The Mesa and Chinle's River
The awkward silence on the conference call suggests we are new at this. “Is everyone here?” comes the timid call to order from the Chair. No one answers him despite all of us being there. He makes the correct assumption that, at the very least, a quorum has assembled for our annual acequia association meeting. The meeting is being held in early March of 2020. Taos, or at the very least the Randall Reservoir and Acequia Association, is ahead of COVID-19, but folks are leery about not being able to look each other in the eye (not everyone had video conferencing options so we were on the old fashioned kind of conference call - with a phone in the middle of the room). What ensues is a lengthy discussion about how to share the limited water in our acequia (the Spanish word used in these parts to connote an irrigation ditch). The group annually meets together to discuss and decide how to use the water in the “most beneficial” ways for the parcientes (basically the humans who have “rights” and share interest in the fate of the water) and the land.
Acequia associations have been sharing water in this way in this place for hundreds of years. The guiding principles of the local acequias are that water should be governed locally and democratically. They have long included an extraordinary mix of Taos Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo customs regarding water - centuries of accumulated cultural knowledge about water use, availability, and scarcity. About 1200 working acequias exist throughout New Mexico today -- 55 are in the Taos region. They support sustainable agriculture and are living institutions that, in Northern New Mexico, have included a variety of cultural perspectives (Puebloans, Hispanos, and Anglos) while incorporating prevailing law (currently state and federal water law). Importantly, they work within the ecological bounds of watersheds. Of course, they have not been without conflict, but there is process and people to try and work things out. The chair of the association works closely with a mayordomo who works with farmers who, over the years, have learned how to use the water with great care. As Ernesto Atencio explains, acequias are not just irrigation systems, they are also social and democratic institutions.(1) The meeting begins.
First up is an almost breathless accounting of how much water we may have available this year. The winter was good and the spring, so far, looks to be wet. Lots of discussion of snowpack and forecasts for the spring runoff. There is a brief but lively shared celebration of having a full reservoir. No one knows for sure what summer will bring but hopes are high. Then comes a long conversation about whether a user should get some money back for being overcharged his dues for a decade (he just figured it out last year). Let’s just say, I think we did the right thing, but he went away irritated. Ah democracy. Next up, a discussion of who wants to use their “right” and who wants to “bank” their water. Remember even in the unique and rather progressive acequias, water is a commodity not a deity - this is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Anglo “contribution” to the institution. My partner and I have “banked” the past two years but this year...we want to plant. Thus ensues a listing of who else might want to irrigate already established fields or plant new ones. The main problem to solve - how will we split the water when there isn’t enough to meet all of our appropriations? Technically those who have the oldest rights get the water first, but the acequia allows for that rule to be shifted to help the community. The planting of new fields (essentially revitalizing abandoned land in order to fix nitrogen, recharge groundwater, and stop invasive, non native species) is enthusiastically supported by the members because there is an ethic among us that when increasingly more land is healthy, everyone benefits. It is decided that we get to use our 4 acre feet on our 3 acres of land to “restore” it to at least something healthier than it is now. This will mean planting a mix of oats (which grow quickly with water and nurture the other grasses) and native grasses (which take much longer to take root and grow). We will use our appropriation and then hope for rain. No one knows for sure when monsoons might start. If they do.
Fast forward 4 months. The monsoons have not started and hope is starting to wither. The 4 acre feet were put to use and sprigs of oats and sideoats grama are now obvious. If the field grows well, we may get a cutting to feed to local livestock. But if the rains don’t come we will have to be grateful we got a start on arresting the horrific desertification that had encroached on the unused parcel for over 30 years. Invasive species, that grow no matter how bad things get - obnoxious plants like Russian Thistle and Tumbleweed (native but still invasive), had planted themselves in the field coaxing...encouraging maybe even...critters of all kinds who live and love in apocalyptic landscapes.
