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.
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
It was a cloudless day in 1994. I had just graduated from college and the “real world” loomed menacingly in my future. Knowing this, in all likelihood, was my last summer as a National Park Service ranger and wildland firefighter, I savored moments like these. The billow of smoke may have escaped a more hurried person’s eye. Luckily for me, I was being paid to watch - lizards, peregrine falcons, fires. For 6 seasons I had been paid to do what I love to do - sit on a rock and look. And on this day, the smoldering Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) caught my attention. I radioed for backup and soon two furry BLM (Bureau of Land Management) rangers arrived in their truck. We got our tools and meandered the 400 feet or so from the dirt road to the burning bush. There was the lone tree riddled with drought and years of persisting smack in the middle of a red rock outcropping. “Some fire,” joked one of my comrades. The other wandered back to the truck to grab a tin of sardines and a bag of saltines. He offered it to me, and I declined. After fighting fires for 3 seasons I still couldn’t quite get used to the strange but popular culinary habit of canned sardines until there was nothing else to eat. Little did I know that so much of that summer would be spent on so many fires that I actually would come to have a fondness for the salty snack. Because I was the first to see the “fire” I had the honor of naming it - I was embarrassed about the backup call so I deferred to my rescuers. They decided to name it “The Berry Blaze.” Wildland firefighters are nothing if not hilarious.
That summer was spent guiding hikes, tending the gift shop and fighting far more significant blazes that smoldered across western Colorado. At one point in early July, I found myself sitting on a van awaiting transport to the Glenwood Springs area where, only hours before the small fire had taken a turn for the worse and had claimed the lives of 14 firefighters. We were immediately reassigned as we sat in stunned silence in the cramped van. The Berry Blaze could never have become that fire, but still...with any fire, you just never knew.
Of all the things I have gotten paid to do fighting fires was the most physically challenging (made collegiate basketball playing look like a beach vacation) and the most emotional. Watching places I love disappear into smoke and ash literally burns my heart. And yet the adrenaline is real and once you’ve been a part of that elite profession, it’s hard to ever see a wildland fire and not get a little hyped up.
That’s what happened a few weeks ago, when I saw the light white smoke billowing peacefully off the mountain filling the deep blue sky in Tucson with wispy, seemingly harmless clouds. In the early hours and days, it looked a lot like Storm King in 1994 - that the fire was going to be an “easy one.” Burning low and seemingly pretty slow with little to fuel it; it looked as though the Bighorn Fire in the Coronado National Forest, on the beloved mountain north of town, would be quickly and permanently doused. Then came the winds - 55 mile per hour gusts - that relentlessly whipped the flames and a small blaze went from 3000 acres to 30,000 acres in only a few day’s time. Add to that low humidity and very high temperatures and, well, you just never know.
The Bighorn conflagration has now burned upwards of 70,000 acres (1). Beloved high elevation forests likely gone for generations. Saguaros in the lower elevations have been reported to have, literally, exploded. I saw a post the other day that said something like, “learn your history...read books.” Not bad advice. But I would also argue that if you want to understand where we are ecologically, environmentally, if you want to understand the Bighorn fire, then you also must read more than just books.
That is not to say there aren’t books on the history of fire. It might surprise you to know there are A LOT of books on the topic. Stephen Pyne, a historian at Arizona State University, has himself written at least 15 monographs on fire.(2) Just on fire. Fire in rural places. The intersections of fire and culture. Fire in the United States Southwest. Fire in Canada. Fire on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Dr. Pyne argues, basically, that especially by the late 20th century we are living in an epoch defined by fire - something he has labeled the Pyrocene. So there are indeed history books on fire. Even histories which might help us to contextualize the Bighorn.
But what happens when there are no books? To what else do historians turn? For a long time we turned only to other authoritative sources (articles in newspapers, etc). But folks began to wonder if those sources might not be incomplete records of the past and environmental historians, in particular, found that many historical record keepers seemed not to care a whole lot about what was happening to the nonhuman environs. So we began to use books and….
Books and oral stories. Books and receipts of farmers’ seed imports. Books and art. Books and diaries. Books and minutes from meetings of all kinds of organizations and government agencies. And, perhaps most importantly, books and the land itself.
Indeed, we can learn about the history of the Bighorn Fire by reading, of all things, the geography of grass.
If one knows ones grasses, then one can spot the messy golden menace from a long way away. If one joins any of the many organizations in Pima County trying to combat its presence, one learns quickly how to “see” the villain rampant on hillsides and tucked discreetly under rocks. This particular grass is called Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare).(3) And its presence tells historical tales worth listening to.
The grass is invasive (meaning it moves quickly into places in which it did not originate). The grass is imported (from the savanna of Africa). The grass is persistent (meaning it’s really hard to kill). And the grass is increasingly everywhere in the desert Southwest, especially in the Tucson basin.
In the strands of this pesky monocot, one can see the history of fire suppression, the desperation of midcentury cattle ranchers to ply their trade in biomes resistant to it, and the innovation of those wishing to control erosion along washes and roadsides. The wispy presence of this grass, also bears witness to a long history of tens of thousands of hours of human power spent to understand its power and either propagate or destroy its existence.
Buffelgrass was imported into the United States in the 1930s by the US Soil Conservation Service to help with erosion but more importantly to be cultivated and fed to cattle as range forage. Most folks didn’t seem to understand the ramifications this would have. You see Buffelgrass is fire evolved. On the African savanna where tall trees and other vegetation was widely dispersed, the fire adapted Buffelgrass was born and bred. Buffel burns easily and fast and is not a typical bunch grass like the kinds that are native to the Sonoran Desert. Buffel is also brilliantly adapted to drought and thus outcompetes the natives, withstands hot and dry conditions which seem to be increasing because of climate change, and virtually delights in getting all fired up (ie fire doesn’t easily kill it). Buffelgrass can “persist after fire by sprouting from rhizomes, tillers, or buds that survive fire”. (4) When Buffel crowds in around non-fire adapted keystone species like the beloved and iconic Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), and fire comes, the results are devastating. Most studies suggest that once the ecosystems of the Saguaro are deeply burned, they will never recover. (5) Mortality for individual Saguaros increases threefold in fire areas and growth rates slow way down for those that do survive. This is why fires like the Bighorn are particularly heartbreaking for locals and Saguaros alike.
Fire management of public lands in the US is a LONG and fascinating history (check out Stephen Pyne if you are interested), but suffice it to say Smokey the Bear was just the beginning. Thus when fire hits these public lands in the early 21st century, it is visiting areas where it should have been a frequent guest over the past century but instead was not allowed in. As a matter of federal and state policy especially in the mid 20th century, spurred on by forest management science, fire had been suppressed and Buffelgrass encouraged. The conditions are explosive to say the least. But in the Buffelgrass lies more than historical tales of mistakes, defeat, and tragedy. There is heroism too.
If we think about that vibrant matter from our last blog entry, we can see how all this has assembled to push political demands and spur environmental social movements. In Tucson alone, non profit organizations such as the Sonoran Desert Weed Wackers have been hard at work for decades trying to spread the word and stop the grass.(6) They take volunteers out to whack away at the stubborn weed clinging exasperatingly well to the dry, hard desert ground (remember its use as erosion control? Well, it’s REALLY good at it). Those same activists have been joined by fire ecologists and botanists and other experts in the region to push the Forest Service, the Park Service and other agencies to prioritize Buffelgrass control. But of course, political will seems ever to blow as smoke in the wind and public support for adequately funding our public lands government agencies seems to shift direction with every election.(7)
And so the grass grows and grows and grows. As fire season approaches those of us in the know hold our breath. Hoping this isn’t the year. And then lightning strikes.
In 2013, a blaze in central Arizona known as the Yarnell Hill Fire mimicked the tragic story of Storm King. An Arizona-based interagency hotshot crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, lost all 19 of their members when the fire took an unexpected turn. The fire sparked outrage - against an abundance of fire suppression in the last 50-100 years, against a lack of fuel suppression (such as removing known villains like Buffelgrass), against a lack of funding for wildland firefighters to have the equipment they need (more budget cuts came in 2017), against nature and lightning and all the rest of the injustices. The outrage persists.
