In late February I went panther tracking in southern Florida, flying in a Cessna 182 with Darrell Land, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Service guy who has been working with the highly endangered population of Florida panthers for some 35 years. In addition to monitoring radio-collared panthers from the air, Land’s time is spent mitigating the interactions between the roughly 150 panthers alive today in southern Florida and humans. To date, there has never been a death or even an attack by a panther in the state. “We’re not a sought after food item, we’re completely off the list,” Land explained. But he likes to point to a photograph in his office of a vital, tawny colored panther sitting assertively next to a birdbath in a backyard. “That’s the future of panthers,” he said. “Most people love them. They watch Animal Planet and NatGeo on TV and think they’re neat and cool. If next to that birdbath there was a sandbox with their three-year-old in it, they would have a different view.” Panthers, Land believes, will only succeed if people can tolerate seeing them in their landscape. Recently, this tolerance has been in short supply. For five years in a row, a panther has been shot and killed, a felony offense in Florida. One hunter was fined and sentenced to jail-time for killing a panther with his bow and arrow in 2011. “I don’t like those damn things,” he said. “Down here, it’s been a begrudging acceptance,” said Land. “It was fine when there was twenty or thirty. But now there’s a lot more.”
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."