Sunday, June 1, 2014

Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks National Monument

The clouds were kind to the celebration of our new national monument.

The celebration was at Oñate, outdoors, so the Organs could watch – and provide a stunning backdrop. Organizers set out chairs for 400 people, and were scurrying around adding more chairs when we arrived.

It paid to have a hat; but the clouds not only set off the Organs beautifully, making them more vivid than they'd normally be at 2 p.m., but also sent emissaries to shade us; and there was a pleasant breeze.

Two dozen protesters stood at the entrance. They complained, among other things, that the proclamation ignored public sentiment in Doña Ana County. Since repeated polls (and my own less scientific inquiries) had shown a huge majority of respondents favored the Monument, I wondered about that.

I stopped to ask a couple of protesters: “500 people in there, 25 out here – how can you say there's a big majority against this?” Someone answered, “It only takes one!”

That's a reasonable answer to some questions. In my youth, I was in far lonelier minorities advocating civil rights in the South and opposing the Viet Nam war in the North. I was probably in the minority thinking the Iraq War would turn out as it has.

But to a question about the Monument proposal's popularity, her answer didn't cut it. (The presence of other vehicles behind mine precluded a follow-up question.) I'm not sure what all the protesters' objections were, but: the Monument had the support of a large majority here; and I haven't heard of anything illegal about Obama using the Antiquities Act to get this done, as Presidents at least back to Hoover have done.

The ceremony was predictable, but enjoyable. Much passionate but repetitive thanking of everyone. Well-deserved praise for Obama, Bingaman, J. Paul Taylor, and many others. A few kids running around, oblivious to speeches. Most speakers kept it short. Several spoke well.

Less predictably, but to our great pleasure, Billy Garrett read a Keith Wilson poem, Bone Knowledge. Fine poem – and thematically appropriate, about New Mexico and change.

Like the protesters, I'd have preferred no government involvement. I wish we could keep the Organs pristine, and other parts of the Monument protected, without a bureaucracy. I'll be irritated if I go somewhere I used to go at will and find it closed.

But we aren't such good stewards. Not long ago, our elected representatives let Phillipou build houses higher up in the foothills than they should have. Developers seeking profit or four-wheelers seeking thrills don't always stop and think about protecting nature.

There's a wonderfully green spot just beneath New York State's Croton Dam, beside a powerful spillway, where I was taken to play as a child. Decades later, we took my dying mother there. As I noticed the signs and barriers preventing us from driving down the old road, a young woman advised me, loudly and snidely, “You can't drive down there! It's for pedestrians.” I'd have enjoyed driving the car over her, but those barriers served a purpose. With increased population, continuing to allow folks to drive in there would have trashed the place.

Highlights of the Monument celebration included Friar Vince capping it off by singing a few lines of a song in Spanish; a kid from Tortugas, in native dress, racing around near us; and getting to mill around afterward having talking with folks I don't get to see often, including one I hadn't seen for forty years.

As we drove home we could see rain to the West of us. Later it passed over, sprinkled just enough to create that rain-in-the-desert after-scent, and granting us a great lightning show accompanied by thunder that sent the cat into hiding but brought out a sand-colored toad. (This column will not claim the rain and thunder signified Divine approval of the Monument; but maybe it was Nature tipping her cap to the folks who'd worked so hard on this thing.)

That night we watched a soul-music concert televised from the White House. Enjoying it, and watching the Obamas enjoy it, I wondered if some folks were muttering to themselves about Barbarians taking over the White house.

The next morning we served as witnesses at a wedding. A shy young couple, both serving in the military, taking the plunge – as they could not legally have done in the state where they live.

I'm pessimistic about human greed, climate weirdness, dying oceans, shrinking glaciers, GMO's, and war; but I appreciate: an urbane, good-hearted, capable President; progress toward letting loving same-sex couples express their love in marriage; and some protection for our marvelous Organs.

As I told Friar Vince after the ceremony, I once climbed to the top of the Organs. I realized it was July 4th when we spotted fireworks over Las Cruces. Grand, I'm sure; but from where I stood, they were a reminder of how insignificant our accomplishments are in the greater scheme of things.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 1 June.  ]
[Wisely or unwisely, the Monument represents the will of a clear majority of Dona Ana county citizens.  Repeated polls showed large majorities.   Both the County Commission and the Las Cruces City Council passed resolutions asking for the monument, unanimously or nearly so; and since those folks were elected by citizens, the resolutions are certainly some further evidence of how people here feel.  The relative turnout at the event discussed above (500 to 25) is worth noting, as is the turnout at an earlier event when the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited.  Proponents and opponents urged their allies to be there, and to arrive early.  It was crowded.  Many on both sides, including us, were turned away.  Proponents vastly outnumbered opponents.  By a 4-1 or 5-1 margin, reportedly.  Opponents claimed people were "bussed in."  I did see a few buses, including one I asked the driver about and learned it was folks from El Paso, mostly UTEP, who'd wanted to come; but even assuming there were no opponents from beyond the county's borders, and even if you don't count the supporters who came from outside DAC, proponents significantly outnumbered opponents there too.] 

The Keith Wilson poem Billy read at the gathering was:

Bone Knowledge

There's a quality about New Mexico
a certain sadness, light gathering
about a mountain, the buzz of gnats
over a spot of wet sand in an arroyo.

For years there was nothing here to exploit,
we lived with the grace of poverty about us
in a kind of shining penitence, a forgive
me attitude we had not taken more.

nor given less, we were whole, complete
in the silence of our evenings, the sun
lit extravagance of early mornings, bird
calls that echoed the sun's rising.

The sadness I suppose comes from change,
Heraclitus's river not the same river,
not the same foot, as we became valuable
because of the very space that had protected us.

That hawk, circling the cap rock, though.
How will I explain to him, the changing air?

The poem is from the book Bosque Redondo: The Encircled Grove and is available in the collected edition of Keith's poems. 

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