The Range of Emotion

 

IMG_2513I have mentioned that there are cattle here. They are a fairly ubiquitous element of the landscape, whether you see them or not; miles of fencing, evidence of heavy grazing, corrals in various states of disrepair all imply their existence. Farming never really took hold here apparently, and from what I have learned, since the place was re-settled by Americans moving west during the mid-1800s, ranching has been the order of the day. For many days. I have also mentioned that there are deer (muleys) and antelope, though whether or not they play, I cannot fully attest. Also elk, although the Wife informed me that the current population are a reintroduced species, the original having been hunted to extinction.

Which brings us to another point. Wolves. More specifically, the Mexican Grey wolf. Essentially eradicated from the landscape, this once widespread southwestern species is the subject of a federal reintroduction program. According to that program’s website, there are approximately 110 individuals currently in the wild.

The human relationship with wolves has been a tenuous one, and while I am far from any sort of specialist on the matter, I can say from experience that the subject of the wolf is one broached at one’s peril in certain company. Much like my previous discussion regarding wilderness, this is a difficult issue and one with a very polarized history… and present and future it would seem.

In the 1990s, the logging industry in this area, one of the predominant livelihoods available to the local population as I understand it, was essentially shut down. Regulations seeking to address the very endangered existence of the Mexican Spotted owl. This issue is still touchy in this area, from what I have gathered in my brief time here. Again, I am no specialist in these matters, but the point being, there is a bit of recent history here regarding the relationship of people to the natural world. I am no specialist on that either, but that is what I have been pondering of late. Clearly.

Not trying to oversimplify the issue, but rather for the purpose of discussion, I see and thus here propose, two fundamental views as held by humans in regard to our relationship to the natural world; we are a part of it or we are apart from it.

In the first view, simply, our actions have direct effect on and thus implications for, the existence of the world we inhabit. This is an ecological viewpoint that places humans as part of a larger, interconnected system, where the actions and behaviors of any of the elements have some effect on every other part of the system. This implies an element of responsibility for our actions as they will have some greater influence on the world of which we are a part (and in saying “the world” I mean generically the whole of existence on this here floating rock we call earth).

In the second, while our actions may well have some effect on the world, that effect is seen more in relation to the status of humans as characters outside the existence of the natural world. That is, does said effect benefit or detract from human interest primarily. In this view, the possible effects beyond human interest are secondary and seen primarily in comparison to the well-being of humans rather than of the system. Indeed, the extreme of this view puts humans in a position of control over the system rather than any part of it.

The question of whether or not humans have affected the world by our actions is rather a moot point. If we dig a well, or plant a field, or build a wall, hell if we fell a tree or catch a fish, we have had some effect on the world around us. That really is not the question. The question lies in whether or not such actions have implications beyond how they may or may not benefit the human or humans in question. And here is a very important point; the humans in question. Does killing an elk have an effect on the hunter? Certainly. How about on the hunter’s family. Likely. On the hunter’s community? Probably. What about on the people that live in the next village over? Perhaps. How about killing the last elk? How does this action affect the humans in question? Suddenly, should we not expand the question to which humans have been affected? And, if we broaden the question to humans that would not seem to have been directly or indirectly affected in the first instance, but may well be in some way by the second, this then implies that an action can have a wider reaching consequence than what it might immediately seem. By suggesting this, I would propose that we are in fact a part of a larger system, actors within it rather than directors of it. What affect does the killing of an elk have on the elk population? What affect does the killing of the last elk have on the overall forest, on the system?

Of course in stating this I have showed my hand, as it were. I am convinced that what we do, whatever we do, is part of a larger system. I believe it is folly to think otherwise. Furthermore, I believe that this question points to, if not is, the central struggle in human existence; the question of the individual in relation to the whole. It is implicitly tied to my previous discussion of free will. How will an action, that I as an individual choose to do or not do, affect what exists beyond what I perceive as “self”? Furthermore, in what way does that matter… if at all?

This then leads to the difficult question, the one that snarls such a discussion into argument; how this relates to the human relationship with the rest of the system. If, as has been suggested by some, humans are the principle actors in this existence, what does it matter how our actions affect the system? I do not subscribe to such a view personally, but many have and many do.

Going back to the wolf. Or wolves actually. And the owls. And the cows, and the trees.

Recently, on a road trip, the Wife and I saw a billboard exclaiming fervent opposition to wolves on the landscape. It was the opinion of a group which proposed to be protecting the American Western Culture, presumably that being one of cattle ranching. This was not far, geographically speaking, from “the first wilderness”. Just the other day I was in a local shop buying eggs and dog food and saw a brochure with a photo of a young cow accompanied by a statement that “Wolves killed my brother”. The day before yesterday I saw an image on the interwebs from a site supporting the wolf reintroduction program; two young wolves with a statement, “Write a letter for us, we do not know how to hold pencils.”

