert was unquestionable.

After numerous phone calls with acquaintances I’d made at the university and in New Mexico’s environmental advocacy community, I met the next individual who agreed to be profiled―my “plateau” resident.  Jim was a 36-year-old Native American, a member of and resident at Zuni Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico.  The first in his family to attend college, he was degreed in agriculture from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.  Employed by the pueblo, his job was primarily the restoration of Zuni lands.  His focus was erosion caused by years of timber harvesting, firewood collection, and road-building on the reservation.  I engaged him for several days over the span of seven months in his office and in his truck while we toured the backcountry of the reservation.  Among other things, I learned about the construction of small sandstone “check dams” to retard erosion in arroyos.  Jim also described for me the development of “seed banks” for corn, the mainstay of the Zuni diet since time immemorial. 

Jim was soft-spoken, respectful of other cultures―including those of the non-Native―and always cordial.  As a representative of his tribe, he had traveled broadly in the world.  His passion was mountains and their spiritual significance and power.  He liked the music of James Brown.  I’ve never forgotten his observation, “In a hundred years the reservation will still be a safe place, a place we may need to protect even more than we do now. . .  We’ve been here thousands of years, and if the rest of the world’s societies fall apart, we’ll still be here.”  I believed this then, and I certainly believe this today, in the time of Covid-19 and climate change.

Jim was reserved.  Today, I’m not sure if his silence was simply his personality, or caution about revealing too much to me, a non-Zuni.  Prior to considering a profile of him, I wish I had read more carefully Erna Fergusson’s Our Southwest, for in it she observed, way back in 1941, “As a rule the Pueblos are polite to visitors and ready to do business.  But they deal with [non-Native Americans] only at the periphery of their real life.”  Robert Gish echoed this sentiment when, in his 1996 book Beautiful Swift Fox, about late-20th-century New Mexico and Fergusson’s life and literary contributions, he observed: “Today, American Indians speak forcefully against cultural appropriation, and rightly talk much for themselves, and eschew―indeed protest―‘outside’ interpreters, whatever their motive.”  And discussing the 2017 movie Wind River, about a modern-day murder on a Native American reservation, Kevin Noble Maillard, a part-Seminole, part African-American writing in the New York Times, stated, “Marriage, affinity or even lifelong residency may change the white man, but he will always be a foreigner in Indian Country.”  Given all this, today I doubt I’d ever approach a Native American about a profile.

Still, I’ll always be grateful for my experience with Jim.  Extremely grateful: my profile of him resulted in my first piece published in, of all things, a “scholarly” journal!

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