Sunday, October 02, 2022

Encounters of the First Kind : Peter Larlham

Peter Larlham at Pima Point.

My first conversation with Peter Larlham began with a shudder. In his first breath he asked my age. This being the day after my 81st birthday he found me in a weakened state. I had not taken the event well. 81 sounded more like a death sentence.

To compound the felony, he expressed amazement and intimated that my demise was nigh.  

“That’s really old. I’m 76.” As if that were prepubescent.

I whimpered, “But I don’t feel 81.” I lied.

Both of our in-depth conversations turned to aging and the malicious manifestations of that malady. Bad back. Worse balance. Replacement parts. Shrinkage. Flabby stomach and no ass. Scoff if you must. Every man I know of a certain age has lost muscle mass and most of it vacated his nether regions. Peter quoted a line from Shakespeare in which an elderly gentleman laments that he no longer fills his “pantaloons.” I am guilty as charged. My buttocks are absent without leave.

I introduced you to Peter last time. He’s the chap I met at the Grand Canyon two weeks ago, the affable storyteller of mythic proportions. Peter, as you may recall, grew up in Africa and was schooled in Africa and England before getting his Ph.D. in Theatre at NYU.  He told me he attended boarding school for 12 years. While attending school in England he came home to Africa once a year whether he needed to or not. It’s an existence that seems classically British and aloof to a white bread American kid of the 50s like me.

He said he was lucky to pass his exams so he could attend university. He chose Natal University in Durbin, South Africa, a city on the Indian Ocean which boasted a heady stew of Native Africans, Indians, and the English. It sounded idyllic. 

When Peter arrived at Natal, he and his best mate looked down from a hill overlooking the campus and observed a building where a steady stream of girls were entering and leaving. Peter turned to his friend and proclaimed, “That’s the school we’re going to attend, Alfie.” So, Peter’s career in theatre was spawned by raging hormones. The bard, the boards and the babes beckoned. He met Margaret his future wife of 51 years at Natal and retired as a Professor of Theatre at San Diego State University after 36 years. Imagine Peter’s story if the long line of lovelies in Durbin had been aspiring nurses not actors.

He told me he awarded only A’s his last five years of teaching. “Who am I to judge an art form?” he pondered. Who indeed.

On the first day of class in his very last semester of teaching, he saw an unfamiliar face in the classroom. He asked her name. She wasn’t registered for the class according to his list of new students. When questioned she replied, “I’m not. But I didn’t come to class at all last semester, and you still gave me an A. So, I decided I might as well see what I missed.” You and I can ponder the efficacy of the straight A model but it's a great story well told.

Two experiences foretold Peter and Margaret’s lives and careers in the U.S. They honeymooned in New York City in 1972 and fell in love with the freedom and vitality of America. The contrast to Apartheid Africa couldn’t have been more stark. In a moment of riveting clarity Peter describes that revelation and a second moment when they knew they had to escape Africa.

Their young son had just drawn a picture of a British Colonial soldier on horseback shooting a Zulu warrior through the heart. In drawing the warrior’s heart is gushing blood. His son’s teacher patted the boy on the shoulder and told him, “Excellent job, Lewis.”

“That’s when I knew we had to get out of Africa.” Peter told me.

Peter Larlham speaks Zulu and wrote the definitive book on Black Theatre, Dance and Ritual in South Africa.

Since 2008 he has worked to transform The Mnyakongo Primary School in Tanzania. Appalled by the condition of the school’s library he has returned every year first to build a new one stocked with 8,500 books, then to install electricity and running water and to buy goats to provide milk for school lunches. These efforts expand each year under his impassioned leadership.

For this work he is the first recipient of the Ray Sylvester Phi Kappa Phi Distinguished Service Award for service that extends beyond academia.

And speaking of age, on our last evening of mediocre pizza, tepid pilsner, and zippy repartee he probed a second time, “Aren’t people shocked when you tell them how old you are?”