To know all that history takes more than reading a single book. It takes looking a blade of grass in the eye. It takes reading government websites to see what the policies have been erected to save money or save face. It requires listening to a Tohono O’Odham tribal member who knows from centuries of caring for the giants what Saguaros need not to just survive but to thrive. It mandates paying attention to the unburned fuels on the forest floor and the incrementally shifting temperatures upward. Year after year.
But how would any ordinary person know to even think about all of that? I suggest that public history may be the answer to that. Public history exists in many places in many ways, but for our purposes today, its most important manifestation is in memorial spaces and statues. There, emboldened by aesthetic beauty and basking in honored space, public history offers passersby a hint of history and hopes they delve deeper. Such is the purpose of the many firefighter memorials that have been erected in Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado to honor the victims of Storm King and Yarnell. The statues, the marble and granite plazas, the brief signage all ask residents and tourists to pause briefly to think about past fires so that their costs might be remembered.
To mitigate outrage. To heal damage. To honor the lives given. Those are the best reasons to erect a memorial statue, and the country seems immersed right now in a debate about the merit of such an act. As Americans struggle with the meaning of public glory, it might be interesting to think about the fact that commemoration is not stuck in time but continues to this day.
In Glenwood Springs, the Storm King victims stand permanently in the largest city park. One of the “every man” bronze statues is clearly female, a tribute to the four women who died that day in 1994 (see images below). The firefighters in all the statues from both Storm King and the Yarnell Hill fires are posed with their equipment - the axes, hard hats, shelters - all meant to keep them safe and to help them put out the fire. But like all public history, these commemorations exclude details. Conspicuously missing in most of the tributes is the environment itself. In Prineville, Oregon, the memorial of the Prineville hotshots who died on Storm King, is set amongst the town’s war memorials. One of firefighters is poised to chainsaw a burned tree. To the uninformed, this would seem an odd choice when one wants to commemorate heroic deeds that surely saved trees. But cutting burned trees down saves lives and even can help the ecosystem. Still, taking the view of fire “fighting” as a battle against the natural world would still likely rub some folks the wrong way. There are plenty who would critique the depiction of fire as the villain in this memorial. Some would argue if fire suppression had not been the policy of choice, the fires that now burn wouldn’t be nearly as fierce. Those same folks would likely demand to know if we should publicly commemorate an understanding of fire which is inaccurate and outdated - western scientists now know what indigenous peoples long have known...fire is important in many ecosystems (think Yellowstone). No mammal, bird, or reptilian wildlife whose homes are destroyed with each passing flame appear in any of the bronze representations. No dying fish in rivers or streams polluted from the intense erosion that is one of the worst outcomes of modern 21st century wildland fires. It is almost as though the statues get molded and plazas get built when those who feel most maligned and have the loudest power fight for their creation. And we know that trees, fire, and wildlife, while surely, maligned, are still largely silenced in our dominant, human-centered culture. For the Yarnell Hill victims, there have been interesting commemorations.(8) In Arizona, there is now an entire park and trail system devoted to the firefighters. But even in this more enlightened time, the bronze statue depicts a lone male firefighter with lots of tools and a dead tree stump.
All of that to suggest that even those powerful memorials - maybe examples of the best kind of public history - are exclusionary because the stories are so complex and they are still unfolding. One can never read all about the complicatedness of those still-being-written stories in a single book, let alone in the stoic faces of the glorified. What is pictured in each and every commemoration is an invitation to bear witness to the events - the tragedy and the loss. In each instance, the statues and their surroundings invite reflection and pause.
So maybe we ask too much of our statues. The issues of the continuation of a nationwide ethic of fire suppression in spite of best science suggesting otherwise, the persistent ignoring of an invasive species whose sparking threatens to wreak billions of dollars worth of damage, the generalized prioritizing of all that is human (even wildfire incident commanders refer to only manmade structures as “values”), and the stubborn dismissal of the importance of habitat for native plants and animals in the daily discourse around fire, suppression and loss are not present in the statues. And yet, all of this is the history of fire - waiting to be understood by just about everyone in this country. And I am really quite sure that no statue could ever say all of that. As we debate history, memorials, Buffelgrass removal, fire policies, statues, and senseless death (of humans but maybe, hopefully, increasingly of animals, insects, and plants too), it becomes apparent that public commemoration is never adequate or accurate enough. But it is still essential.
5-10 min read
What if I told you that a virus has the power to change history? In June of 2020, you’d rather believe that, I suspect. Would you have believed it (or even thought about it) in June of 2019? Now that you are thinking about a nonhuman actant having power over the trajectory of history, what if I told you things like the placement of a river or the existence of a mineral also change the course of history and make spaces and conditions that are intentionally, but also often unintentionally, unequal and unhealthy and ripe for change?
The power of matter to be vibrant and active on human history and politics is the subject of a new book called Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett. It contains particularly powerful ideas to use in this historic moment because it asks us to take seriously the power of matter to entangle humans in webs of assemblages and meanings that have very real material outcomes on human (and non human) societies. Bennett makes a lot of rather high falutin conclusions and offers highly insightful readings and critiques of political theorists and philosophers. I’m going to ignore all of that and focus on the part I understood (sorry, Dr. Bennett).
In short, Bennett wants us to consider how something non human (and maybe not even “alive” as western cultures think of life) might just propel human societies into their structures and their politics. (1) She wants to know if the combining of human and nonhuman elements might just alter established notions of social accountability and fault finding. What if a workglove had the power to ignite social movements for change and revisions to laws even as it brought into question who was actually responsible for unfair social relationships?
We could find a tangible example of matter igniting humanity right now and might be tempted to apply Bennett’s idea to this virus amongst us that has created uneven emotional reactions and solicited a diversity of opinions and ideas (mandatory masks anyone?). We could even wonder if COVID has opened the space necessary for the protests over police brutality and the larger demonstrations to end racism. But I am sick of COVID, so instead I want to think about fertilizer.
By the early 1920s in Arkwright, South Carolina, two industrial centers were open and doing business. One was a textile mill and the other a fertilizer plant. The fertilizer plant (founded by International Agricultural Company) promised to bring much needed fertilizer to the area’s cotton farms. The other industrial center was the local textile mill. The fertilizer, cotton, and textiles, so the dream went, could seamlessly feed each other - the robustly fertilized raw cotton allowing the gleaming “safe” textile factory to do its modern industrial work.
To do the work, the textile factory hired mostly Whites (it was 1920 after all and state law forbid the hiring of Blacks for certain - well paying - positions). The working class Whites who worked in what was supposedly an enlightened factory also lived in an idyllic village not far, but far enough, from the fertilizer plant. Male Black Americans of Arkwright mostly worked in the highly toxic fertilizer plant whereas most female Blacks could only find work as domestic servants. Heritage and law required Arkwright’s Black Americans to live right next to the fertilizer plant. The plant spewed forth an abundance of fertilizer and an abundance of filth. One former resident remembered that “when you got up in the morning, it was hard to breathe.” (2)
Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?
The mill, the plant, and the racial spatial organization of the town is a story not unlike others from the segregated South after the Civil War. The environmental injustice done to workers and poor communities by industrial plants is not really a new tale either. But a professor at the University of South Carolina, Andrew Gutkowski, has written a brilliant article on this story that begs the application of Jane Bennett’s idea of vibrant matter to “The Evolution of Environmental (In)Justice in Spartanburg, South Carolina.”
There are many kinds of matter we could focus on in Gutkowski’s story, but the one that I think is most demonstrative of Bennett’s very cool idea is dust. Those in the “right” place in Arkwright (mostly members of the Black community) breathed dust laced with hydrofluoric acid and silicon tetrafluoride. They remember that the air in the town would make their mothers’ eyes “swell with tears and make it so that they could hardly breathe.” That same dust made metal brittle, settled as yellow residue on clothing and cars and turned the water in Fairforest creek an off-putting orange. The orange water killed the fish and even the county’s game warden threatened to arrest company officials in 1921. (933) Despite the pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, the company claimed they and their wares were not a threat to public health and officials in government at all levels chose to turn a blind eye. Folks needed jobs, the thought process went (and still goes), and this was the New South -- rebuilding from the ashes of the old. The dust that blanketed the communities of and around Spartanburg would literally and figuratively settle from the early 1900s through midcentury. Not many would protest or really even think much about the dust. But by the 1970s? That would be a different matter altogether.
