Stories from the Desert
Travel is revealing and not always comforting
The highway from Tucson to Silver City, New Mexico is jammed with speeding tractor trailer trucks vying for position in the passing lane, late model SUV’s hustling for an open space on the crowded road. Big signs read Dangling Chains Cause Forest Fires and Parking in Brush May Cause Fire and Beware Dust Storms. Jagged pieces of rubber tire that resemble large black lizards litter the side of the road. All the washes and creeks are dry. The desert grass, the cacti and shrubs that unfold out the window for thirty or forty miles are parched and desiccated. Fringes of green are hard to find, instead the whole vista is saturated with hues of brown and black. Last time I visited here, four or five years ago, looking out across the desert at this untrammeled landscape brought me great delight. Now, instead, I feel the desert’s weak hold on life and worry for this climate-threatened life, and for all our lives, gurgles at the back of my throat.
When we left Portland last Monday at 6 am it was cold and raining. Bob and I planned this two-week getaway both as a kind of salve to the loss of our Addison home and as a coming-out-of-covid celebration. Two weeks in warm weather, two weeks hiking beside the spring flowers in the desert, listening to the black-throated sparrows and the cactus wrens! We considered driving the 2,735 miles, 41 hours there, but assuaged our carbon guilt by resolving to make only one plane trip a year. (I considered buying carbon credits but everything I’ve read leads me to believe that they are a form of greenwashing, a shill for the airlines and the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps somewhere there is a true green carbon credit, but, like many things about living a conscious life in the time of the Anthropocene, researching what that one carbon credit would be is something I have not yet undertaken).
Our first stop was to visit friends who live in an old mining town in New Mexico, called Silver City. It was snowing when we arrived, snowing when we went to their home for dinner in the hills just above the city. Silver City is an old mining town, as well as home to a community of old hippies; artists and writers flourish here and populate the many little clubs and galleries. The coffee house, called the Tranquil Buzz, is, on Sundays, the Church of the Singing Heart!
It wasn’t until our last day here that we learned about the Big Ditch. In 1895 heavy rains washed out what was then Maine Street, destroying all the buildings on one side of the street and leaving a 55 foot deep, twenty foot wide trench the length of the entire town. In the seventies, town members converted the garbage strewn ditch into a park, now filled with plants and dotted with benches.
“They were warned over and over, but they didn’t listen,” my friend L. explained when she told us the story of how the Big Ditch came to be. The mining companies were warned that their practices would lead to destruction of the natural landscape which absorbed the runoff of water when the New Mexican monsoons came in the summer, the settlers were warned too, as were the sheep farmers. They were all made aware that their practices could severely damage their lives.
These days I see signs everywhere.
The story of Silver City’s Big Ditch is an allegory for what is happening today, for how we are fiddling with our climate. We have been warned. And the warnings are getting more and more dire. The moment for the Great Turning has arrived.
But here in Tucson where we are spending the week in a condo artfully placed in the Northeast foothills of the mountains, surrounded by twenty foot cacti and just-greening mesquite bushes, it would be hard to tell that anyone is aware that anything is amiss. Again, the desert landscape is being desecrated. Thousands and thousands of new homes have risen recently above the city. There are biking lanes down all the major thoroughfares, but I have yet to see a biker on the paths. Instead, shiny new gas guzzling SUV’s crowd the roads. In all our driving around this city which boasts on average 286 sunny days a year, I have yet to see a solar panel on a roof, though Bob swears he’s seen panels on two houses. And oh! the shopping malls. They are new, on every corner and glistening with useless geegaws. The parking lots are full. People are shopping again. Shopping till they drop.
And then there’s water. Tucson gets its water from Lake Meade and we have all seen the alarming pictures of the bathtub ring around the lake. An opinion piece in the Tucson paper by a retired EPA environmental scientist makes the case that the city of Tucson is doing what the people of Silver City did in 1895: ignoring the real threat of a water crisis in the near future.
Travel is revealing. What I see here in Tucson is very disturbing. And what this travel has done is reveal how nourished I am by living in Maine, in Freeport surrounded by FreeportCAN friends and neighbors and their efforts to create a community whose actions align with the reality of the threat to life on this planet. It’s five am here in Tucson as I finish up this essay. A friend has just texted to ask if I’ve seen the article in this morning’s New York Times on climate optimism. Here I am, writing about my pessimism and worry. But just beyond this page, this place and moment in time, there are people holding the other end of this spectrum, holding the optimism and hope. I have to remind myself: It is never either or, it is always both.