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Humans of the Gila: Excerpts from First & Wildest

The cover of "First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100," edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen

Excerpts from "Goyahkla"

by Leeanna T. Torres

My time in the Gila has taught me that there is nothing romantic about restoration. Applied science here is as strict as stone. The work makes me tired. My ankles are sore from trekking in cobble and fast-moving water all day. My feet hurt, my clothes are wet, and I’m tired. And for what? A fish? I put my hands in the water, feel the cold, and keep them there until they go numb. It’s August, but the stream water is cold. Only trout like it this cold. All this work and ache for a fish species that may not even make it. I listen to the water for something beyond all of this.

What I hear is the sound of Goyahkla, moving in and out of the sound of water. This water, sweeping over stone, with no time for anything sedentary, no time for anything other than movement. I feel the sound of Goyahkla, as wet as rain, as serious as thunder. And yet I wonder if any of the others hear it?

Johnny snores. Vern drinks too much. Stephanie places snuff in the space of her lower lip. Art tells us how he told off one of the regional deputy directors—loud, angry, unapologetic. Dave cooks up chili so spicy it’s painful to eat. And Jim teases me about wearing a pink shirt out here in the first great wilderness of the United States, where men become men. These are my coworkers. Their concern is science and data; their concern is the whiskey. I wonder why I am here, a young Chicana biologist thinking about an Apache man who lived and died long before I came into existence. Why does this restoration project seem so far from important?

The Gila is as large and expansive as an ocean. It is over five hundred thousand acres of undisturbed forest land, most of it unaccustomed to the blunt interruptions of human society. No stores, no streetlights, no roads, no eighteen-wheelers. There is only the rawness of the earth, in all its beauty and terror. The only sounds are the birds, the water, the shuffling wildlife, your own fearful heartbeat when you realize just how far you are from civilization.  

Like so many things in our spectacular, amazing, privileged American life, I take “wilderness” for granted. I take the national parks, the federal forest system, the designated wilderness areas, all for granted. Of course, there was great controversy, battle, struggles for their creation, but they exist now, and they are a part of our heritage. Bold, brave, even arrogant men had the insight to create these areas for us, the American public. But was it taken or was it preserved? Was it stolen or was it designated? Geronimo and his Chiricahua Apache comrades finally surrendered to US troops in 1886. Goyahkla was forced to live out his days at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was considered a tourist attraction.

Wilderness is not a romantic notion. It’s not just a concept. It’s a truth here in the lands of New Mexico. Yet few American citizens—even New Mexico residents themselves—will experience this wilderness for what it really is. I get to be here only because my work has brought me here. I am fortunate. I am blessed. But I am also worn-torn and ugly-tired from this work, this profession I’ve chosen, this job that pays the bills.

I am a contradiction, a Chicana biologist, one who claims to love the land yet is here killing fish. I am a mixed breed who can claim no one heritage or culture. Wanting to be a success, a lady, someone who is worth something, and yet I sneak swigs of hard whiskey on nights when no one is watching. I am a wilderness even to myself.  

The antimycin treatment is almost complete. I check my watch. The rain stops and I listen to my own breath, wait for the song of the birds to return. Then suddenly a fluttering of color wakes my senses, and hundreds of lavender butterflies appear. Some fly close to the surface, past the orange bucket still dripping piscicide, and up the canyon wall and into a sky I cannot see. Others flutter around the pines and willow and oak. Everywhere there are butterflies, and I can’t explain where they’ve come from or why they’re here.

I watch them for a very long time. The butterflies are not watching me; they are not trying to tell me anything; they just are, and even in my technically trained, university-educated mind, I do not search for a reason. I only know that this mountain wants me; it wants all of me. And just as the Gila gathers all storms into itself, it will also gather me.

New Mexico, the great Southwest, the land of my birth, is a cauldron of half-breeds, mixed blood—this is a historical fact. There are and have been Comancheros—half-breeds. There are and have been mestizos—mixed Spanish and Indian blood.

This is my history: mixed blood, impure. And here we are in the Gila, trying to save the “pure” strain of trout by killing off the mixed, the unwanted, the impure.

So, what is my Native ancestry? Where is the truth of myself? Somewhere in this wilderness? At the bottom of a bottle? It lies deep, as close as my own mother. They say I look like my father, but my blood is from my mother, and she gives me a history similar to that of Geronimo. I feel my blood shift. It stirs deep in the insides of my arms, a strain that makes my hands tired and my eyes fall.

It is then that the wilderness becomes my own. I’m five days covered in dirt and horse and mountain and sun and rain and shadow and absolute weariness. The Gila keeps me as honest as a prayer.

I give myself up completely. In essence, maybe I am a prayer. This is my lowest self, but this is also my best self, because I’m reduced to nothing. For once in my life, I am a prayer strong enough to offer up to the Spirit.

The Gila is always larger than any one part of myself. The Gila is larger than life. And the spirit of Geronimo—Goyahkla—tugs at every part of my soul. He was here with me on the ride in, and he is here with me now, in this canyon, and part of me is afraid.

Goyahkla is more than man, more than Apache, more than legend, more than a historic figure pictured between black and white and commentary. He haunts the long hard silences of this Gila Wilderness. He is the solidness of stone that trips your feet. He is the ache you feel in your joints after a day of work. He is that silence that stops you between the trees. Goyahkla is that sense of unsteadiness you feel when you realize just how large this expanse really is, and just how absolutely and utterly small you are.

Lightning. Rain. Wilderness. Science. Pine. Juniper. Water. Pain. These are the words, the simple words of this journey. And yet they are not enough. They are not enough.