Emotion. Both sides playing a nasty game. Both however, implying that human actions are having consequences. On the one hand, the manipulation of the system aimed at managing for natural elements is having a negative effect on certain human livelihood. On the other, manipulation of the system aimed at managing the human landscape has negatively affected the natural world. All of the actions having wider reaching implications than immediately suggested, yet neither really taking into consideration those implications fully. What it does say to me is that the system is more complicated than the here and now.

I don’t know what to make of it all. I think, I believe, that we are part of the system, though we unnaturally too often act to control it. Does the reintroduction of wolves to this area threaten the imminent demise of the local cattle industry? Unlikely. Could it make complications for some participants of that industry? Probably. Is this about right and wrong? I guess it depends on who you ask. Are these social questions? Political questions? Moral questions? Yes, probably all of those. But if that is the case, this says to me that such questions are systemic and thus more complex than how they are too often posited; in the here and now. But what do I know? I am neither forest manager, nor rancher, nor politician, nor activist really.  More of an armchair philosopher I suppose, and what good is that? Who knows?

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The First Wilderness

It is many years now since I have wanted to go off and hide; to disappear from the world. At least in an active sense. That desire may always burn somewhere inside me. It has been true that I have often felt more comfortable in the wilds, away from the noise and bluster of the world of people. Yet, the wilds are not always a place, a defined locale, but more often a state of mind, of being.

This question of the word wilderness. Since reading it a few weeks ago, I have been troubled by the phrase “the first wilderness”. I understand what was meant by it, but it still made me scoff. In truth that is perhaps what troubles me most often, my inclination to have certain disdain for the works of my fellow humans. Do not mistake me this is not arrogance. I do not suggest that I hold myself in higher regard, but rather that as a member of the group I see folly in the doings, the comings and goings, the ponderings and blusterings of all of us.

Wilderness: an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region; a neglected or abandoned area of a garden or town; a position of disfavor, especially in a political context.

There is often an inherent negativity in opinions towards the idea of wilderness. Not to all surely, but the fact remains that in mixed company you will argue over the meaning of the word; the perceived implications implicit to the concepts behind the word. Type the word into google and the preponderance of citations will refer to the Wilderness Act. A congressional piece of work which relies heavily on the word untrammeled.

Untrammeled: not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.

A state of being which exists without influence. Even as I type that it sounds absurd. What is fundamentally meant by the idea, as I understand it, is a place that exists absent of the influence of humans. Which is again absurd. Profoundly absurd in regards to the exclamation, or proclamation, as it may be, that we created “the first wilderness”. Or perhaps not. Perhaps in that statement can be examined all that is fundamentally human.

Once upon a time I read this:

“Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

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This morning I read this:

“When he walked out into the sun and untied the horse from the parking meter people passing in the street turned to look at him. Something in off the wild mesas, something out of the past. Ragged, dirty, hungry in eye and belly. Totally unspoken for. In that outlandish figure they beheld what they envied most and what they most reviled. If their hearts went out to him it was yet true that for very small cause they might also have killed him.”

It was this that finally stirred in me the drive to tread this path. Particularly the last two sentences. This is where the truth lies in regards to wilderness; in the human relationship to it. It is the ever present internal struggle we each have with ourselves, with each other, with our world, with our existence, with our beliefs.

We love and we hate free will.

We desire control of our experience, our surroundings, whether in the world or in our minds; which amount to the same thing in many ways. Yet, too often we fear to exert control, and similarly many desire rather to have control exerted over them. The wilderness of the mind; we wish to be able to roam free there, free of the influence of others, yet when we walk those paths we fear where they might lead. Too young we are taught that we must cultivate our minds and not to let them wander. We are encouraged (to put it lightly) to behave with restraint and self-control, and living the way we must, in direct proximity to one another most of the time, there may well be sense in this. But that sense of control is too often developed out of proportion in the drive to then control one’s surroundings.

Wilderness, to some, represents freedom; freedom of existence, freedom from influence, freedom of experience perhaps. To others, being uncontrolled and unconstrained, it represents fear and uncertainty; fear of being lost, out of control. To others perhaps wasted opportunity; unclaimed resources, unharnessed abilities, undirected existence. Mind or landscape, the same is true for both.

The first wilderness is beyond our grasp. We do not create such ideals; do not define them. Or perhaps we do, but only to ourselves, to our own human experience. And in so doing what have we done? Have we advanced our understanding in some manner? Our experience? If so, of what? Of ourselves? In establishing “the first wilderness” did we not merely exhibit our presumption to exert control over our surroundings? By declaring a place “untrammelable”, do we in some way boost ourselves up to a more enlightened state of understanding and existence?

I understand the purpose for this and in truth, have been a supporter of the idea. Though in deeper consideration, it too often for me falls back to another example of praising our own perceived triumph over previous tragedies. Exclaiming pride in our own actions which merely serve to forestall or undo our own bad behaviors.