Sadly, the only one shocked is you, my new best friend. Well, and maybe me.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Language of the Land

Wagon Ruts was taken on a photo safari down US 285 which crosses New Mexico from the Colorado line in the northwest to the Texas border in the southeast. I was approaching Cline's Corners near I-40 when I saw these tracks heading east to the distant foothills. The contrails top right made the difference on December 3 , 2010.
This post kind of writes itself. As you probably know I’ve been a contributor to the online photography magazine, Shadow and Light, for four years now. I’ve been proud to be part of it and it’s helped me hone my writing chops and learn to meet a deadline.

Heading west on my annual wine country jaunt I caught a glimpse of these amazing cliffs and billowing clouds east of Gunnison, Colorado. I got off at the next exit, flipped a U-turn and meandered through a housing development to the height of land next to I-70 where I got this shot. It was August 11, 2013. It's called Book Cliffs because that's their name.

I was caught in a sandstorm with gale force winds near Shiprock, New Mexico this spring. I braced myself against the car and photographed Band of Sand on May 11, 2022.

Walking Rain on the Navajo Nation taken on August 19, 2013.

This Vanishing Point is on the Pine Ridge Reservation near Wanblee, South Dakota on July 5. 2013

I had written my article, What’s Left, for the September-October issue of Shadow and Light only to discover that publisher Tim Anderson was introducing a special issue, Language of the Land. So he would run the September-October story in November-December instead. “You should submit to the landscape issue” he told me, “Some of your stuff could be a fit.” So, it wasn’t a lock, and I knew the competition would be fierce.

When the initial results were published, I didn’t think I’d made the cut and was mighty disappointed. No, the real word is embarrassed. Then I was relieved to find out it was an oversight, and a small portfolio of my black and white images would be included in the issue. If these babies weren’t good enough, I’d have had to resign my commission or commit hari-kari whichever is worse.

Here are the entries Tim’s panel of experts selected from the eleven I submitted. Getting to eleven from many dozens was in itself a dizzying task.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Canyon Stories

As we wind up our fourth visit to the Grand Canyon in the past three years, I’m faced with three possibilities for my Monday post. One is the obvious, landscapes of the Canyon, the others are more thought provoking and deserve more attention than I can muster Sunday night. I’m running on fumes. So, I’m leaning toward a passel of Canyon shots.

The deeper stories that must be told are, one, about a friend of 60 years and his incredible journey, I visited him for the first time in 20 years last week. Jim’s life is even more stunning than I remembered. If you read his life story as a novel, you’d call it overwrought and implausible. I suggested that he write an autobiography since he has perfect recall of his highs and lows including the dialogue from every juicy encounter. He’s the best storyteller I’ve ever met.  

The second story idea two fits my nascent series Encounters of the First Kind like a glove. These are the profound occasions when you meet, connect, and know a fellow human in a few precious moments.

Peter Larlham is my old friend’s equal as a storyteller. He grew up in Tanzania and South Africa where he met Margaret at Nadal University in Durbin, South Africa. It was during apartheid, and it was apartheid in part that drove them to America. Though white they couldn’t abide the realities of that racist time, especially for their children. Earlier when they honeymooned in New York City they fell in love with the freedom and opportunity they saw in America and swore they would move to the States. Making that happen was a protracted struggle and when they finally made their way to our shores, they were poor and jobless. But once here they created their own American Dream. Peter told me they were lucky. I say they made their own luck. He and I became fast friends over good conversation and beer. He declared that “I don’t usually talk to people like this. It’s really been a pleasure.” The pleasure was mine.

I hope to flesh out these stories but for now here’s a handful of sunsets from the mother of all canyons.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

What's Left, Part Three

Taiban, just east of Fort Sumner which is best known as the place where Billy the Kid was plugged, lies on the empty flats that are indistinguishable from West Texas. Ahead lies Clovis, NM where Buddy Holly recorded his early hits including “Every Day.” The ribbon of two-lane US 60 slices through the arid steppes with only the residue of tiny railroad towns like Taiban to relieve the sameness. In the ghost town that was Taiban is a shuttered Presbyterian church crying out to be remembered. On this day the sky was heavy with sweeping clouds that made a dramatic backdrop for the proud church standing sentinel over the vast nothing. The scene is a showstopper that has corralled many a photographer driving the backroads to somewhere, in our case Dallas. 

