THE HEAT WAVE

At first, I thought there was something wrong with the air conditioning.

Train station in Germany (from our trip)

As Gen and I settled into our seats last Thursday, July 25th, on a train bound for Prague from Berlin, Germany, I passed my hand across an air vent along the base of the large window in our compartment. Something leaked out, barely. Air, I hoped. It was early afternoon on a hot day in a hot week and soon there were six of us in the cramped compartment, adding our body heat to the stuffy conditions. When would the air conditioning kick in, I wondered? It’s been years since I’ve traveled by rail in Europe, and never at peak summer, so I wasn’t hip to protocols for cooling down passengers. Maybe the train needed to be moving? A few kilometers after leaving the train station, I ran my hand over the vent again, testing the feeble flow. A half hour later I tried again. Nothing had changed. Maybe it was a mechanical problem? Back in Berlin, I had felt a twinge of concern as our train pulled up. It looked old. To save a few Euros, I had booked us in second class on a commuter run to Prague, where we had started our sojourn nine days earlier. The train seemed to be fine, however, and not noticeably different than the one that carried us to Berlin, a trip that hadn’t caused any discomfort. Maybe it was just a cultural thing. As an American, I’m accustomed to air conditioning everywhere I go (though we live comfortably without it at home in Santa Fe). In Europe, there seemed to be a different attitude toward the convenience, as we discovered in Berlin where nearly every building, including the national museums, lacked air conditioning. I understood why. Europe is temperate in the summer and I suspect Germans are keen to keep their energy use as low as possible.

Still, something seemed wrong. An hour into our train ride, we were sweating – a lot. There was no way to open the window and the feeble air supply hadn’t changed, except to die briefly when we pulled into a station. Between the heat and the humidity, the compartment became a sauna. Fortunately, we had brought plenty of water for the four-hour ride. And as former field archaeologists Gen and I were used to sweaty discomfort. I glanced at our fellow travelers. The middle-aged man wearing European-styled glasses seated next to Gen seemed unperturbed by the heat (he disembarked in Dresden). The other passengers were three cheerful young adults from Ireland, judging by their accents, traveling with a larger group. They had disappeared into their smart phones as soon as we left Berlin, though occasionally they spoke short sentences to one another. They, too, were apparently unfazed by the conditions. Meanwhile, the heat continued to build. Gen fanned herself with a map. I wiped my face on a sleeve as I watched farm country roll past under a cloudless sky. Maybe I was just being a wimp, I thought to myself. It had been a while since Gen and I had done any hard traveling, preferring to stay home and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. Maybe I had gone soft in middle age. Then I heard two words that changed everything.

“Heat wave,” one of the Irish lads announced, looking up from his phone.

And not just any heat wave, as I learned when we turned on the TV in our hotel room later that evening. It was a record-smashing heat wave. In Paris, the thermometer hit 108.7° F (42.6° C) while were travelling, demolishing a record that stood since 1947 by an astonishing (in the words of a meteorologist) four degrees. Germany set an all-time national record of 108°, surpassing the previous mark by nearly four degrees – a mark set just the previous day! It was a similar story in Belgium and the Netherlands. Both hit 107°, destroying previous highs by six and five degrees respectively (prompting experts to use the word “astonishing” again). According to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, temperatures had never risen above 104 degrees in recorded history. The Met office in England reported a reading of 101.7° at Cambridge University, breaking the previous record of 101.3°, set in 2003, and marking only the second time temperatures had ever reached triple digits in the UK. No wonder our train compartment had become a sauna! I could certainly sympathize with a story in the New York Times I read upon our return about a Eurostar train in Belgium that had broken down and passengers were not allowed to open windows or leave the train for three hours out of safety concerns. A passenger was quote saying “I have never been so hot in my life.”

The real news, however, wasn’t how many records had been broken across the continent but by how much they had been surpassed, said researchers. New all-time records are usually set incrementally, most often by only a few tenths of a degree. But the records that fell last week were obliterated. Another word used by weather and climate experts to describe what happened is one appearing in more and more news stories and scientific reports recently: unprecedented. Whether the topic is heat waves, flooding, fires, or rates of melting, everyone seems to keep using the word. We’re entering unchartered territory. As Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program said in news story about the heat wave, the obliteration of all-time temperature records have “established an entirely new baseline.” It should be setting off loud and persistent warning sirens. Employing a medical analogy about a fast-rising fever, Shepard said “If you have a temperature of 99.6 degrees, it is alarming…103 degrees would send you right to the doctor.”

Worse, it was Europe’s second fever in less than a month. A June heat wave also set temperature records (2° Celsius above normal on average) earning the month the worrisome title as the hottest June ever on the continent. Not coincidently, it was also the warmest June ever globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization and NOAA. Nine of the ten warmest Junes have occurred since 2010 (1998 is ranked eighth). 2019 saw the forty-third consecutive June with temperatures above the twentieth century average. In fact, the hottest summers in Europe in the past five hundred years have all occurred in the past seventeen years, according to the New York Times story. I wasn’t thinking about unprecedented weather, however, as I planned our trip to Prague and Berlin. I did keep an eye on the June heat wave, breathing a sigh of relief as temperatures fell back down into the “normal” range. It was high summer, so we knew it would be quite warm – and packed accordingly. But another record-breaking heat wave? I didn’t even consider the possibility or think twice about it as temps rose during our time in Berlin earlier last week (abetted by my decision to unplug from the Internet when we left home). I did note the lack of air conditioning, but, hey, were in Europe! How bad could it be? Bad as it turned out.

And it’s just the beginning. The influence of climate change on last week’s heat wave was unmistakable, scientists said in numerous articles. And there would be more, hotter, heat waves in the future. Our fingerprints are all over this troubling development. “Every heat wave occurring in Europe today is made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change,” wrote the authors of a preliminary study published by the World Weather Attribution, an international scientific collaboration, about the June heat wave. In a news article, Radley Horton, a climate researcher at Columbia University said “The verdict is in: Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity – by raising average temperatures – have loaded the dice toward more frequent record breaking heat extremes.” Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist and meteorologist at the University of Oxford, tweeted: “This. Is. Climate. Change.” Perhaps most ominous, journalist Jack Holmes, writing in Esquire magazine (online) said this about 2019: “It’s the first summer of the rest of our lives.”

It’s not just Europe. This summer there have been unprecedented heat waves in South Korea, Japan, India, Alaska (whose largest city, Anchorage, set an all-time record high on July 4th), and the East Coast of the United States. As I write this the dome of heat that cooked Europe last week has settled in over Greenland, likely to cause massive melting of its precious glaciers. This avalanche of news came as a bit of a shock to me. Although I’ve worked in climate change for many years, mostly on the solution side of the crisis, none of the research I saw said conditions would deteriorate this fast. For example, James Hansen, the father of climate science, warned in his 2010 book Storms of My Grandchildren that heat waves would be more intense and more frequent with each passing year unless greenhouse gas emissions were reduced but he was writing about the world his grandchildren would inherit, I thought. Years from now, in other words. But it’s arriving much more quickly, evidenced by roasting Gen and I experienced in the train last Thursday.

