Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 1

During the first few months following my return to Albuquerque, I would regularly drive Central Avenue.  I still liked the thoroughfare’s life, color, laughter, multi-culture, and stop and go.  I still liked the human ripples and echoes of the continent’s first inhabitants, this distinction, as usual, granting no noticeable perks.

But there were times when I didn’t like the street.  Times when I’d gasp and grasp as reckless drivers darted all around me; see the homeless trailing luggage with plastic wheels worn nearly to the axel, filthy sleeping bags over their shoulders; hear the sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, and the horns of angry drivers; stare at the mentally-ill young men, shirtless, sun-slaughtered, wild of hair and eye; see the boarded-up restaurants and the empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, and broken cinder blocks.  Times when, driving, I’d recall what I read in the Albuquerque Journal that morning: another murder, another traffic fatality, another story about the ongoing investigation of the remains of eleven women, many or all of them sex workers, found buried on Albuquerque’s West Mesa―the west mesa that I had romanticized when I arrived in Albuquerque years earlier. 

And my spirits would droop.

But, then, I’d glance upward . . . and be reminded that no matter how intense and dispiriting things got at ground-level Albuquerque, I’d always have the company of that astonishing New Mexico sky.  A sky that, banking off the Sandia Mountains, exploded for a hundred miles in three different directions, suspending mountain and mesa, prairie and plateau.  A sky with a blue so deep it could, in the words of Annie Proulx, drown you.  A sky untouched, unsullied, by the hands and machinations of mortals.    

And, with this heaven in mind, I’d take comfort in the words of essayist Edward Hoagland when, in 1989, he observed that the sky “is left after every environmental mistake, roiling in perpetuity.  We can squint up at that.  Can’t chain-saw or bulldoze it, or buy and sell the clouds, pave them over or dig them up.”

Today, however, a mere seven years after returning to New Mexico, I question, as I suspect Hoagland is now questioning, the shelf life of his assertion.  For today, I believe, we are, in Hoagland’s figurative sense, chain-sawing and bulldozing the sky, and in so doing threatening everything below it.  And this haunts everything I’ve so far written.

To review: Our centuries-long burning of fossil fuels has pumped greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, which is trapping some of the planet’s heat, which is warming the planet. Dangerously.  Average global temperatures since 1880 have increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  The Earth is hotter today than it has been in 1,000 years.  As a result, around the globe, ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking; arctic sea ice is disappearing; droughts, wildfires, and floods have gotten more extreme.  Seeking cooler conditions, wildlife are migrating to higher elevations.

The Southwest has not escaped this threat.  New Mexico journalist Laura Paskus, in her 2020 book At the Precipice, has made this case compellingly, basing, as I have, many of her conclusions on the 2018 “Fourth National Climate Assessment” of the United States Global Change Program. 

The Southwest’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901.  Since the 1970s, the average annual temperature of New Mexico has increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit.  New Mexico is the sixth-fastest-warming state in the nation. 

Then, there’s drought.  Droughts, thought to be largely caused by water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, are normal in the Southwest.  However, since 2000, the Southwest has been in a whopper of a drought, one of the worst in 1,200 years.  Researchers are concluding that global warming is accounting for about 50 per cent of this drought―or, rather, what scientists are now calling this “megadrought.”  Drought of any scale, of course, means less water in our rivers, streams, and soils.  

And drought means an increased threat of wildfires.  In a space of three years, New Mexico has had four devastating forest fires: the Las Conchas fire in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011―156,000 acres burned; the Little Bear fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 2012―44,330 acres; the Whitewater Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico in 2012―300,000 acres; and the Silver fire in the Gila National Forest in 2013―138,000 acres.

Fire season in the West has lengthened by two months.  The week during which I wrote this, hotshots were battling a blaze in the Lincoln National Forest . . . in a snowfall, this weird combination likely a result of New Mexico springtimes becoming warmer earlier.  Thus, snowmelt is peaking in February and March, instead of May and June, when farmers in central and southern New Mexico are needing it to water their crops.

Water tables are dropping across the Southwest, threatening farms and homes.

Hi-intensity fires due to fuel build-up due to a century of fire-suppression are, in Paskus’s words, “cook[ing] the soils,” preventing trees of any kind from returning.

Clearly, Mr. Hoagland, we’re chain-sawing and bulldozing our Southwestern sky.

Paskus gives civilization about a decade to reverse this.  To stop burning fossil fuels.  To stop me from driving three times a week fifty highway miles one way―and burning more than a gallon of regular―in order to pedal my bicycle for sixteen miles on a remote stretch of highway because I like the space, light, peace, and the rare sight of the lone, loping, wayfaring coyote.

A tall order?  As poet James Merrill observed: “Always that same old story― / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks.”

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