Tag Archives: the american west

Western survivors

On my first western trip, I visited Moab in July. We went hiking in 105 degree heat, the sun pounding the ground and anything above it. We learned to respect the desert, because the desert will win.

I always stop and admire the brave stalwarts of the desert—that scraggly tree growing from a forbidding rock face or that little flower, full of color if only briefly. They can never move. They survive or die.

In an ancient landscape shaped by wind and water on continents that no longer exist, the desert plants are ephemeral. Like the ruins of the southwest and our cities, the landscape will outlast them. But they, like us, can be beautiful for their time.

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Scrub at Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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Wildflower in Capitol Reef National Park

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A lone tree at Bryce Canyon National Park

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Wildflower at Zion National Park

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Ten Favorite Images of 2016

Better late than never! I took a little hiatus from photography for the last few months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s time to pick out my favorite ten images in the past year. (Here’s my 2015 list, which focuses a little more on technique.) This year I continued my western travels, learned about lighting (not shown here), and got really into HDRs (shown excessively here).

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Great Blue Heron in Florida

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Bisti Badlands in Northwest New Mexico

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Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash in Northwest New Mexico

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Sierpinski tetrahedron

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Eagle’s Nest Lake near Taos, New Mexico

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Looking towards Pike’s Peak in Colorado

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St. Elmo, Colorado

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White Sands, New Mexico

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Three Sisters Volcanos in Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Night sky in Taos, New Mexico

Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

NM public lands: San Lorenzo Canyon

Of the 121,000 square miles that form New Mexico, roughly 21,000 of them are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This land gets used a lot of different ways. Some of it is part of national monuments like Tent Rocks or Rio Grande del Norte. Land is leased for grazing, woodcutting, helium production, and oil and gas production. Land is used for hunting and fishing. Western ecologies are fragile and must be managed. Too much grazing and too much plowing lead to broad consequences, as demonstrated by the dust bowl. The BLM manages these uses, working to allow economic use of the lands without exhausting them. When we hiked in Bisti Badlands, we dodged dried cow patties from previous grazing; I was glad we could both use the land.

New Mexico BLM manages several dozen recreation sites, offering rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and more. Saturday I visited San Lorenzo Canyon, which is near Socorro. We drove several miles up a wash into a canyon. We enjoyed hiking and a little rock climbing. December hiking in New Mexico can be pretty great. See for yourself!

The Art of the Park

I’ve posted many times before about my love for WPA-era travel posters and some of my own tribute work. I have a wall of stylized postcards that I have collected along my travels. Like the parks passport stamps I described a few months ago, the WPA postcards became an exciting item to collect. Every time I have a visitor in my home, we talk about the parks. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, county open spaces, state parks, they are all wonders of the west and worthy of a place on the wall. Not all of these places have postcards, which I am slowly working to remedy. But today’s post is about the great parks’ art that I have accrued and slathered upon my walls.

Below I include a few of my favorites from the wall. Some of the cards I like the depiction of the specific piece of scenery, others I like the color palette or the stylization. We all have stories about our visits to parks. These cards tell stories; the stories of these cards have augmented my stories. They let me dream for weeks and months after a trip about the animals, the scenery, the history, and the cultures of the parks I visited.

New Mexico has 14 National Monuments, extensive Bureau of Land Management sites,  wildlife reserves, open spaces, state parks, and more. In a future post, I’ll talk about my work to create posters for the New Mexican sites that lack them today.

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Western Skies: Sunsets

After a year in New Mexico, some things grow familiar. Red or green chile goes with everything, in the morning there’s probably a hot air balloon somewhere, and at night I will hear people gunning their engines on Route 66. But the New Mexican sky still amazes me. Whether its the stars at night, the distant rain, or the views of mountains for miles, it’s so different than the skies I have lived under for the rest of my life. In Missouri and Virginia, the sky was overhead. In New Mexico, it wrap around you like a bowl, a massive semi-spherical window into the universe.

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Book review: Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner 1993)

Did you know that the longest waterway in California is man-made? Did you that there’s a 300 mile, $4.7 billion, canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson? Did you know that Tennessee’s Tellico Dam was deemed economically unsound even when it was 95% built, but it was still completed? Did you know that two bureaucracies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, basically waged a war of influence in the west, building scores of unnecessary dams along the way? Over the objections of republican and democratic presidents, western congressmen pushed water projects, trading them like currency, trying to tame the west.

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert exhaustively covers water management in the west from the late 1800s until its publication in 1986. A brief addendum brings the reader up to 1993. Along the way, he details the good (hydroelectric power surpluses for manufacturing during WW2), the bad (taxpayer subsidy of billions of dollars to wealthy corporate farmers) and the ugly (the failure of the Teton Dam eliminating a valley).

Cadillac Desert encapsulates the ways that US government goes bad when we let ideology stand in for sound economics. It’s a tale of bipartisan conspiracy to fund impractical projects for special interest groups. It’s a tale of ecological Manifest Destiny; if rain doesn’t follow the plow, then sheer spending will irrigate the desert into a new Eden. Cadillac Desert is one of those rare wonderful nonfiction books that reframes the world; I finished reading a week ago and I’m still thinking about it, processing it. Any American knows the term porkbarrel; Cadillac Desert reveals the gears that turn it out. It’s a tale that ought to inspire bipartisan furor—billions of dollars spent ruining pristine rivers and driving people from their homes to subsidize often ill-conceived farming endeavors. Farmers in Wyoming subsidized by millions to grow crops that eastern farmers are paid not to grow. But Cadillac Desert makes clear that water projects, at least until 1986, remained treasured in the south and west, even as they court various ecological calamities.

Reisner convinces the reader of these substantial political accusations through example after damning (damming?) example. He details the manipulations and lies that brought the Owens River water to LA via an aqueduct that had to be built with mules. He details the divvying of the Colorado River water, and the projects dreamt up by Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona simply to maintain claim on those apportions, leaving practicality as an afterthought. He describes the unbuilt Colorado Narrows Dam, which was opposed by the state engineer and water lawyer; it was thought to be in danger of collapse, unable to provide water as claimed, likely to damage ecological sites in Nebraska, and it was still almost built. It would have been five miles long and cost $500 million. For various projects, he describes the ecological effects, the hydroelectric production, the salinity challenges, the water table challenges. Several times, he describes beautiful rafting rapids that have been lost forever, buried under reservoirs. He argues that the best dam sites were all occupied by 1960, and all projects built after that have been increasingly unprofitable, pushed by local interest, horse trading, and bureaucratic power games.

So what about since 1986? Reisner’s afterword brings the reader up to 1993. He suggests that the public appetite for projects had waned. I’ve done my own reading trying to understand sentiment in the following twenty three years.

I don’t know how to compare water project lust in 2016 to 1986 or 1950. Today’s projects seem less federal. As a new westerner, Cadillac Desert was an essential read. For those further east, water management is still a nexus of bureaucracy, pork barrel politics, and ecological damage. For the dams we have today, there are questions of maintenance, updating, or removal. Like our under-maintained bridges and highways, dams are one more massive bill to pay, even if we build nothing new. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, though over twenty years old, is still important and thought provoking in a lot of ways.