This summer, I plan another trip to the deserts and mountains west of the Pecos River. If it was anywhere else, I might have had enough of it by now, but it looks like I’ll never get enough of the Big Bend country. Cool mountain meadows and bright expanses of rocky desert haunt my imagination. I need time “out west” on a regular basis.
Those of us for whom nature is like an essential nutrient (as Richard Louv puts it, “Vitamin N”) spend time seeking out places to roam like starving people searching for a scrap of food. Urban nature refuges are wonderful, but often have unavoidable noise from highways and airplanes, and everything from discarded beer cans to fast food wrappers. These nature centers are essential and beloved oases in a sea of sprawl, despite the reminders of their urban surroundings. In fact, they are particularly loved and needed because of their urban surroundings.
Outside of these preserves, life is paved. We get from place to place on roaring highways or in glacial traffic jams. We commute from crowded hives buzzing in towering glass buildings, past urban blight and Wal Mart, to rows of boxy houses. Do we want to be constantly surrounded by our stuff? Everywhere we turn, confronted with mirrors reflecting us, our things, what we have done? Being so immersed in ourselves, our products, our excretia, we are distracted from the fact that we are part of nature. We live as if we were the beginning and the end of all things. We are not.
Out in the Big Bend country, much of our self-focused distraction is stripped away. The sky stretches away, limitless and quiet. Ancient mountain ranges are reminders of beginnings long before the earliest human memory. Life depends on rainfall, and on the aquifers flowing beneath the desert. Water, soil (however thin and rocky), green plants, and the bright, burning, radiant sun – these things support life in the Chihuahuan Desert. Wandering among the mountains, grasslands, and desert even for a short time reveals a rich diversity of life that has found ingenious ways of living in places we would consider harsh. It is reassuring that even the arid, sun-baked rocky arroyos of the desert floor provide opportunities for life to thrive. The earth is good and generous in every corner; even this place is a garden.
For many of us, this garden – the Big Bend – is a refuge for the soul. It is one of the rare places where we can walk in real solitude. Stepping out of the overly human-centered world feels to many of us like a healthier perspective. People comment about the Big Bend being “bigger than us,” or “not made by us,” as if the scale and wildness of the place puts us in the right perspective, participating in our surroundings but not controlling them, not overwhelming them. It is as if nature is more trustworthy than human schemes and ambitions, and we need its predictability and its resilience in the face of human folly. When talking with others about this place, I have said that I never feel safer anywhere than I do in the Big Bend. How factually true is that statement? There are no guarantees of safety in the Chihuahuan Desert. An unprepared visitor could become dehydrated and overheated, could fall off a mountain, or could have some sort of emergency and be too far away from help to get through it. My internal feeling of safety comes from the sense of peace, beauty, and trustworthiness of the desert and mountains.
Not surprisingly, those of us who love the Big Bend feel protective of it, and the news that it is under assault by the petroleum industry is very troubling. If those for whom the Big Bend is nothing but a business opportunity get their way, how much of this place will become nothing more than an industrial park? Already, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is a reality, intending to send fracked natural gas to Mexico, for export on to Asia. The first wells are already pumping in the newly-discovered Alpine High oilfield, a large area between the Davis Mountains and Balmorhea that is thought to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and gas. Those wells are not producing as much as expected, but more wells may be coming, with more roads, trucks, fracking pollution, and methane releases.
Will we lose the peace and beauty of the Trans-Pecos region? Will the nighttime desert landscape be lit by wells flaring methane gas, and will travelers have to dodge speeding wastewater trucks roaring down two-lane highways? Will the beautiful springs at Balmorhea be poisoned by toxic fracking water? Will the pipeline scar across the desert ever heal? I have no answers.