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Coda: Fire or Nice – Part 2

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―will experience more, and more severe, wildfires that will “cook” more soils.  If the burned forests regenerate at all, due to a warming climate the dark, soughing conifers that have lolled this backpacker to sleep many a mountain night will not return, but will instead 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 pared down by 67 per cent, which will reduce a spring and summer supply of water to New Mexico’s farms and homes by 95 to 100 per cent.  The Colorado River will likely see a 30 per cent decrease in flow by 2050 and a 50 per cent 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 ten 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 long green 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% 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.

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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-burned, 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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Full Circle

After six months, our obligations in Yuma had ended, and we began looking for a final house―once again, in Albuquerque.  We chose Albuquerque because we knew and liked the city; it likely had a robust job market (my wife would look for work as a chaplain, I for work as a non-medical home caregiver); and, given our advancing ages, it offered a wide variety of medical services.  We looked at several semi-rural houses in central New Mexico on the internet, but concluded they were beyond our means and/or were too distant from emergency medical care.  In the late winter, we eventually closed on a house at the edge of Albuquerque and moved in at the end of March, about a quarter-century after we first arrived in the Southwest.

During my first few months back in New Mexico I returned to some of my old haunts.  I visited a mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Albuquerque, and discovered that it had been renovated and was now serving more costly food and a variety of “specialty” beers.  Although it retained its name, largely gone, it seemed to me, were its customers with whom I once dined, including the many bacon-and-eggs viejos of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhoods, replaced now by a new generation of young people who were patronizing the many new nightclubs and venues for live music downtown. Downtown now also included a titty bar. (“Feel the power,” Burque?)  

On the campus of the University of New Mexico, I visited Mitchell Hall, where I first taught composition.  However, my classroom was gone, replaced by a spacious lounge with a refreshment stand.  Had my classroom been so equipped on that anxious morning two decades earlier, I might have entered it with considerably less paralysis.  At the campus’s Zimmerman Library, where once there stood the long wooden banks of a card catalog, students now lounged upon comfortable chairs and sofas, their fingers upon sleek keyboards, their noses buried in handheld electronic devices.  Index cards cataloging books had now been digitized, the digital information accessed by computer terminals scattered throughout the library.  

Elsewhere in the city, I tightened my sphincter as, dodging reckless motorists, I negotiated the intersection of Interstate highways 40 and 25, its latest manifestation what Burqueños called a “spaghetti bowl” of ramps and overpasses, an engineering feat I had to admire. 

Easter week, I once again passed, in a light snowfall, a dozen of the Christian faithful, no doubt mostly Catholics, walking south of the town of Tijeras along a remote stretch of highway 337―to where, I knew not. 

I returned to the Rio Puerco basin west of Los Lunas to watch the freight trains of the BNSF railroad, once again fantasizing hobodom. 

I plunged back into the outdoors, spending days and nights hiking and packing, among other places, the slopes and summits of New Mexico’s Manzano, San Mateo, and Gallinas mountains.  To my surprise and delight, they were still lightly visited.  

Still, I was an urban dweller once again, and now for the duration. 

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Mexican Food in Yuma

Of course, we ate Mexican food in Yuma.  The Mi Rancho restaurant was our introduction.  The decor of Mi Rancho was splashed with lime greens and lemon yellows, all trimmed in pink.  The waitresses drew their dark hair into tight buns pinned with artificial roses.  The walls were covered with photos of young Latino boxers, until then something I’d seen mainly in Albuquerque barber shops.  There were colorful acrylics of matadors and Mexican mercados.  There was a rooster clock and a warping poster of Chichen Itza.  La Casa Gutierrez, now no more, was aptly named.  Sandwiched between two residences on a quiet street, it obviously was the house of the Gutierrez family at one time.  I favored its chile rojo.  Maricosos Mar Azul introduced us to Mexican seafood―Yuma is 70 miles from the Gulf of California―the best we’ve eaten this side of the border.  Like La Casa Gutierrez, Los Manjeres was charmingly intimate―a couple small rooms, one with a fireplace (that’s right, in Yuma).  It, too, was surely once a home. 

