"Once in a very great while, a species that is thought extinct is rediscovered, long before another heaven and another earth have passed. Sometimes it is utter serendipity..." --The Ghost With Trembling Wings
Back in Albuquerque, I finally found a 1st edition of a book I've been searching for the last year, River of Traps by writer William deBuys and photographer Alex Harris. When it came out in 1990, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize but both author and photographer weren't very well-known. deBuys had written one other New Mexico-centric book, Enchantment and Exploitation, and Harris had just founded the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University after years of photographing native Alaskans and living in New Mexico. Today, deBuys has published widely on the topic of desertification and conservation and Harris' work is in collections like MOMA and the Getty.
River of Traps has become something of a quiet cult classic (it was reissued in 2008) because it is so unusual: loosely-connected observations about a New Mexico farmer, Jacobo Romero, who was a neighbor to deBuys and and Harris on their own farm in northern New Mexico, accompanied by black and white photographs. Much of the book follows Romero through his fields and village as he cryptically explains the complexities of irrigation or fence-making. He didn't necessarily have revolutionary ideas or major accomplishments to his name. He wasn't even well-known during his lifetime beyond his small village. It's just that over time, he has become a representation of a way of life and a kind of deeply-indigenous knowledge--the product of generations of stewardship of the land--that has become so rare it is nearly extinct, even in New Mexico. His significance has become clearer and more urgent over the years. .
I think some of the best passages from River of Traps are descriptions of Romero's brutally pragmatic relationship to death, an attitude born of survival and utilitarianism, even when it was the passing of a horse that had carried and toiled for him for over 30 years only to die in a fairly tragic fashion during a flood.
"Alex never photographed the red horse, and the red horse never had a name. Like much else in the history of small places, the horse epitomized something basic about the land that nourished it. It was an embodiment, literally, of the valley's grass and water, and a relic of its weather. LIving, it had been a definition of local horsiness, ridden by an old man and plodding as slowly as the change of seasons down the dusty village road. The red horse passed its years, stalwart and unique, then dropped from sight, and eventually will drop from memory too, as slowly, without it, the place changes... The virtue of namelessness was that it made the unforgettable easier to avoid. Jacobo never mentioned the red horse. Nor did anyone. As the dead had no name, no one spoke of the dead, and its presence could not intrude, unwanted in conversation. Memories were locked away. Jacbobo's sense of loss--and everyone's--became as personal as fingerprints."
One more on the subject of death:
"In the mountains the touch of death was never far away. An animal died or was killed somewhere in the valley nearly every day. You shot the cow, or in the old-fashioned way, clubbed it with an ax or a maul, you did it with dispatch. But never with grace. No cow or hog ever fell in the right position, and the aftermath of its death, the turning and bleeding and lugging around, was invariably messy and difficult. Killing a sheep was different. A sheep does not struggle or even protest its own death and accordingly does not merit a bullet. YOu straddle its back, grasp it by the lower jaw, pull back the head and slice the throat deeply with a knife, cutting to the spine if you can to be sure of severing the arteries. A chicken's death, meanwhile, was scarcely noticed; you simply swung it round by the head, casually, like a toy."
Out west there is a train route for almost any journey. I needed to get from Seattle, Washington to Santa Fe, New Mexico and so over the coarse of seven days I took four trains 2,227 miles--from Douglas firs and wild Pacific Ocean into the heart of desert bordering the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It could have been done by plane in a day but I had some time to spare and could afford to absorb the transition from grey-blue skies to sun-soaked earth at an average speed of 40 mph.
The New Mexico landscape is the backdrop for Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a novel that is full of long, grueling journeys by horseback, wagon and train. Towards the end of the book, the Navajo Eusabio mused to Father Latour: "Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things."
I've got a new piece out in Salon laying out some of the ethical territory when it comes to de-extinction.
"There is the hope implicit in the possibility of de-extinction that it will help humanity avert the environmental apocalypse that extreme biodiversity loss threatens. De-extinction pioneers are eager to invest their efforts with a deeper moral purpose, one that suggests the power to bring back species could mitigate humanity’s liability in the ongoing Sixth Great Extinction, and even work to correct past crimes against the planet. “Humans have made a huge hole in nature, we have the ability, maybe the moral obligation, to repair that damage,” said environmentalist Stuart Brand, former editor of the 1960s back-to-the-land guide Whole Earth Catalog, and co-founder of the Revive and Restore Foundation.
To date, de-extinction has received a lot of breathless publicity but very little critical debate. The question that remains unanswered is whether it could become a useful conservation tool for the thousands of species that are endangered and facing extinction today. In fact, it is possible that these advances could have the opposite effect, putting endangered species at greater risk."
Read it here!
