30 x 40 inches
Oil on Linen

private collection

Alive prominently upon a height of land out on one of a myriad of mesas extending west from the crest of the Black Range in Southern New Mexico there exists this particular Alligator Juniper.  Splendid and ancient, all full of stories reaching as far back as any living being in these parts remembers.

Jeannie and I happened upon this being during a long walk of the Grand Enchantment Trail: a 770+ wilderness route. You can visualize the path we took as roughly heading east from Phoenix to the crest of the Black Range 30 miles west of Truth or Consequences and then directly north to the top of the Sandias east of Albuquerque.

The day before our encounter we had spent a long day trekking from Gila Hot Springs to a bivouac just a bit shy of Me Own work camp on the Northstar Road.  Thus was a dusty parched hike after leaving the East Fork of the Gila and climbing up into the endless country of mesas so typical of the Gila. We moved along till dusk and found ourselves overlooking a large clearing with a bear stomping around at the far end. There was water here and it was time to make camp so we descended into the opposite end of the park and made a nest.

With the last moments of twilight fading fast I took off to look for water in the wash, following it down stream into a rocky canyon. There will be water here I knew - all the signs of this precious resource were present - I just needed to find a good enough pinch in the canyon where the water would be forced to the surface.  I kept moving quickly, hopping and scooting down the increasingly constricted narrows now in the now pitch dark by headlamp.

Some time passed as I moved.  The darkness accentuated that palpable expanse of earth we were alone in. The ever closer and taller cliffs just screamed ambush;  I put rocks in the metal cup I had brought to scoop water with; a rattle to scare bear or puma is what I told myself.

We pack light and move fast, carrying just enough of everything to survive but nothing frivolous. This day our water ration was exhausted on schedule: just about when we arrived at a probable water source which was impossibly dry at this moment in time. It was not an option to not find water tonight so I kept moving. Every cell in my body was energized single minded on this task; out alone unsupported in the wild the edge of life and death becomes just ever so more tangible.

The canyon finally narrowed to a slot and almost immediately I found water in a small pool tucked up in a crook of the cliff filled with moss and bugs and slimy gooey mud.  I scooped these tiny little scoops of water into the filter and played camel and drank up heartily.  I filled three litters to carry back to camp, just enough again to get us to Diamond Creek.

I turned and burnt ground upstream all to aware too much time had passed on this mission. I found Jeannie about two thirds of the probably two mile hike back to camp. I had been gone long enough she needed to come look for me, fearing the worst and knowing time is always of importance.  Reunited we strolled back to camp feeling secure and we slept that deep slumber of creatures truly tired.

The next morning we were hiking before dawn, utilizing the cooler morning and evenings and resting through the heat of the day. As the sun rose we slogged up another endless slight incline on a mesa top and came upon this Juniper I have painted right here.  We took a rest in it’s presence and awed at its age.  It knows stories no one else remembers.  It knows the sky and the earth suspended here timelessly.

On May 13th, 2022 a fire started very near to that place we camped that night.  I write this a day later and this fire is spreading rapidly - we have visited this area many times and I know this fire will rage in the coming days and weeks and engulf yet another section of the Gila.  I have spent this whole day thinking about this tree and the worlds it knows and the almost certain abuprt violent end it will experience imminently.

So much of what is happening around us is experienced abstractedly. These giant forest fires, that most easily recognizable type of climate change, are often just statistics: so many acres burnt, so many houses lost.  We see the smoke and then it’s gone.

The reality of these events is whole worlds are destroyed, a billion homes for birds and bugs and bears and trees ancient. Lost is the cumulative knowledge of spans of time both huge and tiny we as humans cannot even fathom.  These stories are never to return. A new climate brings with it new stories.

This Juniperus deppeana is perched on that edge between life and death. I will visit once the monsoons return to know if its arc of time continues.