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Why I Wrote a Book

Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch

There must be a dozen reasons why people write books. George Orwell wrote an essay in 1946 “Why I Write” and gave us four: [1] sheer egoism, a desire to seem clever and be talked about, [2] aesthetic enthusiasm, an interest in the perception of beauty in the natural world, [3] historic impulse, a desire to see things as they are and store them for posterity, and [4] political purpose, in the broadest sense of wanting to push the world in a certain direction.

       I whole heartedly subscribe to Wes Jackson’s succinct, all-inclusive bottom line: “We live in the most important moment in human history.”1 I’d like to think I fall into category number four, wanting to do something about the mess we’re in. The Earth’s temperature is higher than any time in human history. We have just endured the hottest decade on record; the Gulf and East Coast of the United States are awash in drastic weather. People are drowning in their basements, burning to death as they flee. The Lahaina fire chased people into the ocean at the speed of one mile a minute, that’s fire racing 60 mph! The death toll is almost a hundred. A “heat dome” cooked British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, killing 500 people in Canada, at least 95 in Oregon, and possibly more than a billion marine animals globally. California and Australia are ablaze, fires never more extreme or this frequent. California has suffered severe drought, then horrendous flooding, an environmental whipsaw. One-third of Pakistan was under water, affecting 33 million people. Earth’s species are undergoing a rate of extinction from 1,000 to as much as 10,000 times higher than normal. One million species are at risk of extinction. Soil is depleted and washed away with only 60 years of productive agriculture remaining if we continue business as usual. Human population growth, resource extraction, and consumption are headed toward tipping points. Humankind is ensnared in an accumulation of climatological and geological changes that are modifying the basic physical processes of the planet. 

       António Guterres, United Nations secretary general warns that the climate crisis is now “inevitable, unprecedented, and irreversible,” our lack of progress dealing with it is “suicidal,” he calls it “code red for humanity,” as we approach “ecosystem meltdown.” As one writer put it, were in the midst of “a multispecies mass extinction, and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent and not one of us is safe.”2 Yet, most scientists maintain there is still time, it’s not too late, but we must act now. I wrote this book in an effort to urge people to acknowledge our environmental crisis, accept the fact that we Americans bare a disproportionate share of responsibility for the mess we’re in, encourage people to commit to change their convenient, overly consumptive way of life and to protest for change, take to the streets and become part of the Voice of the Streets. The work we’ve been doing on the Pitchfork Ranch over the past two decades has helped this land, interesting and beautiful its own right, become an ideal setting to make the case that everyone needs to pitch in and how each of us can make a difference, how to save us from ourselves.

       During our work lives, Lucinda and I had participated in a dozen or more two-week Sierra club volunteer trips where we camped out, collected sherds, surveyed archaeology sites, drilled beams, other tasks in Chico Canyon, and restored habitat in half a dozen locations. Stung by the restoration bug, we decided to repair land as a retirement project,  purchased the Pitchfork Ranch south of Silver City, New Mexico in 2003 and, with the help of 18 government grants, installed more than 1,000 grade-control structures and planted or propagated a similar number of trees, raised the 8.3-mile reach of the 48-mile-long Burro Ciénaga watercourse two to five feet, introduced several at-risk species and improved this wilderness-like place for wildlife to breed, birth and raise their young. We never discussed it, but the restoration was our swan-song, a backpacker’s way to leave this place a little better than we found it. The water was given top priority as the ranch’s restorable ciénaga is one of the few remaining in the Southwest, with up to 95% of ciénega habitat having been lost since European arrival.3 The few remaining are but a shadow of their former selves.

       We learned that recent science found up to 37% of excess atmospheric carbon, the main cause of the climate crisis, could be drawn down by 21 natural climate solutions and that the work here was one of them,  one of the more significant ways to return carbon to the soil where it can serve life, rather than death.4 Those papers prompted us to investigate soil, photosynthesis, and the exhaustive and remarkable subsurface world and how restoring land was a realistic way⎯something beyond the seven “R’s,”⎯to pursue our personal climate stabilization potential and play a meaningful role in the hoped-for transition from  a world of progress and profit to stability and survival. We recognized the ranch and our work provided us with the opportunity to interest others in restoration. I’d given talks, shared our progress at the Gila Symposium, wrote about ciénagas for Wikipedia and other writings and activities, explaining the importance of ciénagas and the results of the habitat restoration on the ranch.  Spade-work and drafts of a book had been in the works for some time, but when carbon drawdown potential entered our thinking, the throttle hit the floorboard.