By 1979, the mill had closed down (due to intense global competition from Asian textile manufacturing), but the fertilizer plant was still going strong and a new source of matter had arrived in the area - trash.
We often think of trash as capable of fomenting a nasty smell but never think of it as equally capable of fomenting political revolution, do we? But in this case, it did just that. At least twice. The economic progress brought to the Piedmont region thanks to the textile industry produced a lot of waste. Until the 1940s, the town had incinerated its waste. But by the mid 20th century, residents began to protest the burning because it created smoke that….you guessed it, made it hard to breathe. The protest worked and the all white city council made the decision to dump the trash rather than burn it. City Manager T. Edward Temple conceived of what is known as a “sanitary landfill” - the name is indeed oxymoronic. A landfill was supposed to be the cat’s meow for waste in the mid 20th century. Cover that trash with some dirt and it will be fine. Better that than polluting the air with it, they reasoned. City Manager Temple hoped to place the landfill near the airport or in a suburb peopled with White residents, but once again, the filthy matter inspired anger and the plan was revised after the White folks protested the placement of the dump.
So once again, trash, that oddly vibrant matter, would inspire political protest as the town debated where to do the dumping. You probably saw this coming...but the final decision was to place the dump nearest to the Black neighborhoods of Arkwright and the dumping began.
For two generations, ALL kinds of matter was dumped into the landfill. The debris clouded the air with poisonous methane and other toxins and those same toxins leaked into the ground and joined currents from the heavy rains that carried them towards rivers and streams where kids swam and families fished. Decision makers claim (and likely are telling the truth) that they didn’t know how terribly toxic the trash was.
The dump closed in the early 1970s but the damage was done. Arkwright property values had dropped precipitously. Investments in the region brought more chemically troubling industry and “clean” development pivoted away from dirty Arkwright and toward less polluted areas. The mill villages fell into disrepair and the area became the site of illicit drug use and crime. The Blacks who had, a generation or 2 previously been forced to live near the dump and the fertilizer plant, couldn’t afford to move and staying put eventually cost many of them their lives.
The acrid fertilizer, the factory smoke, the toxic trash all seem at first glance, to the undiscerning eye, to the eyes of the Arkwright residents (Black and White) to be disjointed, inert matter in a sad and tragic tale of historical economic development. And in some ways they were only that. But, I think Bennett would argue, that when that inert matter assembled in just the right way, to cause human di-ease, it forced eyes to open, it necessitated new conversations, and it ultimately inspired political movements.
Put another way, by the 1980s, the small area of Arkwright, South Carolina contained just the matter required to foment rebellion. The dump had filled up and been closed, the textile mill had been shuttered and, as of 1986, the fertilizer plant supposedly had also closed up shop….but no one thought about the matter. The literal matter. The vibrant matter sitting in the dump, percolating at the plant, eroding at the mill.
By the decade of disco and the Jackson 5, Black residents “suspected” there was something wrong with the air and water in their neighborhoods but experts (usually from the companies themselves) assured everyone that it was all harmless in the long run. These same residents now worked in the new chemical plants and according to Gutkowski didn’t put up much of a fuss “believing that deference was safer than challenging the environmental status quo.” (939) Then came Harold Mitchell.
Mitchell had grown up in the Arkwright neighborhood - a stone’s throw from the dump and the fertilizer plant. By the 1990s, his father had died of cancer and his sister had passed away because, well, she couldn’t breathe. Autopsy results showed chemical poisoning as the likely cause of his sister’s death. The poison? Just the sort of thing you’d use to produce fertilizer. But the fertilizer plant had shuttered and was no longer belching poison into Arkwright, right? It turns out that the plant had for all intents and purposes been abandoned. Never reclaimed or cleaned up likely because to do so would have cost IRC millions. When Mitchell called the Environmental Protection Agency with concerns about the di-ease of so many in his childhood neighborhood, one of those pesky bureaucrats that we love to malign in our daily political conversations in 2020, a woman named Cynthia Peurifoy, listened. Approximately 48 tons of super-phosphate fertilizer, vibrant matter that had wreaked great harm in the bodies of Arkwright residents but also likely contributed to extraordinary growth to cotton fields not far away, had been left behind. After many investigations, the fertilizer plant site and the dump were both listed on the United States list of Superfund sites (that’s a fancy way for saying they were really really hazardous and in need of radical cleaning).
But the EPA wasn’t perfect. It was far away and couldn’t really control much of what was happening on and to the ground in Arkwright. It could label the dilapidated spaces. It could try to clean them up and erase the past affronts, but it became very obvious that the people of Arkwright, united as they were through the carcinogenic and other respiratory illness-generating matter of the fertilizer plant and other dumped residues, were going to have to demand full participation at the local level if they hoped to craft the future of their lives and their communities.
They gathered together to create a community-based organization that was committed to not just cleaning up the past but to re-envisioning the future. That organization, Re-Genesis, was formed in the space created by toxic matter. It grew from the fields of fertilizer and trash to earn the EPA’s respect (they won an $850,000 revitalization grant), to reform the City Council and nudge it into admitting its oversight and willful negligence of Arkwright and its surroundings. Getting IRC to pay for its destruction and to get Spartanburg to integrate racially wasn’t enough for Mitchell and the other citizens. They wanted environmental justice and to “reform and democratize the environmental decision-making structures that had created the inequality” and the vibrant matter to begin with. (947) Their hard work has paid off, and it continues.
This story is a beautiful concrete example of Jane Bennett’s contention that the sources of harm are rarely singular in location or time. They are rarely perpetuated intentionally by 1-2 bad actors but rather by a confederation of actors that pay little attention to what is the matter. In this story, neighborhoods in and around Arkwright existed in particular spaces and times that included dreams for the future, racialized bias, economic imperatives, hope, contentment, concern, and finally fear. The plants, humans, animals, rivers, organic and inorganic matter all interacted over time to produce a place, Arkwright, South Carolina, where humans’ intention mattered but maybe not as much as their inattention. No one really listened to the percolating drips in the factory. No one seemed to see opportunity in the vacant mill windows. Few worried about the particulates in the air. At least not at first. But the presence of all of that mattered - and with enough time and deep courage, local peoples nonviolently agitating for their vision, brought the matter that once harmed to finally heal. Fertilizer, trash, and clothing: coming together over the course of a century to inspire opportunity, inequality, consciousness, and renewal.
When the winds in Spartanburg blew the toxic dust from fertilizer and landfill, it also blew political change - all because people wanted to breathe.
Next Up: a less heady read about smoke and statues
1. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
2. All of this Spartanburg/Arkwright story is from an excellent article in the March edition of the Journal of American History. All subsequent parenthetical citations in the blog are page numbers from the article. Andrew Gutkowski, "The Evolution of Environmental (In)Justice in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1900-2000, The Journal of American History, Vol. 106, No. 4 (March 2020): 923-948.
This may be the summer I come to dread the sun. The sun has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember. As a Colorado native and an Arizona transplant, I have lived nearly 320 days of sun every year for 5 decades. That’s 16,000 days of sun.
The sun has represented for me adventure, joy, escape. For many of those 16,000 days I have sauntered across red rocks in the canyons of my homeplace. I have summited high peaks and been shocked when the sun disappears without a moment’s notice and the sky dumps buckets of hard, sharp hail on my bare shoulders...only to reappear as though nothing had happened. I have spent many of those days splashing kayak paddles in cool waters that promise to absolve the sun’s intensity. I have rafted rivers bathed in sunlight and wandered across vast desert grasslands wondering at all the energy the sun creates with seemingly no effort.