After spending a long morning on Toothacres, pulling Russian Thistle (we refuse to use chemical treatments although many times during the morning I cussed that decision) and flooding prairie dog holes, I head to the feed store for Chinle’s favorite treats. Standing in line, I hear a mask-muddled conversation about rain. There has not been any appreciable rain since early June. Both folks are worried about their crops - “even the corn is sad” says one. “Our acequia ran out 3 weeks ago and she (the corn) is struggling to grow strong.” The other shook his head slowly. “It will come,” he said, “water is life.” “Water is life,” replied the other nodding her head. I felt like I was in mass. Amen. The feed store employee’s eyes crinkled in what we can assume was a rueful smile. “Well, if it’s comin’, it better hurry,” he said.
“Water is life” is an ethic in these parts. You don’t just overhear it in the line at the feed store, you see it on signs in Taos Village. You read it in articles in the local paper. It’s on websites of local organizations committed to untangling the maze of law and custom that govern the distribution, conservation, and use of the scarce gift. “Water is life” isn’t just a catchy slogan for Taoseños. It is a deep-seated belief that comes from an ancient understanding of the ways in which everything is interconnected and the ways in which things die when water disappears.
This fear of disappearance drives all human custom and policy around water in the West even though most folks here (especially in 21st century big cities) likely have little knowledge of where the water is located originally or the journey it has taken to flow magically out of the faucet.
Even where I sit, it is almost impossible to figure out where the water comes from. Every day, Chinle and I drink long and hard from the faucet after our hikes. We use water to cook and to rinse off mud from our river adventures. And there isn’t a stream in sight - just miles and miles of sagebrush and an occasional juniper tree. Houses dot the mesa as far as the eye can see - decent sized lots with little density. Chinle loves to watch Taos mountain shift and change as the light passes. Sunset is her favorite, and she seems to know that the mountain is mother to her two favorite places on earth, Rio Grande and Rio Hondo. But when we sit on the patio of the house on the mesa, those rivers seem far far away - as though they are simply dreams made up by sun-battered desert dwellers.
No matter how far away the rivers seem, though, they are deeply connected to this seemingly waterless mesa. Indeed, the truth is that the rivers’ very existence is ensured by the water that does indeed exist here. Through a maze of complex geology, the vast sagebrush mesa in Taos and the valleys to the east and south of it sit on top of a collection of reservoirs of groundwater. The rivers, the acequia, the creeks all exist because of the presence of that groundwater. I’m no geologist (although I almost majored in it and sometimes still wish I had), so I’ll spare you the laywoman’s understanding of deposits of basalt, limestone, and clastics and the differences between shallow groundwater and “deep” groundwater here and across the globe. Put most simply, the surface water of acequias and rivers depends on the relative closeness of groundwater to the surface of the earth. So just as Chinle’s rivers live thanks to runoff from Taos mountain, so too do they exist thanks to the presence of groundwater.
Out at Toothacres, about 6 miles from the house on the mesa where I’m staying, we are lucky enough to have surface water, municipal water (which is just a well-managed mix of ground and surface water by a public agency), and a groundwater well. So when the acequia ran dry in mid June, and we weren’t able to plant on the other parcel of land, I mentioned to the watershed guru who is helping us that since we have a well on the property, maybe we could do some dryland farming and use just a bit of groundwater to get the grasses started. I felt like a “real” Arizonan when I asked if that would be a way to find water for irrigation...agricultural Arizonans LOVE to pump water. “At least I think we have groundwater,” I explained. When we had bought the land three years ago, I reached out to the State Engineer of New Mexico to make sure we had done all the paperwork correctly. I still haven’t heard back. The guru laughed and said, “You are ok. The State Engineer only calls if you’ve done something wrong.”
