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New In the Press: My walkabout with Michael-Following in the footsteps of a western photographer

High Country News on Michael Berman, the Gila Wilderness, and Wolves, 1/18/11

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by Pat Toomay

A fluty wildness swelled the tremolo that floated down Christie Creek into our campsite near Black Mountain in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Shuddering, I rolled over in my sleeping bag. Was it coyotes? Wolves? The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard ––  neither howl nor cry. Tender yet otherworldly. Startling in its beautiful complexity. Yet way too close: Fifty yards of creek-bed was all that separated us from them.

I shot a glance across the clearing, where my host, photographer and environmentalist Michael Berman, was bedded down in his pickup truck. A compact, meticulous man, Berman hours ago had slipped out of his boots, pulled up his tailgate and closed the hatch of his hardcover, sealing himself safely inside. I would get no help from him tonight.

The next morning, when I crawled out of my tent, Berman was already up, wrapping muffins in foil, setting them in last night’s embers. I asked if he’d heard the sound last night. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Just as I was drifting off. It was like a beautiful lullaby.” Then he gestured at the morning sunlight filtering in through the trees. “It’s getting late. We oughta go.”

I was adjusting my hiking poles when, from our left, there arose a clatter. Hustling down a hill into the gulch came five elk, all female, all pregnant. Their coats glistened. Berman beamed: “We got good game karma.”

And we did. Throughout our three days wandering the Gila, we encountered game at every turn. Pronghorns. The canines whose calls had swelled the creek. And everywhere, elk. At one point, a group of females vaulted the fence directly in front of us. Berman braked to a halt, shut off his engine. Then, as the elk scrambled off, he gave a call. The last one in line stopped, turned. Then another one did the same and then another. We sat there, taking them in.

“I know the word’s over-used. But look at this.” Berman gestured at the elk, the vista. “If this isn’t magic, I’d like to know what is.”

Then he said: “There’s too many of them.”

Berman was worried that there weren’t enough predators in the Gila to control the size of the herds. A program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf here was failing, he said, a victim of fear and cultural intolerance. Officials had hoped to have 100 wolves re-established by now, but only 42 were roaming their 4.4 million acre preserve.

We followed the elk up the gulch, until  they disappeared into the brush at the top of the ridge.

“The Forest Service trail is over there,” Berman said, pointing. “But let’s go this way.”

This was Berman’s style: He avoided trails at all costs, preferring to bushwhack, and he rarely ventured into public areas. More than anything, he sought the solitude of the wilds.

That predilection was obvious the first time I saw Berman’s photographs in two books he produced with writer Charles Bowden. Inferno and Trinity were published to great acclaim by the University of Texas Press in 2006 and 2009 respectively. They helped Berman win a Guggenheim fellowship, which he is now using for a third book with Bowden, this one on the Gila Wilderness.

It was through Bowden’s books that I first encountered Berman’s work. But after hearing Berman lecture in Santa Fe last year, I realized that he was more than merely a gifted photographer. Berman moves through the landscape with an almost indigenous sensitivity, and then returns to share his experience with us urbanities in his haunting, disarmingly unsentimental photographs. And so, despite being a wilderness novice with two bum knees from a career in the National Football League, I jumped when Berman asked if I would explore the Gila with him.

It wasn’t until late that first afternoon, as we stumbled into a burn area below the crest of Black Mountain, that Berman finally unpacked his camera. It wasn’t digital; he was shooting film, large format.

Berman focused on the few surviving ponderosas. “Ponderosas feed on fire,” he remarked. “They need it. So a lot of good is going on here.” …

He explained the complexities of public-land grazing allotments, and management plans, noting the more common abuses: unrepaired fences, watersheds “cowed-out” by overgrazing. When old ranchers died, new management plans could be drawn up, protecting the land from overgrazing.

“Of course, the new plans have to be enforced,” Berman said. “That’s always the hard part.”

He spotted a spring that trickled off down a deep draw. “We should follow the water,” he said. The gravel descent was steep –- huge boulders, thickets of brush, treacherous footing. At the  bottom, a stream flowed under a canopy of mature cottonwoods. On either side of it, rock formations rose. I kicked off my shoes, slipped my feet into the cool water. Berman scrambled across the streambed, lit up with a new kind of energy. He returned, grinning: “Cows haven’t been in here for a while. The willows are back.” …

The next morning, Berman wanted to move again. We headed back to Beaverhead. At the trailhead he wandered over to a Forest Service bulletin board. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a map. “It shows where the Mexican gray wolves have been congregating.”

I leaned in to study it.