But this year, the sun seems to have almost too much power. When it sets, the violence begins. When it rises it spotlights the news of injustice, illness, and insecurity. It was supposed to kill the virus and usher in a new season, but instead it has brought only a drought of hope. The cases of the sickness continue to soar. The anger over cruel systems of inequality seems only to grow with the sun’s urging. Indeed, as the sun sets on a turbulent spring and beckons a new long, hot summer, the days seem endless and hopeless. Yes, this might just be the year, I learn to hate the sun unless I can come to understand it differently.
A month ago I had decided to stop writing my summer blog. Everything seemed hopeless or worse. I kept leaning into excuses and fear - no one really reads the blog anyway, I told myself (even though the stats seem to suggest that each entry gets about 150-200 reads). It doesn’t make me any money, so what is the point, I irritatingly asked myself (even though I have never really done anything just because it might make me money - ok...working in Taco Bell that one summer in high school. That was solely for the money and I was miserable). But then I stumbled on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic about living a creative life and what that means not just for the individual but how having the courage to be creative resounds into our communities and our world….even if it just because the creator herself is happier and more content energetically. So, I’m writing. What the hell.
It has to be said that the time of COVID has radically transformed my interaction with the world. As a person whose life partner is in the healthcare field and a small business owner (she’s a dentist!) we have had to be pretty “buttoned down” for the last 3 months. While I pride myself on my summer blog mostly being about simple observations of daily life in the mountain and desert places I call home, right now I’m not really even experiencing those as I usually do.
What I am experiencing is a fairly consistent pull by former students and friends to offer “my perspective as a historian” on pandemics, state control of health, social protest, racialized approaches to public safety and a host of other things. I’ve had countless (well, ok, maybe not countless but a lot) of texts from folks saying “Damn, I wish I was in your class right now so we could talk about……”
This really can't be a discussion forum per se, but maybe some of the things I read or think about that I would mention or even assign in my class might be of use and/or of interest to the 1-200 readers who check this out in the next 4 months.
The editor of the series I’m publishing a book with keeps reminding me to not be defensive in my writing...but I’m not listening (yet) so here is my defensive caveat. I’m not an expert in any of the subjects I may tackle this summer. BUT I am a scholar educator activist who accesses and reads historical studies and theoretical tracts that non academic and non historian readers rarely access. My quest then is to bring you “cliff notes” on some of the things I’m reading that I think might just lend some insight into or even offer an interesting pivot away from this historic moment in which we find ourselves. I’m convinced that this is a unique opportunity to engage with this moment in ways that do justice to the complexity of the era and make connections among seemingly disparate trends and conversations (which has always been and continues to be the purpose of my blog). I’m not interested in addressing specifics of the issues of June 2020 (the history of civil rights as it is coalescing in Black Lives Matter; the long and fascinating history of law enforcement; the historically constant presence of pandemics and humans futile attempts to combat them, etc.), but I am keen on thinking about the politics and the activity that surrounds some of these issues in ways that, seem to me, might do more justice to the complexity of the times. In short, I guess the blog of Summer 2020 might be a bit more intellectual than my summer blog usually is. An important note….I do not purport to know much about much. This is still just my thoughts and my observations. I have nothing figured out, and I’m still just mostly interested in observing connections in the seemingly disconnected. But this summer seems to be calling me to throw in some tidbits about the history and theory I’m reading to see those connections more creatively and maybe more clearly. So the blog might feel different...like the sun feels different...like everything seems different. But I hope you like it anyway. First entry arriving at week's end.
I talk fast. I think fast. Back in the day I moved relatively fast. But in the deepest days of summer in Tucson, I slow down. The intensity of the heat requires it. The sun wilts even the cactus pads. The arroyo’s cracks become wider and seemingly permanent. The birds cry in the darkest moments of the night - apparently because to be active at dawn risks too much. Water in bottles, in faucets, in eyes seems miraculous and so very tenuous - when the rains come (far too irregularly this year) they restore ephemeral hope that disappears too quickly down the storm drain. In this tense season, one could understand that I have a short temper, and I suspect that everyone is just about to snap like a dried and crispy fan belt in an old rusty car. Dogs seem bored and miserable. Feral cats are not even “in the mood,” and lizards scurry from bush to bush lest they spend too long on the hot, baked earth. There is nowhere else quite like it.
This is my least favorite time. I have a friend who argues that the heat should feel good - something about Chinese medicine and moving the humors and some such thinking. Things should rev up and move faster in heat, he claims. Another friend gleefully refers to the heat as “surreal” while other friends just grumble while sipping martinis in their pool. Chinle and I have no pool, and when you have a dog that is habituated to exercise, you walk - no matter what. Maybe we should move faster because of the warmth, but in this heat, we slow down. And while slowness is not my preferred pace, I am coming to appreciate all the gifts you gather when you meander.
There is a street that Chinle insists on traversing during every season. It’s my least favorite street in the whole neighborhood, and it’s worse in the beating summer sun. There isn’t a tree on the street and the lone growing things are a couple of dilapidated Saguaro, dehydrated Oleander, and 4 rather gaunt birds of paradise. When you are moving THIS slow, you have plenty of time to think and to notice things that walking in, say, Montana in August may not afford. It dawns on me that the yard that usually seems so barren as to be depressing is suddenly a miracle. It is monsoon season when the desert springs to unexpected life, so it must be a herculean task to keep that yard free from ANY living thing. Not a blade of Bermuda grass or sprig of goathead exists - someone is bravely persisting in maintaining the nothingness. The woman who owns the home proudly parks her 3/4ton, 4X4 pickup smack in the middle of the yard. The truck is always spotless, and I know her son comes over and washes it at least once a week. On this walk, as Chinle pauses to sniff whatever mysteries exist on the faded pavement, I see that the homeowner is sitting on her porch gazing lovingly at her dirt. I finally have the chance to ask her about the handicapped license plate and her relationship with that truck. She walks (barely) with a walker and must be at least 80 years old. She sees us and waves shyly. “Good morning!” I greet her with a sweaty smile, “Do you still drive this beauty?” Me pointing at the Ford. She thinks about being offended and then breaks into a grin, “You bet I do. And I still like to go off road every now and then.” #lifegoals
As we mosey (really there is no other word for it), it occurs to me that the lizards on the street are ubiquitous despite having no habitat to speak of. Maybe the lack of foliage and even topography is why they are so obvious or maybe it’s because we are keeping August pace rather than December pace that I see them more clearly. Maybe there are this many lizards on EVERY street. I feel a pang of hope when I see 3 fall hatchlings that aren’t longer than my thumb. That seems to be a sign that fall (or at least the season after summer) is coming. But we aren’t there yet, and I wonder if the heat is bothering them. Some studies suggest that the increasing temperatures of climate change will hurt reptiles more than other species because they live in “thermally challenging environments”. (1) That phrase makes me laugh. Thermally challenging environment, indeed.
As we bag the block in record slow time, I notice that the cicadas’ songs are increasing with the warmth of the morning. They conjure their voice by wobbling their abdomens, a mating call that must be very effective because the damn things are EVERYwhere. According to Peter Warren, the urban horticulture agent for the Pima County Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona, Kokopelli, the Hopi god of fertility, was at least part cicada.(2) I grew up in western Colorado where Kokopelli is appropriated and fetishized by a lot of people, but in a way that oddly diminishes his vigor. The “clean” version of Anglo Kokopelli is of a romantic flute player, but in the explicit rock art version across the region, Kokopelli usually has an erect phallus that is impossible to ignore. A lot like that loud buzzing from his supposed descendants. I’ve been hit by one in mid-flight, and it felt more like a Cessna than a Cicada. This time of year, their exoskeletons are weirdly frozen on tree trunks impervious to wind or rain, but you have to move slowly to even know they are there.