In 1906 Taiban was a small ranching community blessed with newly laid railroad tracks. In anticipation of the railroad and the opportunity to own land settlers arrived from across the country. But Taiban fizzled. The 1920 census claims a population of 312 souls and thirty years later in 1950 the number was 206. When the Great Depression hit the railroad station closed and hopes for a robust future in the big empty were dashed. There were two competing factions in Taiban. The teetotaling Presbyterians and the rowdy patrons of the Pink Pony Bar symbolized the divide. The Pink Pony was still serving in 1969 while the church closed its doors in 1950. 

Patterns repeated themselves throughout the West. Communities blossomed briefly and soon fell to earth. The causes varied and often more than one blow brought the place to naught. There was no more water or the water was fouled. The gold or silver petered out. The railroad or the Interstate bypassed the town. Or it was a double whammy. In Keeler the Owens Lake went dry and the Cerro Gordo Mine across the highway went bust. 

On the walls of Taiban's handsome church one of many lines of graffiti tells us, "The sun will rise tomorrow and we'll try again."

Sunday, September 04, 2022

What's Left, Part Two

The availability of water made settlement possible in the first place. Then came the promise of riches beyond imagining and the railroad opened the West to seekers from across the nation. Where abundant water exists so can man. When the water has been depleted and not replenished settlements are left to desiccate in the sun. The Mormons brought irrigation to the Four Corners. And as the Mormons gave life to swatches of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado much earlier the Spanish Conquistadors brought irrigation to New Mexico. The first irrigation ditch was dug in 1598 in Chamita just west of Española and about 50 miles from where I’m sitting. Their formula was a simple one. Find a water source like a river or lake. Then dig a ditch or acequia to access the water and build a church.

Standard Oil of Rice

Railroad Siding, Rice, California

Rice, California at the southern tip of the Mojave Desert began as a Santa Fe Railroad siding. Rice, formerly Blythe Junction, sits at the junction of the dusty road from Blythe and Highway 62 which connects 29 Palms to the west with the Colorado River to the east. What’s left of Rice is long-closed Standard station, railroad tracks and a line of decommissioned cars, that and a well-known Shoe Garden. Rice enjoyed its short zenith when its municipal airport (why there was one baffles me) was acquired by the US Army’s 4th Air Support Command in 1942. During WWll the field employed as many as 6,000 troops and employees.  It lasted about a millisecond in historical terms. It closed and was declared surplus on October 31, 1944. Accordingly, Rice withered and died. Its claim to fame is being the second choice for the world’s first atomic bomb test. It was well worthy of that use.

Yacht Club, Desert Shores

Beautiful Bombay Beach

Just south the Salton Sea once boomed as a playground for the rich and famous. Billed as Palm Springs by the Sea restaurants, shops and night clubs sprung up along its western shore. Frequented by Sinatra and his Rat pack, Jerry Lewis, and the Beach Boys in the Sixties the inland sea claimed the fastest water in the world due to its salinity. During its halcyon days Bandleader Guy Lombardo piloted his 40-foot monster to a world speed record of 118.22mph on a one-mile course. Then two tropical storms in 1976 and 1977 poured so much rain into the sea that it overflowed into all the towns on its shores. And when the water finally receded the salinity level was so high that nothing could live in it. The runoff of chemicals and fertilizers from surrounding farms accumulated to toxic levels. The algae fed on the rotting matter floating on the surface and suffocated most of the fish. Now the poisonous blowing dust from the shrinking sea means that 22.8% of the Imperial Valley’s school children have asthma. The national rate is 8.4%.

