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Penultimate: Fire or Nice

During the first few months following my return to Albuquerque, I would frequently drive Central Avenue, old Route 66, the Mother Road. I still loved the thoroughfare’s life, color, laughter, multi-culture, and leisurely pace.  I still loved observing the human ripples and echoes of the continent’s first inhabitants, though this distinction was still granting them no obvious perks.

But then there were the times when I’d gasp as reckless drivers darted all around me; see the homeless, filthy sleeping bags over their shoulders, trailing luggage with plastic wheels worn nearly to the axel; stiffen with the piercing sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, and horns of angry drivers; stare in disbelief at the mentally-ill young men of all races and ethnicities, shirtless, sun-slaughtered, wild of hair and eye, ranting and raving; see the boarded-up restaurants and the empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, and broken cinder blocks.    

A quarter-century earlier, I would have likely dismissed all of this with an I’m-young-and-in-love-and-in-New-Mexico-for-the-first-time “That’s cool.”

But now these things just depressed me.

So, once again, 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 remarkable New Mexico sky.  A sky that, banking off the Sandia Mountains, exploded for a hundred miles in three different directions, suspending mountain, mesa, and plain, and a vanishing westbound freight train.  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 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 would now question, 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.  The Earth is hotter today than it has been in one thousand 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 since 1901.  Since the 1970’s, the average annual temperature of New Mexico has increased by 2 degrees.  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 percent 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 burned; the Whitewater Baldy fire in southwestern New Mexico in 2012―300,000 acres burned; and the Silver fire in the Gila National Forest in 2013―138,000 acres burned.

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.

High-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, Edward 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 50 highway miles one way―and burning more than a gallon of regular―in order to pedal my bicycle for 16 miles on a remote stretch of highway because I like the space, light, peace, and the rare sight of the lone, loping, wayfaring coyote.  Again, no one is immune.

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

But if we don’t reverse?

In A Great Aridness, William deBuys paints a bleak picture of the world, including the Southwest, should global warming not be rigorously addressed.  “If present trends of carbon pollution hold steady,” he warns, the temperature increase for parts of the Southwest “could amount to 8°F . . . by the end of the century.”  Paskus, only slightly less gloomy, estimates a 4- to 6-degree increase.  Generally speaking, observes deBuys, across the planet, unless we put the brakes on climate change, “wet places will become wetter; dry places, like the Southwest, drier.”  Thus, referring to the findings of Jonathan Overpeck, today a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, deBuys writes, “Climate change . . . will produce winners and losers.”  Then, he quotes Overpeck himself: “[I]n the Southwest we’re going to be losers.  There’s no doubt.”

If we don’t cease global warming, our high-elevation forests of conifer, spruce, and aspen, and our lower-elevation woodlands of piñon and juniper―the floors of both now clogged with dead wood, grass, and brush; that is, fuel―will experience more, and more severe, wildfires that will cook more soils.  If the burned forests regenerate at all, due to a warming climate they will not return as we have known them.  The tall, dark conifers that today sough in the wind―in Frank Waters’s words, “that immemorial sound of solitude which is as comforting to the mountain-born as the murmur of sea to the seafolk”―will be replaced by Gambel oak, locust, and aspen.  The piñon and juniper woodlands, meanwhile, will be replaced by oak, mountain mahogany, and brush.  Shade, is that you?

More charred landscapes will mean more erosion and flooding.

The Rio Grande―in Paskus’s words “already a climate casualty in New Mexico”―will have a snow supply reduced by 67 percent, which will in turn reduce a spring and summer supply of water to New Mexico’s farms and homes by 95 to 100 percent.  The Colorado River will likely see a 30 percent decrease in flow by 2050 and a 50 percent decrease by 2100.  What threatens the Colorado also threatens the San Juan River, a Colorado tributary.  Water is piped from the San Juan to New Mexico’s Rio Chama, which empties into the Rio Grande.  Deny the Great River liquid and its water table will drop.  Should it drop to more than 10 feet below its surface, the cottonwoods cushioning its banks that I so admired when I first moved to Albuquerque will wither and die.

Increased warming and drought will affect the Indigenous nations of the Southwest, threatening their forests and grasslands with wildfire, and threatening the conditions necessary for them to grow their traditional foods.

Risks to health will increase.  Those who cannot afford air-conditioning may die of heat prostration.  Increased dust will imperil those with respiratory ailments.