As Chinle and I gasp and foam our way toward our house, we see our neighbors outside chatting in halting and beautifully accented English to a family of Hispanic landscape workers. I suspect that if this were during a cooler season, our faster pace would have pushed us right past the group. Our neighbors hail from Austria...he is a Nobel finalist in physics. He and his frail wife, who persistently and mystifyingly grows beautiful roses year round, have lived in the United States for over 60 years and in the house across from ours for 40. Their 1995 Crown Victoria has bumper stickers that read “America’s healthcare plan = don’t get sick” and “solar power is our savior”. Damn European socialists. The Hispanic family contains a father, his daughter and her son. The patriarch is grey and deeply tanned with sparkly eyes and fast English. The daughter leans on a shovel and is draped in a flowing white shirt that is somehow spotless despite the obvious hard work she’s just been doing. Chinle and I wave at the group. My neighbor says “we were just talking about the heat.” I roll my eyes and explain I have to get the black dog to water. Soon, though, I find myself engaged in conversation. The older men begin to discuss the immigration “policies” that are in our very midst. We all live about 4 blocks from a former monastery where refugees are being cared for as they await their destiny.(3) This town is a nation of immigrants. The two remember when they first arrived in the US and remark on the families and lives they have built here. One came just after World War II and spent much of his early years in New York, “a city that felt strangely familiar.” The other lived on a ranch whose lands stretched across the border until one day he just stayed on this side of the imaginary line. They both remember the day they became citizens. The daughter, born many years after her father “just stayed,” had been silent up until this point, politely listening. It soon became obvious that she just couldn’t remain silent any longer and said, almost in a whisper, “I just know if someone tried to take my baby, they’d have to kill me first.” I look at her son. He seems nonplussed. “Do you ever wish you did different work?” the Austrian-American asks. “Oh, no way,” replies the grandfather, “It’s a little hard sometimes, but we help make this place beautiful.” Just as I thought to myself that never was a truer statement uttered than the young boy groaned forcefully, “mom, abuelo, come on! Let’s go. It’s HOOOOTTT.” Chinle agree, and after saying a hasty goodbye, we quickly ducked into our 72 degree house with gratitude.
1)Buddhi Dayananda, “Hotter nests produce hatchling lizards with lower thermal tolerance,” Journal of Experimental Biology, https://jeb.biologists.org/content/220/12/2159.
2) Irene McKisson, “10 fascinating facts about Tucson’s cicadas,” This is Tucson, https://tucson.com/thisistucson/tucsonlife/fascinating-facts-about-tucson-s-cicadas/article_1e7422e0-0df9-11e4-a93c-0019bb2963f4.html.
3) Margaret Regan, “ A Temporary Respite, The Tucson Weekly, July 25, 2019, https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/a-temporary-respite/Content?oid=26078302.
I cannot stand wind. And I am especially averse to places where the damn thing blows all the time with seemingly no purpose. Deming, New Mexico is one of those places. It is also one of those places that is intentionally vague. It has an aloofness that suggests it doesn’t care whether you stop or not. Despite its somewhat unwelcoming attitude, the town bustles with folks who pause as they are passing through on the way to somewhere (anywhere?) else. Every now and then you can see the exceptions to this - the locals hanging out at the local McDonald’s accessing wifi and swapping stories, the van of dozing football players as they return to the high school after a long road trip, the smattering of houses that dot the tidy residential streets in this 9 square mile, dusty town, 33 miles north of Old Mexico. Clearly not everyone is leaving. There are even a few glimpses of what the 14,000 people who live here might do, as they live their lives in between Tucson, Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and everywhere else. There is the lone cow crouched hesitatingly under the lone bush in the midst of thousands of acres of sparse ranch country. His body language seems to suggest some skepticism that the few leaves on the “tree” are going to provide him any protection from the howling wind and glaring sun, but he also seems to know the cowboy will return. Not far from him is a trough of water that appears to have been recently filled by someone - the water rippling in the breeze Deming is famous for. The open sign in the thrift store window twinkles its message that folks have brought their “past treasures” to trade. There are independent restaurants clearly stubborn in their refusal to close shop even in the face of the daunting encroachment of every kind of fast food chain you can imagine. There is the bank, the medical center, and Baca Funeral Chapels. Obviously, there are some who are born, live, and die here.
I often drive through Deming...on my way to, well, anywhere else. In spite of my skeptical feeling about this blustery site, there is something about the place that begs me to ponder it. How do places like this survive? It’s position near the Southern Pacific Railroad once had Deming coined “The New Chicago” - but obviously that never quite panned out. Ranching has historically been one of the most important industries in the region but most of the time these days it seems there is a total of about 400 blades of grass in all of Luna County and that one lonely cow, under that wispy bush, has visible ribs which seem to support my assessment. The river exists only when it floods and the Interstate seems to further promote the fastness with which people encounter this indistinct town. Still, the tire shop is open, the football team made the state playoffs last year, and the Baca Funeral services seem to be doing a fine business, at least from the appearance of their website.(1) I stopped this time at the pinon pine sales tent that has been selling its wares for at least a decade. The young woman manning (masculine verb intentional) the tent smiles at me as I approach. I can barely hear her hello above the loud whipping sound made by the tent as it flaps in the unceasing gusts. I buy my pinons, ask her how business is, and laugh gently when she says “as good as it needs to be.” I then mention to her the development I’ve noticed on the way out of town toward Hatch. She smiles again and says “this wind is finally good for something.”
The development to which I refer is a 28 turbine, 50 MW windfarm named “Macho Springs.”(2) Like most windfarms in the US West, this one appears eerily in the distance the first time you come upon it and then dominates the view for miles and miles. The phallic windmills tilt toward the absurd, and I always find it difficult to find beauty in them even though I know how important the energy they generate is for the region, the country, and the world. This one was completed in 2011 but for some reason I’ve just really noticed it the last couple of years. The tax revenue generated from it will benefit Luna County public schools and other public services. The farm sits on the old Graham Ranch and takes up about 2000 acres. The man whose idea it was prided himself on his rugged individuality. Macho Springs indeed. Donald Graham first became enamoured with technology during his stint in the Navy during World War II. After the war, his young adulthood found him cowboying for several ranches throughout southern New Mexico, rounding up wild horses for the federal government, opening chicken farms, and riding the bulldog circuit in Texas. He even found a white collar profession for a bit of time as an appraiser before finally settling down in windy Luna County to run his family’s ranch. In the early 2000s, the story goes, he and his son began to think about that interminable, incessant wind and its potential. They partnered with Element Power (Oregon-based and now Canadian owned) and in the blink of an eye 6 permanent jobs and a whole lot of energy was being generated on the part of the ranch that had long been the holding pasture due to its proximity to the railroad. Not quite the stockyards of Chicago, but perhaps one shouldn’t be picky. Donald died in 2014, and yes, he was buried by Baca Funeral, leaving the wind turbines as part of his legacy. He was a well-known supporter of local history, but interestingly, we don’t know much about Donald’s wife. His obituary mentions they married in 1958, but where she is now isn’t explained. An albeit halfhearted attempt to Google her results in nothing. And thus this woman from Macho Springs seem to be erased - her presence and contributions blown away in the winds of time.