The event reinforced the anguished question that I posed in my previous post: What Is Earth For? For us to roast? It’s beginning to look that way. Things are moving fast climatically – and very slowly politically. In a fitting but pathetic irony, the annual gathering of climate change deniers in Washington, D.C., organized by the heartless Heartland Institute, met on the 25th just as Paris broke its all-time record. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of young protestors around the world, led by courageous sixteen-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, have mobilized all year in a desperate attempt to provoke governments into action and salvage something of their collective future. However, in another sign of the times, a day before the record-breaking 25th, Thunberg was publicly mocked by right-wing lawmakers as she spoke to the French National Assembly in Paris! It boggles the mind.

Yosemite Valley (1990) from my photography project The Indelible West

The events of the past week have put many things into perspective suddenly for me. I have known for some time that we were careening toward a precipice from which we might not recover, but I always assumed we had time to take corrective action. However, the speed at which the world has approached the precipice – now only a few years away, say the experts – puts my personal journey into sharper focus. The transition from the ‘precedented’ world that I grew up in to the ‘unprecedented’ world that has begun to take hold has happened entirely within my lifetime. On the one hand, I’m not at all shocked. I’ve been worried about our destructive habits for nearly all my life, first through the lens of archaeology, then land conservation, followed by my activism with the Quivira Coalition. Figuring out how “live on a patch of land without ruining it” as conservationist Aldo Leopold once described the “oldest task in history” has been the central tenet of my work. That includes my nonfiction books, of course, but also my photographic projects as well as my novel-writing. One might call it a ‘career’ interest in conservation and sustainability, via anguished questions, though I’ve always considered my path to be more akin to an artist’s journey than a researcher’s investigation (right brain/left brain). But events this summer have cast my work and interests in a somewhat different light, which I am still sorting out. This includes things I saw and learned during the rest of our journey to Prague and Berlin, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

What Is Earth For?

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and foster its renewal is our only hope.” – Wendell Berry

Author Wallace Stegner once said every book should try to answer an anguished question, an instruction that I took to heart at a tender age. For over thirty years, I’ve tried to answer a number of anguished questions in my writing, photography, and activism, ranging over the fields of archaeology, history, conservation, the radical center, regenerative agriculture, resilience, and climate change. Although the questions were often daunting and suffused with urgency, in my answers I tried to be creative, hopeful and, above all, a good storyteller. It’s my nature to see the glass as half-full, even if the glass is large and intimidating!

Slowly, a general anguished question began to reveal itself over the years, linking my various concerns and creative efforts: what is land for? Why do we do what we do to land, including its plants and animals? Why do we treat it so poorly at times and yet magnificently at others? Why are we so obsessed with its beauty and bounty and yet so harmful and destructive to its health? We are possessive of land and possessed by it, but we are also deeply conflicted about what land is for – Food? Wilderness? Mining? Inspiration? Recreation? This anguished question lies at the heart of The Sun. In my story, a young doctor inherits a large, beautiful property and must decide: what is the ranch for? Oil-and-gas? Houses? Cattle? Fish? Wolves? A casino? A spiritual retreat? Complicating things, there’s a dead body and a mystery to solve as well!

Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, my anguished questions expanded suddenly. How do we build resilience economically and ecologically for a rapidly changing world? How do we scale-up hopeful solutions to serious problems? How could we work together more collaboratively despite significant cultural and political differences? How were we going to confront a warming globe and slow down climate change? The same year, I saw a graphic in a peer-reviewed academic journal that brought all the issues I had been worried about and working on into focus. The researchers studied twenty-four global indicators in an attempt to understand how fast human impacts were taking place at earth system levels – i.e., to oceans, land, and the atmosphere. They discovered that in a tiny fraction of time our impact had grown from insignificant to colossal. They called this rate of change The Great Acceleration. Human activity was approaching or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. The extent and magnitude of alterations to the natural world was (and continues to be) unprecedented, they wrote, and humans are now the primary driver of change on the planet. Taken together, it meant a new anguished question: what is earth for? Here is the graphic:

Steffen, et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” Anthropocene Review, January 2015 (updated from 2004) – the year 1950 is in red.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, I have searched for hopeful answers to this question in many places and expressed what I found in a variety of forms, including books, articles, lectures, and the work of the Quivira Coalition. Last fall, I was asked by the editor of a journal to reflect on this ‘earth’ question specifically and share what I had learned with readers. I was reluctant at first to try, mostly because I was feeling down about our prospects (Trump, climate change, Twitter, etc), but writing the essay proved to be cathartic. I realized that the quest to tackle anguished questions still beat strongly in my breast. I was still ‘Courtney White’ in other words (see previous post) even in fiction. It’s all one journey in one canoe. I am reprinting the essay here (The Point, no. 18, Winter 2019, in a longer version) as a way of explaining how my search for answers to anguished questions came about and evolved over time. And I offer it here on the Summer solstice as a tribute to the start of my favorite season of the year and a reminder to keep on questing:

What is land for? This question entered my mind like a bullet one incredibly hot July day in 1979 while working on an archaeological survey crew in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix, Arizona. Actually, it was the second piercing thought I had on that scorching afternoon, the first being what the hell am I doing here? It had to be 120 degrees out – hotter, actually, since additional heat blasted upward from the volcanic rock all around us. It was like being roasted slowly in a furnace – again. It had happened yesterday. And the day before. In fact, it had been a record-setting week of broiling temperatures in Phoenix, the kind of unforgiving heat that softened asphalt in parking lots and runway tarmacs, cancelling flights. Normally, I didn’t mind. I was eighteen and indestructible. Besides, I knew from experience that the desert has a surprising amount of shade if you know where to look. This day, however, was different. The volcanic land, covered with moon-like fragments of black rock, was shadeless except for the thin relief offered by a handful of saguaro cactus. Needing a break, our four-person crew dispersed quickly to the sparse stand of these stately monarchs, squeezing our bodies into their shadows. We didn’t have a choice. We were miles from our truck. And we had a job to do.

We had discovered a prehistoric field house among the rocks.

On survey in 1979 (I’m on the left). Near Phoenix.

It was my second summer as a member of an archaeological survey project run by Arizona State University, part of an energetic effort at the time to canvas the desert around Phoenix for signs of ancient human activity. On the surface, our purpose was scientific: to discover and record archaeological sites so we could understand better why prehistoric people did what they did centuries ago. In reality, our job was political. We surveyed land fated to be drowned by the rising waters of new dams. Phoenix’s economy, sustained by epic amounts of air conditioning, was beginning to boom. New homes, schools, and businesses were springing up like weeds after a spring rain. Raised on the edge of the expanding city, I had a front-row seat as cement flowed endlessly in all directions.

