07 September 2010


From 1978-1982, I had a dream job. The Nature Conservancy chose my then-wife and me to be caretakers at Canelo Hills Cienega, a TNC preserve in southern Arizona. The habitat was part oak-juniper woodland, and part cienega or marsh. In the grasslands bordering the Sonoran Desert, streams and marshes were once more common. As successive Spanish, Mexican and American ranchers overgrazed the resource, topsoil erosion began. Eventually streambeds cut so deep that they lowered the water table, draining the marshes which were home to native wildlife, and an important water source for migratory birds from as far north as Canada, and as far south as southern Mexico and Central America.

At Canelo Hills, paleoecologist Paul Martin suggested building a retaining dam to prevent further headward erosion of the stream bed. It worked, and the cienega was safe. During our tenure as caretakers, we lived onsite in a century-old two-story adobe ranchhouse. We converted the adjacent adobe bunkhouse to include a visitors center, a guest room, and a studio for my ex's stained glass work. We greeted visitors, guided visiting groups of school children, worked with researchers, maintained the building and fences, and monitored natural conditions on the preserve. I also patrolled the boundaries during hunting season, to discourage poachers. The life was often solitary, but never boring.

Those four years, when I was 31 to 35 years old, were vivid and formative. After leaving Canelo to attend school at the University of Arizona for my degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, I often returned to visit la cienega. It even appeared in my dreams -- usually featuring me responding to some threat of encroachment by humans. The role of steward and protector to the natural world had etched itself into my identity, and remains so to this day. I fully understand the impetus behind the radical ecosabotage described in Edward Abbey's seminal novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (see logo above), just as I understand the activist interruption of whale hunting by groups such as Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In any struggle for justice, whether it is feminism or civil rights or protection of habitat and endangered species, there is room for BOTH working within the system to enact legal reform, and working outside the system to draw attention to the problem.

Over the years since Canelo, and since graduating from the UA, my work has alternated between serving nature and serving human society. In 1989-1990, I worked as a US Forest Service wildlife tech in South Carolina after the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo, doing habitat restoration for the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. And from 1990 to 1995 I was a counselor and teacher in suburban Philadelphia, orchestrating classes in math, biology and environmental studies. More recently, especially since last year's retirement, I've written frequently about environmental issues in this public forum, often taking radical views which offfend some readers, and are supported by others.

The other night, I awoke abruptly from a nightmare -- one in which I was once more back at Canelo Hills, which had been transformed almost beyond recognition. Paved roads and logging trucks traversed that calm valley, elaborate bridges and walkways had been constructed for crowds of visitors, and condominiums were metastasizing on the land once invaded by mere poachers. In the dream I was overcome by grief and rage. It seemed that I was the only soul present who understood the desecration being visited upon sacred ground. I was prepared to set a torch to all this human intrusion, ready to attack anyone who got in my way, ready to place my body in the path of those profane, belching trucks.

Once awake, heart pounding, I could not return to sleep. It was clear to me that, whatever the injuries and limitations that have come with age, my life's work is not finished. I don't yet know whether it will transform from fieldwork to advocacy writing, or to physically interrupting wolf hunts, or to something I haven't yet dreamed of. But be on notice -- the fire-breathing activist is back.

"Desert, o my desert, yours is the only death I cannot bear." -- Edward Abbey

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