Like so many men in mid 20th century New Mexico ranch country, Donald was active in the New Mexico Cattlegrowers’ Association, but he was particularly proud of his association with the Freemasons. If ever there was an organization from which machoness sprung, it is The Freemasons. The Masons are a fraternal organization whose activities and beliefs are fully visible only to its members and rather secret to everyone else. Much of the secrecy of the organization stems from its earliest rituals steeped in closed membership that had a guild-like character available only to those European stone masons eligible for indoctrination. The anti-papal, anti-female organization has been shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories for hundreds of years, but today is generally known as a male-dominated fraternity for local (usually white) businessmen to fraternize - the kind of organization that would logically flow from places named Macho Springs. According to the Masonic Service Association of North America, the Grand Lodge of the Masons in the US never discriminated against non-whites. Asking an applicant’s race is not allowed by the Grand Lodge (and as a result ethnic membership numbers were never kept). Of course, membership was and is up to the local lodges. In small town America, in the heyday of the Masons (1800s-mid-20th century), everyone would have known the race of an applicant and likely the local racial politics of race would have excluded men of color in many locations. Not so progressive was (is) the Masons approach to gender. In the earliest days of the Masons, women were completely excluded (ya know, to “honor” the tradition of male-only trades like stone masonry). Today, women get to participate in some activities and there are auxiliaries that meet women’s “specific needs” (aren’t the gals lucky to have such progressivism in their midst?), but at the end of the day “To petition for membership, the petitioner must be "a man of legal age, good reputation, and possess a belief in God."(3)
As I leave Deming to head elsewhere, the wind has shifted to gentler breeze, and I imagine the blades at the windmill slowing just a bit maybe to the relief of the cows who graze under them and the birds who try to fly around them. I arrive in the cooler climes of northern New Mexico where the bushes and the cows look happier - but where the wind continues to howl. Sitting on one of my favorite patios sipping tea, an elderly woman is painting a stand of yellow Columbine. She must have felt me staring at her as she looks over. I smile at her; whenever I travel alone, my smile seems to say “talk to me and tell me your quirky theories.” “Windy today,” she says. I reply that it seems to be windy a lot of the time. She says as she looks wistfully toward Taos Mountain, “of course it is. It’s Georgia.” “Georgia?” I say skeptically. “O’Keefe!” The woman nearly shouts. “That’s who I thought you meant,” I reply somewhat defensively. “And it isn’t just the white women speaking,” she continues, “If you pause, you can hear all the women who have left this place reminding us to be strong. They have stories to tell that many haven’t been interested in hearing. That’s why the wind always blows. They are trying to get us to listen.” I turn to look at the Columbine that are as big as my hand. A woman walks through the nearby pasture to gather a lone cow whose ribs are hidden under a thick layer of grass-fed fat. She pauses to pat the cow, looking up at the tall cottonwood that sways in the breeze as it has for probably a century. Clearly, I am no longer in Macho Springs, and I may never think of the wind the same way again.
1. Baca Funeral Chapels, “Donald Graham Obituary,” Accessed: June 22, 2019, https://www.bacasfuneralchapels.com/notices/Donald-Graham.
2. Matt Robinson, “Macho Springs Windfarm in Southwest N.M. Officially Opens,” Deming Highlight, November, 2011, Accessed: June 22, 2019, https://www.abqjournal.com/69615/macho-springs-wind-farm-in-southwest-n-m-officially-opens.html.
3. See Masonic Service Association of North America, “Freemasonry and Brotherhood,” Accessed: June 22, 2019, https://www.msana.com/brotherhood.asp.
Not long ago, there appeared all over my Twitter a goat emoji. This was usually applied to posts about phenomenal athletes (Lebron James, Tom Brady (gag), Diana Taurasi, Serena Williams, etc). For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what it was all about. I finally learned that GOAT stands for Greatest of All Time. These athletes are usually powerful because of their stature (for their position). They are BIG and STRONG and thus...powerful. Here is an example of this kind of conversation. And certainly in the world of sports, especially SOME sports, big means power.
But I’ve also come to realize over the years (as trite as it might seem) that power doesn’t require size or girth at all, and in some of the most powerful entities in the world, indeed the real GOATs, are actually pretty tiny. I’m thinking here of ants and viruses and things of this ilk. As I write, we are being visited by one of those tiny GOATs courtesy of a monsoon storm. I look at the tiny drops of water dripping onto the parched earth and think about how much power that singular molecule holds. I can almost hear the plants gulping as much as they can from the earth as the tiny soil particles hold the moisture for too brief a time. In Tucson, when those droplets arrive, they have the power to utterly transform an entire city’s attitude. Now that is power! My social media groups like “Tucson Backyard Gardeners” blow up with videos and pictures and exclamations about the storm. Gloating reports come from the West side of town while the South and East might be decrying the absence of the life giving rivulets. I suspect in some places rain makes people depressed or they become immune to it, but not here. “My plants are so happy” will rejoice a friend on Instagram. “The Rillito [one of our local...usually dry...rivers] is flowing!!” will report someone else on Facebook. I have been known to share a video or two of my street turned lazy stream or rushing torrent (drainage isn’t really a thing in central Tucson).
The Sonoran Desert only receives about 12 inches of precipitation per year, and the monsoon season accounts for almost ½ of that. As a result, the desert comes alive this time of year rejoicing, I imagine (or maybe I’m just projecting), in the fact that it has survived the hellish early summer of May and June. Wildflowers make a second appearance. The bugs decide it’s time to take over (especially our backyard residents the mosquitos, cockroaches, and Black Widows - really the desert is awesome), Octatillos begin to photosynthesize with their newly minted leaves, and Colorado River Toads croak their poisonous arrival above ground. The night of the toads’ emergence must be quite the party as these amphibians tend to mate on one night only just after a significant rain (an inch or more). These toads can grow to be 7 inches long, and they have a skin toxin that is strong enough to kill a decently-sized dog. Despite their name, they are in steep decline in western Arizona (where one would find the actual Colorado River). But on that one night, after those tiny drops of rain accumulate enough to dampen the desert to the toads’ preferred level, one can hear them “gettin’ busy” as their mating calls fill the night air. After that one romantic evening, the female toads deposit upwards of 8000 (EIGHT THOUSAND) eggs and then go back to whatever it is they do the other 364 days of the year. Ah -- nothing like a blog about toad sex, right? Anyway...I digress. Other life returns to the quiet desert in the monsoon-inspired late summer. And as the desert starts its turn toward its version of autumn, fall hatchling lizards manifest, barrel cacti bloom, and the Texas Rangers bathe the city in purple grandeur. As the weather turns colder elsewhere in North America, the Sonoran Desert maintains its average temperatures in the 90s so hummingbirds and other migratory birds start to arrive at the feeders with more frequency, harvester ants frantically gather their treasures, and the endless barbed plants put out their sticky fruit to ensure (more than) adequate transportation toward new places for propagation. (1)
This time of the year, you’d think Chinle would love her walks more than usual. But for a dog with tender paws and a general life-long intolerance to heat (she is a black Labrador, for pete’s sake), the humidity and the intensive efforts of prickly plants to make their getaway from their overbearing parents transform monsoon season from miraculous to treacherous. Which brings me to the real point of this blog...the inspiration for all this small but mighty/GOAT discussion. I think I have found the GOAT of GOATs. The most powerful entity on earth may just be one that is so tiny and so unassuming that most folks are unaware of its presence. This is the Lebron James of the plant world, and you likely have no idea it’s there until it’s REALLY there. This plant makes its presence known right around August and September here in the Sonoran Desert and is appropriately known as the GOAThead (all cap emphasis mine).
WARNING: In what follows, there may be some language not suitable for those with delicate eyes. But if you’ve ever stepped on one of these “seeds” in your bare feet, you will recognize the language as you have likely uttered it yourself.
Tribulus terrestris, also known as caltrop, puncturevine, goathead, devilsweed, pieceofshit, and evilbastard, can (and does) survive anywhere and everywhere in North America. It grows in parking lots, dirt lots, vacant lots, really any lot you can imagine. And when conditions are right, like this year in Tucson, it grows A LOT. It is, at first glance, almost a charming plant. It has fern-like leaves and lovely little yellow flowers that appear in profusion...right after those powerful little drops of rain visit our fine desert. Folks who are unaware of what this son of a bitch has in store for them, ignore the plant allowing it to nearly take over the cracks and crevices of their sidewalks and yards. Within a month or so, the pretty yellow “wild” flowers have transformed into the true meaning of the Latin name, which refers to a caltrop - a three-pronged weapon used in premodern European warfare to stop, well, everything and everyone it came in contact with. This bloody plant is named after AN F*ing WEAPON, people!! The “caltrop” of the puncturevine is similarly powerful. It will stop a tough dog in their tracks as they yelp and looking imploringly up at someone with thumbs (or if they are a bizarre, somewhat masochistic Husky, they will use their teeth to remove the weapon of mass destruction and eat it). The GOAThead will pop a bike tire before you can yell “shit!” It will penetrate a human foot so deeply one can almost taste it. It will render a horse lame and can even choke a bunny. A BUNNY! Supposedly the damn things can be brewed and made into diuretics and may even be boosters of testosterone (toad sex anyone?). But when it’s all said and done, the most the invasive GOAThead does is ruin lives. Imported from Europe (or maybe Asia), this jackass of a plant does no discernable good but rather causes pain and anger and at this, it has no rival. It is the GOAT(head)!