Grain elevator, Landergin, Texas

Standing watch on the prairie

Graveyard of discarded semis

Landergin, Texas was founded by the Irish brothers John and Patrick Landergin whose father escaped Ireland’s Potato Famine of the 1840s. It began as a cattle ranch and when the Chicago Rock Island Line came to the Panhandle in 1908 the brothers founded Landergin. Then the nearby town of Vega was founded, and John Landergin opened the First State Bank there. John and Patrick bought more ranch land and in 1912 built a mansion in Amarillo. John Landergin was the brains of the outfit, so the cattle company floundered after his death in 1923 and was sold at auction. There never was much to Landergin. It peaked in 1936 when it had one store and 15 residents. There never was a boom and its demise went unnoticed. Its fallow grain elevators stand like sentinels on the prairie. They tower over miles of flat nothing. The elevators and an unexplained graveyard of dead semis lured me off I-40 one November day. They introduced me to what’s left of Landergin.

More dismissed and discarded next time.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

What's Left, Part One

A recurring theme in my photography the past twenty years has been places either discarded or that have been subsumed by nature’s wrath. Today’s story looks back at a few images from two decades of photographs that depict the blighted and beaten remains of man’s failed attempts to tame an unforgiving land.  Wilting heat and the worst drought in 1,200 years have turned rivers to trickles, rushing streams are parched washes and shriveled lakes reveal the carcasses of mob hits in steel drums. Many a desert settlement has returned to the wind and sand. Fecund oases like the Owens Valley in California have become alkaline dust bowls thanks to greed, corruption, and willful ignorance. The major landholders in the valley sold their water twice to slake the rapacious thirst of The City of Angels and Owens Lake became a desert.

Good Luck

Malone Street, Keeler, California

As the road flattened 15 miles shy of Lone Pine, I saw a sign to a place called Keeler. Being a curious soul who’s easily distracted turned left and entered what’s left of the town sitting on the eastern shore of what once was Owens Lake. Little did I know that a single image from that detour to Keeler, Good Luck, would inform my photography from that moment forward.

Good Luck, the trailer that no longer stands, pointed me toward an evolving portfolio of photographs that memorialize what once was and is no more. I have variously called the series, At the Edge of What’s Left or The Edge of What’s Left or its abbreviated cousins What’s Left or The Edge. I still prefer the wordy but descriptive At the Edge of What’s Left.

There are common themes in these blighted yet beautiful places. Sometimes the mine petered out. Other times the railroad stopped stopping. Or the water source dried up and the town with it. The Interstate Highway bypassed the place, and it became a footnote. Or trying to inhabit the location in the first place was a fool’s errand come to naught. Every one of these fading places has a story of when and why it's gone. Many of these stories are well chronicled while others have no recorded history, and we are left to write one from our imaginings. Often the bounty upon which the economy of the town was dependent disappeared or become too expensive to extract. It’s the depletion of that resource, say silver or gold, that precipitated the collapse.

Denver City Mine, Leadville

Remains of the Denver City Mine fire

That’s the case in Leadville, Colorado. In Leadville the Gold Rush lasted from 1860 to 1866. Silver was discovered and the boom lasted till 1894. It was the most expensive real estate in the world in 1879. But when the US Treasury stopped supporting the Silver Certificate in 1894 and silver fell to at 60 cents an ounce the town went belly up. What’s left is tourist town built on the bones of its handsome historic downtown.

It can be said that mining, water, and the railroad built the West. New Mexico is crosshatched by 2,000 miles of railroad tracks. Though it feels like much more since it seems that every village in the dusty reaches of the state sits alongside a track. Small towns sprung up to build the rail lines and to maintain them. With little else to provide employment these towns with few other means of employment withered and died. Encino, New Mexico such a place.

No more services, Encino, NM

Terminus or the end of the line, Encino

Encino’s location traces back to a spring that was a welcome oasis for travelers. A post office, two churches and a general store followed. In 1905 the Burlington Northern Railroad announced that it was building a depot in Encino. It was a magnet for homesteaders and speculators ready to ride Encino’s wave of prosperity. Two newspapers were established in 1910 and 1920. Both quickly failed. Encino’s railroad depot closed in 1965 and that spelled the end of Encino. Its high school closed its doors in 1982. It's a too common story on the plains of Central New Mexico.