Vanishing surface and groundwater will mean no more agriculture along the Rio Grande.  Will you trust a chile pepper grown in Saskatchewan?

New Mexico, historically afflicted with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, teenage failure to take responsibility for teenage pregnancy, and political corruption, may find that climate change worsens these scourges.

And, of course, there’s desertification.  Sand, and more sand.  On this topic, I e-mailed David Gutzler, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.  Given that I had once lived in the Chihuahuan Desert, I asked him:  If we fail to address climate change, will Albuquerque and its surroundings look like the Chihuahuan Desert city of El Paso and its arid, harsh Franklin Mountains?  Gutzler’s slightly oblique reply was: “In fact, if we extrapolate the sort of century-scale trends in climate projected by models out to 2100, it turns out that the average temperature and precipitation in Albuquerque becomes very similar to present-day El Paso.  I’ve made this point in public presentations by showing photos of the Franklin Mountains above El Paso, which really are very nice for hiking . . .  But there are no trees to speak of in the Franklins [my italics].”  I took this as a “yes,” and imagined the Sandia and Manzano mountains sun-blasted and covered with creosote, prickly pear, mesquite, an occasional decaying Huggie (New Mexico is always New Mexico), and an occasional desert willow.  That is, desertificated.  

It boggles the sensibilities.  Will central and northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, their forests and woodlands wiped out by wildfires, one day look like Yuma, Arizona; Death Valley; or the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico?  (Mexico, too―85 percent of it―is currently grappling with drought.)

Will New Mexicans face crop failure, civil unrest, famine, new diseases?  Will they, if they can afford it, migrate en masse to the northern parts of the United States, desperately seeking a cool breeze and that region’s modest economic gains as a result of climate change?  Will the United States withstand such a migration?

Pebbles in my boot.

And here’s another pebble: the “Anthropocene.”  In her preface to her biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls defined it for me: an epoch in which human beings have become “a geological force changing the planet itself.”  Scientists are now suggesting, or perhaps confirming, we have entered it. 

Sure, we have. 

Speaking of Thoreau, how would he have regarded an “Anthropocene”?  In Walden, he wrote: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” 

Methinks we abandoned that “requirement” some time ago, Henry.  We’ve dammed the rivers.  We’ve wiped out thousands, perhaps millions, of species.  With atomic weapons, we’ve unlocked the secret of the stars.  In the Pacific, we’ve produced a raft of garbage and errant plastic twice the area of Texas. Belts of national aeronautical and space administration junk gaily orbit our tiny planet.  Global “cactus traffickers” are “cleaning out the deserts.”  Now we’re goosing the weather of the entire planet.  The weather! 

Is there not a speck of mystery and the “unfathomable” left?  Is there no aspect of the physical world, of nature, that has not escaped our clutches?

Now, thinking locally:  I don’t want a Southwest that is desertificated and devoid of humans and wildlife.  Or, if not devoid of humans, home to only those curmudgeons, desert mystics, and desert rats who can afford solar-powered air-conditioning (and imagine that colossal irony) and private wells a mile deep.  And I’m guessing future generations don’t want that, either.  

I want a Southwest in which higher-elevation forests complement lower-elevation deserts, plateaus, and prairies―as satisfying as the Southwest’s complements of mountain and plain, refuge and prospect, and city and country.  A Southwest where people can continue to travel vertically as well as horizontally, going up to escape the heat and down to escape the cold. 

I want a Southwest that has, even if only intermittently, the sound of running water in its mountains and deserts, water that will maintain this land’s tradition of limited but clever and enduring agriculture.  I want a Southwest steep with snow and deep with burning sand.

I want a Southwest alive with birds, snakes, insects, fish, and furry quadrupeds, and a Southwest that can sustain a reasonable number of humans.  I want a Southwest where people can enjoy companionship―and solitude. 

I want a Southwestern climate whose fate largely depends not on the tailpipe of a pickup truck on Central Avenue, but rather on the whims of a distant El Niño or La Niña, or even a solar-dictated epoch of planetary fire or ice.  I want natural, damn the consequences.

Earth is not threatened.  Earth will survive.  It has survived five mass extinctions, oxygen starvation, deadly cold, sweltering heat.

Civilization is threatened.

And the estimate by science that there are ten billion trillion habitable planets in the universe does not give us the right to trash this one.  Got that, Bezos?

The choice is ours.

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