“When the wolves were released, they were tagged with transponders, so their locations could be pinpointed. They still track ’em, but they don’t publish the information anymore, probably because too many people were using it to find ’em and kill ’em. The map shows where they were gathering before they stopped doing that.”

On the map, the transponders were represented by black boxes scattered throughout the areas we’d been traversing. Most were located at Black Mountain in the vicinity of Christie Creek. A chill ran down my spine.

“That beautiful lullaby,” I said.

He nodded.

“We were right in the middle of ’em.”

“Yeah.”

“If you’re telling me that people used this information to find and kill the wolves, I’m sick.”

“They’re still killing ’em,” Berman said. “That’s what they do.”

He was right. Illegal shootings are the single greatest source of wolf mortality in the reintroduced population. Between the program’s inception in 1998 and June 2009, 31 of 68 deaths were attributed to guns.

“So I guess it’s naïve to expect that all the publicity about wolves being vital to the ecology here would have a dampening effect on them.”

Berman shrugged. “At the deepest level, it’s fear run amuck. Like the shark slaughter that’s been going on since Jaws.” He gestured at the surrounding woods. Fear of that was what he meant –– its wildness, its unpredictable danger. It’s mystery. That terror magnified out of all proportion. Leading to a need for obliteration.

As we approached the Gila’s East Fork, our brush with contemporary wilderness reality took another disturbing turn. After leaving the main road, we came to a place where a sign said “No Turnaround Beyond This Point.”

“That sign is new,” Berman said. “And it doesn’t make sense, because there’s a place to park below. Probably, the guy who lives down there complained about visitors so much that the Forest Service finally put it up just to quiet him down.”

He told me how this stretch of river was contested during the Diamond Bar Ranch grazing brouhaha of the 1990s. The main ranch is only 400 acres, but it gets the use of a 145,000-acre federal grazing allotment, the largest in the state. To keep the cattle out on the range, owner Kit Laney wanted to bulldoze stock tanks all across the allotment. Environmentalists sued, and finally stopped the plan in 2004. Laney threatened a rancher revolt. “Essentially, they feel that privileging habitat over resource use is insane,” Berman said.

“Even though it’s public land,” I said.

“It’s a hell realm, for sure,” he said. “Those same ranchers are the ones who are furious about the wolf release program.”

Of course they are, I thought –– because they had to work so hard to exterminate them in the first place. …

At the road’s end, we pulled up next to a third vehicle that was already there. A stretch of barbed wire fence marked the end of public land and the beginning of someone’s ranch. “KEEP OUT!!! said a sign with awkward scrawl straight out of Lil’ Abner.

At the fence’s edge, I peered down, expecting to see some sort of hardscrabble ranchette. But the scene was idyllic. At a dramatic bend in the river, an elegant main house sat amid several smaller dwellings beneath towering willows. Manicured lawns covered the grounds between them.

“For a long time, this property belonged to a private school that used it for retreats,” Berman said. “That ‘Keep Out’ sign wasn’t there when the school owned the place. It went up after the property changed hands.”

A pickup truck braked to a halt beside us. The driver, perhaps 65 years old, wore an NRA gimme hat and a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt. A little terrier sat perched on his lap.

“So whattya y’all boys up to this morning?” the driver asked.

“We’re just going down to take a look at the river,” Berman replied.

The driver waited, wanting more information, but we didn’t give it to him. An edge came into his voice.

“Didn’t ya’ll see that sign up top?” he demanded. “You people are tearing up the area down here. That’s why that sign’s up there. Y’all need to park up there.”

I knew that in his truck Berman carried county maps that showed precisely where public roads ended and private roads began. Indisputably, we were on public land.

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Berman said, and abruptly wheeled around and walked back to his truck.

The driver had expected an argument. At length, he shrugged and pulled away.

“One of those old ranchers you were talking about, I guess,” I said.

“No,” he said. A kind of gloom had settled over him. “He’s just a grumpy old Anglo who bought a fantasy.” Berman sighed. “They’re coming in droves, you know. I so prefer the company of old ranchers like Quentin Hulse. And their compadres, the wolves.” …

That night, Berman was thoughtful.

“It’s more and more obvious,” he said, “that in the wild places — the places with the greatest ecological integrity —dominated by predators other than humans — these places are at their end. Humans want a place they can enter and be oblivious. They want a place without consequence.” …

Michael Berman's website

To read the full article, published in High Country News on January 28, and post a comment, click here.

Please submit a letter to the editor endorsing Berman’s perspective on Mexican wolves as essential to the Gila ecosystem: http://www.hcn.org/letters

Landscape photo courtesy of Green Fire Productions