The trouble is, of course, that with groundwater it’s almost impossible to know when you’ve “done something wrong.” First it is hard to tell what is "right" and, if you know that, it is nearly impossible to keep tabs on your relationship to the rightness. In the days of better technology, it’s a little easier. One can (and in some states is required) to install a meter on ones well and know the total gallons (or acre feet) one is pumping out (per minute, per year). But from what I can tell New Mexico, there is not really an actual limit that is much enforced in New Mexico, especially if you have an older well and older water right.(2)
I wanted to know where the water to the Taos mesa house comes from, but it’s almost impossible to do so without having a PhD in geohydrology. It’s hard to find information about which basin your well draws from specifically (broadly it is the Rio Grande Basin). Is the water we use in a confined basin? unconfined? It’s hard to tell how much water is there this minute (vs how much was there when the well was originally drilled - which for us on Toothacres was 40 years ago but here on the mesa may have only been 20 years). In addition to finding it tough to know where the water is coming from, it is also (so far) impossible to figure out how much water we should be using. At the acequia, I know my limit. 4 acre feet (an acre foot is about 325,851 gallons) per year for irrigation (understood as a benefit to the community). But try as I might, no one can tell me how many acre feet this house should use on an annual basis or, just as and maybe more importantly, how much it actually does use. One would think that that limit should be communicated widely and often, and it should probably shift depending on the year - on how much snow and rain arrives in any given year and how well the aquifer is being recharged. But talk to folks on the mesa, and limits are something no one seems to be really measuring or at least not for every well that dots Taos Valley. In theory, anyone who has applied for and gotten a domestic water right in New Mexico has 1 acre feet a year of water - but who is counting? If the well is old enough or not in a monitored area, then likely no one. More importantly, that “one size fits all” approach to domestic use is arbitrary. It started out as 3 acre feet - set in an earlier time when few could imagine anyone wanting to move to this godforsaken country. Maybe no one counted on the hordes of people who would someday crave the adventure of shredding a mountain (just think about that verb) or have a deep driving need to drink in the light of this place. A few quirky, intrepid folks might come, sure. But hordes?? No one could imagine it. But that’s what is beginning to happen so the State Engineer decreased the amount, but the question still must be asked, what happens when there are far more people pumping and far less snow recharging? For example, what if, after we bought a property with a shared well, we decided it was too hot here in the summer and our sweet dog needed a vast grassy lawn instead of the sagebrush? Could we pour the water necessary to make it lush and soft? It’s hard to find the answer to that question, but if we went ahead with that lawn, we would have to understand that for every gallon we use, we are taking water from the ground that must be replenished or the rivers might stop flowing on the surface. Those who have rights to the surface water have priority. So our pumping to water the lawn could, in the long run, interfere with a farmer’s water right 20 miles away and could harm the flow of the Rio Taos nearby. Unfortunately, there is little community education beyond the acequias and few seek to understand how all things are connected.
The folks in Taos Valley who rely solely on groundwater are fairly numerous (much of the agriculture of the valley is based solely on surface water). And the water is virtually free for many who are on wells - so much for the commodification of water - costing just the pennies that are required to pay for the electricity that powers the pump to retrieve the water. So far that hasn’t destroyed Taos or its surface waters. The depth to water here isn’t that far (that’s a good thing….drilling deep wells is hard, dangerous, and expensive). The human population is growing but, unlike the prairie dog population, hasn’t exploded….yet. Taoseños have an ethic of water conservation. Many know about water because their ancestors require them to know that water is life. No water? No life. But what about newcomers? What do they know? And how are they educated? How many folks can live here and rely on groundwater and, much more importantly for all living things, how many people can live here, rely on groundwater, and ensure the creeks, rivers, and acequias continue to flow?
Lawn? Or river? All things are connected.
So the groundwater is ok for the moment. Here at the house on the mesa, the wells pump the groundwater day in and day out. Reliably, predictably. The owners of the homes on the mesa share their wells which, unlike the acequia, doesn’t necessarily mean there is an expert keeping an eye on the “reservoir” deep under the ground on a daily, monthly or even annual basis...rather everyone seems to use to their hearts’ content and rather than pay a water bill, they share the electricity bill. Users of the wells out here, don’t tend to see gallons or acre feet that they have consumed. Rather they see how much power it took to bring the water predictably, reliably to the faucet. But that electricity bill is a mirage - making it seem that water is limitless by obscuring the crucial information about the health of the aquifer underground. The kilowatts consumed tell only a tiny part of the story. They leave out the parts of the story that matter most - how much water is being used, how little is left, how far the water table is dropping….how precarious the life of the Rio Hondo and the Rio Grande really is.
