Up ahead is a small path that winds through a secret canyon. There I see the morning open up to sky. A cliff drops to the world below, some 2,000 feet to the belly of Sulfur Springs Valley. Plunging mercilessly, the creek follows stone, pulled by the heavy hand of the mountain’s descent. Water has cut through this lonely gorge for centuries, but my eyes are new here.
Many times in wild places I find myself staring at books to locate the botanical name of an unknown plant or identify a set of tracks, but on this morning I put the books away and set out for wonder. Wonder is of course the root of knowledge, but how often do we pause at wonder alone? Do we move so quickly from a state of awe to information that we miss something, a primal yearning and appreciation for that, which, unspoken by man, undocumented by the hand of scientist or layperson, slips our grasp of respect?
Wading through waist-high sorrels and ferns, I crept deeper into the places where morning had not reached its hand. I imagined fairies dipping down to drink from a curled leaf. It seems possible here, where the verdant life of the forest has not yet been dimmed. And why not think of fairies?
The dripdripdrip of new rain on cold stone created a soundscape and I was mesmerized again by the passive yet strong pull of forces moving us, the trees, the water, the stones to the last leap of sky.
The Pinaleño Mountains, the Grahams, Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Si An (Big Seated Mountain, Western Apache), is a remote “Sky Island” in Southeastern Arizona, offering more than 7,000 feet of vertical relief – a true wonder among Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert low lands. This range has many names, many claims, even in modernity. Pinaleño, meaning many deer, seems an appropriate name – the area is rich with mule deer and white-tailed deer, suitably designed for the steep ridges and cliffs, angles no biped can maneuver with such grace.
This September, however, no deer were to be found in the obvious landscape of sight. The once lively meadows of fawns, does, and the occasional aloof buck were even bereft of the usual scat pellets I might expect on such an inviting landscape of open parks with brooks lapping against the wild blue bells and yarrow. The Pinaleños are a dreamy place, to be sure, a place where all are drawn by watersong and starry views.
As the silence was broken by an ATV, I realized why the deer were in hiding. A bow hunter and his monster of mud and plastic came through the forest. He stopped long enough to shout a question at me, lamenting that he hadn’t seen a single deer all morning, as his ATV engine pierced the air and echoed down through the gorges. Deer are wiser than we credit them. Their behaviors often change with the seasons, with our malevolence, with the pressing weight of sound and intent.
The Pinaleño Mountains have had their share of embittered discussions. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Vatican – among other astronomers and financial backers – decided to help fund the University of Arizona/Mount Graham International Observatory. Mount Graham, with its low humidity and light pollution, was deemed ideal for such an observatory, and the efforts to build were pushed ferociously into motion.
Among these peaks, in the conifer and spruce-fir forests, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel resides – a species only found on this range and surely impacted by the controversial observatory and the continued mixed use and management practices of a federal forest.
Opposition to developing an observatory should have held some weight since the Pinaleños were, in fact, nominated by the United States Forest Service for designation as a Traditional Cultural Property and considered sacred to many, especially to the Western Apache tribes. As the battle raged, involving the leaders of most of the Indian Nations in the United States and Europe, indigenous rights groups, environmentalists, biologists, and anthropologists, the mountain’s chief harbinger of impact, the Mount Graham red squirrel became the fight’s pinnacle mascot.
Ironically, some of these Mount Graham red squirrels are now being housed at the Phoenix Zoo, kept in a controlled climate exhibit designed to mimic their former Montane forest home. The imperiled squirrels are apparently a part of a conservation program, where, if successful, they will be released “… back into the wild…”
A wild of our imagination, I fear.
And, how can the red squirrel ever win? How can the fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An and other sacred mountains ever be recognized? Among cell towers, telescopes, developed campgrounds along the Swift Trail, the ongoing efforts of wildfire and wildlife “management”, and the continued paving of roadways leading to Mount Graham’s recreational offerings… it’s all too clear.
Whatever Spirit of Wildness kept safe the dense population of black bears, the important prehistoric shrines and stories of ancestors, and the troops of that elusive red squirrel may not be powerful enough to hold back the inevitable future, a future that seems to have forgotten its equally sacrosanct call to wonder, to the sacred, to what is most precious on earth.