However, there was one significant limitation to Phoenix’s heedless addiction to growth: water. To civic leaders that meant new dams – taller, wider, deeper. In the old days, they would have simply hired engineers and dispatched bulldozers to accomplish their vision of progress. By the late 1970s, however, federal laws required cultural and biological surveys to be conducted before the bulldozers could fly, which is where ASU came in. Its job was to inventory the past before it was lost forever – and help the civic leaders choose the best site for the new dam. My job as a crew member, hired at the eye-popping (to me) rate of $3.33 an hour, was to hike, make maps, collect artifacts, and camp in the desert. I had so much fun I would have done it for free!

Prehistoric field house. Bandelier, NM, from my book In the Land of the Delight-Makers (1992)

Over the course of surveying the basins of five potential dam sites, ASU’s crews discovered a wide variety of prehistoric ruins, large and small, but none quite as intriguing to me as the little field house in the volcanic field on that broiling July day. At first glance, the structure was unimpressive. A square of shaped stones, it measured two meters by two meters and stood only one course high – hardly discernable among the rocky moonscape. Trained eyes had discovered it, however, and now we needed to record the lonely edifice. But we weren’t quite ready to abandon the blessed shadows of our saguaros. Standing there, I frowned at the little house. What was it doing here? These types of structures were usually associated with agricultural fields, serving as storage for harvested crops, but where were the fields? The land was sand and rocks and pitiless sun.

Prehistoric food included corn, beans, and squash and the technique used to raise them was called dry farming by archaeologists, which is a literal description. Farmers relied on rain water to grow their crops and when the rains failed, as they often did in the arid Southwest, people suffered. That’s why prehistoric farmers were fabulous opportunists. They grew food wherever they could, even in places considered marginal by desert standards. Our survey crew discovered field houses in surprising places, including on steep slopes, but not one as merciless as this moonscape. It spoke of human ingenuity – and desperation for sustenance.

Phoenix during my youth.

This was a revelation to me as a suburban city boy who had no idea where my food came from other than the grocery store and fast food restaurants. Actually, in our household most of our meals came from the freezer. My mother liked to boil frozen food in a bag, back when that was popular. Ranching? Farming? I had no clue. The only livestock I knew were a few horses my parents owned for a while. Occasionally, I would spy a green farm field on the edge of town while driving, but the only crop I ever saw harvested were new houses. All that changed when I joined the survey.

Hiking across inhospitably dry country that had once sustained thousands of prehistoric people, I came to appreciate the deep link between land and survival. The Law of the Desert for prehistoric inhabitants became clear as we worked: cultivate the land or perish. It was a law as old as agriculture, and probably a lot older. For millennia, humans have been in a dynamic, productive, and codependent relationship with land for our sustenance, both nutritionally and spiritually. Success or failure was a mixture of farming skill and natural caprice (the whim of gods or summer storms, take your pick). For me, it was all on display that burning July day in the form of a solitary field house sitting mutely among the sun-blasted rocks. It spoke viscerally to a fundamental human attitude toward the earth: we need it to nourish us.

After a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I carried the image of the little field house in my mind as I became involved with the conservation movement. Alarmed by the “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 mid-term elections and Speaker-elect Newt Gringrich’s declared intention to rollback twenty-five years of critical environmental legislation, I called a representative of the Sierra Club to volunteer my services and was quickly recruited as a foot soldier for the local chapter. While much of Gingrich’s anti-environmental agenda was successfully blocked in Congress thanks to a national outpouring of outrage, I witnessed a different sort of trouble at home.

At the time, conservation work was dominated by open conflict between environmentalists and loggers, miners, and ranchers over the use of public land in the West. Almost daily headlines around the region featured a cycle of unhappy news: effigies of forest activists hanging from street lamps; road-building equipment disabled in the dead of night; federal property attacked by anonymous assailants; hiking trails booby-trapped with explosives; trees spiked with large nails to prevent their harvest; endangered species threatened by a rural campaign of ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up;’ public meetings dissolving into shouting matches, on and on. Two popular bumper stickers reflected the tenor of the times: “Cattle Free in ’93!” shouted one and “Cattle Galore in ’94!” shouted the other.

Wilderness or cattle ranch or both? Western Montana.

Although I was a conservationist, I felt a great deal of anguish because this conflict had all the hallmarks of a tragedy: both sides, and all of us in between, seemed destined to lose what was most valued by everyone: the health and diversity of the West’s open spaces. And it wasn’t just the West, the hard-headedness of this fight reflected other divides in the nation – the “red” and “blue” split, for instance, that would soon engulf our national politics. In particular, I struggled to understand why fellow activists kept proposing solutions to environmental problems that carried the maximum penalty for rural people. For example, a vigorous national campaign to prohibit on all logging in national forests – called ‘Zero Cut’ – was the proposed answer to forest mismanagement by the federal government, a solution that fell hard on the struggling traditional Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico who relied on the forest for wood to heat their homes. Tensions quickly flared as villagers protested this assault on their culture. Activists persisted, resulting in a pipe bomb being placed in the local mailbox of the most aggressive environmental organization (it didn’t go off, thankfully).

Jim Winder

An answer to my anguish came from an unexpected source one day. Walking into a statewide meeting of the Sierra Club in the southern part of the state, I saw a cowboy hat sitting on a table. It belonged to Jim Winder, who lived and ranched nearby. If that wasn’t surprise enough, I was told Jim was there because he had accepted the invitation of the chair, Gwen Wardwell, to become a member of the Executive Committee. A rancher on the statewide Executive Committee of the Sierra Club? And a Republican to boot! What was going on here? Jim boasted that he ranched in a new, ecologically friendly style. He bunched his cattle together into one herd and kept them on the move so that any particular patch of ground would be grazed only once a year, mimicking the manner in which bison covered the land. He didn’t kill coyotes. In fact, he didn’t even mind wolves, because bunched-up cows can protect themselves. There was more: because he ranched for rangeland health he got along great with government employees, he had more water in his streams, and most importantly, he was making money.

It sounded too good to be true. Curious about this new-fangled ranching, in early 1996 I joined a tour of the family ranch Jim had organized for a small crowd of his fellow Sierra Clubbers. Attending was a vocal anti-grazing activist who tried to provoke Jim into a confrontation (I learned later this activist was the prime suspect in a spate of cattle murders in the area). It didn’t work. Jim parried each attack with a patient explanation of ecological principles and a fine sense of humor. I soon learned there were other ranchers of Jim’s stripe across the West – ranchers managing for healthy ecosystems through progressive cattle management and collaboration. It confirmed what I saw on Jim’s ranch: thick grass, healthy riparian areas, young plants, wildlife, open space – all the things I said I wanted as a conservationist. Of course, I saw livestock too.

