By Jesse Furr
February. A time when blustery wind, sleet, snow, and a yearning for spring often permeate New Mexico. In my own excitement for the coming change-of-seasons, I stock up on new books and assess what items in my outdoor gear bin—mostly handed-down, thrifted, and found—may need to be repaired and reorganized. All this to say that it feels refreshing to put some restless energy to use in preparation for a trip that I’ve been looking forward to for a few months.
It’s the week leading up to an exciting Wilderness Character Narrative workshop in Silver City where I have the opportunity to share some of New Mexico Wild’s work in the Gila with community members, receive feedback about management concerns, and help clarify some of the nuances surrounding stewardship in designated wilderness areas. Working toward effective wilderness stewardship in partnership with the Forest Service offers many benefits for the general public and numerous organizations, but one of the most helpful is being able to communicate the idea of wilderness character in an approachable way.
By discussing recreationists’ and outfitter-guides’ experiences in the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas—landscapes which received their first administrative protections nearly a hundred years ago, catalyzing the national wilderness preservation movement—we can all be better prepared to steward areas in a balanced, holistic way. Storytelling, emotive writing, and photography can help convey some of the intangible aspects of wilderness that future data collection and stewardship monitoring may be predicated upon but can’t fully grasp with quantitative information alone.
That’s where my time leading up to the workshop comes in. While I’ve backpacked in the Gila previously and have read many amazing books about others’ experiences—Fire Season by Philip Connors and Andrew Gulliford’s Outdoors in the Southwest to name just a few—I’ve set aside a few days to explore areas I’ve never visited in order to answer personal questions about on-the-ground wilderness character, have inspiring experiences, and inform questions for attendees of the upcoming workshop. This may seem like common sense, but it bears repeating: general public lands stewardship and Wilderness Character Narrative writing in particular are hinged upon getting outside, out of the “office-house-car-internet,” and off that seemingly endless network of paved-and-rutted roads to be in the landscapes we are intrinsically part of and must advocate for.
Across my string of four lengthy hikes, I trekked some twenty miles into the southwestern edge of the wilderness on my way east toward Silver City. In doing so, I got the opportunity to self-reflect and be enveloped by the Gila Wilderness in its almost incomprehensible scale and the overwhelming diversity of ecosystems, dynamic biophysical environments, geologic localities, and constantly shifting visual perspectives—all of which are imbued with profound intonations of human history and future promise.
Some of the more humbling hallmarks of my outings included getting inadvertently off-trail by an almost ridiculous distance, losing a contact lens at the trailhead, and unnecessarily backtracking for a misplaced-in-backpack, not-dropped map. To me, these were very tangible reminders that, in stark contrast with the near-entirety of a modern American landscape (and world) that consistently places people and profits at the core of decision-making, wilderness is inherently ecocentric. That is not to say we should misconstrue wilderness as misanthropic, but rather the opposite. By intentionally belonging to Earth and its community of life in a sustainable way, we can more clearly interpret our place and purpose in a turbulent world.
As the day of the Wilderness Character Narrative workshop arrives, the warm weather I enjoyed on my days in the field shifts to equally pleasant overcast skies and light rain. I’m excited for the workshop, despite my somewhat underdeveloped skills as a facilitator. It goes well, thanks to an audience of engaged, thoughtful community members who are willing to spend their Saturday morning contributing to a discussion about fairly abstract concepts that are intertwined with very real wilderness conditions. As hoped, the discussion begins with an acknowledgement of the Warm Springs Chiricahua, Mimbres Mogollon, and other Indigenous Peoples who stewarded what is now Southwestern New Mexico, Southeastern Arizona, and Northern Mexico for time immemorial. As expected, the conversation vacillates between stories of how wilderness character has been impacted historically and in recent decades, as well as concerns about the numerous pressures that face the Gila as a result of both internal and external factors.
As important as it is to recognize threats to wilderness character and be proactive in our response as stewards, it is also necessary to codify some of the innumerable positive aspects, sharing qualities that remain unimpeded. That’s where Wilderness Character Narratives shine: creating a positive vision for what the future of these holistic and affirming qualities look like.
Shady canyon bottoms thick with Sycamore, Maple, Oak, and Cottonwood trees, interspersed by riparian meadows of waist-high grasses; sun-dappled peaks swept with ponderosa woodlands; the smell of rain-soaked earth and ancient alligator junipers fed by a vascular network of cool springs, creeks, and rivers. The Gila still represents a great repository of self-discovery and meaningful observation where modern worries can melt away, dissolved by the awe found in constantly shifting perspectives, punctuated by round paw prints pressed into mud, soaring Red-tailed Hawks, and the age-old chorus of birdsong as it ripples over the whisper of pine needles on the wind.
“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the Earth, the Earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.” ~ Edward Abbey