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Get to Know Your Catastrophic Landscapes

I took a single-engine plane from the 70s to check out the charred aftermath of New Mexico's largest wildfire in history. The forest ecologists told me chronic apocalyptic landscapes are part of our near future, so learn to love them now.
August 30, 2012, 5:18pm

The Western United States—where all the resources, adventure, and majesty reside—is on fire. Close to seven million acres of forest and grassland have burned this year, one of the worst fire seasons on record. Nearly the same amount burned last year too. The sledgehammer of climate change is upon us. Southwestern trees will begin dying in groves. Heat will be our hulking cellmate. That’s what forest ecologists told me.

The first key to falling in love with the terrible face of climatic change is to portal yourself centuries into the future. Use your mind’s eye to envision humans adapted to the Anthropocene with all our trash, wolves, and weapons. The second key is to know that nature will persist, even if she’s ugly. Wildfire is a part of her system. Begin now to fall in love with her apocalyptic landscapes.

I drove from western Colorado to the bottom of New Mexico, weaving through six reservations and enough poke towns to show me what America’s bowels are really made of: salt bush, industrial equipment, and shack houses. I was driving down to check out the aftermath of New Mexico’s largest wildfire in history, the Whitewater Baldy fire.

For three years, I made a living as a wildland firefighter out of Livingston, Montana. I’ve reported on fatalities, the crumbling Forest Service air tanker fleet, and conflicts between ranchers and fire agencies. This time I was on assignment was to see how Southwestern forests fare during these extreme climate conditions.

First, I was to meet up with the photographer who’d been assigned to shoot a day in the field. This photographer was extraordinarily eager, and we’d exchanged more than 20 emails in the four days before I left. I decided to learn nothing about him before I left so his background wouldn’t intimidate me if he turned out to be a pushy conversationalist.


After 14 hours of khaki-colored landscapes and jarred car oxygen, I arrived at his place south of the Gila Wilderness where the fire had burned. A set of cream-colored straw bale buildings sat on the sagebrush flats. A hazy moon clipping pointed northwest, the sky bled deep blue above, and I was reaching the twilight of my cerebral composure. Michael Berman walked up and shook my hand and took me inside where his wife had cooked a dinner. We ate and talked deliriously until the sky was deep black, though Berman talked more. It’s his nature.

“There’s a difference between catastrophic and chronic,” he said. “An ecosystem can deal with catastrophe. The same way the Nile floods into its floodplain or the Mississippi. But an ecosystem can’t deal with chronic, like grazing or introducing new seeds or snuffing out every little fire.”

I took slow sips of wine and waited to rebut him. I soon discovered that Berman is a Guggenheim fellow and a frequent museum resident for his photography. He’s dyslexic. He has a crooked front tooth and a slight skeletal frame. He dresses in whatever’s easiest: a baseball cap, a sheep wool vest. He’s a Lannan fellow, too—an eccentric in the company of supreme literary louses like Charles Bowden.

For his new book, Berman hiked into the Gila Wilderness for seven or ten or five days at a time. He went in with a tarp for shelter, laying it over his tripod and sleeping between the legs. He brought bread and cheese and elk to eat. He stayed in there until he found what he wanted. His house is a quarter of the size of his studio, where he showed me proofs of his book. “This is what the Gila looked like. But a forest after a burn is beautiful, and so that’s what these images are supposed to do, show people that burned forests are beautiful.”


With little more than four hours of sleep, Berman and I woke sometime around 5 AM and rode down to Silver City to meet up with Berman’s buddy, Tris, who’d fly us over the burnt wilderness in his single-engine plane. The Whitewater Baldy fire had burned close to 300,000 acres, and we wanted to get a sense of its magnitude.

On the way up, the forest looks decent. Then the scars from years before show up as stark charred trails: a track of Ponderosa Pines wear blackened bases from a two-year-old fire; a bare patch in the cottonwoods wiped out the big creek trees a few years prior. As we near this year’s devastation, it becomes a total blackout. The trees are nuked.

Higher into the clouds, Tris was trying to locate Hummingbird Saddle, a quaint little spot just below Whitewater Baldy Peak that the locals are fond of. It was fortunate to escape the fire largely unharmed. “I think it’s right below us, but I can’t see a thing,” comes Tris’s canned voice over my headphones. “I’m getting a little muddled here,” he says. My confidence in his flight skills plummets. Tris is like a ship captain that got stranded in the mountains so he started flying small boats with wings. His plane is from the 70s.

Like a curious herd of cattle, big, dumb clouds close in on our tiny airplane and dominate our view. “All my key points are disoriented. I’ll pick up one soon,” he says. A nervous trigger in my brain draws an acid bath in my stomach. If our plane falls out of the sky, I will die with valuable men. Just as I’m thinking this, the clouds split, and a green patch appears below us. “There’s Hummingbird Saddle,” says Tris. It sits like an emerald necklace on the clavicle of a blackened mountain. Nature flaunts her endurance. I am immediately in love.