I see him now, moving in the pattern of butterflies. I am not really a scientist. I am not really anyone at all. The fish in the stream are dead, by my hand, by the hand of science. All I can do is offer a prayer. A Tohono O’odham rain song, a song as old as the memory of time. I say it, I sing it, I sketch it into the lines of this mountain with an ache in my heart.  

"Goyahkla" by Leeanna T. Torres from First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen, appears courtesy of Torrey House Press.

Excerpts from "El Oso"

by Gabe Vasquez

Did anyone ever teach you how to hold a crawfish without getting pinched? How about a hellgrammite? And if so, did they teach how to find these larvae, capture them, and use them for bait? The natural world has much to offer us humans if we take the time to explore it and, more importantly, to protect it after we unlock its secrets.

The Gila is one of the world's greatest natural wonders, the nation's first designated Wilderness, home to incredible biodiversity, history, culture, and people. It represents the abundance of desert riches for us to enjoy and help care for here in southern New Mexico.

If we're lucky and privileged, we learn those lessons when we're young. But the majority of New Mexicans don't, and that's an injustice on its own. Wild places like the Gila, and all their gifts, are often reserved for those with the economic means, the physical ability, and the experience it takes to get there. But mentorship and companionship may be the most important keys to access.

Just ask thirteen-year-old Jose of Anthony, New Mexico. On a warm spring morning Jose woke up to walk around camp in the Cliff-Gila Valley. A collection of fifty-dollar tents flapped in the breeze, encircling the remnants of the prior night's bonfire, and two discos were already heated up and ready to receive a healthy heaping of chorizo con huevos before a morning hike. Jose nodded and smiled, giving thanks in his own way for waking up to receive the world's greatest portable hiking meal, the breakfast burrito.

"Mister, what is this?" Jose asked. He pointed to a walking-stick cholla, admiring its radiant purple flowers as he called over a group of friends emerging from their tents to admire the long, spiny cactus.

I told Jose it was a cholla and told him it made one of the finest walking sticks around. He laughed and said, "Very funny." I pointed to a dead cholla stick under a tree, and replied, "Go get that—it's the same cactus you're looking at now. When they dry, they make for fine walking sticks—no needles. Go ahead, give it a try." A forest secret unlocked.

We would spend the next three days camping in the Gila Wilderness—nine youth from the Juvenile Community Corrections Program in Las Cruces, two adult chaperones, and two volunteers from the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, which works to ensure that people from frontera, or border, communities have access to the outdoors.

We learned about the proposed Gila River diversion, about the native and invasive plant and aquatic species of the Gila, what to do if we encountered a black bear or mountain lion (that was a popular question), the differences between wilderness and forest land, the Native peoples and cultures of the Gila, and so much more.

We fished for catfish, bass, and Sonoran suckers at Turkey Creek. We caught crawfish and hellgrammites at the Gila Box campground in Cliff. We poked a dead egret with a stick at Bill Evans Lake. We swam in the Gila River and jumped into swimming holes from magnificent sandstone cliffs. We stayed up telling ghost stories and making late-night tacos, and for the first time for many of these youths, we saw the Milky Way in all its glory. Of course, the youth also eagerly explored every mountaintop surrounding camp to see if they could get cell phone service (they couldn't).

For these young people, whose upbringing was filled with conflict and trauma, unlocking the secrets of the Gila Wilderness was more than just a trip to the forest. It was an opportunity to see the world in a different way. Among the many benefits that the Gila provides, its impact on our mental health and our understanding of ourselves is one of the most important.

You see, the Gila is more than spiraling mountain chains dotted with aspen and Douglas fir. It is more than its lowlands, with juniper, oak, and cactus. It is even more than one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and more than the nation's first Wilderness. It's a place where we, its visitors, inhabitants, and admirers, can better understand our place in the world, and where we can develop a genuine appreciation and conservation ethic for all things wild.

Before New Mexico's statehood, before Manifest Destiny, and long before the mining boom, the Gila was home to the Mogollon, Ancestral Puebloan, Apache, and other Native people—many of their stories, dwellings, and artifacts remain imprinted as petroglyphs and safeguarded inside dwellings, arroyos, canyons, and the river itself. But these are not people of the past—they are very much of the present. Their descendants live here today. The Gila is not their ancestral land; it is, in fact, still their land, and the next one hundred years of the Gila should reflect and honor this.

When youth like Jose hear stories about the Indigenous history of this special place, their eyes beam; they want to hear more. They want to see the dwellings, and they want to know about the cultures who built them. It is through this experience that the Gila again becomes a teacher, not just of natural knowledge, but of the nature of humans, and what we must do to be better people, better caretakers of the land and of each other.

The future of the Gila must reflect, honor, and embrace this history in effective ways—in every aspect of education, signage, and storytelling across the national forest, not just at the Gila Cliff Dwellings visitor center. Similarly, the opportunities to tell those stories, to provide those guided outings, to work within our federal land management agencies, should be afforded to the Native peoples whose home this is.

We must do better, too, for every young person like Jose, who might never in his life have seen the Gila—a place just two and a half hours away from his home—if it weren't for dedicated mentors and the Nuestra Tierra program.

The next hundred years of the Gila should be just as much about people as about conserving water, wildlife, and landscapes. Communities must all work together to ensure that the Gila is a welcoming place to all, and that it inspires future generations of New Mexicans to enjoy, love, and care for these special places.

"El Oso" by Gabe Vasquez from First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen, appears courtesy of Torrey House Press.

You can purchase your own copy of First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 at https://www.aldoleopold.org/products/first-wildest.