From Clinton, Oklahoma, to Yuma, Arizona, Latino chefs knew how to satisfy.

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Muggins, Dome, and Gila

To escape the bustle of Yuma, the dogs and I would drive east over Telegraph Pass, drop down into Dome Valley, and wander farther east on foot over a dirt road into the Muggins Mountains.  Except along their dry arroyos, these were mostly barren formations, rugged and bleak as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.  Benches below the range’s sharp peaks and ridges were broad fields of nothing but fine black rock: desert pavement.  (Picture the most superfluous attempt at xeriscaping by a slovenly Southwestern homeowner.)  Even creosote struggled here, and the saguaro was almost non-existent.  The dominant hues and shades were browns, tans, dull greens, and whites.  Rarely did I hear birdsong.  The buzz of an occasional fly marred the silence.  In mid-November, while most of America prepared to gird its loins against another long season of rain, slush, and snow, this queer land of timeless sunlight, aridity, and vacant sky went on, serenely meditating on its indifference. 

Meanwhile, the heart of Dome Valley was a lush three-mile-wide belt of crops that ran for a dozen miles southeast to northwest.  The belt traced the course of the Gila River, once one of the Southwest’s most vibrant rivers from its source in southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range to its termination at the Colorado River in Yuma.  Buddy and I camped along its lively waters not far from its source fifteen years earlier.  Today, the river is strangled by a dam in Coolidge, Arizona, and, downstream, nearly starved by the agricultural demands of the Phoenix, Arizona, region.  To get to the Muggins, the dogs and I had to cross a bridge that spanned the Gila near Ligurta, Arizona.  From the bridge, we observed not a river but rather what appeared to be a series of narrow, stagnant puddles cushioned on both sides by a broad, treeless bottomland of green and brown grasses.  In the Dome Valley, and perhaps beyond to the Colorado, the river seemed to vanish entirely, reimagining itself as a maze of concrete canals and earthen ditches, all blanketed with cauliflower, wheat, lemons, and cotton.

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Lettuce

Amid the harsh desert of Yuma County are 180,000 acres of lush fields and orchards: North America’s winter produce section.  Yuma was once a massive flood plain for the Colorado and Gila rivers, and the soils that were deposited on the plain by flooding over the eons are rich in nutrients, and thus ideal for growing.

Agricultural activity, in the fields if not the orchards, was at a minimum when we arrived in Yuma in the dead of summer.  Planting on a grand scale commenced in September.  On fields level as pool tables, there was machine-made ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado River water; other fields were flood irrigated.  Soon these acreages were bright green with lettuce and dull-green with cauliflower.  Meanwhile, wagons piled high with colorful lemons and limes trundled along Yuma’s streets and avenues, their occasionally dribbled fruits ornamenting the roadsides.

Field harvesting in Yuma was serious business performed almost entirely―maybe entirely―by Latinos, many of them temporarily in Yuma from their homes in Mexico, 20 miles to the south.  Repainted former school buses packed with field workers scurried over the state and interstate highways and county roads from pre-dawn to post-dusk.

My culinary preference pointed me particularly to the Romaine lettuce harvest.  A harvesting machine―basically a wheeled, self-propelled, slowly-moving workbench that extended over a dozen rows or so―combed over the fields as the lechugeros―“lettuce people”―cut and boxed heads of Romaine, then delivered the boxes by conveyor belt to a shadowing tractor-drawn wagon.  Lechugeros in Yuma County numbered as many as 40 thousand between the months of October and March.

When the harvest was completed, the lettuce field always contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly good heads.  As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste.  (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, throw out 60 million tons of produce annually.)

For final processing and shipping, the harvested vegetables were transported to a massive complex on Yuma’s east side.  Empty and dark during the summer months, in the winter it operated non-stop, a dynamo that lit the night sky as it swarmed with eighteen-wheelers, their trailers refrigerated.