       As you can see here, it was clear that restoration worked and the potential for landscape scale repair was viable. Having done some of the work and overseen most it, we could see how individuals of every stripe could get involved, do the work. There are changes we can make to our yards, larger pieces of land and with restoration groups as part of the significant adjustments we’re all going to make if we’re going to see civilization, as we know it, survive.

The challenge is to call attention to the myriad crises overwhelming the planet while people went to go about their lives, complicit, wanting to continue “business as usual.” It’s not easy to make this case without sounding accusatory, blaming, pious, or self-righteous. But the facts are frightening. One of the major contributors to these crises is air travel and the United States population racks-up more miles per year than the next ten countries combined. Nobody wants to quit flying. We took a train to visit our daughter in Seattle, the round-trip cost, per person, was $2,100 and took two days each way, whereas air travel would have cost only $493 roundtrip and 7 hours (three-hour drive time to the airport and check in) each way. With infrequent exception, we’ve stopped flying. When our friends learn we no longer travel by air and ask why, it gets awkward. It’s hard to tell, but their reaction appears to range between thinking our policy is silly and guilt. It’s untenable to encourage our friends to give up flying, but they sense the suggestion, it’s uncomfortable.

       The writing was near completion, when another science paper reported that wetlands, bogs, marshes, and similar “sweet spots” like ciénagas “disproportionately contribute to carbon sequestration globally” capturing five times more carbon than forests and 500 times more carbon than oceans.5 With an active, restorable ciénaga⎯the only one in New Mexico being restored on private property⎯the story of the restoration became far more important than our earlier thinking in terms of wildlands and wildlife. 

       Orwell’s notion of pushing the world in a certain direction, urging people to respond to the seriousness of these crises is the task. As complicated and difficult as it is to make the changes necessary to contend with these crises, the way we arrived at the predicament is straight forward. The problem of carbon and warming has been known for almost 200-years, the fossil fuel interests and our government knew about it since the 1950s, the risk was scientifically documented by a variety of scientists independent of one another. The criminals who created these crises and their effort to prevent solutions is now beyond dispute, and continuing. 

        This is the biggest crime in human history. The predictable consequences of spewing carbon, methane and other climate poisons overheating the planet is killing thousands of innocent people, most of whom have contributed few heat causing emissions. I’ve endeavored to explain the conspiracy, our complicity, tell how previously ignored science has had tragic consequences in the Southwest, yet ignoring science this time has us walking over a cliff. There are ways each of us can help solve these crises. We’d best do it now if we care about leaving our grandchildren with hope of survival. The book will be released by the University of Arizona Press in Late February, 2024: Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch, How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land.

Endnotes:

  1. Courtney White, The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015), 3.
  2. Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed, Now What? (New York: Soho Press, 2018), 3.
  3. A.T. Cole and Cinda Cole, “An Overview of Aridland Ciénagas, with Proposals for Their Classification, Restoration, and Preservation,” New Mexico Botanist, Special Issue, no. 4 (September 2015): 36.
  4. Bronson W. Griscom et al., “Natural Climate Solutions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 44 (October 17, 2017): 11645–50, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114. Joseph E. Fargione et al., “Natural Climate Solutions for the United States,” Science Advances 4, no. 11 (November 14, 2018), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat1869. Justin Adams et al., Consultation: Nature and Net Zero, World Economic Forum, January 2021.
  5. Temmink et al., “Recovering Wetland Biogeomorphic Feedbacks to Restore the World’s Biotic Hotspots,” Science, Vol. 376, issue 6593 (May 5, 2022).

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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Mimbres Press of Western New Mexico University is a traditional academic press that welcomes agented and unagented submissions in the following genres: literary fiction, creative non-fiction, essays, memoir, poetry, children’s books, historical fiction, and academic books. We are particularly interested in academic work and commercial work with a strong social message, including but not limited to works of history, reportage, biography, anthropology, culture, human rights, and the natural world. We will also consider selective works of national and global significance.