Rancher Jim Williams and myself. Jim sued the Forest Service and then joined the radical center to work things out collaboratively. Western NM.

Acting on what I learned, Jim and I, along with Barbara Johnson, another Sierra Club activist, founded the Quivira Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict.” Our goal was to build a radical center among farmers, ranchers, agencies, scientists, conservationists, and members of the public around progressive land management practices that restored social and ecological health. Our guiding philosophy was encapsulated by Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry who wrote “You can’t save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both.” Our attempt to build a radical center wasn’t embraced by my fellow activists, however. Not only did many dislike talking to rural people, most were philosophically opposed to the idea of sustainable use of the land.

One of the main goals of the conservation movement at the time was wilderness protection. Arguments advanced by activists were based on the 1964 Wilderness Act which viewed land as either ‘pristine’ (“untrammeled” officially) or not. But I knew from my archaeological experience that nature wasn’t “pristine” at all. It had been used and occupied by indigenous people for thousands of years – at least until they were driven out of their homelands by the federal government in many cases. It looked like empty wilderness, but only because it had been forcibly emptied of people. These are working landscapes, I argued, both historically and presently – working ecologically as well as socially. Ranchers had a place in the West too, I said. This was the point the Hispanic villages were also trying to make – culture matters. But whenever I brought up these concerns fellow environmentalists would scoff. One even accused me in print of being “an archaeologist.”

Singing Frogs organic farm. Northern California.

Then there was food. Why did activists rarely talk about food production, except to criticize industrial agriculture or complain about livestock on public land? Positive, nurturing relationships between land and humans centered on sustainable farming and ranching were almost never discussed, buried under noisy demands by activists for more wilderness designation and greater wildlife protections. Lost in the heated ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric that dominated the 1990s was any acknowledgement that land could be managed in regenerative ways that sustained humans and the world we all shared together. Even as the organic farming movement rapidly expanded and healthy food became widely available in natural grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets, many conservationists maintained their campaign against agricultural use of the earth. Others simply stuck their fingers in their ears.

This is where the image of the little field house among the hot rocks on that July day kept coming back to me – we need the land to feed us today as much as we did back then. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store, it originates in the earth. Either we can get it from organic, regenerative farms and ranches or we can continue to consume industrially-produced food-like substances. Either way, as Wendell Berry once observed, “eating is an agricultural act” – a point the conservation movement kept missing.

My work with the Quivira Coalition led to another issue that made my fellow environmentalists uncomfortable: the earth needed us too.

Example of soil erosion – these fence posts sat on the ground in 1937. Near Quemado, NM.

Our relationship to the land has too often been abusive. This point was driven home to me one day as I walked up a small creek on a ranch in eastern New Mexico. I could tell that the creek had been badly eroded by repeated floods but when I saw a barbed-wire fence with its wooden posts still attached stretched across the creek ten feet above my head, I knew something serious was going on. When I asked the rancher about the fence, he said the wooden posts had rested on the ground in 1937! In other words, a huge amount of soil had washed away in only seventy years. The main culprit was historical overgrazing by livestock in the uplands, which stripped land of its grass cover exposing soil to the erosive power of big storms. A few weeks later, I asked an expert with the federal government how much of New Mexico existed in a similarly degraded condition. “Most of it,” he replied. The Rio Puerco, a significant waterway west of Albuquerque, was once called the ‘breadbasket’ of region. Today, it is a forty-foot deep ditch along much of its length, a victim of ignorance and economic short-sightedness (the two principle reasons for land abuse, according to Wendell Berry).

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once declared the arid Southwest to be on a “hair-trigger” for erosion. If stewarded poorly, he warned, the health of the land would begin a downward spiral leading to all sorts of trouble. He was right. In fact, for much of the Southwest the trigger was pulled decades ago.

Bill Zeedyk teaching a riparian restoration workshop, Comanche Creek, NM.

Fortunately, we can help turn this around. The toolbox for improving and restoring land health, nascent in Leopold’s day, has expanded dramatically over recent years. We know how to manage cattle holistically so native grasses can get reestablished and thrive; we know how to mend damaged creeks with simple, carefully-design wooden structures that slow water down and let riparian vegetation grow again; we know how to grow food regeneratively, building up carbon in the soil that was lost generations ago when topsoil washed away; and we know how to rebuild trust and work together for the common benefit of land and people.

These aren’t new ideas. Aldo Leopold observed long ago that the tools we used to damage the land – the axe, plow, gun, and cow – were the same ones that could be used to restore it. It wasn’t the tool itself that was the problem, he wrote, but how we use it. A hammer could be employed to build a house, for instance, or strike a person. Cattle, grazing in ways that mimicked the behavior of wild herbivores, such as a herd of bison, could be a tool for regenerating the land. I saw it in practice over and over.

Restored grasslands on Tom and Mimi Sidwell’s JX Ranch. Tumacacori, NM

Today, despite the news headlines about widening political and social divides in America, the radical center continues to grow across the nation. It goes by many names now – collaborative conservation, regenerative agriculture, sustainable resource management, ecoagriculture, watershed stewardship – but the purpose is the same: restoring the ancient, co-relationship between people and land. In many places, it is being led by young people who are emboldened not only by ideas and practices “beta tested” by their mentors, but also by new ways to measure and quantify the results of their work that weren’t possible twenty years ago. New technology, much of it hand-held, can generate piles of data that can guide our land management, food growing, and ecological restoration activities. The sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils, for example, which has the potential to reduce the effects of climate change, is a rapidly burgeoning area of work among a new generation of regenerative farmers and ranchers empowered by low-cost, cutting-edge technology.

I find all of this tremendously encouraging. The environmental movement has changed too. Many activists now see the value of working landscape for conservation and are working in partnership with rural residents toward common goals. Building up carbon in the soil, for instance, is in all our interests, as every gardener knows. It is the lesson of the little field house that so sharply entered my mind all those years ago: the earth still nourishes us and we can still nourish the earth.

(all photos by Courtney White except the ones of Katrina, Jim, Phoenix and the two with me)

What’s In A Name?

I’ve decided to become Courtney White again.