This an edited portion of my September-October article What's Left for Shadow and Light magazine. At this hot minute I expect there will be two more posts along these lines. Then again things change. Who knows?

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Local Knowledge

San Antonio Church, Angel Fire

San Antonio Church

David Michael Kennedy at the church

David Michael Kennedy is one of my photography heroes so when he suggested a photo tour I was honored, excited and not a little daunted. Why would a Master hit the road with a journeyman I wondered. A few months back he told me, “I’d like to head north with you. Let’s see what mischief we can make” or words to that effect. What mischief, indeed, can an old hippy (his description of himself) and an octogenarian manage? He asked if I liked mushrooms. I replied that,” I love them sautéed in olive oil with chopped garlic or better yet in risotto with fresh herbs.”

Used Dodge, Elizabeth Town

David at the Elizabeth Town Cemetery

Then at last Friday he called and asked if I’d like to do a photo excursion around Taos next week. I answered, “Sure. I can do it any day. He responded, “ How about Monday?” And Monday it was.

Ruins on Upper Lama Road

Looking through Lama ruins

Inside Out, Lama

David in Lama

He arrived at 9:30am. I made him a cup of coffee and gave him a tour of our art filled walls. He told me he wanted to drive so he would be able to remember how to get to the remote locations on my go-to list. Turns out he had booked a photo tour in September. His repeat clients wanted to visit Taos and environs on of their days and he wanted to put together an itinerary. “Besides, I’ve got Cody with me.” Cody is his six-year-old Lab. A more devoted companion you will not meet. He only had eyes for David. He didn’t even know I was there.

Since I was to be the tour guide, I had a loop in mind. We would drive US 64 east from Taos to Angel Fire, photograph San Antonio Church a little east of the village. We'd return to 64 and proceed north to Eagle Nest. Along the way there are some abandoned buildings and a shuttered resort on the north shore of Eagle Nest Lake. From there we’d drive to Elizabeth Town. We’d continue on the Enchanted Circle through Red River, the westernmost town in all of Texas. Not really. It just feels that way. We’d grab a bite and continue west to Cuesta, nothing to see there. Then we'd turn south on NM 522 toward Taos where we’d photograph in the rural villages of Lama and San Cristobal.

Not every site was a knockout, but there was something worthwhile in each. San Antonio Church was a hit. The ruins on US 64 between Angel Fire and Eagle Nest were worth a stop. Elizabeth Town, one of my favorites, was disappointing. There were fences and no trespassing signs everywhere. The lovely little cemetery had gone to seed. The abandoned resort on the lake was locked up like Fort Knox. David photographed the Texas owner's contact information and pledged make contact and gain permission to enter the site. He'd attempt the same in Elizabeth Town. 

At the top of Upper Lama Road in Lama were a cluster of ruins that I've photographed many times. We had the run of all the houses even their interiors. David was in his element as was I. We're both drawn to the forgotten and forlorn.

Strewn throughout this post are selections of my efforts at San Antonio Church. Elizabeth Town and the ruins in Lama. Some are candids of my traveling companion, one David Michael Kennedy.

The dude likes the camera, and the camera returns the favor.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Three Stacks and a Rock

Three stacks in the fog

The volcanic plug called Morro Rock

I first visited Morro Bay in 1958 with my mother and returned as recently as 2016. Then as now the features that tourists come to see are the enormous volcanic plug,
Morro Rock, and the 485 foot smokestacks of the powerplant that closed in 2014. Some may see the stacks as industrial blight. Not me. As you well know I’m addicted to man’s footprint in the landscape, especially if it has been abandoned and left to the elements. That’s case with the shuttered plant which is now an asbestos and guano ridden shell of its former self. To residents the stacks are a proud symbol of the Morro Bay’s working-class roots. They will be demolished by 2024 and many in the town are not amused.