Perhaps this is learning? Growth? I am uncertain, for the fundamental argument is still there. We still love and hate ourselves… “In that outlandish figure they beheld what they envied most and what they most reviled. If their hearts went out to him it was yet true that for very small cause they might also have killed him.”

And what of those who wish to hide? To be alone? To wander? Can they be allowed to go on thus; unrestrained, undirected, uncultivated? How boundless can such wilderness be? Where do we go from here?

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Plateau

Nothin’ on top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds.

It is a grassland really, more than any sort of desert. Yes it is arid and often windswept, but the mountains to the south and west are covered with trees, and down here in the Round, where the Little Colorado flows, it is mostly grass. Tall windswept grass, leaning perennially north/north-east, in response to the winds, currently brownish tan and glowing golden in certain light. And yes, there are some trees down here too, but I have a sense that most were likely put here. Otherwise, yeah, it is a high altitude grassland. Hence the various ungulates. Muleys, elk, and antelope by course of nature; cattle and horse more recent installments.

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A windy day in the foothills

 

Too, it is a plateau; though a ragged one. It is somewhat hard to envision this from down in the valley, but the truth of it is that those mountains over there are the eastern end of the Mogollon Rim, an imposing escarpment from which the world falls off to the south, to the proper desert. While, from the right vantage, looking north, the land seems to go on in flatness forever, though in truth, that is not at all the case. No, up here in the wind, while arid, we benefit from a more temperate clime than a proper desert does. Cold, but not too cold in winter. Warm, but not overly in summer. Windy in spring, with a monsoon season in late summer. Or so I gather. What the hell do I know, having only been here 6 weeks or so?

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The perspective from the point of the mountain, looking generally north.

 

One thing I do know; I am going a bit stir-crazy living in this trailer park. Even the coo cooing of the “doves” (band tail pigeons actually… illustrated book, remember) is beginning to grate on the nerves a bit. But, I am going to attempt to avoid going down that particular path in this current narrative. It is why I have been so quiet of late, for fear of whining over much… for there really is no call for that, though it does, at times, happen.

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On a run the other day. I paused only briefly, not wanting to get involved in whatever might be afoot…

 

Anyway. Cattle wander in the wind swept grass, bedraggled horses lay, playing dead it seems to me, in the dusty heat of mid-day. Ravens, of which in certain places I have seen more in congregation than I would previously have thought possible, are prevalent. The Little river is mostly ice free now, and with the snows melting from the higher ground, has become a bit more obviously ambitious. Although it was colder today than it has been in some time, there are buds on the trees and things are sprouting from the earth here and there, if one takes the time to look.

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South Fork of the Little Colorado.

As for us, we are still living a life in transition, but at the same time settling in. In doing so, it seems to me that that is what works best here; settling. I do not mean that to sound fatalistic or anything, for I do not suggest that one must settle for a lesser existence or anything, though perhaps some here have. No, I refer more to the persistence of those that originally settled. Many of the names here, the families, are still active, as opposed to remnants of a bygone era. There are some of the latter for certain, as with anywhere, but some roots persist here it would seem. That is not to say that the town has not fallen on hard times. The numerous closed and boarded-up shops, the very numerous for sale signs, the ominous rusting hulk on the edge of town that was the timber plant, all show that once, things were better… or at least different. We are still learning the rhythms of the place it is true, but we are settling. Somewhat.

In truth though, the past is close here. Some, very close, even though it is very far back in time. Sorry to be obscure.

There are vestiges of homesteads, still hanging on. Like the names. Sometimes an old corral or falling down cabin. More often, windmills, in various stages of disrepair; some creaking in the breeze, those that still retain blades, others standing idle, bladeless, sad skeletons emulating early oil derricks or perhaps Eifel’s tower. Miles of fence, much of it barely keeping the tumbleweeds at bay. Miles of old roads and trails.

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The Saffel homestead; 1913.

 

And then there are the ruins, but I am hesitant to speak much of them, for I know little. It would seem however, that several hundred years ago, this was a well populated area, with the valley here ostensibly serving as a sort of regional center; a gathering place it is said, for trade or religious pursuits. Evidence suggests this, as the ruin just over there, which I have yet to be able to visit, was at one time very well established. A large compound pueblo with a series of structures and features; rooms and stairways and the great kiva. And there are other smaller pueblos all over the region, not to mention the great cliff dwellings. Truly, this is indian country. But again, I only know very little at this point.

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Petroglyph we found on a hike to one of the local cindercones recently; possibly undocumented.

 

For now, I will settle on the idea of grass. And wind. For both are immediate, here on the plateau; here in the Round. While our various explorations, in the time that we have been here, have taken us to some rather dramatic places in many different places, it is the explorations closer to “home” that I look to now. Explorations of grass and wind and local history. While there is a whole new world to explore here, it seems a good thing to learn to settle. The other stories still need to germinate some.

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