Sutro

When I left the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 to write full-time, I considered using a pseudonym for the mystery series that I hope to write. It’s a common practice among authors who want to keep their fictional identity separate from their other work or if they are writing in multiple genres. Otherwise, crossover is hard on readers, I was told. In my case, I had been writing nonfiction for years and although I wasn’t taking a mighty leap with subject matter of the mystery series I thought I should separate it my former self, especially since I hadn’t planned to write more nonfiction. One idea that came to mind was C. G. Sutro. That’s the pen name Gen and I came up with years ago (C. and G.) when we toyed with the idea of writing an archaeological adventure series together. Sutro was our dog. I wrote down a few other ideas as well but in the end a fake name felt like I was hiding, so I decided to stick a “J” out front of Courtney White instead (Joseph is my first name) and keep things simple.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had a change of heart. For one thing, my CW name will be on the title of a book in the Innovators Series (described in an earlier post) that will be published this fall, reviving my nonfiction brand. It will likely happen again with the book I’m currently working on with farmer Dorn Cox. Meanwhile, The Sun didn’t sell well, which means my dream of financial and literary success as a mystery writer will be harder and take longer (if it happens at all). I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to the arc of my thirty years of writing, photography, and activism. On the surface, my “career” looks like a collection of discrete activities loosely bound together, but in fact they are all part of the same journey down the same river in the same canoe – full of twists and turns. The connection, I realized, is storytelling – land, people, and the Age of Consequences (which I’ll discuss later).

The kicker came when I stumbled across an interview I penned for Resilience.org, an online “community library and café” dedicated to thoughtful discussion about the multiple challenges confronting the world. I was a frequent contributor for a while and in 2015 the editor asked me to write responses to a short list of questions. Looking them over again, I realized that everything I’ve done over the years originated from one source: Courtney White. So, I’ve decided to take back the “J” and pick up where Courtney left off. Here’s the interview:

Resilience.org: Who/what has been your greatest inspiration?

Aldo Leopold

“My greatest inspirations are William Shakespeare and Aldo Leopold. The key to moving hearts and minds no matter what your field of endeavor is good storytelling and no one did it better than Will. There’s a reason why his plays are regularly performed four hundred years after they were written: they are gripping tales of revenge, love, lust, tyranny, jealousy, betrayal, murder that resonate with us as humans. His words are lofty and musical and his plots and his characters have a poignancy that keeps us coming back for more. Anyone who aspires to being heard can still learn much from the Bard of Avon. On the nonfiction side, I take a lot of inspiration from the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold. He was not only a fine writer but focused his creativity and intelligence on the pressing issues of his day, including wildlife management, wilderness protection, environmental education, sustainable agriculture, economics, ethical behavior, and scientific documentation. Leopold once described living on a patch of land without ruining it as “the oldest task in human history” – a task more pressing today than ever – which ranks it right up there with Shakespeare’s ruminations on the human condition. Whether this task is ultimately a tragedy, a history or a comedy remains to be seen!”

Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?

“Don’t expect facts, logic, or more education to be sufficient. When I began my work with the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago, I assumed that social change was mostly a matter of spreading the news – giving people facts, making logical arguments, promoting profitable approaches, rebutting emotional objections with real-world examples, creating educational opportunities, and generally counting on people to eventually “see the light.” What I didn’t understand is how deep personal beliefs go – as in really deep, even to the point of self-destructive behavior. A rancher once told me he’d rather “go down with the ship” than change his management – which is exactly what happened! Going in, I knew humans acted in contradictory and illogical ways, I just didn’t understand how stubborn we could be even in the face of empirical evidence. I do now. The advice I’d anyone now is to concentrate more on hopeful, fact-based storytelling and less on lectures, numbers, and complaining. I would also advise focusing on young people, who are often more open to new ideas than their elders.”

What keeps you awake at night?

“Besides the low pay of nonprofit work and writing? What keeps me awake at night is thinking about the world my children will be inheriting. Even if we get our act together as a society and work hard toward a sustainable future, all of our children will still inherit a challenging situation. And if we don’t work really hard, then the challenge will be huge. Of course, this situation isn’t fair to them. Parents are supposed to improve the world for their children, not diminish it – but diminishing it is exactly what we are doing. I can only imagine what future generations will say about us when they realize that we still had an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive to these challenges and we didn’t take it. Strenuous cussing comes to mind.”

What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?

Greek Muse

“My muse – who is a stern taskmaster. No lollygagging allowed, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Hup hup! Seriously, I’ve suffered from an irrepressible creative impulse and a dangerously insatiable curiosity since I was a teenager. I just love the world, its history, its cultures, its beauty, its mystery, and its diversity. Exploring and interpreting what I find, whether in writing, photography, or activism, is hard-wired into my behavior – I don’t know why. I suppose my parents are to blame! My father was a neurologist who just loved helping people get better. He found humans, and their illnesses, endlessly fascinating. My mother was also insatiably curious about the world, though her interests involved art and literature. Together, they gave me an enduring thirst for discovering and caring. As for the stern muse, as my sometimes exasperated family can tell you, it never sleeps.”

What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?

“There was a period of time when I struggled with a sense of failure – a slow-growing realization that I wasn’t going to achieve as much as I hoped with my activism. When I began my career in social change, first as an environmental activist with the Sierra Club and then as a cofounder and director of the Quivira Coalition, I had decently-sized expectations of changing the Status Quo both at the grassroots (including the ‘grass’ and the ‘roots’) and at higher levels. I put a lot of heart-and-soul into these expectations so when Business-as-Usual continued to prevail despite our best efforts, my spirits took a beating. We had some success – don’t get me wrong – and I’m proud of our work and the lives we touched, but in the Big Picture we didn’t accomplish as much as I hoped. This was hard to accept for a while, but eventually I got over it. I recovered the way most people do – by going through a grieving process and coming out the other end stronger, wiser, and more focused. Like any loss, you deal with it. The alternative is to succumb to sadness and despair. Those weren’t options for me, so I picked myself up and got back to work (remember the stern muse) and began exploring new horizons.”

For you resilience is…?

“Resilience is both bouncing back and moving on. It’s the capacity to cope with the unexpected, going through a grieving process for example, in order to handle loss, but it’s also the ability to thrive in the face of never-ending change. I love this quote by the Buddha: “Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful.” Resilience is all about overcoming the resistance to change in ways that create positive, hopeful, and healthful paths into the future. That’s easier said than done, of course! Take the adventurous journey into mid-life, for example. When you enter your fifties, resistance to change becomes almost a fact of daily existence, especially if you have teenage children as we do. What do you mean I’m not forty anymore! It’s not very resilient, I can tell you, to fight these changes, including the reluctance to admit that life is, in fact, “bounded by a sleep” as Shakespeare put in The Tempest (his career-concluding meditation on aging). The resilient answer, at least for me, is to move on to new work, new horizons, and new opportunities. Never stop using the oars, in other words, even if we must row more slowly.”

What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?