Morro Bay Power Plant

Three stacks

Morro Rock

In their glory days fishermen used the stacks like lighthouse beacons to guide them home from the sea. Local surfers paddled out knowing that the plant’s outflow would warm the waves. Shop owners still sell T-shirts, coffee mugs and paintings bearing their image. A brewery is named Three Stacks and A Rock. A bistro is dubbed STAX. The town’s nickname after all is Three Stacks and a Rock. The smokestacks are a major part of the town’s identity. 

But times change. The planet warms at an alarming pace and soon the stacks will disappear from Morro Bay’s skyline. The plant became a relic when California started moving to renewable energy. And many in the town, especially merchants, are heartbroken. In a recent LA Times article commercial fisherman Bud Hurless laments, “Everyone comes to Morro Bay to see Three Stacks and a Rock.” It won't be the same without them.

The fate of the Morro Bay power plant represents the evolution of energy in the Golden State. Built by Pacific Gas and Electric in the 1950s, the plant first operated on oil. Then it transitioned to natural gas before shutting down six years ago. Now, Vistra Corp., a Texas energy company that owns the site, is proposing to build one of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery storage facilities on the plant’s 22 acres. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just know it won’t have smokestacks.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Quick Studies

I’ve reported at least ten times over the past several years on encounters I’ve had with complete strangers that resulted in learning their life stories. I have made the case that if you’re a good listener you’ll be told the high and low points of a long life inside fifteen minutes. Nothing touches me more than making that kind of connection. It’s pure serendipity and pure magic.

It has dawned on me that a guy could make these encounters his life’s work. I may not make that commitment, but I will travel near and wide to find more life affirming engagements like the one with James Iso eight years ago at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Powell, Wyoming. He had been imprisoned there as a teenager before "volunteering" to serve in the Army.

I’ll lead with Iso because I have my notes from 2014 at Heart Mountain handy. This is a lightly edited version of my original post. I’ll follow with photographs and snippets about others I've met on the road to oblivion. Each has been the subject of a much longer blog post and I have a eleven of these chance meetings so far. Since it's clear that I won't be writing the novel you're not expecting but maybe I can corral enough strangers on the highway of life to fill a 2 inch binder.

“I overheard last night at dinner that you served in World War Two Korea and Viet Nam. Is that even possible?" I asked Iso.

He replied, “Yes, not always in uniform but always in the military.” That was a cryptic but most intriguing. Channel your inner Graham Green if you please.

James Iso at the Heart Mountain Reunion

James Iso was a spook. He boasted, “ You know we shortened the war by two years. Everybody knows about 442nd Regimental Combat Team but they've never heard of us." he mused wistfully. "We translated Japanese communications, broke their codes, and planted misinformation. In one case our forces won a major battle when the Japanese commander acted on the bogus intelligence we created.” His service cap reads Military Intelligence Service. I've got a thousand words about the man and we were together for fifteen minutes tops. Fifty like that with portraits is a book done the easy way.

Mr. Iso was bright eyed, engaged, smart and charming. He moved like a young man and wore his suit with aplomb. I asked him how old he was. He said, “Guess?” The numbers added up to old, so I demurred.

He replied with a measure of pride, “I’m ninety.”

Amy French at the Watchtower

When I photographed Amy French at the Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Her first words were. “I’m a breast cancer survivor. I just finished chemo. That's the reason my hair's so short" Strangers lead with the headline it seems to me.

Clarence Vigil in Cundiyo

Clarence Vigil whom I met in the village of Cundiyo, NM said that he refused to join Army during Viet Nam and spent a year in prison in Safford, AZ. “It wasn’t that bad.” he told me. Then he became a wilderness firefighter, a Jehovah’s Witness and one of the happiest people I've ever met. He gave me a dozen eggs and told me, "I can tell you're a nice guy." 
So are you, Clarence.