The plant is such a nemesis that it is listed by the United States Department of Agriculture (and state ag departments) as a(n) (ob)noxious weed - meaning WE SHOULD KILL THE BASTARDS! In 1961, United States Department of Agriculture introduced a biological control agent to do just that. Microlarinus lareynii is a seed eating weevil that feeds only on the seed pods of the GOATheads. It’s a tricky little devil, the weevil (as is true for most biological control mechanisms), but when it works, it works. You can even go buy some for yourself...for example through this website (I’m not endorsing the site, just showing you that holy cow, this tiny little “thorn” is so powerful it has inspired entire websites and government plots to destroy it). The Colorado state government even hosts its own “Request a Bug” site -- so….ya know...have at it.
This year, in Tucson, seems to be a banner year for the pieceofshit. They are everywhere...even finagling their way into the “grass” in the parks in central Tucson. My neighbors seem oblivious to its presence which is infuriating to me and makes me not as friendly as I should be. It makes our dog walk feel like a sojourn through a minefield. And it mocks us in its prolific ability to adapt and reproduce. I can almost see the codwaller flipping me the bird every time I dig one up. It KNOWS its seeds stay viable for 3-4 years and it KNOWS there is no chance I got them all because they sneakily blend in perfectly with the dirt around them.
So what can be done? The government could help import some of them thar weevils...but let’s just say the Tucson city government is not the USDA of 1961 (topic of another blog? hmmmm). My neighbors could begin to wake up and realize there is an enemy amongst us (and it isn’t JUST the Russians). We could stay inside for 3 months and just wait until December when maybe the caltrops have mostly become wedged in the ground. Or we could just suck it up and accept that the small have great power, and we live in a world where drops of rain inspire lots of toad sex, and the real GOAT seems to be a tiny tripod-shaped seed pod that has flummoxed entire armies and one sweet 9-year old labrador retriever. And lest you think the monsoons down here in Tucson are all rainbows and butterflies….beware: the power of the GOAT(head).
1) For a great resource on all things Sonoran check out the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum which just celebrated its 66th birthday!
There is something captivating about the “Brush and Bulky” pickup in our ‘hood. Chinle has a particular obsession with all of the smells and sights lurking in the piles of well-loved or well-hated waste that dot the streets during the 2 times of year that the city of Tucson picks up trash that is inappropriate (too brushy or too bulky) for regular pickup. The air was tolerable when we began our daily walk, but the mercury is rising steadily. This is July heat...when the 105-110 degree highs are not arid or anything close to the myth about “dry heat” in Arizona. The monsoons have arrived driving up the humidity and dew point - supposedly to create an environment for rain. .05 inches of precipitation is all we have had at our house, and we are a month into the “rainy season.” I only sound bitter, but let’s be real, the presence or lack of humidity isn’t the problem. 105 degrees is hot. No matter what. Chinle knows she has to walk before she can play ball, and she slogs along begrudgingly on most days. But on Brush and Bulky days there are so many things to look at and sniff that the walk seems almost as entertaining as a trip to the park to play fetch.
On the one hand, I find the piles to be overwhelming evidence of a consumerism run amuck. But when I let go of that particular point of obsessive anxiety and really look at what comprises the piles, I am struck by all the stories those items could tell. There’s the recliner that leans nonchalantly to one side - perhaps evidence of one late night bender too many. I can imagine the raucous beer-infused laughter that erupted when the adorably overweight uncle sat down heavily on the chair and broke the spring. The crib that sits outside a house where a 2-year old red-headed little girl chirps daily, regardless of the heat or humidity, as she sways gleefully on her new swingset suggests of the progress of time and the continuing of generations. Two enormous OLD TVs are tossed facedown with their dusty backs indicating a particular disdain for most kinds of ordinary housework.
And then there is the crazy catman’s house. This is a duplex that most neighbors eye with suspicion mostly because of the 8-10 cats that lounge languidly all over the front yard or the porch of the man I fondly call “jackass.” He has deep-seated hatred for dogs and has, on 2 occasions, said very mean things to my pups. Now granted, one time, Chinle pulled the leash out of my hand and proceeded to chase as many of those cats as possible down the street.* But the first time catman was a jackass, we had done nothing but saunter by, and Chinle was guilty of nothing but being canine. His cats routinely have litters of kittens the destiny of which I do not know. On this Brush and Bulky Sunday, though, one of the kittens from a recent contribution to the neighborhood’s feral condition is sitting atop a pile of rubbish that could not possibly all fit inside the small duplex. The kitten is staring at an old, filthy litter box (which is surprising to me since it suggests jackass DOES keep some of his pets’ sewage on his property or at least did...several decades ago). The kitten mews sweetly at Chinle and almost seems as though she is sad about seeing the litter box disappear. I’m sure she will be thrilled to find the sandy dirt in my front yard. As we stand and stare in awe at the immensity of the refuse, the old screen door starts to squeak and in sheer terror we bolt away. The next collection of “Bulky” has a well worn couch laying on its back. It sits in front of the house that has recently been painted bright purple. The women who live inside the house often sit on camping chairs in their barren yard with their 2 small dogs who sprint back and forth barking as we walk by. Chinle thinks about how easy it would be to “exercise” if your legs were that small. 10 feet would be a mile and then fetch time would come so much more quickly. I often stop to chat with the now retired school teachers and have learned that they live with one of their mothers. She is well into her 90s and has recently taken a turn for the worse. The bright purple paint comes courtesy of the mother’s son and the school teacher’s brother and was meant to cheer everyone in the house as they deal with the difficulty of saying goodbye to a loved one. The couch is being discarded to make room for the mother’s hospital bed.
No brush and bulky would be complete without the mattresses. The joke around town is that we have a mattress store on every corner in Tucson. When I was bemoaning the fact, a friend of mine suggested this Freakonomics podcast as a way to explain the phenomena. I was still skeptical that the cold, personalityless shops were actually selling mattresses. I mean how many mattresses can one community buy?? Bubble economics be darned - there just can’t be demand for that many mattresses. But on Brush and Bulky day, I start to believe that the mattress stores aren’t just fronts for drug smuggling operations but are actual mattress stores. In a 7 block radius, we counted 25 discarded (and clearly well used) mattresses. My favorite one is bright pink with lime green roses on it. When it was new, it was probably almost too pretty to put sheets on. The mattress sits forlornly, and I can almost hear it sniffling quietly as it reminisces about the hope it had for its life and retirement when it was first purchased, in 1954. Back then, it pictured a long and happy life in a bedroom with fragrant parfumes and a beautiful starlet who laid down each night in flowing white lace nightgown with powder on her face and an eye mask to keep the wrinkles at bay. Each morning, the mattress dreamed it would be carefully tucked into a fluffy, pale blue feather comforter that did just that, comforted. It’s not at all that the mattress thought it would be the center of the starlet’s world forever. But it sort of expected to be moved to the plush guest room and covered with cream colored pillows and a maroon duvet in its later years. Of course, it would be used less frequently, but its importance to the aesthetics of the starlet’s household would be undiminished. But alas! Here it sits - gathering dust from the dirty streets of a dry July in Tucson. A dove perches just where the starlet’s head once lay and, as the mattress fears, it does exactly what pigeons do. And so the mattress weeps.