The heat of the day starts to abate, and Chinle is begging to head to the river. We pile her in the truck and grab “toy” and drive to the canyon. The river is low this year which for Chinle means plenty of beaches that are easy on the paws. As we throw the toy over and over and over, my mind wanders to the groundwater on the mesa 10 miles away. Its vitality, its necessity, its invisibility. The water Chinle splashes in is the water on the mesa, and the water on the mountain. It is the water on my field, and the water on the Taoseño’s corn. All things are connected.
My thinking is interrupted by a young couple with a cooler making their way down to “our” beach. The man has more tattoos than skin and the gal is wearing 3 different colors of fatigue. We smile and greet each. No masks here. “We’ve been fishing since midnight,” explains the man. “We caught 15 catfish!” the woman pronounces, “So we got our limit!” You can tell how happy she is. I thought to myself here are some folks who know what the limit is. Google “catfish limit New Mexico” and what pops up is immediate and easy to see...15/day. Google “groundwater pumping limit New Mexico” and there is, quite literally, no information. And that’s because there is no real limit. In (too?) many places in New Mexico and elsewhere in the desert Southwest, no regulatory entity is paying attention to the individual groundwater user’s use. The water flows out of the ground, into the faucet, down the drain. The gallons unaccounted for and unworried about. Out of sight. Out of mind. As the corn struggles, the forests parch, and the rivers disappear.
“The problem is,” says the man, “the catfish keep getting smaller, and it takes longer to catch them. Either I’m getting to be shittier at fishing or something is up with the river.” Something is definitely up with the river. “It’s flowing out of the faucets in the houses on the mesa,” I say to him. He just grunts. And, I think to myself, not enough people know....all things are connected.
The good news is that policy makers are slowly catching up since the early 1900s when groundwater was first being used in the state on any regular basis. Public entities are engaged in studies that measure how much groundwater there is and what might be a sustainable pumping rate. There are no new water rights being issued in the state (if you want water from something other than a municipal water company you have to buy the rights to it). This is all good news. But it isn't trickling down (forgive the terrible pun) to ordinary users. One has to care or know a lot already to make sense of the maze of regulations and even then it might not be clear for your circumstance. Additionally, these government agencies can have a tendency to put material wealth over the needs of ecosystems discounting, what Rob Nixon calls, the "spiritualized vernacular landscapes" that have permeated this region for thousands of years and "treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living and the unborn."(3) As we move forward organizations, such as the Guardians of Taos Water, are forming to protect the water and to raise awareness that...all things are connected.(4) The Taos Pueblo Water Rights Settlement has some money available for consciousness raising and education.(5) Writer activists are doing their best to bring attention to the issue. Still, most folks don't know that groundwater is life. We aren't in dire straits yet. But at the moment, the "contemporary politics of speed" do not lend themselves to the slow methodical policy and education required to be sure that we are contemplative about our use and principles regarding water.
And maybe it's just because as Aldo Leopold once said, "we can be ethical only toward what we can see" that groundwater is so mysterious and so abused in so many places. As Chinle and I watch the slow current in the Rio Grande, I just hope collectively all who live in this valley and anywhere where water is scarce can choose to educate themselves and begin to see the invisible. The better we understand that there is something up with the river the better we can live as though water as life and all is connected.
This entry was inspired partly by my re-reading of Cadillac Desert (which is an old “Bible” about water in the US West and is almost solely concerned with surface water as a result. When Marc Reisner was writing in the early 1980s, the West was not yet profoundly overpopulated and rivers were the main concern for the future. How little he knew.). The entry is also inspired by my new reading of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (I will talk more about this in a future entry) - it is about a lot of things but most importantly it is about interconnectedness. Finally, the entry was inspired by countless hours trying to figure out how groundwater works in New Mexico both for my academic work and for my own life here. This research (reading every law, regional water planning document, and every resource on the web, and talking to my guru and to the owners of the house on the mesa) led to my need to sort through the complexity of it all. It is frustrating to say the least. You may sense that tone here a bit. There might be more information that I’ve not been able to ferret out - maybe I need a lawyer and maybe SOMEone is actually regulating the amount of water we use at the house on the mesa, but hell if I can find them. I can call my mayordomo at Toothacres and ask about the health of the acequia and the condition of the water. But groundwater? I can call, but apparently it’ll take at least 3 years for anyone to reply.