Between Aurora and Phinney Avenues just southwest of Green Lake in the heart of Seattle is the Woodland Park Zoo where from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. any day of the week you can pay $18.75 for the privilege of seeing one of the most enigmatic animals on the planet, Pantheria uncia, the snow leopard.
The Seattle zoo has had snow leopards since 1972 when a pair arrived from the Soviet Union and today it has two cats, Helen and Tom, as well as their one-year-old brood of three cubs. Over the last 12 months, these cubs have gone from frisky kittens to lackadaisical felines. When they aren’t pacing the confines of their fenced-in enclosure, they are sleeping with their charred-gray noses resting atop limp paws, majestic yet docile-looking as house cats.
The same year that the zoo in Seattle got its first snow leopards, 45-year-old Peter Matthiessen, writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, met zoologist George Schaller in Kathmandu to begin a 250 mile journey into the Himalayas that resulted in Matthiessen's famous natural history book, The Snow Leopard. At their first introduction in 1969, Schaller had told the writer that he knew of only two Westerners in 25 years who had spotted the Himalayan snow leopard. Schaller, in fact, was the first person to film the leopard in the wild.
“Not only is it rare…but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it. Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise: most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking.”
For Matthiessen, a student of Buddhism, the opportunity to track the leopards and venture near the frontier of Tibet to where the “Crystal Monastery” is located was “a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” When The Snow Leopard was published in 1979 it was not so much a plea for conservation of the cat as it is a rumination on the author’s physical and spiritual journey into the wild animal’s habitat and the nature of mind.
The worldwide population of snow leopards today is somewhere between four and seven thousand but since Matthiessen journeyed to the Himalayas, the captive population has increased significantly from perhaps less than one hundred to over 600, about 10 percent of the world’s population. The contrast between 1972 and today in this regard is remarkable: back then leopards were rare and enigmatic in the wild and virtually unseen by visitors to zoos. Today, the species is common to over 70 zoos in North America. It’s impossible to say that this genetically and demographically stable captive population—accessible to over 100 million visitors each year–is somehow not good. But I am also reminded while reading Matthiessen’s journey into snow leopard country by something that Holmes Rolston, the grandfather of the field of environmental ethics, recently said to me in an interview.
"You’re talking with someone who likes to see animals wild. I’m not keen on tigers in zoos. I was in India in March and saw tigers in the wild. That sends chills up and down my spine. If I go down to the Denver Zoo, I kind of pity the thing. Maybe it has got habitat enrichment but it can’t roam around or hunt. A tiger in a zoo isn’t really a tiger anymore. It’s not doing its thing.”
Fine art photographer Anne Berry has made primates a subject of her work in the collection "Behind Glass." Here she is on the meaning of the name and her motivation behind the beautiful black and white series :
"'Behind Glass' refers both to the glass or boundaries of an enclosure and to the glass of the camera lens. Often I find myself gazing into the eyes of a monkey, his hand touching the glass wall that separates our worlds. The animal’s candid stare, the reflection of glass, and the frame of a window are all elements that speak to issues of nature and captivity. My photographs are about the beauty of animals but, more importantly, about their plight. The pictorial quality of these images softens the shock, but the punch is there in the eyes and melancholy expressions of the animals. Primates especially are able to remind people of the undeniable connection between man and animal, and this feeling evokes a memory of a time when man was part of nature."
Around 2 million years of evolutionary history separate black and white rhinos according to mitochondrial DNA analysis. Were these two reminiscing? "I was photographing a White Rhino in Etosha National Park busy having a mud bath, when from the opposite side a Black Rhino appeared. Much to my astonishment the two rhinos walked towards each other and rubbed their horns in greeting. I could not believe what I saw, as normally they avoid and ignore each other... I've been a wildlife photographer for many years. Never seen anything like it."
"A pleasure it is to listen to the cheerful musing Beduin talk, a lesson in the travellers' school of mere humanity,--and there is no land so perilous which by humanity he may not pass, for man is of one mind everywhere, ay, and in their kind, even the brute animals of the same foster earth--a timely vacancy of the busy-idle cares which cloud upon us that would live peaceably in the moral desolation of the world." -Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888
In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo from Arles, France describing his hope to create a painting of a “starry sky” but only “if the sky is glittering properly.” Included with the letter was a small sketch of a sky by night with two lovers in the foreground and he explained that at times he had “a terrible need of, shall I say the word—of religion." When this feeling struck him he would “go outside in the night to paint the stars.” According to art historians, Van Gogh was almost constantly preoccupied with the task of painting the night sky, writing in one instance to Emile Bernard that it was the painting that haunted him.