But that’s just the Bulky part of Brush and Bulky. The Brush includes piles of palm tree fronds that reach as high as a basketball hoop. Some residents very carefully put the weeds in bags, presumably to keep it all from blowing away in the monsoons. Others just toss all kinds of organic detritus waiting for the huge trucks to come and haul it away. The amount of plant debris along the streets is mind boggling, especially this time of year when it seems it must be much too hot for anything to survive. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise - the sheer volume of waste in the neighborhood. The Washington Post (who has been reporting pretty consistently on the globe's trash problems since at least 2012) cites World Bank data to explain that the world produces at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste every DAY and that is 10 times the amount it did a century ago. In the US, each person averages 4.4 pounds of trash daily and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 34% of that is recycled. (1) In Tucson, much of the solid waste will be dumped into the Los Reales landfill (pictured below). It was first built in 1967 and is over a 1000-acre site (although the refuse doesn’t cover all that space). Over the years its expansion and upgrades have been controversial and celebrated almost simultaneously. Landfills are fascinating places. If you’ve never visited one, you should. It may even inspire you to buy (or at least discard) less stuff. It is humbling to stand and look over the diversity of excess. It all seems so pointless, but if you happen to be on a tour, you will learn that not all of the waste is unproductive. At Los Reales, for example, the surfeit of trash and vegetation is doing some work as it decays and releases methane gas that Tucson Electric Power captures and uses to create electricity for some of Tucson’s residents. In its first 10 years of operation, the methane helped to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 1,257 tons. This meant that there was also a “savings” of more than 239,159 tons of carbon dioxide (the really nasty greenhouse gas). Moisture is required to facilitate the decay, so the output of methane (and thus of available power for TEP) varies from year to year. So that depressed pink mattress that’s on its way to the landfill? It might very well light up this computer screen someday...if it ever rains.
Of course, we have a choice of whether to contribute to the ever expanding landfill or choose to recycle or reuse. During Brush and Bulky Week, reusing happens, well, organically. I often purposely put out things we no longer need or want and think would be a burden to charities. For example, a broken lamp that I can’t figure out how to fix goes to the curb several days before pickup. The “pickers” arrive in the wee hours of the morning or night and scavenge the best things. If you happen upon them, you quickly realize these pickers are professionals. With big trailers and a sense of expertise they cruise by the piles with eagle eyes and fill their haulers with treasure. As Chinle and I turn toward home, we see a fall hatchling lizard and a teenaged cottontail hanging out near a pile of mesquite branches and an old tire so worn that it is as grey as the dirt upon which it sits. It seems the wildlife, too, is enticed by the phenomenon that is Brush and Bulky week. The lizard is learning to do pushups on the tire and the cottontail is nibbling at the mesquite. Just as we pause to look at the strange combination of animation and abandonment, it begins to rain.
*She has since learned to live in peace with the feline kind and even sorta likes her brother, Zinfandel (who we call Zindy for short).
1) The EPA’s website has made finding statistics such as these infinitely more difficult - thus the use of the archive rather than the current site.
Its branches are stark white like bones left to bake in the desert sun. They reach hopefully skyward seeking the blue but never quite getting there. On the thinnest branch at the very top sits a speck of orange. It seems to be posing, looking down at something (or someone) perched underneath the tree. I follow its gaze and sure enough, poised in the stillness that only true birders (and yogis) have, is a man as tall and lithe as the willows that surround him. He is dressed in birding regalia and points a camera upward and westward toward the tree and the orange speck. The camera has a lens that seems as though it could reach all the way to Texas. Chinle is tugging at the leash, anxious to explore the wetland trail, but it means walking by the man and potentially disrupting his delicate task. So we stand and wait until he steps away from the tripod and then timidly approach. I humbly ask him what he’s photographing. He turns around generously. His smile is small but mighty, and as I get closer I realize he’s well over 6 feet tall. “I’m Miguel.” He says with more loudness than I would have anticipated. “And this is my giving tree.” I smile and say, “I’m Michelle and this is Chinle, my pain in the butt dog.” As Miguel chuckles a low groan wafts upward from the murky water under our feet (we are standing on an elevated wooden trail over the wetlands at Fred Baca Park). He looks at me seriously and says, “be sure to keep Chinle away from the frogs.” The bullfrogs’ incessant calls suggest they might be as big as my head. I thank him for the warning and turn my gaze upward. Miguel gets the hint and explains that today, the giving tree has gifted him with a Bullock’s Oriole.
Miguel lets me look at the photographs he’s taken so far. They are breathtaking and seem to have captured the personality of the bird. In many of the pictures he’s dangling upside down (the Oriole, not Miguel). As we look, the bird sings sweetly. Miguel explains, “other than the color you can tell he’s male because he is so kind yet stingy with his words. The females are louder and talk a lot more which is rare in birds but [here he grins mischievously] obviously not in humans." Obviously. He continued, “I have photographed over 100 species of birds in this tree and I’ve been taking pictures for 30 years.” Chinle and I scoot by thanking him for sharing his gifts. He nods and points at my calf which is littered with mosquitos. I am, admittedly, NOT dressed for wetlands because the temperatures in this high desert have been soaring for weeks into the mid-high 90s with 3% humidity and not a cloud in sight. It’s almost a relief to see something that breeds in water thriving, but they aren't welcome on my leg. I brush them off, and we continue on.
When we emerge from the cattails and the willows, Chinle insists we go explore a prairie dog hole near where a workman is fixing the park’s irrigation. I think how ironic it is to be watering Kentucky Blue Grass all around a park ostensibly created to showcase the regional wetlands. Riparian areas and wetlands all across the West continue to disappear because of the stark drought and overuse of ground and surface water. The workman looks up and smiles at Chinle. Then he notices me. He wipes rivulets of sweat from his brow, and we talk for a bit about the heat. I ask him about the prairie dog presence in the area (they are, shall we say, prolific). He laughs and says, “they aren’t the problem...it’s these damn beavers.” He explains there is a population of about 6 in this tiny 2 acre area, and he points at a large tree that has recently been felled. “I was going to cut that down to keep it from falling. They beat me to it,” he says with more than a tinge of annoyance. He introduces himself and tells me I have a mosquito on my arm. I swat it away, and he says, “You know, they like the heat I think. There are more than I’ve ever seen and I’ve worked in this park for 15 years. I even got bit the other day right here on my forehead, and you know, Mexicans aren’t supposed to get bit.” I raise my eyebrows at this, “Is that right?” “Yeah - we are the color of the dirt so they can’t see us. But man, these ones have xray vision.” I giggle at the myth but then recall an article I had read in Environmental History about the power of mosquitos to create identity of a people over centuries - my people, it turns out. (2)
In the English Lowlands from the 1600s through the early 1900s mosquitos created an entire culture and regional identity. The mosquitos brought malaria to the people living in the region and the disease served as a cultural binder. The residents built their homes on stilts to avoid the waters. They slept under nets. Other Englishmen did no such thing. It was a badge of honor to have contracted and lived through the “ague”. Those living with malaria had paler complexions because of the accompanying anemia, and they often relied on opium to alleviate their feverish symptoms so outsiders could identify them by sight. By the 19th century, the lowlands began to experience water management that was predicated on the (wrong) idea that malaria was caused by harmful gases emanating from the wetlands. No one suspected the little insect until 1898. The governments (local and national) worked to drain the marshes and the fens and, indeed, the incidents of malaria began to decrease. But with the decline of the ague came a shift in the culture of the peoples of that damp region, and they began to blend more seamlessly with the rest of England. As Greg Bankoff writes, “what gave the English Lowlands its distinctive regional character was the physical and social construction of the landscape...As the water drained away from its fields and the...Plasmodium malariae disappeared from the bloodstreams of its inhabitants so did popular perceptions of a regional identity begin to fade from the national and even local consciousness.”(1) Even so, the mosquitos remained in the area and architecture and daily habits persisted that helped the locals cope with the nuisance. I turn to Daniel and say, “You know, you might be right about those mosquitos. My people really do get bit a lot.” But I spare him the history lesson.
Chinle is panting and looking bored (there has been a LOT of chatting on this walk) so I start our goodbye by wishing Daniel good luck with the mosquitos and the beavers. He shakes his head and says, “I think they will both win in the end. But ya know what? Ya know the one tree those damn beavers never touch?” I shake my head. He gestures toward the brilliant white giant shimmering in the sunlight not far off. “Miguel’s giving tree.” As we walk to the truck, I can hear the Oriole singing happily in the distance.
1) If you are interested in the journal, you can get a subscription by joining the association. Check it out!
(2) Greg Bankoff, "Malaria, Water Management, and Identity in the English Lowlands," Environmental History 23, (2018): 470-491 doi: 10.1093/envhis/emx137.