Rudy Mauldin on the range

Rudy Mauldin was the manager of big ranch near Cline’s Corner, NM.  I met him on US 285 just outside the outfit. He asked "You want to take a closer look?" I answered "Yes" of course. So I followed him through the gate to the ranch. He was bringing hay to the cattle. Rudy is a life long cowboy who had been an detective for the BLM where he investigated the theft of Native American artifacts in the Four Corners. He gave me the name of a book about one of his capers. He told me he’s gone to high school on the Pojoaque Reservation. “Because I was an Anglo, I got my ass kicked on a regular basis.”

Luis Ocejo, proud Viet Nam veteran

I met Luis Ocejo after services at the Catholic church in remote Llano San Juan. I was photographing with John Farnsworth and Steve Bundy. Luis was a pugnacious soul who told us. “You don’t want to mess with a Viet Nam vet.” Nam was still top of mind with Luis and clearly the most important event in his life.

Ken Tingsley in Hondo

When Ken Tingsley saw me photographing the Arroyo Hondo rim north of Taos he hollered, “Take my picture. I’m getting married today." I photographed him on rim and at his trailer. He poured himself two fingers of whisky, lit a cigarette and said, “This tee shirt was my son’s. He died.” He pointed to the shrine to his son in his trailer. In the center was a framed photograph of the Ken and his son taken years before. His so was wearing the venerable tie died shirt.

Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain

I photographed retired Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain the morning before I photographed James Iso. Bustos was a Viet Nam vet like Iso and Ocejo. Nam had been the most important thing in life, too. As the senior enlisted man in the Cody area he was commanding the color guard in a noon parade honoring the internees of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp. At 72 he looked like he could still deploy to a war zone. He was an imposing specimen and looked like he could still bench press 400 pounds like he did in fifty years ago. John Bustos was also to the right of Atilla the hun.

“See this rifle?” he asked. “I’m saving one round for Obama.”

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Cruel Beauty

Looking north from Holman Hill.

Since April 6 the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires have scorched 341,735 acres of land. That makes the combined fires the largest ever in New Mexico. As of today, the fire is 96% contained and there is no new fire activity. As is so often the case, both fires were caused by operator error. The Hermit’s Peak Fire was started by a prescribed burn at the base of the peak 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NM. That the fire was caused by a perversely timed burn just as New Mexico entered its spring windy season is the subject of heated discussion, excuse the pun, and much derision. The Calf Canyon Fire began as “pile burn” that lay as embers under the blanket of three winter snows which ignited after the thaw. These events join others that have besmirched the judgment of U.S. Forest Service. It recalls the Cerro Grande fire of May 2000 which charred 43,000 acres of timber west of Los Alamos and torched 400 homes. It, too, was started by a prescribed burn in the spring. The parallels of cause and timing of Hermit's Peak and Calf Canyon Fires and Cerro Grande are obvious. Who would prescribe a burn in the New Mexico’s windy season?  We are not amused.

Charred Pines and green grass

Ebony trunks and ochre needles

Lone pine on the hilltop

The aftermath of the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon Fires drew me over US Hill on NM Highway 518 on Saturday to see what nature and man had wrought. I found denuded mountain sides and stands of charred conifers interspersed with aspens that survived the searing flames relatively intact. I need to ask my botanist nephew why that’s the case.

Cruel Beauty

Blooms beneath the ruins

Thanks to four weeks of monsoons so far (that’s a predictable as April winds) the fecund forest floor was lush with new green grass, and blooming flowers and shrubs. It spoke to the resilience and tenacity of the natural world and its will to rebuild and to flourish. It also spoke to the merits of forest thinning and controlled burns when used intelligently at the right time and place.

I found the juxtaposition of the blackened trunks of the Ponderosa pines, the nearly white aspens, and the bold shrubs hard to capture. And, to the extent that I did so, color leant promise to the tragic scene. The russet limbs and needles of the conifers showed the aftermath of the fiery onslaught and the vibrant undergrowth showed a new day dawning.

Color and black and white tell very different stories, much like hope and despair. The color shows that nature’s appetite to regrow is voracious. While the monochrome is bleak and tells truer story of the devastation.

It's oddly wondrous either way.