“From my experience, I’d say incentivizing people to do the right thing with their land is job #1 today. Unfortunately, we have a society/politics/culture that strongly encourages people to do the wrong thing with the planet, and we’re reaping the consequences big time. In vivid contrast, incentives to take care of the natural world (including ourselves) are hugely lacking. What would they be? Aldo Leopold struggled with this question all his life, especially in light of the economic and environmental devastation brought on by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. He examined a wide variety of financial and policy incentives and found them wanting. In the end, he settled on a plea for a change in our ethics. Fast forward to the present day and his plea looms larger than ever. There is an important difference, however, between his time and ours (see my next response), which leads me to believe that financial incentives might work after all. If we could pay land owners, for instance, to double the carbon content of their soils – and by pay I mean money – than I’m certain we’d see positive, resilient, regenerative results. This is described in detail in my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country.”

What gives you hope?

“Human ingenuity. I know it’s the bane of our existence as well, but I’ve been deeply impressed by the large amount of innovation that has taken place within the ecological agriculture community over the past thirty years. It’s staggering actually. The regenerative toolbox is overflowing with new ideas, many of which have gone through an on-the-ground, beta-test phase and proven to be practical, profitable and effective. As I like to tell people, we don’t need to invent anything to solve our problems – we’ve already done it! Mix in photosynthesis and you have answers to most of our problems. This is incredibly hopeful stuff – and I’m certain that Aldo Leopold would have agreed. The challenge, of course, is scaling up – and quickly. That’s the next step and it’s a big one, but in the meantime it’s encouraging to know that human ingenuity is still hard at work for the betterment of ourselves and the world.”

MY COUSIN WILLIAM FAULKNER

Is writing in the blood? Is it inherited? Where does it come from?

My mother and me

If I have writing skills, I didn’t get them from my father. He was a well-respected and much beloved neurologist, but he wasn’t a reader, much less a writer. That was my mother’s department. I knew she loved words and not just in books. She composed them as well. I remember long letters of correspondence she sent me at summer camps (placed in manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings). I also knew she exchanged lengthy letters with her friends. It wasn’t until I waded into her papers after her death in 1988, however, that I realized how good a writer she was – and how badly she wanted a career in literature. Words flowed effortlessly from her. Topics included anything and everything – a recent trip, a visit from a relative, a class taught by Lewis Mumford, a play on Broadway, a book, a favorite dog, the weather. They were the nonstop words of a natural writer, energetically seeking an audience. She was an amazing photographer as well, I discovered, with a natural eye for form and light. I had no idea! Growing up, she never discussed her writing or photography with me at all. I know why. By the time I was old enough to appreciate her skill, she had abandoned any hope of a career – for many reasons – and had settled into a kind of monkish existence, content to read books and watch movies on television.

So where does the skill and desire to write or take photographs come from if one’s parents aren’t tutors? School, I suppose – but I never took classes in these topics, preferring to study history and anthropology. Reading is crucial, of course, but it’s not the same as writing and it doesn’t explain the source of the mysterious drive that propels writers to write. It’s more basic. A friend of mine once declared that he “didn’t have a book in him.” For those of us with many books inside, where does that need originate? Is there a writing gene?

Cousin Bill

This question came rushing at me unexpectedly one day in 1986 when I learned that novelist William Faulkner was my cousin. My aunt Sarah – my father’s sister – had come to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, to visit Stuart Lacy, their mother’s oldest brother. I tagged along. Sarah had recently retired from a career in social work and decided to dig into the Lacy family tree, the roots of which reached back to medieval England and Normandy (the de Lacys fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings). She also wanted to confirm a rumor that we were related to one William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi. That was a surprise! On the drive to Canoga Park, Sarah explained what she had learned: Faulkner’s great grandmother and her great grandmother were sisters – Emily and Sarah Holcombe. Emily married Dr. John Murry, whose daughter, Sallie, married John Wesley Falkner (whose famous son added a ‘u’ to the family name). Sarah Holcombe married Watson Lacy and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas. Their child, William Stokes Lacy, was my father’s grandfather. However, Sarah was having trouble confirming our link to the novelist because genealogy trees in those days heavily favored male lineages, leaving wives and mothers to sit forlornly on limbs. In 2006, I paid a visit to Faulkner’s home outside Oxford and spent an hour in a local bookstore confirming the Lacy family connection. My aunt’s sleuthing was correct – I was related to William Faulkner!

Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County

This news percolated inside me. My mother idolized Faulkner (and never forgave my father for being the family link instead of her). I grew up dabbling in his novels, mostly egged on by her unswerving admiration for the writer. I didn’t get very far. In college, I tried again. I made my way through The Sound and The Fury and Absalom! Absalom! However, his dense writing style and lugubrious sentences (I thought at the time) weren’t my cup of tea. I appreciated his “Southernness” and his world-building, even if I couldn’t pronounce the name of his mythical county – Yoknapatawpha. His regionalism appealed to my budding creative interest in my home ground, the American West. In fact, a direct consequence of my aunt’s visit was a decision to do an ‘independent study’ of the West, which I conducted in the book stacks of UCLA’s main library during breaks from my job in the Acquisitions department (a project prompted by the arrival of John Nichols’ On the Mesa at my desk one day). Faulkner had dedicated himself to articulating what it meant to be Southern, which was a cool idea, I thought. What did it mean to be Western? I had a few ideas, thanks to Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, among others, but I needed to dig deeper, which is exactly what I did for the next two years, resulting in The Indelible West, among other projects.

My visit to Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, outside Oxford in 2006 inspired me all over again, but in a new direction. I had spent the previous eight years writing articles, essays, and interviews about ranchers and other progressive land managers as part of my duties as Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition. The previous fall, I was deeply honored when Wendell Berry published an essay of mine titled ‘The Working Wilderness’ in his collection The Way of Ignorance. It felt like crossing a threshold – I was a writer! What did that mean? What should I do now? Reconfirming my familial link to Faulkner in Oxford and visiting Rowan Oak (where I wandered around so long that a security guard asked me if everything was ok) pushed all these questions to the forefront. I felt a kinship with my cousin that couldn’t be denied, whatever its source. Most of all, I wanted to write books. But I was forty-six years old! Not too late to write books, but too late to make a career of it. Fortunately, I didn’t inherit the legacy of alcoholism from Faulkner, so at least I had that going in my favor. Still, it seemed crazy. I decided to compromise. I had recently stopped writing a regular column for the Quivira newsletter, feeling like I had reached an inflection point. I would start another column, on my web site, with a different purpose – more literary perhaps – and see what happened next. I began the project on Earth Day, 2008, titled A Chronicle of the Age of Consequences.

Where does the urge to write come from? I don’t know. It might be inheritable, I suppose, but whatever the source, it’s important to take our inspirations and run with them, not knowing where they will lead. If you can find inspiration among the leaves and branches of your family tree, so much the better!

Innovators

For the past two years, my day job has been working on a book series called Innovators in Regenerative Agriculture for Chelsea Green Publishing. I just turned in a second manuscript in February. It is tentatively titled Fibershed: Local Fiber, Local Dye, Local Labor – Building Regional and Textile Cultures and Economies and will be published next fall.