Legendary farmworker organizer and pacifist Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma.  And yet, nowhere in the city was there a monument to him, a designation of his childhood home or neighborhood, or a street bearing his name.  Understandable?  Although thinly so, perhaps:  Chavez’s fame rested on his considerable organizing successes in California; his efforts to do the same in Arizona were far less fruitful.  However, in nearby San Luis, Arizona, where Chavez died, I did come upon a handsome, larger-than-life bronze statue of him at a community center bearing his name.  And in Yuma County, as in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado, I regularly saw two examples of his legacy: Every field under harvest was equipped with tidy portable toilets (no more searching for a tree or ditch) and shiny hand-washing stations (although, of course, agribusiness today does have a serious stake in strict hygiene).

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Monsoon

Throughout most of our stay in Yuma, the city and surrounding plains and mountains stood under appallingly empty skies.  Day after arid day I’d gaze at the vacuum over the Gila Mountains and imagine how the dot of a question mark would feel if it had been permanently denied the crook above it. 

Sometimes the skies would be generous and treat us to pitiless brushstrokes of cirrus clouds.  At the end of the day, they’d hang exhausted above the western horizon in faded grays, pinks, and oranges.  Upon the horizon itself, barely noticeable, there’d be spread, like a bank of ashes, a distant range of Californian, and perhaps some Mexican, mountains. 

Yes, rain was scarce in Yuma: the city averages about three inches a year.  I couldn’t imagine how roofers or car washers made a living there. 

Well, perhaps just car washers.  Because Arizona, like New Mexico, does have a summer “monsoon season.”  Yuma’s monsoons are triggered by tropical air masses visiting from the Gulf of California.  Thus, it did occasionally shower in Yuma, albeit briefly and lightly. 

However, one late-August afternoon, with the temperature yet again in the low-100s, an unusually powerful monsoon struck our neighborhood, one of the most frightening storms I’d ever experienced.  In minutes, the inside of an oven became the inside of a dishwasher.  Over an hour, several waves of thunder, lightning, rain, hail, and winds gusting to 50 miles per hour raked our neighborhood.  Torrents spilled from the roof of our house.  Plastic trash dumpsters and sheet metal fit to behead a person hurtled end-over-end down 24th Street, which had become a river. 

Three hours later, the sky was still dark, thunder rumbled in the distance, and a light rain fell.  Our front yard was a swamp, the nearest intersection a lake.  All around east Yuma, paloverde were uprooted or ripped in half. Near our house, a massive, fenced-off catchment basin, previously bone dry, was now engorged. Arroyos in the sandy desert were re-sculpted, their banks steep and re-sharpened to a keen edge, the fine grains in their beds exquisitely waved. And the heat, now heavy with the cloying odor of creosote soup, returned. 

In the days following the monsoon, a green tint blossomed on the lower elevations of the Gila Mountains.

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Yuma Trivia

Southwestern Arizona is located in an area of the United States the geographers identify as the Basin and Range Province: vast plains dotted with relatively small mountain ranges. Here, for me, a pleasing geographical balance was struck between space and substance, mountain fashioning a buoyant space, and space lending individuality, dignity, and presence to mountain.  In the stunning clarity of this arid land, the mountains were at once distant and weirdly intimate: I’d study an empty ridge, and sense that ridge studying me.  The formations were as majestic as ships at sea, possessing in the clarity and stillness an almost dioramic perfection and unreality.  To repeat, they were also the grimmest mountains I’d ever seen, their flanks steep, barren, and sun-blasted, their crests knife-edged and seemingly never lofty enough to escape the gnash of flames that began at their feet.

Yuma is located in the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision of the Sonoran Desert.  The leading author of my desert field guide notes that the “open valley floors of this region . . . can be quite monotonous,” dominated as they are by the creosote bush and white bur sage. 