1) For a great explanation of acequias, see Ernesto Atencio's entry on the Taos Valley Acequia Association website: https://www.taosacequias.org/acequias.
2) To read the chapter of the state code that deals with access to water see: https://www.ose.state.nm.us/WR/WRrules.php.
3) Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 17.
4) See "Taos Water Protectors," https://www.taoswaterprotectors.org/.
5) There is a pile of legal decisions as tall as Taos mountain on water rights adjudication in New Mexico. I have not chosen to dive into what they all say because I am mostly interested in the ways in which "normal" folks who newly buy houses on the mesa in Taos or maybe anywhere in the groundwater dependent Southwest experience their access to water. I think that experience speaks to the invisibility of groundwater, both its ecological significance and its regulation (or lack thereof). If you want to read about the deeply complex legal, political, and ecological struggle regarding the doubling of groundwater pumping in this region, start here: https://www.taosnews.com/news/local-news/taos-water-protectors-protest-new-wells/article_3b82bef5-787d-5b67-b90f-38892c4da25a.html and go here https://www.taosnews.com/news/local-news/what-is-the-abeyta-settlement-why-should-i-care/article_ec21b072-c2e3-5294-a42c-17c4793f578c.html#:~:text=What%20is%20Abeyta%20Settlement%3F,establish%20who%20owns%20how%20much.
Be the Butterfly
We don’t usually hit the trail before sunrise, Chinle and I. We understand that many cultures think one must greet the sun each day in order to live one’s best life. We respectfully disagree. Which is why, if the dog wakes up in the wee morning hours and licks my face, I know it’s time to go. Maybe it’s just time to go outside to relieve oneself (the dog not me), but no doubt it is time to go when licking commences at 5 am.
This particular morning, I sleepily wandered into the bathroom to be greeted by one of the largest wolf spiders I had seen in a long time. My first instinct was to smash the fellow - even though I know perfectly well he wouldn’t hurt me or the dog. Thankfully my better self prevailed, and I tried to ignore him, but admittedly kept an eye on him as I finished my business. I suspect he was warily watching me too.
The wolf spider reminded me of a discussion I had had on social media a few weeks ago. I posted a little reminder list that said “Do These Things: 1. Be Aggressively Anti-Racist 2. Wear a mask in Public 3. Don’t kill spiders.” A discussion ensued. The first person said “Not #3…” The second person said “So I hate spiders…” A third person explained that they launch captured spiders off their balcony as though that were somehow humane - perhaps they think spiders have wings? And yet another said she leaves bugs alone “for the most part” which was better than the first two but maybe not that reassuring if you are a bug. No one commented about the other two things on the list (even though most of my community is really active in the Black Lives Matter moment, and I have plenty of conservative friends who think COVID is a hoax). Why is it, I thought, that the spider part of that list was the only thing that elicited a conversation? Why was that the killing that seemed open to debate? I have to admit that I wasn’t all that surprised. The main reason I had posted the list was for the spider part, because for months all I had seen in mainstream media and even in my own carefully curated social media worlds were pleas to save human lives. My green friends who usually post interesting articles about the environment went silent. And let’s be serious, even my family members, who work in law enforcement, mean only humans when they say “All Lives Matter.” So for sometime (and probably long before BLM and COVID) I have been wondering and, dare I say even a little bit angry, at how human-centric we are.
Maybe our anthropocentrism is "normal." After all, does the grizzly bear have concern for the fish? Does the deer feel sorry for the grass? Do ants worry about their neighbors, the worms? Does the lizard resent sharing space with the beetle? Surely curious biologists have sought answers to some of these questions. But regardless of the answers, Homo Sapiens seem very committed to, well, ourselves and not a whole lot else. Especially right now. I think this egotism (if that's what it is) needs to be rethought - and in a hurry. But just as it seems we might begin to focus outwardly (the climate movement in the fall of 2019, the celebration of cleaning of the air during global quarantine, etc), we turn away. Distracted by something more urgent and seemingly more pressing and inevitably more human. What I find particularly interesting is that it seems that often the urgent issue that grabs our collective attention is couched in concern for “life,” so what makes it acceptable for so many of us humans to ignore the peril we inflict on other species every single day? Why is that other life so expendable? In short, why are we skeeved out by the harmless spider or the ubiquitous Blattidae (especially Periplaneta americana) to the extent that we are happy to destroy them and even willing to admit it on social media?