The following summer Van Gogh completed one of his most famous works--indeed, one of the most famous art works of the modern era--"The Starry Night.” Today it is seen by millions each year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and on countless posters, calendars, postcards and products like umbrellas and coffee mugs. A full-size reproduction in oil paint of the iconic work will set you back a mere $200. Few would disagree that viewing the original canvas—over which Van Gogh labored while in a mental institution just a couple of years before his death—is the more valuable experience than contemplating a replica on your wall. But what if the replica and the original were indistinguishable in quality to even the best-trained eye? Do originals have intrinsic value?
Some of the most interesting arguments around the question of intrinsic value come from environmental ethicists. In 1982, Robert Elliott penned a paper called “Faking Nature” for Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy as a rebuke to the idea of environmental restoration—that an ecosystem disturbed or damaged by development or human presence could be restored to its original state or have equal value. For Elliott, the origin of something, whether it is a work of art or an ecosystem, is critical as an “integral part of the evaluation process. It is important because our beliefs about it determine the valuations we make.” To him, nature is “not replaceable without depreciation in one aspect of its value which has to do with its genesis, its history.”
Elliott’s arguments and the analogy to art have been carried on by other ethicists. For Eric Katz, there is a fundamental ontological difference between nature formed through processes outside of human interference and nature that has been manipulated, marked or restored by men. Such places are, Katz believes, actually artifacts and when we stand before an artifact we value the purpose and designs of its creator. For instance, standing before “The Starry Night,”an artifact by Katz's definition, we might think of Van Gogh’s mastery of the medium or his terrible need for religion—the origin and story behind the painting. Similarly, when we stand before nature we might think of the awesome power of natural processes or the mysteries of creation. This is a powerful if not unpragmatic argument against the idea of rewilding that is receiving so much attention in conservation circles and being implemented in places such as Europe and the American West.
For ethicist Bryan Norton, the destruction of natural environments is wrong for the same exact reason destroying a great work of art is wrong. “In losing either, we lose the best example we have of a quality which we do not otherwise fully understand or on which we have no better grasp.”
If there was any hope during the 20th century that untrammeled, truly wild places still existed on earth it was diminished by the realization that man-made climate change was occurring at a devastating scale, affecting permafrost and ocean ecology no matter if humans had ever set foot there before. The last couple of days I've been reading Bill McKibben's classic The End of Nature, which I see as a kind of window into the thoughts of someone who believes deeply in a conception of nature as eternal and separate from man, and the moment they realized that this idea is dead because of climate change. Written in 1989, it's still a sad and even dark text: McKibben likens nature to a forest where the whine of a saw (representing perhaps man's ultimate folly) will forever reverberate and taint it.
"An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is 'nature,' the separate and wild province, the world apart form man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental 'damage.' But that was like stabbing a man with toothpicks: though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces--the wind, the rain, the sun--were too strong, too elemental." (pg. 48)
Climate change alters the very forces that shape nature, giving birth to new deserts, altered landscapes, different air. It kills the conception of nature as something that is bigger, more powerful than humanity.
There have been many challenges to McKibben's ideas, particularly the dichotomy that he establishes between men and nature. In the 1990s, environmental ethicists like J. Baird Callicott began questioning the assumption that wilderness is an objective thing at all and not simply an ethnocentric concept that arose out of a particular cultural and philosophical moment, namely the arrival of Europeans to the "New World." This place looked pristine, never mind the tens of thousands of people who already lived there. "1492, the only continental-size wilderness on the planet was Antarctica," wrote Callicott in A Critique of and an Alternative to the Wilderness idea. "The aboriginal inhabitants of North and South America, further, were not passive denizens of the forests, prairies, and deserts; they actively managed their lands--principally with fire."
Despite these conceptual challenges, McKibben's idea of untrammeled nature and a sense of mourning over the loss of it is, I think, very much alive even 25 after it was declared dead. In June, scientists announced they had discovered a lake on the Gold Coast of Australia that was untouched by climate change for 7,000 years (the whole of human civilization, in other words). Calling it a "climate refuge," researcher Cameron Barr of the University of Adelaide said they had tested fossilized pollen and algae and found little change in the lake's chemistry over time. "It's like God's bathtub," he said.
It's an apt description, not for accuracy but because "God" is the only word in this context that could convey the sense of otherness or separateness from man that I think Barr was trying to communicate. It reminded me of a similar story about Lake Volstok in the media last year, when Russian scientists finished two-decades of drilling to reach the freshwater lake which had been hidden under miles of Arctic ice for 20 million years. "There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,' said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI, at the time. 'It's a meeting with the unknown."
It's revealing that such stories focus on the novelty of these ecosystems' pristine condition. Maybe this focus is as much about a wish to still have undiscovered, unknown places on earth, places that are different and independent from us, beyond our reach despite our seemingly unlimited power to wreak ecological havoc.