Its author is Rebecca Burgess, the founder and Executive Director of Fibershed, an exciting and growing nonprofit organization in northern California. As Rebecca describes it, a local fibershed is a geographical region, like a watershed or a foodshed, that sets a definite boundary for the resources we use in our clothes – in her case a 150-mile radius from her front door. In 2010, she challenged herself to dress 100% from locally grown fibers, natural dyes, and labor for one year. It was a process that brought her into direct relationships with well-managed farms, ranches, and skilled textile artisans. It was a deliberate and eye-opening contrast to the industrial model of clothes production, almost all of which takes place overseas at steep environmental and social costs. The book taps into a broader cultural shift taking place that pushes back against our increasingly destructive behavior. “The question for our time,” Rebecca writes, “is how we can transform contemporary systems to benefit all life and promote regeneration without falling into the trap of unintended consequences that force the hand of another set of technological solutions.” To do this, we must tune into the fundamentals of the carbon, water, and nutrient cycles, developing deeper knowledge about the earth’s true ecological carrying capacity.

She writes: “It is within our deepest human know-how to answer the question how will we care for, protect, and moderately utilize what the earth provides in a manner that leaves the land and water more diverse and productive than when we found it. The challenge to create a functioning fibershed is steeped in the process of answering this question.”

The goal of the Innovators book series is to assist innovative farmers, ranchers, scientists and nonprofit directors in the field of regenerative agriculture get their words into print with the support of a professional writer (me). While many leaders in regenerative agriculture have participated in a variety of educational outreach activities over the years, including public speaking, workshops, and articles, few have written books – an important and enduring forum to convey deep knowledge and experience, communicate more detailed information than other platforms accommodate, and create frameworks for promising new approaches. For many, the obstacle to writing a book is a lack of time and experience not a lack of desire or things to say. Working with a writer can resolve this challenge. Prior to Rebecca’s book, I worked on Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, authored by Gabe Brown, a progressive rancher in North Dakota.

I am honored to work with these innovators and help get their important stories into print.

Stegner Country

Wallace Stegner during his teaching days
at Stanford University

Another conservationist-author hero of mine was Wallace Stegner, who I had the pleasure of meeting twice, once at his home in Los Altos, California, in 1991 and once at an awards ceremony in Santa Fe two years later. I went to Los Altos on a whim. I had a portfolio of black-and-white fine art photographs of the American West under my arm that I had shot the previous year to mark the centennial of the closing the frontier. The goal of the year-long project was to document the ‘modern’ frontier, replete with loggers, environmentalists, artists, tourists, retirees, subdivisions, art galleries, national parks, and the like. It was a vision of the West very much inspired by Stegner, who spent a big part of career pushing back against western stereotypes, especially those generated by Hollywood. His vision of the West was richer and more dynamic than nearly anyone else I knew, with the exception of a few journalists and photographers, including Mark Klett, whose work I admired.

In fact, the seed for the frontier project was planted one afternoon while viewing a photography show in a Los Angeles gallery. It was a group show that focused on Bodie, a charismatic ghost town in Sierra Nevada Mountains. I found the photos amazing, but not in a good way. There wasn’t a single “modern” image of the town – meaning, a vision rooted a living, breathing world. Each photographer in the show idealized Bodie as a relic of the past, moody, haunted, and empty of people. Except it wasn’t empty. “What about all the people wandering around taking pictures?” I thought to myself. “Someone should take a photo of someone taking a photo!” Later, I decided I would be that photographer. I wanted to capture the West I knew, which is why I preferred Mark Klett over Ansel Adams and Edward Abbey over John Muir. And why I called Wallace Stegner on the phone.

To my surprise, Stegner’s number was listed (back in the day when you could ask an operator for a phone number). On the third ring he picked up. I quickly explained my project and my desire to show him the portfolio. He gave me directions to his house. I was stunned. But that’s the sort of person Wallace Stegner was – considerate, open, and generous. I drove to his house at the appointed time and we spent two hours in his detached office going through the photographs. A number of the images resonated with him, sparking anecdotes and reminisces, particularly about rural life in the West. We talked about a rancher he knew as well as the region’s shameful treatment of Native Americans, among other topics. I was struck by his demeanor, which was courtly and kind. But most of all I was impressed by his generosity – he donated two hours of his valuable time to a complete stranger! When we finished with the photographs I asked if he would be willing to write a Foreword (it didn’t hurt to ask, I thought). He agreed and it arrived in my mailbox two months later. It was a kindness that I promised to pay forward.

My take on the ghost town of Bodie.
From The Indelible West.

You can read Stegner’s Foreword and see the photographs here: http://www.indeliblewest.com/

To be honest, I hadn’t read much of Stegner’s fiction before meeting him. My interests at the time focused on his essays, biographies, and his conservation work, particularly on behalf of wilderness and national parks. I had practically memorized portions of his famous ‘Wilderness Letter’ and had devoured The Sound of Mountain Water, a collection of essays largely written early in his career. His biography of John Wesley Powell, his leadership role in the successful fight to stop the Echo Park Dam deep inside Dinosaur National Monument, and his environmental activism, especially as a Board member of the Sierra Club, were all terribly inspiring to me. Stegner achieved an unusual balance of literary skill and real-world effectiveness. If his later nonfiction work became less and less optimistic as the ‘real world’ pushed back, frustrating his hopes, I didn’t notice at the time (though perhaps I should have).

After our meeting in Los Altos, I decided to dive into his fiction, starting with Angle of Repose, a frontier tale. My favorite book was Recapitulation, a moving and nostalgic look back at his youth. Stegner brought tears to my eyes. There is something about his words and sentiments that just grabs you by the throat. His letter to his mother, written in regret many decades after her death, is truly heart-breaking. Alas, although he won major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Stegner was branded by critics and east-coast publishers as a ‘western writer’ which frustrated his ambitions and limited his readership. After all, weren’t Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour also western writers? It’s a shame because Stegner’s writing, including his many books set in Vermont, is as universal as it gets, in my opinion.

The second time I met Wallace Stegner was shortly before his death in 1993 at age eighty-four. He had come to Santa Fe with his wife to see old friends and accept a literary award for a collection of essays (tragically unnecessary at that point in his career). Gen and I attended the banquet and I introduced her to Stegner afterwards. He was as gracious as ever. A day or so later he and his wife suffered a major auto accident while driving downtown. Two weeks later Stegner succumbed to his injuries. I felt the loss profoundly. Not only had we lost a great writer but an important leader too. Within a few short years after his death, we entered an era of increased us-vs-them belligerency and diminishing civility. Thoughtfulness, whether in print or in action, seemed to quickly fade in the West, as it did across the nation, to be replaced by division and distrust. Some of us rushed into the breach to do what we could and years later the center seems to have held at local levels, but it has fallen prey to partisanship regionally and nationally, abetted by the rise of the Internet. Stegner was a prolific letter-writer and I wonder sometimes how he would have reacted to the age of email and personal computers, not to mention Twitter. Perhaps he was lucky to have missed it. Stegner inspired me to be a writer and a better person. He was a role model for many other people as well and his example is needed now more than ever.