I suspect that the answer lies in fear. And it fascinates me how fear is so often a cultural choice. The coyote of North America is an interesting case in point. Indigenous peoples west of the Mississippi long respected Coyote as a teacher (who sometimes tricked humans to teach them lessons). This was the coyote Lewis and Clark encountered that they mistakenly named Prairie Wolf. They were fascinated by the animal and encountered Indigenous peoples who were leery of Coyote but revered him nonetheless. War and technology brought more and more cattlemen and sheep growers into Coyote’s territory and by the mid-19th century, the coyote had become one of the most despised and feared animals in the dominant culture of the United States. Anglo cattlemen in the late 19th century West even begged the federal government to protect them from all things they equated with “savage nature” - “Indians,” drought, and coyotes to name a few. The government obliged to such an extent that, as Dan Flores explains in his fantastic book Coyote: A Natural and Supernatural History, millions of coyotes were exterminated at the behest of ranchers and at the taxpayer’s expense.(1)
So why did ranchers come to fear Coyote? I suspect fake news. Coyotes are decent hunters and did at times hunt lambs and calves from the herds of stockmen, but coyotes are the ultimate omnivore - feeding on small rodents, fruit, vegetables and even carrion when needed. They weren’t really the ‘arch predators’ that the myths about them made them out to be, but they did kill members of ranchers’ herds now and then and those were the stories that persisted. Hysteria especially heightened when there seemed to be many “takings” in a particular area in a short period of time. Maybe those ranchers didn’t have much else to talk about. No matter the reason, the fake news stuck around and even proliferated, and in 1931, the Eradication Methods Lab was created and funded handsomely in order to figure out the best kind of poison to exterminate the coyote permanently (strychnine seemed to rise to the top as the most “effective”). Flores calls it “the most epic campaign of persecution against any animal in North American history.” I suspect the spider might object to that claim. The postwar period saw even more commitment to the killing. Between 1947-1956, the federal government killed almost 7 million coyotes in the American West. The method was blanket poisoning...which meant that the range was utterly toxified. You can’t spread poison all over the grasslands and expect only the coyotes to eat it….nature doesn’t work that way. (2)
Lest you think the government won and Coyote went extinct, read Flores’ book. And also, lest you think this type of mass murder has ceased in our more enlightened 21st century, you should read about the Wildlife Services Agency in the United States Department of Agriculture.(3) They killed 1.5 million animals in 2019 alone (not all coyotes...but still, that is a lot of life that, apparently, didn’t matter). And lest you were about to argue that we really do care about species other than our own (the Endangered Species Act is almost 50 years old for heaven’s sake!), wander down any “pest control” aisle in Home Depot sometime. Take a deep breath and you will smell some of the many hundreds of millions of gallons of poison we spray and pour and sprinkle without even thinking twice about it. Weeds BE GONE! Drat Rat Bait - they must go! Trust Entrust insecticide (a nerve poison known to kill bees) and your Colorado potato beetle will magically disappear!(4)
The more I thought about it, it seems as though the answer to my early morning philosophical question about our motivation to kill spiders has to be fear. Fear is what makes us kill. We fear losing control (as though we have it to lose). We fear hard work being exterminated by unwanted presences in our gardens, our lawns, our lives.
And we seem to continue to fear nature (nonhuman nature) above all else. So much so that in a simple post about saving a spider (from death), and People of Color (from violence and injustice), and all people (from COVID), the only thing to be debated was the relative merit of saving the spider. I admit, I am not above this. We have, in certain times of the year, an infestation of black widows in our backyard (this will be a post for another time), and I pride myself on my deft handling of my manual extermination weapon (my shoe). I don’t think twice about the evenings I go “spider hunting” - I am all in as I desperately fear the possibility of Chinle getting bitten.
