The Rainbow Sign

Whether the Southwest is in the worst drought in a generation, a century or a millenium, it’s no surprise that we’re also in the worst fire season in at least a decade. The National Interagency Fire Center has the dismal numbers as well as an interactive map. So far this year 29,827 wildfires have burned 2,7 million acres, well above the 10-year average of 23,070 fires over 1.1 million acres.

The photo is by the Albuquerque Journal’s Eddie Moore, part of that paper’s photo coverage of the devastating Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze. New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire, that conflagration has charred more than 325,000 acres since April 6 and is still only 70% contained.

While Calf Canyon is attributed to a pile burn “sleeper” or “holdover” fire that smouldered under the snow since January, Hermits Peak was a Forest Service prescribed burn that was blown out of control by unexpected high winds. But ultimately both these fires and the others burning across the West can be blamed on decades of misguided forestry.

It’s ironic (and perhaps prophetic) that the FS is flying the “Pride Flag” this month, since the rainbow banner doesn’t just celebrate diversity but also recalls the divine promise in an old spiritual:

God gave Moses the rainbow sign
No more water, but fire next time

The trickster

A bill now awaiting the governor’s signature banning “coyote hunts” (sponsored by my own addle-pated Sen. Mark Moores) was the subject of an opinion piece in today’s Journal, authored by a pair who title themselves “Ambassador” and “Founder and Executive Director” of a northern California outfit called “Project Coyote.”

Wile E. Coyote makes his appearance in the lede, when a biologist sights a coyote “joyously toss a sprig of sagebrush in the air with her mouth, adroitly catch it, and repeat the act every few yards.” Instead of studying “the arch-predator of our time,” the scientist is instead discovering that Wile. E. is an “intelligent, playful creature,” according to Project Coyote.

Wrong. You see “the arch-predator of our time” in the mirror every morning as you brush your teeth. Notice those sharp ones prominent on either side of your jaw? Why do you suppose God (or Darwin, if you prefer) put them there?

The intelligent and playful Homo Sapiens rules the planet and we literally fought tooth and nail for the title. For also-rans check your local natural history museum for the remains of Canis dirus and Smilodon. We’ve cleared the ring of these, but Canis latrans remains a formidable challenger. Intelligent, resilient, adaptable and increasingly aggressive, it profits us not to underestimate him.

The Apaches and other indigenous inhabitants of the land knew him well and understood him better than the folks at Project Coyote ever will.  At this weekend’s Book Fair I picked up a copy of American Indian Myths and Legends, which lists 15 stories capturing the coyote in his many different incarnations.


Death in the Desert

I occasionally do posts on desert survival (or lack thereof) that offer worthwhile life lessons for feckless wanderers like myself.  Although I’ve written newspaper columns about the border, the death toll on the line is rarely remarked by myself or anyone else.

There are few descansas along la frontera — no one has the time or inclination to pause to honor the dead, and their passing is marked only by discarded plastic bags, empty bottles and rags of clothing blowing in the wind. I remember a black bra dangling from the thorny limb of a palo verde tree that told me more of a story than I wanted to hear.

The grief and anger of survivors dissipates with time, allowing historians and archeologists to pursue their trades unharried by ghosts. Most of the deaths on the border I’ve referenced occurred more than a century ago.

But the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl apprehended by the Border Patrol in the Bootheel is a tragedy we all need to confront, wherever you stand on the spectrum from open borders to the Great Wall of China.

Unfortunately, we’ve already raced past the fact-finding phase of this story and rushed on to the political outrage theater that is now the default setting for any story that momentarily engages the nation’s increasingly short attention span.

The little girl’s father has lawyered up.  (For a Mayan peon the global media/legal circus must be like being abducted and anally probed by space aliens.) The feds have gone to the mattresses, awaiting a coroner’s report guaranteed to stall questions until the news cycle turns to the next hot story. And a flock of political spin merchants have descended like a murder of crows on a roadkill jackrabbit, ending any chance we will ever really know what happened to the poor little girl.

Without knowing anything more of the story than I’ve read in the Journal and seen online, I will say this: I’ve spent more time in the Bootheel and in northern Mexico than 99.95% of  the “journalists” bloviating on this story. I’ve met and talked with some of the men and women who guard that remote corner of our nation’s border. I cannot believe any of those people would not do everything in their power to save a little girl’s life.

There are EMTs, nurses, doctors, pilots and Border Patrol officers at home tonight, staring at the ceiling and wondering whether there was anything more they could have done that might have made a difference. While we grieve for young Jakelin Caal, let’s spare a prayer for them as well.

The Monsoon and the Raid

I became so engrossed in the maps cited in my last post and in recapping this year’s rainy season that I never quite got around to the point I wanted to make: the key role the 1881 monsoon played in Nana’s Raid.

Having spent more than 70 years living outdoors in the Southwest he needed no calendar to track the seasons. The monsoon traditionally runs from around the Fourth of July to the end of September, and the old fox planned his foray to take advantage of those rains. Filling springs and waterholes otherwise dry during much of the year offered the raiders a much wider selection of watering places for themselves and their stock. The Army had the advantage in manpower but a shortage of horses; by using his infantry to guard water sources, Col. Hatch might hope to thwart the raiders’ progress or even trap them as Col. Grierson had trapped Victorio at Rattlesnake Springs in Texas the previous year. Multiplying the number of water sources scattered across the territory greatly reduced the effectiveness of that tactic.

While the summer storms made the roads and trails more difficult to travel in localized and unpredictable ways, this affected their adversaries far more than the Apaches, who were justly famous for their ability to travel fast over the worst terrain. The Army’s wagons and heavy cavalry horses were more restricted in the routes they could travel, and so more likely to get mired in the muddier low country.

The newly-constructed railroads were particularly vulnerable to the rains as well, although Nana probably did not realize that at the time. The crude trestles bridging the numerous arroyos cutting across the right of way were washed out by local flash floods and as a result Hatch was unable to bring two companies of the 9th down from Colorado to join in the chase.