Monotonous?  Some might describe the face of a Maine woods in summer as monotonous.  Nonetheless, having once explored what is now known as Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, I was expecting a far greater variety of vegetation in Yuma, including and especially the iconic saguaro cactus.  In fact, in the undeveloped deserts in and immediately around greater Yuma, the saguaros were strangely scarce.  To view them, and then only in small numbers, I had to scan the rugged slopes of the nearby Gila Mountains.  On the same slopes, the tall and tentacular ocotillo, also largely absent in Yuma’s city limits, were somewhat more ubiquitous.  But I was content, there at the lower elevations, with the few trees and shrubs that I managed to identify: the mesquite and paloverde trees; the athel pines with their clouds of long, tough, pendant needles; and, humble lord of the hottest North American deserts, the creosote bush.

The creosote has a pungent, tarry odor, particularly evident after a rain.  Some might describe the odor as sickening.  Perhaps this explains why Native Americans used―and perhaps still use―creosote as an emetic.  However, in moderate doses, I’m personally taken by the fragrance.  It pleasantly recalls our most forbidding lands.  It recalls, as well, my leisurely, dreamy, misspent youth, which was often spent walking railroad tracks the wooden ties of which were, and still are, preserved with the essence of creosote. 

Meanwhile, I’m not troubled by desert “monotony.”  Creosote bushes have been known to live for at least 9,000 years: the oldest living things on our planet.  Imagine how monotonous our parade of puny life cycles must appear to them. 

Like the mountains, Arizona’s desert florae are generously spaced, vibrantly individual.  They are clever in their capture and assimilation of water and remarkable in their adaptability and resilience.

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Desert Light

The Sonoran Desert at 2 p.m., when every point in space was aglow, was transfixing.  The light shrank your pupils to the size of sand grains, blinding you for a couple minutes after you entered the darkness of your curtained house.  And, like heat, this light demanded respect.  There were people in Yuma─and here I refer primarily to the Anglos─who had obviously exposed themselves to a lot of sunlight.  Like my Chihuahuan Desert friend Frank, they were dusky, russet, coppery figures, looking as if they should have been accompanied by embers.  Some were obviously sun-worshippers who had taken the practice to a questionable, if not dangerous, level.  Then there were those who had spent their entire working lives in the Arizona sunlight―passive sun-tanners, you might call them―and had either found exposed skin comfortable, despite the fact that it hastens dehydration, or had simply tired of slathering on sunscreen and donning protective clothing.  As a result, they had developed a dark coat that apparently continued to resist the sun’s ultimate threat. 

Once, I dealt with a Yuman, a white non-Hispanic about my age, who worked outdoors.  He came to our house to explain how the timer on our lawn’s irrigation system worked.  He was a strange sight.  Wearing a tank top, he had a permanent squint; the thick, wrinkled eyelids of a Sonoran lizard; and a mottled hide that recalled beef jerky.  Slaughtered by the sun, he nonetheless still functioned.  I was fascinated by his adaptation to desert light.

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Tengo Sed

Yuma was also thirst.  My thirst there was unlike any I’d ever experienced.  The sensation went beyond my mouth, throat, and stomach.  It clawed at my body’s very cells.  There were times when I couldn’t seem to quench it, no matter how much or how swiftly I drank.  And yet, if, as Cervantes observed, “There’s no sauce in the world like hunger,” then surely there’s no better additive to water than a great thirst. 

Americans, maybe humans worldwide, don’t grant thirst the same significance they grant hunger, even though water is more essential to our survival than food.  We in America don’t hear about “children going to bed at night thirsty.”  Of course, this is because a glass of tap water in America is so readily available and cheap.  (For now.  We’ll see how climate change tampers with this.)  The bottled-water industry notwithstanding, we aren’t drowning in ads to relieve fundamental thirst.  Water in American advertising is merely a medium to deliver alcohol, sugar, “purity,” Coke’s secret formula, caffeine, “vitamins,” and “electrolytes.”  As if hydration isn’t satisfying and celebratory enough.