I stood in the bathroom for so long pondering the spider, fear, the social media post, and our unending willingness to exterminate anything in our species’ way that Chinle actually barked at me. Such is the life when you are the dog companion of an absent-minded professor! This day in particular made sense for an early start. A “Special Weather Event” had been predicted for northern New Mexico and no altitude would be spared. Mid80s in the highest country and sweltering near 100 on the desert mesas. If we were going to get a hike in, said the heat averse black dog, we’d better get going. I apologized for making her wait, and we set off.
For the first couple of hours we saw no one save two Abert’s squirrels. Apparently Coyote had saved them for another meal. The aspen quaked in the morning breeze and the birds seemed happy to see us. On our return trip we encountered a family of 4 humans and a puppy. The two kids seemed reluctant to be hiking but nothing compared with the mom who had a look of sheer terror on her face as she tried to keep the energetic pup under control. The dog, turns out, was a 6 month pitbull cattle dog mix. He had Pitbull coloring but was furry and had the head of an Australian cattle dog. The dad smiled great big and with a boisterous greeting explained that he was trying to get his family out in nature more and thought having a dog might help. It didn’t seem to be going well. The mom shook her head, closed her eyes, and said, “now I have 3 kids and a puppy to try and keep under control in the woods?? Why would anyone do this for fun?” I must have looked confused (by her question about hiking and fun) because the dad quickly clarified (rather proudly I thought), “if you are wondering, I’m the third kid!” He introduced himself, Carlos Lopez, Taos native (his friends call him Carlo), and his wife Adelita. The kids and the pup were not introduced. Carlos dismissed his wife with a roll of his eyes. “She doesn’t like nature. Too scared I guess.”
At just that moment a trio of strikingly orange butterflies lit on a stand of nearby Rocky Mountain clover. They were so brilliant and active that the boys squealed with joy. “Papa! Look!” shouted the older one (who was maybe 8). No fear - just awe. I smiled and started to go, when Carlos struck up more conversation:
Carlos to me (with a seriousness that disrupted the pattern of our interaction thus far): Why can’t we just be like the butterfly? They just love their family and drinking buddies, their nectar, and the mountains they call home. I don’t think life needs to be so complicated.
Me replying (taking off my sunglasses so he could see how serious I was - and then responding in way that would strike many folks in 2020 as naive, overly earnest): You have no idea how much I agree with you. We should be JUST like the butterfly.
Carlos to me (the grin and the boyish playfulness returning and replacing the fleeting seriousness of his question): Then it’s settled. We will indeed be like the butterfly.
Carlos to Adelita: See wife, it’s not complicated and there is nothing scary here at all.
Adelita smiled softly - looking at me with curiosity and said, “Maybe you are right. I do like butterflies so I’ll try to focus on them and not some mountain lion about to murder me.” Carlos and I gaffawed. As Chinle and I walked away, I thought to myself, the comment wasn’t really all that funny. Chances are the mountain lions aren’t interested...not the few who are left anyway...so why does the fear endure? Afterall, the deadliest organism for humans on the planet is the mosquito followed by, yeah, other humans. Mountain lions don’t make the top 10.(5) Maybe the best way to start countering the unfounded fear is as simple as what Carlos suggested - aspire to be the butterfly. Attempt to flit toward fearlessness. Wonder at the spider. Applaud the ant’s power. Revere the coyote’s resolve.
The following poem was the inspiration for this entry. The stories and themes in these entries just usually come together in the most random of ways. And this one is no different. This poem, the arrival of the wolf spider in our bathroom, my re-reading of Flores, the anthropocentrism of the current moment, and Carlos with his butterfly philosophy just seemed to connect really beautifully. I received this poem a couple of weeks ago from a former student who had heard it featured in an NPR story about a teacher in Massachusetts who used the poem in her middle school classroom to talk about racism and fear (hoping students could understand the metaphor).(6) My former student thought I would appreciate both the metaphor and the more literal message of the poem. Indeed. It’s a good one.
By Nikki Giovanni (Giovanni is one of the most accomplished Black American poets of the late 20th century)
“I killed a spider.
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her
I don’t think
To kill something
Because I am