A Start

Having decided to write a mystery, during the spring of 2015 I mulled plots, starting points, endings, and what to include in between, but I made no progress. In an effort to understand the genre and break the logjam in my mind, I began reading as many mysteries as I could. I began with Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa historical novels, featuring a toga-clad detective, whose books were popular with Sterling, our son. I expanded to P.D. James, Agatha Christie, and Louise Penny before settling on a long run of books by Donna Leon, who police procedurals are set in atmospheric Venice. It was good stuff, but it wasn’t helping me much figure out how to get started. Finally, I took a plunge one afternoon and made a rapid, stream-of-conscious list of story elements:

“Private lands, grazing permits, big rivers, small towns, wildfire, wildlife, endangered species, anti-grazing activists, the Farm Bureau, organic farms, quarries, medical clinics, watershed groups, Boy Scouts, real estate agents, off-roaders, fly fishing, beaver dams, hunters, elk, wilderness, cheap food, local restaurants, pesticides, Big Ag, oil and gas, mining, forests, county commissioners, nonprofits, regulators, water quality and quantity, a leaky dam, lawsuits, showboating politicians, Red vs. Blue, rural vs. urban, water rights, acequias, land grants, land grabs, tribal rights, ghosts, windmills, storms, headcut gullies, riparian restoration, drought, dropping water tables, poisoned predators, cattle getting shot, spiked trees, shoot-shovel-and-shut-up, subdivisions, wildcatters, hikers, tourists, a B&B, a fancy lodge, grassfed beef, raptors, horses, flat hats, kerchiefs, snowbirds, hippies, pot farms, meth labs, wet meadows, a historic flood, a historic graveyard, pioneer families, museums, a haunted hotel, hot tubs, electric fencing, herders, illegal help, immigration services, lookout towers, writers, a jug band, hoedowns, barns, young agrarians, mentors, apprentices, home cooking, heritage orchards, failed bean fields, empty houses, wine collections, archaeological sites, deep canyons, sedges and rushes, fracking, title disputes, old mills, second homes, Safe Harbors, snakes, owls, cats, wilderness warriors, the Rainbow Family, red and green chile, traditional villages, foreign visitors, scientists, range experts, a mobile slaughterhouse, blood and guts, sheep, coyotes, vacation rentals, wi-fi, artisan cheese, dairy cows, a movie set, documentaries, a sheriff, Smokey the Bear, academics, graduate students, a local college, big geology, lakes, backcountry hikes, environmental art, performance artists, forbs, low-stress livestock management, GPS, hay, homemade beer, jeep tours, medicine wheels, fake shamans, vortexes, golf courses, industrial fertilizer, CSAs, CAFOs, feedlots, free-range chickens, banjos, bureaucrats, annual conferences, the radical center, roping tricks, rawhide, abandoned mines, pickup trucks, widowers, toxic spills, sweet spots, marsh gas, solar power, wind turbines, leaky pipes, grass lawns, wild turkeys, buried treasure, lost mission bells, adobe walls, bullet casings, utopian communities, box stores, county courthouses, historical reenactors, public hearings, NEPA, ESA, BLM, red tape, overgrazing, trespass cattle, brands, reporters, television crews, good coffee, bad laws, dust, climate change, big profits, angry bears, rare birds, migrations, pancakes, double-wides, Sunday mass, far horizons, silence, warm-season grasses, springs, teepee rings, isolated cabins, line shacks, wild mustangs, bankruptcy courts, wild bees, local bars, desperados, Hot Shot crews, tree-cutters, fence-sitters, backhoes, poop-and-stomps, opera halls, annual festivals, backyard gardens, mud holes, guns, militia, butterflies, flow charts, Friday night football, taxes, jeans, cowboy hats, more drought, dirty snow, round-ups, resorts, airplanes, and the wide open range.”

The first thing I did after writing the list was pour a cup of coffee. I needed the extra caffeine. After settling into my chair again, I reviewed the long list and decided there wasn’t one book here, but many. That wasn’t a stretch – after all, aren’t most mysteries part of a series? What would I call mine? Two thoughts came to mind: Quivira County (or Country); and The Sun Ranch, the name I had assigned the property. I knew the actual location of both – the Cimarron country in northern New Mexico. There was a big ranch up there I knew pretty well that could serve as a model for The Sun, though its historical trajectories would be different. Having a geography in mind helped hugely in sorting out the arc of the stories – or at least grounding the first story in the series. I could see the ranch, the roads, the town, the mountains, the grasslands, the river, on and on. The next step was easy – call the series the Sun Ranch Saga.

Historic Icelandic Saga

Except I didn’t know what a saga was exactly. I looked it up (in a dictionary that my father gave me in 1974 that I treasure) reading this: saga (n) – a prose narrative recorded in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries of historic or legendary figures and events of the heroic age. Ok, not really applicable. There was another definition: a long detailed account, such as the saga of the winning of the West. That was more like it! A different dictionary provided a list of synonyms: epic, chronicle, legend, folk tale, romance, history, adventure, myth, story. I like all of them. It gave the series a feeling of heft, I thought, and I couldn’t resist imagining a small group of people telling the story around a campfire. I checked one more source. Saga: a form of novel in which a family or social group are chronicled in a long and leisurely narrative; a dramatic history of a place or people; a very long story. I liked all these definitions too. I had a place – The Sun Ranch – and a hero and a ton of possibilities for drama, minus the 12th century violence, and a long time frame, or at least a long sequence of books. A saga indeed!

The last thing I did that afternoon in May, 2015, was to sketch out the plots and overall trajectory of each book in the series. In the first book, the murder is resolved (though I didn’t know how yet) and our hero decides to keep the ranch – or else no saga. In the next book, someone shoots her cattle and then commits suicide (based on a true story). There are other threats as well, which destabilize her effort to keep The Sun, with cascading implications for the entire community. In the third book, a lone wolf appears – and a wildlife photographer disappears (or maybe a biologist). Someone is poisoning fish in the river and coyotes are being shot – you know, the usual! Fire and flood dominate the next book, and maybe drought. A body is discovered. A dam bursts. In the next book the healing begins. At the heart of the saga was the ranch – The Sun. I’d start there and build outward, one book at a time. But I had to get my hero to New Mexico first. That proved harder than I expected. In fact, it took two full years before I could even try.