In the ruggedly beautiful Southwest, the time has come for hard choices.
Years of persistent drought in America’s hottest and driest region is being worsened by climate change, and has led to historic declines at critical reservoirs and difficult decisions over cuts to water supply.
It’s a crisis that the author and conservationist, William deBuys, has witnessed first-hand over the years, noting with some relief that he had recently stepped down from his local irrigation association.
“I’m glad I did because I think we’re going to be really short of water this coming irrigation season,” he told The Independent.
“The commissioners will have to work very hard to deal with arguments over water, not just between people but whole villages and communities [who are] struggling to keep things going as supply shrinks and there isn’t enough to go around.”
Mr deBuys, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of ten books, grew up in Baltimore but came to New Mexico half a century ago, “fresh out of college and very wet behind the ears”.
He likened his arrival in the Southwest to “imprinting” - a behavior of a newborn animal to gain its sense of species identification. “I came out to New Mexico, and I looked around and it was Mom,” he quipped.
The writer put down roots in a small village near the Sangre de Cristo, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a place of stunning geographic diversity from sweeping high desert plains to heavily-forested wilderness and snow-capped mountain tops, matched by a rich cultural background of Native American tribal communities, and Hispanic mountain villages.
“This part of the world contains a concentration of ecological and cultural diversity that is possibly unmatched anywhere else in North America, perhaps far beyond,” Me deBuys says. “What delights me is nothing looks the same two years running. Things are always changing, always lively.
“Still one of my favorite things to do is get in the car, and just go out and explore New Mexico.”
The author looks forward to seeing the spotlight turned on New Mexico at the upcoming, first-ever annual Santa Fe Literary Festival, where he joins fellow heavyweight talent such as George RR Martin, John Grisham, the US poet laureate Joy Harjo, Colson Whitehead, Emily St John Mandel and Valeria Luiselli.
“It’s going to bring a lot of terrific people to Santa Fe, and energize and light up a side of our community that hasn’t perhaps had the attention that it deserves,” he said.
Mr deBuys is participating in a panel alongside the renowned Buddhist teacher and activist, Roshi Joan Halifax, for a discussion on his latest book, The Trail to Kanjiroba - Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.
In 2016 and 2018, the Buddhist teacher invited Mr deBuys to join the Nomads Clinic, a six-week trek on foot and horseback into the ethnically Tibetan region of northwestern Nepal, home to some of the most remote villages on Earth. Focusing on “care over cure”, the mission, which involved a number of doctors, nurses and alternative medicine practitioners, provided basic treatments for local people in a place of scarcity and extreme geographical limits.
The Trail to Kanjiroba emerged from that journey; part travelogue, and part meditation on how to cope with the devastating losses of climate change.
This existential battle is also playing out in the Southwest where an extreme drought has gripped the region.
New Mexico is one of seven states which draws water from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are at critically low levels. The Southwest grows half the fruits, vegetables and nuts in the US, and agriculture accounts for three-quarters of water use.
“We’ve gone into a very deep dry period of what climatologists would call a mega-drought, and there doesn’t seem to be an exit point from it,” Mr deBuys says. “More heat means more evaporation - not even the United States Senate can repeal the law of evaporation. That added evaporation guarantees that the drought stress resulting on the trees, animals, and on human society, will be much more much greater.”
While much of his writing celebrates the American West, Mr deBuys has not shied away from the gritty, practical work needed to preserve and protect the land.
He spent seven years helping to establish the Valles Caldera National Preserve - a landscape grass meadows, hot springs, volcanic domes and abundant wildlife which NASA used to train astronauts in the Sixties and later served as a filming location for The Lone Ranger.
“I [also] had the thrill of buying the land that became Pecos National Historical Park from Greer Garson who won an Oscar for the World War Two movie, Mrs Miniver,” Mr deBuys added.
But it hasn’t all been Hollywood endings. Mr deBuys notes the damage wreaked by the “ghastly construction project” of former president Donald Trump’s border wall which has carved a brutal scar across hundreds of miles of unique mountain and desert landscape, including New Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert, the Sky Islands of Arizona, the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and California’s Otay Mountain wilderness, and impacting wildlife, water resources and tribal lands.
“It was destructive, ineffective, and horribly damaging to the biota and the beauty of the Borderlands region,” he said.
The battle against climate change requires resilience for the long-haul, Mr deBuys notes, and taking action where we can. He notes that his current project is trying to engage the Forest Service in his local area to better protect old-growth trees.
“I think that part of what we need to do is become latter-day Noahs and build ‘arks’ in the shape of parks, refuges, protected areas, and reserves to support the preservation of the most beautiful and most diverse aspects of the biota,” he said.
“The more arks we launch into this pretty inhospitable-looking sea of the future, the more chance we’ll get through to the other side.”
The inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival will be taking place between 20-23 May 2022. The four-day event is set to explore issues at a time of extraordinary change – in politics, race, immigration, the environment, and more. The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will be providing coverage across each day of the festival as well as during the lead up with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website here. To find out more about buying tickets click here.